Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Dark Story of the Midwest

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
I won't forget this book for a long time. Libby Day escaped a massacre when she was seven years old. On the early morning of January 3, 1985 her entire family was brutally murdered as they slept at the family's failing Kansas farm. Her brother Ben, a teenage misfit at the time, was convicted of the crime and has been in prison for 24 years. Members of the Kill Cub, fans of infamous crimes, offer Libby money to recant the testimony that put Ben in jail because they believe him innocent of the crime. As Libby investigates the crime she meets her family's past and the unsavory characters who have survived it. The story alternates between the viewpoints of Libby and Ben in the present day and Ben and his murdered mother, Patty Day, on the day of the murder.

This story is masterfully told. The characters, especially Libby and Ben, jump to life. In addition to being a breathlessly suspenseful mystery, this novel is a fairly nuanced exploration of guilt, innocence, survival, and loss.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

When Sam Spade appears on the first pages of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, he’s depicted as not a very nice character. Hammett makes a reference to Satan, which carries through the book. Strange, that one of the most iconic and celebrated characters in private eye literature (or even throughout all of crime literature) starts as someone compared to the most evil force imaginable. After we get past that little jarring start, the book rips ahead as a fast-paced, strong example of what crime writing should be. It is a well-written, entertaining book that holds the audience’s attention from start to finish (with only a little lag in the middle…not really a lag, but more of a slowdown from the fanatic pace). Hammett’s Spade is a brutal, harsh man who does not mince words. When he encounters Miss Wonderly (who turns out to be Brigid O'Shaughnessy) at the beginning of the novel, even though he is trying to be on his best behavior, there is a brashness about the way he treats her. Maybe he knows she is up to know good…which, of course, she is. She turns out to be the femme fatale of the story and a woman who rattles Spade more than he would care to admit. In addition to O'Shaughnessy, Spade gets caught up with a series of lowlifes and other progressively shady characters as he investigates his partner’s murder. Would this book get published today…? Well, maybe by a small, artsy press that specializes in producing quality literary books more than in making money. Why? Well, The Maltese Falcon is not super violent. There is very little harsh language. There is even less sex. It is like a high-class version of what we consider crime fiction today. Does that make it bad? Of course not…on the contrary…it should make you want to read it all the more.

Monday, August 10, 2009

End of Summer Reads

There are only a few precious weeks of hammock/lemonade/beach reading left. Happily, a few recently published novels have emerged as Summer-worthy reads.

In Twenties Girl (2009) Sophie Kinsella again writes to formula, but what a winning formula. Kinsella's strong and true imagination makes even the most outlandish plot work. In this story, twenty-something Lara, a struggling businesswoman, encounters the ghost of her Great Aunt Sophie who haunts London, and particularly her niece, in search of a missing necklace. Lara and Sophie become a team, working together to find more than the necklace. Together they reconcile Sophie and her long lost love by uncovering a family secret, and resolve Lara's work and love problems. As always, the minor characters and settings are light and bright and sparkling. The contemporary London business scene comes amusingly and creepily alive when Lara and Sophie investigate a millionaire relative's coffee shop empire and learn the truth about Lara's business partner.

The worst thing about Best Friends Forever (2009) by Jennifer Weiner is its title. With a madcap Thelma and Louise-style romp as its centerpiece, the plot of Best Friends Forever is improbable, but fun. Former best friends since the age of nine, Addie and Valerie drift apart throughout high school where Addie remains an overweight outcast and Val gets in with the popular kids. The two have a permanent rift over a bad incident and meet up again on the night of their fifteen year high school reunion. Valerie thinks that she has committed a crime which leads the two to reunite for a cross country flight in an ancient station wagon, an attempted bank robbery, and a police chase. The emotional center of the novel is the character of Addie and the moving portrayal of her life long loneliness and deprivation. There is a hard core to this light and humorous story, but that doesn't make it any less fun. As a bonus, the story is set in Pleasant Ridge, Illinois, a fictitous suburb of Chicago.

The Debutant Divorcee by Plum Sykes, a former Vogue editor, was published in 2006, and it is complete, utter, and total fluff. Set among super-rich and connected young New Yorkers it involves newly-wed Sylvie landing in a pool of divorcees frantically celebrating their freedom. They vacation in places I've never heard of and buy $20,000 bracelets on a whim. The novel satirizes the rich mommy set, predatory Euro-trash, sexy seniors after young women, and young women after even younger men. The Debutante Divorcee is like Sex and the City on steroids.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What Happens in London

Julia Quinn's books always seem to have a quirky element that makes them different. And I mean that in a good way. I'm trying to decide exactly what that is. It probably is a few different factors. She writes well, she has witty dialog between her lead characters, she lets her lovers get to know each other, and she sneaks in secondary characters that leave you wanting their story next. It sounds so easy. She makes it read so easy. But it is not. That my friends, is why her books work.

What Happens in London is her latest, and it features Olivia and Harry. Olivia is very lovely lady, but really has not found that special someone to wed. Harry meets her by chance and at first glance they do not really like each other. It probably doesn't help that he thinks she is a beautiful twit and she's heard gossip that he's killed his fiancee. And it does not help that Olivia has taken to spying on him - since he's next door - and has discovered he does have some secrets. Having your neighbor notice that you're spying does make it a bit awkward the next time you meet them at a ball.

Harry does Russian translation for the British government and ends up being assigned to watch Olivia since her latest suitor seems to be a Russian prince that the government wants to watch. Hence, he ends up meeting with Olivia more than he ever intended. Their dialog of getting to know each other and to like each other - really sets this book apart.

Filled with a mix of various quiet scenes and some hilarity - the scene of Harry's cousin enacting a Gothic novel for the Prince and the household is pretty funny - the future lovers grow to appreciate each other. And isn't that what a romance is supposed to be about? A very good read.