Thursday, April 29, 2010

Two strong contemporary novels

I am always looking for great reads. I have just finished two wonderful books that have a lot to say about our world today in entertaining, often surprising ways. Rather than being political polemics, they approach their topics with suspense, humor, and drama. The first of these is Adam Haslet's UNION ATLANTIC, a prescient novel about a soulless stocks trader and an aging blue blood who opposes him. Doug Fanning is second in command at Union Atlantic, a world-wide commodities firm. He is one of those charismatic young men who woo both men and women with their ambition, charm, and success...but not Charlotte Graves, an old school Bostonian liberal who wages war against Fanning over his utra MacMansion built right next to her decaying home in a historic district. Complicating this conflict is Nate Fuller, a grieving teenage boy who is divided in his loyalties between them. Raging beyond this personal conflict is Fanning's addiction to risky financial ventures that could bring him and his company down. The parallels between this Enron and 9/11 novel and the current financial catastrophe are obvious but not blatant. UNION ATLANTIC is a quickly paced, character-driven novel that builds to several stunning climaxes.

The popular Swedish author Henning Mankell, best known for his Wallendar novels that were adapted by BBC television, has written a doozie of a mystery novel laced with fascinating characters, sudden revelations, gripping descriptions of life in modern Sweden and Beijing, and moving depictions of the brutal treatment of Chinese immigrants (as well as others) during the building of America's continental railroad. The event that triggers these events is a mass murder in a tiny village in northern Sweden. 19 people, all elderly with the exception of a visiting boy, are slaughtered with a machette type weapon. There is only one clue, a red ribbon found in the snow. The leading character is 60 year old judge Birgitta Roslin, whose children are grown and whose husband is growing more and more distant. As she becomes more and more involved in the case, her research takes her into the past and present of both Sweden and China.

Birgitta's quest places her in conflict with the Swedish authorities and eventually with Beijing's highest authorities. Eventually her life is in danger because the villain thinks that Birgitta knows his or her identity. While chronicling China's rocky movement into capitalism, Mankell tightens his suspenseful plot and increasing the body count. Interestingly enough, he does not fall prey to the somewhat seedy qualities and people that undercut the novels of Stieg Larsson.

Both UNION ATLANTIC and THE MAN FROM BEIJING are novels of intelligence, suspense, and wit and would be great summer reads.

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