Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis

It is almost impossible to give a plot synopsis of The Thin Place. A lot happens, but it's mysterious and mystical, and not easily grasped or categorized. This is a really original book - the tone is lyrical and mesmerizing. People and animals have voices and exert equal impact in Davis' universe - three young girls, beloved dogs, an old woman, a couple, a tenacious beaver - all have stories here. There are deaths and near deaths as she paints the mundane with a magic brush. The Thin Place, found at no identifiable location, existing at the periphery of our limited vision, is where past and present mingle, while life and death are an infinite mesh of time and place. Davis gives us metaphysical snapshots of humans and animals sliding in and around time and space.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder

I have used the word "charming" in my last two reviews. Perhaps it was weak writing on my part to rely on the same word in back to back reviews, but I felt totally justified given the fact that my last two selections are, well, completely charming. I can assure you that I won't be using that word to describe The Devil of Nanking. Gripping, riveting, fascinating - yes - a compelling, grab-you-by-the-throat-page-turner - oh, yes. Charming, delightful, soothing, lovely? Not even remotely. Devil is a magnificent thriller, but it's not for those who favor light reading.
The plot involves interlaced mysteries all with roots in one of the most horrific events of the 20th century - the 1937 "Rape of Nanking" by the invading Japanese army. Grey, a really, really disturbed young woman (believe me, she's really unbalanced), is obsessed with finding proof of something she read in an orange book that disappeared. She tracks down Shi Chongming, a university professor and survivor of the Nanking atrocities, because she thinks he possesses an old film that will prove the truth of what she read in her childhood and show that she was not insane, that whatever it was really happened. Shi Chongming, while not admitting that he has the film, sends Grey on a mission to discover what substance a vicious gangster, Fuyuki, consumes to stay alive. Hayder juggles mysteries, linking them as the plot unfolds one creepy, ghastly, step at a time.
  • What did Grey read?
  • Why was she committed to an asylum?
  • What happened to Shi Chongming and his wife during the 1937 horror?
  • What does the film show?
  • What is the medicine given to Fuyuki by his Nurse? (And who is the Nurse?)
  • Who is the Devil of Nanking?
The story alternates between Grey's trance-like account of her search and Shi Chongming's 1937 diary. Hayder takes you to the edge in each chapter, switching back and forth between voices, making it impossible to put down the book. Submerging the reader in a surreal atmosphere of evil, malevolence permeates the setting. While the ending came as no surprise, the powerful ride to the ultimate revelation of truth was great storytelling.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith

Charming. The perfect book to put your harried life into perspective. A bit of shelter from the frenzy of the modern treadmill. If you're feeling frazzled, a cup of tea and some time spent with Mma Precious Ramotswe will sooth your senses.

Mma Ramotswe, founder of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, solves mysteries - not murders, kidnappings or armed robberies, but little mysteries of everyday life. Her cases here focus on food stolen from a school, a doctor who apparently doesn't know how to take blood pressure, and the sudden uneasy atmosphere at a game preserve.
The joy in reading this series lies not just in finding out "whodunit," but in savouring the setting and visiting with Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi (star graduate of the Botswana Secretarial School), and Mr J L B Matekoni (Precious' husband and master mechanic). As usual, there are many personal problems to contemplate at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Mma Makutsi is engaged to Mr Radiphuti, but could her feminist views jeopardize their relationship? Can Mr Polopetsi and his rich uncle be reconciled? And, then there's Aunty Emang, the Dear Abby of The Daily News , whose answers seem overly curt. It's a trip to a simpler, quieter place where there's time to watch the small things, cogitate a bit and converse leisurely with others. A sweet balm for tense souls. It's also very nice to know that such places exist, as McCall Smith creates this world in loving, believable detail. Pick any book from the series - highly recommended.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Swim to Me by Betsy Carter

When I opened the NY Times yesterday morning and saw the big article about Weeki Wachee, I knew it was time to shake off my post-holiday lethargy and finally write a review for this charming book. Did you know some Weeki Wachee mermaids can hold their breath for 4 minutes, dive to over 100 feet below the surface and sometimes share their watery stage with alligators (real ones with teeth)? My family always spent some time each year in Florida. Usually, it was in the summer (Yankees went to Florida in the winter). In Atlanta folks either vacationed in the mountains or at the beach in the summer. We were beach people. In the early days we stayed at Robertson's Cottages in Panama City, FL, before there were any hotels, motels or tourist traps. Just a beach and ocean. Later our destination was Ponte Vedra, then Destin and eventually Sea Island, GA. I went to Weeki Wachee sometime in the 50's. It was pure magic for a little girl - and my dad seemed to enjoy the show very much, too. If you don't know about Weeki Wachee, go to http://www.mermaid.weekiwachee.com/ - it's been an attraction since 1947.
PLOT: Delores Walker, just 17, boards a Greyhound bus in New York and heads for Weeki Wachee Springs with the dream of becoming a mermaid. Her parents have separated (a marriage "written in food stains" on the walls of their dingy Bronx apartment). Her father gone, her mother struggling with bills and a new baby, Delores' world is gray and hopeless. But Delores dares to chase her dream and, well, take the plunge into a new world alone. Soon, she's Delores Taurus, mermaid extraordinaire. While parts of the plot are the stuff of fantasy (I don't know if elephants ever participated in the underwater show at Weeki Wachee), the story is realistic enough to give hope that with a little luck and fair amount of courage, anyone can follow their bliss. Delores is a spunky heroine to cheer for - totally innocent, but focused on her goal and driven by her aspirations. Nothing can sink the girl! Swim to Me delivers dreams come true and the bright possibilities of life. Recommended for bringing sunshine to dark, dreary winter days.