Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Silence of the Grave - Arnaldur Indriadason

This showed up at my house one day. I think the library somehow mixed up my request for some Chekhov with this book. Or perhaps the person with the same last 4 digits of their library card wound up with my book instead. But this book is small and light, which meant it was a good size for reading-on-the-bus and it came with me one day...and I was hooked. It is a murder mystery set in Iceland, but deep down it is really a story of all the different ways a person can be broken - with a touch of hope that sometimes it is possible to get past the brokenness and live a life with love in it.

A skeleton has been discovered on a construction site, and 3 detectives work to figure out who it might belong to and how it wound up there. This story is interlaced with the story, set in the past, of a family who is obviously connected to the skeleton in some way. Also interlaced are the personal stories of two of the detectives with varying degrees of problems in their personal lives. It is very black without being depressing, and very lovingly put together.

Unlike most murder mysteries, it isn't a whodunnit. You don't know anything at all about the person who is dead, except that they died about 50 years ago and were not buried in a graveyard. You don't even know the gender of the dead person. There is no forensic evidence, no murder scene, no list of suspects in the traditional way - since anyone directly involved is likely to be dead by now. It is obvious that the skeleton either belongs to someone from the family story, or was killed by someone in that story, and I found myself contemplating all the possibilities as I read - obviously it would be best if the skeleton belongs to the abusive father, but discovering that might have horrible repercussions for someone still alive - but it if belongs to the abused mother, then that would have had horrible repercussions in the past, and is probably worse - what if it is the disabled daughter? - or what if the father murdered someone else, what would that have done to the family? I love stories that give me this extra little tidbit of information from the future, and you keep trying to figure out how it is going to fit in. I find that very different from a strict narrative, and far more enchanting.

Not at all the sort of thing I would usually choose to read, but mysteries really pull you along and that can be really relaxing sometimes. Especially cool are the Icelandic names. They are so totally unfamiliar to me: Sindri Snaer, Erlendur, Mikkelina, Grimur...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Green - Jay Lake

I read Mainspring by Jay Lake, after reading some enthusiastic reviews, and while I liked his writing well enough, I wasn't terribly drawn by the story and had to force myself to finish. Green had me from page 1.

It is written as a retrospective account by the main character after all the action is finished. She tries to go back and explain the world as seen through her own eyes, beginning at age 3 when she is sold as a slave. It is so beautifully written, the book doesn't spend any extra time clubbing you over the head with explanations of how the world is, and why people do the things they do. The story unfolds very simply and lets you see the world through the eyes of a very intelligent, very well-educated girl, who is looking back over her whole life and trying to make some sort of sense of it all. She is "rescued" from her life of abject poverty by being sold to people who train her to be the consort of a king - but while this new life gives her access to much better food, clothing, and education than she would otherwise have had, all her freedom has been taken away from her, and along with that, any form of love or even affection. She sees this as horribly evil, while most of the other characters in the book seem to think they have made a dramatic improvement to her life. Mixed in with the varying viewpoints on the treatment of children, is a fascinating examination of religion.
This is not a simple book. There is no black or white. There are no right answers. The writing is beautiful, and the story is fascinating.

Beauty - Sheri S. Tepper

I'm a big fan of fairy-tales re-told. I was drawn to this by the description "A time-travelling Sleeping Beauty!" which just seems totally awesome. In fact, this book was even better than I was expecting. Sleeping Beauty is not the only tale that gets wrapped into this story, she's just the heroine. Tam Lin puts in an appearance, Cinderella, Snow White and the Frog Prince all show up, and it doesn't even feel contrived. Beauty is a wonderful character, there is a science-fictional element to the story (she accidentally winds up very far into a dystopian future) which sets the scene for her quest to save the world. She winds up spending a few years of her late teens living in our modern day world and studying literature at university, which allows her to have a very feminist perspective back in the 14th century, as well as allowing her to recognize all the fairy tales ("I watched Disney after all") and be as shocked as the reader is when she starts recognizing bits of them. The story is written as her journal, and contains lovely little interjections from the fairy who originally cast the sleep curse (who is actually on Beauty's side, sort of, and definitely trying to save the world) who is reading Beauty's journal as she writes it and is often quite miffed at Beauty's misunderstandings. It is a coming-of-age novel, as well as a coming-of-old age novel. It is a love story with no happily ever after, just some deeply happy and satisfying moments. It is about the love (or lack thereof) between a mother and child, but mostly it is about trying to make the world a better place, and failing that, trying to save the bits that can be saved, and living with yourself and the choices you have made. It gets very black and scary at points, but the story has some very beautiful moments. I loved it and plan to read it again.