Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Five Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

My original plans for this weekend are in ruins, thanks to the need for some big work on my ten-year-old VW Beetle. I had hoped that my usual mechanics could do it this morning — which would make it just barely possible that I could go to Washington for the weekend — but the job requires a trip to the dealer, and they can't see me until first thing Friday morning. After that, of course, I won't have any money to go anywhere.

On the bright side, it'll give me a chance to do a little catching up on my to-be-read pile, and I've got a movie pass card burning a hole in my pocket. Here are five recent reads/listens, which are a mixed bag.

1. Thomas Perry, STRIP. An aging strip club owner with a sideline in money laundering gets robbed one night, and launches a campaign against the man he believes responsible. Of course he's got the wrong guy, who has reasons of his own for taking offense. Meanwhile the real bandit's got a new and deadly sidekick, and sees no reason to stop robbing the man who was such an easy target the first time. The plot is a dazzling piece of clockwork — Perry's a master — but has so many moving parts that we have little time to get to know any of the characters, which made it hard for me to root for any of them.

2. Mark Kermode, IT'S ONLY A MOVIE: Reel Life Adventures of a Film Obsessive. I don't care how pathetic this sounds: one of the highlights of my week is the Friday podcast of Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo's Film Review program from BBC Radio 5. Mark Kermode, who holds a Ph.D. in horror — well, a Ph.D. in English for which he wrote a thesis on horror fiction — is as cranky about movies as only a disappointed lover could be, and he's also hilarious. I laughed out loud on almost every page. This book won't be available in the U.S. until November, but the friend who lured me into the Cult of Kermode kindly sent me a copy.

3. Martyn Waites, SPEAK NO EVIL. Thirty years after her 11-year-old self murdered a little boy, Anne Marie Smeaton is ready to tell her story to former journalist Joe Donovan, now running his own PI agency. When another young boy is murdered, however, Donovan is not the only one wondering about the connection between that death and the woman who used to be Mae Blacklock. Meanwhile, Donovan's long-term search for his missing son moves toward its own startling resolution. Martyn Waites (who's a pal) is one of a handful of authors I trust with material this dark. He has an uncanny empathy for even the most vicious of his characters; what he says here, once again, is that violence begets violence and cruelty leads to cruelty, but it is possible to break the cycle.

4. Elizabeth Peters, BORROWER OF THE NIGHT. Historian Vicky Bliss competes with her colleague and suitor David to find a legendary medieval shrine in the ancestral home of the Drachensteins. Vicky Bliss is Nancy Drew grown up, which is fun for the most part but also made me grateful the Nancy Drew books weren't told in the first person; a little of that preternatural self-confidence goes a long, long way. Unfortunately I listened to this one on audiobook, with a reader (Susan O'Malley) who made no attempt at the German pronunciations. The mispronunciation of Gräfin (Countess) started as distracting, became annoying, and by the end of the book was infuriating.

5. Tom Knox, THE MARKS OF CAIN. Separate investigations lead a lawyer and a journalist on quests to discover the truth about the Cagots, an ancient race of untouchables, persecuted throughout history. At various points in this book, people are scalped by hair-twisting, flayed alive, microwaved, burned at the stake, and eaten by sharks. I can't recommend this book, but it's strangely compelling. Clunky prose, implausible coincidences, horrific violence and anti-Catholic paranoia can't overwhelm the power of the true stories that inspired the novel: the tragedy of the Cagots, the Namibian genocides, the bizarre research of Eugen Fischer — a guilty pleasure for a summer afternoon could have been extraordinary in the hands of a better writer.

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