Sunday, January 31, 2016

#5: The Square of Revenge by Pieter Aspe

The quirky, hard-drinking cops of Bruges are on a strange case that seems to point towards the Knights Templar in Pieter Aspe's enjoyable crime romp The Square of Revenge.

This is the first of Aspe's books to be translated into English, and he is apparently already a big hit in his native Belgium.  I can see him having a successful run here, between descriptions of life in a beautiful medieval city and an unusual crime story (that begins with crooks melting all the gold at a jewelry store and ends with kidnappers proposing a bonfire of priceless paintings).

The story wraps up on a somewhat serious note, involving deep family secrets, but the colorfully-drawn characters really carry the day.  I will look for more work from Aspe.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

#4: The Intruder by Hakan Ostlundh

A photographer brings his family to a remote farm on the Swedish island of Gotland, hoping for a fresh start, but trouble finds them anyway in Hakan Ostlundh's The Intruder.

In winter, my mind turns to Scandinavian mysteries, and this one has all of the hallmarks; a little morose, with frightening violence, and a plot that focuses more on emotional drama than the crime at hand.

Here the photographer has quite a few secrets, both in his family history and in his marriage, as does the lead police detective, who is just coming back to the force after a serious injury.  He has been given a strange but rather mild case that starts with somebody trashing a vacation rental, but quickly escalates from there.

Ostlundh has written a solidly gloomy little thriller that I enjoyed more for its exploration of relationships than for the mystery.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond Indiana.

Monday, January 18, 2016

#3: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Three young men make a blood pact; later one becomes part of the VietCong, another is part of the South Vietnamese army, and the third--our protagonist--lives somewhere in between in Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel The Sympathizer.

This is a great debut novel, written on a broad, panoramic stage but full of wry human insights about relationships. 

The novel opens with the fall of VietNam in 1975, and two of the young men narrowly escaping to America on one of the last planes out (with the help of a shadowy friend from the CIA).  After our protagonist makes a memorable visit to a movie set as an advisor--think a coded version of "Apocalypse Now"--the seeds of a dramatic return begin to form in his friend.

Both are alienated from America in ways that are both funny and terrible, and volunteer for a suicidal mission to start a new rebellion against the Communists.  The latter part of the book details their misadventures, topped with a harrowing final coda.

The Sympathizer is just a really fine, literate novel showcasing an interesting part of world history, from a different perspective than what we might typically read in the States.  I will definitely look for Viet Thanh Nguyen's follow-up work.

I was given this book by my daughter for Christmas and read it quickly.  Recommended.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

#2: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

Two soldiers and lovers--born with extraordinary, hidden powers--are part of a caravan attacked by a supernatural beast, and soon pledge to end its reign of terror in Kai Ashante Wilson's genre-bending fantasy The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.

This brief plot summary does not do this slender volume justice, as it is packed with ideas; at one hand the novel has literary overtones--complete with footnotes--on the other it is a brawling adventure/fantasy, with undercurrents of far-future science fiction.  It is a crazy mind-meld of Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, and Samuel R. Delany, with a soundtrack by NWA.  If any or all of these artists appeal to you, this is your next read.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a very fresh slice of fantasy for those fans looking for contemporary takes on an old genre.  Recommended for fans.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana, and read it quickly.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

#1: Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

A young orphan in a war-torn African country is conscripted into a ragtag rebel group by a charismatic leader, and sees the horrors of war all too soon, in Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation.

Iweala creates a fully-formed protagonist whose thoughts and fantasies are often at odds with an almost journalistic attention to the grim realities of battle.His novel is a worthwhile look at the issue of child soldiers, but its harrowing depictions of murder, rape, and child molesting make the novel not for all tastes.

This books kicks off my year of reading only authors of color and authors in translation, and was a good start.  I received this in paperback from my wife for Christmas and read it quickly over break.

Recommended to those interest in the subject and able to withstand strong subject matter.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Favorite Reads of 2015

After doing the 50 books a year reading challenge for a number of years now, I thought I would change it up this time and read only books by women authors.  This challenge initially came from my wife, who felt--rightfully so--that I wasn't reading enough women.

This turned out to be a great thing, as not only did it energize my reading--I exceeded 50 books this year, which I had not been able to do for a while--but it also forced me to find authors I might have passed over before, several of whom I enjoyed immensely and will look for more from.

I think it made me a better reader, and I hope a better writer.  It was such a good thing that in 2016 I am going to take on another challenge a friend put before me, which was to read only authors of color for one year.  I think I will expand this challenge a bit and also include authors in translation.  I'm curious to see what I will find in 2016.

But before that, here is a look back to 2015, and my favorite reads.  Instead of doing a Top Ten, as this was a special challenge I decided to make it an even dozen.  Curiously, there are three dystopian novels and three Eastern European stories.  I would consider five science fiction, two thrillers, and one lone western.  An interesting mix:

1.  Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

2.  Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

3.  The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

4.  The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell

5.  Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

6.  Innocence by Heda Margolius Kovaly

7.  Girl at War by Sara Novic

8.  When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

9.  Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg

10.  White Crocodile by KT Medina

11.  Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

12.  The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Happy Reading!