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Witold Gombrowicz, Lillian Vallee

London and Gdansk make a good combo

Death Can't Take a Joke (Kiszka and Kershaw) - Anya Lipska Where the Devil Can't Go - Anya Lipska

There is something irresistible about this series about the odd couple of Natalie Kershaw, spunky rookie London cop, and Janusz Kiszka, the brooding Polish middle-age emigre private eye. Kiszka is the more interesting character: he settled in London after various run-ins with the Communists during the Solidarity era in Poland. I should be more drawn to him, especially as he comes from Gdansk, where I lived for 4 years in the eighties. But the author (an Englishwoman married to a Pole) captures the Cockney voice and psyche of Kershaw more accurately in my opinion  In fact, I found the author's insertion of various Polish words and phrases rather irritating in the first book, Where the Devil Can't Go, as they were frequently misspelled, and even wrong (worst error that I spotted: the author used the Polish word masa to mean the service that Catholics attend on Sunday; the proper word is msza--masa means "mass" in the sense of "quantity"). Nevertheless, I still kept reading, and even picked up the second book in the series immediately after finishing the first. I think what I like about these books is both the gripping quality of the plots and the setting, which bounces back and forth between London and various spots in Poland. I especially like that the London neighborhoods focused on aren't the posh ones that we Americans so often hear about, but rather the less-known places where middle- and lower-class Londoners actually live. Anyway, the language problems clear up in the second book, Death Can't Take a Joke, and, as Janusz and Natalie get to know each other better, we get to know them better too (always a plus in a mystery series). Both books are super-absorbing, and the second one has a surprise ending that I totally didn't see coming.

A unique voice in Polish literature

A Treatise on Shelling Beans - Bill Johnston, Wiesław Myśliwski

Like the author's earlier novel, Stone upon Stone, this book features as its hero a narrator who is far from "heroic." As he relates his life story to a mysterious visitor who's shown up on his doorstep to buy beans, he seems to be just a garrulous old guy of peasant origins who's had an eventful life. Except he's a musician. And he reads books every night. In fact, it turns out that his observations are not at all what you might expect from a former farm boy. He has quirky insights that are sometimes amusing and sometimes rather poignant. For example, he feels himself to have been entirely the victim of chance, both for good and for ill. His story, which comes out nonchronologically and in fragments, seems both particular to him and to symbolize the fate of Poland itself. A wonderful meditation on history and on life, beautifully translated. Maybe not quite as transcendent as Stone upon Stone, but masterpiece as well.

Both science geeks AND "soft" SF fans will love this!

Nest of Worlds - Marek S. Huberath, Michael Kandel

Nest of Worlds creates a fully realized alternate world that has its own physical laws and societal mores. It's also a metafiction: there are layers of nested stories, each of which appears in a different font. Readers who like "soft" SF a la LeGuin will enjoy the exploration of the stratified societies in both the main story and the nested ones (it reminded me a bit of The Dispossessed). But readers of hard SF will enjoy the exploration of the physics (science geeks will really love the detailed description of the physical laws governing the nested worlds). In addition, it's very well-translated by Michael Kandel, the translator of many of Stanislaw Lem's novels into English. In short, there's something for everyone in this book, at least everyone who's looking for a thought-provoking yet thoroughly involving read.

Twisty police procedural

21:37 - Mariusz Czubaj, Anna Hyde

Reading about a criminal profiler in Poland makes a nice change from those dark Scandinavian mysteries we've all been avidly perusing. Rudolf Heinz ("like the ketchup"), the main character, is a rather tormented guy who's very lonely and only feels happy when he's playing classic rock guitar with his buddies, who call him "hippie." He's also the best profiler on serial murders in Poland, despite being based in Katowice, rather than Warsaw. Nevertheless, he gets called in to help on a Warsaw case when two seminarians' bodies turned up with their heads covered in plastic bags bearing the numbers 21 and 37, the time of the late John Paul II's death. The case is very complex, engrossing, and baffling for both Heinz and the reader, who is kept guessing right up to the end. It also involves some touchy subjects in Poland, i.e., homosexuality and corruption in the Catholic Church. I'm looking forward to reading more about Rudolf Heinz. The translation is excellent and was named one of World Literature Today's Notable Translations of 2013. The only caveat I have is that the publisher, Stork Press (or whomever they're paying) is using a terrible method for converting their PDFs into ebooks--the ebook has major font and spacing issues, which can be distracting. However, I'll definitely be reading more books in this series if they're translated.

Fascinating glimpse of Poland in the Fifties

Beautiful Twentysomethings - Marek Hlasko

This book will be primarily of interest to three groups of readers: 1) people who have read Hlasko's novels, especially those that have been translated into English; 2) historians interested in the post-Stalinist period in East Central Europe; 3) Slavicists, especially Polonists. For those readers, this is a great book. If you don't fit in one of those groups, I'd recommend starting with one of Hlasko's novels, like Eighth Day of the Week or The Graveyard, which are available in English (Killing the Second Dog is soon to be reprinted in English as well). Then you should come back to this, and you'll really appreciate it. My only real quibbles with the book are its lack of an index and the fact that in the ebook the terms in the glossary aren't hyperlinked.

Eros (and some guilt) in Brussels

Illegal Liaisons - Grażyna Plebanek, Danusia Stok

This book relates the story of an erotic obsession, but it's much more than that. It's also a picture of life in Brussels--which comes off as a cross between Washington, DC and New York City--among a group of Eurocrats and those connected to them, a picture of a marriage between two people who are, in a sense, struggling to find their way in a brave new world, and a picture of modern-day young, cosmopolitan Poles who are unburdened, (yet not completely unburdened) by the Communist past. I really enjoyed it, and I hope to see more of Plebanek's novels translated into English.

Best yet in great series

Enigma of China: An Inspector Chen Novel - Qiu Xiaolong

I'm a big fan of the Chief Inspector Chen Cao series. All of the books give a fascinating picture of present-day China, and just as China has changed over the years, so have the plots of the mysteries and Chen Cao himself. Before I read this latest book, I was skeptical of the claim in Publishers Weekly that the series "has gotten stronger with age," because I hadn't actually found that to be true of the previous book, Don't Cry for Me, Tai Lake. But in this novel, Chen has actually matured as a character: his relationship with the female journalist Lianping seems much more realistic than his relationships with women in the previous books, which always seemed a bit idealized to me. Also, a strength in the whole series is the glimpse of the kind of political maneuvering that is necessary in the latter-day Communist system in China, but in this book, the maneuvering seems to be coming closer to jeopardizing Chen's own position. This also strikes me as very true-to-life. Finally, I like that Chen is becoming more and more world-weary; it may seem like a cliched thing for a cop to be, but a cop in Communist China has an even more complicated life than a cop in a big city in the West. 


Alex (Verhœven, #1) - Pierre Lemaitre, Frank Wynne I picked up an advance reading copy of this book at BookExpo America, and I'm really glad I did! It's a, great, twisty thriller and a really engrossing read. The publisher seems to be promoting this series as "the next Steig Larsson" and you can see why they do--the book has something of the brutality of the Larsson books and this book at least focuses on a damaged, Lisbeth Salander-like character. But there are differences--for one, this book is much better written than the Larsson books. Also, the shocking things that happen seem like they really could possibly happen, whereas some of the things that Larsson depicted in his trilogy seem unbelievable. A nice bonus is the glimpse one gets of the French justice system, which is quite different than the American one. And Camille, the detective/protagonist, seems like a character I'll look forward to "living with" again. Finally, the translator has done an excellent job (bravo!). Please do translate the rest of the books in the series--I'll buy them for sure.

The Lullaby of Polish Girls

The Lullaby of Polish Girls - Dagmara Dominczyk This was a very engrossing, fast read. An fascinating look at the lives of 3 young Polish women. Two of the protagonists live in Poland year-round, and the other one, like the author herself, lives in America most of the year and in Poland just in the summers. It's a coming-of-age story, but also a look at contemporary, post-1989 Poland and the split psyches of immigrants from Poland, especially those from the Martial Law emigration.

The Minotaur's Head: An Eberhard Mock Investigation

The Minotaur's Head: An Eberhard Mock Investigation - Marek Krajewski I like the Eberhard Mock series a lot. This is another great example, although Ebi himself is not "on stage" as often as in the other 3 books in the series I've read. If you're not familiar with Polish history, you might think that Breslau/Wroclaw isn't there that much either, but I'm sure people in Wroclaw really loved that much of the story was set in Lwow (present-day Lviv, Ukraine), since after WWII, when Breslau became Wroclaw, most of the Poles moving there came from Lwow. As usual with this series, the atmosphere of places that basically no longer exist is magnificently evoked. In this case, multicultural Lwow is described and contrasted both with Breslau and with Kattowitz (Katowice) in the months just before WWII started, yet after the Nazis had taken over Germany. Nowhere is immune to darkness, perversion, and the evil that lurks in men's souls, however.

44 Scotland Street

44 Scotland Street - Alexander McCall Smith Made me want to go to Edinburgh! Unlike the Number 1 Ladies' Detective series, this series of books aren't mysteries at all. But that's OK. No one reads McCall Smith to find out "who dunnit." This book was written in short segments that were serialized in a Scottish newspaper, so it's perfect for reading when you don't have that much time, like on your lunch hour, or just before bed. The characters are fun to get to know, and I'm now impatiently waiting the arrival of my order that contains the second book in the series!

Vera Gran-The Accused

Vera Gran-The Accused - Agata Tuszyńska This got a rather negative review from the New York Times because the reviewer thought there was too much about the author's feelings about her subject and too few definitive conclusions about the subject herself. But I actually thought that the strength of the book was that it kept making the point that it's almost impossible at this point to pin down the definitive "truth" about certain "facts on the ground" that occurred during the chaos of World War II. Did Vera Gran collaborate with the Nazis? If not, why do so many people think she did? If so, why was she not found guilty? If not, why did Szpilman leave her out of his book (which became the basis for Polanski's movie "The Pianist")? Did Szpilman himself collaborate with the Nazis? Gran seems to be recounting a hallucination when she tells Tuszynska that she saw Szpilman working as a Jewish policeman, yet those who claim to have seen Gran parading outside the ghetto walls seem equally deluded. Why did Gran leave her husband and rescuer, Kazik Jezierski? The questions multiply in this fascinating book, which offers no easy answers. I think the Times reviewer (like many of us) wants his Holocaust stories neat and clean, with heroic rescuers tricking the villainous Nazis so that virtuous Jews can be saved. But this book is here to tell us that in real wartime, things aren't always so clean, and real heroes can sometimes be also unlikable, vain, superficial, but still tragic for all that.

All about Emily

All About Emily - Connie Willis, J.K. Potter Not as hilarious as I had hoped it would be--this is the author's SF riff on "All About Eve." Reads like a novel from the 1940s, but with an SF twist.

Murder Below Montparnasse (Aimee Leduc Investigation)

Murder Below Montparnasse - Cara Black I'm a big fan of the Aimee Leduc mystery series set in various neighborhoods and among various subcultures in Paris. This one didn't disappoint--it's set among Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, and Serbian) immigrants in the Montparnasse area and involves an art heist as well as some financial shenanigans. We also have the usual complications with Aimee's personal life (including a big surprise for her and us at the end of the book), not to mention with Rene, her partner. I would say though that all these elements, although skillfully mixed together in a kind literary bouillabaisse, seem a bit overcomplicated. I felt a little like I was being rushed through too many plot points, perhaps so I, like Aimee herself, wouldn't notice that the solution to the mystery was very simple.

Golden Calf, The (Inspector Irene Huss Investigation)

The Golden Calf (Inspector Irene Huss) - Helene Tursten I like this series in general. Irene Huss, the main character, is a very down-to-earth nice person who doesn't have the usual loner-detective neuroses, yet at the same time, she's not boring, and it's fun to learn about Swedish society while reading the books. That said, I felt a bit cheated at the end of this particular book, which was humming along until our heroine and her partners captured the guy who had done the killings, and then a deus ex machina from the FBI comes in at the end to explain to the Swedes what it all meant. I think Tursten didn't really know how to end the book, and this was a cop-out (no pun intended).

Grain of Truth, A (Polish State Prosecutor Szacki Investigates)

A Grain of Truth (Teodor Szacki #2). - Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Zygmunt Miłoszewski I liked the first book in this series, "Entanglement," but I liked this one even more. The main character, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, is more sympathetic in this one (he seemed a bit misogynistic in the first one), and the mystery had even more layers to it. The many-dimensional issue of Polish-Jewish relations during and right after World War II is dealt with a very interesting way that illuminates for us not only what happened then and why but what Poles (especially members of the Polish intelligentsia) now think about it. I can't wait for the next translation of a Szacki mystery!