Secret Rendezvous by Kobo Abe, 1977-Japan, 1979-English translation (179 pgs)
It begins with an un-summoned ambulance in the middle of the night. They insist on taking away their patient, although she insists there’s nothing wrong and it must be a mistake. When her husband tries to track her down in the morning, she has disappeared into a bizarre labyrinthine underground hospital. The man is soon subsumed by the convoluted bureaucracy of the hospital, where every employee is also a patient and no one ever seems to get cured. Soon the man’s search ceases to matter. He ends up not even noticing that he’s not seeking his wife anymore, or really heading much of anywhere. It’s as if he’s fallen down the rabbit hole into something resembling a David Lynch film.
Compelling, but I’m not sure I liked it- during or after. I kept feeling like I was missing something, like if I understood the Japanese cultural landscape of the 1970s there would be a deeper metaphor contained in the book that I just didn’t catch.
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.
The Host by Stephenie Meyer 2008 (619 pgs)
When the world’s population gets body-snatched by invading aliens, a few rebel humans are forced into hiding, struggling to remain whole. A newly installed alien named Wanderer finds herself in a body whose former owner hasn’t quite vacated. What should be an effortless takeover instead becomes a battle of wills as Melanie refuses to disappear. At first biding her time, waiting for Melanie to surrender, Wanderer instead finds herself coming to an understanding and eventual affection for the human trapped in her mind. As they share memories and experiences, Wanderer even comes to love those who Melanie loves. Together they break away from the alien occupied civilization to track down Melanie’s loved ones.
I was pleasantly impressed with Meyer’s much more refined and challenging writing. This in no Twilight novel; it surpasses that series in character realism and evolution, its exploration of humankind’s capacity for cruelty and kindness, and the nature of selfhood and emotion. Billed as “the first love triangle involving only two bodies,” what could easily have become a cheesy sci-fi or sappy romance is instead a surprisingly deft exploration of identity and humanity.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier 2006 (252 pgs)
A global illness is wiping out humanity. Isolated in Antarctica, a single survivor remains. As she tracks across the brutal landscape, Laura Byrd plumbs the depths of her memories to distract herself from the harsh conditions. In an afterlife city, the longtime residents begin to notice the population changing drastically. As the pandemic takes hold, the recently departed funnel into a city, and even more rapidly disappear, until mere thousand are left from billions. For the inhabitants can only dwell there for as long as they live in the memory of the living.
In this haunting (or shall we say haunted?) narrative, Brockmeier illustrates the power of memory and the connections we form throughout our lives. Both portions of the story are separately compelling and it’s fun to see how they connect. And I always appreciate a book that doesn’t tie everything up in a pat little fluffy bow- but rather leaves the ending open to interpretation and imagined possibilities.
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney 2007 (371 pgs)
A murder mystery (and snowshoe-speed chase) set in the frozen landscape of 1860s fur-driven Northern Territory. When Mrs Ross finds a neighboring trapper murdered, she also discovers that her teenage son has disappeared and his running footsteps lead away to the desolate north where they seem to be following other tracks. When representatives of the Hudson Bay Company (the central authority of the area) set out to bring him back, Mrs Ross enlists an escaped murder suspect as her guide and follows them. Told in rotating perspectives of the chased and the chasing, the book weaves like the tracks they follow through the snow- the clues are faint and fleeting, buried in layers of secrets and hidden motivations.
The Pesthouse by Jim Crace 2007 (255 pgs)
The country is in a state of disrepair, unrecognizable in it’s dissolution, and has been for ages. Memories of better days are fabled and several generations removed. The survivors eke out a hand-to-mouth existence in frontier-style conditions. The hopeful ones make for the coast, where rumors tell of ships sailing for a new promised land.
Two such miserable hopefuls meet when the town in the valley below is struck by an unknown cataclysm- killing every living being within its limits. They seem the unlikeliest of adventurers- Margaret the recent survivor of a pestilence that exiled her from town, Franklin a naive young hopeful, hobbled by a worn-out knee. But the two somehow forge an instant and powerful trust, striking out together for the coast.
Crace’s writing is atmospheric and taut without being dismal. He perfectly captures that aura of pragmatic hopefulness that compels pioneers. One of my favorite books of the year, and among the top post-apocalyptic books I’ve ever read.
Two books of the hitman genre simultaneously hit (a-ha, pun) my bookcase. Both are solid entries from consistently entertaining authors and each features a male and female hitman duo.
Exit Strategy by Kelley Armstrong 2007 (480 pgs) & Patriot Acts by Greg Rucka 2007 (338 pgs)
From Armstrong, who normally writes fantasy, comes a new series with a totally difference voice. A serial killer believed to be a hitman is getting a lot of attention from the FBI. Bad business for the hitman community, so Nadia (cop turned vigilante turned hitman) and her enigmatic mentor Jack set out to track him down. The pace and dialogue are laidback and matter-of-fact, like 50s noir without the patter.
Rucka’s entry is a return to his Atticus Kodiak series, last seen in 2001. Atticus’s association with elite assassin Elena turns deadly. Again. When Atticus is mistakenly identified as one of “The Ten” (the world’s most wanted hitmen) he and Elena’s efforts to find safety may force Atticus to take that last step from bodyguard to hitman. This book by far the fiercer of the two, the action grabs you by the throat and never lets go. Laced with bitterness, the book explores more of the motivations and machinations of hitmen and those who would hire them.