Category Archives: crime

emotional shrapnel

The Hour I First Believedby Wally Lamb 2008 (740 pgs)

A heartbreaking book of broad scope, The Hour I First Believed takes a look at the reverberations of tragedy. While Caelem’s back East planning his aunt’s funeral, his wife Maureen becomes a close witness to the Columbine shootings. While not physically  injured, the psychic damage spins her off into a years long bout with PTSD, depression, and addiction. Unable to recover from the shootings and searching for some measure of peace, they head off to the family farm in Connecticut. Once there Caelem also stumbles upon secrets from his family’s past that begin to affect him just as strongly as his wife’s ordeal.

Lamb writes tragedy beautifully, his characters real and realistically fallible. Fans of his previous book I Know This Much Is True will not be disappointed.

a modern prometheus unbound

The Investigation by Stanislaw Lem 1959/transl. 1974 (216 pgs)

Oddest of ducks: reads like a straight-up Scotland Yard police procedural in the vein of Agatha Christie (despite being written by a preeminent Polish science-fiction writer.) But it’s about zombies. Or at least risen corpses.

Instead of dwelling on the macabre, the narrative instead focuses on the lead investigator as he tries to locate what he’s sure is a non-mystical cause for the epidemic of moving dead folks. Despite a strong start, my interest waned towards the end, and the conclusion (or lack thereof) was disappointing.

you decide what is real, and what is illusion

Obedience by Will Lavender 2008 (287 pgs)

Students in a Logic and Reasoning class are asked to solve a hypothetical kidnapping before it becomes murder. The plot begins simply, but soon builds to a puzzle of cunning intricacy. Supposedly fictional characters start intruding on real life, and there are hints of a decade-old real murder nearby that bears striking similarity to the fictional case. Soon, three of the students (along with the reader) start to question what is real and whether there will soon be another murder. A great puzzle book that left kept me in a state of brain-buzz on a par with a good sudoku or crossword puzzle.

suffering from abandonment issues

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare 1993- English ed. (205 pgs/read 58)

A low-level clerk in a overly bureaucratic nation sorts and analyses the citizens’ dreams. Interesting premise, but a bit too overly-veiled and metaphorical for me.

Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey 2008 (183 pgs/read 41)

A ruler’s personal chef, barber, and portrait painter are imprisoned during a political coup. It never really took off.

The Swimmer by Zsuzsu Bank 2005-English ed. (278 pgs/read 94)
A spacious, introspective novel set in 1950s Hungary. Kata and her younger brother Isti find their lives unalterably changed when their mother abandons the family with no notice. Their father promptly sells the family home and leads them into a rootless existence, traveling from distant relative to distant relative. This is one of those books I’d love to return to. But after chipping away at it for six months, I had to let it go.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer 1961 (255 pgs/read 55)

I thought I’d read this as a child, but it didn’t  seem in the least familiar. And worse, it wasn’t anywhere as compelling as the childhood books I did love.

The River Wife by Jonis Agee 2007 (393 pgs/read 142)

A young pregnant bride, whose husband is often absent on mysterious business, fills her empty nights reading the journals of her husband’s Missouri ancestors.  Fairly interesting at first, especially the woman’s survival after an earthquake leaves her trapped in the family cabin as the river rises nearby. But I lost interest about the point where her baby gets eaten by wild dogs & she suddenly starts up an affair with John James Audubon.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson 2008 (389 pgs/read 20)

On the run, a woman tries to elude her in-laws who blame her for her husband’s murder. Failed to grab me.

sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters

The Sister by Poppy Adams 2008 (273 pgs)

Two sisters, inseparable in childhood, reunite for the first time in fifty years. Ginny has stayed in the family home, pursuing the multi-generational vocation of moth collection and study. Vivian escaped as soon as possible to a freeing life in London. They’ve pursued completely separate lives for decades, never speaking to each other. As the book opens, Ginny awaits Vivian homecoming. And as she waits, she thinks back on their childhood and the secrets, shared and solitary, that bind and separate them.

A riveting book with exceptional writing and masterful grasp of the slow reveal. I devoured it in two sittings.

of wolves and men

Benighted  by Kit Whitfield (532 pgs) 2006

It’s an odd mix- somewhere between Paul Auster and To Kill a Mockingbird.  With werewolves.  And yet it works- suprisingly well. 

The world is much like ours except the majority of the population are lycanthropes and being human is a birth defect.  “Barebacks” as they’re called are a maginalized minority, on the recieving end of prejudice and discrimination. 

Most of the population willingly submits to curfews, locking themselves in on full moon nights to avoid causing harm.  But there are always a few who won’t follow the rules.  Because humans are few in number, all non-lycos are required to work for the government agency which captures and prosecutes those who break the Full Moon Laws.  Think of them as a blend of police, dogcatchers, and lawyers.  It’s neither prestigious nor terribly safe work.  But, as they say, someone’s got to do it.

Lola, the sole “bareback” in her family, is resigned to her lot in life.  It’s not quite a calling, and not quite a punishment.  It’s simply what she does.  And more- what she is, what all humans are.  Non-lycos are feared, resented, and isolated.  They’re nearly powerless in their jobs, fighting large predators with nothing more than dogcatcher poles, knock-out juice, and 2-shot silver bullet backups they’re rarely legally allowed to use.  The occasional power they get over their oppressors can be heady.   Lola discovers to her dismay just how far fear and retribution can take her. 

Not only an entertaining entry in the werewolf genre (a sort of hard-boiled social commentary take) Benighted  is also the most interesting reflection on prejudice and discrimination I’ve read in a long time.  It very effectively captures how mutual hatred degrades everyone involved and how fear leads people to do things they wouldn’t believe themselves capable of.

paradise lost

Cage of Stars  by Jacquelyn Mitchard  (289 pgs/read 160) 2006

The book is like an afterschool special- with characters than tip just a bit toward caricatures and a slightly overwrought plot.   And I read far too much of it before admitting that it was a waste of time.