Saturday, August 24, 2013

THE PHANTOM by Jo Nesbo (fic)

Once again I compulsively read into the wee hours of the morning, unable to put down Jo Nesbo's latest and ninth Harry Hole thriller. As the other books in this series, The Phantom is well over 400 pages long, so it was several nights worth of tense reading.  It is a wonder that the suspense created by the writer allowed me to fall asleep, but what dreams I had, I cannot say.

As I mentioned in reviewing The Leopard, this is not the book to begin with if you haven't read any Nesbo.  Especially don't begin with this book which has a number of reoccurring characters.  You might begin with The Redbreast  or The Snowman, which I understand is being made into a film by Martin Scorsese, something to look forward to. 

Once again in Phantom we meet up with the apt named Harry Hole (in Norwegian pronounced Holer). As in Leopard, he is living in Hong Kong.  It has been three years since he has been in Norway and seen Rakel, the woman he has always loved.  Returning now to Oslo, we find him in tough shape sporting a variety of battle scars and bunking in a seedy hotel in a district filled with junkies and pushers. He is no longer a member of the police force, but still maintains a good number of contacts in Kripos.  Most of the book takes place in this vicious underworld ruled by drug kings, with names like Dubai, battling for dominance in the trade.  Harry has returned to help free Rakel's son, Oleg who is in prison, accused of murdering a lowlife character named Gusto.  Oleg, whom Harry has always treated like a son, is now 18 and heavily involved in the drug culture.  He and Gusto were mixed up with buying and selling a potent new synthetic drug called "violin" which is more powerful than heroin. While Harry's personal life seems to be falling apart and his own addictions fight to take a hold of him, he never loses his desire to be a good cop.

Phantom is not as well written as a couple of Nesbo's earlier books, but is just as addictive and full of action that would kill a lesser mortal than Harry Hole many times over.  Nesbo, a former footballer in the Norwegian Premier League as well as a popular rock singer, is a master at keeping the reader fully engaged with the action.  We can all be glad that he has turned his talents toward writing these fast paced books which are perfect antidotes to dull gray days.  While I can't recommend his books for the beauty of the writing, I can say you will never be bored, and when the last page is read you will be thirsting for the next installment of this Harry's adventures, just as our children avidly followed their Harry in the J.K. Rowling series.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

TRANSATLANTIC by Colum McCann (fic)

Colum McCann won the National Book Award for his previous book, Let the Great World Spin.  If you have not read any of his novels, that is the book to begin with.  McCann often chooses an important historical event as a starting point for his story.   His various characters are all affected in some way by the event and then connected to each other as the writer spins his tale.

Transatlantic begins in 1919 with an account of two veterans of the Great War as they prepare to be the first to fly across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Great Britain.  Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown were real people who accomplished this record feat, landing in Ireland.  McCann's characters are beautifully drawn and fully believable.  Their story is the first of seven chapters, each with a lifelike main character who reveals his/her story through his own viewpoint. Each character makes a transatlantic crossing along the way. As they prepare for their historic flight, Alcock and Brown meet Emily Ehrlich and her daughter Lottie.  Emily is a reporter who has gained some renown for her colorful dispatches. These two women will reappear as we trace their ancestors and descendants.

The reader is then whisked to Dublin in 1840 for an interesting and little known account of the great Frederick Douglas and his connection to the Irish unrest and potato famine. While in Ireland, he stays with a Quaker family, and his path crosses that of Lily Duggan, an ancestor of Emily and Lottie.

Another section of the book shows us Senator George Mitchell of Maine in 1998, working on behalf of the Clinton administration to broker a peace accord between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.  The reader can feel his stress and fatigue as his efforts begin to show progress.  In a quiet moment, his path crosses that of Lottie who is now over 90 years of age and her daughter, Hannah.  How they came to be living in the land of their ancestors is told in the next section of the book.

Through Lottie and Hannah, we discover the story of Lily Duggan and how she came to be in the United States.  We find her nursing soldiers in the American Civil War in 1863, as her only son is killed in battle.  Lily makes another life and eventual career for herself when she marries again and has six children. 

Once again we circle back to Emily, Lottie, and finally in 2011, Lottie's daughter Hannah.  The book ends with Hannah's story in Ireland.  She is deeply connected to her home and land.  As we leave her story, she is thinking, "There isn't a story in the world that isn't in part, at least, addressed to the past."  This is certainly true of the characters we meet in this book.

McCann writes in spare poetic sentences.  He rarely uses conjunctions, though some snuck in the final chapters of the book.  He is a masterful story teller whose characters come alive to the reader.  I recommend this book as an enjoyable well written story which weaves history and characters, some real some invented, into a realistic tale of lives impacting each other.

Monday, August 12, 2013

DON'T LET'S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT by Alexandra Fuller (non-fic)

Alexandra Fuller wrote this book in 2001.  I can't believe I haven't read it before now.  However, I made up for it by reading it almost non-stop, totally fascinated by her well-written account of growing up in what in now Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia.  The memoir covers the years from her childhood through her marriage.  It is impossible to read this book without wanting to know more about this family.  Thankfully Fuller has followed up with a second volume, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Fuller is a absorbing raconteur and as I read, I kept wanting to invite her over for a cup of tea, coffee, a glass of wine, anything so that I could ask, "...and then what, but what about?..."

Fuller's account begins with her birth in 1969 and her upbringing in the Burma Valley on the eastern border of Rhodesia and Mozambique. Luckily there is a map at the beginning of the book which I referred to often.

 It wasn't answered in this book, but I want to know more about her parents, and why they left England to settle and manage several farms in Africa.  Alexandra, called Bobo had one older sister, Vanessa; a brother who died young of meningitis; another sister who drowned as an infant; and a brother who died in childbirth.  That Bobo and Vanessa thrived in a dangerous environment and grew to adulthood is a testament to their toughness and the knowledge that they were loved, despite their mother and father's decidedly casual parenting style.  The Fullers worked hard, played hard and drank a lot and often.  Bobo and Vanessa squabbled constantly, yet protected and loved each other in an atmosphere that was akin to sending toddlers off to boot camp.  At times their parents were reckless in their neglect of the safety of the girls as the family worked trying to salvage several derelict and isolated farms.  At age 6, Alexandra was loading and cleaning guns and learning how to shoot. 

Fuller never judges her parents or the white society of Rhodesia in which she was culturally raised.  She states facts and describes conditions of the war for independence along with beautiful descriptions of the wild land she so loves.  After their farm was put up for auction in the land distribution program, the family moved to Malawi.  The political realities of living there proved impossible to maintain and they ended up in Zambia.  When old enough, the girls were sent to board at a school in Harare in Zimbabwe which began as an "A" school for whites only, and subsequently integrated after the revolution. 

Eventually we learn that Fuller's alcoholic mother was diagnosed as bi-polar.  The girls have further adventures, grow up, find love and marry.  After marrying an American, the author  moved to Wyoming where she still lives. 

I highly recommend this book as it is not only insightful and well-written, it gives a fascinating look at a family's precarious life style in an area of the world that is as beautiful as it is dangerous. This is also a thought provoking study for a reading group.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson (fic)

Kate Atkinson is a brilliant writer and her books are unforgettable.  One of her most engaging characters is Jackson Brodie in her Case Histories series.  I have enjoyed all her books and always eagerly look forward to her next.  Her novels are amusing, intelligent, clever and invariably entertaining.  Life After Life is my favorite and the most imaginative, as well as among the most enjoyable books I have read this year.

The story is about Ursula Todd, a curious child born in a suburb of London in 1910.  The thing is, that Ursula dies just as her story begins.  She then reappears, and dies, and reappears, and dies, again and again.  That is until she gets it right....her life. It is the most wonderful premise for a book and rather than being confusing, it somehow clearly makes sense. It means the author can reinvent her story over and over, and the reader can't wait to see what the next incarnation will bring.  This is a book I read into the wee hours just to see what turn Ursula's next life would take.

Each era ends with the words, "darkness fell."  As Ursula survives her endings we live through her childhood in the bucolic English countryside.  She was the third of five children and besides her parents, two servants who are like part of the family also live in the Edwardian home.  We live through a good deal of history, the two World Wars and the in between times.  The bombing of London in WWII is made very real as Ursula spends several lives there, including one with an abusive husband who thankfully does not survive into her next life.  Ursula has several romances along the way which give the reader a chance to root for the most appropriate of the bunch.  One of the most likable characters in the book is her wayward aunt, Izzy, the black sheep of the family, who flits about from one adventure to another, but who is always there to support and help Ursula in times of trouble.  And Ursula has more than her share of troublesome adventures. One of the more curious is an encounter with Adolf Hitler.

It is hard to do justice to this book in a review as it can seem flighty and confusing.  It is not.  It is a top notch story that I highly recommend.  Do read it, you will not be disappointed.  It is also a good choice for reading groups.