Sunday, May 25, 2014

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilso

Comedy in a Minor Key
by Hans Keilson
translated from the German by Damion Searls
3 stars - would make a good discussion book for students

ALR Blue - no animal characters

I wish I could have read this without first reading the dust cover. That skewed my opinion, I fear.

Comedy in a Minor Key is a short novel about a young couple in the Netherlands during World War II who take in a Jewish man and hide him in an upstairs room. It's an interesting tale of how regular people commit acts of civil disobedience during wartime and the effect it has on them. 

This would make an excellent book for high school English. It's short and direct, but leaves one with things to ponder. It subtly shows that harboring a stranger is not the happy, easy, do good thing for either hosts or guests. As time passes, all suffer. The guest from the isolation and ill health of being locked away and living in fear, the hosts from having this person in their house, neither friend nor lodger, and also worrying on a daily basis if they have somehow given themselves away.

Back to my opening sentence. There is so much wrong with the brief description on the dust cover. 

The book is described as a dark comedy. I did not see that at all. I saw several moments when some sort of humor could have been applied to the situation, but the author didn't take advantage of that. Could it have been lost in translation? 

Worse still, the author is likened to Joseph Roth and Franz Kafka. Never read Roth, but I have read every book by Kafka and there is nothing Kafkaesque about this book at all. Nothing.

Maybe this wasn't the best of Keilson's works to read first. No doubt he had an interesting life. Born in Berlin in 1909, he joined the Dutch resistance during WW II and eventually became a psychiatrist specializing in treating children traumatized by war. He lived to the age of 102 and my guess is that some of his other books might be more complex and emotionally challenging, but I'm not jumping to put them in my queue.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Devil Colony by James Rollins

The Devil Colony
by James Rollins
3 stars - just crying out to be made into a summer blockbuster movie
ALR Green - minor dog character, not to worry

Yeah, there's a story in there somewhere, but for me, the fun in this book is the generous dose of supercharged action scenes. Shoot outs, things blowing up, people disintegrating, creepy underground predicaments, woo hoo!

What we have here is the old "creepy things from the past causing cataclysmic mayhem in the present" type story. The book opens at an archaeological site in the Rocky Mountains. Oh, what is this? A cool skull lined in gold that is weirdly cold. Let's bring it above ground and take it back to the museum for a closer look and..... KA BOOM! Damn! There goes the only female character in the book who isn't either one of those twenty something hard bodies or lovable senior citizen types. Oops.

Now a worldwide race is on to discover what caused the explosion and set off alarming neutrino activity all over the world. The book jumps around between several groups of people. There are good guys, bad guys, guys with questionable loyalty, scientists, bitter angry people, young lovers, even a pregnant lady (hey, why not). All of them racing to uncover the mystery before the whole world blows up.

Somehow, the source of trouble is tied to Indian legends and the Book of Mormon, along with a secret society that sends its crippled of mind and spirit smarty pants evil dude out to try and solve the puzzle first.

All in all, this book is great fun. I appreciated that it pretty much stuck to the whole action thing without a lot of mushy stuff or slow passages focused on character development. The characters are pretty flat, which would normally make me give the book a bad rating, but that's not where this story is at. The focus stays on people rushing around madly and, did I mention this before, things blowing up. Fine by me.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Keeper of Lost Causes
by Jussi Adler-Olsen
translated by Lisa Hartford
2007 (U.S. translation 2011)
4 stars - great characters, interesting story
ALR Blue - no animal characters or scenes

Carl Morck, homicide detective, is returning to work after he and two of his colleagues were ambushed on what was supposed to be a routine crime scene investigation. 

Simultaneously, Carl's chief sees an opportunity to both get Carl out of his hair and grab a big bag of cash to fund his department. How? He's taking the money allocated for Department Q, a special investigations division dedicated to cold cases that have public interest. Yup, Carl gets a basement office, a rather unorthodox assistant, a stack of folders, and the rest of the money goes, well, elsewhere.

With nothing better to do, Carl picks up one of the cases. Five years ago, a rising political figure vanished without a trace, presumed to have fallen overboard from a ferry. 

For the remainder of the book, the reader is led back and forth in time. In the present we follow Carl's investigation and in the past we get glimpses of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. 

It's a very good read with interesting characters. Yes, really we only learn about Carl (and through him about his assistant, Assad), but that was enough to keep me going. The pacing is excellent. The translation from Danish to English is seamless.

Jussi Adler-Olsen was awarded Sweden's Glass Key Award in 2010 for his third department Q novel. That works for me. At least two more sure things to put in my queue.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent
4 stars - a tad depressing, but beautiful as well

ALR Green - no animal characters, brief description of annual sheep slaughter, but not grisly

Some time ago, a friend suggested the novel Burial Rites for my reading list. It wasn't until I went to write this review that I realized there are several books with that title, so I hope I read the right one.

Burial Rites is a fictionalized account of the final months of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland.

Her crime? Participating in the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Illugastadir. 

Having no place to house Agnes as she awaits her execution, it is decided that she will board with a family in Kornsa, a remote village in northern Iceland. The story follows her months working as a servant on a farm, her relationship with the family providing her lodging, and the story of how she came to be a convicted murderess.

It doesn't take long to get completely drawn in to the tale. Ms. Kent paints a deep and evocative portrait of both Iceland and the characters. Her prose is so gloriously crafted that without prolonged detail or explanation, the reader can feel the emotions, see the landscape, almost smell the farm and countryside. 

Not only is this the story of Agnes, but also of those who come in contact with her. There is the young priest, Toti, who is chosen to "save her soul" prior to execution. Uncertain why he has been given this task and still struggling with his own faith, Toti chooses to let Agnes tell her story rather than spend his time with her preaching the gospel and shaking the fist of God in her face. He is troubled by the presentation of a human being, rather than a monster.

So, too, the family in Kornsa have mixed reactions. Father, mother, and two sisters, all seeing Agnes a bit differently and forever changed from the experience.

I was a bit confounded by the Icelandic names early on and found the best course of action to keep characters straight was to provide my own, garbled version of pronunciation (rather than use the helpful guide provided by the author). Similarly, there is a map of the region available for reference to aid readers like me who are geographically challenged.

From a weather perspective, this is not a resounding endorsement of Iceland as a travel destination. Nasty.

While I highly recommend this book, I offer caution as to choosing your moment. It is overwhelmingly depressing and not to be taken on when you are struggling with grief of your own.

Finally, I feel the need to comment on the fact that the author, Hannah Kent, was born in 1985. Seriously? It took me a while to realize that 1985 was long enough ago that people born then are actual grown-ups now. Sigh. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bridget Jones Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones
Mad About the Boy
by Helen Fielding
4 stars - just as good as the first two Bridget Jones books

ALR Blue - no animals whatsoever

This is the third Bridget Jones book and if you haven't read the previous two, start at the beginning with  Bridget Jones's Diary

Tried to turn on telly to see if Talitha had indeed, as so often, been calling me live on air during a film clip. Jabbed confusedly at buttons like a monkey with a mobile phone. Why does turning on a TV these days require three remotes with ninety buttons? Why? Suspect designed by thirteen-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they're the only person in the world who doesn't understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.

Yup, she's back. Bridget Jones, the wonderful stream of consciousness heroine. Now she's 51 and a widow with two small children and all the regular problems of regular people.

She's trying to move on with her life. Trying to move into the twenty first century. To do so, she tackles Twitter, online dating, and, yes, a 29 year old Boy Toy. Oh Bridget.

Man do I love these books. Her "diary" is so much better than a real one because it is her thoughts in all their spontaneous glory (not some post-event meditation). She struggles with how she looks, how she acts, relationships, kids, and the most mundane things that drive all of us to distraction. 

She makes lists of ways to be a better person (gosh, so do I), than laments her inability to adhere to her own rules ("134 lb, pounds gained 1, dating rules broken 2").

I've read reviews that chastise the main character for being too shallow for a 51 year old woman. Ugh. Am I honestly the only over 50 woman who still has arguments with herself about stupid things and gets totally tangled up by the day to day? Seriously? 

By the way, this is one time where one can both read the book and enjoy the movie (that would be the movie based on the original book). So I suppose if you saw the movie and didn't like it then you might as well pass on the books.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Ceremony of the Innocent by Taylor Caldwell

Ceremony of the Innocent
by Taylor Caldwell
1 star - not even
ALR Blue - no animals, too bad, a nice little terrier would have cheered things up

*** WARNING ***
Contains spoilers!

Perhaps if I had read this when I was a teenager I would have found it wildly romantic, but as an adult it was all a bit icky. 

This review is based on the first 150 pages (which is as far as I got).

Here's the setup. We've got Ellen, the poor working gal who lives with her Aunt May. Oh their life is so dreary (and that part was pretty good - described the life of a servant in late nineteenth century America well). Nobody likes Ellen. Everybody says she's ugly. Yuck. But we know differently. Oh yes, dear reader, we do. From the very first chapter we know as the priest ogles her then thirteen year old person during Sunday service and harbors impure thoughts regarding her smooth skin, wild red hair, and full bosom. Naughty.

Ellen goes to work for some rich folks and soon enough along comes Jeremy who falls wildly in lust love with her at first sight. It's all on the up and up. After all, he thinks she's fourteen and not thirteen. Well, she's equally besotted, but it is not meant to be and Ellen and Auntie are sent away to work in some fat lady's house.

Wouldn't you know, Jeremy is stalking her for the next four years. He's got spies watching Ellen's every move and when she turns 17, he arrives and whisks her and her Aunt away to New York so that he can marry her. 

Poor Ellen. She still thinks she is ugly even though her full bosom is always heaving and her wild red hair is always catching the sunlight. Oh, did I forget to mention that Jeremy seduces her BEFORE the wedding? What a jerk.

And downhill it goes from there. Ellen is apparently the illegitimate daughter of some super rich dude. A dude who left his estate to any surviving children regardless of who their mama was. But Jeremy keeps that his little secret. Don't suppose he wants his wife having more money than him.

It's all stalkerish and icky. Jeremy treats Ellen like a simpleton despite his claims of loving her and Ellen is like a compliant puppy. Meanwhile, poor Aunt May who spent her whole life working and trying to do her best gets locked up in the fourth floor of Ellen and Jeremy's townhouse since she's all crippled up with arthritis and frankly not all that fond of Jeremy. Later, Aunt May.