Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: Cain by José Saramago

“The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn’t understand us and we don’t understand him.”
     Cain is one of those books that one truly enjoys to read; and I did. Saramago in this, his last offering before he passed away, recreates in his own special way the life of Cain and offers the reader, especially the one who’s not too attached to the words of the scriptures, a chance to have a few good laughs. While reading it, I dare to admit that, I found myself agreeing time and again with the somewhat heretical views of the author.
     At the beginning it was not to the Word, but simply the creation of the world, since, as we read, when god made man forgot to give to him the gift of speech. However, after he did give it to him maybe he came to regret it because if he hadn’t then Cain wouldn’t be able to speak and thus verbally annoy and abuse him for all eternity.
     First things first though. According to Saramago the first people were less than perfect. They were kind of stupid and full of flaws. When they were expelled from paradise actually “Adam and Eve resembled a couple of orangutans who had stood upright for the first time.” However, as time started going by they improved a bit, since they now had to work to make a living. As the story goes they set up home on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where with the help of the animals that followed them to exile, they started working the land. Of course at the beginning things were not so easy for them so Eve, every now and then, had to take a walk towards paradise and beg the angels to give her some fruits. However that didn’t last for too long since sooner rather than later they started becoming self-sufficient and independent until someday, without quite understanding how or why, they even became parents. Abel and Cain are their famous kids, but of course they had many more. Abel, the innocent one according to the official story, was in reality an infuriating character, somebody who found joy in provoking and insulting the others and who always thought that he was the leader of the pack. He really was scum, thus Cain, who could suffer his behavior no longer, ended up killing him. And that’s exactly how his long skirmish with god has begun. And that’s exactly when his long journey started; a journey that would carry him back and forth in time, a kind of a road trip into the Old and the New Testament, full of surprises and with many not so light touches of humor.
     Cain, in this book, is portrayed as the first hero in Hebrew history; someone who’s extremely daring and not in the least afraid of death, and who doesn’t miss a chance to give god a piece of his mind. In order to do that he travels a lot, so we meet him in Sodom and Gomorrah, at the Sacrifice of Abraham, on Noah’s Ark, at The Tower of Babel, in the desert visiting Moses’ camp, while he drops by in the New Testament as well to act the role of the Good Samaritan. Wherever he goes he uses the name of Abel, and at every single place he encounters the ugly face of god; a god that he’s determined to oppose in every way. He’s not your normal kind of hero, he seeks no redemption, but instead he asks of god to apologize to him for mistreating him.
     This is not one of those books that I would recommend to everyone because of its subject matter. However I’m sure that those who are familiar with the author’s work, as well as with the writings of Norman Mailer, Robert Graves and Nikos Kazantzakis, will truly enjoy reading it. Saramago doesn’t only seem to want to provoke the reader, but also to say to him that just believing something without questioning it, is the easy path; the one that leads to ignorance and cheats him of his free will and independent mind.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book Review: Shards by Ismet Prcic

The author is a Bosnian-American. As we read in his website he used to be just a Bosnian, but then he learned some English and they gave him a piece of paper that said that he now was an American. However, if we are to judge from Shards that comes out next week in the US, we’d say that he truly and simply is a writer from the Balkans, since in this he talks about all the big issues facing the region: the civil wars and the refugees, immigration and religion, which tends to bring people apart instead of together.
     His narration moves in a handful of parallel levels and takes the reader on a time travelling journey, in order to make him understand in a unique way how his story, or rather history works.
     The main characters are only two: Ismet and Mustafa. But does Mustafa really exist or is he just a fabrication, someone created in the imagination of Ismet? Well, according to the story he does exist, but bits and pieces of evidence we encounter once in a while seem to indicate the opposite, or rather that he’s just the alter ego of the narrator. Ismet has never been to war, has never fought, while Mustafa has; Ismet has travelled abroad, while Mustafa has not; Ismet is alive, while Mustafa is dead. Or is he now?
     The author by creating a complicated plot he seems to play with the reader and with time, to abolish boundaries, to built certainties just to bring them crashing down, and to say that everything is possible, even that which is most improbable. His two heroes seem to complement each other, to subconsciously bring their beings together in order to create the ideal, under the dire circumstances, man; a man that loves a lot and hates just as much; that struggles and who runs away scared; that dreams of a beautiful life but constantly flirts with death.
     The tribal and religious zealotries, the crooked politicians, the endless corruption and the non-stop cheating, but also true love, are some of the big issues that are talked about here. Using black humor as his vehicle the author throws his heroes into extreme and extremely hilarious situations, he hits and caresses them, he indicates for them the way they need to follow before tripping them up. It seems that what he’s silently trying to convey is that at the end of the day nothing is up to them. Some of them do manage to survive and build better lives for themselves; most though don’t, and thus they end up perishing under the ruins of war and the memories of a long gone past.  However, even those who do survive don’t really make a clean run out of their past since wherever they go they always carry along with them their ghosts, whether these are successful or failed love affairs, whether they are some personal guilts or even their inability to enjoy life without the help of various substances.
     Everybody coming out of a war is a loser, no matter what. “It had begun with politicians fighting on television,” Ismet says, and before too long the former friends started turning on each other and the reality of people of different origins living happily together proved in the end to be nothing but an illusion.
     The author manages to construct, with the help of diary clippings, memories and oral accounts, the mosaic of some shattered lives, of people sacrificed on the altar of the insanity of war. Through this fluid and every now and then poetic narrative the reader comes to find out some things about the history of certain peoples, about borders and countries created by blood.
     This is one of the best novels I have read this year so far, and I did read a lot. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Review: Mile 81 by Stephen King

I’ve always considered the short, or maybe the not that long, writings of Stephen King as his best. No matter how much I enjoy his novels some of them I find kind of heavy, if you understand what I mean. But of course that doesn’t apply here since Mile 81 is nothing more than a long short story.
     It all begins one fine day when ten year old Pete Simmons decides to live a big adventure. So he runs away from home heading for the deserted rest area at Mile 81 on a highway in Maine. Pete is a very impressionable kid that imagines himself as an adventurer and an explorer, so he sets off to discover the dark secrets hidden in the abandoned fast-food restaurant that’s situated there. The most exciting thing he comes up with though is a half-finished bottle of vodka and being the big boy that he is he decides to take a sip, and another, and another. As one would expect he gets drunk soon enough and since he doesn’t want to go back home like that he thinks it best to sleep it off. Thus he doesn’t realize that right outside very strange things are happening. First there comes a mud-covered station wagon, even though there hasn’t been any rain in the area for ages. The driver door opens, but inside there’s nobody to be seen. Right behind it arrives to park an insurance guy and part-time preacher who wants to be a Good Samaritan and soon enough a cowgirl, with her horse and everything, and a family follow suit. And poor Pete is still asleep. Well, evil lurks and it’s maybe up to him to save the day; and if he’s lucky enough he may even live to tell (especially to his know-it-all brother) the story of an adventure unlike any other. Will he manage to do that and how? Let’s not forget that he’s no more than a little boy.
     Mile 81 is a finely-crafted story which will surely offer some reading pleasure to the fans of the good author. At the end of it one can also read an excerpt from 11.22.63., King’s next novel, where a man travels back in time in order to intervene and save the life of JFK. That sure sounds interesting.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Review: Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy

This is a fictional biography that travels the reader back in time, to the Byzantium era and the glory days of the great city of Constantinople. That is where that we for the first time meet Theodora, the second of three sisters, who due to the difficult times her family is going through, has to start working and earn a living from a very young age. She and her sisters, under the instructions of an eunuch called Menander, are getting ready for a life spent at the Hippodrome, which in today’s term we would call the show biz.
     Theodora is at the time a beautiful girl with an unruly character. She likes picking up fights every now and then and making fun of people, and so very often she comes to receive heavily handed punishments from her tutor, which however cannot tame her spirit. Some of the girls have a talent for dancing and others for singing. Theodora though, who unwillingly has to follow in their footsteps has no talent whatsoever in none of the above. But she has what the others lack; she’s street and stage smart and an exceptional comedian. She can tell stories like no other, make people laugh all too easily and dazzle the crowds with her scene presence
     Through, the narrow at the beginning and ever expanding as time goes by, thread of the narration we follow step by step the remarkable life journey of this woman: from childhood to premature adulthood, from play to prostitution, from ignorance to harshly earned knowledge and from despair to despair. Theodora spends most of her life dressed in the veils of a unique melancholy. And if it wasn’t for some sudden explosions of joy every now and then one would say that she’s never been happy at all; since she was always deep in thought; since she used to spend as much time as she could by herself and, since very often she’d hide in the dark corners of the great church of Hagia Sofia praying for one thing or another, or maybe just trying to get away from something. No matter how much she used to shine on the big stage, no matter how good she came to be in the lovemaking game, she hid he true self somewhere in the dark – and that was a self of a life unfulfilled, in search of a meaning.
     However, sooner rather than later came the time when she found her way out of her dead end; and that was when she met Hecebolus, the governor of Pentapolis in Northern Africa, with whom she had fallen in love. At the age of eighteen, leaving behind a life of wealth and glory, she follows the man that stole her heart, to Apollonia, along with a talentless girl from her troupe. The latter would one day find her way into the bed of Hecebolus and herself pregnant, paving the way for Theodora, who was already tired of her life there, to leave. Soon enough the betrayed woman will find herself in Alexandria, where she’ll meet Timothy, the patriarch of the city and ruler of Egypt, who will take her under his protective wing before sending her off to the desert to atone for her sins. Her past though will keep hunting and haunting her, and it’s exactly this past that her guardians will try to exploit in order to succeed in their otherwise sacred plans. Theodora will be used by them in order to open the way for the enthronement of their chosen one, Justinian, in Constantinople. However, to manage that she first has to get close to him. And that she will do, with the help of some friends and co-conspirators.
     When she at last returns to Polis, her city (that’s what Polis means) she is a changed woman, a different person from the one that left. The passions of the flesh have not abandoned her, but in more than one ways she’s wiser than before. It’s this wisdom, but also the endurance that she came to muster during her long absence, that she’ll bring to good use to fulfill her duty and accomplish her mission. A duty and a mission that will finally lead her exactly to a place in life that she’d always dreamed about but never hoped reaching; a place of happiness.
     This is a well written story about one of the strangest eras in Christian times. An era in which in the very heart of Christianity pagan rituals were performed in daily basis, when prostitution was not at all something out of the ordinary and, finally, when, just like today, those in power or with power never stopped arguing with each other and using any means necessary to achieve their goals.
     The author, using a plethora of sources, manages to bring to life those distant times, to guide the reader in a splendid narrative way into a distant past, and to show us Christians some things that we’d rather ignore or, if we know, forget. Well done.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov

In Penguin Lost we follow the most recent adventures of Viktor the writer and Misha the penguin, whom we’ve first met in Death and the Penguin.
     Andrey Kurkov does in this book exactly what he did in the previews one: he throws his hero into the most extreme and extravagant situations and using black humor as his weapon of choice he once again comes to describe the world as it came to be after the fall of the Soviet Union.
     At the beginning of the novel we meet Viktor onboard a big ship heading for Antarctica, where he’s supposed to settle in a research facility. During the journey he becomes a very good friend with a mysterious man called Stanislav Bronikovsky, a man who’s very sure, and afraid, that someone’s following him. While playing chess and drinking vodka the two men will come so close to each other that the latter will trust the former with a very serious and kind of mysterious mission, and he’ll also offer him the means to see it through. So, using Stanislav’s Polish passport, Viktor will return to Kiev, his home town, which he had to leave in a hurry not so long ago, hunted as he was by some criminals.
     Arriving there though, he’ll come face to face with a few surprises, as things during his absence seem to have taken a turn for the better and for the worse at the same time. On the one hand he’ll find out that his life is no longer under threat, but on the other he’ll also discover that his girlfriend Nina and his kind of adopted daughter Sonia are now living in his house with another man. For some reason though he’ll not get as upset as one would expect about that. Besides, he has other things in his mind. Firstly he has to learn where his beloved Misha is, and then he has to honor his word and deliver a package to Stanislav’s wife in Moscow.
     How is he going to do that? Well, he’ll once again be blessed with good fortune. Thus from the one day to the next he’ll find himself landing a great job, as he will be hired by an ambitious politician to write his speeches. The latter will not only pay him good money but will also do whatever he can to discover the whereabouts of missing Misha. As they are both soon to find out Viktor can thrive in a job like this: he does not only write outstanding speeches but also organizes a few quite original events for his employer, while when needed he’s not unwilling to offer his not so outlandish advice: “Once elected, you never stop promising.”
     His career in the political arena will not last for long, but during it he’ll play his part in some outrageous events, while its end will find him on his way to Moscow. There he’ll meet, as planned, Stanislav’s wife and thus fulfill his duty. Hell, he’ll do even more than that. However, as a man on a mission, he cannot stay still, so soon enough he’ll hit the road once again, heading for Chechnya this time, where, according to his sources, Misha is. As expected when there he’ll once again go through a kind of hilarious, for the reader, hell before reaching his promised land, the penguin. But that is not the end, since it’s exactly then that his new odyssey into unknown waters will begin.
     Kurkov, repeating the feat of Death and the Penguin, tells us a story that doesn’t seem to take anything seriously, not even itself, and which can be read as an adventure or a comedy or even as social commentary. However, no matter what the Americans insist to say, this is not a crime novel. The author is interested in entertaining the reader, but not through the suspense and the action. He simply seems to say: “Just relax, and everything will be fine.” Relax and enjoy, I would say instead!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: Lennon by Tim Riley

John Lennon has always been one of my favorite musicians. I’ve been listening to his songs since I remember myself listening to music and I’ve always thought him to be a man who during his life, apart from his art, did nothing more than keep searching to find a destination, where he really wanted to be. Whether what he really wanted to do was change the world through his music, become the main spokesperson for the peace movement or just a stay at home dad, I could not really say; not until now.
     This new biography by Tim Riley that comes out next Tuesday, the 20th of September, in the U.S. offers many answers to his life’s big riddles and much more than that. According to the author Lennon wanted all the above and much more than that. However, he was not just a man who wanted something, but also someone who lacked a lot, a tortured soul, who’s never managed to get over the traumas of his childhood: his mother abandoning him, the long absences of his sailor father, the oppression suffered in the hands of his aunt Mimi who raised him. If music had not arrived to save him from his own self he was bound to end up in jail or maybe even six feet under very early in his life since, as people say, at that stage he was nothing more than an accident waiting to happen.
     The author pays too much attention to the young Lennon, the one before the creation of the Beatles; the time when he used to wander from one place to the next, when there was absolutely no stability in his life, when the music and the arts were his whole world. He “spent his life searching for father figures and mourning his mother,” we read somewhere. And that’s exactly what he did. Lennon seemed to be desperately searching for something or somebody to hold on to, since: “The worst pain is that of not being wanted.” His mother Judy was a shadowy figure, someone who seemed to follow the wind, with a less than settled life, but she did leave him a legacy and that was her love for music. His father Alf was in his own special way a kind of a dreamer, someone who always had big dreams that were never bound to succeed and who used to make big promises that he was unable to keep. And then there was aunt Mimi, the woman who adopted him because she thought his mother unfit, who provided him with a safe home, but at the same time did everything she possibly could to cut his dreams short, to keep him from spreading his wings and flying high and away into the big and wide world.
     We meet an adolescent John who’s full of rage but quite funny, pretty smart but restless. He listens to music and draws sketches; he writes lyrics and goes to school if for nothing else to have fun at the expense of the teachers. Some of his practical jokes are really hilarious, but whatever he does he’s always sad, he feels that something is missing. When he starts playing and writing music that gap is somehow filled, but not completely – never completely. In the end it’s his friendships that save him from chaos; firstly and mostly with Stuart Sutcliffe and then with McCartney, while in the face of the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, he seemed to have met a kind of a father figure; someone he’d nevertheless not hesitate to verbally abuse in the future.
     And then came the big breakthrough; the first record, the first decent shows -away from Hamburg’s red light district that is- the success, the fame; and then came the Beatles, the group that was destined to change the face of rock music. Despite everything though, John never felt really happy, never happy at heart. The money, the fame, the drugs and the women, not even the birth of his first son Julian, did not prove enough to appease the restless soul of that arrogant and in many ways humble young man. (As we read he always thought and said that all the other musicians were better than him, even when he was older, and his big influence in the world of music was more than obvious to all who had the eyes to see and ears to listen, which apparently he didn’t.)
     As the author implies while Paul was like a spirit of calm and serenity in the group (the favorite of the mothers and the grannies, as he puts it), John seemed to be like a raging stream coming rushing down after a storm of his own creation, thus sooner or later the two of them were bound to clash. The results of that clash are now well known. As it seems John, during the last of his Beatles years, was yet again yearning to find his real self, the rocker, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when we learn that when he saw for the first time the Stones play he said: “I’m in the wrong group!” Instead of finding his real self though he found Yoko, and with her by his side he discovered or rather invented a new, more creative and useful, self. So he started filming experimental movies, creating happenings, clashing with and verbally abusing authority figures and writing some of the songs that would become instant classics and continue to be popular for decades to come. And he did all that before reaching yet again a psychological dead end; before Yoko kicked him out of the house and sent him away to live what became to be known as his lost weekend; before coming back and having Sean with her, the boy that would change his life; and before hearing one more time the call of the muse.
     This book is so masterfully written that can be almost read as a novel. The author manages to revive in a wonderful way a whole era, while the way he describes the songs at times sounds almost poetic. Riley seems to muster his subject very well, but that doesn’t mean that he’s handling it gently, as he gives the reader a panoramic image of the man – of John the rebel, of John the humorist, the child and the father, the musician and the actor, of John the lover and the scumbag.
     Is this the best Lennon biography? It most probably is. Or at least it is way better than the other three I’ve read so far; and thus it is highly recommended to one and all that ever loved the man and his music, but to every single fan of rock music as well, because despite its title this book talks about so much more than Lennon.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Book Review: The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo is one of those writers that seem to get better and better as time goes by. The Snowman is the seventh novel he’s written having as the main protagonist Harry Hole, a detective who can in a way remind the reader of the various clichés, but which at the same time blows all those clichés into pieces. He looks just like an acrobat, walking on a tightrope all the time, becoming the favorite target of his colleagues when anything goes wrong, fighting with his addiction to alcohol, falling down often enough but not staying down; instead he jumps right up and continues where he left.     Things are never easy for him and that’s not about to change now as he’s called to investigate a series of similar hideous crimes committed by an extremely clever and well-organized perp whom the cops come to call the Snowman. And that’s only because wherever he hits he leaves behind a snowman as his signature, as if to provoke the police to catch him if they can, before he melts away and vanishes once and for all. Can they catch him though? Probably not, but Harry is not to blame. He told them from the very beginning, when the first victim was abducted, that they had to do with a serial killer, but none of the big-shots believed him and so a lot of precious time has been lost. “This is not America” they thought, feeling sure that Harry’s idea originated from the seminars he followed at the FBI. However, soon enough the crimes would start multiplying and the corpses of decapitated women would begin to spring up everywhere.
     Who’s hiding behind these extremely violent crimes and what’s his or her motive? Is there a connection between the victims? And are these cases in any way related with a similar one which has taken place twenty-four years ago in a town far away from Oslo?
     As days slip past by these and all the new questions that arise remain unanswered, and as a result Harry every now and then seems to be losing it. These cases for some reason affect him personally, they damage his already fragile psyche, and he can’t really understand why. Also because of them his spare time is becoming less and less, thus he cannot meet as often as he wants his ex-girlfriend Rakel and her son who considers him as his real father. Finally, they make him want to drink, and that should never happen, not ever again.
     The author creates a complicated plot that keeps the action moving and the agony rising from beginning to end, but he also pays a lot of attention to the psychological angle – he dives deep into the subconscious of his heroes. And maybe, for the very first time he throws into the path of poor old Harry, a sister-soul, whom he meets at the face of the young and attractive detective Katrine Bratt, who’s not only brilliant but who seems to believe in him more than anyone else ever did, and is willing to do whatever it takes to help him. Their fight, the good fight, will at some points look lonesome and hopeless, but during it they’ll keep leaning on each other to make it through, and when at a point some dark secrets will come to the surface, they will not prove strong enough to wreck the bonds of trust that bind them together.
     The well-carved characters, the excellent plot, the not too fast action and the constant agony, make this thriller one of the best that I’ve read this year so far and elevate, at least in my eyes, its hero to the height of John Rebus or even higher. I recommend it to simply anyone who likes crime fiction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review: Second Son by Lee Child

Second Son is not a novel but a short story, which came out only as an e-book last month.
     The year is 1974, and the then thirteen year old Jack Reacher, arrives with his family in Okinawa, Japan. His father is with the Marine Corps thus the family has to move often from one place to the next, wherever duty calls. Their arrival there though is nothing but accidental, since the Americans are already starting to realize that China has set some big plans into place, so they want to have some of their best personnel close by to keep an eye on the neighboring country’s ground.
     Jack and his big brother Joe do not receive the best of welcomes from the other kids living there. The neighborhood baddies are trying to intimidate them from the very beginning and Joe, ever the diplomat, does whatever he can to stop his hot-blooded younger brother from responding in the kind. And as if that’s not enough they also soon come to realize that they have to give entry exams in order to enroll at the local school, something that have never happened before. In the meantime their father is not having the best of times either, as some important and highly confidential documents go missing from his office.
     From one day to the next things seem to go from bad to worse, the troubles keep piling up, and in the end, as one would expect, it falls to Jack to try and work things out. And he does just that, in his very own special way.
     Through this story we get to learn a few things about how Jack Reacher, the force of nature that the readers love and, Child’s favorite hero came to be. Maybe the writing does not reach the high standards one would expect from the author, but it’s a fine read anyway.
     At the end of the story there is, as a bonus, the first chapter of the next Reacher novel, The Affair, which is going to come out in a few days time; and if we can judge from the excerpt here, we’d say that that will really be an explosive one.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Review: On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

To put it simply: Sebastian Barry writes so beautifully, so poetically, that when I read his books I find myself almost ashamed to admit that I’m also a writer – and a jealous one at that. His prose is so deeply humane and so well-crafted that almost reads like verse; verse that makes you want to cry; no, not from sorrow, but from joy, for having the privilege of reading it. I’m not implying that the subject matters with which the good author is preoccupied are pleasant, quite the opposite, they float in sadness, yet the way he narrates them do not bring much sorrow to the reader’s heart. He seems, in a magical way, to grab the latter by the hand and lead him on to a journey through the wide paths of history, a history that touches everything and everyone in different ways; personal and impersonal at the same time.
     On Canaan's Side is the story of Lilly Berre, an eighty-nine year old woman, whose grandson Bill just died, and who now just sits and writes down her memoirs, reliving through them a long life full of sorrows and a few touches of joy. The narrator talks in a direct and almost oral way about love and war, about country and home, and about loss, old age and death. And she doesn’t complain about anything, even just a little bit, although she has every right to do so, given the way the fates have treated her.
     Her memories, despite her age, are crystal clear, as they are deeply engraved on her tortured soul. She remembers a father whom she loved too much, but whose choices have caused her endless troubles but also saved her life. She remembers her first big love, the man with whom she escaped from Ireland to America, just after the First World War, and whose face reminded her of a Van Gogh painting. She remembers her brother, like a hazy picture of times long gone and who died during that very same war. She remembers everything, and everything she writes, like a living testament, even though she says she hates writing. She needs to tell everything, to get it out of her breast, because: “We are not immune to memory.”
     Even though “the past is a crying child”, as she writes somewhere in this seventeen day long monologue, she never cries: “I am cold because I cannot find my heart,” she’s quick to point out. However, she’s not really cold, she’s just hurt, as she’s lived an eventful life, but nevertheless poor where results were concerned. She worked a lot, she fought hard for a better tomorrow, she spent years and years in fear and whatever she won she lost, whomever she loved she buried. And yet not a single word of complain ever escapes her lips. Lilly is a woman full of patience, one of those unique and rarely met souls that can only feel compassion for the others, and who know how to forgive. One could say that her way of thinking and living sounds kind of fatalistic, and one would be wrong. Her memories are sad, but not bitter, and her memories are her life. Writing them down is what keeps her alive; her resilience is her power.
     “Tears have a better character cried alone,” she thinks, and that’s why she mourns her loss on her own and in the quiet. And her tears turn into pearls of wisdom and humanity. As Joe, one of the main characters says, we “live in a big box of fear.” Lilly takes this fear and turns it into power; she takes that power and turns it into a story – the story we are now holding in our hands.
     Absolutely brilliant.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Booker Shortlist Announced

The Man Booker Shortlist has been announced today and I can say that there were a couple of surprises since not only Alan Hollinghurst and The Stranger's Child has been left out, but also Sebastian Barry with his extremely well-written On Canaan's Side. Anyway, here's the list:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. Here's my review of the book... 
Snowdrops by AD Miller

Book Review: Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Nairobi Heat is the first crime novel by an African writer that I’ve ever read and I can honestly say that I liked it. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that I cannot really label it, say that is that it belongs to one genre or another. The non-stop action, the blood splattered scenes and the twists and turns, somehow remind me of an American thriller; its social background though is so solid and realistic, that maybe I would do it a disservice by saying that this is just a thriller and nothing more.
     It all begins when a naked young woman is found dead outside the house of an African human rights activist, in Madison, Wisconsin. Detective Ishmael, an African American who rushes to the scene of the crime, feels from the very first moment that there’s more to this murder than what at first meets the eye; namely, layer upon layer of secrets and lies. The man who discovered the body is quite famous for his humanitarian efforts during the genocide in Rwanda and is said to have saved hundreds of people, thus the logic dictates that someone is trying to frame him for the murder. In this particular area most of the people are white and the Ku Klux Klan has a very strong presence, so as expected the heat is on for the detective right from the start. However, nobody seems to know who the dead woman is, and since the police cannot identify the victim, there’s no way to look for a motive. So before too long Ishmael’s investigation reaches a dead end, due to the lack of clues. The media and the higher ups in the political food chain though will not give the matter a rest that easily, so the pressure on the chief of police, who also happens to be an African American, keeps mounting. When everything seems lost though, they will by chance find a lead. An anonymous informer will tell them to look for the answers they seek where it all started, in Africa, and particularly Kenya.
     So the born and raised in the US Ishmael will soon find himself on a flight to Nairobi, where a Kenyan cop called David Odhiambo, but generally known as O, will bid him welcome. The country is considerably peaceful, if compared with its neighbors, but nevertheless corruption and chaos seem to rule the day. Violent crime is a way of life, the outskirts of the city (which the locals call Nairoberry) are kill zones, and money, as in Ishmael’s home country one would say, is god. The detective, used as he is in following certain rules and procedures when investigating a case, is at the beginning disgusted with and shocked by his colleague’s attitude, but the more time he spends there, the more he comes to realize that in that place there’s only one way to get things done, so he starts following O’s example. In a country were lawlessness is the law, the men of the real law just have to use any means necessary to enforce it. Besides, as O says: “…we are bad people too. The only difference is that we fight on the side of the good”.
     Thus the two of them together, law enforcers and avengers at the same time, will spend the next few days going from one place to the next, questioning people, drinking lots of beer and enjoying music, making love and shooting and getting shot at, trying to work things out. Their insistence and resolve will one day be rewarded, but until then they will many times come face to face with death, go head to head with some of the country’s rich and powerful and re-open some old wounds, which have never really stopped bleeding.
     This is of those novels that stand out not only for their plot and action, but also about the story they have to say; here the micro history, which too many times alters the lives of people in painful ways, but the official history as well, the one that becomes common knowledge, and which more often than not is based on lies.
     This is a great novel that should be read from crime fiction aficionados and literary fiction fans alike, since it has too much to say, to everyone.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Book Review: The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen

The Silent Girl is the first book by the author that I've read and I can say that I truly enjoyed it as the well-written crime novel that it is.
    It all starts when a boy discovers, during a tour of the so-called haunted places of San Francisco, the severed hand of a woman. The police are notified and detectives Jane Rizzoli and Barry Frost rush to the scene, along with medical examiner, Maura Isles. The hand was found in the garbage, where they soon also discover a gun, and so the detectives feel pretty certain that the rest of the body of the victim, who’s a woman, will also be lying somewhere nearby. So they start searching and before too long they find what they seek on the building right above the crime scene. The woman is decapitated and according to Dr. Isles, no matter how strange that may sound, the lethal weapon was most likely a sword. The victim doesn’t carry any kind of identification on her person, so it will not prove easy to find out who she is. And as they are in Chinatown where the people do not know how to speak English, or rather chose not to do so, they bring in a cop with roots from China to help with the investigation. Johnny Tam, as we are soon to find out, is an ambitious young cop, whose big dream is to be promoted to homicide by the time he’s thirty. And most likely he’ll just manage to do that, since he works hard, likes to take initiative and does everything he can to help the two detectives solving the case.
     Thus the three of them form an unlikely partnership that’ll do anything possible to discover the truth. We say unlikely because as characters each couldn’t be any different from the other. Jane loves taking risks and she’s stubborn, and she doesn’t seem able to believe anything that defies her logic, while Barry is really sad over lost love, but at the same time he’s tenderhearted, charming and open-minded. As for Johnny, we can say that in the very least he’s secretive, but nevertheless bright, well-trained, and tireless, with undecipherable eyes.
     Through the mostly third-person, but at times first-person narration, we travel back and forth in time and along with the protagonists we start to pick the dots that when connected will create the mosaic behind the story. And we are talking about a huge mosaic, which hides behind it a lot of painful secrets, but that also delivers to the reader some snippets of wisdom, like this one: “Without ties to our ancestors, we are lonely specs of dust, adrift and floating, attached to nothing and no one.”
     The author though is not only interested in the mystery, so she embarks on a short journey through the myths and legends of ancient China, she talks about the sense of dignity of certain people that borders obsession when it comes to matters of right and wrong, and she finally brings under the microscope the relations between the members of more than one families. The way she sets up her plot is masterful, the violence she describes sometimes becomes brutal, but her outlook is definitely humane. The issue of justice seems to be very important to her heroes, so through their actions or lack of them, they seem to imply that sometimes one has to take the law into his own hands in order to serve it.
     This is a great crime novel and I highly recommend it to each and every fan of the genre