Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a mini bookstore in the library foyer here. They have a random assortment of things on some side shelves for 50 cents or so, and then they have this little shop where they have culled out some more coveted things and sell them for a bit more. And it's funny what you can get if you are just willing to wait for it to show up here. I had heard the buzz about The Girl in the Train when it came out, but I'm never that interested to read what everyone else is reading while they are reading it. I mean, I just might get around to reading Harry Potter soon.

But here was this nice hardback of Hawkins' book displayed face out for four bucks, and I grabbed it. Not only that, it jumped to the top of my quite high TBR pile. And it's proved one of the more enjoyable reads of recent days, partly because it was a guilty pleasure when I was supposed to be reading other things, which always adds an aura, I find.

I probably liked this book for the same reasons some others might dislike it. For most of the book, the protagonist is drunk, or recovering, or relapsing. She can't get over her ex-husband, who left her for another, except he didn't leave her, he forced her to leave him and took up residence in their former home, which she just happens to pass every day on the commuter train. Galling, no?

I thoroughly enjoyed how hapless and yet somehow sympathetic Rachel was, even while everyone in her vicinity is scandalized by her inability to just get a hold of herself. Everyone else in the book is more or less appalling too--it's just that most of them don't have the self-awareness to grasp that.

It's a great concept novel, that maybe goes on a little too long, but certainly I can see a girl on a train reading The Girl on the Train and finding that it helps the long commute go by, especially if, every once in a while, she takes a cue from the book and looks out the window at the passing houses...

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

A couple of chaps

By sheer coincidence, I've both recently reviewed a chapbook and put one together myself. The review is for the  somber but timely work The Muddy Season by Matthew Raymond and can be found at Escape Into Life.

The shameless self-promotion is for a little Christmas story I just put between two covers. I thought this up last year, but didn't get around to it then. And even this year I remembered a little too late. How good the story is, I can't say, but I'm pretty pleased with myself for seeing the project through to the end. Inadvertently, and through no fault of mine (if only you knew how true this was), I think the cover turned out pretty well, or at least is something close to what I envisioned. I've made it as close to free as CreateSpace will allow me. If you want the actual chapbook you can order it HERE. If you want to read it on Kindle you can order it HERE. If you don't want to order it and just want to look at the cover, that's fine too.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Paradime by Alan Glynn

I am sure Declan Burke is right about "the recurring theme of paranoid conspiracy that has run like a seam through Alan Glynn’s work" and I will direct you to his excellent review of Paradime for a more nuanced look at the book and Glynn's work as a whole than I will attempt to give here. But what struck me in particular was its relationship to The Dark Fields, which was published here as Limitless and spawned both a movie and the recent TV series of the same name. I was surprised to learn or perhaps remember that The Dark Fields is actually an earlier work and the three books of the Globalization Trilogy (Winterland, Bloodland, and Graveland--read them) were written in between it and Paradime. This is because the protagonists of both The Dark Fields and Paradime seem to be kindred spirits.

Paradime is not a reworking of the earlier story. Danny Lynch faces a different situation than Eddie Spinola. Spinola's catalyst for self-exploration was a performance enhancing drug, while Lynch's is having a chance to 'become' his doppelgänger. What is similar and striking, though, are both the conditions from which these characters emerge and those to which they aspire. Both  books tell of modern day rites of passage for men who for reasons both personal and political have previously failed to complete them.

In his review of The Dark Fields, Burke describes Eddie Spinola as someone who goes from being a "dysfunctional bottom-feeder to master of the financial universe in just a few months." This holds equally true for Danny Lynch. Both novels are set largely in New York City, which Glynn, an Irishman, had the opportunity to observe for a period of several years. Perhaps as a non-native, he can view Gotham with greater perspicacity, while we Americans simply take its way of operating for granted. In any case, things have grown grimmer since The Dark Fields--the kind of bottom feeding available to Danny is even less nourishing than it was for  Eddie. While Eddie worked in a nongratifying area of copyediting, Danny is suffering from PTSD and, on the outs with the very dicey Gideon Logisitics, he's very soon going to have no money at all. Both men respond to a siren call and quickly find themselves alone in extremely dubious moral circumstances.

What's interesting to me is  not so much that both men fall for the lure, but that they fall for it so easily. At the start of their stories, they are already on shaky moral ground. What they lack most specifically, I think, is any real capacity for discernment. I'm not someone who'd be likely to sing "Give Me That Old Time Religion" or promote a return to family values, but these are essentially deracinated young men, more than ripe for any suggestion that seems to give them access to the powerful world they see all around them but have  almost no hope of gaining. One of the more disturbing things about these books is that neither Danny or Eddie seem all that unusual. In fact either one might be a kind of everyman of our times.

My review of The Dark Fields is HERE. I seem to have had more to say about it than I remembered.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben

I'm still wending my way through different discoveries from Bouchercon in New Orleans this year and probably will be for awhile, though not single-mindedly. Some of the authors I'm planning to read I've never heard of, but some of them I've known about for a long time and just never gotten around to.

Harlan Coben is one of the latter. One of my friends got on to him quite early, but this didn't kick his work up the list for me. His protagonist, Myron Bolitar, being a sports agent was not quite the draw for me as for my friend, since I'm not that into sports, though when I come to think of it, I tend to actually like stories about sports. And maybe the original cover of as Coben himself humorously termed it, a 'bleeding football" didn't help.

On the other hand, it was a distinctive image, in retrospect memorable and these days it's collectible, baby.

So what was the reason I finally decided to read Deal Breaker? It was on account of the engaging persona of the author. Named a guest of honor at this year's Bouchercon, he was interviewed as the conference opened by none other than Michael Connelly. (Don't worry, Connelly was himself interviewed at the Long Beach conference a couple of years ago.) Lot's of good stuff from both men. One of my favorite moments was when the discussion was opened up to the public and someone said something like, "I know what we get out of you being here, but what do you get out of it?" There was a weighted silence and then Coben burst out: "Are you kidding?" And then went on to say how much readers mean to writers.

I caught a glimpse of Coben at various times during the conference, including on a couple of floats, and if he wasn't having a grand old time, well, you could have fooled me.

Deal Breaker is about the sea of troubles that surround a big fish quarterback that Myron is just about to land. Though this is the first book in the series, we are meeting Myron after several big things have already happened to him--he's been a basketball star, been felled by a sports injury and already lost what seems to have been his true love. The back story emerges naturally, almost as though we should somehow already know it. Maybe there was an earlier book that never made its way into print--maybe not. It doesn't really matter.

Deal Breaker definitely walks down some mean streets-- rape, gangsters and prostitution all feature. But Myron is a funny guy, and there is plenty of comedy to balance out the dark spots. If anything, he maybe maintains his equanimity too well in the face of danger--though he's got nothing on his sociopathic sidekick Win. Though  I think Win adds an interesting element to the story, his feats on behalf of his friend do tend to pull the story out of the realm of strictly realistic fiction. But all in all, this is a good thing--we find ourselves in the world of Myron Bolitar, and  it's  definitely a place to which we want to return.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Confession by Domenic Stansberry

I ran the mystery section in our local indie bookstore for way too many years. By "run" I mean, I did some of the ordering, some of the recommending, some occasional dusting and a lot of the shelving. What I do not mean is that I am any kind of authority on mystery and crime fiction or that it's the only thing I read. However, I do know a lot of author  names. This can be a problem when you go to a big mystery conference like Bouchercon, as I did in New Orleans midmonth. It can be quite awkward to admit how many authors you should have read by now but haven't. I know just about enough to know how much I don't know.

So I recognized Domenic Stansberry's name immediately when I met him in the bar/lounge/lobby area of the Marriott while waiting for a friend, but had to admit that I hadn't read his work. We had an interesting conversation, discovering that we had both been at UCSC in fairly early days there, which can be a kind of recognition factor in itself. Anyway, I resolved to bump his work up to the top of my list, and so picked up a couple of his titles in the almost overwhelming book room at the conference. It was purely by chance, then, that I started with his Edgar award winning The Confession. I did not know it was an award winner at the time, I just saw that it was the right kind of size for the plane ride back.

The Confession was published by Hard Case Crime, an imprint which publishes hard-boiled crime fiction, and the covers of which seek to emulate the lurid covers found on pulp fiction of yesteryear. I say "yesteryear", because I don't know the exact era of such covers, only that they have a nostalgic quality to them. Pretty much everything I know about Hard Case Crime I learned on Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders, and if you're intrigued, here's a list of his posts about the imprint.

Hard Case Crime seems a perfect place for The Confession to have come out, or perhaps it only seems inevitable in retrospect. Although the story is contemporary, more or less, there is a tone to it that could have been from an earlier era--say, that of the novels of Ross MacDonald. In fact, it seems possible that Stansberry deliberately left out clues that would signal its precise historical moment. I am not sure that he ever uses the words "cell phone", for instance, but only phone. With the cover and even the old style font of the book, we are a little outside of our present zeitgeist. On the other hand, geographic place is quite specific in the book,  and perhaps provides clues to readers more astute than I am.

One of my sisters lives in San Rafael, and it was an added pleasure of the book to find the region used for a setting. There are several iconic features of that area which Stansberry uses to good effect. Mt. Tamalpais looms over the whole, its legends and significance revisited several times in the story. The chilling view of San Quentin from the upscale communities around the northern shores of the bay is perfect for the mood, and it is in reality one of those visual contradictions that anyone who takes the ferry from San Francisco to Larkspur Landing must grapple with, whether consciously or not. And then there is the Marin Civic Center, famous as a Frank Lloyd Wright design, but housing the Hall of Justice, not to mention adjoining jail cells burrowed into the hillside.

Jake Danser is a forensic psychologist who has somehow found his way into this community, and recounts the story of a time ten years before which was, shall we say, more fraught. He's got problems with his girlfriend; he's got problems with his wife. He's got problems with a court case in which he's supposed to be providing the insanity defense for a man accused of a woman's murder. And that's all I'm going to say about the plot. Read it for yourself.

Apart from the psychological game that Stansberry plays with us, drawing us into a 'did he or  didn't he?' loop, Stansberry is a terrific descriptive writer. I've already mentioned his evocation of setting, but the ruthless dissection of character that Jake Danser evinces could only have come from Stansberry's own powers of observation. Which makes me, you know, think twice about having sat across from him in a bar...


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Orlando at EIL

I'm a little behind on posting in general this summer, but I thought I'd at least mention my post about Virginia Woolf's Orlando over at Escape Into Life. This was a reread for me, and one that I got more out of the second time around.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott

I like to read mystery series. There is a certain pleasure in familiarity, in knowing what you're getting. But there is at least an equal pleasure in reading a novel that does not follow at all from the one proceeding it, and in fact, couldn't even be postulated from it. Such is the case with Shot in Detroit.

Concrete Angel, which I reviewed here last year, was a tale of psychological suspense in the "Mommy Dearest" vein, not so much a crime novel per se, since the crime happens in the opening pages, but an unveiling of all that comes before and after. A mother/daughter story, it bears some relation to Abbott's own crime writing daughter Megan Abbott's novel The End of Everything, focusing as it does on the darker side of family and close community.

Shot in Detroit is not a family drama, at least on the surface. Although Violet Hart's mother Bunny, a career waitress, appears in the story, she does so more as a cautionary tale, and in some ways only underscores how alone and adrift Violet really is. Violet is a professional photographer approaching forty, and Violet's panic about her career's trajectory is somewhat akin to a woman experiencing the promptings of her biological clock. There's a kind of "now or never" quality to her desperation.

The opening pages of Shot in Detroit find Violet heading out before dawn to Belle Isle, an island park in the middle of the Detroit River, hoping to find subject matter for a first rate photograph. By this, she doesn't mean the charmingly picturesque. Belle Isle is a misnomer for "a huge park in a spectacular state of decay." This is Detroit, circa 2011, a city that's hit bottom but doesn't know it yet, and hasn't imagined even the tentative hopeful resurgence it's experiencing now.

Violet wants to make art. Though she carries a press pass, she parts ways from the school of photojournalism--her aim is aesthetic, not news or story driven. She perhaps has more in common with an odd young guy who spends most of his time out on Belle Isle making his own obscure outsider art from found objects. Let's just say that there isn't a line Derek Olsen won't cross in pursuit of his vision, and as the novel progresses, this becomes increasingly true of Violet as well.

Violet's career hopes surge again because her occasional lover Bill, a black mortician known for his flair in dressing a body, calls on her to help with an emergency: he needs her to take a photograph of a corpse. Despite the macabre nature of this request, Violet finds inspiration here and requests to be notified whenever there is a young black man who has been brought to the mortuary.

We are introduced to them and the reasons they have ended up there through some of the chapter headings. Although I would have predicted that there would be a lot of gang violence, these deaths are not so stereotypical. Some of the men have fallen victim to the kinds of accidents that any mortal might be subject to. But others fall prey to the violence and other dangers of living in a poverty-stricken city. Violet hopes to be able to capture enough of their portraits to put together a meaningful show.

Violet may be obsessed with her artistic vision, but she constantly questions her own motives. Some of the answers she needs might be found in the epigraphs from famous photographers that head up other chapters. In fact, these artists are actually the family, the tribe that Violet finds so lacking in  her own life.

It is always a mistake to deduce what an author might be like from their fiction, and I think this probably goes doubly for crime fiction. Though I don't know Patti Abbott personally, I do have some sense of her persona from her popular blog, and there doesn't seem to be much evidence of a Violet in her kind and gracious personality there. But that's the great thing about crime fiction. For both writer and reader, there's a chance to experience unclaimed aspects of our beings.

Check out Patricia Abbott's interview at Dana King's One Bite at a Time if you'd like to know more about the background of this fast-paced and thought-provoking novel.