Thursday, May 8, 2014

BOOK REVIEWS: American Gods (Neil Gaiman), Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami), & Blood Work (Michael Connelly)

American Gods (2001)
An ex-con named Shadow finds himself enmeshed in a secret struggle between the gods of old and the gods of new. 

Odin & Loki, Thoth & Anubis, Native American spirits & Hindu gods, the trickster spider Anansi, Johnny Appleseed, and a slew of others have settled in to a normal life among mortals, a life removed from shrines and fables, a life forgotten. Abandoned by the people who created them, these gods have lost much of their power. It's the new gods--Media, Technology, Money--who thrive under the constant worship of mankind. And for whatever reason, these upstart gods don't like the old gods--they want them dead. They want war.

But Odin, with the help of our anti-hero Shadow, plans to recruit the old gods for a final showdown with the new.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods blew my mind. It's that rare balance of literary fiction and genre fiction that I look for in a book. The story itself is exciting and well-plotted. The characters are rich, especially Shadow, the go-along-to-get-along ex-con who recently lost his wife. Much of the story is a journey of conversations. Shadow moves across the U.S. in search of the various gods hiding out, doing his best to help ol' one-eyed Odin build an army. He meets a wide range of characters--drunken leprechauns, withdrawn keepers of the underworld, common people going about their lives--and in doing so, he delves into the idea of existence, why humanity needs something to worship, and many other themes that are found throughout the fables and teachings of world mythology. But this is well hidden behind a colorful story. I was a third of the way into the book before I realized there was something bigger, deeper happening on every page.

American Gods passes the most important test in fiction: is it worth reading twice?

Lots of books are good. But few leave me wanting to read it again. Gaiman's American Gods is one of them. I could read it again just to search out all the hidden references to world religions. And another time for the story. And another for the themes. Excellent book.

Score: 9 out of 10

Norwegian Wood (1987)
Toru Watanabe is a college student in Japan. He is searching for self. He is searching for love and meaning. He is searching and he isn't even aware of it.

As an older man, Toru is looking back on his college days, remembering the events that shaped the person he has become. It began when an old friend died tragically, a pain that Toru carries with him throughout college. Always unsure of himself, commonly the third wheel, Toru is a follower, and without his best friend to take direction from, he doesn't seem quite sure of how to live. So he searches for someone to take his friend's place. This leads him to act in ways he normally wouldn't--like sleeping with random girls.

Things get complicated when Toru runs into his dead friend's girlfriend. She too has been crippled by the loss. And together, she and Toru embark on a strange, often bipolar-like relationship. All the while, Toru Watanabe is searching. The answers, it seems, are always just out of reach . . .

I like Haruki Murakami because he has a surreal edge to his writing. There's often an odd quirkiness hiding beneath the surface. You might categorize his style as 'Weird Literary Fiction--Heavy on the Literary'. His prose is always beautiful, his characters are some of the most interesting, and deeply reflective, that I've ever read, and he has a way of transforming mundane scenes into heavy insights.

Yeah, so, with that said, I wasn't blown away by Haruki Murakami's most popular book. Norwegian Wood is more of a straight forward story than his typical stuff. A to B to C to D kind of fiction. Which is fine, but I think it shows an effort to do something more accessible and mainstream. It is also, as far as I know, the only one of his books to be made into a movie. (The book, of course, is better. The movie was meh.)

It's sad. I'll say that. A deep vein of melancholy runs through the book. Life is hard, even when it appears easy, and Murakami makes you see that. For theme and depth of character, I'd give this book a 10. But it just wasn't as interesting as most of his work and a little slow. I'm also not big on the love story. If checking Murakami out for the first time (which I suggest, he's a modern great), I wouldn't start with Norwegian Wood. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is pretty amazing, though.

Score: 6 out of 10

Blood Work (1998)
Former F.B.I. agent Terrell McCaleb is living on a houseboat, soaking up the sun and enjoying retirement. It's important that he take it easy--he is, after all, the recent recipient of a brand new heart. Too much stress and the transplant will give him complications. Relax--doctor's orders.

Yeah, right.

A woman shows up at his boathouse in classic P.I. fashion. Her sister, see, was murdered. And could McCaleb help her find the killer? Oh, uh, by the way, that new heart of yours? Yeah, it belonged to my sister. So . . . you kinda have to help, since she died so you could live and all.

This leads to an investigation (and a whole lot of heart trouble). But Michael Connelly doesn't write about random murders; he writes about serial killers. In Blood Work, it's the Code Killer.

Nothin better than a good mystery. Nothin. But I read very little of the genre because I happen to be really good at figuring out plots, which is fine, unless the ending hinges on solving a mystery, like who the killer is. Then it sucks. I get halfway into a book, realize I know the answer, read anyway in case I'm wrong, only to throw the book across the room when I'm right. 450 pages worth of my time wasted! Connelly is hit or miss for me. But when he hits, he hits in a big way. The Poet is one of my favorite mysteries, and, now, so is Blood Work.

I had this one figured out. I knew who the killer was. I knew it. But I didn't. Connelly only had me thinking I did. To me, that is the best thing in a mystery: genuine shock.

The story is closely tied to McCaleb's transplant and is plotted in a satisfying way. The prose is quick and clean. He does an excellent job of explaining investigative procedure without getting boring. This one is worth reading.

My only complaint comes from the cliches. Retired (or soon to retire) law officer? Check. Tough as nails? Check. Houseboat? Check. Damsel in distress who shows up in search of the best detective in town? Check. Tough-as-nails detective falls into forbidden love with said damsel? Check.

There's also a movie staring Clint Eastwood. It was disappointing. Because Hollywood thinks they know better or I-don't-know-what, they changed who the killer was. They changed it to who I thought it was in the book. If I had seen the movie first, I would've known the ending, and I never would've bothered with the book. But the book is good. It's actually well-written, unlike the movie. And, most importantly, it wasn't predictable. Way to go Hollywood.

Score: 8 out of 10

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