Saturday, October 18, 2014

Horizon Drive: A Novel Noir, by J. M. Zen--the book trailer

I'm excited to feature this somewhat spooky book trailer here today. I've only just started this book, so can't tell you much about it yet, but will soon. What I can tell you, though is that J.M. Zen has a split personality. And I have met them both.

That's because this is a sister and brother act, and J.M. Zen is actually a composite of their writing talents. Writing duos seem to work well in crime fiction,at least if "Charles Todd", "Perri O'Shaughnessy" and "Michael Stanley" are any indication.

I can also tell you that the story centers around the mysterious death of a Japanese-American family in Los Angeles during the infamous time of the Japanese internment camps during World War II. But why listen to me? You can learn about all this and more at the J.M.Zen website. And be sure to check out Jane and Mike's letters while you're there. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (no spoilers)

That's right, I promise. For that one random person stopping by this blog who hasn't yet either read the book or seen the movie, but still has some vague intention of doing one or both, a condition I was in myself till just yesterday, I am writing a review that will not mention anything about the elaborate plot nor offer either praise or criticism of it. How's that, you ask? Simple. I'm going to focus on a couple of things I liked about the story that have nothing to do with it being a thriller.

I am very late getting to this book. A friend and former coworker who had moved on to a position at Crown Publishing sent word back to me while I was still working in the bookstore, asking me if I'd like her to send me a galley of this. I rather ungraciously said, "No thanks." Although my friend had pegged me as a mystery reader, she didn't know that I tend to avoid novels set in the abducted girl sub-genre, rapists, serial killers and the like not really being my thing. Of course at a certain point I realized that she had offered me an early look at a very big book, and I felt a bit embarrassed, but still not in a huge hurry to read it.

It's only with the new movie coming out that I felt that the story's twists and turns would be revealed to me sooner rather than later and decided it was now or never. It turned out that I had a nice window for it, so I began it. Such was my paranoia about things being divulged before I had reached them, I not only didn't tell any of my friends that I was reading the book, but I was actually slightly reluctant to take it to the Laundromat, for fear that some random stranger would see the title and start blurting things out.

None of that happened. I have reached the end and its secrets are safe with me. What I wanted to talk about was the fact that my concept of the book was slightly wrong. I would say that far from being sensationalistic, it is really more of a literary novel disguised as a thriller. Pretty well, disguised, yes, but still.

The basic setup of the book (which you will find in the first few pages) is that a youngish husband and wife, writers, living the sort of New York lifestyle that the rest of the world both envies and mocks, find that the carpet has been pulled out from under them and they can no longer sustain themselves in their chosen profession. The husband's hometown in Missouri beckons at a convenient time, and so they move there, willy-nilly, where he uses his wife's savings to set up a bar. Called "The Bar". This has all happened before the story even starts, so don't worry.

Yes, we thought we were being clever New Yorkers--that the name was a  joke that no one else would get, not get like we did. Not meta-get. We pictured the locals scrunching their noses: Why'd you name it The Bar? But our first customer, a gray-haired woman in bifocals and a pink jogging suit, said, "I like the name. Like in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Audrey Hepburn's cat was named Cat."

We felt much less superior after that , which was a good thing.

The novel is very much set up along these lines, where New York and Missouri spar with each other, sometimes within the characters themselves. It makes you remember that a lot of the 'in the know' New Yorkers are originally from somewhere else themselves.

So I was very much taken with the novel from the start, realizing that a story that stops to take time to lament the passing of a journalistic era was not going to be just any 'gone girl' novel. But I think where it really grabbed me was with a throwaway line:

[My wife] had made a grim figure on the Fiji beach during our two-week honeymoon, battling her way through a million mystical pages of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, casting pissy glances at me as I devoured thriller after thriller.

Forget marriage, which in many ways what this book is about. (Marriage, that is, not forgetting marriage, though it might be a little about that too.) I can remember, did remember on reading this line, my aunt's account of laughing uproariously through a book I'd given her for her trip to France, the wonderful Handling Sin, by Michael Malone, which upset her travel companion, who was trying to read something serious in French, no end.

The book is a thriller, and not a sociological study, nor is it a lament for a past era. But it is set in time, in a particular moment and that moment is very well described here:

I sat in the doorstep of a vacant storefront. It occurred to me that I had brought Amy to the end of everything. We were literally experiencing the end of a way of life, a phrase I'd applied only to New Guinea tribesmen and Appalachian glassblowers. The recession had ended the mall. Computers had ended the Blue Book plant. Carthage had gone bust; it's sister city Hannibal was losing ground to brighter, louder, cartoonier tourist spots. My beloved Mississippi River was being eaten in reverse by Asian carp flip-flopping their way up toward Michigan...It was the end of my career, the end of hers, the end of my father, the end of my mom. The end of our marriage. The end of Amy.

Gone, girl. Gone.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Findings by Kathleen Jamie up at EIL

The latest book review from Julie C. Graham is up at Escape Into Life, this time on a book of essays by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie called Findings.Check it out HERE.

Like the other books Julie has written about there, I want to read this one too.

Monday, October 6, 2014

1222 by Anne Holt

I should say right up front that Goodreads lists this as the 8th Hanne Wilhelmsen novel, so if reading series in order matters to you, you should stop reading right here. I am not going to write anything spoilerish about this book, but the book itself is very likely quite spoilerish for earlier books in the series. Get my drift? That said, I didn't have any idea that it was part of a series from the cover and it never turned out to be a big problem.

For someone who lives in a small space, I have an awful lot of books, emphasis on unread books, thanks to many years working in a bookstore and also certain natural book buying proclivities. So it's not entirely strange that when Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders happened to mention 1222 in a comment over at his place, I happened to have a copy of it just sitting here waiting for me to read. It's perhaps a little bit stranger that the discussion was about a verbal tic the book has, though whether the fault of the author or translator I don't think we determined. Although that probably shouldn't be an inducement to read a book, it did at least get me to open the cover. And once I had, I was hooked on the premise from the get go.

A train crashes in the Norwegian mountains as a storm of epic proportions is brewing. Everyone but the engineer survives the crash. Luckily for them there is an old Norwegian hotel near enough to the tracks that they can be housed there until help comes, whenever that is. It's called Finse 1222 because it 1222 meters above sea level. (I must have skipped over the part where this was explained, because I remained curious about the title till I looked at the jacket copy after. I thought 1222 was the address.)

The  narrator of the tale is Hanna Wilhelmsen, formerly a policewoman, now a paraplegic, after a bullet taken in the line of duty has severed her spine. Crusty and antisocial, clinical in her approach at least initially, it's Hanna's perspective that drew me in from the get go. People trapped in a remote place while mayhem ensues is hardly a new plot idea, but somehow Hanna's misanthropic world view coupled with a dire situation plus a lot of plate spinning as various personalities among the 268 survivors come into play makes this a very compulsive read, or at least it was for me. The gale force storm as another dimension of the book also adds to its energy.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Belfast Noir, Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville, editors at Escape Into Life

Just a quick post to say that my review is up of the Akashic Books anthology Belfast Noir over at Escape Into Life. Those of you familiar with the Northern Irish crime fiction scene will find some familiar names here--Brian McGilloway, Gerard Brennan, Garbhan Downey, to name but a few. You might be a bit more surprised to find Lee Child has a tale here, and even more surprised that a science fiction writer like Ian McDonald has a bit here. Don't worry, it's all legit, folks.

This is a standout collection, which I've described a bit more fully, but by no means comprehensively HERE.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, by Leif GW Persson

Let's get one thing out of the way from the beginning: this book  is something of a slog. Remember how everyone said that they loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, except that it packed in too much information? (I didn't actually mind that, though I had other problems with the book.) Well, this book takes information loading to another degree entirely.

On top of that, the translation is often infelicitous--a pet peeve being that women never seem to laugh in the book, they only giggle; the pacing is not what you would call action packed; and the many, many characters are not as individuated as they might be. (This is one of those books where a cast list of characters would have helped.) Some of them, though important and recurring, are never referred to by name--the special advisor, the Stockholm chief constable, and the prime minister being the main ones. And there is an overabundance of characters saying something and then thinking something else privately to themselves, rendered in a repetitious and heavyhanded fashion.

I wasn't obligated to read this book for any reason. Why then, did I persist? Well, partly because I knew that if I did not continue now, I would never have the heart to begin it again, which I would have had to do to have any idea what was going on. But more, as time went on and the journey became harder, because I felt that despite the less than literary rendering, the author genuinely had something to say.

Have you ever read a spy novel or thriller where there's a lot of action and exotic locales, but where the characters are cartoonish and their motivations clich├ęd? Well, this book is the opposite of that. Persson obviously cares very deeply about what he's really trying to get across, which is basically an indictment of the Swedish police, government and secret service and he's had to write a vast, complex and deeply cynical tale to do it. Despite my complaints, it is actually woven together thoroughly for such a multi-faceted story. Characters that appear at the beginning and disappear for a long while are there again at the end. We may have lost track of them, but Persson hasn't.

The story begins with a falling body. The opening, in fact, promises a book that is not much like the one we actually end up reading, full of character, incident and dark humor. Along about page 97, however, the readership is likely to be thinned out considerably, as we are treated not only to a wholly new cast of characters, but also an extremely dry discussion of the internal and external aspects of the Swedish police structure. And I suppose chapter subtitles should have been a clue, but it took me longer than I care to admit to realize that this thread of the story actually takes place before the part we have just read. They are parallel tracks through the same incidents, but the second one is slightly earlier in time. Knowing that in advance may help you to sort out the timeline here better than I did.

My sheerly intuitive sense of what Persson had in mind in undertaking this was fleshed out by some helpful comments Philip Amos made over at Detectives Beyond Borders recently. Although author notes in the book tell us that Persson is a leading Swedish criminologist, Amos told us that he was actually fired for blowing the whistle on the Justice Minister, who was deeply implicated in a prostitution ring. (The justice minister is another figure in this book that is never mentioned by name.) And he speculates that crime fiction was a way for Persson to 'get the word out' on some of the shadowy activities of various Swedish institutions.

The story Persson is trying to tell in this novel is about another of the great unsolved political crimes, that of the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme in 1986. We circumambulate this figure without getting to meet him directly, but Persson describes an intriguing figure to say the least. A Kennedyesque figure, in fact, which makes it appropriate that I should have learned more about him, purely by chance, on the comment thread of a post about another chronicler and speculator on political and conspiratorial crime, James Ellroy.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

In Patagonia at EIL, and other assorted news

Just a quick post to say that there's a new book review up on Escape Into Life by Julie C. Graham on the classic travel book In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin and you can  find it HERE. To my chagrin, I've never read any of Chatwin's acclaimed works, but in putting up a couple of supplemental links to the review in case readers are interested in going further, I discovered something that I had long been curious about. At the time Chatwin died in 1989, he was said to have picked up some rare tropical disease. Somehow I managed to miss the later disclosure that he had actually died of AIDS. He was one of the first British celebrity types to get or least show symptoms of the disease so his lack of candor is understandable and makes me realize what a long way we've come. But it's funny the effect these kinds of evasions have. For years I've retained really only one thing about Chatwin, and that was the dying of a puzzling tropical disease part. And it's subtly affected my whole idea about intrepid traveling and its hazards. Of course there are hazards to intrepid traveling, it's just that Chatwin's particular fate isn't one of them.

And I learned from Wikipedia just now that Chatwin's memorial service was held at a Greek Orthodox church in London. It was attended by Salman Rushdie, one of his close friends. That day happened to be the day that the notorious fatwa was pronounced upon Rushdie. This was chronicled later by both Paul Theroux and Martin Amis. One of those odd little nodes of British literary history.

In other news, I was thrilled the other day to see that Karen Joy Fowler had made the Booker Prize shortlist for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fowler is a resident of the Santa Cruz area, and I happened to read the book in galley form before publication, which frankly was probably the best way in the world to read it as there were absolutely no spoilers. Anyway, it's a terrific book, and although I haven't read the others on the shortlist, I hope she wins.
Fingers crossed.