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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Horrifying on multiple levels, Child 44 is a standout thriller.

In the so-called perfect Stalinist state, crime doesn't exist. To admit that it exists is almost an act of treason. 

So when a member of the MGB claims that his child Arkady has been murdered, Leo Demidov is told to quiet the family. He does this and more, even threatening eye-witnesses. 

He never examines the body of Arkady as the family asks. None of this is unusual. MGB do not normally detect violent crime. That task belongs to a much lower class, the militia. 

Soon, however, new circumstances come to light. Leo Demidov's communist beliefs are shaken to the core when he sees an innocent man tortured. 

He also learns that wife, Raisa, is a stranger. She married him because she feared turning his marriage proposal down. 

He was an agent of the state and she was keen on surviving. Years ago she had watched the Soviets destroy her town and all of her relatives, including her parents, for political purposes.

In Stalinist Russia, agents could be promoted one afternoon and denounced the next. When someone denounces Leo and Raisa, they barely escape with their lives. Demoted to a mill town, Leo and Raisa must start life anew.

Leo is demoted to the lowest rank in the militia, the agency responsible for handling violent crime. Recently, two children have been murdered in the woods near the railroad tracks and there may be more. 

Smith has set up the perfect conundrum for his hero to face. A disgraced MGB officer can do little to investigate the murders without risking his life. Leo Demidov must decide if  justice is more important than survival.

Plenty of riveting twists and turns, betrayals, repressed memories, mind games, and nail-biting escapes make this a first-rate thriller. Unsurprisingly, this novel has been turned into a 2015 feature film. 

Tom Rob Smith followed Child 44 with two other novels, The Secret Speech and Agent 6.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Wolf Totem

Jessica Teisch's "Chinese Novels in English Translation" is a notable article in the Mar/April 2015 Bookmarks.

One of the novels that drew my attention is Wolf Totem, a semi-autobiographical novel by Jian Rong. 

Rong was a Red Guard in the sixties who hoarded the Western books he was supposed to burn.

He volunteered to work in Mongolia where he has the freedom to read. In this remote area, he becomes fascinated by the grassland wolves.

In this semi-autobiographical work, Jian Rong writes a fictional version of these events -- applauding freedom and the Mogolian herdsmen.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Graham Moore won an Oscar for the screenplay adaptation of Andrew Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma. 

Before he wrote the screenplay for Imitation Game, howeverMoore wrote this novel, The Sherlockian. 

The Sherlockian is a remarkable literary thriller published in 2010 that alternates between the present and nineteenth century London.

One of the "Irregulars," a fan group for Sherlock Holmes fiction, may have murdered one of their own and pilfered a rare Sir Arthur Conan diary. Harold, one of the irregulars, is haplessly drawn into the affair and determined to work out who killed Alex Cale. 

In a parallel story, set in the past, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, receives a strange package (a letter bomb) in the mail. Doyle has taken a seven-year break from writing about Holmes. 

The letter bomb has a newspaper clipping about a murder. This inspires Doyle to track down the killer in a manner that would make his fictional creation, Holmes, proud.

Doyle discovers a connection between two unlikely cases. In one case, a young bride with a three-headed crow tattoo is strangled and placed in a tub. In another, a woman in Whitechapel is found strangled in an alley.

He and his friend Bram Stoker conduct surveillance on their own and later work in conjunction with Scotland Yard. 

In many respects, The Sherlockian is a thriller. The scenes are fast-moving and captivating and the characters lives are at stake. 

Since Moore writes from a position of great knowledge about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes, it is also a top literary thriller.

If you want to read more about Arthur Conan Doyle and his friendship with Bram Stoker, you may want to read Julian Barnes' novel, Arthur and George

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is an enchanting read. Forsyth mixes characters based on historical people with fable.

In the novel, readers meet Charlotte-Rose de La Force after she has been banished from Louis XIV's court and sent to a nunnery. 

The real life Charlotte-Rose de La Force wrote the Rapunzel or "Persinette" story which was adapted by the brothers Grimm.

In this fictionalized version of events, Charlotte hears the tale from Soeur Seraphina, her only friend at the convent where she is imprisoned.

Like a master tapestry weaver, Forsyth weaves the stories of the three women: Charlotte, Margherita, and  and Maria, the "strega bella," who renames herself Selena.

Most readers are familiar with the Rapunzel story but Forsyth revitalizes it. Selena kidnaps Margherita from her home in Venice and entraps her in a high watchtower in Manerba.

In this is a multi-faceted story, Forsyth also gives us the witch's story. When her mother is horribly mistreated, Maria learns what injustice feels like and it marks the beginning of her transformation into wickedness. 

Maria who renames herself Selena acquires a lover, Tiziano, whose paintings immortalize her. Forsyth has some fun here with Titian, imagining that Selena is Titian's Venus

Selena stays young because she drinks the blood of the young red-headed girls she has kept in the tower. Tizano, on the other hand, sinks into old age.

Forsyth switches back and forth easily from Margherita and Selena's story in Italy to Charlotte de la Force's adventures in France during the reign of the sun King.

After losing the King's favor, Charlotte determines to marry a Marquis and pays a witch for a love spell. She lands in prison, but upon release, she chooses to marry for love.

What is remarkable is the way all of the women's lives parallel each other. All face terrible choices and are forced to choose between their happiness or safety. 

A sweeping and sensual drama, Bitter Greens is one of the best historical novels of 2014. 

For more information about this novel and about Kate Forsyth, see Sarah Johnson's interview of Forsyth in Johnson's blog, Reading the Past.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura Van Den Berg

Laura Van Den Berg's stories have a quirky feel much like  Rivka Galchen's stories. Characters are "at sea," weathering one emotional disturbances or another. All of the stories feature disappearances or marital break-ups.

In "Opa-Locka" a pair of sisters form a detective agency but seriously undermine their business when they acts recklessly. They track and then lose a client's husband. The incident weirdly mirrors their own childhood when their father disappears.

In "Lessons," a group of outlaws runaway from their sheltered existence.Dana takes her younger brother, who has Asperger-like symptoms, with her on a crime spree and later regrets the decision. 

In "Antarctica," a troubled young wife has left her husband without explanation. Her scientist husband dies in an explosion in Antarctica

The daughter of a magician in "The Great Escape," has always believed that her father had disappeared during a magic trick. The truth is far worst and more ordinary. Facing theft charges, the girl tries a disappearing trick of her own. 

Clearly, Van Den Berg's primarily deal with is  abandonment. Dana in "Lessons" is afraid the "gorillas" will leave Pinky behind. In "Opa-Locka," the sisters are still recovering from their father's disappearance.

A second motif is a crumbling marriage. The women in "Acrobat," "Isle of Youth" are each in a failed marriage; in its disintegration they come to a moment of enlightenment.

Laura Van Den Berg's latest work is a novel called Find Me

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Brooke Davis is a vibrant new voice in fiction. She gives the viewpoints of three characters--a lonely old man, a crochety old woman and a seven-year-old girl who contemplates death. Her father has just died and her mother has abandoned her in a department store. 

Davis mixes just the right amount of pathos and humor when she gives voices Milly. When her mother does not return for her, she imagines that one of the manikins is her friend. She record dead things in her dead things journal. She leaves notes that will supposedly help her Mum find her: "In here Mum."

She also befriends Karl, a touch typist who writes messages to his deceased wife in the air. By accident, Karl joins Milly and Agatha on a bus journey to Kalgoorlie. 

The bus trip is followed by an outlandish train trip through Nullarbor Plain. The three of them are determined to find Milly's Mum or, at least, a relative to take care of her.

Lost and Found is completely different from anything else I've read. Very few novels, after all, feature a seven-year-old who run away with two octogenarians. Very few novels features a seven-year-old who is obsessed with death. 

What makes Milly so unique, however, is her ironic innocence and intelligence.She nearly meets her match though on the train when she meets another little boy who calls himself "Captain Everything."