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Category Archive for '8-2009 Reviews'

Luisa, a Madrid single mother, written several successful mysteries starring her two detective heroes, psychoanalyst Carmen O’Inns and her partner Isaac Tonnu. Luisa, aged fifty-two and gifted with a “rampant imagination,” has just moved into a new apartment in Madrid with her eleven-year-old daughter Elba, named for the island where Luisa, then aged forty, conceived her while on a “mating trip.” The new apartment will allow Elba to attend the private English High School which Luisa attended as a child. What follows is an unusual variation of metafiction, in which Luisa simultaneously creates her over-the-top novel about the death of a child at a private school, describes the similar death of a child forty years ago when she herself was an eleven-year-old student at her private school, and then relates details about another remarkably similar death of a child at the same private school during the time that her daughter Elba is a student. Three young boys. Three deaths. Three mysteries.

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Author “James Church,” a former western intelligence officer with “decades of experience” in Asia, including, presumably, North Korea, provides a stunning and profoundly interesting portrait of “real life” in this secretive and sometimes paranoid country. Inspector O, the main character in Church’s novel, works for the North Korean Ministry of People’s Security, but even at the level of inspector, he has no idea why he is assigned many of his tasks, nor does he know why he is often sent from the capital, Pyongyang, to outposts like Manpo and Kanggye on the Chinese border. All he knows is that his camera never has batteries that work, that finding a cup of tea is sometimes impossible, and that he does not rate a thermos. He expects to be tailed and spied upon, and he is accustomed to having his living quarters searched. He can trust no one, and he must constantly watch his own back to ensure that he does not accidentally discover information about crimes that he does not even know exist.

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Petit’s heart-stopping performance as he walks the tightrope betweent he two World Trade Center towers becomes the pivotal event of this magnificent (and monumental) “New York novel” in which Colum McCann examines many facets of the city’s life in 1974. Focusing first on the down-and-outers—prostitutes, the desperately poor, the drug- and alcohol-addicted homeless, the infirm elderly, gang members, casual thieves, and bright young people with no futures—he recreates the lower depths of New York, a place where its citizens every day walk the fine line between survival and death on a completely different tightrope from that of Philippe Petit. Like Petit, however, all of them are also rejoice in moments of beauty, the only thing that can make their lives worth living—an unexpected kindness, the helpfulness of a friend (who happens to be a monk), and even the bright graffiti that shows up overnight, deep inside the tunnels of the subway. Unfortunately, for some, it also appears at the end of a needle. (My favorite novel of 2009)

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Though Mario Alvarez, in Juan de Recacoechea’s novel American Visa, likes to think of himself as a hero created by one of the great writers of hard-boiled crime stories, he recognizes that, in reality, he is something of a romantic, “a lover of the impossible, a dreamer who never can choose his dream, an incomplete man.” He has come from Oruro to La Paz, Bolivia, to get a tourist visa for the United States, and he has only enough money for a week’s stay at the Hotel California, a seedy hotel in which his room is like “a cell for a Trappist monk.” Learning from an acquaintance that the owner of a travel agency can speed up the visa process for $800, since the agent knows people who work in the visa business, Mario is determined that somehow he will find the money to ensure that he gets his visa. The reader learns Mario’s family history and follows him as he wanders La Paz, a city which has changed dramatically in recent years with the arrival of half a million peasants, many of them Indian. “Local color” in this novel is dark and filled with misery, and as the action evolves and incorporates all levels of society, the sense of dramatic irony increases.

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Deon Meyers just keeps getting better and better with each thriller. Setting his novels in contemporary South Africa, he raises the bar for thrillers by infusing each of his novels with national political tensions—historical, racial, and economic—emphasizing the urban and rural disparities which make the country so complex and so difficult to govern. Main character Lemmer, working for Body Armor, the premier bodyguard service in the country, has been hired to guard Emma le Roux, a wealthy young woman who, after seeing a news story on TV, believes that her brother Jacobus le Roux, thought dead for twenty years, is, in fact, alive—and a suspect, under an assumed name, in a mass murder in Kruger National Park. Emma herself has recently been targeted by unknown assassins and has barely escaped from her house after a violent attempt on her life. This is a terrific and unusual thriller, the fifth of Meyer’s novels, all of which are written in Afrikaans and translated.

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