Category Archives: setting

Gregory Benford & Larry Niven — Shipstar

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Larry Niven is one of my all-time favorite science fiction authors and Gregory Benford is not far behind. Shipstar is hard SF based on science and technology pushed beyond our imaginations, but not beyond Niven’s and Benford’s. An Earth starship visits a huge bowl in space, powered across the galaxy by a star, filled with multiple forms of alien intelligent life. We are not only entertained by the humans’ reactions to this wonder, but we are exposed to aliens point of view trying to figure out what these strange primates are all about.

This is the second of a two volume saga. You can read it alone but will understand much more if you read the first volume, Bowl of Heaven, first.

M.P. Cooley — Ice Shear

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Upstate New York is cold in winter, and Ms. Cooley makes you feel it. It makes me want to go curl up in a blanket in front of a fireplace to warm up, even though I’m reading here in sunny Florida. The story begins with the discovery of a body impaled on the ice at the bottom of a frozen waterfall. Ice Shear is a mystery that keeps you interested from beginning to end. The protagonist, June Lyons, is a local police officer, ex FBI, and single mother in a small town. Cooley’s characters are diverse and interesting, her plot twists and turns, and her settings make you believe you are there.

This is a first novel by Ms. Cooley. I can’t wait for her next.

Christopher Fowler — The Invisible Code

How many times have you read a novel with a pair of police detectives as protagonists? I must have read hundreds. But these two are old men who should have been retired from the police years ago. One is well dressed and organized and follows the facts. The other is beat-up, rumpled, intuitive, and he consults with psychics, historians, museum curators… He’s more of a historian than a detective. They work out of the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London.

Author Fowler brings us the English culture, atmosphere, history, social mores, foibles, superstitions, and more. His characters are humorous, interesting, quirky, and intelligent. His plot twists and turns. The two detectives, Bryant and May, start with their boss requesting an investigation of his wife who is behaving strangely and circles into investigating the boss for murder and more.

The Invisible Code is a delightful read.

Marie-Helene Bertino — 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

A delightful novel filled with a neighborhood of characters — from old reprobate musicians to a rule-minded Catholic school principal, shopkeepers, beauticians, policeman, teacher, dog, and more —all touching the life a motherless nine-year-old girl (almost ten) who only wants to sing. Most of these characters end up at The Cat’s Pajamas, a run-down jazz club in Philadelphia, at 2 A.M. on Christmas Eve.

The story takes place in one day and night, “Christmas Eve Eve,” swinging between disappointments and hope, realities and fantasies. Bertino brings the people to life and makes you feel you are wandering the streets of Philly, popping in and out of shops and homes. The book is filled with laughter and sadness, setbacks and triumph, love, music, and dreams.

(I believe the genre is literary again. I know…I said I don’t like literary. But it seems I’m running into more of them that are excellent writing. I guess it’s like any other genre — they come with a large variety of good, bad, and in between.)

Martin Cruz Smith — Tatiana

I hadn’t read one of Smith’s novels for a while. I’m not sure why since he’s one of my favorite authors. Tatiana is one of his Arkady Renko novels. Most of the story takes place in a little piece of Russia called Kaliningrad (which I’d never heard of) on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland.

I can’t decide what I like best about the author’s writing. He paints fantastic scenes (with words), sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. You can feel the cold wind from the Baltic, moving the sand, blowing it into your hair and eyes. You can hear the sounds of the city; see the people and the buildings old and new. He gives you a picture of Russia and its culture that feels like reality. He makes you believe he is Russian, not an American looking in. Of course, I don’t know if a Russian citizen would feel the same.

His characters are quirky and sometimes outrageous, yet believable. Renko is a police detective who doesn’t follow the rules or politics and is always in some sort of trouble with the authorities. He carries a bullet in his brain which could kill him if it moves in the wrong direction. He loves mysteries and seeks the truth. In this book, he is chasing Tatiana’s reported suicide, which he believes is murder.

Tatiana is also an interesting character. She is a reporter who chased corruption. There is also a poet, Renko’s teenage chess playing ward, and several Russian mafia characters — all intriguing. One object (almost a character) central to the story is the notebook of a dead interpreter, which no one is able to interpret.

His plot twists and turns — not a typical plot. It’s a mystery — a puzzle with Renko seeking all the pieces. Underneath you find dark humor, politics, romance, and more.

He has all of my three H’s: head, heart, and humor.

I find his books don’t grow old. Some of our best known authors, especially those who write a series with the same protagonist, lose some of their sharpness with time. I don’t feel that way about Martin Cruz Smith. As I said in the beginning, one of my favorite authors — one of the best.

Laline Paull — The Bees

A delightful story. So much imagination. The author obviously did extensive research about bees, but the story is humanized. There are many underlying themes—worship of royalty, class division, environmental issues, and more. Flora is an unusual bee, working her way up the hierarchy of hive society.

Who would have thought that a novel about bees would have a good plot, action and suspense, complex characters, family connections, love…and a very realistic setting. Thumbs up for an excellent first novel from Laline Paull.

Peter Heller — The Painter

What a great writer! I loved this book. First person, in-his-head, emotional — sad, happy, angry, love, sorrow, hate, frustration,  rage, confusion, delight, disappearing into the moment. It’s all there.

The story is written from the point of view of an artist-slash-fisherman. The setting is Colorado and New Mexico. Heller captures the setting, atmosphere, weather, wildlife, surroundings, whatever, like no one I’ve read. I saw it and felt it, even smelled it, while reading. I grew up in Colorado and it was easy for me to put myself there. But I believe you would be able to picture it even if you’d never visited the region. The painter protagonist was in tune with the environment around him, loving it and getting lost into it as he fished and painted.

But I make it sound like a gentle story and it wasn’t. It was full of roiling emotions, passion, stalking, and murder. I almost didn’t read it because of the way it began. A two-page prolog had the painter drinking in a bar and shooting the man on the stool next to him for making a comment about his daughter. (I guess it was a prolog. It wasn’t labeled that way.) I continued reading because I read Heller’s The Dog Stars and liked it. So I gave the book a chance. It only took a few more pages to capture me.

I’m not going to give away any more of the plot. Try it. You’ll like it.

Jordi Puntí – Lost Luggage

Four brothers (Christof of Frankfurt, Christophe of Paris, Christopher of London, and Cristòfol of Barcelona) never knew the others existed until their shared father disappears. The authorities in Barcelona notify Cristòfol that his father, Gabriel Delacruz, is missing and his apartment is abandoned. When Cristòfol visits the apartment he discovers the other three brothers and contacts them. The four brothers set about tracing their father’s history, sharing stories about how he met their separate mothers and his adventures on the road as an international mover/truck driver. None of the brothers or their mothers have seen Gabriel in many years.

The book is full of stories and sidetracks which all relate to the central plot or theme. It is filled with fascinating characters and wonderful settings. The writing contains humor and trickery, pain and sadness, connections and disconnects. It took me much longer to read than I normally take with a novel, partly because at times I would lose track of long ramblings. But I kept picking it up to continue because it is imaginative, fanciful, humorous, and very well written. Even though it’s likely classified as a literary novel (which I don’t usually read), it has a definite plot and the mystery of, “What happened to Gabriel?”

This book was translated from Catalan.

Donna Leon – By Its Cover

Donna Leon is an ex-pat from New Jersey who has lived in Venice, Italy for the past 30 years. In her Commissario Guido Brunetti series, while leading us through the waterways of the old city, she plunges us into the slow-paced atmosphere of Venice’s culture – its beauty, food, people, and problems. By Its Cover has Brunetti looking into the theft of rare antique books and pages (illustrations and maps) cut from books in a library. An ex-priest who was a possible witness to some of the thefts turns up murdered.

I find the pace of this story interesting as Brunetti starts his investigation apparently relaxed and not too concerned and increases his tempo and concern to the point where is barely taking time out to eat or sleep before he solves the crime.

Leon’s settings are fascinating and her plot keeps you reading, but for me the best part of her writing is the characters.

Ingrid Thoft – Loyalty

Ingrid Thoft’s first novel, Loyalty, features Fina Ludlow, a gritty Private Investigator in Boston who is the black sheep in a family of ambulance chasing lawyers. The plot twists and turns starting with Fina looking for her missing sister-in-law. The streets of Boston felt very familiar to me having spent much of my life there. Good story, good plot, good settings, good characters, and the book kept my interest from beginning to end.