29 May 2012

Damaged People (very damaged)

Dan Conrad mentioned that The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis was a compelling and well-written book.

Since he mentioned it, I added it to my to-read list and then, there it was, in the new book section of the library.

The book is set in Denmark and written by two Danes.

My paternal grandmother was Danish -- first generation born in the USA. I've always thought of Denmark as a mostly rural place with lots of small farms. Oh, there's Tivoli, wonderful pastries, open-faced sandwiches, Elsinore, the Louisiana Museum, Roskilde, the Little Mermaid, and lots of great domestic design. I've been there twice and those are some of the highlights of my visits. Those and the times I have been stopped on the streets of Copenhagen by tourists asking for directions.

I tend to overlook things like the Vikings -- merchants, seafarers, marauders, pillagers, invaders, and thieves. And that Norway for a long time was part of Denmark. And the World War II collaborators and the neo-Nazi Hells Angles motorcycle clubs and the anti-immigrant riots.

Denmark is a lot more complicated than my stereotypes. This book is full of more variety. Many varieties of damaged people. Somehow, damaged people aren't in my mental pictures of Denmark either. But, every character in the book is damaged -- some more damaged than others.

The main character is a nurse who is so damaged she can only function when she's ignoring her own family and rescuing someone else. She's the one who finds a three-year-old boy in a suitcase in a left luggage locker in Copenhagen's main train station. The boy is alive, but obviously damaged. The boy's mother (far away in Lithuania) is also damaged. Even the major evil people in the book are damaged.

It's a complicated story and a mystery-adventure, but it's not a police procedural. Most, but not all, of the characters do contact the police at appropriate times, but the police work goes on in the background. The stories include one about a mother trying desperately to find a kidnapped son, another about a rescuer trying to protect and learn the identity of a three-year-old who doesn't speak her language, and another about kidnappers trying to retrieve their hostage and get the ransom they've demanded. There are other stories and they do all come together at the end of the book.

This book almost wins a Heart of Gold award for improbabilities, but it's so well written and plotted that I didn't notice how large the stretches of reality were until I'd finished and begun reflecting on the book.

The book jacket says the authors' series has been translated into 9 languages. Series, eh? I did often feel that there were untold backstories and this book is probably not the first of the series.

This is one that kept me reading all through a rainy day at the lake. It's a bit frightening and suspenseful, but it is, as Dan said, well-written. I recommend it.

Anyone else read The Boy in the Suitcase? Or another in the series by Kaaberbøl and Friis? Write and tell us how you reacted to it (them).

24 May 2012

Reading Kate Atkinson at the lake

When last at the library, I picked up the "Jackson Brodie" mystery that I hadn't read yet. It was One Good Turn. It was actually the second of four books by Kate Atkinson, but I read them out of order. That's okay, they stand alone pretty well.

I had really liked the other three: Case Histories, When Will There Be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog. In addition, the BBC made a great mini-series of several stories from the books.

 Most of the stories in One Good Turn were not in the television series. That made reading it even more fun. If my memory is working, this book was as good as the first one and better than the last. There is also more humor, and some of the one-liners are very good.

I'd read about 50 pages when I remembered that Atkinson begins her books with lots of little episodes (not quite short stories) about lots of characters. The fact that I got that far into the book before getting confused about who was who means that I was paying better attention or Atkinson did a better job of distinguishing characters and events.

I read most of this while at the little cabin called Sidetrack on a tiny lake in northern Wisconsin. Between gardening, watching the eagles, feeding the hummingbirds, watching it rain a lot, and worrying about the severe thunderstorm warnings, I had time for reading (and napping). I even stayed up until midnight as I was trying to finish it. It also helped that the weather made TV reception ugly.

Jackson Brodie is still an interesting character. Atkinson still delves into her characters and does a great job of telling me what they're feeling and doing. And she still weaves a bunch of disparate events and people in a unified story by the end of the book.

The stories in this book take place in Edinburgh during its Fringe Festival. Jackson keeps running afowl of the local police and crime scenes. Oh, and he's being chased by a hit man working for a local Tom Petters-like crook. (Details about Tom Petters are available at Wikipedia for non-Minnesotans.) As a matter of fact it's that enforcer who is one of the things that links the novel's characters together.

 I didn't finish the book until I returned home, but I really liked reading it.

Have you read One Good Turn or other books by Atkinson? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it (them).

22 May 2012

Change (and not in coins)

When I stopped at the Amery (WI) Area Public Library on Friday, I had to get a new library card. Like so much of life, things were changing there. What hadn't changed was the friendly greeting I got from the librarian who has recognized me over and over again during my infrequent visits. I'm not sure she remembers my name the way Hubert Humphrey did the second time I met him, but she knows I'm one of the summer people.

I spent some time checking my e-mail and looking at the available books. What I found is one that Chip Hauss has been urging me to read for years: When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong

The author, a Chinese poet, has lived in the USA since 1989. He earned an M.A. and a PhD in comparative literature in the states. He's also written mystery fiction.

While When Red is Black is a police procedural set in Shanghai, the book is really about social, political, and economic change in China during the 1990s. The title gives that away if you're more aware than I was about the labels people were given during the Cultural Revolution. Of course, during that time, to be labeled "red" meant you were political hero. To be labeled "black" was the ultimate of political incorrectness. That designation led to humiliation, persecution, imprisonment, and death. In the 1990s, the labels persisted, but the meanings had switched. Heroes of the Cultural Revolution were obstacles to the achievements of the Four Modernizations and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (otherwise known as crony capitalism).

The main characters are a Chief Inspector and a Detective charged by their political boss with finding out who killed a dissident (Red) writer and avoiding any bad publicity for the Party and the state. The political boss, whom Chief Inspector Chen might someday succeed, is more interested in a problemless resolution than justice. Chen and Detective Yu have other priorities. In the meantime, the two honest, patriotic, and hardworking cops are tempted by the changes going on around them and confronted with the political changes they see.

Chief Inspector Chen gets a commission from a successful real estate developer with mob connections to translate a proposal for American investors. Detective Yu has a real apartment he'd been assigned to taken away by the bureaucrats at the last minute. Chen begins benefiting from his connection with cheap appliances and an alluring young "little secretary." Yu's wife completes her month-long accounting job in a week and contemplates ways of making money in the other three weeks. The bankrupt state enterprise that Chen's mother worked for suddenly finds money to pay for her hospital bills. And Chen comes into possession of a manuscript by a talented "black" author who died during the Cultural Revolution.

The problem with the book is that even for me, who is interested in the history, the changes, and the politics, the telling of the story plods on ever so slowly. Ironically (?) one of the books discussed in the story is frequently criticized for including too much detail and "inside baseball" trivia. Guess what? When Red is Black includes too much detail and trivia. It seemed to me that every character was given the chance to ruminate about his or her actions and then go on to act. It just took too long to tell the story, even with the considerations of change in China.

So, don't expect a rip-roaring adventure. Not only is there reflection and detail, there's also lots of poetry -- well, just lines of poetry most of the time, but the Chinese characters seem to have memorized hundreds of poems and regularly find appropriate circumstances for quoting old poetry. What should I have expected when the author is a poet?

If you're interested in a change of pace mystery or in China or in cultural/political change or in ways people deal with massive change and if you're patient, this book might be one you'll like.

When you've read it, you can write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong.

Dead woman talking

As usual, I approached the fiction section of the Northfield Public Library with my reading list in hand. The list is alphabetical by author, so I intentionally look at things that are not at the top or bottom. No sense favoring Sarah Andrews over Qiu Xiaolong.

What I came across first was Åsa Larsson's Until Thy Wrath Be Past. A cop and a prosecuting attorney in a remote place in northern Sweden are starring characters. They both have histories (some of it told in earlier books) and they're both interesting and attractive characters. The Swedish author is a former attorney, so I assume she knows what she's talking about when it comes to the law and order part of things and her references to Scandinavian mythology.

However, I'm not so sure about other things. The book opens with a woman narrating her own murder. Almost the next thing I recall is that the dead woman appears to the prosecutor in a dream, offering important information about the crime. Give me a break! Give me Sherlock Holmes!

Last time I read a book narrated by a dead person, it was pretty awful. It was a best seller for quite awhile, but I was not a fan. So, I was put off by the beginning of Larsson's book, but I kept reading.

I discover that I can skip the supernatural messages (that thankfully are in italics) and still follow the investigation and the characters. The story really revolves around an old woman and her middle aged sons. There are links to Swedish cooperation with occupying Nazis during World War II, a Steinbeck-like pair of brothers, and an extreme case of school yard bullying that didn't stop at the school yard fence.

Except for the unnecessary messages from beyond the grave, it's an integrated story that's well-told. You might even like the voice of the dead helping to narrate things. Oh, and one of the murderers is set up as a figure like the Biblical Job. Well, I can see how Larsson frames that, but I really thought that a key element of the story of Job was that his suffering was unearned. The suffering shlub in this story is anything but innocent.

Well, if I can ignore voice of a dead woman and resist insisting on a more accurate Biblical analogy, I liked reading the book. I'd like to suggest that an unintentional witness, unknown to either the criminals or the police would be a better vehicle for moving the story along or adding details than the ghostly whispers of a dead woman. A dead woman who is ushered off this earthly stage at the end of the book by the equally dead spirit of her grandmother.

So, have you read Until Thy Wrath Be Past? Did you like it? How did you react to the spirits? How did you react to the plot and the story telling? Write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted.

12 May 2012

Psychotherapy in a sweat lodge

When Dan Conrad said he was reading Vermillion Drift by William Kent Krueger, I asked him to let me know how he liked it. He did.
One: I was pretty sure he'd like the book. Krueger is a very good story teller.

Two: Krueger is such a good story teller that when sets out to write about suspense and danger, he can keep me from sleeping.

When I wrote about Thunder Bay three years ago, I noted that there were "frightening moments" and murders. The action in Boundary Waters kept me reading through a bunch of implausibilites a few months later. Nearly a year later, I almost didn't make it through Mercy Falls, but I was up at the lake and could get by without much sleep that night.

A few months ago, I noticed a review of one of Krueger's new books that was set in the wilderness of the northern border of Minnesota. It seemed to involve the main character and his daughter, stranded by a huge storm and hunted by someone evil. I said to myself, "No thanks."

That's why I wanted to know what Dan thought of Vermillion Drift. Dan was right that most of the murder, mayhem, and threat happened half a century before the primary story. As a retrospective, the resolutions of the old mysteries were less frightening. The main character does have to resolve some issues involving repressed memories and the childhood loss of his father, but those didn't keep me awake at night. I was especially impressed by B. Morrison's observation (in her blog linked below) that the absence of physical threats and danger allowed Krueger to focus on emotional conflicts and their resolutions.

It's a very well-told story. The bits and pieces fit together and the only improbabilities involve the aged Native American "witch," who is a long-time friend and father figure to the main character. I can live with that. I really liked reading Krueger's story telling in this book.

I discovered I missed another of his books along the way. It's referenced in Vermillion Drift. In that unnamed book, the main character's wife (an important part of the earlier books) is killed in a plane crash, and the widowed main character becomes prey as he searches for the wilderness site of the crash. I doubt I'll go back and read that one.

Have you read Vermillion Drift? Have you another of Krueger's books to recommend? Or recommend that we avoid? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

11 May 2012

Surreal fiction

René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter, has entertained me for years. I always said he was my favorite Belgian surrealist. (Salvador Dalí is my favorite Spanish surrealist.)

Other surrealists have entertained me as well. Bertolt Brecht would probably have denied it, but he was a surrealist in my mind.

And what's all this early 20th century art history about?

In my vague memories of past reading, I recall being entertained by a mystery about a couple of Amsterdam detectives. The memory might even be real. It might be surreal.

In any case when I found Janwillem van de Wetering's mystery The Mind-Murders on the library shelf, I picked it up in hopes of being entertained once again. 

Well, this mystery is indeed about two Amsterdam detectives, Henk Grijpstra and Rinus de Gier. However, this novel seems to be at attempt at comedy and surrealism. It begins when Adjutant Grijpstra orders his sergeant de Gier to take off his clothes and jump into the unhealthy water of one of Amsterdam's canals and rescue a man who is beating off another rescuer with a crutch. It goes downhill from there.

That scene is comedic, but not funny. I didn't find anything else funny in the half of the book I read. Most of what I read was suffused with surrealism. The actions of the main characters and their thinking seems based in some alternative universe. They spent an inordinate amount of time in a bistro that appears normal, but is anything but.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood. I know there are days when the Marx Brothers are hilarious and other days when they are as dumb as the Three Stooges.

But maybe this book is just as dumb as the Three Stooges.

Do you remember reading The Mind-Murders? Or something else by van de Wetering? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought. Or you could tell us who your favorite surrealist is. Or whether the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges are ever funny to you.

03 May 2012

Stories almost as old as I am

The stories told in the latest Stephen Booth mystery I read begin with the crash of an RAF bomber near the end of World War II. As you might expect, over the decades, the stories spread out like a river flowing into a large delta. Six men died in the crash, one survived, and one went missing. Sixty years later, descendants of three of those men are involved in more deaths and more mystery around the mountain where the plane crashed.

It didn't take me long to get back to another Stephen Booth book. That's in part because I enjoyed reading the two earlier books and in part because the mysteries in the library are arranged alphabetically. This one is Blood on the Tongue.

Once again, I appreciated Booth's ability to portray characters in print in ways that make them seem more than imaginary place holders. Ben Cooper, native of the English Peak District is the central character once again. And I learned more about him and his life in this book. The rising star of the constabulary, Diane Fry is also a main figure, and she becomes more enigmatic as I learned more about her. She seemed to me to be jealous of Cooper's ease with the people and places he'd grown up with. She also seemed more determined to undermine his strengths. He seemed to be baffled by her and yet to seek understanding. It's certainly not the way I'd respond to her enmity. Ah, but the tension is part of what kept me interested in the book.

If the 1945 plane crash was the ultimate beginning, one of the episodes in this book begins when the granddaughter of the plane's pilot receives her grandfather's medal, mailed anonymously from the village nearest the crash site. Another episode involves the body of a long-dead infant almost buried under part of the plane's wreckage. There are three other tales told in this book.

At the beginning, it seems that all of them are related. However, the relationships are indirect and tenuous. The resolutions are not all clear cut and neatly done. To me it seems more like real life than the crisp packages that some mystery writers wrap up in their final chapters.

For me, Booth did it again: created and described characters that were interesting and believable; told stories that were intriguing; and connected them in realistic ways. I'm hesitant to go on to book four in his series because Ben Cooper has a weakness in evaluating women and he keeps seeing redeeming qualities in the nasty piece of work who is his superviser. I don't want to see her redeemed. I don't even want Cooper to save her life if she's threatened.

Have any of you read Blood on the Tongue or another of Stephen Booth's "crime novels? What did you think about it or them? Or how did you feel about it or them? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

The book was published in 2002. It's available for a free download if you search for online.