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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.