Wednesday, July 23, 2014

CITY OF THIEVES by David Benioff

Lev Beniov is a teenager in Leningrad during WWII.  When he and his buds pilfer the effects of a dead German paratrooper, Lev is the only one caught by the authorities.  His sentence is actually a quest:  to find a dozen eggs for a wedding cake for the daughter of a Russian colonel.  Kolya, a soldier caught for desertion, is his assigned partner in this quest and has enough worldly experience to be a little more resourceful than Lev.  The problem is that Russians are starving, and everyone has already eaten their chickens, since they don’t have the means to feed them.  Kolya and Lev follow what leads they have, finding the extreme lengths to which people will go to survive.  After a few hair-raising encounters, they come upon a group of young Russian women who are serving the sexual needs of the occupying German officers.   Well-fed, these girls seem to be a possible avenue to the required eggs.  At this point, Kolya and Lev join forces with a group of partisan soldiers who have weapons and skills, one of whom is a young female sniper, Vika, with whom Lev becomes infatuated.  Since Lev is ostensibly the author’s grandfather, we can assume that he survives.  However, this is fiction, and anything can happen.  In this case, what happens is a series of treacherous adventures, culminating in a life-or-death chess match, in which Lev shows his mettle.  While Lev is awkward and na├»ve, Kolya is flamboyant and eternally optimistic, with Lev providing the practical influence to Kolya the dreamer and schemer—sort of like a superhero and his sidekick.  Not that I would compare this story to a comic book, because anything about WWII is going to be deadly serious, and this book has several horrific moments.  On the whole, though, it’s a captivating adventure novel that takes place in a true life-and-death setting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

RAYLAN by Elmore Leonard

As a huge fan of the TV series Justified, I knew I had to read this book about Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall in eastern Kentucky.  My favorite criminal ever is the smooth-talking Boyd Crowder, who doesn’t appear in the book until the second half, and even then he’s not the real villain.  In fact, this novel is really two stories sandwiched together, and in both cases the main bad guy is a gal.  The first half is about Dickie and Coover Crowe who decide to supplement their marijuana earnings by stealing kidneys and then selling them back to the original owner.  If you’ve watched the show, you know that the Crowes are not known for medical expertise, but a transplant nurse named Layla has the necessary skills.  Carol Conlan, a coal mining executive without scruples, dominates the second half, trying to use her womanly wiles on Raylan.  He, however, has his eye on a young poker player named Jackie, who slipped through the fingers of her captors after being arrested during a raid.  Meanwhile, Delroy Lewis, who has recruited three young women to rob banks for him, has a bone to pick with Raylan from a prior rap and goes after him, thinly disguised as a drag queen.  If all of this sounds too familiar, you must be a long-time follower of Justified.  I’ve only been watching for a few years, but my husband recognized the plotlines from some earlier seasons.  I read this book aloud to him during a road trip, and my best voice imitation was that of Dewey Crowe.  He figures into the second half as the possible heir to a prospective large coal site that Carol can’t wait to get her hands on.  A little old lady in a nursing home has other plans for Carol and, believe it or not, owns the best scene in the book.

Monday, July 14, 2014

RUM PUNCH by Elmore Leonard

Jackie Burke is a flight attendant whose crime is bringing in undeclared cash from the Bahamas. The money belongs to Ordell, an arms dealer, who makes a habit of bailing out his accomplices so that he can take them out—with a bullet.  Caught red-handed, Jackie figures she’d better work with law enforcement to avoid the same fate.  Ordell has other accomplices and hopes to recruit his old friend Louis, his former partner in a botched kidnapping, who now works for bail bondsman Max Cherry.  As is customary with an Elmore Leonard novel, the line is blurred between the good guys and the bad guys, and I had high hopes for Jackie to turn out to be one of the good guys, or gals in this case, and for her to still be alive at the end of the novel.  She’s gutsy and savvy, thinks well on her feet, and becomes more than chummy with Max, who’s no dummy, either.  She’s the bridge between the good guys and the baddies, and tries to play both sides against the middle.  As Jackie and the law officers develop a convoluted plan for double-crossing Ordell, Jackie makes plans of her own, drawing Max into her scheme, while he begins contemplating divorce from his estranged wife.  This novel was the inspiration for the movie Jackie Brown, which served as sort of a comeback vehicle for Pam Grier, even though Jackie is blonde in the book.  Quentin Tarantino directed, and Samuel L. Jackson played Ordell.  DeNiro as Louis?  I need to see this movie again.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu is a young Nigerian woman who blogs from the United States about her experiences and observations of being a foreign and black.  She struggles mightily when she first comes to this country and finds herself doing the unthinkable in order to survive financially, at great cost to her emotional health.  Meanwhile, the love of her life, Obinze, goes to London on a 6-month visa, works menial jobs, and plans to enter into a sham marriage in order to remain there.  A dispute over the price of his borrowed identity causes him to be summarily deported, but he gets back on his feet in Lagos, Nigeria, and actually thrives there.  After gaining American citizenship, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and reconnects with Obinze, who now has a wife and child.  I was particularly puzzled as to what lures Ifemelu back to Nigeria, American passport in hand.  Perhaps the chance to see Obinze again provides some motivation, or perhaps she just wants to go home.  She then scoffs at the snobbery of those, like herself, who completed their education abroad but becomes equally disenchanted with her old friends whose only focus is marriage.  Describing this novel as a love story feels a little lazy, because it is that and so much more.   Ifemelu’s blog posts are so blisteringly insightful, that I feel I should have paid a little more attention to her advice for white people discussing racial issues with their black friends.  One of my favorite moments in the book is when she and her fellow Africans in the U.S. rejoice in disbelief over the improbable election of Obama in 2008.   She and her boyfriend Blaine, a Yale professor, their relationship having run its course, find that their support for Obama is just about all they have left in common.  In Nigeria, race is not an issue, but people judge one another’s success by the size of their generator, since the existence of electrical power is hit or miss.  Nigeria may lack an infrastructure, but Ifemelu and Obinze find that the U.S. and the U.K. have their own sets of drawbacks.  Choose your poison, and sometimes home trumps everything else.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

MOONRISE by Cassandra King

Helen and Emmet are newlyweds, and all is well, at least until Helen insists they spend the summer at Moonrise, a stunning mansion in Highlands, NC, that belonged to Emmet’s deceased wife, Rosalyn.  All of Emmet’s so-called friends in Highlands are appalled not only that he remarried less than a year after Rosalyn’s untimely death in a car crash but also that Helen is not one of their own.  In fact, Kit and Tansy, Rosalyn’s two best friends, are convinced that Helen hoodwinked Emmet into marrying her.  Their suspicions couldn’t be farther from the truth, but Kit and Tansy make it their mission to make sure Helen knows that she is a poor stand-in for Rosalyn.  As the story progresses, we become increasingly aware that these two wicked witches may be even more evil than we thought, poisoning Emmet’s daughter’s mind against Helen and driving a stake into the heart of the marriage by planting the seeds of doubt with their inuendos.  Helen and Tansy are two of the narrators, so that we have a first-hand view of Helen’s mounting insecurities and Tansy’s hostility.  The third narrator is Willa, a local woman who serves as a housekeeper and nursemaid to various summer residents.  She is the neutral party here with problems of her own.  The big question is the identity of NK, mentioned in Rosalyn’s datebook, who may hold the answers to Rosalyn’s mysterious death.  I figured that one out but not all the circumstances surrounding the mystery.  This is not great literature, nor will it appeal to a man.  However, if you take this book to the beach with you, take lots of sunscreen and wear a big hat.  Otherwise you may get sunburned while you keep promising yourself just one more chapter before you close the book and pack up your beach chair.  I’m not sure if I was in a hurry to find out what happened to Rosalyn or if I just wanted to banish Kit and Tansy from my imagination as soon as possible.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW by Peter Hoeg

Smilla Jasperson knows snow and ice, thanks to her childhood in Greenland, where her mother was an Inuit hunter.  She now lives in Copenhagen with financial help from her wealthy Danish father.  When a neighbor child, Isaiah, falls from a rooftop and dies, she determines that he was being chased, just by examining his footprints in the snow.  The police, however, are apathetic and uncooperative, and the boy’s mother is an alcoholic.  Her only ally is a mechanic who also befriended the child, and his behavior becomes suspicious as the novel progresses.  When Smilla discovers that the boy’s father died on a clandestine expedition, she begins investigating whether there’s a connection between the father’s death and the son’s.  Along the way, she encounters a cast of unsavory characters who threaten her life, but Smilla is pretty capable when it comes to self-preservation and self-defense.  In this regard she bears some resemblance to that other Scandanavian heroine—Lisbeth of Dragon Tattoo fame.  As is often the case with a translation, I found it difficult to keep the characters straight, and this book is not nearly as fast-paced as Larssen’s trilogy.  Smilla also burdens us with a fair amount of technical stuff about ice formation, ice structure, ice-breaking, etc.  I will say, though, that reading a novel that is partially set in Greenland is a first for me.  As long as the action was taking place on land, I stayed absorbed in the story, but eventually the path to uncovering the truth leads Smilla to a job as a sort of stewardess on a ship.  At this point I thought the book started losing its believability.  The ship’s crew and guests are the most dangerous creeps yet, and their mission is to complete the task that was aborted on the expedition in which Isaiah’s father died, no matter what the cost.  Not until the end does Smilla have an inkling of what lies in store, and her unlikely ally on the ship is a junkie.  I have no complaints about the nebulous ending, but some of the other answers to the whole puzzle left me scratching my head and feeling like it was all a little above my pay grade.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

ANDREW'S BRAIN by E.L. Doctorow

Andrew is a cognitive scientist who seems to attract serious misfortune.  He accidentally killed his first child, and his wife Martha divorced him over this mistake.  His second wife Briony dies, and he feels indirectly responsible for her death as well, although I’m not really sure why.  In fact, there are aspects of this book that I don’t understand.  Before Briony’s unfortunate demise, she gave birth to a daughter, Willa, and Andrew delivers her to Martha, partly as a replacement for the child they lost and partly because he doesn’t trust himself to take care of another infant.  Andrew at times speaks of himself in first person and then wanders into third person, as he tells his story to someone he calls Doc, who tries to keep Andrew on topic.  Like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the book’s structure is that of one long conversation, with periodic ramblings on Andrew’s part.  Many passages are a bit too cerebral for me, especially as Andrew waxes eloquent about the brain versus the mind and the possibility of technology ever duplicating brain function.  Andrew asks Doc an important question near the end of the book, to which Doc replies in the negative, but I’m unable to determine if there’s some sort of subterfuge on Doc’s part.  I do know that the author skewers George W. Bush, thinly disguised, and his advisers, nicknamed Chaingang and Rumdum, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.  (Who is Peachums?)  This section is perversely funny, if you can get past the fact that it’s a little disturbing, not to mention way out in left field.  The author drops hints everywhere about Andrew’s true self, including his self-proclaimed lack of remorse or feeling and the President’s nickname for him, but, again, I don’t know how to interpret these clues or even if interpretation is warranted.  Understanding a book is not always a prerequisite for enjoyment, but it helps.