Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Fire by Katherine Neville

In The Fire, the long awaited sequel to The Eight, Katherine Neville tells the tale of the Montglane Service, a chess set that once belonged to Charlemagne. It's rumoured to have special powers and for centuries people have sought to possess it. Switching back and forth between present day (2003) and the 1800s, this novel offers a story within a story. After the French Revolution, the chess set rears its head in Albania and Haidee's father enlists her to embark on a journey to save it. Skip to present day. Thirty years ago, the chess set was scattered around the world and was buried. Recently it's surfaced again and the hunt for its powers have resumed with a whole new set of players.

This sensational thriller with intricate puzzles and conspiracies was fun to read. It was not only entertaining, but it was also informative. The story line contained a little something for everyone: history, romance, mystery, puzzle-solving and strategy. I love it when authors combine fictional characters with real life famous people. In this book, Neville includes Lord Byron, Napoleon, Napoleon's mother, Percy Shelley, Isaac Newton and others. Some readers might attempt to draw some comparisons between this novel and The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. In my opinion this novel is far superior in almost every way. Better writing, better storyline and better characters.

While I really enjoyed the story, I found the whole "Game" aspect confusing. There were many references to the "Game" and the players, but I couldn't quite figure it out. I kept looking for some rules or explanation on game play, but I had a hard time deciphering any from the story. Perhaps it would have been clearer had I first read The Eight. The parts set in the 1800s also gave me a little trouble. I got lost more than once and stumbled with the Middle Eastern and European names and places. Some pieces of the plot in that time period were convoluted and hard to follow. It didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book, though.

My husband is the chess player in this family. I know how the pieces move, but don't have the patience to learn strategy and I just don't get the whole war/battle aspect. I do, however, find it fascinating. I've read a few other novels featuring chess and have enjoyed each one.

This novel undoubtedly required massive amounts of research on so many varying subjects. That fact is not only verified by the intricate details in the story, but also by the "Acknowledgements" section at the back of the book which ranges from "Albania" to "Volcanoes and Geysers" and much, much more. Very well done.

I think I might track down and read The Eight and then go back to this book to see if I can get a better understanding of the parts I found confusing. For now, the book is going back to the shelf.

Recommended for mystery, chess and history lovers as well as fans of The Eight. I'd also recommend it for book clubs. There's lots of symbolism and themes running through the book that should keep discussions going for hours.

Broken by Daniel Clay

At the beginning of Broken, Skunk Cunningham, an eleven-year-old girl, speaks to us from her hospital bed. She's in a coma. Through the rest of the book, we learn of her life before the coma and how she got this way. It's a story about innocence, love, betrayal, mental health, bullying and living through it all.

I absolutely loved this book. I really can't say that enough. The storyline was superb, compelling, heartbreaking and at times surreal. That isn't to say it wasn't believable because it was...mostly, anyway. There was just so much going on, it seemed bizarre that so much could happen to these people in such a short time. Even so, I couldn't help but feel sorry for some of these characters. Amidst the anger, pain and horror there are moments of hopefulness, innocence and humour.

Clay's novel is filled with unique and outrageous characters. The most notable are: Bob Oswald and his out-of-control gang of girls who's names all start with 's'; Broken Buckley, who is slowly driven to madness; Mr. Jeffries, Skunk's teacher, who should be on the verge of a breakdown after all that happens to him; Skunk herself, who's innocence is in jeopardy, and a host of other characters who round out this cast of misfits. Out of all of them, I think Skunk (who names their kid Skunk?) was my favourite with poor Broken a close second. Bob Oswald and his children scared me. I didn't get beat up in school, but I do remember a few bullies. These girls are beyond that. With the exception of the little ones, this family terrorised and basically took this neighbourhood hostage. I'm hoping that this family is a gross exaggeration and that a family like this really doesn't exist. However, I fear that I'm wrong. As horrible as this family is, some of the characters are inexplicably drawn to them which ultimately leads to their "brokenness".

Clay's writing is straightforward and easy to read. I loved his matter of fact style and the sections where he outlined the story in a "bullet" or list fashion. Unique and effective. Usually books without chapters give me a hard time. Not so with this one. I devoured this book in just a few sittings and did not want to put it down. It fascinated me, entertained me, made me laugh and scared the hell out of me.

I liked that the story started and ended with Skunk's narrative in the first person. It then switched to a third person to tell the rest of the story with Skunk occasionally interjecting her commentary. It reminded me that she was still there in her coma slowly revealing the story for us.

I think one could make the case that almost everyone in this book is "broken" in some sense. The Oswalds, Broken, Broken's family, Cerys, Mr. Jeffries, and finally Skunk herself.

Awesome first novel. I'd definitely read another book by Mr. Clay.

Highly recommended.

This review copy was provided by the publisher through the wonderful people at Edwards Magazine.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

In When Will There Be Good News, Dr. Joanna Hunter, who witnessed her family's brutal murder thirty years ago, is now missing along with her child. Her family's killer, Andrew Decker, has just been released after serving his time and the police expect him to hunt her down to "finish the job". Is he the reason she's missing? Her baby's nanny, Reggie, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe and ultimately a former private detective, Jackson Brodie are all on the case, but mostly working independently, to find her and her missing child.

Atkinson presents a beautifully written, fantastic mystery with plenty of twists and memorable characters. I really enjoyed it. It was substantial, suspenseful, compelling and exciting. I found it really hard to put down once I started reading it. I particularly liked her writing style with the little asides (adages, lines from nursery rhymes etc.) inserted into the story. A few times I had to stop and figure out where I'd heard that line before. I also found her non-linear storyline to be a fresh and unique approach to laying out the story for the reader. It definitely added to the suspense in this mystery.

Atkinson's characters were believable and appealing. There wasn't one that I didn't like. Her characters had overlapping connections to each other and intriguing backgrounds to support the story.
I was particularly drawn towards Reggie, the tenacious teenage nanny of Dr. Hunter. She refused to give up on Dr. Hunter and did her best to find her and convince others that they should be looking, too. I also enjoyed reading about Jackson Brodie, the former private investigator. Anything I say about him at this point, will likely give the story away. So I'll just say that I'd love to read more about him.

The near misses and intersecting lives left me wondering how it was going to all come together. I won't give the ending away, but the author does a great up in tidying up the loose ends and gives the reader a hugely satisfying conclusion.

This is the first book I read by Atkinson, but it won't be my last. I have more of her books on my bookshelf that I haven't gotten around to reading yet. Now, I'm anxious to jump right in. I'm definitely looking forward to reading Case Histories and One Good Turn both of which feature Jackson Brodie.

Highly recommended.

This book review is also available on Edwards Magazine.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Her Last Death: A Memoir by Susanna Sonnenberg

In Her Last Death, Susanna Sonnenberg is being summoned to her mother's deathbed. Many people would drop everything and go. However, she's very reluctant. Through the rest of the book, we find out why. Starting with her childhood in which she was hobnobbing with celebrities and being exposed to drugs, sex and other things she was too young for, to her adulthood in which she'd never know how her mother would react to things or if she was telling the truth, Sonnenburg lays it out for us in her extremely interesting and well written memoir.

I really enjoyed this book. Her writing is compelling; her story is thought-provoking. I sometimes have trouble reading memoirs, especially when it comes to the memories of childhood. We all know that children see the world differently probably because of their limited life experiences. Often what they see as a gross injustice turns out to be a life lesson. I didn't have that problem here. Sonnenberg's memories are consistent throughout her story in that her mother was loving and caring one minute and irrational and bizarre the next.

Susanna's mother, Daphne, didn't set boundaries for her children, exposed them to all kinds of adult things, lied to them repeatedly and, in my opinion, robbed them of their childhood. Whether her judgement was clouded because drug use (prescription and recreational) or mental illness (my opinion), her erratic behaviour was inexcusable. Because she was a chronic and compulsive liar, her family was unable to tell if she was telling the truth at any time. I can understand Susanna's reluctance to run to her mother's deathbed.

Because of her upbringing, Susanna was spiralling downward in her life and used sex as a way to cope. She's to be commended for pulling herself out and straightening herself up. She had enough sense to know when enough was enough when it came to her mother.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Paris Enigma by Pablo De Santis

It's 1889. The Eiffel Tower is just about complete and the Paris World's Fair is set to begin. The Twelve Detectives, an elite group of crime investigators, is preparing to meet for the first time at the fair. They will be presenting a display of their craft to the world. When one of them becomes ill, he decides to send his assistant, acolyte as they call him, in his place. His name is Sigmundo Salvatrio and used to work with his father in the family shoe store. That is, until he become a student of Renaldo Craig, the founding member of the Twelve Detectives. Now, he carries with him Craig's cane, for the exhibit and a secret message for Arzaky, another one of the detectives. The detectives and acolytes are called into action when a series of murders takes place.

The Paris Enigma is a fantastic mystery from Argentinean author, Pablo De Santis. It's wonderfully written, filled with great characters and is a joy to read. There was a mystical,
whimsical, philosophical and fantasy-like aspect to the whole book that I quite enjoyed. Not like any other mystery I've read. The fact that it was written from the point of view of one of the acolytes rather than one of the detectives, made the story appealing, since the acolytes were supposed to take a back seat to the detectives. Some of the detectives didn't even talk to their assistants.

I admit it was a little hard to keep track of all of the detectives and acolytes and I sometimes got them mixed up. I also had some trouble remembering which acolyte belonged to which detective. It wasn't all that bad, though, and certainly didn't get in the way of my enjoyment of the book.

De Santis's writing is superb. There were many times I put down the book to record a favourite quote or passage. I've included three here. They might not make sense out of context, but I wanted to make note of them.

From page 189:
Everyone knew that the important stuff was what was said in the corners, not in the center of the room.

From page 193:
The first audience members leave the theater chatting and laughing, eager to abandon the world of fiction and reenter the real, where they fell at home. The last ones to leave, on the other hand, have to be forced out by the ushers or the lights going up or the silence that follows the applause. If it were up to them, they would remain there in the imaginary world the performance offers them. These last stragglers came out without saying a word, grieving over having to abandon the Mermaid's island. They didn't know their place in the world outside; in the real life the seats aren't numbered.

From page 205:
Science no longer strives to collect answers, but rather to obliterate the questions.

I'd definitely read another book by this author.

Highly recommended.

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

Set during the American Civil War, Sweetsmoke follows the life of Cassius, a slave on a tobacco plantation owned by Hoke Howard. The book is part historical fiction about the lives of slaves and part mystery in which Cassius plays detective to solve a murder of his friend, Emoline Justice. She not only nursed Cassius back to health, but she also taught him to read. Cassius is also different from the other slaves in that he has a special relationship with Hoke. This gives him a little more freedom to investigate Emoline's death.

In his first novel, Fuller presents a wonderfully written and thoroughly researched account of life on a tobacco plantation. We get to see the brutal treatment of the slaves and the deplorable living conditions in which the slaves live. We also get to see the relationships that are formed between the slaves, supervisors and owners. Two relationships were particularly interesting: the one between Hoke and Cassius because it's unlike the other slaves and gives Cassius more freedoms; the other between Cassius and Quashee because through all of the indignities, pain and suffering, their relationship was on the verge of blossoming and their spirits were not broken.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and especially liked the ending. However, I thought that the mystery part of the novel was a little weak in places and I would have liked to see it make a stronger presence and filled out a little more. However, Cassius's detective skills pick up considerably towards the end of the book, which added to my enjoyment of the conclusion. Because Cassius keeps his reading abilities secret, it allows him a certain advantage many times throughout the book especially when trying to solve the murder. His literacy and his freedoms made the detective angle to the story possible and plausible. It's a fascinating way to present historical material. In this ARC copy, the publishers included an interview with the author in which he explains more about how and why he wrote the book this way. It's well worth the read.

I thought the author made an interesting choice not to use quotes or proper punctuation around the words that the slaves spoke in the novel. It could have made it hard to read, but it didn't. It certainly set apart their words from the others. I could guess at why he did this, but I'd really like to hear the author's explanation for doing so.

David Fuller is a screenwriter with an interest in African American history.

I hope Fuller writes another book. I'd read it. Recommended.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

***Slight spoilers included***

Downtown Owl follows three residents of Owl, a small town in North Dakota, through roughly 5 months of their lives. There's Mitch, the high school football player; Julia, a new teacher in town; and Horace, the old man who meets his buddies for coffee. With just a few exceptions, each of the chapters is written from the viewpoint of one of these characters.

Awesome book! I loved it. Klosterman's writing is straight forward and easy to read. His characters and insight into these characters is amazing. We get to know them intimately and through them we get to know the other people in town. I loved that the three main characters do not interact, in fact they have nothing to do with each other. They live separate lives and are only brought together because they live in the same town. Otherwise, their stories would be standalone. That is, until their fates collide on one fateful day; February 4, 1984. Even then they don't interact. I haven't lived in a small town (I'm a city girl), but it wouldn't surprise me if these people really did exist in small town USA or Canada for that matter. They were so believable.

My favourite chapters included: November 22, 1983 (Julia) where Julia and Vance have a conversation in the bar and the author includes what they are thinking in the dialogue; and January 5, 1984 (Mitch) in Mitch is taking a test on the novel 1984 by George Orwell but is clearly thinking of other things. I also really liked the chapter where we learn what happened to Horace's wife. That chapter was disturbing, especially the ending. I sometimes have trouble sleeping and let's just say this chapter didn't help me with that.

While the ending shouldn't have been too much of a surprise, it was. I guess I was so caught up in the story and the characters, that I forgot about the newspaper article at the beginning of the book.

I generally don't read books that deeply nor do I try to analyze them after I finish reading them. Having said that, I'm sure there are plenty of themes running through the book that book clubs could discuss.

Highly recommend. I'd definitely read another book by Klosterman.