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.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Rain Dogs up for the Theakston

Crime fiction readers who also read this blog--I assume there is some overlap--might want to know that Adrian McKinty's Rain Dogs is on the shortlist for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award (which has got to be one of the best names for an award ever). As he says on his blog, J.K. Rowling under nom de plume is also nominated, and as popularity is a factor in the judging the odds may be against him. But if you've read Rain Dogs, why not join with me and give old "Robert Galbraith" a run for his money? Because, as we all know, he hardly needs it.

The place to cast your vote is HERE.



 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Some reflections on reading Moby Dick at Escape Into Life

Forgot to mention that I posted a little piece about finally reading Moby Dick over at Escape Into Life last Friday. Not really a review--I wouldn't dare. Nevertheless, I loved the book, was provoked and moved and disturbed by it in turns. It was the right moment to finally tackle it as it turned out. I hope such a moment comes for you, if it hasn't already happened. The post is HERE.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Door by Magda Szabo reviewed at Escape Into Life

My review of Hungarian Writer Magda Szab√≥'s novel The Door is up at Escape Into Life. I happened to read this novel for two different reading groups. It's a New York Review Books republication of another author little known in the U.S., though quite famous in Hungary and to some degree the rest of Europe. The problem is that little of her work has been translated into English, though some has been translated into French. Long live translators, and long may NYRB prosper in its exalted quest to bring great but unknown work to the light of day again. Support them if you're able. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein


It's been awhile since I've read one of Linda Fairstein's crime fiction series featuring Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper and  her pals Detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace. A reference to another book set in the New York Public Library led me to wonder if Fairstein had ever written one with that setting, and much to my delight, I found that not only had she, but I actually had one sitting unread on my shelf!

Fairstein, who was the head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan district attorney, made good use of her experience working with victims of sexual assault in her earliest books, educating readers on victims' rights in a variety of ways. That said, her real strengths as a crime writer lay elsewhere, I think. It was a few books along that she hit on her winning strategy of setting her crimes in the actual buildings, monuments and institutions of New York, and I believe the real reason I've kept reading along is for her terrific research into places we may have heard of--though sometimes not--but never knew that much about. The iconic New York Public Library was an obvious choice for her to get around to at some point.

Alex Cooper's life outside the world of crime may seem to be a little too good to be true, except that judging from the evidence it's modeled to some extent on Fairstein's own life, in which she was married to a prestigious Manhattan attorney and has a home in Martha's Vineyard just as her protagonist does. It always strikes me a little odd, then, that her descriptions of this rarified world are often are the flattest parts of her books. For me at least, it's very hard to care about her latest romantic involvement with the Frenchman Luc something or other, and as he has a very small role in this long book, perhaps Fairstein found it a little hard to care about him too.

The passionate heart of the books always lie with the trio of Coop, Chapman and Mercer, and with Mike Chapman in particular. In Chapman I think Fairstein really created a character that leaps off the page. He is a salty, often obnoxious, and definitely not politically correct sort of guy, but his sterling qualities cannot be hidden by his banter. Unlike her old and good friends outside the law, whose virtues are frequently articulated by Alex, she doesn't have to tell us about Mike's virtues, because we feel them. The connection between Mike and Alex feels real and contains elements of attraction, and he expresses his admiration for her by frequently mocking her, which she never mistakes as malice. Nor do we.

This book contains much lore about the library, as well as the world of rare book collectors and the equally covetous world of map aficionados. It perhaps goes on a little too long, particularly if you don't care about any of that stuff. And perhaps you shouldn't read Fairstein if you can't warm to a story that provides a lot of factoids for their own sake. For me, though, and for a lot of other people apparently, given her bestseller status, her gimmick really works. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Shenzhen: a Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle

I first got on to Guy Delisle when I read a blog post of Adrian McKinty's recommending another book of his called Burma Chronicles. I went on to read the book. I'd forgotten this, but apparently, I liked it well enough that I went on to write a review myself.

This year, I made it to the National Free Comic Book Day, the one day of the year when I become something of a comic book maniac, thanks to the generous support of the day by two great local comic book stores, Comicopolis and Atlantis Fantasy World. And I like to buy something just as a thanks for the free fun stuff. So this year, one of the graphic novels I bought was another Guy DeLisle book about Shenzhen, a major financial center in Southern China, just north of Hong Kong. Close in geographical distance, but separated by differing histories, as Hong Kong lay under British rule and influence for a century and a half.

Delisle didn't make light of some of the repressive aspects of Burma, or Myanmar, as it's now called. But as he was there with his wife and young child, there was a different quality to his life than there is in this one, where he is visiting for a short period of time to oversee outsourced Chinese animation for a French company.

Looking at various Good Reads reviews just now, I see that people were less enchanted with this book than they were with Burma Chronicles, as Delisle doesn't really take to Shenzhen. But I found it a very interesting portrait of a traveler's isolation and alienation in a country where he doesn't speak the language and contacts with people he can talk to are few and far between. Weekend visits to Hong Kong and even Canton are different experiences, but Delisle is constantly frustrated in his attempts to visit the countryside, not by the powers that be, but by his inability to catch the right bus or find the right bike route to do this. The book records an experience of Shenzhen circa 1997, and nearly twenty years may have made a difference as far as accessibility for foreigners goes. But in that year, it seems to be a busy, rather somber and functional place. The dark palette he uses to show it is quite different from the more sunny one he used in Burma Chronicles.

Even here, though, Delisle comes across some quite touching displays of human compassion and interest in him, and despite a certain despondency he is unable to conquer, he is quick to record the human side of the city as well.

I'll read more Delisle, though will perhaps pace myself a little before I take on, say, Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea...


Friday, May 13, 2016

Age of Blight by Christine Ong Muslim at Escape Into Life

My review of Age of Blight: Stories by Christine Ong Muslim was posted today over at Escape Into Life. We've featured some of her stories there before if you want a sample of her writing, though they are not part of this collection. These are disquieting tales about the past and the future and maybe some other reality entirely. When I say 'disquieting', I mean that in a good way. Check it out.