Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

Okay I'll admit it.  I have been reading alot of Henning Mankell lately (Are three books by the same author in as many weeks alot?) and I may have overdosed.

The Man Who Smiled I think is the fourth book chronologically in the Kurt Wallander series.  I enjoyed it, but found that it did get a little bogged down.  There were a few too many case meetings at the police station etc that seemed to be going over the same old ground.

Don't get me wrong I still love Kurt, and he had to overcome considerable odds to solve this one.  But I think a break form his escapades is in order for me.

I do have another Scandinavian crime thriller on the way from book depository: Three Seconds by Roslund & Hellstrom, as recommended by Zohar over at Man of la Book.  and I can't wait for that one.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Everyone, it seems has read this truly impressive book by Suzanne Collins.  My only regret is that I didn't read it sooner. 

Set somewhere in the future The Hunger Games is an annual event where 24 teenagers are selected through a lottery across the 12 districts of Panem (what is left of the United States in this future world) and pitched to fight against each other in a, to the death, winner take all, reality TV program.

Katniss and Peeta are the contenders from district twelve.  The narrative is told in the first person from Katniss's perspective.  She is sixteen and volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister Primrose from having to take part.  Katniss has been providing food for her family by hunting, since she was eleven. after her father was killed in a mining accident.

The Hunger Games can be enjoyed on many levels, and all of them are pitched perfectly.  This is a story that I imagine would appeal to  young and adult readers alike.  Everyone has reviewed this book, so I don't feel the need to carry on with a lengthy review here.  I am the one who has been slow to this party.  So let me just add to the chorus that I was amazed and captivated by The Hunger Games.  I couldn't put it down.  It is well written, dramatic and moving.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  And feel certain that I will be looking more closely at YA fiction in the future.  This is one of the most enjoyable reads of the year for me.

As a brief postscript, the first thing that came to mind when I was reading The Hunger Games was a short story by US writer Shirley Jackson called The Lottery.  For those of you who love The Hunger Games and are unfamiliar with this short story, originally published in The New Yorker in 1948, I encourage you to check it out.  I don't know if the short story was any sort of inspiration for Collins.  The Lottery by Jackson captures some of the same chilling themes very well.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon, Audio Book read by Davina Porter

I finish this year lighter and fitter than when it commenced.  I partially have Diana Gabaldon and Davina Porter to thank for this.  I listened to the audio book Dragonfly in Amber (the second book of the Outlander series) while pedalling on my exercise bike and jogging and walking around my local streets for forty enjoyable hours.

On many days, it was my interest to see what was happening in the lives of Claire and Jamie Fraser as they fought 18th Century foes, that compelled me to put trainers on and get active.

This of course touches on the issue of audio books, and are they the same as reading.  The answer is simple to me; of course listening to an audio book is not the same as reading, but what a brilliant way to consume a story!

The Outlander series is a timeslip series that follows Claire Randall who is an English nurse from the 1940s.  While on holiday with her husband in Scotland she stumbles across a circle of stones that transport her back to the mid eighteen century, where she becomes part of the world of Scottish highlanders and their struggle against the English powers.  Claire falls in love with the incredibly dashing, heroic and endlessly wonderful highland lord Jamie Fraser.  Dragonfly in Amber picks the story up in the 1960s, where Claire has returned to Scotland with her adult daughter. Claire's daughter knows nothing of her mother's past in a different century.  With the help of a historian, Roger, Claire brings us up to speed with events that transpired between the time her and Jamie left Paris at the end of Outlander, their efforts to stop the Jacobite rebellion that culminated in the bloody battle of Culloden in 1746.  We also learn why Claire returned to the twentieth century.  Wonderfully, Gabaldon leaves the reader with a massive cliffhanger at the end Dragonfly in Amber when the historian Roger, who has been listening to Claire's tale, reveals something that rocks her to her very core. 

Gabaldon has a talent for sustaining drama, and with Jamie, Claire and their extended entourage, she has created memorable characters that I kept wanting to rejoin on their seemingly endless adventure across Europe.  With audio books the quality of the narration is king (or queen as the case may be) and Davina Porter is simply superb as the narrator of this forty hour epic.  In addition to her remarkable skill at character voices, she injects the narration with the right sense of warmth and fun.

For me, audio books are about sheer enjoyment.  I still read as many books as ever, the audio books allow me to enjoy stories at times when I wouldn't be able to read, such as exercising, doing chores or long car journeys.  I am currently listening to Ken Follet's World Without End.  Like Dragonfly in Amber, it is an audio book without an apparent end, but I am loving it.  It is just so much fun and transforms forty minutes, of otherwise tedious exercise, into something that I can't wait to embrace each day.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

This is the first in the Kurt Wallander crime series by Swedish author Henning Mankell.  I recently read and reviewed the second novel in the series: The Dogs of Riga.  Faceless Killers introduces us to detective Wallander who is in his early forties, separated from his wife, gaining weight, and drinking too much 

Faceless killers opens with an elderly man waking up to discover the truly grisly attack on his elderly neighbours, in a quiet rural community in Skane, Sweden.  Wallander and his team are up against it in trying to solve the murder of  this couple.  There are very few clues, apart from the apparent double life of the murdered man.  The dying words of the murdered woman suggest that "foreigners" were involved in the killings.  Once news of this is released through the press, debate around refugee policy in the country is sparked and further atrocities are committed.

The story, including the refugee element, is sensitively handled by Mankell.  Mankell's novels are written in Swedish and translated.  As I have asserted in other posts I do think that some modern crime fiction has a measured literary feel to it.  Mankell writes beautifully:

Wallander looked at the man sitting in front of him.  There was something hard and dogged about him.  Like a man who had been brought up eating gravel.   p 72

I enjoyed the plot of the second novel in this series The Dogs of Riga slightly more than Faceless Killers.  Overall Dogs of Riga was more complex and satisfying in terms of the story.  But that doesn't really matter because I suspect that much of the enjoyment from these novels comes from the character development and exploits of Kurt Wallander, himself.  His life struggles and foibles appear to share centre stage with any crime that is being solved. 

In Faceless Killers we learn of Wallander's challenges with his failed marriage, his father who has dementia, and his wayward daughter.  As with all good characters, there are certain contradictions within Wallander.  His crime solving style is pedantic and dogged but in his personal life Wallander can be impulsive, embarrassing and appears to fall in love at the drop of a hat.  This all makes for a nuanced and sympathetic character that I look forward to following through the remaining novels in the series.

The Hottest State by Ethan Hawke

The Hottest State  by actor, director, screenwriter Ethan Hawke was published in 1996.  I came across it on a library shelf when I was looking for something else.  Always being a fan of Ethan Hawke's film roles I thought it would be interesting to give one of his novels a go.

The narrative is told in the first person from the point of view of William a twenty year old Texan actor living in New York.  The story takes place in the months around his twenty first birthday.  It is mostly concerned with his tumultuous affair with Sarah, a young singer and childcare worker.

Hawke writes really well.  The book is fast paced and engrossing.  The character of William is fairly unsympathetic, but I found myself hooked into the story non the less. For the most part William comes across as a self absorbed, vain and idle young man.  He  also appears painfully insecure and vulnerable at times.  There is something relatable and uncomfortably real about the relationship between William and Sarah as it unfolds. He captures very well the pain and insecurity of young relationships.

Sarah is a handful for William, she does not conform to the usual glossy types he is used to being around.  The relationship brings William face to face with himself.  There is some wonderful character development as William is unhappily forced to learn relationships aren't just about his needs and projections.

I could see how some might find The Hottest State a bit self indulgent on Hawke's part, but to me that was part of the point.  It has a similar "Generation X" slightly neurotic feel to it like the film Reality Bites.   Above all I was impressed and surprised by the quality of Hawke's writing.  He can really write.  I enjoyed it and look forward to reading Hawke's other novel "Ash Wednesday" at some stage in the future.