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A. Ross (Washington, DC)
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The Sun is God
The Sun is God
by Adrian McKinty
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.38

3.0 out of 5 stars White Mischief in New Guinea, 24 Nov. 2014
This review is from: The Sun is God (Paperback)
Irish crime novelist McKinty turns his hand to something new with this historical mystery based on real events. Set at the dawn of the 20th century, the story features Will Prior, an ex-British Army military police officer who served in the Boer War and has fled to the far Pacific of German New Guinea to escape his nightmares. However, when a man dies under mysterious circumstances on a nearby island inhabited by a colony/cult of nudist "cocovores" (they only eat coconuts), Prior is asked to accompany the local German government representative to investigate.

What follows is a kind of Wicker Man-type investigation, as Prior and the German spent a few days on the island questioning the members of the cult and getting drawn into their odd customs. It's a literally hallucinatory experience, with a moderately interesting outcome. As a mystery, it's fairly mediocre, but as an exploration of a strange cult in a far off corner of the world a century ago, it's moderately interesting. Ultimately, it's probably mainly of interest to those already interested in New Guinea, or the time period.


The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe
The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe
by Romain Puertolas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cute But Not Deep, 9 Nov. 2014
I like a good farce, and with a title like this, you can be assured that a farce is what's you're getting. This slim bestseller from France features the titular fakir, who has scammed enough money from his relatives and neighbors to travel from his village in Rajasthan to Paris. His mission is to purchase a top-of-the-line Ikea nail bed, and fly immediately back. However, as the title foreshadows, not all goes according to plan. Through a series of misadventures, he bounces around from Paris, to a immigration detention center in England, to the streets of Barcelona, to a luxury hotel in Rome, to the shores of Libya, and back to Paris.

Along the way he makes friends with a middle-aged French woman, a film star, and a Sudanese refugee, and becomes the enemy of a gypsy cab-driver -- wacky adventures ensue. Behind it all is a kind of hokey, saccharine message of humanity and brotherhood filtered through the voices of non-Westerners. This reminded me of another recent flimsy French bestseller, Hector and the Search for Happiness. I guess I shouldn't complain, it's a cute little tale, with some genuinely funny moments -- just don't expect too much of from it.

Note: This is the second Ikea-related novel I've read in the last few months. See also Horrorstor.


Hold the Dark - A Novel
Hold the Dark - A Novel
by William Giraldi
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars I have to confess that although I liked the writing and appreciated the heavy mood of the ..., 9 Nov. 2014
I suppose if I knew anything about ancient Greek drama, I would be able to make some connections to this dark story set in the Alaskan tundra. It certainly carries the weight, darkness, and bloodiness that I associate with Greek tragedies. Alas, I am not steeped in the classics, and am thus forced to draw comparisons with Cormac McCarthy and the underrated Liam Neeson film, The Grey.

The story begins in the small Alaskan town of Keelut, where three children have been taken by wolves. The mother of one of the missing children implores an aging wolf expert to come help her find the one that killed her little boy. Grieving and aimless in the wake losing his wife to Alzheimer's, the wolf expert comes to town and makes a shocking discovery.

Meanwhile, the father of the boy is making his way back from Iraq (Odyssey reference, right?), discharged from the Army with a Purple Heart. As soon as he arrives, the wolf expert who has been the protagonist is kind of dumped to the background and doesn't reappear for the entire middle of the book. Instead, the father and his boon childhood companion hook up and lots of people start getting killed, with the local sheriff in pursuit.

Mixed in with this rampage is a bunch of heavy mumbo-jumbo involving wolf masks which, again, if I'd read my ancient Greeks, might be more meaningful than hokey.The climax brings the father and wolf expert together in the wilderness, as both seek out the missing mother and there's another twist -- albeit one that's been heavily hinted at, so I suspect most readers will see it coming.

I have to confess that although I liked the writing and appreciated the heavy mood of the story, I'm not quite sure what to make of it all by the end. It's tempting to try and find some way to unlock it as an allegory about modern America, but I'm not convinced that's the right direction. It's the rare kind of book that makes me want to find some interviews with the author to see how he talks about it. Recommended for readers who like dark and bloody stories that only involve human monsters.


Death in Breslau (Inspector Mock Investigation)
Death in Breslau (Inspector Mock Investigation)
by Marek Krajewski
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Weak Debut for Polish Historical Crime Series, 9 Nov. 2014
I love reading crime fiction from other countries, so I eagerly snapped up this first book of a Polish series featuring a police detective working in the German city of Breslau in the years leading up to World War II. As the city (including the police department) is carved up into fiefdoms representing different factions of German politics, the bodies of two women are found on a train. One of them is the teenage daughter of a prominent Baron, and with the murder pinned on a Jew, Inspector Mock sets out to uncover the truth.

As a guide to pre-war Breslau's streets, brothels, bars, and political intrigues, the book is a great success. Very evocative and detailed, even if trying to keep track of just who is allied with who among the mix of characters requires a scorecard. However, as a crime story, it left a lot of be desired. There's a lot of tooing and froing, and threatening and torturing people in the service of justice, but it's kind of hard to care about any of it.

Mock is kind of a nasty antihero, and his sidekick is mostly a nonentity. There are a few colorful characters here and there, but mostly the book is populated with the lost and damned -- drug users, Nazi sympathizers, obsolete Prussian aristocrats, and the like. And when the killings are eventually tied back to the Crusades and the Yazdis, I threw up my hands in frustrated disbelief at the silly conceit.

If the time period and setting is what intrigues, you're better off seeking the first three of Phillip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, packaged as the Berlin Trilogy. I'll be skipping the rest of this Inspector Mock series and moving on to try a different Polish crime series, featuring a state prosecutor, starting with Entanglement.


Come, Sweet Death!
Come, Sweet Death!
by Wolf Haas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars So-So Story, 9 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Come, Sweet Death! (Paperback)
For some reason the "Brenner" series from Austria is becoming available in English out of sequence. I previously enjoyed the chronological seventh (Brenner and God), I couldn't help but feel like there was quite a lot of backstory I was missing. This one is the third in the series, and fills in some of it -- although I had the continual niggling feeling that there were more hidden depths to the character I wasn't getting. In many series, this wouldn't matter, but the Brenner stories are filtered through the narration of the protagonist, and so those absences are more keenly felt.

Brenner is a darkly humorous and digressive narrator, however, he just didn't satisfy in quite the same way as in Brenner and God. It's possible that it just didn't seem as fresh, or perhaps I just wasn't in the same mood for it, but for whatever the reason, this one was a bit of a drag. One thing that is kind of weak in both books is the plot. In this installment, ex-cop Brenner is an ambulance driver who eventually gets dragged into some drama involving a murder or two and a rival ambulance company. Everything in the story felt a bit elaborate and accordingly hard to swallow -- from the mere setup of the ambulance rivalry, to the convoluted scheme behind the killings.

Maybe I'll wait a few years and give the series one last shot, reading it in order once everything's been translated. Until then, I'm taking a break from Brenner.


The Art of Fielding
The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth Your Time -- Even if You Hate Baseball, 25 Sept. 2014
This review is from: The Art of Fielding (Paperback)
I burned out on playing and watching baseball years ago, and I tend to have zero interest in "campus" novels, so you'd think a book that revolves around a college baseball prodigy would be the last thing I read, right? However, I kept hearing how good this was and in a moment of weakness, managed to overcome my prejudices and try it out -- and am very glad I did.

The book opens with an quietly gripping scene where we meet teenage baseball players Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz, who we will discover to be the book's protagonists. That scene sets the stage for Henry's recruitment to play baseball at the fictional Westish College in rural Wisconsin. The school is a wonderful creation -- an undistinguished small liberal arts that completely rebranded itself based on an innocuous speech given there by Herman Melville. Its wholly invented prestige-by-association is what lured its President, an alumnus teaching at Harvard, back to campus. President Affenlight, his fickle 20-something daughter Pella, and Henry's gay roommate Owen are the book's other three main characters.

I am sure that if I'd read Moby Dick and studied it deeply, this novel would resonate much more deeply and strongly with me. However, even without that context, I completely fell under its spell, absorbed in the baseball plot lines, absorbed in the various love lives, and mostly absorbed by Henry's semitragic affliction of focal dystonia (aka the yips, aka Steve Blass disease, aka Steve Sax syndrome). It's more or less a high-end coming of age soap opera, albeit riven through with serious themes of power, autonomy, free will, ethics, and more. And again, those with more than a passing familiarity with Melville and Moby Dick will find more to chew on. So even if you're like me and kind of hate baseball, give it a shot -- there's a lot there.


Horrorstor
Horrorstor
by Grady Hendrix
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.79

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Decent Premise -- But That's About All, 25 Sept. 2014
This review is from: Horrorstor (Paperback)
Hey, Ikea stores are funny and weird right? Wouldn't it be funny to tell a horror story set in an Ikea, 'cause the contrast would be so funny and weird, right? Right...?

Make no mistake, this novel is a one trick pony -- once you've absorbed the premise, there's not a whole lot there. Basically, an Ikea-knockoff chain store is built on top of an old prison site and some strange stuff starts to happen. The story covers what happens one night when a peppy assistant manager decides to get to the bottom of things by keeping slacker Amy and upbeat Sue Ann after hours to see if they can catch the overnight intruder/vandal.

About halfway through the book, the horror is unleashed: insane homeless dude, waves of rats, hidden passages, slime, grasping hands, restraints, etc. All pretty typical stuff, if effectively rendered. The characters all types, not real characters, and the only reason I read all the way to the end is just to see how it was wrapped up. As a satire of consumer culture, corporate culture, and the modern workplace, it's pretty tame stuff.

I will say that the design (size and look of an Ikea catalog) is quite good. Each character opens with a simple Ikea-style diagram of a home furnishing, with item #, etc. and as the book goes on, these get creepier. But ultimately the book is a mildly amusing joke that wears thing pretty quickly.


Captain Alatriste (W&N Fiction 2005)
Captain Alatriste (W&N Fiction 2005)
by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Setting the Stage for the Series, 25 Sept. 2014
I've generally really enjoyed most of Perez-Reverte's novels over the years, but hadn't gotten around to this historic swashbuckling series. Based on his other books and my general appreciation for swords-and-adventure type stories, I expected to enjoy it a great deal -- alas, I did not.

Set in 17th-century Spain, the series follows the fortunes of the titular ex-soldier turned sellsword. This first book takes place in Madrid, where the Captain and another swordsman are hired by mysterious masked men linked to the Inquisition to attack some visiting Englishmen. Naturally the English prove not to be simple travelers, but something else entirely. Complications ensue. Swords are crossed. Court intrigue abounds. Historical figures make cameos. Etc.

Despite all these seemingly enjoyable elements, the story never really caught fire for me the way a historical adventure ought to (my gold standard for the genre are the works of Rafael Sabatini). The book feels like a setup for much better things to come: it establishes the backstory of the Captain and his young squire, clearly introduces their nemesis, and sets up various other important relationships that are likely to be key in future tales. I suspect that future books in the series might prove more entertaining, but I'm not very enthused to try the next one (Purity of Blood).


The Girl in the Road
The Girl in the Road
by Monica Byrne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pilgrims of the Near Future, 25 July 2014
This review is from: The Girl in the Road (Paperback)
Despite many interesting elements, great settings, and some really vivid writing, this debut near-future novel ended up as a bit of a disappointment for me. The book follows two narrative paths: one starts around 2040 or so, and follows 10-year-old slave girl Mariama as she hitches a ride from West Africa to freedom in Ethiopia, the other takes place around 20-30 years later and features 20-something Meena who is skipping out on her present life in bustling India order to delve into the murder of her parents in Addis Ababa before she was even born.

Obviously the two storylines are going to connect, and along the way Byrne does some great near-future world building both in terms of technologies and societies (no, it's not as good as Ian MacDonald's, but then again, whose is?). I'm always eager to see how writers envisage a near-future Africa, and Mariama's eastward journey shows an Africa overrun by competing Chinese and Indian interests. Meanwhile, a long chain of revolutionary metal connecting India to Djibouti captures wave energy as power supply of the future. It's also an illegal pilgrim's trail of sorts, one that seduces Meena toward an epic ocean-crossing of her own.

There is a lot going on in the book, challenging of gender roles, politics, capitalism, and some X-rated scenes (and I suppose in today's climate, one has to note that there's a distressing episode of pedophilia). Coupled with all this is the inherent unreliability of either narrator -- one due to age, innocence, and trauma, the other due to a mania that only gradually reveals itself as all-consumingly delusional. As the book builds to an end, it gets more and more hazy and, for lack of better word, spiritual in ways that I found completely unsatisfying. However, I will acknowledge that it's a theme that appeals to many, it's just not my thing.

Recommended for those seeking debut novels with a strong voice, especially from female writers.


An Ice-Cream War (Vintage International)
An Ice-Cream War (Vintage International)
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Boyd paints the absurdity of the war as it relates to his African setting in the best tradition of "war as a tragic farce" stori, 24 July 2014
For some reason, despite being a huge fan of William Boyd's writing for going on twenty years, I'd never gotten around to reading this -- his second published novel -- until this week. I suppose it's kind of a delayed gratification thing, with Boyd I know I'm going to be in the hands of an able storyteller whose sure plotting and smooth prose is going to be a pleasure.

The titular war is the faceoff between British and German troops in their colonial possessions in East Africa (present-day Kenya and Tanzania) during World War I. (My guess is that 97% of the people who are aware that there even was fighting in East Africa during World War I, probably learned of it via The African Queen.) The three main characters are Temple Smith, and brothers Gabriel and Felix Cobb. Smith is an American sisal farmer on British land not too far from Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Cobbs are the kind of upper class types familiar to viewers of Downton Abbey or readers of Evelyn Waugh. Gabriel is in the Army and gets posted to Africa, where his capture becomes part of the catalyst for Felix joining up and finagling an African assignment in order to find him.

Boyd paints the absurdity of the war as it relates to his African setting in the best tradition of "war as a tragic farce" stories, while at the same time, devoting equal, if not greater time to the war's effect on domestic lives. The former is told mainly through Smith's efforts to expand his farming operation, only to see it captured by native troops led his politely enervating German neighbor. His quest for reparations is tragicomic and utterly human. Meanwhile, we trace the Cobb brothers from their prewar lives and loves, as the war batters them about with somewhat less comedy and rather more tragedy. Along the way, glimpses at the Army operations show the confusion and chaos of it all.

As always, Boyd is a treat to read. The story is a nice mix of antiwar satire and domestic melodrama, definitely of interest to readers of historical fiction. The melodramatic elements may be ever so slightly too strong, taking it a peg down from his best books, but that still places it in the top 10%.


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