What we've been reading lately

Welcome to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association redesigned Killer Books page. Below, you will find selections from members' blogs and webpages that post mystery reviews. If you've read the book discussed, or would like to, we welcome your comments.

Friday, October 7, 2011

review: Children of the Street, Death of the Mantis, Visible Man

Murder by the Book, www.mbtb.com

The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman, Scriber, $25

If you strive to create order out of chaos, perhaps this book isn't for you.
This is one of the quirkier books I've read this year, and it creates a
polite version of chaos.

"Y____" is a visible man; that is, he is human and you can see him. He
chooses Victoria Vick (Vicki Vick?) to be his psychotherapist. He expects
her to believe that he can put on a suit and become an invisible man.

Y____ claims that he cannot observe people as a visible man because that
would change the actions and reactions of the person being observed.
Heisenberg's principle. What better way to find out the true nature of man
than by becoming a fly on the wall, or an invisible man?

Y____ claims to be a scientist whose eventual purpose was to "define reality
... to make order out of chaos." Unfortunately, the goal becomes obscured as
Y____ claims to have tampered with reality, with disastrous results. Does he
feel guilty? Or is he worried because he doesn't feel guilt? Maybe it isn't
guilt at all but Y___ knows that unless he tells somebody about his life, he
doesn't exist.

The book is written from Victoria's viewpoint, with massive inserts of
verbatim monologue by Y____. It's framed as a book Victoria is publishing
about her unusual client. It's a psychological dialectic about whether
observing people without their knowledge is blessed under the banner of
science or morally wrong/criminal. Your mind needs to be open to enjoying
230 pages of that.

My jury is still out about this book. It's intriguing, unique, and vaguely
unsatisfying at the end. There are no heroes; everyone is culpable. And that
must be the lesson in reality.

Will Victoria become victorious? Will Y____ learn why?

----

Children of the Street, by Kwei Quartey, Random House, $15
Death of the Mantis, by Michael Stanley, Harper, $14.99

Africa is a large continent, and it's hard for someone who doesn't know the
countries to keep them straight. Many new authors (joining old-timers James
McClure and Elsbeth Huxley) have been bringing us outstanding series set in
several of the countries, and that should help us individuate them.

Let me pause for a second to say that country and culture are not synonymous
terms. The national borders are artificial constructs, mainly determined by
colonizing Europeans. There may be several tribes who occupy a country, some
of whom have tribal boundaries that pass through more than one country.
There are places that have kept some of the ways and governmental structures
of the colonizing countries, even after the colonizers have gone, in a
synthesis of European and tribal traditions. All this is recognized in some
of the most innovative writing around today.

South Africa, Botswana, and Ghana are brought to life by Alexander McCall
Smith, Malla Nunn, Jassy Mackenzie, Wessel Ebersohn, Michael Stanley, and
Kwei Quartey. Suzanne Arruda and Henning Mankell (when he's not writing
bleak mysteries set in Sweden) also have books set in Africa.

Michael Stanley's series is set in Botswana, and Kwei Quartey's in Ghana.
Both authors deal with serious issues that affect these countries. In
Stanley's case, it is the plight of the nomadic Bushman tribes, and in
Quartey's it is the homeless children who live in poverty and without
protection in the slums of Accra.

Death of the Mantis is the third in the series by authors Stanley Trollip
and Michael Sears, writing under the pen name of Michael Stanley. Set in
Botswana with a Batswana police detective, David "Kubu" -- which means
hippopotamus, a reflection of his enormous girth -- Bengu, this series is
not at all like McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe books. Although it is by no
means a blood-and-guts series, there are dead bodies, coroner's reports, and
police detection.

This time Bengu is asked by a Bushman friend from childhood, someone he
hasn't seen in a while, to help two Bushman hunters who have been arrested
for the murder of a park ranger. Stanley does a good job describing how
endangered the wandering Bushman people are, with development and the
concept of private property threatening to take away their rights to roam
the Kalahari Desert at will. As with the Aboriginal people of Australia, the
Bushman people are able to travel in what to us appears to be a featureless
wasteland, without gadgets or maps. They, too, have sacred spots and rituals
handed down from one generation to another.

It almost doesn't matter what the murder mystery is because the compelling
story is about the Bushman people and their struggle to survive.

Kwei Quartey's Children of the Street may be hard for some people to read.
Authors are often told, don't kill children or animals. But the unvarnished
truth is that children die in unacceptable numbers in parts of Africa, and a
lot of them live in squalor.

Darko Dawson is a police detective who loves his job and his family. He
doesn't like to play the political games necessary to be in the police
force, and he has a temper when he sees injustice. It takes all his
ingenuity to help the Accra police focus on the right people when children
from the slum areas are murdered. Could it be part of a ritual? Or is it
business as usual in an area of town where the biggest bullies usually win?

Quartey's mystery is a vehicle for him to bring to our attention a difficult
problem facing many poor nations. Children are homeless, starving, on their
own, and living in filth. He gives them a small voice in his moving book.

We probably don't want to hear what either Stanley or Quartey tells us. It's
hard to imagine the inequality that exists so far away. Although their books
are works of fiction, they are based on real issues. Both authors tell their
stories in different but equally compelling ways. They are well worth
reading.


END

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