Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I don't remember where I first heard about Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, but the title had stuck in my mind so I grabbed it off the shelf when I saw it downstairs. It plays on the cliche of "it takes one to know one" by featuring as its main character a sociopathic serial killer who happens to be a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. In this book, which is obviously the first entry in what will be a series, Dexter is faced with another serial killer to whom he seems to be linked in some way. It's an interesting conceit for a mystery series, but one that I think fails for a couple of reasons.

To begin with, the book is written from Dexter's point of view. In other books I've read that feature sociopaths or serial killers they are kept at a distance by a third person point of view or a first person narrator other than the sociopath. Having Dexter as the narrator makes us, the readers, complicit in his murders; we are riding shotgun as he kills. Lindsay tries to make this less uncomfortable by having Dexter be a vigilante - only killing those who "deserve" it (other killers, child molesters, etc) but we are still in the squeamish position of being inside his thoughts and experiencing his pleasure as he does the deed.

I could actually see this premise working, but it would take a very talented writer to walk that edge and unfortunately, I don't think Lindsay has the talent needed to pull it off. The character of Dexter obviously owes much to Carol O'Connell's Kathy Mallory (especially his backstory, which is virtually identical to hers), but where Mallory is kept an intriguing mystery because we have to infer her nature from her actions and the way the other characters interact with her, Dexter leaves nothing to the imagination. He constantly reminds us he is a sociopath and a killer and his admiration for the other serial killer becomes not only nauseating but tedious as well. The plot is predictable and tired (I think I figured it out before the first 50 pages were through) and the writing is a little clunky and repetitive and doesn't make much use of the setting or, oddly enough, Dexter's profession. There are definite possibilities in the characters and the idea, I just think Lindsay isn't up to the task of making it anything more than a generic thriller with a flashy gimmick.


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Julian Rubinstein's Ballad of the Whiskey Robber was the subject of an article about unjustly ignored new books, links to which I saw on several lit blogs not too long ago. I skimmed the article and thought the book sounded interesting, but the real reason why I ordered it from LINK+ was almost entirely due to its subtitle: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts. How could I not with a title like that? And the book did not disappoint. It's the story of the newly post-Communist Hungary and its most famous criminal, the thief known as The Whiskey Robber. Attila Ambrus was an unpaid second or third string goalie for one of Hungary's professional hockey teams and took up robbing post offices, travel agencies, and banks to make ends meet. The story alternates between unbelievable and incredible, but is always funny. The author seems to genuinely like Attila and his sympathy for Attila's situation in the economic and social chaos created when the Eastern Bloc dissolved comes through. That's not to say that he isn't equally as sympathetic to the cops, who valiantly pursue Attila despite the lack of even basic police equipment and training.

The book reads like a madcap adventure novel and is full of great one liners that kept me laughing through the whole thing. I think because of the tone and writing style and because I just skimmed the article I thought the "True" part of the subtitle was a joke. I honestly didn't know it was a true story until I was about a third of the way through and looked it up on Amazon. Does it sound like nonfiction to you when police headquarters is called the "Death Star," one of the detectives is nicknamed "Dance Instructor" and another "Mound of Asshead" and they are consistently referred to in the book by those names? Didn't think so. I'd definitely recommend this one. It's exciting and funny and proves that the truth is always stranger than fiction.


Monday, March 21, 2005

I loved Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I have been telling everyone about this book and urging them to read it. And that was even before I'd gotten halfway through. It begins with the journal entries of a man traveling from Hawaii to San Francisco in 1850 or so, but soon jumps abruptly to letters written by a composer in Belgium in 1931 before jumping again and again, each time moving forward in time and each written in a vastly different style. We move forward through the past into the present and then to the near future and then even further, at which point the book begins backing out, picking up the narratives in turn and resolving them. Each storyline references the one before and continues the themes of power and control in civilization, making a larger statement about society and our need for domination and how that need might be our ultimate undoing. This book was really fantastic. I loved the way it played with structure and how easily and naturally Mitchell switched gears, making each narrative more compelling than the last. There was suspense and humor, philosophy and action, and it raised some provocative questions that I'm still digesting.


Monday, March 14, 2005

In Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania by Warren St. John the author examines the nature of being a football fan by joining the community of tailgaters with RVs who set up camp at every Alabama game, home and away, days before the event. At first he accompanies a young couple in their "hallway on wheels," but as the season progresses he soon buys his own ramshackle RV (a four-mile-a-gallon box on wheels he names "The Hawg") and joins the mobile city himself. Along the way he describes many of the fans he meets and how far they've gone or how much they've sacrificed all for the sake of the Crimson Tide. There's the couple who missed their daughter's wedding (but made the reception) because it conflicted with a game, the man who was in danger of forfeiting his place on the heart transplant list if he went to away games, and the fan who attended 500 games in a row. There's some attempt to get to the heart of fandom and why we become obsessed with sports, but the best parts of the book are when the author describes the people and lets their stories illustrate both the best and the worst that football fans have to offer. It's no Fever Pitch, but it was funny and entertaining and I'd recommend it to anyone who has done something a little nutty because of an obsession, not just those who enjoy football.


Monday, March 07, 2005

I also read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon this weekend. It is a huge bestseller in Europe and spent almost a year at the top of the bestseller list in Spain (where it originally comes from). I can totally see why. It begins with an interesting premise: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona where, in 1945, 10 year old Daniel is taken by his bookseller father and told he can pick one book to guard and protect for the rest of his life. He picks a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a writer named Julian Carax and soon finds himself shadowed by a sinister figure with a ruined face who calls himself after a character in the book and who has been finding and burning all the books he can find by that author. As Daniel grows up he keeps searching for information about the books and Carax, which eventually leads him to a deserted (possibly haunted) mansion, a sadistic police officer, murder, and eventually the truth about Carax. There are political undercurrents, fallout from the civil war and WWII, which added welcome touches of reality and served to enhance the sense of time and place. I was riveted through the whole thing, barely even leaving the house. It reminded me of The Club Dumas, with the bookstore setting and the plot revolving around a dangerous book. I wish Zafon had spent more time on the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which seems like such a fascinating place, but that's just a minor quibble with an otherwise very entertaining literary thriller.

Friday night I settled in with Fleshmarket Alley by Ian Rankin, the new Rebus mystery. As always, half the fun was in watching how the disparate crimes all ended up weaving together and the other half was in the characters and dialogue. Race was a big issue in this story and the sarcasm and bitter humor flowed freely as a result. I think this is actually one series that I feel is getting stronger and better as it goes along. Certainly I've enjoyed the last three or four entries more than the beginning books.


Thursday, March 03, 2005

I'm always up for a good YA novel, so intrigued by this post, I tracked down a copy of The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian F. Thompson with high hopes. It's about a group of five kids sent off to boarding school, only to find that their parents have actually paid to have them killed. With the help of their teacher (who was supposed to do the killing) they escape and hide out in the woods. It's like a cross between House of Stairs and Deathwatch without the desert. Unfortunately, it wasn't as good as either of those books. I suspect if I'd read it for the first time when I was a teenager, the anti-establishment hippy utopia message would've felt revolutionary; and the idea of your parents hating you enough to have you killed because you're different or made a mistake would've felt, like, so true. Hee. Coming at it from (nearly) 30, it seems clunky and overwrought and inspired more eye-rolling from me than sympathy. Man, I really am getting old...


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Last night I read Deception by Denise Mina, reviews of which originally brought me to the author's works. The book begins with the conviction of a psychiatrist of murdering her patient, a man who had confessed to being a serial killer and with whom she may or may not have been in love. It is narrated by the doctor's husband, who uncovers his wife's secrets while searching her office for material for an appeal. The husband is rather vain and shallow but Mina keeps the twists coming and the reader guessing so you don't have time to get too annoyed at him. We see his wife only through his eyes and the various documents and articles the husband finds, and he isn't the most reliable of narrators, so she remains a mystery until the end. What the husband finds however, might not be the truth and we ultimately are left uncertain of what really happened and the true motives of those involved. This was a quick read, intense and fast-moving, and I enjoyed it a lot, but I think I prefer her earlier trilogy because the characters were more appealing and I liked the black humor in them.


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