Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Bubble Gum Thief—Jeff Miller


(Warning: There be some spoilers below!)

One day, I made a date with myself to explore the Berkeley Public Library, having gotten a library card a few weeks earlier. So I took my lunch break and walked myself across the block to the library.

None of the books I went for were there, even though the website suggested that they would be. But that was just fine by me. I'm so instantly distracted by books, I easily found some other selections, books I never would have known to go looking for.

This was one of them.

At once a terrifying and intriguing premise, this book was so well and thoughtfully crafted. I found it difficult to put the book down when I got off the train in the morning and entered the office. (Let alone for the walk the two blocks to the office - I barely lifted my eyes to peruse the traffic conditions.) You know it's good writing - and a good book - when you want to read other books in the author's canon. It led me to investigate what other books the author had written, and this is his first novel! What! Don't tease. I hope that he's working on other things. (It seems like he may have something coming down the pipeline eventually, since the cover of this book proclaims it "A Dagny Gray Thriller." That insinuates that there will be more than one, in my experience.)

Essentially, the story is of a criminal whose crimes are escalating. It starts with a pack of gum, and quickly gets more violent and disturbing. He seems to be playing a game with Dagny Gray, an FBI agent who is investigating the crimes.

As she is investigating, Dagny Gray has her own personal struggles, particularly her struggle with anorexia. When Miller first introduced her calorie counting, I was inclined to be offended. Another stereotypical woman who counts her calories, and so precisely and obsessively too? Gag me. But it quickly becomes clear that Dagny's obsessive counting is related to her essentially lifelong struggle with anorexia.

There were quite a few twists and turns throughout the book. It was an interesting juxtaposition to be presented with these descriptive, lively characters, and then to have such clinical descriptions of the deaths - very matter of fact and non-emotional.

An especially poignant moment, in light of the Sandy Hook shootings in December, was one of the crimes taking place at an elementary school. At first, the shooting in the book seemed just as pointless and impossible to understand as those at Sandy Hook. But later we see that the villain in the book did have a reason. It's not a justifiable one, but it's more reason than we will probably ever have for the tragic shooting in December.

One of my favourite parts of the book was the Professor, an old FBI agent who initially pulls Dagny onto the case. She is taking his class at Quantico when he offers her the opportunity to do some work for him. At first, these Bubble Gum Thief cases seem like nothing. Anyway, the Professor is right away one of the most eccentric and lovable curmudgeons that I've encountered in a book - if you love curmudgeons, as I do.

I also thought this was some of the best male-author-heroine-voice writing that I've read. More on point and realistic than some female authors writing for female characters, in my opinion.

Miller presented an intriguing idea - that of crowdscourcing crime solving. I have a friend who works for a crowdsourcing company, so I was particularly drawn to this idea. In the book, Dagny's partner Victor utilizes criminology students, law enforcement agencies, and Wiki editors in order to help track down some further information about their suspect. Because of the nature of the work, and the need to be on the ground in those particular cities, it was much easier - not to mention more time- and cost-effective - to use the civilians who were already in the area and ready and willing to help.

I thought the story-arc of the villain was so artfully presented. From the beginning, he seemed like such a thoroughly irredeemable character: he seems to have no emotions or hesitations when murdering these people, even the children that he's resolved to kill, and is completely un-remorseful. But towards the end, we are introduced to the man before he became the monster, and we see a part of his slow descent into "madness" and hatred. We even learn the "why" of the crimes. And although, of course, the why does not mitigate the crimes, although it still seems a rather drastic course of action, we come to understand how this man was pushed over the edge.

I loved the ending. About thirty pages from the end, something happened that was completely unexpected to me, and it seemed like a rather abrupt ending. I momentarily forgot all of the things that can happen in thirty pages. But then Miller went back and tied it all up for me with a nice bow, exactly how I like it. He even made sure to pull back small pieces that had seemed inconsequential earlier in the book.

One of the best, most engrossing books that I have read in a long time. Looking forward impatiently to further Dagny Gray thrillers.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Night Circus—Erin Morgenstern

I LOVED this book. Amazingly compelling and full of wonder, it was unlike anything else that I have read and kept me enthralled the entire time I was reading it. Based on a challenge between an old "magician" and his one-time mentor, a young woman (Celia, the magician's daughter) and a young man (Marco, the mentor's choice) are unwittingly pitted against each other - bound by supernatural rings - in an effort for the old men to prove the dominance of their personal philosophy on magic. Both of the competitors are blessed with remarkable powers, and each of their instructors attempts to prepare them for the challenge, the platform for which is a traveling night circus.

As the circus continues, the participants begin to realize that they are unnaturally held in time - they are not aging, or at least are aging slowly enough to seem as such. Marco, stuck in London taking care of the paperwork side of the circus, creates new marvels remotely, while Celia, working as the illusionist at the circus, responds on location. He knows that she is his competitor, but she does not until a great deal into the challenge. Both of their instructors have informed them of the competition, but they do not have all of the details, as the two old men have been purposefully vague.

How much did I want to be with the night circus and be able to see the spectacular feats of magic that these two had created! I was not as compelled by the love story as I was by the existence of the circus itself, and the remarkable goings-on.

Great read, recommended to anyone who likes things that are awesome.

Insane City—Dave Barry

“Any man fleeing from the police with three women, two children, and an orangutan is a friend of mine.” (298)

This is yet another of my Early Reviewers books, from the November batch. I was particularly excited about this one because it was written by an author that I am quite familiar with: Dave Barry. While most of the books that I’ve gotten through the Early Reviewers program have been good reads, essentially all of them have been by authors I had never heard of before. I’ve actually read a good bit of Dave Barry books, starting when some guy friends in high school introduced our group of friends to Dave Barry’s Guide to Guys. And as a lifelong lover of all things Peter Pan, I loved Barry’s collaborative writing with Ridley Pearson about the early days of Peter.

Anyway, as it is widely publicized, this is the first book individually authored by Dave Barry in over ten years. What a great return. While I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a mystery (one of the reviews on the back of my review copy states that it is…), I think it’s a great adventure. Taking place across the span of three days, the events begin with Seth going to Miami for his wedding to rich girl Tina Clark. He’s traveling with his three friends: best man Marty, Big Steve, and Kevin. While out for his bachelor party a few days before the actual event, the four men meet Duane, his pet snake Blossom, and hot bod contest participant Cyndi. They get drunk, and hilarious – and unpredictable - hijinks ensue.

While there were a few things that were pretty clear from the beginning (who ends up with who, the very Hangover-style shenanigans) for the most part the story kept me on my toes. I mean, how could I have predicted that the orangutan would fall in love with Cyndi and knock out three bouncers in order to protect her as his mate? I found myself laughing out loud several times, which is the sign of a really good adventure comedy. I wanted to smack Tina in the face throughout the entirety of the book, which I imagine is part of the function of her character. Other than her, really, the characters are all extremely likeable, or at the very least have redeeming qualities. I also appreciated the efficient use of the epilogue, in a very un-lazy fashion (not true of all epilogues), tying up the loose ends following the crazy storyline of events prior.

I received an uncorrected proof, so I’m going to imagine that most of the small mistakes that I noticed are fixed in the final version. There was a page that referenced Tina’s father, Mike, and then was clearly talking about things that his character was doing, but incorrectly had him called Steve. Kind of strange, but I figured it out, so in the long run not horrible.

A great read, and one that I probably would’ve gotten from the library or purchased myself in order to enjoy, which makes me feel like even more of a winner. I would definitely recommend this one to any adult (in no way is this book appropriate for children) who is looking for a good, light-hearted romp through the streets of Miami.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Cornerstone—Anne C. Petty

There be spoilers (as it's almost impossible to describe what I liked about the book without revealing some).

Finally, faintly, the banshee’s wail could be heard riding the wind, a keening scree just at the edge of hearing, then louder. Suddenly it was deafening, a sound so painful it could stop the heart, and it seemed to be inside Dee’s own head, as if some raging animal were trapped there and clawing its way out. (15)

The third of the three books I won in the December batch of Librarything Early Reviewers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical fiction supernatural thriller, of sorts. I mean, if you kill someone in such a brutal, bloody, unemotional manner in the first ten pages of the book, you've definitely got my attention. Petty suggests an alternate "ending" for Christopher Marlowe - that he gave his soul to the devil in exchange for ongoing life (via a banshee trapped in a stone to whom he must constantly sacrifice lives).

Branching nicely with Marlowe's revamped story of Faustus, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus, the story begins with the original trapping of the banshee in the cornerstone, by none other than famous historical figure John Dee. John Dee was a trusted scientist in Queen Elizabeth I's court. While involved in the more traditional scientific side, he balanced that with a healthy investigation into the supernatural, especially in the last half of his life. He was also a well-known book collector, which is referenced somewhat briefly in the book. (To learn more about John Dee, and get references to real scholarly information about him, check out his Wiki page.) Little did Dee know, but the witch who helped him to trap the banshee was also consumed by the stone.

Fast forward to relatively current day. We are at a modern-day theatre, which is presenting a version of Marlowe's Faustus. Plucky stage manager (?) Claire has been trying to get more involved, to get a bit of a break from her day job as an EMT. On the first night we meet the theatre crew, a real knife mysteriously replaces the prop knife, and the lead actor, Danny, inadvertently cuts himself. Although she offers to take him to get stitches, the director Kit Bayard (get it? Kit?) takes Danny into his office to tend to his wound. Next rehearsal, Kit tells them all that Danny has decided to leave the show, and the theatre company. There have been lots of suggestions of haunting in the theatre, which is fairly typical of theatre's, really. At first Claire thinks that whatever is haunting the theatre has something to do with Danny's disappearance. And she's not entirely wrong.

Claire seems to be the only one really concerned about Danny's disappearance. She convinces a few of the actors (including practicing Wicca Addie) to help her investigate his disappearance, and explore the much-protected basement.

I did think that the "Kit" continuity there was a bit of a giveaway. Not right away, of course, because your first thought is not, "Well, that's a 400-year-old renowned playwright." But definitely as you get further into the story, it makes the surprises less. However, even given that, this book kept me completely engaged and constantly guessing as to what would happen next. I thought there were some well-grounded, but still surprising, reveals, which was great and impressively accomplished. Really enjoyed it.