Wednesday, June 13, 2007

May Reads

THE DISORDERLY KNIGHTS/ PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE/THE RINGED CASTLE/CHECKMATE by Dorothy Dunnett: The remainder of the Lymond chronicles, begun last month. Set in the 16th-century, these four books bounce around the world from Malta to France to the Muslim coast of Africa to Greece to Constantinople to Russia and include such historical figures as the Knights Grand Cross of St. John and Ivan the Terrible. But my favorite locales are England and Lymond's home ground of Scotland, and my favorite characters are the entirely fictional. Francis Crawford of Lymond really grew on me, especially through PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE and he meets his female match in Philippa Somerville, who makes her first appearance in the earliest book as a 10-year-old English border girl who despises the Scotsman whom her parents are helping. By the time she's a 16-year-old walking knowingly into the Sultan's harem in order to rescue Lymond's child, I knew she was the only girl for Lymond. These books are packed with literary allusions and historical details and dozens of characters and more plot than you can shake a stick at--but it's Lymond and Philippa who made this series live for me. I didn't always like Lymond or agree with his actions, but he wormed his way into my mind and heart until, when I put down the last book, I knew that he and Philippa would live forever in my imagination. Not many characters do that.

THE HANGING GARDEN by Ian Rankin: Edinburgh DI John Rebus is investigating the case of a possible Nazi officer who ordered the deaths of an entire French town. Is the college professor Rebus is investigating the former officer? If he is, what responsibility should he bear for a war crime committed fifty years ago? And what about the mixed motives of those who either want to expose him or conceal him? In the midst of this comes personal tragedy as Rebus's daughter is struck by a hit and run driver. Throw in two (or three) gangs fighting for supremacy in Edinburgh and a missing Bosnian prostitute and there's a lot going on. The gang aspect wasn't my favorite part of this book, but I enjoyed seeing Rebus as a father and his musings on the possible war criminal.

THE BURNING GIRL by Mark Billingham: Twenty years after a man was imprisoned for setting fire to a teenage girl, someone emerges to claim they imprisoned the wrong man. Another gangster book (I feel quite hip on my British gangs now!) but the multiple POVs and the twisting of the old case with the new kept it interesting. But I did hit a major problem near the end of the book, in an action taken by Inspector Tom Thorne. It turned off a lot of my sympathy and tainted the character for me. So I'm not sure quite how I feel about this book as a whole.

GREGOR AND THE CODE OF CLAW by Suzanne Collins: The fifth and last in the Gregor the Overlander YA series. Beneath New York City lies a civilization of humans who are about to launch a possibly endgame war against the rats. 12-year-old Gregor is The Warrior of their prophecies, but the last prophecy doesn't look too good for him. My favorite scenes were the code breaking, where Gregor's sister Lizzie comes into her own. The final confrontation between Gregor and the giant white rat known as The Bane is suitably impressive. My only complaint with this book is that I didn't feel the series is completely ended. I wanted more of an ending than the one I got. Hopefully this means that at some point Collins will revisit the Underland.

THE PORTRAIT by Iain Pears: A uniquely structured book, the artist narrator speaks directly to the subject of his latest portrait. As the conversation unfolds, we learn that the artist and his sitter have known each other for years, that the sitter is an art critic, the artist has fled London within the last few years for self-imposed exile in a French fishing village, and slowly we begin to piece together their shared history and the motive behind this portrait. I wouldn't want to read too many books in this structure, but it worked beautifully, in that I was considerably surprised by several of the revelations even when I thought I had them figured out.

KNOTS AND CROSSES by Ian Rankin: KNOTS AND CROSSES introduces John Rebus as a divorced dad of an 11-year-old, brother to a possibly shady stage illusionist, and detective in the confusing case of dead girls who have, as far as the police can tell, absolutely nothing in common. This is my third Rebus book and the first one about which I can say,wholeheartedly--I loved it! It was my kind of story--intricate, with lots of details that twist around and fit in eventually, a killer with a most interesting motive, a clue that took my breath away when I realized what it meant, and a detective whom I could understand if not always agree with. I'm so happy, because now I have all these other Rebus books to explore :)

SLEEPYHEAD by Mark Billingham: If KNOTS AND CROSSES made me like John Rebus more, I'm afraid this book made me like Inspector Tom Thorne less. I was iffy about him after reading THE BURNING GIRL, but no longer. Now I just don't like him at all. And I think I might know why--near the end of the book, he thinks about the fact that he doesn't care why killers do what they do. Motive does not interest him. Motive, however, interests me enormously. I think his attitude permeated the book, so that it was more a game of police vs. killer, and less an exploration of human beings and how things can go terribly wrong in our heads and our relationships. I doubt I'll read more Billingham.

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