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What We're Reading, Feb. 23 - Mar. 1

Feb 23, 2010

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'The Man From Beijing' 'We've Got Issues' 'Horns'

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This week, a crime novel from the other Swedish superstar; mystery and devilment by the son of a horror legend; and a reporter examines the explosive growth in diagnosing — and dosing — kids with psychological disorders.

The Man from Beijing

By Henning Mankell, Translated by Laurie Thompson

In a long series of novels, Henning Mankell has turned Kurt Wallander, a police detective in Ystad, Sweden, into one of Europe's most famous cops. And Wallander has made Mankell an international best-seller, deservedly so. Wallander fans will miss him in The Man from Beijing, the story of Birgitta Roslin, a 60-something female judge in a stalled marriage who gets caught up in unraveling a bloodthirsty but calculated mass murder in a remote northern village. The investigation leads Roslin back to America of the 1860s and the Chinese workers who built the railroads, and then to the undeveloped expanses of today's Mozambique and the money-hungry Beijing moguls who want to colonize them. It's a wide but crisp trail connected by sophisticated politics and primitive, maniacal revenge.

For anyone who has never encountered Mankell, his latest novel is a treat and a good introduction to one of the finest crime writers in the world. The late Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has recently become the superstar author of Swedish thrillers, but Mankell's books have a depth Larsson's lack. To Mankell loyalists, any book that doesn't include Kurt Wallander, the depressive Nordic Lancelot featured in 10 Mankell titles, is a bit heartbreaking. But The Man from Beijing, though not among Mankell's very best, is a winner. It grabs like super glue. Mankell is a detective of society who keenly uncovers evidence of Sweden's social ills that will resonate with Americans. This novel also takes up geopolitical themes and speculation in fun, scary ways. — Dick Meyer, NPR executive editor

Hardcover, 384 pages; Knopf; list price: $25.95; publication date: Feb. 16


We've Got Issues

Children and Parents in the Age of Medication

By Judith Warner

Over the past 20 years, the number of kids diagnosed with mental disorders has grown exponentially, and Judith Warner originally set out to write a book condemning these "fashionable diagnoses." Her expose, she figured, would demonstrate that autism and ADHD, pediatric bipolar disorder and Asperger's were not the product of real biological dysfunction, but were the outgrowth of a distorted culture: hypercompetitive parents who simply wanted better performance from their children and were willing to give them psychiatric drugs to get it. We've Got Issues is the story of how Warner ultimately came to the opposite conclusion. Instead of hypercompetitive parents, she found heartbroken mothers. Instead of evil psychiatrists, she found professionals trying to help.

Warner started out with some pretty unrealistic ideas about kids and psychiatric medications, and sometimes this book feels like an overreaction in the other direction. As if, once awakened to the heart-wrenching reality of children with mental disorders, she was wary of implying that the parents had nefarious intentions or were derelict in their duty. It's not that Warner doesn't acknowledge, for example, that drug companies have played an important role in expanding the use of untested medications in children. But she passes over that material quickly, and doesn't always give it the weight it probably deserves. Another weakness of the book is that the reader never really gets to know the families who change Warner's mind. We glimpse their stories through brief e-mail excerpts, but never have an extended experience with any of them. That said, Warner ultimately does a good job of explaining just how complicated these issues are. It's interesting to be in her company as she successfully sorts through a mass of apparently contradictory material about kids and drugs. Her heart is in the right place, and her writing is incredibly easy to read. — Alix Spiegel, NPR science correspondent

Hardcover, 336 pages; Riverhead; list price: $25.95; publication date: Feb. 23


Horns

A Novel

By Joe Hill

Joe Hill's Horns opens with a striking image, telegraphed in the title: Ig Perrish wakes up one day and finds horns growing out of his head. Those horns, why he has them and what they have to do with solving the gruesome murder of his girlfriend, Merrin — a crime for which Ig is apparently doomed to be an eternal suspect — drive the rest of the story. Ig finds out that the horns give him a few advantages, and he suspects he might be able to use those advantages to get out from under the cloud of suspicion that clings to him. With help from flashbacks to Ig's life with Merrin and others whose actions have brought Ig to this point, the book explores minor themes of guilt and honesty, as well as notions of good and evil that are much, much more ambitious.

Hill tries not to talk about the fact that Stephen King is his dad (in fact, he carefully hid it during the early years of his writing career), and it seems unsporting to saddle him with that. But as a big King fan myself, I have to say that it's not hard to peg Horns as a heavily King-influenced book. Hill is at his best in the first half, which features some impressively disciplined horror writing about concrete, earthbound situations interrupted by controlled, unsettling "something is very wrong" elements (like the horns). Things go off the rails a little when he turns toward grandly allegorical storytelling toward the end, and he's right on the line between the good kind of horror grandiosity and camp. Ultimately, though, it's a satisfying and entertaining book, and Hill definitely has his own voice, less arch and affected than his dad's, but with a similar eye for humanizing detail. — Linda Holmes, NPR Monkey See blogger

Hardcover, 384 pages; William Morrow; list price: $25.99; publication date: Feb. 16


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