Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review: The Shaolin Cowboy Adventure Magazine No 1 by Andrew Vachss, Geof Barrow and Michael A. Black

The Shaolin Cowboy Adventure Magazine No 1 by Andrew Vachss, Geof Barrow and Michael A. Black includes two novelettes that remind the reader of Pulp Fiction (the movie and the genre) and science fiction stories.

I'll say it right from the start; this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year so far. It's action-packed, it's funny and it doesn't take itself seriously. The two stories in this volume are quite different from each other, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the reader can't enjoy them just the same.

The first story tells what the Way of "No Way" is all about. It is here that we for the first time set eyes on the Shaolin Cowboy, a mercenary of sorts that wanders around an almost deserted land, where the only law is that of the outlaw. The Cowboy is not your usual mercenary though; he does have his own code of ethics, he always wears a Chicago Cubs baseball cap, and he travels on a mule that's too strong and in its own right has quite an attitude. The two of them definitely complement each other in more than one ways. They are not only partners in crime but they also have a silent understanding that never allows one to get into the other's way.

As we get to know the Cowboy better we come to realize that he's not only lethal but also kind. When the need arises he helps the weak and even goes out of his way to find them refuge. The villains though are a different story. They are evil, simple as that, but their characters and the way the author describes their looks is one of the reasons that I really enjoyed this story.

The boss, the big boss of the land actually, is a fat man that goes by the initials T.A. These mean Totally Awesome according to his followers, but what they really stand for is Toxic Amoeba. It is exactly this man that the Cowboy is traveling to meet through the desert, the Terror-tories, a journey that offers the reader a lot of action and some laughs. For instance at a point our hero sees a sign that says: You are now leaving the endless desert, and not before too long he finds another one that suggests: What, you didn't bring a dictionary? Look up "Endless," stupid.

Well, Cowboy is about to live the adventure of his life, an adventure that reminds the reader of the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez, and during which anything can happen.

The second story in this volume Time Factor is written by Michael A. Black, and it more than less belongs to the Sci Fi genre. This is the story of Dr. Riley and another couple of men who are assigned a mission into the jungles of New Mexico. They have to find the members of an expeditionary force that went missing. However, in order to accomplish that, they first have to travel back in time, and the Cretaceus period, where the scenery is to say the least imposing.

What happens to them while there gives birth to too many questions into the mind of Dr. Riley, but the truth is that the answers he will not like; answers I will not provide, because when it comes to spoilers this is as good, or as bad, as it gets.

In this story too there's plenty of action and some great characters that are not so easy to forget. It is violent, but it's also funny in a way, especially when one of the heroes insists on doing his own thing, putting everyone else into trouble.

I really look forward to the second edition of The Shaolin Cowboy Adventure Magazine.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: The Forgotten by David Baldacci

If you asked me a year ago I’d tell you that David Baldacci somehow looked like he had lost his touch; this year though I say: he’s back with a bang.

The Forgotten is one of his best books and it is no exaggeration to say that John Puller pulled it off. When he first appeared in Zero Day I did think that he was here to stay. What I didn’t believe was that his next adventure would be better than the first one.

It all begins with a letter. Betsy Puller Simon writes to her brother John Puller Senior to let him know that there’s something rotten in Paradise, Florida. Strange things seem to happen during the night, she says in an understatement, and she asks for the help of Puller Junior to investigate.

Puller who works for the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Army knows that Aunt Betsy is a down to earth person who wouldn’t try to create something big out of nothing at all, so he decides to use the remaining days of his holiday time to head down to Florida to see what’s going on.

However he arrives there too late. By that time Betsy is already dead. According to the local police she’d accidentally drowned, but somehow Puller doesn’t buy it. If it wasn’t for the letter maybe he’d accept the coroner’s verdict but he’s certain that there’s something fishy going on.

And there is, as soon the bodies of an elderly couple will wash up at the beach, with bullet wounds in their heads, and lots of mysterious things will start to happen. In the end Paradise is everything but what its name suggests, as in that small community there is a really high crime rate, there’s corruption in the police force and elsewhere, and secrets and lies rule the day.

Puller is bound to create more enemies than friends while there, since his arrival seems to stir things up. He doesn’t know who to trust and he sure as hell doesn’t expect any help from the police. Only a young and beautiful officer seems competent and honest enough in the Police Force, and it is with her that he collaborates at first.

As the plot thickens though he comes to realize that he’ll need all the help he can get. He may be fast, and strong, and smart but he cannot out the bad guys all by himself. Much welcomed help will arrive from a female General of the U.S. Army who has a history with him, a giant of a man who’s after a rich guy who wronged him badly, a kid who’s trying to lead a better, non gang-affiliated life, and a mysterious woman with a mission.

In here we have lots of mystery, amazing action scenes, some sentiment every now and then, the inevitable twists and turns and a hero who’s bound to make life difficult for his literary arch-rival, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

Well done Mr. Baldacci; well done indeed!

By the same author:

Hell's Corner
The Sixth Man
One Summer
No Rest for the Dead
No Time Left

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: Fox Tracks by Rita Mae Brown

Fox Tracks by Rita Mae Brown is the 8th novel in a series featuring foxhunter and fox lover, and amateur detective, Sister Jane.

While outside on Manhattan's Midtown streets a fierce snowstorm rages, nothing can dampen the excitement inside the elegant ballroom of Manhattan's Pierre Hotel. Hunt clubs from all over North America have gathered for their annual gala, and nobody is in higher spirits than "Sister" Jane, Master of the Jefferson Hunt in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Braving the foul weather, Sister and her young friend "Tootie" Harris pop out to purchase cigars for the celebration at a nearby tobacco shop, finding themselves regaled by the colorful stories of its eccentric proprietor, Adolfo Galdos.

Yet the trip's festive mood goes to ground later with the grisly discovery of Adolfo's corpse. The tobacconist was shot in the head but found, oddly enough, with a cigarette pack of American Smokes laid carefully over his heart.

So it all begins with a murder, as it should really, but it’s not the crime that sets the pace and makes this such an interesting book to read, but the characters. First we have Sister Jane, a woman as unconventional as they come. Then there’s Gray Lorillard, her boyfriend and an opium smoker. Before too long in comes Crawford Howard, Sister’s enemy and a man so rich that can buy his way into and out of everything. And then there’s “Tootie”, a young woman who decides to give up Princeton, forget about her planned career and her family’s fortune and become a veterinarian.

However these are not the only things that make this novel such a good read; it’s also the hunting scenes. The author’s descriptions of the action as it takes place are in most parts really great.

On and on they flew, the sound of hoofbeats thrilling. Shaker rode well with his hounds. Betty, feeling that water in her boots, on the right and Sybil, a swift-moving speck on the left, charged over undulating pasture… Hounds disappeared over a swale. An old tobacco barn hove into view as Sister galloped down that incline, then up the other side. The hounds surrounded the old curing shed, some eagerly wiggling through spaces, logs deliberately built that way a century and a half ago.

Speaking of tobacco, it does have an important part to play in this novel as well. It’s not only that the murder of the tobacconist will spark a series of events that will put many lives into danger, it also has to do with the rights of smokers. Sister is really angry with the politicians that pass one law to protect the health of the public, but when it suits them just forget, or avoid, to pass another one, for the very same reason.

“…I was thinking about the people who love laws that inhibit other people’s choices. Is smoking a good thing to do? No. But those sanctimonious rulemakers live rather luxurious lives. They aren’t working on an assembly line or in scorching sun outside. If your job is repetitive and boring or dangerous, sometimes that little hit of nicotine takes the edge off. The people that make the laws go get prescriptions for Prozac and how does anyone know the long-term effects of all that crap?”

Right! Another interesting fact here is that the animals talk between them, something that inputs lots of humor into the narrative. I especially like the hate and hate relationship between the Sister’s dogs and cat. The cat is just like a spoiled and sly princess. She always gives the dogs a hard time and is the unofficial ruler of the domestic kingdom.

“Ow, ow, ow,” the harrier howled.
Hearing the commotion, Sister hurried out to the mudroom. Golly didn’t budge.
Sister opened the mudroom door, a gust of wind blew snow on the floor and the two dogs, heads down, hurried inside. Drops of blood fell on the slate floor. Neither dog looked the cat in the eye as she was prancing sideways, hoping to incite even more terror.
“Hateful. Hateful. Hateful.” Sister knew exactly what the cat had done.
“I’m the Queen of All I Survey! Dogs do my bidding. Humans feed me right on time.” With that loud declaration, she shot through the door into the kitchen, crossed the floor at a good clip, and ran up the narrow back stairway to the main bedroom. Then she dashed out into the long upstairs hallway to run victory laps.

In an unconventional household like Sister’s one could expect nothing less. These minor domestic troubles just seem to add spice to her life, and the fact that at her age she has a boyfriend she doesn’t want to marry, does nothing but prove that she’s true to her words: An unmarried woman is incomplete. When she’s married, she’s finished.

Crime, mystery, foxhunts and lots and lots of laughs; what more could one ask for in a novel? Rita Mae Brown makes sure that the reader has fun while reading her book, and she does so in a splendid way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Costa Award Shortlists 2012

The shortlists for this year's Costa Awards have been announced yesterday. For the first time two graphic books are included them: Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (a great book, which I have read but did not get to review yet) in the biography category and Days of the Bagnold Summer in the best novel one. The winners will be revealed on January 2. Here are the full lists:

Novel Award shortlist

Hilary Mantel - Bring up the Bodies
Stephen May - Life! Death! Prizes!
James Meek - The Heart Broke In
Joff Winterhart - Days of the Bagnold Summer

First Novel Award shortlist

JW Ironmonger - The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder
Jess Richards - Snake Ropes
Francesca Segal - The Innocents
Benjamin Wood - The Bellwether Revivals 

Biography Award shortlist

Artemis Cooper - Patrick Leigh-Fermor: An Adventure
Selina Guinness - The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family
Kate Hubbard - Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household
Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot - Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes

Poetry Award shortlist

Sean Borodale - Bee Journal
Julia Copus - The World’s Two Smallest Humans
Selima Hill - People Who Like Meatballs
Kathleen Jamie - The Overhaul

Children’s Book Award shortlist

Sally Gardner - Maggot Moon
Diana Hendry - The Seeing
Hayley Long - What’s Up with Jody Barton?
Dave Shelton - A Boy and a Bear in a Boat

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review: Crashed by Timothy Hallinan

Crashed by Timothy Hallinan is the first novel in a series featuring Junior Bender, a famous burglar, who in this story doesn’t only have to steal but also investigate a crime in the making.

Junior Bender is a Los Angeles burglar with a magic touch. Since he first started breaking into houses when he was fourteen years old, he’s never once been caught. But now, after twenty-two years of an exemplary career, Junior has been blackmailed by Trey Annunziato, one of the most powerful crime bosses in LA, into acting as a private investigator on the set of Trey’s porn movie venture, which someone keeps sabotaging.

It’s not easy even to try to describe who or what Junior Bender exactly is. He’s a burglar, he’s a thief, but he’s also someone with a good heart, who cares for people in need, who’s willing to kill a bad person in order to save the life of a good one. And he is, like this book, quite funny. First things first though. Let’s allow him to introduce himself:

…I’m weak.
I think for everyone in the world, there’s something you could dangle in front of them, something they would run onto a freeway at rush hour to get. When I meet somebody, I like to try to figure out what that is for that person. You for diamonds, darling, or first editions of Dickens? Jimmy Choo shoes or Joseph Cornell box? And you, mister, a thick stack of green? A troop of Balinese girl scouts? A Maserati with your monogram on it?
For me, it’s a wall safe.

Now let’s meet Wattles one of the bad guys, who has a great sense of humor, and quite a body:

Wattles himself was a guy who had looked for years like he would die in minutes. He was extremely short, with a body that suggested an open umbrella, a drinker’s face the color of rare roast beef, and a game leg he dragged around like an anchor.

Well, that man may sound funny but he’s quite clever, and he makes a fool out of Junior when he hires him to break into a house and steal a painting. He does not only not pay him his fare share but he also blackmails him into working for Trey Annuziato, a mob boss who’s trying to clean the family’s act and go legit, but in order to do so she first has to shoot an adult movie starring a famous actor whose glory days had come to pass. Someone is trying to sabotage the project and it’s up to Junior to find who and why.

This job will not be an easy ride for him though. He is smart, he is well-connected and he’s willing to do anything to get out of the dead end he found himself into. But things never seem to go his way, while not only criminals but also the cops seem to follow his every move. He knows what he has to do, he knows the way to do it, but in order to accomplish that he has to overcome many obstacles, and even work under the nose of the police.

The key to being inconspicuous is to look like you know where you’re going and why. So I made a show of glancing at my watch and then turned my head away from the cops, like someone making sure he isn’t about to step in front of a speeding bus, and crossed the street, just another citizen on a perfectly upright errand. Every step, I expected to hear Tallerico’s voice yelling for me to stop, and every step I didn’t…

He got lucky this time, but just this once. At the other times he had to face packs of dogs, thugs, corrupted cops, mobsters and even a couple of kids who were street-smart and sly enough to make his life difficult.

But this story is not only about some burglar, a mystery, and bits and pieces of almost choreographed action; it’s also about the showbiz.

Everybody in show business loves everybody else so much, it’s darling this and darling that, people fall in love and drink together and swear eternal friendship and then the shoot ends and we all lose each other’s phone numbers.

Hollywood is the land of fantasy and people just love to make stories about each other, and spread the rumors around and thus create out of them a reality. Most of the stories are just that, stories, and sometimes it’s not that difficult to crash one of those tales into pieces. Here’s what Junior sees when he visits the huge house of former movie mogul:

The first myth to bite the dust was the cash tucked beneath the wall-to-walls. The floor was dark stone, buffed to a dull shine by several centuries’ worth of feet, and only the central quarter-mile or so was covered by carpet, an enormous all-silk Afghan that was probably older than the house. A couple of couches, two deep-looking chairs, and some dark wood tables had been arranged in front of a fireplace big enough to host the Chicago fire, with room left over for a couple of neighborhood barbecues. In defiance of the warm weather, a fire was roaring in it, nothing much, just a couple of trees’ worth of wood.

Crashed is a book that has it all: mystery, humor, action, a great plot and some unforgettable characters. It also talks about the way some situations can bring the best or the worst out of people and how money and glory destroy lives. Finally it seems to highlight the fact that people who are not loved are bound to fail in their lives. Here we have a great novel, by a great writer.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Book Review: No Regrets, No Remorse by R.F. Sharp

No Regrets, No Remorse is the first novel in a series featuring an unorthodox investigator and vigilante, Sydney Simone.

Sydney Simone, wounded herself, is dedicated to helping via a cloaked website and identity those whose wrongs can’t be righted by orthodox means. First she verifies the client’s story; then she accepts payment: half up front, half on completion of her work. Usually it’s a form of human pest control. For cover, Sydney works as an assistant at the Rose Madder Gallery in West Palm Beach, run by Oscar Leopold. Oscar, a sculptor, has left his law practice behind. But now his former partner Roy is arrested for murdering Big Jack, an attorney with a sleazy television advertising presence and he has no choice but help him out.

This is one of those novels that make the reader feel conflicted when it comes to its heroine. Sydney Simone is unlike any other character I have met in crime fiction lately. She’s tough, way to smart, and has a lot of secrets. And she’s a hit-woman. She doesn’t take every single case that comes her way though; she’s just trying to make things right where the justice system had failed.

Killing the Ann Arbor guy was satisfying. A job well done. Her history showed no patience with child molesters. No regrets, no remorse. It had always been that way.

No regrets, no remorse? And she’s fighting the good cause? Is that even humanly possible? Well, for her it is. She is a loner and —to talk about contradictions— she leads a double life, and she has a very good friend, Oscar; whom she helps with his sculptures and his little art gallery, and when it comes to that with his investigations. He doesn’t know her secret, nobody does, and that’s for the best, because if he did he could find himself in harm’s way.

Meeting Oscar for the first time had been pure chance. Sydney fled from Philadelphia after a job went bad, with the police and the client searching for her. She needed a place to live and preferably some cover. The situation in Philly had been ideal. She was the resident manager at a small motel, so didn’t need to get housing or utilities in her name. Housekeeping was done by a local mother and daughter who would fill in if she had to go on a mission. She was off the grid. But unforeseen things can happen no matter how careful the plan—like a son making a surprise visit to his father, who at the moment was being drowned in his pool by Sydney. She escaped, and wasn’t sure anyone knew her name but they had her description and that was enough to cause her to leave town, not even going back to the motel to pick up her belongings.

She needed a similar setup in Florida, so when she stumbled across the help wanted sign in the window of the Rose Madder Gallery she went in. Oscar was easy to charm, she got the job, and the room downstairs came with it.

Oscar provided the perfect cover at first for Sydney, but not before too long he became her lover, and then an ex-lover, and now they are best friends. He’s the only person in the world that she cares about and she’d do anything to protect him, even put herself in the line of fire.

Her buddy, though an artist, is not as helpless as one would think. He doesn’t scare easily and when it comes to taking matters into his own hands he rises to the challenge. Here’s what happens when he comes face to face with some thugs in a deserted parking lot during the night. He just aims his handgun unflinchingly at them and says:

“This is a derringer. Often used by the police as a hideaway backup. It fires two .45 caliber bullets. If I shot you, say, in the knee…” He gestured with it again but not at the man’s knee, still aiming at his crotch, and stepped a little closer. The guy stepped back, looking to his friends for support. “You might not die from shock or blood loss if you got to a hospital right away. Of course, you might lose the leg since most of the socket and kneecap would be blown out. If you’re lucky, and my aim is off a little you might save it, but forget about playing basketball again or even walking without a limp. And at this distance I just don’t see how I could miss.”

During the investigation both Oscar and Sydney will find themselves in dangerous situations many times, since there’s more to the case than what at first meets the eye. And as if that’s not enough, at the same time, they have to organize an exhibition at the gallery, while Sydney also has to confront a man, who has somehow found out who she really is and is blackmailing her into taking a case.

The two heroes seem to be very different from each other, and yet the one complements the other. It’s as if there’s a secret bond between them, a bond that no people or facts, or even forces of nature, can break. Sydney is the fire in Oscar’s calm waters; Oscar is the earth that appeases Sydney’s winds of fury.

An enjoyable read, with many light touches of humor, despite the bleak at times subject matter, which comes with a heroine that sticks into the reader’s mind long after he finishes reading the book. I cannot help but wonder what she’ll do next.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: Motorcycle High: The Adventures of Rock Pounder by Dave Harrold

Motorcycle High by Dave Harrold is a high-octane and fun-loving adventure that takes the reader on a long and dangerous journey, full of action and betrayals, femme fatales, mobsters and spies.

Rock Pounder, adventure rider extraordinaire, is planning a round-the-world trip on his motorcycle. His goal is Amsterdam and the herbal refreshment that awaits him there. But when you're a legend—among women, adventure riders, and spies—nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

This is one of those books that are simply way too fun not to like. And Rock Pounder is one of those heroes that no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot forget; not only for his character, but also because he’s quite a character. He’s cool, he’s fearless, he loves his bikes and his women and he has a past that still haunts and entertains him. I will let him speak for himself.

Let me tell you about Rock Pounder. I’m mad as hell. People are starting to push me around because they think I’m old. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know that I’ve helped start three revolutions—and I’ve personally been in charge of one. I’ve ordered countless men into battle and I’ve fought many myself, and I’ve supplied money and guns to people across the globe. I’ve made love to pretty women all over the world, including two princesses and a billionaire drug lord, who was also a woman, by the way.
     I look at life, and I feel like I have at least one more big job in me, before I retire to my place in Mexico. The United States pays me $10,000 a year to keep my eyes open as I travel around. But right now nothing’s going on, and I’m looking for action.

And that is exactly what he’s going to get: nonstop action; bike and car chases through the wilderness of the Russian countryside, meetings with spies and mobsters, and secrets agents and much more. And all that despite the fact that:

I’m really a pacifist most of the time. I don’t carry a gun, and I don’t like to hurt people. But there are some things I won’t put up with, and beating up a defenseless priest is one of them.

Whether he likes it or not, Rock, will have to resort to violence more than once during this journey, this adventure; an adventure that will really start, not in the US, but when he and his buddies reach Siberia.

Well, today it started just like it does in every big city in the world. You get lost trying to get out of town. After about 20 minutes of wandering around, we found the right road and headed to Khabarovsk, about 650 due north into Siberia. I was just thinking about why we do this, why we take these long trips. I guess it’s because you like to go where there’s no help, where you’re totally self-sufficient, where it’s just you, the motorcycle, and the elements. There’s no motorcycle shop, maybe no gas stations or motels, just pure adventure. I guess that’s why we go, and we just don’t go around the block on the motorcycle too much.

Going around the block would probably be the best thing that could happen to him in this case, but that’s not meant to be. Instead he’ll travel through Siberia, go to Russia, Ukraine and Poland, sleep in luxury and out in the open, face betrayal and find a true friend, and then think, constantly think about his life.

Rock feels like he’s blessed and cursed at the same time. He really enjoyed his ride through life, but he cannot help but think that maybe it’s time for him to call it a day. What started his wanderlust was a book, Around the World in 80 Days, but if things keep going the way they do now, it’s doubtful that he’ll have, in the end, 80 days to live.

What do they want from him? Why can’t they just let him be? he keeps wondering. Who are they? His boss, “Fat Man” Manfred, and the CIA. They are interested in a package that contains a computer program that could change the world. And so is the Russian government, and so is the Mafia who’s after him. The problem is that he doesn’t have the package. The problem is that, even though he doesn’t know it yet, he’s going to get it.

Oh well, when you think about it it’s all business as usual for Rock. He’ll just do what he has to do, while trying to avoid his silicon-made ex-wife, his pursuers, a woman who lusts after him and… and…

What I liked the most about this novel is not so much the action, but the interactions; the interactions between some of the main characters; the love and hate relationships, the lack of trust between them. I’ve also enjoyed Rock’s sense of humor, his stubbornness and his lust for travel and adventure. To put it simply, Rock is here to entertain, and entertain he does.

The 2012 US National Book Awards Winners Announced

The 2012 US National Book Awards winners were announced yesterday. The books that have won the prize are:


The Round House by Louise Endrich

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo


Bewilderment by David Ferry

Young People's Literature

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The UK's National Book Awards Shorlists

The National Book Awards shortlists have been announced yesterday. The winners will be revealed in a ceremony on Tuesday 4 December. Here are the candidates in three of the most important categories. For the rest you can follow this link.

Autobiography/Biography of the Year

My Animals and Other Family by Clare Balding
Patrick Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper
Back Story by David Mitchell
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
Who I Am by Pete Townshend
Camp David by David Walliams

Popular Fiction Book of the Year

1356 by Bernard Cornwell
The Thread by Victoria Hislop
The Rose Petal Beach by Dorothy Koomson
Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
Citadel by Kate Mosse
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

Crime Book of the Year

A Wanted Man by Lee Child
Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah
A Question of Identity by Susan Hill
The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
Perfect People by Peter James
Gods and Beasts by Denise Mina

The 2013 IMPAC Longlist

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its longlist that includes 154 novels published in English in 2011. I guess the picture above gives you an idea for whose book I'd voting for if I had the chance. But since I don't I've decided to give you the links to the reviews I've written about some of the books that are on the list. Click on the titles to read them.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. Buy here.
The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi-Adler Olsen. Buy here.
On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry. Buy here. My second favorite of last year but just as good as the first.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. Buy here.
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. Buy here. A good book but a badly written review, I have to admit.

Books that I have read but did not have the time to review in English. If you speak Greek you can look them up at my other blog:
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar.
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje.

If you want to see the full list click here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: Never Coming Back by Hans Koppel

Never Coming Back is a story about cruelty and sin, redemption and revenge, and it’s one of the darkest novels I’ve ever read.

Hans Koppel doesn’t hold anything back in this story, in which he depicts a far from perfect world; a world where young people torture their schoolmates and where some other people need to take the law into their own hands to deliver justice. But do two wrongs make one right?

The moral dilemmas in this novel are aplenty, and its characters are nothing but innocent. It doesn’t matter if they are good at heart or not. It doesn’t matter if they are the victims of their own weaknesses, and yes, it doesn’t matter if they’ve regretted their past actions. What matters is that they did something wrong, and, sooner or later, they’ll have to pay for it.

But even those of them who have no dark secrets to hide seem quite unhappy, living desperate lives, struggling to survive in a world that they really don’t like.

“Look at me: unmarried, no children, a reporter for a weekly. I do saccharine interviews with washed-up TV celebrities and village eccentrics, write racy short stories about young women at their peak, twenty-seven years old. Short stories are read by women who are seventy-two. Same numbers, just inverted. I have no ambitions, no prospects. My only luxury in life is ice-cream in summer, a beer in the pub and sometimes, when the urge takes me, a trip to the cinema in the middle of the week.”

And this is one of the characters that, with difficulties or not, lives a quite straight-forward life. His ups and downs are all the same, repeated time and again, unlike those concerning some of the other people in this story; people like Ylva, who’s just been kidnapped by a sadistic couple and held hostage in the basement of a house, just across the street from her own, and like Mike, her husband, a man who doesn’t really love her, but is afraid to admit it, even to himself.

The complexity of their relationship is one of the most important elements in this story. Ylva is the strong one, the one who sets the rules, and Mike is the guy who just goes along, following in her footsteps, rather than walking by her. Her abduction comes as a shock to him, even though for some time he thinks that she’d just run away with another man. But no, he says, no, she would never abandon Sanna, their eight year old daughter.

So in here we have three victims, but we have three villains as well, since Ylva’s act is a double one: the couple who took her, did it in order to avenge something she did more than twenty years ago; something that have changed their lives forever.

The author asks big questions the answers to which are nothing but simple, and, as it usually is the case with Swedish writers, he thrashes to pieces the notion of an ideal world that foreigners have for his country. He makes a joke out of the cops, he has a good go at the press, he reflects on the xenophobia and he brings to light the darkness that lurks in the hearts of even the most respectable people.

Never Coming Back is a novel that’s easy to read but not so easy to stomach. There’s too much violence in here but there’s too much truth as well. This is not a perfect world, people are no angels, and it’s an author’s duty to point that out. And Koppel does that in a great way, delivering to us an intense and gripping novel that’s well worth reading by every crime fiction aficionado, or even from anyone who just wants to forget about the princesses of the past and the modern day fairytales and take a look at the dark side of life.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Review: The Scroll by Anne Perry

The Scroll that comes out today, is an eBook short mystery that’s full of intrigue, big questions and quite a bit of personal drama.

It all begins when Monty Danforth, a man who works in an antiquarian shop in Cambridge, starts unpacking and cataloguing the books delivered to him in crates by the Greville estate. Among the things that he uncovers is a mysterious scroll that seems to be written in Hebrew.

At first he doesn’t seem to know what to make of it since he can’t understand a word of the language it is written in but apparently someone else does, since before too long an old man, who claims to be a collector, arrives accompanied by a young girl. The man offers to buy the scroll straight away but Mr. Danforth refuses to grant him his wish, since he wants to have it evaluated first.

The visitors depart, promising to come back at a later time, but not before warning him that the scroll could prove to be quite dangerous because of its contents. What did they mean by that?

“Ha had always had a weird imagination, a sensitivity to the presence of evil. He told the most excellent ghost stories to the great entertainment of his friends. He was known for it, even loved. People liked to be given a frisson of fear, just enough to get the adrenalin going.”

Well, now he feels that kind of fear taking abode in his very soul, and he doesn’t know how to appease it. He knows that he needs to solve the mystery surrounding the scroll but would that prove enough?

In the end he has no choice so he decides to ask for the help of his good friend, Hank Savage, a pragmatic scientist, thus someone who doesn’t share his beliefs of the supernatural. Hank will offer him a helping hand but just by pointing out that the text on the scroll is written in Aramaic and not in Hebrew. Apart from that he can’t tell anything much since he only understands a few words of that long lost language.

So, where is he supposed to turn to now? That would be the million dollar question if two new ones didn’t arise in a brief period of time: Why are the church and a scholar of sorts interested in the scroll? And how did they, just like the old man, come to know about it?

As the story moves on the mystery deepens and the end comes with a bang that may solve a part of the riddle but gives birth to new questions in the mind of the reader.

Anne Perry delivers a well-written story, with a great plot and a few fascinating characters that drive the narrative from peak to peak. If you love mysteries you will love this short foray into the genre.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Review: The Safe Man by Michael Connelly

If you’d like a couple of thrills and chills, you can get them through The Safe Man, this ghost story that just came out as an eBook short.

It all begins when a certain Brian Holloway is summoned at a house on Shell Island to open a safe, that came along with the house, built in 1929, which used to belong to a rich industrialist. He’s welcomed there by the unlikeable new owner of the property, an author that goes by the name of Paul Robinette.

Robinette wants Holloway not only to open the safe but also remove it, since he believes it could prove dangerous for him and his daughter; someone could break in to open it and thus put their lives in danger.

Holloway doesn’t quite follow the man’s logic, but he has a job to do, so he gets on with it. Opening the safe though will not prove so easy since it seems to be the one and only of its kind. It’s so rare actually that almost no one in the profession knows anything about it.

Anyway, after a lot of effort he manages to drill a hole in, and uses a scope to look inside in order to get an idea of what he needs to do next. But when he does that he sees for a fleeting moment something, like a shadow, inside that gives him the chills. When he finally manages to open it though, he finds it empty.

Did he really see something, or was it but a figment of his imagination? Oh well, he was asked to do a job and he did it. But why is he still so preoccupied with what happened? And why does he keep thinking about the girl that appeared by his side in the room while he was working?

He has a very bad feeling about the whole thing and when he hears from a man in Canada who knows the history of the safe that feeling turns into fear. Before he can do anything to appease it though, something else happens; something extremely bad: Robinette’s daughter goes missing and he’s the prime suspect, since his father was a big time criminal, and the cops think that the apple may not have fallen that far away from the tree.

So from the one moment to the next he finds himself cornered and his life falling apart. Is there anything he can do to avoid the oncoming disaster? Was what the man from Canada told him indeed the truth? Did he open that safe door only to let out a curse that would come to haunt his life?

There are so many questions, and if you are interested in finding the answers, the only thing you need to do is read this well-written story.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin is a masterpiece. Honestly I could sum up this review by using just these two words. If there was a book that made me feel lucky to be alive in order to read it, in 2011 was Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side. And after that came Please Look after Mom by Kyung-sook Shin – I mean chronologically, not quality wise, they are both superb. This is one of those books that are so full of grace that they take the reader’s breath away; not only for their plot, but mostly because of their prose; a prose that’s lyrical, dream-like, poetic, that sounds nostalgic and melancholic at the same time.

It all begins when an elderly woman called Park So-nyo vanishes into thin air while at the Seoul train station. She had just arrived there with her husband and they were supposed to board the Metro to visit one of their children. He made it onto the train, she didn’t, and by the time he realized she wasn’t there and went back to the station to find her, it was already too late, she had disappeared. What happened to her? Why did she do that to him? To them? Did she just get lost or…?

Well, there’s no one who can answer these questions, so the only thing we can do, is follow the story as told by an anonymous narrator. In its epicenter, as one would expect, is the woman and her husband, but two of their five children as well. They all felt guilty for what happened to her, and they were right to do so, since they’ve spent their entire lives taking her for granted, as an unmovable presence in their reality who would remain there forever.

It is through the memories of the two children that we get to know her better. And it is exactly through the same procedure that they, the son and the daughter, come to realize that that ordinary, illiterate woman had given them everything they ever needed, that in essence she sacrificed her life for their future/present happiness. It was for them that she went on living with a drunk, unfaithful and unworthy man, and it was for their sakes that she sold the only thing she ever owned. I have lived in darkness, without a spark of light, my entire life, she says. She was illiterate; that’s what she meant by the word darkness. That was her secret, the most important one, but not the only one.

As the story progresses and we get to know her better she surprises us all the more, since later rather than sooner we come to understand that Ordinary is not exactly the word one would use to describe this woman, unless he added an extra before. She was a strong woman, solid as a rock; a woman full of courage and with a big heart, who once didn’t hesitate to help a poor man who was trying to steal her children’s food. And she did that just because he was poorer than her. She had little but she knew how to count her blessings, and you can’t say that for a lot of people.

But her philanthropy, her humanity was not exhausted in that simple act. She used to feed some of the neighborhood’s kids as well, and use the free time she definitely didn’t have to help out in the everyday chores of an orphanage she helped built, or which rather she created out of thin air herself. No one seemed to have paid her any respect for that; no one; until now, that she’s just like a being who most likely once existed in a dream.

The author doesn’t only offer the reader an amazing story but she also manages to speak directly to his soul. Wake up, she seems to say to him, and take a good look at life and the people that surround you. Recognize who you are and to whom you owe that.

Park So-nyo’s story could be the story of every good mother. However Kyung-sook Shin’s book is unlike any other. It is so deeply humane, it sounds so utterly true, that does not only touch the soul but also helps it open its wings to the world out there and to the people; the real people; the most important ones. There’s some melancholy here but despite the subject matter it’s a sweet one; just like its heroine.

This is one of the best novels that I’ve read during the last decade or so; no wonder that it won the Man Asian Literary Prize. I do wonder though why it didn’t get the attention it deserves from the press in the west. Is it because Shin is not Murakami? Or is it simply because our western arrogance doesn’t allow us to recognize a gem when we see one? Well, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the book; this extraordinary work of art, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.