Tuesday, March 02, 2010

January & February 2010 Book Report

One of my Christmas presents was a Kindle. I know so many people with Kindles (and now some who have Nooks) who love them, and so my lovely husband sprung for one. It is really fun and convenient, especially if you are a fast reader like me, and can't bear to be without a book you are in the middle of. I don't anticipate giving up print books, though; I like the idea of holding a real book, especially ones I'll want to re-read, too much to ever give up that pleasure. (I also love the way that books smell; they haven't figured out how to imitate that smell with e-books.) However, I have been having fun reading on the Kindle. I especially like the way that you can use it to mark quotes from books that you want to remember, and then the quotes are collated in a separate place for you.

So without further ado, here's what I read the first two months of 2010: some in E-book form, others in paper form.

The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell. Advertised as "the last Inspector Wexford novel" in a long and excellent series by Rendell, I found this a bit of a let-down. If you've ever read Curtain-- the last Hercule Poirot mystery (which I believe Agatha Christie held back so it could be published after her death), you may see some vague similarities: Wexford tries to prove that a nasty bit of goods named Eric Targo is an opportunistic serial killer who instigates other people into committing crimes, and who has avoided detection for years. This one was a bit slower than most Wexford books, with less action and a lot of reminiscing. Not bad, but not the series' best.

Woman with Birthmark by Hakan Nesser. A taut thriller/murder mystery involving the death of a series of men who don't seem to have anything in common -- until an astute detective figures out that they all did their compulsory military service together in the 1960s. Inspector Von Veeteren has to figure out which of the men in the unit will be targeted by the killer next, and who is holding a grudge against them. A quick read; spare, suspenseful and well done.

The Blood-Dimmed Tide by Rennie Airth. I read the first and third installments in this mystery series last year, and finally got the chance to read the middle one. Rennie Airth is a good writer but slo-o-w when it comes to putting out sequels; there was a gap of several years between each. His retired detective, turned gentleman farmer, is entangled in the investigation when a local girl is brutally murdered. Investigators determine that a sociopathic serial killer is on the loose...

Closing Time: A Memoir by Joe Queenan. I've liked Joe Queenan's writing for a while, although it's so acerbic that I tend to savor it in small amounts, like spicy food. But I really came to appreciate all that Queenan has accomplished, as a writer and as a man, as I read Closing Time. It's a memoir describing Queenan's childhood and coming-of-age in 1950s & 60s Philadelphia. As a resident of Philly for almost twenty years, I got a kick out of reading about a Philadelphia I never knew (and comparing his recollections with those of my father-in-law, who is a contemporary of Queenan). It just so happened that I read this book shortly after my father's death, and one of the central focuses of the book is Queenan's difficult relationship with his alcoholic father. It was oddly comforting to read about Queenan's experiences and to have that "a-ha!" moment when you realize that you aren't alone in some of the emotions you feel as the child of an alcoholic. If Queenan sounds harsh with regard to his father -- and at times he does -- he had good reason to feel that way; he unflinchingly describes the emotional and physical brutality that he and his sisters suffered at the hands of their father.

Inspired by the ubiquitous discussion of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, I decided to finally read this classic of 20th century literature. I wasn't sure what to expect, having been told by various folks that they loved it, that they hated it, that I was too old for it, that Holden was a "whiny bitch," and just about every other reaction you can imagine. It didn't take long to read it, but I felt ambivalent about the book right up until the end. I easily understood why it was considered groundbreaking, but it wasn't until I was about twenty or thirty pages from the end that something clicked and Holden became real to me. I'm glad I read it, even if it now seems a tinge dated, and I found myself laughing out loud at some parts, underlining lines that I thought were especially good, and occasionally wincing at Holden's painful experiences in the world.

It's time to honor the life of an author who openly despised all of us

Jericho's Fall, by Stephen Carter, was one of the free selections I received from the Amazon Vine program. Carter is a well-regarded law professor at Yale, and, interestingly, writes fiction in his spare time. His earlier books had gotten pretty good reviews, and he's certainly a brilliant guy, so I figured I'd give this one a try. Alas, I hated it. The main character is a woman who travels across the country, to a remote Colorado town, to see her former lover, who has a terminal illness. It was hard for me to suspend my disbelief from the get-go, however. Rebecca's willingness to drop everything in her life (including her young daughter) to return to Colorado is hard to swallow, and she struck me as too much of a Lifetime TV Movie character: strong, beautiful, supposedly brilliant, but not so smart when it comes to jeopardizing her emotional and physical well-being by hanging out with a Svengali-like man from her past. Her lover, the "Jericho" of the title, is a former CIA director and adviser to presidents, and part of the tension in the book is whether he has, in fact, lost his mental faculties due to his terminal illness, whether he was/is insane all along, whether his daughters (who are taking care of him in his final days) are sane, whether operatives from the US or foreign countries are really after him to prevent him from revealing juicy state secrets, etc. etc. I bailed about 100 pages in when picking the book up seemed like a chore more than a pleasure.

Tears of Pearl by Tasha Alexander, another Amazon freebie, is a very lightweight historical mystery set in Victorian-era Constantinople. The lead character is Lady something-or-other (Emily?) who is on her honeymoon with her hunky husband; said hunky husband has a suitably mysterious career as a sort of spy-slash-detective working for the British government. A half-British, half-Turkish harem girl is murdered, and Lady Emily & her husband are asked to find out who did it. Good beach reading; glamorous locales, lots of silk skirts & horseback rides in the moonlight, a not-terribly-taxing-but-entertaining mystery.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Tom & I have a friend who is an English professor who has studied Willa Cather extensively, and she was aghast to realize I had never read any of her works. I started out with this book, and was charmed by it. The book is really more of a character study and a study of place, as it follows the career of two missionaries sent to establish a Catholic diocese in the southwest territories during the 1800s. Having lived in Arizona for a year and traveled around a bit in the southwest, I found the descriptions of place to be fascinating. The characters were beautifully drawn, and Cather writes with a direct but lyrical style. I'll definitely read more of Cather; in fact, My Antonia is already in the pile of unread books by my bed.

Still Waters by Nigel McCreary. I was lent this by a friend who also enjoys mysteries and I honestly didn't realize how gruesome some of the details were until I finished the first chapter. (I think I actually yelped aloud on the Stairmaster.) This was an engrossing, if very creepy, read, a decent mystery but not for the faint-hearted. The murderer is an older woman whose M.O.isto befriend lonely elderly women, insinuating herself into their lives, then poisoning them and keeping all their money and property. The main detective is a man suffering from a bizarre neural condition in which he experiences sounds as a kind of taste (synesthesia). He has been out on medical leave because even ambient noise causes him to experience a variety of strange, and sometimes very unpleasant, taste sensations; it sounds weird, but the author does a good job of describing how awful the condition is. The detective returns from medical leave to try to solve this case.

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas (who's actually a she): We take a break from Scandanavian and British detectives just long enough to try out a French commissaire. Commissaire Adamsberg seems unconventional to his colleagues, but no one can argue with his success rate in solving crimes. In the first of the series (also lent to me by a pal), he is troubled by the strange actions of a mysterious person drawing chalk circles around random objects on Paris sidewalks. No one else in the police force seems very concerned, but Adamsberg is convinced that the circles are a precursor to murder -- and he turns out to be right. Very French, a little quirky, and very enjoyable.

All My Enemies by Barry Maitland. Another good lend from a friend; this is one in a British series featuring detectives Brock and Kolla. Brock and Kolla are called in to solve the murder of a young woman stabbed to death in her home. The detectives try to determine if the murder is part of a larger series of deaths, and connect it -- along with the deaths of at least one other woman -- to an amateur theater group.

That's the round-up for 2010; as always, I enjoy hearing from you, whether it's to give your opinions on any of the books I've read, or to suggest books for me to add to my "to-read" list.

Now I am preparing a very large update for BBF chock-full of CashSock yarn (even a few batches of sweater quantity!!) so I must get back to work.


Geek Knitter said...

Love Rennie Airth... lovelovelove.

Well worth the wait between books.

Going to have to bookmark this post for further study.

soknitpicky said...

You are fast! You might enjoy being on Goodreads.com if you're not there already

Kristi aka Fiber Fool said...

I don't yet have a Kindle (I have hopes for my birthday in April), but I use the Kindle reader on my iPhone and I'm able to read much more now. I'd like the larger screen though so I don't have to "turn the page" so frequently when I'm knitting or exercising while reading. I appreciate the book reviews with my increased reading pace!

Lisa said...

My Antonia was my grandmother's favorite book and she made me re-read it time after time. Hope you enjoy it :)

Thanks for the good mystery suggestions to fill up my new Nook!

anne marie in philly said...

my MIL is a distant relative of willa cather...small world, ain't it?

Elizabeth D said...

Lucky you, to have all of Willa Cather ahead of you. My Antonia is one of my favorite books; in fact, I'm going to go dig out my copy. And some of the others, too -- I find that I always read her books in binges. It's been a while since the last time.

(my word verification choice today is zoodle -- it seems I should be able to use that for something)

M-H said...

Pursue Brock and Kolla; they are worth tracking down. My faves are The Marx Sisters and Silvermeadow. I didn't like The Verge Practice at all. The author lives not far from me; he is a retired professor of architecture, and architecture is a theme in most of the books in some quite ingenious ways.