Cocky author writes a book #cbr6

The book is hard to write about without giving away some of the plot. Because that is the main attraction of the book, I’ll try not to reveal much. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was written by Joël Dicker, a Swiss writer, and won the 2012 Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise. The French apparently LOVE this book. I thought it was fine when reading, but after a week of thinking about it … well…9780143126683_custom-eefd5935dbbad9ac94e138162eb68bde28d24bcb-s6-c30

Two stories are interwoven throughout the book. The first is a young successful author’s attempt to write his second great novel. While he’s trying to write and consistently failing he visits an old college professor and friend in a small New England town to help him “find his story”. In the meantime, his friend becomes the primary suspect in a decades old murder after a young woman’s bones are found in his yard (they are found while digging up an area for some bushes, which made me wonder how far you have to dig in the ground for bushes, but whatever). This brings in the second story of the the fifteen year old girl’s disappearance and, surprise!, her statutory rape-tinged romance with the author’s friend (hello, pedobear!). The author decides to help his former professor, because obviously he isn’t guilty if he was in love with the 15 year old, and in the process ends up writing his next great novel based on the case.

The book is definitely a decent mystery with a thousand twists and turns in the plot. The twists aren’t that hard to see coming though, and you realize that basically everyone in this small New England town is guilty of something, everything. It reminded me so much of some film or TV show I’ve seen where basically everyone ends up trying to kill a guy who is already dead (If you can think of what the show is, let me know). There are actual clues to what is happening in the story, which is kind of clever, but made me think I was making up a different story in my head while I was reading (keep a close eye on the mother).

In the US its translation has been getting mixed reviews. On Goodreads people seem to either LOVE IT or HATE IT. Admittedly, there were two things about this book I started to hate. First he begins his chapters with cliched writing advice (from the professor to the author), most of which sounds like it came from the pages of The Artist’s Way (writing is like boxing and more blah, blah, blah). Also, for whatever reason Dicker sets the novel during the 2008 Presidential primaries. I can’t really understand why except that he wants characters to spout off random inane political comments. Purpose? Maybe to show that this is a truly American novel. Or to make it more realistic? I did hear a lot of inane political commentary in that period. Anyway, it just seems misplaced and a waste of words.

But in the end, I thought the book was fine. Despite the main character’s over the top confidence in his abilities and tendency to mansplain to everyone (even male cops), I enjoyed the story. It is a good page-turner, but at the end of the day so are Dan Brown’s books (which is why I curse myself the entire time I’m greedily reading those dumb dumb books). And at least Dan Brown doesn’t have the pretension of being, you know, award-winning literature.

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Books! When Germany waited and a man fell from a mountain #cbr5

I tend to read books in pairs. I get restless with one so I need something different to switch my focus. I thought it might be fun to write about the two I just finished even though I can’t find much in common between them. The two from this week are dissimilar on so many levels.

I just finished In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I enjoyed Larson’s Devil in the White City quite a bit, so I was excited to see a new book from him. I read a few negative and lukewarm reviews but considering it was Larson I thought it had to be good. He’s a great writer! Well, I was wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me, Larson’s writing is a pleasure to read. The problem is the subject matter. Larson is focusing all of his excellent writing ability on an American family that moves to Germany after the father becomes the first American ambassador in Hitler’s world. They arrive in the mid-1930s, right when things start going downhill. This is a great set up, right?! But what happens? Not a darn thing. They go to parties. They drive around. The daughter has sex with everyone and supposedly (maybe, not really) becomes a potential Russian spy (we think). The father pines for his farm and his unwritten masterpiece on the Old South. To his credit, he tries to warn the US that something is going to happen, but is ignored. The mother perseveres in the face of the stupidity around her and then dies. A cast of German (to be) killers passes in front of us looking like a bunch of clowns and buffoons for the most part. Basically it is the chronicle of when Germany waited…and waited…for something to happen.

There are moments when it becomes more exciting. The Night of the Long Knives is the most interesting part of the book. The problem is that this episode came after I had read through 2/3rds of the book. As my husband said, no one should have to wait that long before getting to something interesting. I kept with it because I like Larson. If I hadn’t read him before I might have given up like so many others. If you are really interested in Hitler’s Germany and REALLY want to know what the American ambassador was doing then (and who his daughter was doing), this is a book for you.

Sad to say, but I got so bored with this book that I kept picking up Sanctus by Simon Toyne. While I’m not a fan of religious conspiracy thrillers, I have read my share of them (cast offs from my mother and yes I will read most anything). I have to say this one is pretty good. In the story, a man throws himself off of a mountain monastery in an ancient city in Turkey and it goes live on television. Through some convoluted detective work they find his long lost sister in America who journeys to Turkey to find out what happened to her brother. She then becomes the central character in an attempt by the monastery to cover up everything (and basically kill off anyone involved). Ultimately the monks are covering up the true nature of the Sacrament inside the walls of the monastery, which if uncovered would change the world. Basically it is the set up for his next book in which the sister gains some bad-ass powers and stuff happens (haven’t read it yet).

In comparison to In the Garden, this one kept my attention. He has the Dan Brownesque style where each chapter is a ‘scene’ and drives the momentum of the reader. In contrast Toyne tends to make things up whereas Dan Brown “reinterprets” already existing reality. So, for example, the town in which all the action takes place is fictional and there are other elements created to suit his purpose. With the exception of a few groan-worthy moments (I won’t give them away), he does a pretty good job of inventing a mythology and keeping the reader invested in the action. If you like religious conspiracy action novels and are looking for a fun beach read, this is definitely one to find at your local public library.

I will leave you with this. As un-PC as this is, apparently there is a Hitler is bored video meme. I leave you with “Hitler and the bunker are really bored”. He must have read In the Garden.

Books! Wexford ain’t no Wallander #cbr4

It is so hard to write a review of a book I didn’t quite like. I’m still going strong for Cannonball Read though and should probably persevere. I picked up The Vault by Ruth Rendell randomly one day thinking it looked good from the cover and the jacket description. I know nothing about Ruth Rendell other than she writes popular mystery novels and is very British. From the sound of the descriptions her other novels might suit my tastes more (i.e., “dark and twisty”).

A rich, bratty couple renovating their fancy cottage in London discovers three bodies hidden in a small vault under their house. The “vault” is an unfinished basement that at some point was walled-over. Inspector Wexford is a retired detective who is asked to assist in figuring out this mystery. I was never entirely clear why he was involved as a civilian. Maybe because novelists seem to enjoy resurrecting their retired detectives for a final go. He helps by interviewing random people with minimal connections to the case and through his hard thinking and jaunts across London suddenly all becomes clear.

Wexford at one point describes his irritatingly immature daughter this way: “She made exasperation noises, sighs, and the kind of sound that accompanies the casting up of eyes.”  This could have easily described me as a reader unfortunately. Wexford uses strange leaps of logic to connect pieces of evidence that serve the goal of the book well (solve the mystery), but don’t ring true to this reader. For example, when they find a piece of paper with a French word and the name Francine they start looking for all the French-speaking women in London named Francine of a possible age range! Really?!? The London police have enough time on their hands to go after this random goose-chase, especially for people who have been dead for two or more years? At one point even Detective Superintendent Thomas Ede, the officer who reached out to Wexford, seems to tire of these random attempts to piece together a puzzle. In the end Wexford wins, but like his daughter, I just truly couldn’t care.

The only bright point for me was the description of London. Rendell goes to great lengths to describe the neighborhoods in which Wexford travels. A fan might find it fun to travel Wexford’s path.

Not my mystery novel. Might be yours. Check out Wallander first.

In the Shadows of the Greats II #cbr4

“Codes and symmetries are for those who think too much of thinking.”

In college I had to take one literature course to fulfill a pesky general education requirement and I meandered through a bunch before I finally landed in a Tolstoy class where we had to read War and Peace and Anna Karenina in one semester. Yeah, I keep it real. One of the classes I dropped was Introduction to Narrative course that I hated from day one because I had already read most of the works in high school. I wanted a class in which I would be exposed to new works! Yeah, I keep it real. The only thing I remember about the class was a small group discussion of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. I remember saying to the teacher that the whole story was a drug-induced metaphor and exclaiming “Why does this need to be discussed?!” Yeah, I was a bit of a brat.

So, I approached The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl’s second book with about that much knowledge (and concern) for Poe. I read his works in school, but never felt the need to care much. After reading this book, I would like to return to Poe’s Dupin stories. I almost wish I had just read the Dupin stories instead.

Our protagonist Quentin Clark comes from a respectable Baltimore family. After seeing Poe’s sparsely attended funeral, he throws away his legal practice and his fiancee to search for answers as to what killed Edgar Allen Poe. For some inexplicable reason he believes that he needs to find the inspiration for the character Dupin, a detective in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. He goes to Paris and brings back to Charm City a couple of Dupin-abees and a few random baddies. He then runs amok through Baltimore, freeing slaves, shocking polite society, and vacillating from one hero to the next.

I’m sorry if the above description doesn’t give you much clue to its contents. To be honest I finished this book wondering what the heck I had just read. My 18-year old self would have probably exclaimed “It’s about opium addition!” but the hubris of youth has left me. And maybe that is the point. The above quote is from a character who shares some likeness with the real Dupin (although he is most definitely not the real Dupin…maybe). His point is that we tend to look for the most fabulous explanations when the evidence is right in front of us (consider the orangutang in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). Throughout the book Clark is obsessed with solving the mystery of Poe’s death and in the process becomes fixated upon two potential hero figures who can, he thinks, make all clear. In the end the explanation is given and it is a simple and obvious explanation, but the whole escapade surrounding it is unbelievable.

And that for me is the fault of the book. The history is clear, the research is evident, but I can’t say that the story seems believable. Clark never resonates as a real person (although I have met people this indecisive before) and the back story seems implausible. I tried hard to like this, but I just couldn’t.

In the Shadows of the Greats #cbr4

Oh Cannonball Read I haven’t been keeping up with you. I’ve barely been able to read these two months. I finished The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl a while back and just finished The Poe Shadow today. Pearl’s The Last Dickens was one of my favorites of 2011, and I was able to hear him speak on our campus in March, so I decided to give these two a go. I loved The Dante Club. The Poe Shadow, discussed in the next post, was not a fave

Both are mystery novels at their hearts dressed up in Literature. The Dante Club follows four literary friends, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields, who with the assistance of a detective named Nicholas Rey try to solve murders that echo the descriptions in Dante’s Inferno. Because they are assisting Longfellow with his translation of the Inferno, they are very aware of how the murders match up to Dante’s depictions of hell.

On the Goodreads page I found it humorous how many people complained about the grisliness of the murders when 1) It is a murder mystery. Patricia Cornwell and her ilk get much worse, and 2) It is hell that is being depicted.

If you get squeamish over a few maggots in your mystery, this book is not for you. Overall the murders themselves were depicted well especially considering Pearl was trying to make imitations of Dante’s hell into believable murders.

The characters are the strongest part of the book. The story can be slow at time, but I was drawn in by the individual stories of the four men, particularly Oliver Wendell Holmes. His character has a vulnerability that is endearing. By the end I found myself caring if he died or not. It was also fun to see more of J. T. Fields (who makes an appearance in The Last Dickens). Longfellow is the only character who remains a bit aloof, but this may have been Pearl’s intention. I can only imagine that the one ultra famous character would be difficult to make flesh and blood.

This was definitely one of my favorite books so far in 2012. If you like mysteries with a twist of history, this is a great one to pick up.