Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr (2015)

Bernie Gunther has had a tough 20th century. A born-and-bred Berliner, he fought in the trenches in the first world war. Now, in the midst of World War II, he is trying to navigate life in Hitler's Germany - between avoiding joining the Nazi Party and committing crimes for which he could not live with himself, he's not doing too well. Combine that with the food and booze shortages and the horrors he knows are occurring in various parts of Germany, Bernie's life is frankly not very fun. One day his old boss, Arthur Nebe, invites him for lunch. Nebe is a high-ranking Nazi official and, in the summer before meeting Bernie, had singlehandedly murdered 45,000 Jews. Yet, in another example of the moral ambiguity that characterises the Bernie Gunther series, Bernie still enjoys Arthur's company and is prepared to let Arthur buy him a nice lunch. Arthur enlists Bernie to present at an international policing conference being held in Germany (this is no joke - Nazi Germany held an international policing conference in the middle of WW2 which was attended by police from all over the world. If that were a plot point in a movie it would be dismissed for being unrealistic.). Bernie's speech leads to unexpected events, including the murder of a lawyer who wants to challenge the legality of some of the actions of the Nazi government, a liaison with a movie star and a trip into the very dark and very disturbing region of Bosnia and Croatia.

The Lady of Zagreb is the tenth Bernie Gunther novel. Chances are, if you're planning to read it you've read at least one or two of the previous nine (no-one seriously enters a series on the tenth book). Therefore, I think you will agree with me when I say that Bernie is an awesome character. In The Lady of Zagreb, Bernie is as hardboiled as ever, quipping non-stop and conducting himself with the moral code we've come to expect. This book is incredibly well written and well researched, and as with every other Bernie novel, I learned new and horrific things about what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1944. I heart Bernie Gunther, and The Lady of Zagreb did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for him.

However, this book required just a little bit more of me than the other titles in this series have. To be honest, I skimmed over chapters of the description of the horrors that occurred in Yugoslavia. Perhaps I could be accused of putting my head in the sand, but there is only so much evil I can take in one 400-page novel I am reading for enjoyment. Those scenes, while I'm sure perfectly accurately recounted, were really awful. Also, I did find it just a little hard to believe that Bernie would have got away with quite as much sass as he did. He said stuff to some of the most evil men in history that made me blink (and I'm not even a murdering dictator). Finally, Kerr really needs to lift his game in his depiction of women. The two here are complete cardboard cut-outs. One is literally just a plot point (I don't think she even has any lines) and the other sounds like a robot. I would totally sleep with Bernie (phwarrr!) so I get that so many beautiful women want him but even beautiful women can have more than one dimension.

That said, even a not-perfect Bernie Gunther novel is still better than most of the detective novels out there. Three and a half stars (and if you haven't read any Bernie books, start with Berlin Noir. They're really great).

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (2015)

The Book of Speculation opens with Simon surveying his family home on the Long Island Sound. The house sits right the end of the cliff and, following years of neglect, if it does not receive serious investment, it will fall into the sea. Simon, like the house, seems beaten down and neglected - working as a librarian, he does not have the money to fix the house properly so spends what little he has plugging up the gaps. His neighbour, Frank, constantly and needlessly reminds him about the damage occurring to the house, but there seems to be little Simon is able or willing to do.

Simon does have a skill he does exceptionally well - he is a water breather. His mother, who was a circus performer, taught him to hold his breath underwater for amazing lengths of time. When he was seven years old, she walked into the water and drowned, leaving Simon to care for his sister Enola and Simon and Enola's father to slowly die of grief. Simon's thoughts circle around these two poles: his mother's death and the decay of his house. They trap him, like a hamster running around a cage.

One day Simon arrives home to find a package waiting for him on the doorstep. It is a very old book that would be very valuable except that it has been severely damaged by water. The book is accompanied by a note:

Dear Mr. Watson,
I came across this book at auction as part of a larger lot I purchased on speculation. The damage renders it useless to me, but a name inside it—Verona Bonn—led me to believe it might be of interest to you or your family. It's a lovely book, and I hope that it fins a good home with you. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions that you feel I might be able to answer.

Mr. Martin Churchwarry of Churchwarry & Sons

The name that led Mr Churchwarry to Simon is that of his grandmother, who also drowned. What is her name doing in this book and how did it end up on Simon's door in such a state? Is his sister due to experience the same fate that befell his mother and grandmother? Can she be saved?

However, The Book of Speculation is not just Simon's story. In what is clearly the storytelling fashion du jour (this is the fifth book I've read this year with this structure!), every second chapter takes us back in time to the historical past. A mute boy born out of wedlock is abandoned by his family in the woods. Miraculously, he survives by scavenging food and shelter and develops the remarkable talent of making himself vanish. After years of living alone, he stumbles on a circus. Filled with freaks and oddities, he feels at home there and starts to appear in the circus as a Wild Boy. In the present day, Simon reads about the Wild Boy in his book, so we know the two storylines are connected, but how and what joins them?

This book reminded me a lot of The Night Circus. Obviously the circus settings are the same but also the magic undercurrent that implies that within a circus, the performances do contain a touch of the supernatural. Honestly, Simon is a bit of a wet blanket, but the people around hime - his lover Alice, his sister Enola and his neighbour Frank - are interesting enough so the narrative is engaging. The story of how the Wild Boy becomes a fortune teller and falls in lovely is really lovely and the two halves of the book work really well together. I enjoyed this book a lot - four stars.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie (1962)

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I had a lot of things to say about books and no-one in real life to say them too! My cat, while patient and prepared to listen, did not provide me with any sort of useful feedback (although obviously the purring was very much appreciated). So, in response to that need, HereIRead was started. After a few months of posting whenever I felt like it, I realised that this blog provided me with a great opportunity to practise my writing discipline. I could use my new outlet to help me be a better writer! So I set myself the goal of publishing one review every week at 9am on a Wednesday every week, rain, hail or shine. 500 words once a week couldn't be that hard, right?

Wrong. Writing about books is hard! It takes hours to read a book and not every book is interesting enough to write about. Some weeks I have loads of time for reading and some weeks hardly at all, a clear factor that affects the volume of books I can get through. A long, dense book - the kind of book, honestly, that I really love! - can take weeks to get through and then a few more days to mull over. Hence, fewer reviews. It turns out I'm just as bad at writing on deadline for a blog where I get to talk about something I really love as I am every other writing deadline I set for myself in every other part of my live.

So, here I am, two weeks and five days over my self-imposed deadline, reviewing one of my favourite authors ever: Agatha Christie. My pathway to this book, The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side was circuitous. Last Monday, I read Beyond the Looking Glass: Narcissism and Female Stardom in Studio-Era Hollywood by Ana Salzburg (see what I mean? I read a whole book but it's no good for the blog because it's an academic text so only of interest to film scholars. I give it four stars.) and there was a chapter on Gene Tierney. Salzburg notes that nowadays Tierney is mainly remembered for her tragic story - while pregnant, she contracted German measles and gave birth to a child with severe disabilities, following which Tierney experienced a series of nervous breakdowns. Years later, she met a fan who recounted how she broke quarantine for German measles to meet Gene, possibly thus infecting her at the same time. Salzburg argues that part of the reason that this story is so prominent in Tierney's story is its fictionalisation by Dame Agatha in The Mirror Crack'd. I love Christie novels, the book's tangential relationship with Hollywood means reading it would not be procrastination but study for my thesis, and it was available on Open Library. Done!

The Mirror Crack'd is a Miss Marple novel and much of the story takes place in her small house in the village of St Mary's Mead. St Mary's Mead, once a quiet town where everyone knew everyone, is changing, for example with the building of a new estate (called "the Development" by Miss Marple and her elderly friends). Miss Marple's friend Mrs Bantry complains about the local supermarket, which is full of giant boxes of cereal and where it can take fifteen minutes to find everything you need (!!!). Christie is a keen documenter of the changes in middle-class England in the twentieth century, and the book is full of pithy observations about changes in women's roles, skills and ambitions. What I like best about the way Christie does it is that there a faint scent of nostalgia for the way things were, with dedicated servants devoting themselves to their masters, but in the main part she recognises that times change and in fact modern times provide all sorts of benefits (especially for women), although she does seem to find it hard not to snark on how much sex the youngs have, which is quite hilarious from a modern perspective.

The drama in Mirror occurs when a film star Marina Gregg and her producer husband buy the local country house. They remodel it and then open in to host a local fête. At a small private reception given by the famous pair, one of the organisers of the event, a Mrs Badcock, is slipped a fatal dose of a drug in her drink and quietly expires. Without any real enemies (Mrs Badcock's greatest sin was being a slightly annoying busy body, a characteristic that is almost always proves fatal in cosy murder mysteries), suspicion falls first on her husband because, as Miss Marple sagely observes, "It so often is the husband." When he is cleared (temporarily, of course), the police start to question whether the intended victim was in fact Marina. Was it her husband? Her abandoned adopted children? A jealous ex-lover?

Because this is an Agatha Christie novel, the plot is full of twists and turns, red herrings and dead ends. The bodies pile up in a somewhat alarming (but entertaining) fashion, but the focus is always on Miss Marple's parlour and the vague thoughts that, as soon as they crystallise, will help her solve
the murder. I don't if it's because I knew the true story the novel was based on (i.e., the big twist) or because deep down I knew that reading this novel didn't really count as studying, but I didn't enjoy this book as much as I usually do the work of Dame Agatha. That said, it was still a cracking read, both entertaining as a mystery and as a social commentary on the passing of time. Three stars.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox (2015)

John Wonder lives an unusual life. He has three families, each living in a different country, separated from each other by oceans. In each family, he has a wife and two children. Each pair of children is made up of a boy and a girl, with the son (Adam) older than the daughter (Evie). John spends one week in three with each family, living a carefully delineated life. This unusual life is possible because John Wonder is an unusual man. John works as an Authenticator, travelling the globe authenticating the type of feats that are recorded in the Guinness World Book of Records. Born without a scent, he makes himself innocuous, unnoticeable and unseen.

The Wonder Lover opens strongly, with the unusual (that word again!) literary device of being narrated collectively by all six children. In full disclosure, I borrowed this from the library thinking it was Marion Halligan's Goodbye Sweetheart, so I had a completely different idea of what the book was going to be about. That said, once I realised I what I had done, I went with it. The first half of the book is very well written and I was fascinated by the story of the determinately non-interesting man who had built up such an interesting life. But then, halfway through the novel, the author commits an unforgivable sin: John's world starts to fall apart because he meets Cucina, whp is thirty years his junior and the world's most beautiful woman.

It's time for some ranting. The year is 2015. Lolita was published in 1955. Since then, there have been many books, so so so many books, where the plot resolves around an old man lusting after a younger woman. This plot line needs to stop. It needs to die. It has been done to death and it's disgusting, creepy, always sexist and often downright misogynist. Worse still, it's boring. I want books to entertain me, engage my mind, make me think, make me care about characters and events and be interesting. THERE SHOULD BE NO MORE BOOKS WHERE OLD MEN LUST AFTER YOUNG BEAUTIFUL WOMEN. The quota of books containing that storyline has been reached. There are enough tales telling that particular story. There is literally no way this story can be retold in a new and interesting way. Please, let no author ever write about it ever again. It's time has come.

I did finish the book because I wanted to see what happened. Unfortunately, the end of the book is quite stupid. The women characters who appeared so intriguing at the start of the story end up as caricatures and it was all strangely unsatisfactory. The Wonder Lovers gets two stars and a time-out in the naughty corner.