Monday, December 29, 2014

The Raven's Torch--Aurora Borealis: Myths and Legends, by Clifton Tilley

Just a quick note to say that one of my far flung cousins has put out a little photography book on the Aurora Borealis. It's small but it has some stunning photographs, and in the brief texts which share its pages, he tells some of the different legends that these northern lights have inspired. If you were alone in the dark on a northern night and one of these light shows popped up, you would need a story, believe me...

You can find a copy HERE if I've piqued your interest.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell at Escape Into Life

Just a quick note to say that my latest review is up at Escape Into Life. I finally get around to reading the short children's book The Animal Family this time. I came to Jarrell through his essays rather than his poems and read his novel Pictures From an Institution, one of those academia satires that professors seem to be awfully fond of writing a long time ago. I never read any of his later children's books till now, though. The Animal Family is a children's story in something of the same way that Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child is a children's story, though not as somber. Although I see on Good Reads that many people remember it fondly from childhood, I do wonder exactly what sort of children Jarrell was thinking of when he wrote it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Viper's Tail: A Matt Chance Thriller by Tom Crowley

One of the unexpected pleasures of attending Bouchercon in Long Beach this fall was that I met a surprising number of authors heretofore unknown to me. Tom Crowley was one of these writers, and actually the first person I  met after stepping through the conference doors. As we sat at a small table orienting ourselves for the days to come, I learned a bit about his life. A Vietnam vet, he then spent many years in the Foreign Service, and ultimately left that world to work for General Electric in Asia. He ended up in Bangkok, where he volunteered in helping street children there. And he's also a pool player, which ended up being the subject of his first non-fiction book, Bangkok Pool Blues. More recently he's decided to try his hand at novel writing.

After going to his author profile session I was even more intrigued to read his Matt Chance books, and luckily for me, I happened to end up at the table of his publisher Down and Out Books, where he very generously gave me signed copies of his work. I have just finished reading the first one.

Matt Chance is a third generation soldier, his grandfather fighting in World War II and his father in Vietnam. Matt has served as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan but has grown disillusioned with the cynical deployment of young men and women and, after being wounded in the war, is ready to resign when a kindly medical examiner has him medically discharged. He decides to return to Thailand where he was born to a Thai mother, though he has spent much of his adulthood in America, home of his deceased father. Only back in Thailand for two years, he is still trying to figure it out and to find his place in it when a mysterious visitor approaches him in a pool hall he frequents. He turns out to be an American investigating the death of another American who had worked with him at the Center for Disease Control. He is supposed to have been trampled to death by elephants, but this man isn't buying it.

Matt's only looking for a quiet life, getting to know his girlfriend Noi better, and acting as a governmental advisor on environmental matters in the country's forests and parks. Unfortunately for him, that turns out to be a great cover for him to go up and look further into what happened to the dead American. And his Ranger background is pretty useful too. Try as he might to extricate himself from the adventure he's been  set on, there are powers at work that are greater than his own power to resist. And, as he finally reluctantly admits, the only way out is to go all in.

One of the things I like best about this book is that Crowley is willing to stop the plot for some contextual explanation. We learn a lot about Asia and the various power struggles going on there from a perspective that is not purely defined around American self-interest. Even more interesting to me, though, was the perspective we get on Matt as a combat veteran. As we get further into the story, Matt is being drawn back into a way of being that he doesn't want to identify himself with anymore, warrior mode, if you will, and we start to get the author's insights into how combat changes a person. As I read the first of these sections that take us somewhat out of the direct action, I found myself thinking that this is one of the great things about books. You could never just stop and talk about what it's like to be a soldier in the middle of an action movie.

And though of course this is in the end written for entertainment, at the end of the book you will find some clarifying notes, a historical context that gives weight to the fictional situation.

A very interesting novel on many levels, and even if you aren't primarily a thriller reader, I do recommend it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Black Rock by John McFetridge at EIL

My review of Black Rock: An Eddie Dougherty Mystery by Canadian author John McFetridge went up at Escape Into Life this morning. It's a terrific book, I think. While McFetridge's Toronto books are often justly compared with Elmore Leonard's, I think the comparison I've seen for Black Rock with the Dennis Lehane of Mystic River is quite apt.

I thought I'd add here for any regular readers of this blog that there were some interesting parallels with Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy books. In both cases, there's a young cop who by circumstance is neither fish nor fowl in the community he is policing. Both are historical and by "historical", I mean set in a place and period that the author knew intimately as a child. Both McFetridge and McKinty have earned their chops with their excellent previous novels, but in both cases I thought that using this territory allowed (or forced) them to deepen their stories a little. I would say in both cases that the stakes seem slightly higher.

Oh, yeah--in both series, there are also plenty of bombs...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

It's 1963, and Ireland is gearing up for a visit from JFK. Of course, it doesn't want any dirty laundry to be aired during his visit. But there's one little problem. Someone has been killing German immigrants on Ireland's own doorstep.

Ireland sat out WWII. For that matter, so did the U.S. for a long time. Ireland's reasons were more personal and closer to home. Given recent history between the countries, it didn't want to get involved in any cause that England espoused. Nevertheless, many young Irishmen crossed the border into Northern Ireland and enlisted anyway. In Stuart Neville's novel, Lieutenant Albert Ryan is one such case. Even years later, he returns to his parents' home by night, afraid of bringing down the wrath of his countrymen on them. He doesn't always succeed in protecting them.

After the war, many affiliated in one way or another with the Nazis ended up in Ireland for a short or a long spell as a consequence of that country's decision in favor of neutrality. So the elaborate twisting tale that Neville sets up here is, while fiction, based more on reality than we might like to think. In the book,Ryan, who after the war has found it difficult to return to civilian life, ends up working for the Irish Directorate of Intelligence. In this capacity, he is ordered to protect one of the most famous of the Nazi sympathizers, Otto Skorzeny, a friend of Hitler, and reputed rescuer of Mussolini. Although reluctant to do so, he meets his match in Charles Haughey, another real life character who at that time was Minister of Justice but went on to become the country's controversial Prime Minister. As Neville himself has said, the question with these two outsize real life characters was how to tone them down enough to be believable. Why the powers that be are interested in protecting Skorzeny in this story is a good one, but I'll leave you to discover it in the book itself.

Ratlines is in some ways a traditional thriller with Ryan portrayed as a hardened and somewhat hollowed-out man. In this aspect, the book will appeal to Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch fans. But apart from the fascinating historical moment that Neville sets it in, I like the book best for its homelier moments, where you get glimpses of Dublin in an era where proper girls meet their landlady's curfew, and even our hero can be made to feel bad about wearing a suit that doesn't come from the right tailor. Neville has said that the Dublin he describes relies in part on the accounts of people who were alive in that era, and I hope he'll take full advantage of these resources for future books while they are still around to bear witness.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sleep With Strangers, by Dolores Hitchens

I first got on to this book a couple of months ago when reading about it on Peter Rozovsky's blog, Detectives Without Borders. Peter was reading it in preparation for a panel he was doing at Bouchercon this year called "Beyond Chandler, Hammett and Spillane: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras". Although I was planning on and indeed did attend this (excellent) panel, I was intrigued by this particular book from the get go because of its Long Beach setting. This was not only because of the fact that this year's Bouchercon took place there, but because I have been particularly interested in Long Beach since realizing that our family has had a connection to the area because of a small oil lease on Signal Hill my grandfather purchased in the twenties. Or at least that's when I suspect he purchased it, based on research I did on Signal Hill for another blog.

A lot of the action of this book does in fact take place on Signal Hill and I couldn't say it paints a very romantic picture, based on the description of thick black oil sumps, the stink of escaping vapors and the noisy oil pumps. Written in 1956, the book describes an era halfway between the twenties and our own. Amazingly, people still lived in small houses amidst all this noisy, dirty extraction. The story opens, though, with a young woman named KayWanderley staring out into the Long Beach rain from her family's mansion at something lying on the porch swing. She is waiting for the private detective Jim Sader to show up and help her find her missing mother. Sader's search leads not just to Signal Hill but to other parts of Long Beach as it was in that era, including an amusement park by the water where one of the characters runs a concession where, for 25 cents, you can "Give the Pigs a Slide". These are real pigs, whom the concessionaire keeps locked up in his house so that they won't fall into the oil sumps nearby.

The book is full of odd little things like that. Although Hitchens was prolific, and even wrote under various pseudonyms, by most accounts, the two Jim Sader books are the ones that stand out. I have only read the one, but it is very atmospheric and well written. It reminded me a bit of Dorothy Hughes work of  roughly the same time period.

I found it particularly interesting to contemplate this older Long Beach as I stayed for a few days in downtown Long Beach with its high end hotels, its little tourist shop area on the water, with the smoke stacks of the Queen Mary peeking out on the far side.

 No pigs for a quarter there, I'm thinking.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn reviewed by Julie C. Graham at EIL

I don't know if anyone actually cares when the reviews here become less frequent, but for the record I went down to Bouchercon in Long Beach last week and though I've been back a few days haven't really caught up with blogging. So, since I'm nominally the book review editor at Escape Into Life, I like to use the downtime here to mention what's going on there. I just put a post up from Julie C. Graham on a book that is an amalgamation of forms called The Narrow Road to the Interior, and as it sounds rather interesting, I thought I'd put a link up right HERE.

More Bouchercon thoughts or at least Bouchercon related reviews to follow.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Undercover: a Cormac Kelly Thriller, by Gerard Brennan

I'm not often in on the early part of a writer's career--I'm usually more in the last to know category. In the case of Gerard Brennan, it's certainly been interesting to watch the trajectory. I think the first piece of his I read was a twisty, not to mention twisted little tale of a rock musician whose life gets seriously gnarly called "Hard Rock". (You can find it in The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime Fiction Volume 8). I then went on to read the novel Wee Rockets and the follow up novella, Wee Danny, and another short novel called The Point. Although I suppose technically this isn't a chronological progression, still, all these tales have something to do with youth, and a fairly mean streets sort of youth at that.

So it's very interesting to see Brennan's vision rise out of his native Belfast haunts and look at a somewhat bigger picture. There are points in the story which literally soar above the landscape, and it's hard not see this as a metaphor for the author's expanded sense of scope as well.

But to get back to the story. Bifurcated from the start, it begins with a man in a ski mask, sitting watch on a father and son in a Belfast basement. It soon turns out that the man in the ski mask is not entirely what he seems. Meanwhile, in London, the wife and mother of the hostages is being forced to agree with the kidnappers' demands. What do they involve? Well, we're not entirely sure at the beginning, but we do know they must have a little to do with her top drawer client, the footballer Rory Cullen.

Speaking of whom. Every chapter begins with a little slice of Rory's autobiography, Cullen. I happen to be a big fan of epigraphs in novels and other forms of extraneously inserted information. And knowing nothing at all about European style football, at first glance I thought Brennan had used a real footballer's autobiography to add a different slant. But no, it's entirely fictional. And as such it gives Cullen, who is more football than footballer in the story itself, a curious extra dimension.

As is often the case with this particular corner of crime fiction I seem to find myself in these days, I wonder exactly how I came to the place where I am reading scene after scene of violent fighting. I don't mean I'm bored, but you know, I come more from the realm of Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James. My thoughts run along two lines when I encounter these. One is amusement at myself for following the carefully choreographed brutality, and another is a more detached sense that the readers of the world shouldn't all be like me. That is, female, middle-aged and probably unable to throw a decent punch. I used to be a bookseller, and I view books like Brennan's as a great gateway drug for young guys who only play video games and watch action movies. Who is writing actual books for them these days?

But for me, there are other rewards. As always, Brennan has an eye and an ear for what young boys are like. There's only one in this book, but his tough heart inside a kid's body was one of the most compelling aspects of this book for me. And on a comic level, I really enjoyed the ex-spook Stephen Black. Let's have more of him, please.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Matt Hill at Local Nomad

In a slight departure for this blog, I'm going to mention a new literary website here on the California Coast. I had lunch with a few friends yesterday, among them the poet Matt Hill. He told me that he had some poems up at a new website called Local Nomad. It's the brain child of poet and artist Jean Vengua. Originating out of her blog, it's overriding theme has to do with the idea that "our lives may be localized to some extent, but our human nature and modernity (still) continues to change and move us—sometimes violently—in directions that we can only guess at from one moment to the next."  (A slightly longer formulation of this can be found on the Local Nomad website HERE.)

I'm not really trained to analyze poetry, and don't have a lot of native aptitude for discussing it. But I like Matt's poems, and so why not start with the first one, "When Space Dislikes You"? At any rate, all three can be found right HERE.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Skin Folk up at EIL and Happy All Hallow's Read

Book review day just happens to coincide with Halloween this year and so I was more than happy to have a review from Julie C. Graham on a book that while not all about horror, certainly has it's creepy moments. Check out her review of Nalo Hopkinson's Skin Folk at Escape Into Life.

As I learned from a friend and coworker a couple of years ago, it's also All Hallows Read, a day of the year when you're supposed to give someone else a scary book. Neil Gaiman explains it all for you:

I don't really have any scary books to give anyone this year, but I do have a couple of links to scary stories.
First, we have three scary flash fiction pieces from Paul D. Brazill over on his blog. The post is called Three Shots of the Dark Stuff and it's pretty gritty, so beware.

And Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen is offering her story "She Never Came Home" free for Halloween, so grab it up now, as I did.

And finally, you can hear Gerard Brennan reading The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe over at Crime Scene NI.

A little something for everyone, then. Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

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

Late one night in March of 1942, a Japanese-American family are rousted from their beds by two brutish strangers. It's only a few months since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and like many West Coast families of similar ethnicity, the Matsuis have heard the stories of other families being taken in for questioning by government agents. As the Matsuis are driven off into the night, the father, Tadao, begins to realize that they are headed the wrong way to be going to FBI headquarters. Where, then, are they headed? And who are these people?

Before we learn the answer to this question the story jumps ahead in time to 1950. The first case of Detective Dalton Pope we witness, though, is of a completely different type, and this one is a suicide, not a murder. The death of Miss Norah Peele is a sad and self-evident one, but it serves the purpose of placing the story firmly in both time and space. Just a few years after the war, the country has another preoccupation--not Japanese invasion, but Communist takeover from within. And any one who has ever shown an interest in that ideology is being blacklisted by Hollywood.

Horizon Drive is a snapshot of this particular moment in the history of Los Angeles. Dalton Pope knows a bit about both ends of the social spectrum of the era. With a mother who drifted into prostitution, he is later adopted by members of the highest levels of L.A. society. Pope has an unorthodox approach to crime solving  that is more than a little at odds with the powers that be. He also has a partner who would rather land even a bit part in a movie than be a real life cop. As Pope and Briggs go about investigating the mysterious death of the Matsuis, whose undiscovered death comes to light when a road in the Hollywood Hills collapses, they also encounter personal challenges. Pope's comes in the form of a Japanese-American girl he once knew and loved before fate intervened to separate them. Helen's appearance in the story presents an opportunity for the novel to delve into the not so distant Japanese-American experience of the internment camps, which provides what I found to be the most moving passages of the book.

This debut novel has many strengths. Although J.M. Zen is the pen name of  two authors writing together, the narrative is very smooth. In addition to the compelling mystery, there are many interesting forensic details, and a great deal of lore about Los Angeles, which I particularly enjoyed as someone with a long connection to the region myself. Check out the J.M. Zen website, where you can watch the impressive trailer, learn more about the authors, and who knows, maybe even buy the book.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Harvest by Jim Crace up at Escape Into Life

My review for the Booker shortlisted Harvest is up at Escape Into Life. Although Jim Crace's distanced stance left me a bit detached from this novel, this was a strong favorite with my reading group and led to an unusually long and spirited discussion. So, as I'm sure you know by now, you shouldn't always listen to me...

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 clichéd? 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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham up at EIL

This week my review for Escape Into Life is about the new book The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce's Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham. As I try to stress there, you really don't have to have any interest in Joyce at all to enjoy and be taken up by this multifaceted book on early 20th century culture in the U.S. and Europe.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

a book bundle at Escape Into Life plus a little bit of news about Adrian McKinty

I did something a little different at Escape Into Life for the book review feature on Friday, which was to do some capsule reviews of some books I'd written up elsewhere. In brief I was kind of struck by how I seemed to find myself in the South Seas any time I opened a book this summer. I've reviewed a couple of these books here, but hey, you might have missed them. Anyway, for some capsule reviews, or really more like brief descriptions of Darwin's Armada by  Iain McCallum, The Signature of All ThinEgs  by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty check out my post HERE.

Speaking of The Sun is God,  the American version is out on the 9th, which is just a couple of days away. It should be easily available wherever you buy books these days.

And speaking of Mr. McKinty, word has reached us that the third book in his Troubles Trilogy, In the Morning I'll Be Gone, has just won the Australian Crime Writer's Association's prestigious Ned Kelly Award. If you haven't gotten around to the Sean Duffy books, I personally would start at the beginning with The Cold Cold Ground, but you won't be lost if you jump in on book three.

"Troubles Trilogy" turns out to have been a bit premature, as in an extremely well-timed coincidence, McKinty has recently announced that he is working on number four in the series. Read all about Gun Street Girl HERE, and if you're so inclined, follow the link there to a five chapter preview.

Congratulations, Adrian. As I've often said, we'll say we knew you when.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ten Classics I Haven't Read Yet

Never mind David Foster Wallace or David Mitchell, or Murukami, Bolaño or Javier Marías. What about all those classics I haven't read that have been around all my life?

Just for kicks, here are ten of them. Maybe this will prompt me to read at least one of them before too long:

1. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man--James Joyce

This is probably what started me on this thread. Despite the fact that I am in a longstanding group devoted to reading Finnegans Wake, and despite having read The Dubliners and Ulysses, I have yet to get to this book, proving that it is not always the most formidable work of an author that we have the most resistance to.

2. Treasure Island--Robert Louis Stevenson

This may be one it turns out I have read. I did read one Stevenson classic when I was a kid, I just don't remember which one. Having read Kidnapped a couple of years ago, I am still not entirely sure if I'd read it in the distant past or not. In any case, there are a couple of Treasure Island spinoffs that I'd like to read, but not till I've read the original, so this is becoming an ever deepening spiral of neglect. (The two spinoff novels are Silver--Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion and Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine.)

3. Madame Bovary--Gustave Flaubert

This is one of those books that I've made a start on multiple times. I've even read a very intriguing piece of literary criticism called Crack Wars by Avital Ronell, which studies Madame Bovary as "the first addict". My most recent attempt was after reading Lydia Davis' piece in The Paris Review about translating the book. I bought a copy of her translation. So far, no luck in pursuing it any further.

4. The Scarlet Letter--Nathaniel Hawthorne

How I managed to get through high school and have no contact with this one, I'll never know. I have actually read a fair amount of Hawthorne--stories, The House of Seven Gables, even the intriguing The Blithedale Romance, which explores utopia, 19th century style, but his most iconic work, no. I believe this was even read by a book group I was in, but I still managed to evade it. Demi Moore as Hester Prynne didn't lure me in either. And no, I didn't see the movie.

5.  Lolita--Vladimir Nabokov

As may now be apparent as a pattern here, I have read some Nabokov, Speak, Memory being my initial inroad, and though I wasn't crazy about it (or him) it did lead me to some of the early works (Mary, The Defense), and I liked them. I then attempted Ada for some reason, and was put off. I have a couple of copies of Lolita somewhere, due to various resolutions. So far nothing. I have seen the first movie of this, which I liked, so it's not that kind of resistance. I have heard that Jeremy Irons reading of it is excellent, so maybe this is the way to go.

6. The Forsyte Saga--John Galsworthy

If I was a very strict list maker, this one might not really fit, as it is more than one book, and isn't typically one on everybody's list of must reads anymore. Luckily I'm not a stickler for uniformity so this one gets in as one I've probably been thinking I was going  to read since I was a teen. I think this because I know at some point we were given the first six books as a Christmas present. Pocket books, red and green. What I remember is that for some reason we were given six and not nine, which I think was the set at the time, and told, let's see how it goes. I am not sure that six was the lucky number. I have wanted to read these for various reasons over time, not least because I was in conversation with my aunt about whether PBS had cast the Masterpiece Theatre version correctly. Conversation might be the wrong word, as I didn't watch the show, wanting to read the books first. Yeah, that was going to happen. I have read the initial set up about the house and family at least twice if not more, but I seemed destined not to know how all the dilemmas about the house or property or whatever it is get resolved.

7. The Plague--Albert Camus

I don't know if this quite fits here either, as I have never had all that much interest in reading this book. I suppose I like the idea of saying I've read it more than the actual prospect. I did finally read The Stranger not that long ago, and I thought it very good, although I seem to disagree with most people on what is really happening in it. The book that should probably really stand in place of this one is The First Man, his incomplete autobiographical novel. My aunt recommended this to me, and I had every intention of reading it while we could still talk about it, but alas, that didn't happen.

8. The Death of Ivan Ilyich--Leo Tolstoy

It's short, and I've read Anna Karenina and War and Peace, even the battle scenes, so why is this one beyond me?

9. The Odyssey--Homer

Okay, not a novel. I've read The Iliad, I even learned to say the opening lines in iambic pentameter in Ancient Greek, but The Odyssey continues to be out of reach. Not that I haven't seen practically every version dramatically rendered of it over time. And I must have read some extremely abbreviated children's version or something, because I feel as though I have always known all that happens to our hero. The Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Penelope--all of it. So maybe it just isn't novel enough. But as someone who has read Ulysses, and plans to read it again, there really is no excuse.

10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy--John le Carré

I hope you weren't expecting some dramatic, perhaps shocking finish. I could have said Moby Dick, but come on, no one's actually read that, have they? No, this is just one that I've meant to read and meant to read and even the lovely new edition and the movie hasn't resulted in that happening. Again, I've read early work, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and I've opened this and liked the writing very much but it just haven't happened yet. Maybe I still don't quite forgive him for his diatribe against Salman Rushdie when the chips were down.

This one I did read.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Death in a Cold Climate, by Robert Barnard

As much as I like to tackle big, ambitious books, there's a time and place for lighter books of entertainment too, and after a spate of the heavy hitters I was in the mood for an old-fashioned mystery novel. I had picked up Death in a Cold Climate awhile ago, after reading about it on Martin Edwards' blog and now seemed like the perfect time to settle into it.

I've read a couple of Barnard's mysteries in the past, and always thought of him as a quintessentially British sort of writer, so was surprised to find that this book is set in the city of Tromsø, Norway. One might think this an odd choice, but in fact, Barnard was a professor of English there for ten years, and in some ways its more surprising that Death in a Cold Climate is the only one he wrote about Norway. I was interested in it partly because, having been published in 1980, it somewhat predates the big wave of Nordic Noir that has swept over us in recent years.

"It was midday on December 21 in  the city of Tromsø, three degrees north of the Arctic Circle."

So, though most of the photos you will find of Tromsø portray a bright sunny city, this is a midwinter's tale.

A young man, a stranger, appears in town, and is shortly after dispatched to his Maker. Winter is indeed a factor in the lag time between his death and the public knowledge of it. In between these events, we get to know those who frequent the Cardinal's Hat--"a Dickensian, cellarlike restaurant" where foreigners meet and mingle with Norwegians who want to practice their English. It's a nice device for bringing in both natives and foreigners into the list of suspects, because it doesn't take too long for Detective Fagermo to discover that the murder victim is an English speaker.

The mystery itself is I think a convincing one, but what I most enjoyed I think was Barnard's observations about the people and the place itself, which Barnard describes as the equivalent of an outback town, and a city of exiles. More wry than caustic, he is not above taking a poke or two at the natives. Not that the British and Americans who appear in his pages aren't in for a few barbs themselves.

The character of the murder victim did seem a little mystifying, though. Fagermo must build up a picture of who he was to even investigate the crime, so we are treated to quite a few past encounters. Some of them are somewhat at odds with each other. In the end, I think we continue to see him through a glass, darkly.

Although there are some amusing asides, not all of them resonated with me. And I still think the slyness of the Author Notes in front is one of the funniest bits:

"Setting a book in a real town always involves the danger that the reader will assume that the characters as well as the topography are based on reality. I should like to insist, therefore, with even more force than usual, that though I have remained fairly faithful in depicting Tromsø, the characters are entirely fictitious: the policemen are not Tromsø policemen, the students are not Tromsø students, and above all the Professor of English is not Tromsø's Professor of English."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Safekeeping at EIL

Just a quick note to say that I put Julie C. Graham's review of Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping: Some True Stories of a Life up over at the Escape Into Life website at the beginning of the weekend. Julie was interested in the non-linear and sometimes dizzying approach to memoir that Thomas takes as she talks about marriage to three different husbands. And I was interested to learn in the process of putting the post up that the father she also describes is Lewis Thomas, he of Lives of a Cell fame. Perhaps talent for the essay is a hitherto unsuspected genetic trait.

I should also note here that Julie  has a two part essay on the adventures of women travelers that just went up at Storyacious. You can find these HERE and HERE .

And what have I been reading, you ask? Well, several things. A Robert Barnard mystery, a new book on censorship and Ulysses, a Swedish political thriller, and another classic British mystery centered around a school. But all in good time, my friends. All in good time.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This was the fourth of the long novels I somehow found myself reading at the behest of one reading group or another during the late spring and early summer, and I thought I'd tackle my 'review' of the book in a slightly different way than I usually do. My regular book group decided to make this a two part read, and so, though I finished it several weeks ago now, it is still up for me in some way. As I await the upcoming late August meeting, I find myself somewhat reluctant to attend and talk about it further. So this post will be some sort of exploration of why that may be.

I never read Eat, Pray, Love, which launched Gilbert onto the bestseller list. During my years with the bookstore, I suffered from what I like to call the bookseller's disease, which is a kind of aversion to books that soar to mass popularity. Part of it has to do with the fact that those books don't need any further help from me and that other books could benefit from my endorsements. But I also had a sense that grew over time that books with such mass appeal were popular for other reasons than purely the quality of their writing. In the case of Eat, Pray, Love, I had a feeling that it spoke to a particular readership--'women of a certain age', as they say, and that as inspirational as it might be to that apparently very large group, it was probably fairly standard in its prose.

So I was surprised on opening The Signature of All Things to find that I was in the hands of an excellent writer, one whose sentences took surprising twists and turns. It was only after starting the book that I realized that before there was Eat, Pray, Love, there was a short story collection called Pilgrims, which was a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway award, and a novel, Stern Men, which became a New York Times Notable Book. In other words, despite two or three non-fiction works recently, Gilbert's initial aspirations were more literary than journalistic.

I am not going to reveal too much about the plot here, or any more than I can help to discuss my impressions, but the story begins with Henry Whittaker, a poor English boy who no one is much looking out for. Henry is the type to pull himself up by his own bootstraps if ever there was one. His adventures and misadventures take him to sea, and through shrewdness and other things not so admirable, he manages to amass a fortune and move to America, where he and his rather formidable Dutch wife have one daughter. The rest of the novel is about the life of this daughter, Alma.

Now, many readers will fall in love with Alma, who, though curiously constrained in many ways, especially for the heiress of a vast fortune, proves to be a pretty formidable person herself. For me, though, the book loses a fair amount of steam when it stops chronicling the rascal Henry Whittaker and turns him into just a mean old irascible patriarch. The opening chapters of The Signature of All Things approach Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in energy, because they follow a similar dynamic figure. For me, it was a little hard to take a lot of interest in the fairly passive Alma after such a dynamic scoundrel, especially as it seemed to be more the author's decision to render her so rather than something that grows naturally out of her character. Alma has her innings, but they don't come early.

There was another peculiar quality of the book for me. Periodically through the course of Alma's life other characters are introduced, and with the exception of one or two, all quite vivacious. Gilbert actually writes very compelling dialogue, but instead of using this gift to give Alma companions, she seems to go out of her way to stifle these relationships in their infancy. I don't want to give away plot points, but it's a bit as though  in Little Women, which is set in an America close in time to Alma's own, Jo had had to go and live with Aunt March and never really gotten to know her sisters, or Laurie had made a brief appearance, only to be sent to boarding school. The remainder of the book would be about how Jo managed to occupy herself in the brief intervals of time when Aunt March didn't need her. She might have found a botanical avocation similar to Alma's. But even Jo March couldn't make grass growing that exciting.

Now don't get me wrong. I looked at a few of the copious reviews of this book on Good Reads, and most of them are not in agreement with me. My criticism is not of craft but of plotting decisions, and that's a very subjective kind of judgement. But when I had reached the halfway mark, I was struck by how oppressed I felt by a curious joyless quality. Things actually livened up a bit shortly after that, fortunately. Though as it's Alma we're talking about, not for long.

The title is taken from a book we learn about after this halfway mark. It is Jacob Boehme's The Signature of All Things that's being referred to here--Boehme being a mystic who believed that God is constantly leaving us clues in nature. This is not very much down Alma's alley, for better or worse. She's a sort of early Darwinian. I mention the title partly because the other day I happened to come across a rather famous passage from Ulysses, where Stephen Daedalus is walking along the strand and thinking:

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if  no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane."

And here was me thinking he'd come up with that himself. It turns out that Joyce too is using Boehme to illustrate an idea, and according to this commentary it was Boehme's sense that a thing could only be encountered through its opposite that Stephen is thinking about, which, if I recall right, Gilbert delves into a bit too. Alma Whittaker certainly does meet her opposite, but whether she knows herself better as a result I will leave it for other readers to decide.

In any case, for a long book, and one I had some resistance to, The Signature of All Things was not at all a  slog, so don't let me put you off it. Give it a go, and if you're so inclined drop a line here and tell us what you think. It's not going to hurt my feelings at all to find out you loved it. 


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Line of Fire by Barroux reviewed at EIL

Just a quick note to say that my review in remembrance of the opening of WWI is up at Escape Into Life. I chose a graphic novel by a French artist named Barroux because it chronicles the opening days of the war, when so much that we know now was unknown and even unimaginable. As a graphic novel, it is a quick read, but also because it is a graphic novel, it will be worth revisiting to notice elements you haven't before. Read all about it HERE.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cuckoo for Coconuts--The Sun is God, by Adrian McKinty (with apologies to General Mills)

Adrian McKinty, most of whose previous novels have centered around Irish identity in one way or another, has cast that question aside for this outing. The Sun is God (reputed to be the dying words of painter J. M.W. Turner) takes what is known of a real life cult of German nudist sun worshippers as a departure point for a murder mystery.

It's 1906 and Will Prior, a Yorkshireman who has washed out of the British military police after being demoralized by an atrocity he became inadvertently  involved in during the Boer war, has now washed up on the shores of German New Guinea, where he hopes to lead a quiet life running a German rubber plantation. Of course, there'd be no story if everything was that simple. He is summoned by the local powers that be to look into the mysterious death, or deaths, on the nearby island of Kabakon, which has been taken over by one August Englehardt, the charismatic leader of a small group of people who believe that sun worship and a diet of coconuts will lead them to immortal life.

It may actually be an advantage here if you are new to McKinty's work, as this is some ways from his more usual "Tough guy fiction at its gory, heartstopping best" (as The Miami Herald has dubbed it). In fact, it reads in parts like an Agatha Christie novel, with its cast of suspects neatly gathered--or trapped--on a tropical island. And even the era has more of a Golden Age of Mystery feeling. It's interesting in our century to look back at the beginning of the last one, and realize that there may be many unusual things about this time and place, but before two world wars, it would not have been unusual for a disillusioned Brit to throw in his lot with German colonists.

And in fact, Prior and the Cocovores (as the islanders dub themselves) have one large thing in common, which is their disillusionment with the modern era and the shape of things to come. From our present place in history, it would be hard to say that they were entirely wrong.

Christie might have captured some of the quirks of the characters, but it is McKinty's mark upon the genre to have Will discussing Schopenhauer's bleak philosophy with one of the other characters. It makes sense--it's because they share Schopenhauer's verdict on life that these people have come to this island in the first place.

I  did have a bit of trouble with the way Will consistently denigrated one of the other characters, though only in his head, of course. I won't say who--it will either be obvious to you or it won't. If you find yourself with similar qualms, though, all I can advise you is to not give up on the story because of that. Suffice it to say that you will have your restitution.

(I was reading the British edition of this book, and the American one won't be out until early September. If you're waiting for that, here's a picture of the American cover, so you won't walk right past it, as it's quite a different take on things.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Writer's Digest "Dear Lucky Agent" contest

In a bit of a departure from reviewing and because despite having a lot of blogs, I don't really have a novel writing blog per se, I am going to use this one to mention a Writer's Digest critique contest that ends tomorrow. If you have a middle grade novel that you would like to get a little bit of an agent's perspective on, check out the "Dear Lucky Agent" contest at . July 30th is the deadline, and I'm sorry that that doesn't give you a lot of time, but I haven't gotten my entry together yet either, so there's no reason why we can't still pull this off, is there?

All you have to do is submit 150-200 words of your middle grade novel, plus a one sentence logline and then, and this is important, post a link to the contest in two social media sites of your choice. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, whatever. Just make sure and do this step because your brilliant tale will be disqualified at the starting gate if you don't.

Obviously, I'd like to win one of the three winning slots, but even if  I don't, I sure hope you do.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Sister Act--Julie C. Graham reviews Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello at EIL

Just a quick note to say that my sister Julie now has a book review up at Escape Into Life. Since I'm the book review editor there, some might say this smacks of nepotism. However, as Julie is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, it's all on the up and up. Anyway, check out her piece on Let Me Clear My Throat there, an exploration of all things vocal.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Watcher in the Shadows, by Geoffrey Household

 Although regular readers here will know that I read a lot of crime and suspense fiction, I came across Geoffrey Household by an alternate route. I am also a big fan of the New York Review of Books imprint, and at the bookstore where I used to work, I came across a copy of Rogue Male in the  bargain bin a few years ago. Bargain bins, especially book bargain bins, are funny places. In one way, they are the receptacles of the lowest of the low. Books that can't be sold new, can't be returned for credit, the least loved of the unloved. My copy of Rogue Male couldn't even be sold as a used book, and had been reduced still further.

But sometimes bargain bins are the places where you find the best books of all. Books that have fallen out of fashion, or maybe never were in fashion to begin with. With a title like "Rogue Male", and with the picture of a dead and perhaps disintegrating wolf on the cover, this one was perhaps never destined to play well in feminist, animal loving Santa Cruz. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a gripping and intelligent game of cat and mouse which I found well worth my time.

Household's fate as a writer is an interesting one. Apparently he achieved success with Rogue Male, but wasn't able to take advantage of it. He was too busy being an intelligence officer in Rumania from 1939 onwards to rest on his laurels.It wasn't until World War II was over that he was able to begin  writing again, though judging from the long list of his books, he didn't exactly suffer from writer's block.

Watcher in the Shadows came out in 1960, and it is set in the period about ten years after the war. In some ways, it is the same sort of plot as Rogue Male is but with some interesting differences. Psychologically, it's interesting that Household makes his character an Austrian who, while working for British Intelligence, penetrated the Gestapo undercover. As the story opens, he is living in England as a zoologist studying red squirrels. The plot is set in motion by an unknown assailant who apparently wants his head. Charles Demmim is perhaps a bit too modest for his own good, in that he has never gotten around to telling the world that he was not actually working for the Gestapo, but, in fact, against them. This might strain credibility, except for the underlying thread that Dennim still feels far from guiltless about his war years. Continuing on in a very unassuming London life is all right, but there is  no forward motion in it. As one character tells him, he is always looking behind him, never ahead. Although there are very good reasons for him to be looking over his shoulder in this case, that doesn't make this observation untrue in a broader sense as well.

I always admire writers who put time and energy into making their minor characters come to life, particularly in such pure action fare as this. In this book, it is the Melton clan, who live on the shadowy side of the law but have their own kind of values, that he brings warmly to life. In Rogue Male, Household made Asmodeus the cat memorable, and in this one it is a rather spoiled Arabian stallion called Nur Jehan who provides the more comical moments to a not otherwise comical tale.

I found Watcher in the Shadows on a library book sale cart. Household's novels are not much in print now, so if I see any more on my journeys, I will certainly grab them up. You should too.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Dog About Town by J. F. Englert at Escape into Life and a list of books from the 40s though not by me

I  put up a post on the first of a mystery series at Escape Into Life before the weekend but haven't had time to mention it here. I feel a bit bad that I have only read the first of J. F. Englert's mysteries featuring Randolph the highly deductive Labrador Retriever, because he's an interesting writer and although these books may be more in the cozy tradition than the thriller mode, they are not cute in the way you might be tempted to think. He deserves a wider audience. Anyway, here's the link to my review of A Dog about Town.

I just happened upon a good list of novels to read from the Forties over at A Commonplace Blog, which is written by D.G. Myers. I have read a few of the books mentioned and more than a few of the authors, but definitely not all. I like lists, in the sense that I like other people to do all the hard work of compiling them so that I can profit from them. Never say never, but I think it's fairly safe to assume that you will not be finding me going to all that much effort here. However, I am usually just about industrious to post a link...

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sabbath's Theater, by Philip Roth at EIL

I wanted to leave the Dana King promotion up till it had run its course, but just a quick note to say that my review of Sabbath's Theater is up at Escape Into Life. In the early days, I didn't think I'd much care for Roth, so never read him, but was later won over by American Pastoral. A friend in my book group persuaded us to read Sabbath's Theater, saying that five years ago she thought she would have been offended by it, but now found it very funny. And I think this is a book that may catch you at the right moment in life or the wrong one. In the end, I was glad I'd read it, but even ten pages before the end I had to put it down for a bit, groaning too much Philip, too much!

If you are in the mood for an outsize character who is part Fyodor Karamazov (the outrageous father), the Marquis de Sade (at least as played by Geoffrey Rush in the movie) and part Casanova (as played by Donald Sutherland, not Heath Ledger), then this is the time to read it. But I will warn you that Mickey Sabbath is someone you will have to grapple with. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Get 'em while they're hot--Dana King offers his books free for a limited time.

I am a little slow on the uptake sometimes. It took not one but two of my fellow bloggers to put up news of this to make me realize that,gee, I could do the same thing. Anyway, crime novelist Dana King is offering his four books free on Kindle from June 25-June 29. That means starting tomorrow in my time zone. I already have three of the four in one form or another, but I will definitely snap up the fourth in the next couple of days. Not that you need help with your selections because you can just grab them all up, but I have written a couple of reviews that you can find by going HERE , or you can get a brief description of each HERE on Paul D. Brazill's blog.

As we've been discussing over on Detectives Beyond Borders, where Peter Rozovsky first clued me in to the offer, writers make these generous offers to pick up a few more fans who then presumably will get the word out to others. So pick up a couple and spread the word in whatever way you typically do that. I'd link you to the Amazon page, but they won't be on sale till tomorrow.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Read outside the box

I came across an interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday about a prize I hadn't heard of before. It's called the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and it was developed to promote deserving and what you might call underrepresented British fiction. The author of the article is Matt Haig, who was also one of the judges (and, I might parenthetically add, the author of The Dead Father's Club, a modern take on Hamlet which I read enjoyed and rather summarily reviewed here a few years back). Haig articulates something about the current state of the book world which I increasingly felt during my sojourn in the book biz, but which I wouldn't have been able to state so well.

"Also, I don't think it is too controversial to point out that the market is increasingly being shaped by sales and marketing people, rather than editors and others who actually know what a good book is. So if a book does well, during the next two years you'll see many echoes of that book on the shelves. The once kaleidoscopic book world risks becoming 50 shades of safe. If you are writing a book that doesn't fit into the categories of mass-market thriller or book-club friendly WI-lit, then it is going to struggle to find a publisher. If it does so, then it will struggle to find a publisher that can justify spending the marketing money needed to make an impact."

One of the cool perks these winners get is having their portrait done in tintype by photographer Tif Hunter. You can see them HERE.

To see a bit about the books themselves, go HERE.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman--at Escape Into Life

Once again I must use this blog simply to steer you to my post at Escape Into Life to read my review of this great novel surrounding the events at the Battle of Stalingrad. I hesitate to call it a review--it is more an enjoinder to tackle this long work. We should not cower before a tome, as one of my friends put it in our recent discussion of The Way We Live Now.

One of the subjects Life and Fate tackles is how to keep our integrity and human freedom in the face of totalitarianism. It is interesting that in daily life, we evade, prevaricate and obscure the truth when we really have very little to lose. How hard was it, then, for those who faced prison and even death in these circumstances? If nothing else, we can all be just a little bit braver, since most of us do have that luxury.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Way We Live Now, at EIL

The long haul is over and I have not only finished what some call Trollope's masterpiece but have discussed it with friends and reviewed it. You can find the review at Escape Into Life. I am now very curious to watch the Masterpiece Theatre production of the story, not least because it is bound to fill in some of the details Trollope didn't bother himself over, such as what they wore, what they ate, what the scenery is like. Just the sort of thing that Masterpiece Theatre is good at.

One interesting surprise is that far from putting me off long bulky books, reading it has somehow given me a renewed appetite for them. I immediately plunged into Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.

 At this rate, I may finally get around to reading A Suitable Boy.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Holly West on "Nine Book Experiences You Should Have Before You Die" at Do Some Damage, and a few of my own

I came across this POST by Holly West over on Do Some Damage a couple of days ago and thought it might be a good one to link to in the absence of a review here. But I've been too busy to even do that, until now. I liked her list a lot, and should probably add to the list in her comment field, but I'll just do it here.

Book reading experiences I think you should have before you die:

Slog through a book to the bitter end before you decide whether you love it or hate it. (Don Quixote, I'm looking at you. By the way, the progression was: hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate...wait a

(That's Picasso, folks. Because it takes a Spaniard to know a Spaniard)

Read a book in the wee hours of the morning when you're really supposed to be doing something else--like studying for a final. My aunt sent me a copy of Pride and Prejudice at a really inopportune moment in my academic career, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

My professor Mary Holmes said that the reason library stacks should be open and not closed is that it's never the book you're looking for that grabs you, it's the other one.

Always give at least a look at books that seem to come to you in an extremely random way. I was delighted to have read John Krich's Music in Every Room: Around the World in a Bad Mood when I was in Southeast Asia, for instance. Someone had left it on a table. Apparently just for me.

And if a book literally jumps off the shelf at you, stop what you're doing and TAKE A LOOK. Even if you just open to a random page.

Somewhat contrary to my first piece of advice, every once in awhile, give yourself permission to just stop reading something. If it's really worth it, it will probably come back round your way again.

Read a book in the company of friends. I know some people look down a little on book groups for a variety of reasons. (Personally, I think one of the reasons is misogyny, as for various reasons it seems to be more of feminine activity than a masculine one.) And sometimes I get tired myself of reading what other people want me to read. But reading and discussing together is a great bonding experience, and even if half the time you're talking about your kids or pets, there's always at least some time you're talking about the work of literature itself. And putting your minds together to talk about a creative work is a wonderful way to get to know other people and how they think.

Trust me.