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Mary Gentry Writes

Book Reports

New Book Reports – Thrillers

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When I created my website, I was excited about the Book Reports section. Not only did it take me back to my teaching days, it also gave me a focus for my reading. What could be easier and more fun than to write some quick reviews?

Like many of the assignments I give myself, this one turned out to be harder than I imagined. I believe writers benefit from devoting equal time to reading and writing, but often, the push-pull of time management is daunting. Sometimes, I come to a long dry spell in my reading life – either I don’t get much reading done or I don’t have much to say after I finish. Sometimes I have a lot to say, but no time in which to say it.

So, repentant and newly resolved, I offer a short synopsis of some of the thrillers I’ve escaped into the past few months. The more literary reads of this period will be covered in a separate installment.

Ian Rankin -“Even Dogs in the Wild”

I’ve enjoyed Ian Rankin’s crime novels for a long time. “Even Dogs in the Wild” finds recently retired detective John Rebus joining his former partner/protégé Siobhan Clarke and sometime-nemesis, Malcolm Fox in solving a murder. Senior government prosecutor David Minton is the victim in what at first appears to be robbery gone wrong – except, nothing seems to be missing.  

Then, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, an aging gangster Rebus has crossed paths with for years, reports that someone has fired a bullet through his front window. Big Ger will talk about it only with Rebus.  Turns out, the gangster has also received a written death threat  identical to one sent to Minton.

The background noise created by competing gang families from Glasgow and Edinburgh complicates the investigation. As the threads that eventually lead to solution knit together, a past of unspeakable crimes committed and covered up by men in high places emerges.

I can count on Rankin to spin a tale that keeps me turning pages and putting off chores. Complex plotting and three-dimensional characters are standard fare in his novels.  But what sets Rankin apart for me is the essential humanity of his characters. Even the bad guys are worth spending time with, and Rebus never takes himself too seriously for long, infusing even the darkest times with an element of humor.

Jussi Adler-Olsen -“The Hanging Girl”

Jussi Adler-Olsen, a popular Danish crime writer, created the Department “Q” series with”The Keeper of Lost Causes”  and populated it first with Carl and Assad, then brought in Rose and later, Gordon. Once you meet these ‘cold case detectives’ , you might think that “Q” stands for quirky. Besides the intricate and sometimes tedious efforts that go into solving crimes committed in the past, each team member brings a personal story that intersects the primary plot line. Carl, Assad, Rose and Gordon are frequently at odds with one another, providing a backdrop of ‘familial’ tension that is at times poignant and, at other times, laugh-out-loud funny.  

The cold case in “The Hanging Girl, “ began 20 years ago with the disappearance and death of a vivacious 17-year-old on the remote Danish island of Bornholm. Multiple subplots flesh out the core story of a messianic figure at the center of a cult, at times overshadowing the primary story.  Of course, that may well be the nature of a cold-case investigation. The murder happened years ago, so solving it requires pursuing tangentially connected clues and other events in the more recent past.

Compared to earlier Department ‘Q’ novels, ‘The Hanging Girl” was a disappointing read. Perhaps there was just too much going on. If you are hooked on this series, as I am, it is worth the slog. But I missed the humor and the personal intensity I’ve grown to expect from Carl and his cohorts. They seem to have lost their zip, their trademark quirkiness.

David Lagercrantz – “ The Girl in the Spider’s Web”

When I read that journalist and Swedish crime fiction writer David Lagercrantz had written a sequel, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web, ” to the Millennium Trilogy, I jumped at the opportunity to once again spend time with punk and pierced hacker Lizbeth Salander and political journalist Mikael Blomkvist.  In the Trilogy novels, Blomkvist exposed corporate and government corruption in Sweden through articles published in Millennium, a magazine he owns in partnership with other like-minded journalists. Falling on hard times and a reduced readership and bankroll, Millennium magazine partners with investors who promise a hands-off relationship, a promise they have no intention of keeping. Blomkvist hasn’t had a scoop in a long time, and the new owners launch a campaign designed to get rid of him by painting him as irrelevant.

Frans Balder, a computer genius, discovers that a corporation he has worked for is being assisted by corrupt NSA officials and has stolen sensitive and valuable secrets from another corporation.  Ready to expose this and fearing for his life, Balder calls Blomkvist in the middle of the night, asking for a meeting to share the information. Blomkvist complies, arriving just as Balder’s assassin is making his escape. Blomkvist sees the man from a distance but is unable to identify him. There is one witness who can: Balder’s eight – year-old autistic son.

The novel unfolds rather fitfully. The use of nearly mind-numbing computer and mathematical jargon may be of interest to those readers who speak that language, but for the rest of us, it slows things down. There also are too many bad guys to keep track of. Several times I looked back to clarify whose side a particular person was on.

The villain and leader of the criminal hackers turns out to be Lizbeth’s sister Camilla, who comes to life as the fully fleshed-out evil twin. She is motivated by greed and driven by her hatred of her sister. Camilla is beautiful and brilliant in her own scary way, although she lacks Lizbeth’s moral compass. Camilla is set up for a return performance in Lagercrantz’ next installment in this series.

Balder’s son August is the most interesting and sympathetic new character. He cannot speak, but is gifted in mathematics and art and possessed of an eidetic or photographic memory. Once it is apparent that August can draw the image of his father’s assassin, his life is in danger. Salander throws herself – quite literally –

into protecting him, finding a kinship in the abuse he suffered at the hands of his negligent mother and her sadistic boyfriend. Salander treats August with respect and understated affection. She challenges him to solve ever-more complex mathematical puzzles and eventually, together, they break a code, necessary to the story’s ultimate resolution.

I was excited to read this but I approached it with my expectations in check. It wasn’t a complete surprise that “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” lacked the intensity and vigor of Larrson’s narrative. It was a bit like returning to a favorite restaurant on the chef’s night off.  The menu was the same and the meal was good enough – just not as satisfying as before.

A Spool of Blue Thread

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For years, a big part of the enjoyment of reading an Ann Tyler novel has been bumping into friends and relatives in the decidedly off-center characters who live between the covers of her stories. However, when the quirky character I kept bumping into in “A Spool of Blue Thread,” was myself, I didn’t find it quite so enjoyable.

This new novel of Tyler’s draws on the narrative of four generations of the Whitshank family, with Red and Abby Whitshank, at the center. As the primary thread unravels, Red and Abby are middle-aged – my age, to be precise. Red has had a heart attack and Abby shows signs of ‘mental confusion,’ calls the current dog by the name of an earlier dog, and acknowledges that sometimes her “mind skips, across a few minutes, like a needle on a record.”

Their four adult children conclude that their parents can no longer safely live on their own, so without any discussion with Red and Abby, two children move back home. One son brings three suitcases of clothes with him to last through multiple seasons, and the other son moves in with a wife and two young boys. This turn of events does not sit well with either parent and sets in motion the release of resentments and long-harbored grudges heretofore kept in check.

Families are emotionally complex, and no other author in my reading life nails the nuances of family angst as unerringly as Ann Tyler. Like an ever-rotating kaleidoscope, each person remembers events differently, according to his or her unique vantage point. Triumphs and disappointments, affections and jealousies, color and reassemble shared memories.

Ann Tyler creates very human characters, which she treats with respect and kindness while gently peeling away the layers of artifice. Like a good mother, she loves them unconditionally, all the while understanding and accepting their shortcomings. By the end of the novel, everyone has moved on – a bit. While no dramatic changes or ‘makeovers’ have occurred, there are hints of enhanced understanding and acceptance of one another as well as themselves.

During my lawyering years, I came to realize that the central fight for families was about whom mom liked best – not the Tupperware or the Templeton funds that the fight was purportedly focused upon. That is true of the Whitshanks as well.

Readers who like a story presented in black and white might as well steer clear of Ann Tyler, who works her magic in the gray shadows. If “A Spool of Blue Thread” were the first Tyler read for me, I am not sure I would have sought out others. But since this was her 20th novel – of which I have previously read 15 – it was an enjoyable homecoming, and a welcome reminder that there are a few more of her novels for me to unwind.

Andrea Griffith at Browser’s Book Shop in downtown Olympia ordered “A Spool of Blue Thread” for me and then put a Mylar cover on it. Great service.

Alexandra Fuller, “Leaving Before the Rains Come”

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I recently read “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” a memoir by Alexandra Fuller. This is the third memoir of Fuller’s I have read and loved. Discovering a new Fuller memoir was akin to a call from an old friend asking to meet for dinner.  Truthfully, I am such a sucker for a great title that I would have brought the book home, even if I hadn’t recognized the author.

Several years ago I read “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” a tale of the author’s chaotically unconventional life growing up in what was then Rhodesia, which she relates with stark clarity, wry humor and touching poignancy. The story of Nicola Fuller, Alexandra’s “broken, splendid, fierce” mother is captured in “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness” published a few years later.

“Leaving Before the Rains Come” relates the story of the disintegration of Alexandra’s 20 plus year marriage to Charlie, an American she met and married when he was working as a Safari river guide in Zambia and Zimbabwe. As with the other two memoirs, Fuller peels back the layers in a relationship, exposing fissures and failures, without rancor or pettiness or blame.

“Voice” is critical to memoir and Fuller’s voice is reliably strong and authentic. I can hear her long after I lay the book down. Her knack for employing precisely the right word is a rarity in my reading experience and something to be celebrated.  I pause to ask myself if any other word would do and the answer is invariably ‘no.’

If you relish truly good writing and are drawn to memoir, pick up Alexandra Fuller.

Reginald Hill and the Yorkshire detective duo, Dalziel and Pascoe

Most weeks, I make the drive to Seattle and back, in order to hang out my grand daughter and catch up with my daughter and son in law. It is a lot of fun, once I get there. What isn’t fun about this routine is the drive itself – invariably fraught with heavy traffic, slow downs, and depending on the time of year, lots of rain.  All that becomes palatable – indeed something to look forward to – thanks to talking books.

This winter I listened my way through several of Reginald Hill’s quintessential Yorkshire detective series, featuring the duo of Dalziel and Pascoe.  Listening to the books read by a professional actor who can nail the accents and the nuances of local expressions adds greatly to the enjoyment of the tale.

Hill died in 2012 after many years of prolific output. The twists of plot are reliably intriguing and his characters surprisingly complex. Some stories are a bit dated – at least technologically – the detectives spend time looking for a ‘call box’ rather than pulling out their mobile phone.  Still, at their core, the stories are timeless, unraveling crimes motivated by greed, loss, and misplaced affection.

I regret that I missed seeing the BBC production of Hill’s work.  Perhaps Netflix will come to my rescue.  In the meantime, I continue to scour the library shelves for more recordings.  Hill’s apparent enjoyment of his characters is infectious.

All the Light We Cannot See

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I often have books – even really great books – languishing on the ‘to be read’ shelf for weeks or months until I get around to pick them up.  Such was the case with Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” which I had been saving for a time when I had more time. Given that it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for months, it is obvious that others haven’t let time constraints hobble them as I did.

Over Christmas break, I was evidently channeling my mother. “If you are too busy to read, then you are too busy. “  So I got right on it and spend my pre-dawn hours beside the wood stove with a cup of tea reading “All the Light. . . . “and am transported to another time and place in the company of courageous and clever characters.

Doerr elegantly weaves the stories of  Marie-Laure a blind French girl and Werner, a German boy raised in an orphanage in a mining town whose special talent with radios leads him to a position with the Nazi forces, tracking the resistance movement. Marie-Laure’s story begins in Paris, when the Nazis occupy the city, she moves to Saint-Malo, where her story and Werner’s converge.

I haven’t finished it yet and will surely have more to say when I do.  For now, I can only comment that this is an a mesmerizing  tale, told elegantly. If you haven’t read it yet, mother and I both admonish you to “get right on it!”

I often have more than one book open at a time and the present is no exception.

In early December a friend told me that for Christmas he was giving me “The Silkworm” the sequel to “The Cuckoo Calling” by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. I down loaded “Cuckoo. . . “ on my iPad when we were in Kauai before Christmas, polished it off in no time, and eagerly looked forward to  Christmas and the sequel.

Well guess what? My friend evidently forgot his promise. Fine Santa he’d make!  The day after Christmas, I took myself down to Orca Books and purchased my own copy of “The Silkworm.” These two books hit all the right notes for me as a fan of procedural detective fiction.

The main character, Cormoran Strike, private investigator, is complex and appealing.  In “Cuckoo’s Calling” we learn a bit about Strike’s past – his dubious parentage, military service in Afghanistan, the loss of part of a leg, mounting debts. When the novel opens, he is homeless, having broken off a long-term relationship with a beautiful, wealthy, and mercurial girl friend.

Strike’s rough and ready persona is nicely balanced by Robin, the young woman who arrives on assignment from a ‘temp’ agency to do clerical work and realizes that detection is her true calling.  Robin proves to be an invaluable asset to Strike, and opts to stay despite more lucrative offers and her fiancé’s objections.

This series is sure to be popular.  Each installment leaves the reader eager for more.

Louise Penny

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When I was in Nanaimo, and announced that I was particularly attracted to procedural detective fiction, I was asked if I read Louise Penny, a Canadian author of that genre whose first novel, “Still Life,” was published in 2006. What a delight that discovery was.

She has now published nine novels featuring Inspector Gamache of the Metropolitan Police in Montreal whose inquiries invariably bring him to Three Pines, a small village several miles from the city.  In “Still Life” most of the characters that will populate Penny’s next eight novels are introduced and take on greater depth and complexity with each succeeding novel. There are internal conflicts within the tightknit village of Three Pines as well as the police force (Surete’ du Quebec) and Inspector Armand Gamache’s own family.

All have been engrossing reads but “The Beautiful Mystery” is my favorite, in part because of its setting in a monastery deep in the wilds of Quebec, where each of the two dozen members of the community is possessed of a remarkable singing voice along with a particular skill necessary to maintain the life of the cloistered community.

When my friends at Amazon notified me that I could pre-order Penny’s latest book, “The Long Way Home,” I go so excited that I ended up with two copies – one that I pre-ordered and one that I ordered when I forgot about the pre-order.  This set me up to be doubly disappointed when I read “The Long Way Home” which seemed contrived, and a slow slog at best.  There were even a couple of obvious errors. Two old codgers playing backgammon as part of an atmospheric backdrop, shatter it when one of them says, “king me” – a checkers term used with the game on the other side of the backgammon board.

I mentioned my disappointment with Penney’s latest novel to the gathering in Nanaimo and saw heads nodding in agreement around the room, so evidently I am not alone in my assessment despite the fact that when I read reviews it was being hailed as her best novel ever.  Makes me wonder if the reviewers were as familiar with her work as me and my friends in Nanaimo.

If you haven’t read any of her novels, do.  You are in for a treat.  Just don’t start with the “The Long Way Home” or, if you do, know that subsequent reads will only get better!

The works of Brian Doyle

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Recently, I have been reading books by Brian Doyle, a Portland writer who has been the editor of PORTLAND, the magazine for the University of Portland for many years.  Best known for his essays and poetry, this summer I read Mink River and The Plover, two “whopping headlong novels” to quote Mr. Doyle himself.

I was completely caught up in both novels, engaged with the characters and engrossed by the twists and turns of plot.  What a winning combination – an Irish raconteur with the voice of a poet and an ear to the soul.

I also read and enjoyed The Grail, a collection of essays about the year Doyle spent hanging out in an Oregon vineyard in search of the perfect Pinot Noir.  As reading material, essays are high on my list. The Grail was particularly interesting to me as my brother’s family owns and operates, Winter’s Hill Wine and Vineyard, in Dundee, Oregon.

Brian Doyle is the inaugural speaker for the Les Bailey Writer’s Series and will give a free public presentation October 8 at 7:00 p.m. at the Worthington Center on the Saint Martin’s University campus.  Treat yourself to an entertaining evening and bring a friend.

Other Authors I’m Reading

I have long been a devotee of procedural detective fiction.  Recently Scandinavian writers have enjoyed a dominant presence in that genre.  I raced through the Stieg Larsson novels, then ate up all the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo, even though I was growing weary of Harry’s on going battle with alcoholism, I kept coming back for more.

This summer my friend Steve Bean introduced me to a Danish writer in the same vein, Jussi Adler-Olson.  His novels have all of the darkness of Larsson and Nesbo, delightfully lightened with humor.  Detective Carl Mork has a messy life – complicated by a self absorbed stepson, a nutty estranged wife, and his two singular assistants, Rose and Assad.

They all play off each other delightfully and the comic relief is welcome, as the cases Mork is assigned to are horrific.  The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first in this Department ‘Q’ series and I recommend starting there.  I just finished The Conspiracy of Faith and intend to bring his latest book, The Marco Effect, on my next road trip.