The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa (24 September — 26 September)

This was one of those books that I don’t really get, but it redeemed itself by being all about math. 🙂 Yay, math!

The unnamed housekeeper of the title tells the story of how she came to work for the unnamed professor, who is an older man who has only 80 minutes of memory for anything that happened after an accident several years previous. The professor, a mathematician, can still play with his numbers, so every time he “meets” the housekeeper he asks for her shoe size and birthday and various other numerical things and finds interesting connections between those numbers and others. The housekeeper and her son (whom the professor nicknames Root for his flat head [like the square root symbol]) become friends with the professor, even if the professor doesn’t realize it.

That’s really the whole story; there’s not much in the way of plot but it is a very interesting character study of a man with little short-term memory and how people around him react to him. The housekeeper at first finds him a little off-putting, but soon learns to like him and even math because a) he’s a great teacher and b) he can’t get exasperated with you for taking a long time to learn something. And the professors cares very much for Root, as a ten-year-old boy, even though he can’t remember him in particular.

And there’s math, and you can’t go wrong with that! 🙂

Rating: 7/10
(Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Japan, Countdown Challenge: 2009)

See also:
BookEnds
an adventure in reading
Thoughts of Joy

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (20 June — 24 June)

Wow. What a book. I have to admit that I’m still not exactly sure what happened in this book, but in this case I think that’s a good thing!

Zafón takes us to turn-of-the-century Barcelona to meet David Martín, a writer of crime stories first in the newspaper and then as part of a ridiculously long contract for monthly novels. After his first story is published, Martín receives a note from an Andreas Corelli congratulating him on his talent and expressing a wish to work with him in the future. These sorts of notes keep popping up until one day Martín and Corelli meet under odd circumstances and Martín decides to take Corelli up on his offer. This would be all well and good except it seems that Corelli has more than a few tricks up his sleeve and that Martín’s life — his health and his world — may be in a bit of danger.

This novel is a bit fantastical but still reads like something that could happen to someone you know someday. I was never really sure what was going on with Corelli or with Diego Marlasca, another mysterious character in the novel, but I was with Martín 100 percent… until near the end, when all of the novel’s truths are thrown up in the air like a deck of cards and I was turning pages furiously to see which cards would land face-up. (How about that metaphor?)

The ending was sort of a let-down; I thought it could have ended earlier, but I may be missing something. I’ll have to read this through again in the future.

Rating: 8/10
(Chunkster Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Spain)

Woman With Birthmark, by Håkan Nesser (7 June — 8 June)

Finally, a great book! I’ve been lacking them for so long….

I read this mystery without even looking at the jacket flap and I’m very glad of it; the flap would certainly have ruined a few interesting developments for me. So: go read it. Now. If you need more convincing, read on.

Woman With Birthmark is a mystery novel in which we meet the murderer in the first chapter but have no idea who she is, why she’s doing it, or even whom she’s going to kill. A few chapters later, we meet a man called Ryszard Malik who has been receiving odd phone calls that are simply a song recording being played over and over. Malik thinks he recognizes the song, but doesn’t understand its significance until it’s too late — so late that his wife comes home one night to find him dead in the entryway with two gunshot wounds to the chest and two to the, ah, groin. The police are called in and they do their best to solve this odd, improbable murder, but of course can’t make any connections until another man is found dead.

This is a Swedish novel from about ten years ago recently translated to English, so I’m not sure how much I’m missing due to a lack of Swedish culture — if you’ve any insight, you should let me know.

Rating: 9/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Sweden)

Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat?, by Maryse Condé (13 May — 18 May)

Note to Mary: If the next book recommended by you that I read has even one person dying in it, I’m going to consider this a trend.

To everyone else: Remember how I read this book and I was all, “suddenly everyone and his sister wants to kill someone else”? Well, even if they had, there still wouldn’t be as many deaths as happen in this book! But, luckily, these deaths aren’t quite so graphic as Zola’s.

Basically what happens in this book is that there’s a missionary called Celanire who shows up at a village in Africa conveniently soon (practically immediately after) the death of the man she was meant to work for, so she gets his job of running a home for “half-castes” — basically biracial children whose parent(s) don’t want that transgression running around underfoot. Celanire does awesome things with the home and also starts empowering women and also starts making moves on pretty much every sentient being in the town. There’s more to Celanire than meets the eye, which we find out in bits and pieces as we follow her from the Ivory Coast to Guadeloupe to Peru on her quest to set right some old wrongs.

It’s not really a page-turner, as they say, but Condé kept me interested in the book’s big questions: Who is this Celanire? Who slashed her throat, and why? What kind of person would allow that to happen? Just how exactly does karma feel when it comes back to bite you? How much weird shit can Celanire get away with?

Rating: 8/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Guadeloupe)

The Book of Murder, by Guillermo Martínez (1 May)

Not that I needed to read another book about murder, I guess, but at least this one is honest about it up front.

Our unnamed, undescribed narrator tells us an intriguing story about a girl called Luciana who was a typist for a month for said narrator, a writer. After the month, Luciana went back to her other writer employer, Kloster, and our narrator didn’t think much about her again. But now, ten years later, Luciana has tracked down our narrator to tell a fantastic story about Kloster and how he is killing off Luciana’s relatives mysteriously and without drawing any attention to himself. Is he? What’s really going on now, and what really happened ten years ago? Our narrator sets off to find out.

This book is really short (215 pages), so that’s about all I can tell you. But the story is very good! You should read it and then talk about it with me.

Rating: 8/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007, Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Argentina)

La Bête Humaine, by Émile Zola (17 April — 26 April)

So, after what seems like forever to me, I have finally finished La Bête Humaine. Hooray!

This book is all about the human beast, which is either the man who murders or the intangible thing which drives him to murder, or both, I’m not sure. But I agree with the quote in the introduction, from The Athenaeum, which says that the book should have been titled Murder. Because oh my goodness.

At first there is no murder to speak of; the book seems like a dry cataloguing of the events in the life of M. and Mme. Roubaud, he an assistant train station-master, she his young and pretty wife. But then a secret of her past is revealed and he decides that murder is the best way to make himself feel better about the whole thing. As one does, I guess. Meanwhile, we meet a young man called Jacques whose aunt is possibly being poisoned by her husband and who himself has a gnawing urge to kill women, though he has not yet. He just wants to, like, any time he sees a woman looking all sexy. Oh dear.

So the first murder happens, and we follow along as the authorities sort of try to figure out what has happened and the killer tries to hide his deed. And it works! Sort of. Except that other things happen and lives start falling apart and then suddenly everyone and his sister wants to kill someone else. Because everyone has a bit of the murderer in himself, whether by cold calculation or a fit of passion.

Although I nearly gave up the book within the first hundred pages, I’m glad I stuck around, as all of the plotting and planning of people all trying to kill each other left me very curious as to who would end up dead in the end. And I kept being surprised! Definitely a good book, but not for light reading at all.

Rating: 7/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: France)

The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde (10 March — 13 March)

I can’t help it. I love Jasper Fforde and his novels. And now I have to wait several months until his next book comes out! Oh no!

The Fourth Bear is the second in Fforde’s Nursery Crime series, in which nursery rhyme characters are real(-ish) and subject to actual laws. Our main participants this time are Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Gingerbreadman, who has escaped from jail and is again on a murderous rampage. DCI Jack Spratt and his sergeant Mary Mary are not on the case, as they’ve been sidelined after letting Red Riding Hood and her grandmother get eaten by the wolf. Oops.

Instead, they’re on the hunt for the missing Goldilocks, a journalist with an eye lately for cucumber news who was last seen in a baby bear’s bed. The trail leads, well, everywhere. Giant multinational corporation (no, not Goliath), porridge smuggling, explosions, closet-heterosexual member of Parliament, Agent Danvers (Danvers!)… it’s all there, and mostly makes sense. Oh, also, Jack buys a car from Dorian Gray. That’s smart.

I liked the story, here, but it was a little back-loaded answers-wise. Things just keep spiralling out of control until all of a sudden, poof! The answer! Convenient! But the writing is fun enough that I will forgive it. A quote I put up on Twitter when I started out: “He was seven foot three, and she was six foot two. It was a match made perhaps not in heaven but certainly nearer the ceiling.” Strangely, that’s 140 characters exactly.

One other thing I didn’t like about the story is that there’s a point where everything is going wrong and it’s looking bad for Jack and then he’s like, “But wait! This is just a plot contrivance! I will convince those involved in this situation to just, ah, ignore it, and then I can go back to detecting!” I get that in this weird Fforde universe, the characters know they’re in a book. But generally, they’re meant not to let everyone else know that, so this is just lazy. Ah well.

Rating: 7/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Wales)

Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black (8 March — 9 March)

Hmm. I’m not sure what to say about this book. I picked it up because I loved Tana French’s Irish crime novels (as you well know by now!) and I was like, “Oooh. More Irish crime novels!” But they aren’t the same at all, and I’m not sure I’d even classify this book as a crime novel, since I’m not clear what crime has been committed even after reading the book (it’s possible I should know, but I don’t… please tell me what it is if you do!).

The novel follows a Mr. Quirke (no first name given), who catches his quasi-brother Mal (Quirke is adopted) messing with a file at at the hospital where the two work (that’s a crime, I suppose?). Quirke finds the name Christine Falls on the file and, wondering why Mal would need to be writing things in a dead girl’s file when Quirke is the pathologist, starts asking around about the girl and how she died. Mal tells him to back off, which of course makes Quirke even more curious about the thing. His search leads him to the woman who was taking care of Christine before her death, who is shortly murdered by some alleged robbers, and on a hunt for the baby girl Christine died giving birth to, who has recently been sort-of adopted by a family in Boston. There’s all sorts of complicated things going on.

But, like I said, I got to the end and I still had (nor have) any idea what really happened. The book is more focused on religion (it is set in 1950’s Ireland, after all) and Quirke’s weird relationships with his family than it is on the “mystery” part of the plot, all of which is interesting but which I still find lame. You may differ.

Rating: 7/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Ireland)

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (1 March — 5 March)

-sniffle- I really wasn’t sure about this book. I’d heard good things, but when I picked it up and started reading I was a bit put off by Death’s narrative style. Yes, Death is the narrator. Of a Holocaust book. Oh, joy. And Death spouts off about colors for a chapter, and it’s symbolic, sort of, but it didn’t make a lot of sense while reading it. Death also cuts in all the time with weird, bolded pronouncements like

* * * HERE IS A SMALL FACT * * *
You are going to die

That’s on the first page. I was a bit concerned. But then, as I read some more, I got used to the intrusions and even started to appreciate them. That fact seems almost appropriate to this book.

Anyway, I said the book was about the Holocaust, but it’s not, really. It’s about a young German girl who is sent to live with a foster family during Hitler’s reign, and how she grows up amid the tumult. She makes friends, she gets into fights, she steals some books (obviously), she helps hide a Jew, and she generally becomes a fine young woman. Of course, bad things happen all over the place. To paraphrase Death, an admission: I cried for the last 50 pages. It’s not a happy book, and it took a bit to really pull me in, but it is a very very good book and you should read it.

Rating: 9/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Australia)

Orbis Terrarum Challenge

I’m adding on another challenge for the year because it has an awesome name: Orbis Terrarum. The idea behind this one is to read ten books by ten authors from ten different countries. I have a few of these foreign books on my reading list already, so why not use this as an excuse to read them, right? 🙂

Ideas:
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (Australia)
Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones (New Zealand)
The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain)
Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
The Story of the Cannibal Woman, by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (Italy)
One More Year, by Sana Krasikov (Ukraine)
Let Me In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Sweden)
The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde (Wales)

If you have suggestions, send them my way! I’m trying to stay away from American authors because I certainly read enough of those, but other than that I’m pretty much open to anything.

Books read:
1. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (Australia). (Review)
2. Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black (Ireland). (Review)
3. The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde (Wales). (Review)
4. La Bête Humaine, by Émile Zola (France). (Review)
5. The Book of Murder, by Guillermo Martínez (Argentina). (Review)
6. Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat?, by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe). (Review)
7. Woman With Birthmark, by Håkan Nesser (Sweden). (Review)
8. The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain). (Review)
9. The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa (Japan). (Review)
10. The Case of the Missing Books, by Ian Sansom (Northern Ireland). (Review)