Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review: The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

“Say it simple, stupid”; this could definitely be the message that the author is trying to convey to the reader; or rather to the other writers. If there’s a canon in Yoshimoto’s writing that’s simplicity. She just tells a story and she tells it briefly and beautifully; her words flow like a quiet spring stream. With the exception of Amrita all her books are small in size, but full of meaning. By using a few words and characters that have much in common, book after book, she seems to be writing time and again the same story, but that’s not really the case. The author is mostly interested in the lives of people, in their psyches, and she’s not trying to win the reader over with the plot, but with the words and actions and maybe, every now and then, just the thoughts of the protagonists.
     The Lake tells the story of an, in a way, unconventional love affair. Two lonely young people exchange glances and waves from a distance and just wonder what meeting each other would be like. Chichiro, is desperately trying to get over the death of her mother, which casts a heavy shadow over her whole being, while Nakajima seems to be struggling hard just to go on living. Everyday life may seem like a burden to them, but what they lack in joy they have in talent and in brains. The woman is a very talented and inspired mural painter, while the man is highly intelligent and hopes one day to make a name in the field of nanotechnology. Sooner or later they are going to meet, and little by little everything will start to change for them, as the one will come to find in the face of the other, in an almost whispered way, the perfect companion. Through their deeds and their many discussions we’ll come to discover some hidden aspects of their inner lives, and also have the chance to take a good look at the modern day Japanese society; a society where time is money and everything can be sold and bought, a society of plenty; just before the economic crash brought things upside down, that is.
     Being together though doesn’t mean that their problems are magically solved. As Nakajima is trying to move forward with his plans, while at the same time harboring thoughts of death, Chichiro is still working with her psychological issues. Time and again she thinks about her dead mother and her estranged father; “I guess my mom was all he had – the one flower that smelled like freedom”, she says, to add later on, addressing directly her mother: “…you were like a blossom softly unfurling its petals on a cliff somewhere”.
     The two young people, even though they now have someone to lean on, continue nevertheless to feel kind of lonely; subconsciously they are still kept grounded by the chains of yesteryear. They both know that they have to do all they can to escape their demons; but what? He actually knows what he has to do, but he needs her help to do it; a help that she’s more than happy to provide. So they set out on a trip to the country, to visit a house, or rather a hut by a lake, where two young people, a brother and a sister reside. Being there with him, meeting these strange people, Mino and Chii, feels like a surreal experience to her, as for the first time, she comes to learn something very important about Nakajima’s past. He, on the other hand, having finally done what he always wanted and needed to do, now feels free to go on living, as if all his burdens have been lifted. From that day onwards their common life will change for the better; a kind of serenity will settle in between them and they’ll start to confide to each other everything, discuss matters more openly, share their big musts and must not’s, and at last start loving each other for who they really are. “This is what it means to be loved… when someone wants to touch you, to be tender…” Chichiro says, even though she doesn’t hesitate to admit that at the time, “what I felt for him wasn’t exactly love, it was closer to a sense of surprise, even shock”. Of course that was only because he had “the intensity of a person unafraid of death, at the end of his rope”.
     This finely crafted tale talks in a straightforward way about a person’s need for love and companionship; but also about loneliness, which can be turned into a noose and choke the will to live out of everybody. This book can be read, and excuse me for the metaphor, like a ballad; a ballad about the complexity and simplicity of the everyday life, and of the young souls. I dare say that this is one of the best novels, by one of the best writers that ever came out of Japan.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: Buried Prey by John Sandford

The distant past returns to haunt the life of Lucas Davenport, a homicide detective in Minneapolis, when some workers discover in the debris of a building they were about to wipe out of the face of the earth, the bodies of two girls that disappeared  a quarter of a century ago; the Buried Prey the title suggests. For their abduction and certain murder the cops arrested back then a homeless man that went by the name of Terry Scrape, now deceased, who from the very first moment protested his innocence.
     Lucas at the time was just a young patrol officer who harbored dreams of becoming a detective, and due to a string of coincidences he got involved with the case right from the beginning. And it was he who discovered Scrape’s hide out and orchestrated his arrest. However, apart from an eye witness who said that he was the one behind the crime, the police didn’t really have any evidence against him, so they just had to let him lose. A few days later he’d be dead and the case would slip into a cold status. Besides, everyone, apart from Lucas, was convinced that he was the perpetrator, and they no longer thought that they could find the girls alive. Lucas, despite his objections, did nothing to pursue the case, because he didn’t want to go head to head with his future boss, who had already made up his mind.
     Now, as the middle aged and experienced detective remembers those days, he cannot help but think that everything could have been different. If he didn’t back down, if he kept investigating, maybe he could have saved the lives of the girls after all; and prevented some other crimes from being committed as well. The way the killer buried the bodies told him a lot. He was a highly intelligent individual who really knew what he was about, unlike the homeless, kind of stupid and definitely schizophrenic Scrape.
     A big part of the story takes place in yesteryear in the streets of a city where crime was a way of life. At the time thefts, big or small, drug trafficking, murders and armed robberies were taking place on a daily basis, and the cops did everything they could to keep a fragile peace between the various gangs. They even investigated the killings of gang members, even though they knew that most of the time they had to do with revenge; most of the time, not always. It was while investigating one of those cases, the murder of a gangbanger, that Lucas caught a break in the case. As it seemed that murder was, in a way, connected with the kidnapping of the girls and, he just couldn’t for the life of him believe that Scrape was able to pull off something like that. But that wasn’t just it. It also had to do with a guy called John Fell, who tipped the police about Scrape in a roundabout way at the start, and now was nowhere to be found.
     Lucas, feeling guilty about the past, he decides to do everything he possibly can to close the case once and for all. However, in order to do so, and quite unintentionally, he starts drifting away from his family and friends, and draws himself into a world of solitude and quiet. It’s as if he’s trying to atone for his actions, or rather inaction, by punishing himself. His wife though, along with his adopted daughter and his buddies, will do everything they can to stop him from sliding into the dark.
     This book can be read as an adventure, but also as a psychological thriller. The author takes a good look into the psyches of his heroes, spots their powers and points out their weaknesses, and describes in full detail their inner worlds. This is a crime novel of high quality and a must for the fans of the genre.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo

The publishers in the English speaking world are trying to promote Jo Nesbo, for obvious reasons, as the next Stieg Larsson. Well, that is, to say the least, ironic since the former came on the scene ten years earlier than the latter.
     Anyway, let’s just skip that and focus on the novel at hand. The main protagonist in The Devil's Star is Harry Hole, an alcoholic detective who’s spent most of his adult life making one mistake after the other. Now, exactly because of his intoxication he seems to be at the twilight of his career. Even though he’s a pretty good detective and under the protection of his boss, sooner or later he’ll have to go, since no one can any longer stand him.
     Before he does that, however, he has to solve a case, which was virtually dropped on his lap right in the middle of summer, when lots of members of the police force are away on holiday. A woman is found dead in a bathtub, under mysterious circumstances. One of her fingers has been cut off, while behind of one of her eyelids an investigator finds a tiny red five-pointed diamond – the devil’s star. The killer, other than that, has left no clues behind. Harry visits the scene of the crime, takes a long look at everything and makes mental notes, exchanges words with one of his enemies inside the force, someone who thinks that he’s a dirty cop, and leaves; the pub is waiting.
     As time goes by the bodies start piling up and now Harry not only has to do all he can to find the killer as soon as possible, but also fight his inner demons and make peace with himself. He feels guilty for who he is, as he finally comes to admit that alcohol is not the solution to his problems, and to realize that he has to do everything that is humanly possible to change, even if that means that he has to break a deal with the man he considers his personal devil. He feels really tired. He’s sick of looking at dead bodies now and again and crossing swords with the windmills of the world out there. He wants to get a new job, do something different, get a life for a Christ’s sake; before he hits rock bottom.
     The author paints a detailed portrait of his hero. He gives us a man who’s tough and tender at the same time; strong headed and resilient; utterly tired, but with bursts of energy; not someone that’s easy to cope with. However, he does provide him with some good friends, who are willing to stand by his side at any given moment, under any circumstances, so in the end, one can say, that for him there’s hope after all.
     One can read this book in one sitting, just like every crime novel that respects itself. It is not really action-packed but there are a lot twists and turns, and the plot manages to keep the reader’s interest at a high from start to finish, as almost nothing turns out to be as it seems. The end comes with a bang, but leaves some questions unanswered, some mysteries unsolved. Maybe Harry has to stay just where he is, for the time being, and put things completely right; maybe not.
     Anyway, this is a very good thriller, with a great plot and a deeply troubled, yet sympathetic hero, and it’s certainly worth to be read by any crime fiction aficionado.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Quotes from The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

“When things get really bad, you take comfort in the placeness of a place”

“All my life I cherished the possibility of escape”

“Everything in life has some good in it. And when something awful happens, the goodness stands out even more”

“If you are always angry, always yelling at people, ultimately that just means you depend on them”

“… (Mom) you were like a blossom softly unfurling its petals on a cliff somewhere…”

“This is what it means to be loved… when someone wants to touch you, to be tender…”

“I love feeling the rhythm of other people’s lives. It’s like traveling”

“When you’re in a state of homogeneity, it means you’ve lost yourself”

“You see things through the filter of your own sensibility”

“Who says that you can’t warm your frozen limbs in the faint heat of a flicker of hope?”

Buy at Amazon

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Samuel Johnson Prize shortlist announced

The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Shortlist has been announced. The selected books are:

Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dik├Âtter
Caravaggio by Andrew Graham Dixon
Liberty's Exiles by Maya Jasanoff
The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg
Reprobates by John Stubbs

The winner of the prize will be announced on the 6th of July

Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

OK, here it goes! I really looked forward to reading this book and when I finally did I felt nothing more than disappointed; almost cheated. I don’t know; maybe I got carried away by the title and expected too much, but in whatever way you put it I didn’t expect so little. There’s one thing that I know for sure: this is the worst work by the author that I’ve ever read. That’s maybe because it was an order-to-write kind of book, or perhaps because he didn’t bother to work too hard for it, or just maybe because it’s a bit too mild for my taste.
     When I’ve first read the title and some of the reviews in the British press I thought: this sounds fun. It really did, and it kind of is, but there’s nothing more to it. If someone picks up this book thinking that he or she’s about to read a heretical version of the Bible, he or she will be disappointed. Pullman just picks bits and pieces of the scriptures and rewrites them in his own way; making them somewhat more easy to understand for the reader. It starts with a bang (This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ), but there’s nothing much to follow that grand opening. The author writes briefly about the birth and the early years of the twins and points out that Christ, the intellectual, used to get Jesus out of trouble every now and then, simply by quoting the Old Testament. He also says that Jesus was the prodigal son of the story, before taking a short dive into his miraculous but controversial life. As it looks the guy wasn’t so popular in Nazareth because he had the nerve to go and perform miracles… elsewhere, while his relation with the priests was not exactly the best as he tended to liken them with the fool in the psalms. By the way, just in case you were wondering, it was Christ and not Jesus who met Mary Magdalene, so maybe her soul is condemned to rot in hell after all. With this and that, time just flies by, it really does, and soon enough Jesus is arrested, put to trial, condemned, crucified and comes back to life again. And that’s about it.
     I don’t know whether the good author had a word count limit, as the book belongs to a re-imagined myths series, but I can’t shake the feeling that this work is far from complete; or to say it boldly, it gives me the impression of a one-night-stand. If any of you would like to read some really subversive or even provocative versions of the Gospels you should look elsewhere; at the work of the great Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, of the recently deceased Jose Saramago, and Robert Graves. There you can find all the knowledge and the philosophy behind the popcorn literature of the likes of Dan Brown and much more.
     It’s such a pity that a writer of Pullman’s caliber couldn’t make things work in this one but, thank Caiaphas and no matter what, we can just keep enjoying his fabulous forays into the worlds of fantasy.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Review: Live Wire by Harlan Coben

It’s been a few years since the last time I’ve read a novel by Harlan Coben, but I can still remember pretty well his favorite fictional character, sports agent Myron Bolitar, who seems to be moonlighting most of the time as a detective.
     In Live Wire we see Myron getting into a shitload of trouble, as he tries to help one of his clients, the ex tennis player Suzze T., to set things right in her life. The latter is now the proud owner of a tennis academy and with child, the father of which is an infamous musician called Lex Ryder. Or is it? Somebody has a different opinion on the matter and posts it on Suzze’s Facebook profile; and that’s when it all begins, as Lex, just after reading that puts on a disappearing act. Now Myron has to trace the tracks of the musician, as well as find out who’s behind the post. The first he can do easy enough, but when it comes to the second things get a little bit complicated, since the one to blame for all this is none other than his sister-in-law Kitty, someone he haven’t seen for sixteen years.
     When he catches a glimpse of her at a club from a distance, he feels like his world has been turned upside down. What was she doing there and what was her relationship with Lex, whom he also spotted at the same place? That’s the big question. And there are a few to follow, concerning the absence of his brother, the whys of her return to town and so on. He suspects that she has again fallen into drugs, but has no time to find out if that’s so, as she manages to escape with the help of the club’s bouncers, along with Lex.
     The more Myron looks into these interconnected cases, the more things get complicated. As he knocks on doors that do not open and asks questions that go unanswered, he finds himself heading from one dead end to the next. And something that starts as a simple investigation, as time goes by, turns into a fast paced chase, which through its various twists and turns brings to surface lots of secrets and lies. Myron, who feels like he’s a victim and a victimizer at the same time, will put his life at risk in order to bring the truth to light; whichever truth that might be. During his long and dangerous pursuit he’ll come face to face with bouncers and cops, with drug dealers and their minions, and to survive he’ll have to ask for help from his friends: Esperantza the brave, Big Cyndi the, er, big (whom somewhere the author likens to a Volkswagen Beetle) and Win, a muscular and trigger happy millionaire, who likes picking up fights, and nowadays keeps a couple of lovers that go by the names of You and Mee.
     This is one of those books you can read in one sitting, since the writer manages to keep the reader moving fast, page after page, giving him some laughs on the way, but also making him meditate, at least a bit, on the big subjects of love and humanity. And he’s not soft on his hero; he slaps him around every now and then and kind of pushes him to change his way of thinking.
     Crime literature at its best.