Tag Archives: mystery

Travels In The Scriptorium – Paul Auster

Warning: This whole review is a spoiler, so don’t come crying to me later all – “You ruined the ending for me and now I’m upset and you need to buy me cake.”  – because you’ve been warned and cake is expensive and you don’t deserve cake, what with the way you’ve been behaving.

Paul Auster likes a good twist and he likes to question reality and motive. His writing (at least the two novels I’ve read) also tends to reference the act of writing itself, or reading, touching on the position of Author-as-Creator or Reader-asParticipant. I like Auster’s writing, so I don’t mean this to be a dig, but in some cases, Travels in the Scriptorium in particular, he fits in my bookcase as a sort of Borges-lite.

Scriptorium is a beautifully written day in the life of an older man, dazedly attempting to figure out if he is being punished or protected in the strange white room in which he awakes. Auster excels at portraying confusion without actually being so confusing that you stop reading and rock slowly back and forth, back and forth in a tumult of mixed-up misery…sorry, back to it…Auster’s readers suffer with the narrator as he tries to understand how he has come to be in the hospital/prison room, and what role he has played in the lives of the visitors who come to berate, question and forgive him.

The twist when it comes, is not Auster’s best (The narrator is an author! The angry people are his characters. Your mind! It’s blown!)

So here’s the thing, really…I have thought about, and actually made mention several times in previous reviews (Kosiński, anyone?) of the excessive cruelty certain authors seem to inflict on their characters. My complaint is that often, this seems  above and beyond the requirements of the narrative, so I should be all in to the punchline of Scriptorium. I’m not though. Human nature, it’s unpredictable.



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In the Woods – Tana French

Oh Lord, that’s a terrible decision! Don’t go up those stairs! Don’t trust her! Don’t go in the woods!

In the Woods isn’t a horror movie, but the main character repeatedly chooses the wrong path. If to the right are roses and unicorns, and to the left a reddish sky and the twisted remains of those who have gone before, Detective Rob Ryan always chooses the left. It gets painful, because you want to like him but he’s an idiot.

Tana French starts out with a gloriously creepy premise. Two decades before Rob ignores the unicorns, he was the sole survivor of SOMETHING MYSTERIOUS which happened in the suburban woods outside Dublin. The story is contemporary, and Ireland is free of snakes, fairies and Druids…or is it?

No, it seems to be a relatively unmagical place, full of sloppy cops, child molesters and corrupt politicians. As Rob and his endearing partner Cassie Maddox try to track down the molesters while avoiding the slop and corruption, tendrils of  Rob’s past come winding in, blurring the line between plot and coincidence, past and present.

If you enjoyed Warner Herzog’s version of The Bad Detective, you’ll enjoy a similar self destruction in In the Woods.

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Black Hills – Nora Roberts

rar! rar, rar, rar! roar! rar rar roar! growwwl! roar roar!

Oh, I’m sorry, don’t you speak mountain lion? Perhaps you shouldn’t read Black Hills then. It’s only for people who understand the soul of the Puma.

Actually, there’s a lot of sex in it too, so if you like sex and mountain lions, you’re all set.

Nora Roberts is a romance writer, “America’s Favorite Writer” according to The New Yorker (according to the back of the book). It could very well be true, I can believe that America likes sex and mountain lions. America also likes stories of childhood lovers who grow apart, but then find themselves facing a terrifying killer who threatens all that they hold dear.

America is totally riveted as the lovers, older now, but no less passionate, must find a way to learn to trust each other and let love back in to their hearts, while at the same time outwitting a maniacal and brilliant murderer who will stop at nothing to destroy them and live out his twisted fantasies.

Not only does Roberts leave America breathless with anticipation regarding the fate of Cooper Sullivan and Lil Chance, but she also teaches the country a lesson about conservation and our dwindling natural resources. Important resources, like mountain lions. RAR!

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Guest Review by Amy Suzanne Heneveld – Dans le Cage de la Jeunesse Perdue – Patrick Modiano

You know when you’ve come to accept your solitary life, when things like “days” and “underpants” don’t necessarily change at the same time? When cobwebs form sturdy shelves on which to set things like keys and toothbrushes? When you not only speak to your cat, but set a place at the table for him… ha ha, just kidding, you don’t set a place for the cat, you can’t even remember the last time you ate at a table. You eat slumped in the corner and you glare at the loveseat for reminding you of your loneliness through its two person seating capacity.  Well, shave your mustache pretty lady, we have company. Amy was originally going to do this review in French, but she took pity on me and translated it. Merci!

Patrick Modiano’s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue reminds me of that painting you often see as a poster, of a neon lit café in which you can glimpse the portraits of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. I just found out that it is called the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, that Green Day has a song named that too, but in typical internet information fashion, I still don’t know who painted it.

The punk song connection is interesting though, since I think the book is a look backwards at the darker side of a youthful and revolutionary period in Parisian life, the late sixties and early seventies, though no date is ever mentioned. The title comes from a Guy Debord quote, and the descriptions of the city in the novel remind me of Situationist work on the city, how we walk in it, where we go, the places we stay, how those places change, how our paths in the city cross other people’s paths, for different reasons, or for no reason at all.

Modiano writes detective stories that aren’t detective stories. I like reading him because the feeling of a mystery is there, but the context isn’t clear. The reader feels suspicious and anxious and curious, but the point of view constantly changes and you are not really sure who is investigating what or why. But this is perhaps why I like it: you get to be the ultimate detective. This sad story of a lost young girl told around the streets which lead people to and from a café called the Condet in Paris’ Odéon neighborhood is told from four points of view, and though you understand the story at the end, having pieced together what you think is the main narrative from the bits Modiano gives you, you don’t fully understand why he’s told it. It’s like parts of a destroyed photograph pasted together, or a puzzle with key pieces missing; it keeps you wondering. While you read, you have to remember, but you forget, and the novel has an ephemeral quality, which aligns itself with dark, smoky bars and foggy Parisian streets.

This book is also about our inability to communicate with each other, be with each other, or help each other. How we often meet, get involved, yet totally miss each other. The characters are unable to experience and express their emotions, so their youth really is lost, lost in a kind of alcoholic or drug induced torpor, lost in who they are trying to be, unable to be themselves. Lost also in the past, in memory. Modiano often represents memory as the same grey matter of his stories, a place in which you wander around looking for something solid but meet only ghosts.

I’m not really youthful anymore, I’m less lost than I was, and maybe that’s why I liked wandering through this book. I am not sure how Modiano’s ambiance comes across in English, but one of his books at least has been translated. It’s been appropriately called Missing Person. Maybe I’ll go missing and translate this one, in the café of a lost generation.


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Windy City Blues – Sara Paretsky

Paretsky’s short stories about private investigator V.I. Warshawski came as a welcome relief from the violence and nonsense of some of the other books I’ve been reading lately (just as the nonsense was a relief from Wuthering Heights. Balance, people, it’s all about balance).

That isn’t to say that Windy City Blues isn’t violent. There’s at least one murder per story, but at least they are normal murders. Guns, poison, garrotes made of tennis rackets…these are polite sadism-free killings. People kill in Warshawski’s world for old fashioned reasons like money and jealousy. It’s all very refreshing.

It’s also refreshing to read stories with actual characters. The people in Windy City Blues may be dramatic, but they are possible and interesting. From obese ex-football players to children of Holocaust survivors, each story is populated by complicated and developed human beings. Paretsky clearly has a back story for everyone but just as in real life, we are given mere glimpses into a character’s psyche and left to imagine the rest.

Windy City Blues is also a book about  a city and like the people in the stories, Chicago is portrayed with flaws and beauty both.

Although there is some movement, the stories in Windy City Blues are almost all solved in a single room, in a single day, mysteries in their classic form.

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The Girl who played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

Now here’s a series problem again. I should really be reviewing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, since that was the first book, and the one that’s being made into a movie. A movie! With famous people!

The thing is, I didn’t really read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I listened to it as an audio book, and only sort of, through a Nyquil haze when I had a very bad flu last year, so all I can remember about Larsson’s first book is this; Everyone spoke with a twatty English accent.

If we set the confusing nationality of narrators aside, The Girl who played with Fire is similar in structure and theme to the first book. Someone is wrongly accused of something, computers are hacked, dildos are mentioned and there are Nazis. Really, it’s the perfect book for a long airplane flight to Mexico. It was available in the airport bookstore in paperback, it’s very long so I didn’t finish it on the runway, and it’s shock full of very disturbing sexual imagery so the person sitting next to me now thinks I am a pervert. Win all around!

NOTE: You don’t have to be flying to Mexico when you read this book. You could be flying somewhere else.

MORE NOTE: For a review of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by a man who read it on an airplane and wasn’t much impressed, go here –  Ezra Dyer. I’ve also heard from several friends who really enjoyed the book while not on airplanes, so there you go.


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Stranger at the Wedding – Barbara Hambly

My sister is getting married this weekend! My sister! Married! Good Grief!

Stranger at the Wedding was part of my couch, work, couch week and it seemed sort of appropriate as a review for this weekend.

On further thought, it’s not at all appropriate because it’s all about wedding disasters, and a wedding related curse and I want everything to go swimmingly for my sis. Perhaps I can review this in the same spirit with which one says “break a leg” to a performer. That’s the approach I’ll take.

Velvet. There are many velvet gowns in this book. I’m not sure if all Hambly’s books involve so much velvet but I hope they do.

Hambly’s main character is a sharp tounged red head with a temper. Surprise! Red haired Kyra is also a witch, which causes her family great shame. Surprise! She ends up falling for her sister Alix’s betrothed while trying to save Alix from a curse placed on her from beyond the grave by a pedophilic rogue wizard. Ok, that actually was a surprise.

I’m not entirely sure why anyone in this novel behaves the way they do, but I’m cool with it. Maybe it has something to do with all the velvet.

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