Paul’s Book Reviews: Mysteries, Thrillers, Fantasy, (Bad) Science Fiction

“I spend the months following my grandfather’s death cycling through a purgatory of beige waiting rooms and anonymous offices, analyzed and interviewed, talked about just out of earshot, nodding when spoken to, repeating myself, the object of a thousand pitying glances and knitted brows.  My parents treated me like a breakable heirloom, afraid to fight or fret in front of me lest I shatter.” — Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

by Mo Hayder

I’ve been up and down with Mo Hayder. My first experience with her writing was The Devil of Nanking, a frightening novel about the modern-day exposure of a aged Japanese war criminal who had committed inhuman atrocities during the 1937 Rape of Nanking. Mo moved onto my list of authors to follow. The second novel I read, Ritual, was quite different, a British police procedural with interesting cops, once again featuring an unusually twisted criminal. It was good but not especially memorable. The third, Pig Island, was a dark mystery with an evil villain so twisted and far-fetched I could not suspend disbelief, and I took Mo off my list. But then my daughter read Gone and enthusiastically forced it upon me. I’m glad she did: Mo’s back on my list.

Gone, like Ritual, is a police procedural, once again featuring Detective Inspector Jack Caffrey and Special Unit police diver Flea Marley. The crimes in this novel involve, would you believe, another twisted criminal, a fiendishly clever serial child abductor who seems always one step ahead of the police. The children he abducts may still be alive, but won’t be for long, so the tension is high throughout. Jack & Flea have their own baggage, unrelated crimes and misunderstandings that were probably the subject of other Jack & Flea novels I haven’t read. Like The Devil of Nanking, Gone is an irresistable page-turner, and I could not put it down.

Yes, her novels are a little melodramatic, her criminal masterminds too far-fetched to be easily believable, but in Gone, as with The Devil of Nanking, Mo Hayder played me like a fiddle, keeping me at a high pitch of excitement from beginning to end. I’ll try to forget Pig Island and look for other Mo Hayder police procedurals featuring Jack & Flea.


man from beijing

The Man from Beijing
by Henning Mankell

This is my second attempt at Henning Mankell, the Swedish mystery writer. Unlike the first Mankell novel I read, The Man Who Smiled, this one is not a Kurt Wallander police procedural; rather, The Man from Beijing features new characters acting in a combination mystery/thriller storyline.

The Man from Beijing is more sedate than the typical airport bookstore thriller, and despite some quite violent crimes and chillingly tense situations, Mankell lays out his story in a methodical, deliberately paced, thoughtful way. I liked it, and will probably read more novels by Mankell; I enjoy the foreign settings and the thoroughness with which he researches background detail, and though they can seem a little cold (is this a Swedish thing?) I like his characters.

My only real disappointment with this novel is the early abandonment of a policewoman named Vivi … Mankell brings her on like gangbusters, gets you really interested in her ability to solve the horrific crime she’s presented with, then allows her to fade into the background, diverted onto a wild goose chase that takes her out of the action. This disappointment was offset by Mankell’s fascinating Chinese characters, in particular a highly placed woman who was once a Red Guard, and I feel I gained some insights into China through her. The mystery at the heart of the book, regarded in the cold light of day, seems awfully far-fetched, but hey, it’s a thriller, and one I found hard to put down.


by Anne Holt

After reading Mankell, I found myself pining for the fjords, so I tried another Scandanavian mystery, this one by Norwegian writer Anne Holt.  1222‘s crime-solver is a wheelchair-bound former policewoman named Hanne Wilhelmsen.  This novel is, I believe, the first of Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen novels to be translated into English.

I liked what I read, though I’m not much into “closed room” mysteries. Granted that murders are likely to occur in a setting like the one described in the novel, an isolated mountain hotel packed with unexpected guests rescued after a train wreck, now trapped inside during a violent snowstorm; the set piece denouement, where the detective/retired policeman/private eye calls everyone into one room and makes a speech, during which the murderer either goes for his gun or confesses, is just too contrived and unreal for my tastes.

But that is the genre, and Anne Holt does it well. The setting of this story, the snowed-in mountain hotel (the title refers to the hotel’s elevation, in meters), is particularly memorable, and Holt delivers a strong taste of Norway. You will find yourself, as I did, longing for a plate of tørrfisk.


storm of swordsA Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3)
by George R.R. Martin

Every bit as fascinating and compelling as the first two novels in the series. I get so wrapped up in the characters and their fates it’s impossible to stay away from these books for long, even as my stack of other books to be read climbs toward the ceiling. The Lord of the Rings trilogy told a fascinating story, but I never really cared about the characters because they weren’t human. I cared very much about the kids in the Harry Potter series but thought the writing poor, the situations contrived, and the magic simply silly. With Game of Thrones, I can relate to fully human characters … indeed, I love many of them and am devastated when they suffer reverses or die … and on top of that the writing is first-rate, the situations believable, the supernatural elements scary as hell. The Others are edging ever closer, and the dragons are growing. I can’t wait to see what they eventually get up to.

To those who have put off reading the books because they’re watching the HBO series, I entreat you to read the books. While you’ll find that the TV shows are faithful to the books, you’ll love the additional detail and background, and discover quite a few sub-plots that didn’t make it onto the screen. There are some significant differences, too. I’m reading and watching, and to me that makes the Game of Thrones experience all the richer. One warning to potential readers: don’t fall too much in love with any single character!

God damn, this is good stuff. I can’t wait to get into book number four.


miss peregrine's homeMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

I’m generally averse to fantasy, but not all fantasy … I quite enjoyed this one. Miss Peregrine’s home is somewhere near Hogwarts, and like those lurking Dementors, I sensed the presence of Neil Gaiman, possibly drinking in a nearby village pub.

The story, in addition to being a fantasy, is a mystery. The protagonist is an engaging teenaged boy who thinks he’s outgrown the scary tales his grandfather used to tell him … until a monstrous creature murders the old man and he realizes the stories were literally true. He goes off to track down his grandfather’s tangled past and finds himself on an isolated Welsh island, among the peculiar children who live at Miss Peregrine’s home.

Look, obviously there’s nothing here but fantasy and fluff, but I have to say I liked the way it is written, and I liked Jacob, the young man who gets sucked into this very odd world. It’s a good story, very readable, and like the best YA fiction, should appeal to adult readers as well. Interestingly, Ransom Riggs (that has to be a pseudonym, right?) appears to have written the narrative around a collection of old, odd, black & white photos, all of which he swears are real. The photos, it should be needless to say, are of the Peculiar Children. Intrigued? Good! Go read.


little brotherLittle Brother
by Cory Doctorow

No stars because I didn’t finish it, although I will say I liked it slightly more than the first Cory Doctorow novel I read, Makers, which I rated at one star. Had I persevered, I probably would have given Little Brother one and a half.

My book club selected this under the YA category. I abandoned it two thirds of the way through, unable to go on. I was terribly disappointed in Cory Doctorow’s Makers a couple of years ago; now that I’ve experienced another Doctorow novel I’ve decided he’s a hack. What I said about Makers applies equally to Little Brother: if you follow the popular young adult website Boing Boing, where Doctorow is a frequent contributor, you’ll recognize many of the ideas and themes explored here. If you’ve ever padded a high school or college paper by paraphrasing or quoting long sections from Wikipedia, you’ll feel a sense of kinship with the author. If your idea of sex is based on the letters in Penthouse Forum you masturbated to as a 14-year-old, you’ll feel familiar stirrings. If you’re a fan of Ayn Rand, you’ll love the long speeches.

In Little Brother, the Department of Homeland Security takes over San Francisco and Oakland after terrorists bomb the Bay Bridge, killing thousands. A 17-year-old high school gamer/hacker type, along with a few friends, takes on the jackbooted thugs. It’s a damn shame William Gibson or Neal Stephenson didn’t write this story, because they’d have done it justice. Doctorow has a terrific idea and a decent outline, but he can’t tell a story in a believable, relatable way — he has to explain everything (I’m not kidding about Wikipedia). Worst of all, Doctorow forces his young protagonist into the role of explainer, lecturing the reader for page after page rather than doing things and showing what needs to be explained through action. By page 20, you’ll be tired of the kid. By page 200, if you last that long, you’ll be done with him. Forever.

But, hey, I’m an adult who has read enough good literature to have standards and expectations. Young readers, for whom this book was primarily written, might like it just fine. After all, Ayn Rand’s biggest fans tend to be teenagers, no?

See all my reviews

© 2012, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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