Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Read this debut novel last year and recently re-read; it stands up to a second read. This is one of my favorite historical murder mysteries. Set in 1867 in the Northern Territory, a trapper named Laurent Jammett is murdered. 17-year-old Francis Ross disappears and becomes a suspect; his mother goes on a trek through the cruel snowy landscape to find him and discover the truth. Told in chapters that shift in point-of-view among Mrs. Ross, Francis, Andrew Knox, Elizabeth Bird, the story of the Jammett murder is only the first layer; behind it are other murders and kidnappings that put people where they are when the book begins. First line: "The last time I saw Laurent Jammett, he was in Scott's store with a dead wolf over his shoulder." A-.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES

Intense YA/crossover-to-adult book about Katniss Everdeen, a girl in a post-apocalyptic nation called Panem. When her sister is chosen to be the "girl" half of one of twelve boy-girl teams to fight the Hunger Games on national TV, 16-year-old Katniss volunteers to take her place. Together with Peeta, and chaperoned and guided by two adults, they must compete to survive. Chilling, suspenseful, dark, well-written ... I would say this is not a book for the 9-12 set, no matter how good a reader. This book strikes me as the YA version of Stieg Larsson's trilogy--Katniss, resourceful, angry, and tough is not far off Lisbeth Salander. Excellent read.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Very good debut novel, historical fiction. In 1918, at the end of WWI, a small lumber town in Washington state decides to quarantine itself from the Spanish Influenza, but a soldier comes, breaks the quarantine and is killed; then another solider apears. This is about how panic infects the town and why a quarantine fails. It's a dark book, about selfishness and cruelty and inhumanity under duress. Reminds me of Geraldine Brooks' YEAR OF WONDERS (plague, quarantine, 1666 England) in some ways.


Good medieval mystery set in 1171, England, with a woman medical examiner. Suspenseful, set in Cambridge, good period detail. I'd give it a B+.


Engrossing historical novel of WWII from an East German perspective, which is refreshing, because most WWII literature is either Holocaust literature or describes the war from the Western perspective. This book is told through four different perspectives, done well, with the changes in voice indicated by cues instead of labels. But it's heavy-handed in some of its criticism of the Nazis (via the voice of a Scottish POW), and puts up a bad straw-woman in the clueless East German mother who asks, wide-eyed, "They're Jews? Really? Those girls?" and "Why do people hate us?" It's based on a diary, so there is a good primary source. Engrossing and at times heart-rending.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black), CHRISTINE FALLS

Good crime fiction! It's 1950s Dublin, and a girl's corpse in the morgue leads Quirke (a pathologist) to discover a baby-donating/trading scandal in the Catholic Church. Aside from his propensity to use names that fit almost too neatly (Quirke is quirky and the bad brother in law is Malachy -- called Mal through most of the book and sporting a "smooth seal's head of oiled black hair, scrupulously combed and parted"--EW!), the writing is clean, the plot fast-paced, the secondary characters well-drawn. This is the first of a series, and I'm going to find the next.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mary Downing Hahn, HEAR THE WIND BLOW: A Novel of the Civil War

Middle-grade historical fiction, with some edge due to a near-rape (off-stage), murder, light cursing, all the ugliness attached to the end of the Civil War. Oddly, although there are plenty of events--a wounded soldier comes to their house in Virginia; he's found and killed and the Magruder family is burned out as punishment; the mother dies; the two kids ride off on a horse in search of their brother--I found the plot arc lacking. Likable enough characters, a brother and sister (securing both sides of middle-grade readership), but despite all the tragedy, and having many of the right "elements," I was not emotionally drawn to this story.


What can one say about this trilogy? My husband made the mistake of buying me the third installment (THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST) for our "get away" 20th anniversary weekend. The first night, I ignored him and hung out with Lisbeth for 8 straight hours, from about 7 pm till 3 am so I could finish the book. My husband and I still had 3 days, but he will never make that mistake again. And unless Stieg's girlfriend releases the 4th book from her computer, to the Larsson kids who no doubt are scratching for it, I may never again read so obsessively.
I found it interesting that when I googled Stieg Larsson, his name came up (of course) followed by "Stieg Larsson death." The books are certainly full of death, and violence, and gross unfairness ... plenty of twists and turns through corruption and unlawful acts ... followed by justice and redemption. I think the international psyche has responded to these books so strongly in part because this is a story of how the little guy (or--intriguingly--in this case, the little girl: Lisbeth Salander is only about five feet tall) gets tromped upon and survives, gets cut to pieces and survives, gets locked away by the Big Bad State, and manages to triumph ... and she does it largely by hacking computers instead of hacking bodies (although she does that, too, on occasion, to those who really deserve it.)
Great reads, all three.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Good realistic YA. Virginia Shreves (named for V Woolf), has an older brother whom everyone holds up as a paragon of virtue ... until he date rapes someone at Columbia University. The mother in this book is perhaps too sharply drawn as the psychiatrist mother who has no idea what's going on with her own kids; but Virginia's struggles to put dieting aside as a substitute for living and her fears about dating and losing friends who move away are drawn with a deft hand. Good for the 13+ crowd.


A great middle-grade/YA series; I've read the first seven (THE RUINS OF GORLAN, THE BURNING BRIDGE, THE ICEBOUND LAND, THE BATTLE FOR SKANDIA, THE SORCERER OF THE NORTH, THE SIEGE OF MACINDAW, ERAK'S RANSOM). There's a male protagonist but my 10-year-old daughter and I are reading them together and she loves them. The boy Will (an orphan, of course, with two friends, a la Potter: a girl and a boy) is chosen to be a Ranger's apprentice--the rangers being the spies for a quasi-fantastical kingdom that sounds a lot like England. (For example, one of the tribes in the outlying areas is the "Scottis," whose leader is Mac-something or other.) Like the Harry Potter series, the first book is more middle-grade; later ones have darker themes and a bit more swearing and love-interest. But well-written, good vocabulary, fast pacing. For those who liked Harry Potter and Riordan's Percy Jackson series, this is a good fit.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Great read. A suspenseful detective/murder mystery set in sloppy, sordid, early 20th-century London. It's partly about Sherlock Holmes (for fans of Conan Doyle)--but this tale is told from the perspective of his gutsy, brilliant wife Mary Russell whose plot runs independently of his. Plenty of twists, well-drawn characters, engaging, lively writing. This is the first of King's novels that I've read--she's written quite a few, ten of which are these Mary Russell mysteries--but I will hunt down others.
First lines:
A child is a burden, after a mile.
After two miles in the cold sea air, stumbling through the night up the side of a hill and down again ... having already put on eight miles that night--half of it carrying a man on a stretcher--even a small, drowsy three-and-a-half-year-old becomes a strain.