Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Hav and Euphoria at EIL

I'm a little behind on my reviews here, but I do have a couple of links to some reviews I've written for Escape Into Life recently, which I've either been too busy or too lazy to post about here. The first is for Hav, Jan Morris's book about a city that may be a fictional place, but is really an amalgam of all the places she ever visited in her long and celebrated career as a travel writer. It reminds me a bit of Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in being a sort of wisdom book, a distillation and a summing up.

The second is Euphoria, Lily King's novel based on the lives of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune. It veers rather significantly away from the actual lives of the famed anthropologists, a fact which in retrospect I may have gotten a little hung up on. There's some great writing and wonderful observations in this book, so don't let my quibbles stop you from taking a look.

More reviews to come soon. Meanwhile, happy holiday reading, everyone. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Kristine Ong Muslim at Escape Into Life

We've started what I think is a new thing over at Escape Into Life, which is that occasionally we are going to publish some short, short fiction. It's a little bit like the poetry feature there, as it incorporates art along with the printed work, a combination that I find very winning.  The featured author is Kristine Ong Muslim, who has numerous short stories and poems to her credit, among other things. Please check out her work and you can look forward to a review from me on her forthcoming short story collection Age of Blight sometime around the time of its release in January.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Little More Free by John McFetridge

It's a funny thing about Canada. Although it's probably different for those in regions abutting our northern neighbor, in general Americans don't really know much about it. Or at least they don't if I'm a representative example, which I think in many ways I am. Although we share much more of a common cultural history than we do with Mexico, we don't really study Canada much in school, or at least didn't the last time I checked. And, over my long career at the bookstore, where part of the time I looked after the history section, I really don't remember many books specifically on Canada coming through at all. As our main buyer was actually a Canadian, I'm pretty sure that this wasn't a lack of interest on her part, but had more to do with the American publishing industry believing that books on Canada wouldn't really sell to the general public. In some ways, I think we tend to feel we already know about Canada, and so don't have to bother learning more.

But Canada has just as interesting a history as the U.S. does, and in many ways they are linked. That's why it's been so interesting to read about the period of history that I came of age in through Canadian eyes. Specifically through the eyes of one Constable Eddie Dougherty, who makes his second appearance in this book. I reviewed Black Rock over at Escape Into Life a while ago, but you don't necessarily have to read it first. There are references in this book to some of its incidents, but I don't think they are particularly of a spoilerish quality.

As was the case in Black Rock, the story starts off with a historical event, a tragic nightclub fire in Montreal that killed 37 people. Eddie Dougherty, having done a stint with the Morality Squad which didn't work out, is back to driving a squad car, and so answers a call that takes him right to the scene of the carnage.

The year is 1972, and as McFetridge tells us in an afterword, this horrific fire was eclipsed by an event that consumed Canadian consciousness--a  hockey match between the Canadians and the Soviets, which Canada initially saw as an easy win. Montreal also knew that it would be hosting the Olympics in 1976, so the hostage situation at the Munich Olympics that unfolds in the background of the novel is not simply a tragedy watched from afar. And on top of all this, there's a murder right on Dougherty's turf.

This death takes Dougherty into another area of Canada's history, that of Americans fleeing the draft. As Dougherty tries to decide what he thinks about war resistance, he becomes involved with a woman in the movement, and they sidle up warily to each other. The very fact that they find themselves fraternizing is a symptom of a larger phenomenon--whatever cohesiveness the counterculture had is now fracturing and people are going their own way again. "Self-actualization" is a key term.

I'm struck as I was reading Black Rock with the similarities to Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy series, in which a young policeman also remains in a police force where he's something of an anomaly. Eddie Dougherty isn't as cynical as Duffy is, yet. But finding that he doesn't progress up the ranks as he thinks he should and not understanding why, he may headed on a similar journey. I look forward to the next book in the series to find out. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Happy Halloween!



And happy All Hallow's Read as well. As I'm sure you know by now, Neil Gaiman instituted a tradition of giving someone a scary book for Halloween and named it All Hallow's Read. I haven't gotten my act together to actually give anyone a book this year, but I do have a couple of recs which I've put up at Escape Into Life. And they are from two very different parts  of the spooky spectrum. The first, State of Grace by Joy Williams is spooky in a very Southern Gothic kind of creep factor way, and the second, Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, is a novel about werewolves in L.A. written in free verse. So look to your own creeped out preferences and check one--or both--of these out.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Season of Migration to the North reviewed at Escape Into Life

For some reason (okay, laziness), I haven't mentioned here that I have a review of Sudanese born writer Tayeb Salih's short novel Season of Migration to the North  up at Escape Into Life. I read the book a little while ago for a GoodReads discussion group and in order to refresh my memory to write about it, I went through some other reviews, more knowledgeable than mine. I was struck by how much more there was to the story when revisiting it. I understand now why a panel of Arab writers and critics chose it in 2001 as the most important novel of the 20th century (not that I know whether they are right). You can read some of the other essays about it at the links before my piece.

Some good stuff up at EIL right now. New art, comic musings, poetry nominations, and the world of television all up quite recently. Take a look.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Rocks, by Peter Nichols at Escape Into Life

Just a quick note to say that I've got a review up of Peter Nichols' The Rocks up at EIL today. I found it quite absorbing. I think its probably this year's Beautiful Ruins, or, stretching back a bit further (a lot further), I had an association to John Fowles' The Magus--not so much in the plot as in the slightly exotic locale.

Anyway, you can check out the review HERE.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay

If I wasn't too lazy to label my blog posts, I'd put this one under "Buying a book by its cover", although more accurately, I bought it on the basis of another book's cover, namely its sequel, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, which was sitting out on a display table at the aforementioned Kramer Books in Washington D.C. when I visited there back in May. A great title and a great cover sold me on that, but I decided I had better begin at the beginning.

"It starts with a telephone call. Casual, chatty, friendly, no business. You arrange to meet, neutral venue, preferably public. You have to be careful, regardless of the caller, regardless of the meeting place. Every eventuality planned for, nothing taken for granted. Tempting to begin to trust; tempting, but wrong. A person could be your friend and confidant for twenty years and then turn away from you in an instant.It happens. Anyone with sense remembers that bitter reality; those without sense will learn it."

And thus begins our story and our introduction to Calum Maclean, Glasgow hitman. And, not incidentally, to the narrative voice of this story. It is through this very flat, very hard voice that we are induced to, if not sympathize, then identify with a hired killer. Very early on in the story he is contracted to kill someone, in deadpan tones just like this, and we don't turn away in horror, we follow where he goes. We have a stake in his success, even though we don't in any way condone his actions.

Part of this lies in the severe logic of the enterprise. There's an "if this, then that" sequence the story elaborates, and although you often see this played out in stories set in the criminal world--shows like The Wire, books like George Pelecanos' Drama City, what makes this a little different than most is that it doesn't engage you on an emotional level. The gunman of the story doesn't call upon our sympathy. We never learn why he became a gunman, and though Calum may be beginning to reach a point where he's starting to miss what he's given up for the job--a girlfriend, a stable life--he isn't there yet. The drive in the novel comes not from emotional attachment but from seeing just how it will all play out.

The character, in fact, that Calum reminds me of most is not from the turf wars of urban crime, but from more rarefied climes: Barry Eisler's international assassin, John Rain. The first person narrative of Eisler's narrative takes us a bit further into Rain's personality than we ever get into Calum's. But Calum doesn't want any of that--his main aim is to have his fellow Glaswegians not even notice he's around. We are not meant to make him our hero--not even our antihero.

I'm misleading you if I'm giving you the impression that the story is all about Calum, though. The omniscient narrator of the tale gets into everybody 's head: the police, the girlfriend of the targeted man--even the head of poor, hapless Lewis Winter.




Monday, July 27, 2015

The Dud Avocado reviewed at Escape Into Life

I haven't had time to mention here that I posted a review of Elaine Dundy's comic novel The Dud Avocado over at Escape Into Life on Friday. Another New York Review Books Classic, and one a few of us bantered about over at the NYRB book group on GoodReads this month. This was a very fun summertime read, set as it is in Paris and on the French coast. I've seen a few criticisms of it suggesting that Dundy was no Henry James, but then I don't think she ever intended to be.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Disappeared by Anthony Quinn

Disappeared joins the ranks of other recent "post-Troubles" crime novels from Northern Ireland, especially in the Faulknerian 'The past is never dead. It's not even past'  sense. It's perhaps not entirely a coincidence that, as in Stuart Neville's novel Ghosts of Belfast, where one of the IRA's hard men is haunted by the victims of his brutality, this book opens with a wraithlike figure, wanting justice for the past. 

In this tale, though, it's retired Special Branch agent David Hughes who receives the visitation  on a stormy night. But as his mind is slowly coming apart due to Alzheimer's, neither he nor we can be sure exactly what the nature of this apparition is. Hughes takes up the case, but as this entails him vanishing from home, he also becomes the case of a police inspector recently returned to Northern Ireland from a long spell away in Glasgow. On top of this, he must investigate the brutal death of another man who seems to have led a quiet life, but may just have a hidden story. As Celcius Daly slowly realizes, these disparate circumstances may have more than a little to do with each other. 

Add to this the fact that there are people in high places who may not want some unpleasant truths revealed and, well, Inspector Daly may have his work cut out for him. 

There are a couple of reasons to read this book. The first is its thoughtful examination of how the past lives on in Northern Ireland and how people deal with their own roles in a violent era not far behind them. It's part of the growing discussion in Northern Irish crime fiction that wants to face this past more openly, including Neville's work and that of Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy books, set in the Troubles era itself. 

Another reason, though, is for the descriptive power of the writing. Set mostly near the shores of  the giant Northern Irish Lough Neach, it's a dark and brooding setting, full of wind and water, and as Quinn points out more than once, the hidden little country lanes have seen more things than their quietness reveals.

My favorite image, though, comes from deep within the book. It doesn't have any particular spoilers and may convey to you some of Quinn's talent:

"In one of his dreams, he found himself stepping out through the back door of his cottage into pitch-darkness. The door gave onto the black wind. Voices whirled and echoed in the howling air. He realized his eyes were closed against the darkness. Opening them, he gradually made out a sky of dim stars. But the brightest thing in the night was a flowering thorn tree in the middle of a dark hedge. Its naked black branches were laden with white blossoms, shining like clusters of stars. A line of ghosts shuffled along the hedge toward the tree, as though it offered some form of protection. He saw Oliver Jordan climb up into the tree, then others, like stowaways boarding a boat, reaching up on their tiptoes, hugging the twisted branches while the blossoms stirred in the dark wind like a set of sails.
 
"...He saw the thorn tree gather them all up safely into its branches, ready to bear them off to a safer haven. But there was something anchoring the tree, something buried amid its roots, preventing it from carrying its cargo of lost souls heavenward. He gripped the gnarled base of the tree and tried to shake it loose, begging it to uproot itself, but it would not budge. The branches grated together as if in pain. He began digging with a tiny silver trowel, scratching at the stony soil."

It wouldn't hurt anything to tell you whose dream that is. But it strikes me that it could be the dream of any of these characters and represents their longings as well as his. As a matter of fact, it could just as well be the dream of the author himself.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

I first came upon Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen's work through her blog, djskrimiblog. Dorte isn't as active in the reviewing world as she once was, having moved on to spending more time writing mysteries rather than reviewing them, but the archives are still there if you want to see what she was up to a couple of years ago. Although a large number of her reviews are in English and feature American and British books, being Danish herself she reviews Danish crime novels as well, sometimes in Danish if they don't have an English translation. 

It came as something of a surprise, then, to find that her first novel--at least the first one I'm aware of--was actually a very British cozy. As I wrote in my review at the time, this one is for fans of Midsomer Murders and others in the village mystery subgenre. 

Her next mystery was a very different kettle of fish. Anna Märklin's Family Chronicles shares some characteristics in common with the book under discussion here, as it has a historical element woven in with the contemporary. 

Crystal Nights begins in Berlin in 1938, on the infamous Krystallnacht, or "night of broken glass", when Nazi storm troopers and their sympathizers went on a rampage through many German and Austrian cities. The destruction and mayhem force the Stein family to flee the country. But tragedy finds them on their journey anyway. 

The story now jumps into the future, but a future that is already in our past. We are now in Kalum, a small Danish town, in 1967. Krystallnacht is now history, so much so that they are actually studying it in school. Neils Haugaard would rather be studying Kennedy's U.S. space program. He's also missing his friend Lars-Ole, who seems to be cutting school. 

But all is not well with Lars-Ole and in fact he's disappeared. We learn early on that, in fact, he's dead, but no one in Kalum knows that. Even his mother isn't aware that he's missing at first, and only gradually does anyone realize that he is not in any of the places he's assumed to be. More than one team of policemen will be baffled by this situation, and in many ways it takes the steadfast search of Lars-Ole's friend Neils to finally unravel this mystery. 

This was a very absorbing tale, even though we have a piece or two of information that the townfolk of Kalum don't have. For an American, the ways of a little Danish backwater are interesting just in and of themselves--for example, where the telephone exchange was in a little town like this. Watching Neils work his way through the possibilities of what happened to his friend is compelling (the police aren't bad, though maybe just a bit lazy), but what is perhaps most interesting to me is the way that Lars-Ole's spirit hovers over the book, so that you get to know him as well. He's not a ghostly presence or anything like that, but all the same it's true that it's really he and Neils working together who solve the case. 

I'll close with some notes I found about the Danish edition at GoodReads:


The Danish edition of the book, Krystalnætter, won a national competition in 2013. Judge and editor Lene Dalmejer explains her choice:

”Crystal Nights” is a highly commendable historical suspense novel that captures the reader from the opening phrase. It opens in Berlin in 1938 on the Night of the Broken Glass, and a Jewish family is preparing for a perilous escape to Scandinavia. Subsequently the story moves 30 years ahead to 1967, to the small town Kalum in Northern Jutland.
... and soon tales of destiny emerge, much larger than tiny Kalum. The novel is well-turned, and the plot is spot-on. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen writes in a fashion that almost makes you forget you are reading. This is in itself a huge achievement. The language breathes freely, and we delve into the Denmark of the 1960s without any discord whatsoever. It is, in short, a first-rate novel!

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington up at Escape Into Life

I've just posted my review of the much beloved The Hearing Trumpet by the British born, Mexico based artist, writer and sculptor Leonora Carrington at EIL. It is quite a romp but something more than that too. There are some good links about her at the bottom of the review if you'd like to know more.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ready for The Dubliners?

I posted this on our group's Finnegans Wake blog, but thought it might have a broader appeal...

This isn't strictly about the Wake, but if you are looking to deepen your context a little, I just learned that a book discussion of The Dubliners is starting tomorrow, July 1st, as a free online course from Berkeley. You can also spend a little money and get a certificate of completion if you're into that kind of thing. I've taken a few of these classes and it can be a little overwhelming, just because of the sheer number of participants, but on the other hand, invaluable. I haven't signed up yet, since it just came up, but from past experience, enrolling is quite simple.

Here's the link to the course. Maybe I'll see you there...


Friday, June 26, 2015

M.O. "Wishful Thinking" results and Flash Flood Fiction Day

(Reposted from Confessions of Ignorance)

Sorry to be straying so far off track here these days, but I thought I'd mention a couple of things that I actually know something about. The first is that the results of the M.O. Wishful Thinking contest have come in, and though I didn't win I still enjoyed the process and am glad I took part. I'll post a link to the winning story here I think on the 10th, but if I get sidetracked you can always check in over there.

Meanwhile, though, a friend happened to mention the Flash Flood Fiction Day coming up on Saturday (tomorrow) at Flash Flood Journal, and I somehow managed to write something up quick and get it in in time to be published there. They tell me it ought to be up at about 2 PM British Summer Time (BST) or 6AM California time, as near as I can reckon. So look for "The Rival", or just check out the website and see what everyone's come up with. I know that's what I'll be doing. The maximum word count is 500 words, so these will be short pieces for your delectation.

Kids, don't try this at home.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Riccarton Junction by Scott Beaven


Riccarton JunctionRiccarton Junction by Scott Beaven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A strange and mesmerizing tale. Told from the point of view of a teenager on the verge of adulthood, it covers a lot of ground. Our narrator, Kikarin, is the daughter of a Japanese mother and a British father, and thinks of herself as British but knows that her exotic appearance sets her apart. Even in the London district of Putney her friends tend to be outsiders, but now she's spending her last year before university in the remote Scottish Borders area, where she finds that she's basically incomprehensible to many of her classmates. This doesn't stop seemingly every male in the area from being attracted to her, and not always in the most gentlemanly ways. Though it comes in conflict with taking her all important placement finals, she's called upon by her mother to accompany her as she gets Kikarin's brother out of a youth detention center for a weekend parole.

I liked Kikarin's voice a lot. Although a lot of the events in the book happen to her, there is an observational tone to her telling, as she tries to sort out her various relationships. I thought her parents flashed a bit hot and cold on her, and when she suggests at one point that they are buying a dog to replace her as she goes off to college, it doesn't seem so far-fetched. For much of the story, they seem to be preoccupied elsewhere, sometimes with good reason, sometimes not.

Despite the loutishness of many of the locals, the setting itself is one of the strengths of this book. Kikarin has an archeological interest which takes her to places like an abandoned railway station and an historic castle, and the site of some prehistoric cup and ring marks.The almost haunted feeling in this often empty landscape will stay with me for a long time to come.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott

Although Concrete Angel is Patricia Abbott's debut novel, the term debut may be a little misleading. She has scores of short stories published both on line and in print, some of which appear in group anthologies, and some in anthologies of her own. She has won the Derringer Award, which honors excellence in short mystery fiction. And if you're wondering if there is any connection between her and the Edgar award-winning author Megan Abbott, there is. Megan is her daughter.

It's an interesting coincidence, then, though presumably not in any sense autobiographical, that Concrete Angel proves to be a mother daughter tale to the nth enmeshed degree. Although there are crimes galore in this book, the most significant one happens in the opening pages, when Eve Moran shoots a man in her apartment whom she has only known for a few hours while her daughter lies sleeping in a room next door. Guess who winds up taking the fall for it?

Although certainly qualifying as crime fiction, this novel is really a sustained study of the larger than life personality of Eve, born  Evelyn, by a witness with unrelenting focus--her daughter Christine. In this it reminded me of the short story collection by Natalie Serber, Shout Her Lovely Name, which describes a similar (though not criminal) mother daughter relationship in a series of linked tales. As in that book, there is an episodic, picaresque quality to this tale, as many other characters float through their lives--mostly men. But Eve and Christine are the earth and moon of this story, although Christine's father and grandmother exert their own gravitational influences. Mostly, though, they just manage to keep the pair afloat. This is a dyad that needs a lot of buoying up--cash infusions, temporary and not so temporary lodging, babysitting arrangements.

One of the narrative techniques I was impressed by in this story was Abbott's ability to switch point of view seamlessly when she needs to tell a part of the story Christine would not have been present for. Although I may be wrong, it seems to me that the way she achieves this is to have Christine switch in these sections from the first person to a third person perspective, which signals that she is telling the story from things she's put together later. It's quite effective, because it allows Abbott to tell the story from a child's point of view as well as an adult's.

The story is set in the region around Philadelphia in the seventies, though moves back in time to earlier eras in Eve's life. It's a time period that I'm familiar with and Abbott gets the details of this era right--more so, I think than, say, Mad Men, which tends to glamorize and romanticize its slightly earlier  period without quite nailing it. The blood red Ericafon with its dial underneath its base, is not only iconic of the period but plays a crucial part in the downfall of Eve's victim, the unlamented Jerry Santini. And the background television of shows like the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bob Newhart were indeed what most families were tuned into on predictable nights at predictable times, even, it seems, highly dysfunctional families like this one.






An interesting interview as well as more about the book can be found in J. Kingston Pierce's piece for the Kirkus Review.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

I've got a story on the short list at Criminal Element's The M.O.

(Reposted from my blog Confessions of Ignorance. Apologies to anyone long-suffering enough to read both.)

I learned a couple of days ago that a short story I wrote made it to the final four at The M.O. over at Criminal Element and yesterday they put the beginning of these four stories up on their website. I like a couple of things about this contest. First of all, they come up with good themes to work with--the last one was "Long Gone" and this time it was "Wishful Thinking". They are broad enough yet specific enough to get your imagination working. I wanted to write something for this latest one, but I had a really hard time coming up with an idea. I had to think a lot about what wishful thinking actually is.


The second thing I like about the contest is that they post the beginnings of the stories and then people get to vote on which one they'd like to read all the way through. There are a couple of possible problems with this idea, of course. First, the story with the best start might not be the one with the best ending, but they are pretty short, so I guess if you haven't whetted a reader's appetite out of the gate, you probably haven't quite succeeded anyway. The other thing, though, is that it's possible the winner will just be the person with the best social media platform. I did like the story that came out of the last batch very much, though, however it was chosen. That was S.W. Lauden's Fix Me.


So head on over to read the Wishful Thinking candidates. Please just vote for the title you're most intrigued by, it doesn't have to be mine. I got a story out of this, after all, and I can always send it on to other likely places. And do check out the Rogues' Gallery, where you will find a very misleading photograph implying that I actually ride a bicycle. Wishful thinking indeed.

They'll be announcing another theme soon, so why not sign up over there and give it a go?

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Game of Hide and Seek at Escape Into Life

I've put my review of Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek, which I read for the GoodReads New York Review Books book club, up at Escape Into Life today. The book club has its ups and downs as far as participation goes, but this book got a good response. You can find out more about that group HERE--anyone on GoodReads can join it.  We're on to our next book, A Season of Migration to the North by Taleb Salih, a book from the Arab world that probably couldn't be a lot more different from the very British Taylor's.

You can find my review of Taylor's book at Escape Into Life.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Lost and the Blind, by Declan Burke

If you've read a few of Declan Burke's novels, as I have by now, you know that past outings may not offer much of a clue as to what the present one will be like. From the madcap circus that was The Big O and its sequel Crime Always Pays, to a true one-off, Absolute Zero Cool, in which a character named Declan Burke wrestles with a eye patched character of his own invention (and not just on paper), to the hard boiled adventures of investigator Harry Rigby in Eightball Boogie and Slaughter's Hound (and this last is so hard boiled it's like someone forgot to set the timer) there are many variations in tone and effect.

The Lost and the Blind follows a more traditional course, and may in part be a tribute to some famous writers of the last century. And in fact one of the characters is just such a writer. The reclusive Sebastian Devereaux is supposedly a kind of Alistair MacClean wanna be.

Nevertheless there are some common Burkian themes in this book. When Burke writes single point of view protagonists, they tend to be a bit like Tom Noone. These guys are likeable but difficult and usually have a fractured relationship or a family in tatters in the background. There's a great empathy for children in the books, and also for fathers, who, in these stories, usually make a wrong decision that affects their kids in some way. And in fact, children are again in play in the historical tale within the tale here.

That tale has a German submarine, nasty Nazi tricks, spies and rumors of gold, and all of them happening on an innocent seeming little island off the coast of Donegal called Delphi.It's interesting as I think about it now, that Delphi perhaps stands in for the larger Emerald Isle, or at least the Republic. As and American, I may not be entirely alone in forgetting that the Republic of Ireland was neutral in the Second World War, not because of an ideological stance sympathetic to Germany, but because of its own troubled history with England.  It's interesting to me that a couple of crime novels have dealt with the consequences of that war and that position lately, as if it's time to give this period an airing. Stuart Neville's Ratlines is the one that springs to mind, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were more.

Tom's offered a significant fee if he will go to Delphi and ghostwrite the story of Devereaux. It's a dicey proposition, but Tom's custody hearing for his young daughter Emily is looming, and Tom is determined to look more financially respectable by the court date. You can sense too that Tom's desperation to get a contract signed is also every freelance writer's life writ large. A sense of proportion doesn't necessarily come into it.

I liked the addition of the police officer Alison Kee as both Noone's nemesis and fellow hunter for the the gold--or is it the hunt for Devereaux? Or maybe something else entirely. As usual, Burke's stories get more and more twisty as they go along. Tom Noone is a hard man to pin down, but Kee seems to be a match for him--perhaps in more ways than one.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Rereading Siddhartha post up at Escape Into Life

I posted a few impressions after reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha after an interval of many years at Escape Into Life this morning. You can find it all HERE.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Of books, blogs and bookstores


I'm back. Had a great time in Washington DC, which I had never visited, and was so intrigued with it that I of course started accumulating books about it, as I am the kind of person whose imagination about a place is only really sparked once I've been there. Thanks to my sister's previous knowledge of the area around Dupont Circle, I visited Kramerbooks & afterwords-A cafe a couple of times, and I thought I'd say a couple of things about that. I don't know if it's because of my longstanding former job at a bookstore or just because I'm a reader, but I get a pretty good feel for a bookstore right away. Some bookstores have the "it" factor and some don't, and you can sense the energy of a place that has this right away. Even having worked in one, I don't really know how it's done, but some places, the books practically leap into your hands. If I hadn't had to travel across country with already stuffed luggage, I would have done a lot more damage there than my finances really allow.




Kramerbooks & afterwords- A Cafe-- has taken the idea of the coffee shop attached to a bookstore to a new level, in that it also has a bar, and a quite impressive bar at that. I was left to my own devices the last night I was in the city but had espied the casual nature of the bar on my previous visit, so had no problem walking in and as asking for a good IPA. "I know just what you want," the very able bartender said, and indeed he did. It turned out to be Evolution Craft Brewery Lot No. 3, and perhaps I had a bit too much of it, but it was the last night of my trip, and YOLO, a term that was expounded upon at my nephew's graduation ceremony, although the student speaker was using it to say that you only live once so you might as well serve others, not drink a lot of beer.



There was a book signing going on in the room next door, though I never did quite figure out of what, but a lot of very happy people drifted into the bar and drifted out again, and I felt perfectly comfortable reading my book--I think it was Drama City by George Pelecanos, one I was very happy to be reading in the city it is set in--in a space that seemed to accommodate both the social and the solitary in an easy way.



Let's just say that a bookstore with a cafe is great, but a bookstore with a bar is genius. I probably wouldn't have made the impulse buy of This Town, a great Washington tell all by Mark Liebovich if not slightly under the influence, but it turned out to be a good choice and a good time to read about Washington as a kind of Versailleslike court, which frankly, I never got near enough to feel the emanations from . And it kept me happy for many hours as I winged my way back across the country. It's a bit ironic that only last night, after watching a Daily Show which featured an interview with George Stephanopoulos, in better times, you might say, even though it was only a couple of weeks ago, and then saw a Daily Beast piece about how he had fallen afoul of some of the rules of Washington in contributing to some Clinton project. After reading this book, you only wonder that it doesn't happen more often, as the way people move into and out of the public sector and the private sector, and observe some lines drawn while ignoring others makes it a very complicated dance indeed.



As I purchased my book, I said, under the influence of beer, but also my happiness to be there, "I used to work at a bookstore on the West Coast and this is a great bookstore." The clerk seemed a bit taken aback by my statement and replied, "Really?" I said "Yes."

Unfortunately my pronouncement, though accurate, probably counts for very little in such rarified waters as these.






Monday, May 4, 2015

Lots of fun at Finnegans Wake!


I'm headed out on a trip for a week or so, but it occurred to me that I could give you something to do while I am gone. And apparently, it  will only take about 31 hours. A few of you may know that I meet with friends every couple of weeks and read Finnegans Wake with them. It's not something I really feel like afflicting anyone who isn't a willing participant with, so I keep a separate blog for this as it's a fairly self selected crowd that would be interested. But it's the anniversary of the publication of the Wake, which happened May 4th, 1939, and there is a pretty big celebration going on at Waywords and Meansigns. Here's the email they sent me a day or two ago:

"The moment has finally arrived.

31 hours, 8 minutes, 11 seconds. Finnegans Wake set to music, unabridged.
All audio is freely distributed via our website.
What an incredible journey. We've been embraced by international music communities as well as Joyce communities. We even were mentioned in the Guardian last week!
Dozens of people worked very hard to make this happen. Thanks to each and every one of you.
If anyone is interested in writing a review, please be in touch.
A second edition -- the Wake set to music again, by 17 new musicians -- will premiere next fall/winter. Featuring Mike Watt, David Kahne, Mary Lorson, Brian Hall, Simon Underwood, Neil Campbell, and more. If you want to be involved, get in touch.
Now here it goes.
Spread the word.
www.waywordsandmeansigns.com
HERE COMES EVERYBODY"


My friend and roving correspondent Peter Quadrino answered the call and actually has done a three hour stint in this mammoth tongue twister. As you know, Finnegans Wake doesn't really have a beginning middle or end, so maybe you'd like to start with part 15, where he does the Yawn chapter.

Here's a bit more from his friend Peter Chrisp on the project.

Just think, with a little momentum, you could have the whole book done by the time I come back.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Free Comic Book Day, 2015


Well, I'm sorry I'm only telling you in the aftermath, but I can't resist helping publicize this great newish tradition, which is one the best things I've added to my yearly calender. One of my cool young coworkers told me about it a couple of years ago, and though I am not attuned to the comics world in the way that she was, I did shyly go and look at the free comic books our two comic bookstores downtown had on offer, and after that, I was hooked. Except I accidentally missed it last year, so I really did take note this year. It's always the first Saturday in May, so if your mind works like that, it's not hard to remember.

I'm getting over an obnoxious cold, so if I hadn't missed last year I might not have been able to will myself downtown, but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't. Between the two stores, I got eleven free comic books, which is quite the haul. I rather indiscriminately love them, just from a sheer design point of view. This year I even picked up one that comes in a manga form, starting from the back and reading right to left on the page. Well, not completely, but close enough.



My mom wasn't too big on comic books, so it was kind of a special treat when we got one. I can still remember picking out a Casper the Friendly Ghost or a Little Audrey. The funny thing is that I actually think the illustrated classics comics at our babysitter's house was what first taught me to read. The Bremen Town Musicians, I think it was. It was one of those one syllable words in a bubble, like Pop! or Bop! that showed me the way. So how could I look down on comic books? They get kids--and adults-- to think visually and verbally at the same time. How cool is that?

I did also buy a graphic novel this year, which I think I will make a part of the tradition. March, Book 2. As I told the guys in comic book store number 2, I already know I'm going to like it. After all, I did read Book 1.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Way We Live Now--the television series



Last year at around this time, I was reading Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now for a group read, which I eventually wrote up for Escape Into Life. I enjoyed the book, but not perhaps as much as my friends did, or as even I had enjoyed Trollope in the past. There was something maybe a little outsized about his great villain Augustus Melmotte that did not entirely appeal to me. I mean, he isn't supposed to be appealing, but he seemed to be a bit of a cartoon. And actually this was true of several of the other characters to a lesser degree.

It's very rarely that I find a film rendition of a book actually adds anything to the experience, although I may enjoy reliving it if I liked it enough in written form. But the BBC version of this book was something of a revelation to me, especially in the characters of Augustus Melmotte, as played by David Suchet, his daughter Marie, played by Shirley Henderson, and Sir Felix Carbury as played by Matthew Mcfayden. The rest of the cast was excellent as well, but these three were dealing with some fairly one dimensional characters and all three actors gave them life and fleshed them out considerably, without straying from Trollope's vision of them.

Or perhaps a different way to say it is that they lent them their charisma. Sir Felix is a big, highly indulged baby throughout the book, but McFayden reminds us that there are and always have been such men and gives us some hint of how their charms work. Shirley Henderson is a life force in a tiny package and her scenes with Suchet as her father are marvelous to watch. And Suchet is incredible. As with Sir Felix, we are reminded that such self-made monsters do and perhaps have always existed, and Melmotte's philosophy of life and business remind us very much of the way we live now. One of the amazing things about his range is that he has come out with a whole different register for his voice, which if you know him only with Poirot's light and airy voice, will shock you in its near Kissingerlike depths.

The 200th anniversary of Trollope's birth was last Friday. It would be a good time to read a little Trollope in tribute. But I think you will honor him just as much if you watch and enjoy this series. 


Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Moonshine War


If you're a fan of Justified, as I am, and have already made it through the series finale, you may be jonesing already for a bit more of Harlan County, Kentucky, and if you are, The Moonshine War will likely fit the bill. A book written very early in Elmore Leonard's career--1969 according to my copy--it is nevertheless strikingly connected to his late stories about Raylan Givens, which were the basis for the TV series. It may be 1931 and moonshine rather than meth that everyone's craving, but the feel is very much the same, and certain plot elements seem to have been lifted from this book, though not in a bad way--I expect more in homage. I've read a fair number of Elmore Leonard novels over the years, but none have had this particular feel, and it's striking to me that the end of his career and the beginning should be linked in this way.

There's a slower pace to this novel than some of later ones, which from what I've read, seem to be much more dialogue driven. So it's interesting to me how adept Leonard was at a more descriptive form, which perhaps may discourage some Leonard wannabes, who perhaps take his famous Ten Rules for Writers a little too fanatically.

I happened to take this book up purely by chance and had no idea it would not only dovetail so well with the television series, but also, in a strange life imitates art moment, be a foreshadowing of a Kentucky whiskey heist just days ago. Prohibition may be over and pot gaining a purchase, but whiskey is still worth some scheming, apparently. Pappy Van Winkle, which is one of the particularly prized brands stolen, makes an appearance or two on Jusitified as well.



Friday, April 24, 2015

Being Dead by Jim Crace at Escape Into Life

My review of Jim Crace's Being Dead is up at Escape Into Life today, after having read and discussed it with my book group this week. The group is developing a predeliction for Crace after enjoying Harvest last fall. I was not as fond of that one as other members were, but I think this one is stunning. And discomfiting. It is, after all, about being dead. I have titled that post Mondazy's Fish, and what I'll reveal here that I didn't reveal there is that this creature, like much else in Crace's work, is purely his invention.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Underlining in books


Do you do it? I've had a couple of reasons to think about this lately and thought I'd throw it out there. Personally, I'm not much of an underliner, and while we're at it, let's throw in any kind of marking in books--maginalia, highlighting, whatever. I think there are a couple of reasons I didn't develop the habit. First, although it's not so true recently, most of my life I've gotten a lot of my books from the library, and it doesn't seem good form. Although now I think of it, I don't really mind underlining in books when it's fairly unobtrusive. And I've seen some interesting marginalia in my day. Once, I am fairly I came across the marginalia of a guy I liked in school, and that was fun, although it felt a bit like spying. And another time, I read a book by Reynolds Price out of the San Francisco Public Library and I have a feeling that the person who wrote in those books had some kind of kinky thing about one of Price's characters, although I am not sure that I ever really figured out what was going on there.



Another reason, though, is that my mind is  not all that organized. For similar reasons, I am not a good note taker. I seldom know exactly what it is I'm going to want for later. There was a period in my life when I wrote down long passages of books and articles in my notebook, and let's just say that aphorisms these were not. If I really liked something I tended to write down almost all of it. I would not be happy coming across a book if underlined in the way I copied.

We were down over the weekend going through my recently departed aunt's books. I used to work in a bookstore and my aunt and I shared a literary interest, so I gave her a lot of books over the years. Too many books, really, because unlike most people, she pretty much always took it upon herself to read them. I knew this from our discussions afterwards, but if I'd had any doubt, I would be sure now, as skimming through some of the titles I'd given her, I found them underlined right through.

My aunt was much more organized in her studies than I ever was, and you can tell it from her underlining. As in the Goldilocks story, there is not too much nor too little, it is just right. A sentence or two underlined here or there, with a star or maybe a word or two comment in the margin. If I ever do take to underlining, which I might, I would try to follow her method, as it is a good one.

I had another experience having to do with underlining et al. Every couple of weeks some friends and I get together in a pub and read Finnegans Wake together. And of course, given that there are seven or so of us, the group does include a fair number of underliners. A man from the bar, a tippler I would say, came over to our table and stared out the window by us, wobbling a little on his legs as he stood there. Eventually, he asked, as everyone does, what we were reading. One of our members obliged him. The man stood there for a moment and then said, "I hate people who write in books." My friend, a much kinder spirit than, say, I am said, without looking up, "I'm sorry to have made your bad list." The man, unappeased tottered off to the rest room.

Sometimes I take notes, sometimes I don't. It really doesn't matter, as I can't read my own handwriting half the time anyway. I am very much afraid that if we do Finnegan begin again, it will be as if for the first time, no matter how many incoherent notes I find written mysteriously in the margins.

Madolan Green's photo of her brother's copy of the Wake
 Here's a link I found to some famous writers and their scribbling in other people's books.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Guest post by Sarah J. Sloat on The Waste Books at Escape Into Life

I've been away and then busy with taxes, so am a bit late mentioning that we have a guest review up at Escape Into Life by Sarah J. Sloat, in which she talks about a collection of aphorisms by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg collected under the title The Waste Books. New York Review Books has done a nice little edition of them, so please do check it all out HERE.

And my thanks to Kathleen Kirk for getting it online and adding a few nice links in my absence. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tristram Shandy up at EIL

I have a new post up at Escape Into Life, which has to do with Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It isn't a review so much as a sort of description of the experience of reading it. The links at the bottom are probably more useful than the post itself, as I think I probably didn't approach Sterne in the right way. I wasn't so glad to be reading the novel a lot of the time, but I am glad to have read it. I think I am most glad to have read it for it's part in the chain of literature--Sterne was influenced by the masters that had come before him, and in turn would influence many of those who would come after. "Masters" may be a more apt word than I am thinking, as I am not seeing much female influence or influence upon female writers either.

Here's a quiz from the Guardian that I forgot to put in the EIL links. And here's a picture of the famous mottled page 169.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bounce by Gerard Brennan

It's not often that you have a book hand delivered from clear across the Atlantic--at least it doesn't happen often to me. But such was the case with this terrific little book--and when I say little, I mean about 4x6. As the author happened to have ventured out of Northern Ireland to attend the Long Beach Bouchercon last November, and as I'd expressed interest in this book, he was good enough to bring along a copy for me.

Bounce was commissioned by the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry~Londonderry for something called the UK City Disobey Gravity program and was presented at the Killer Books Festival in October 2013. If you couldn't come by the Centre to pick up a free copy, you could read it free online, which you can still do right HERE. And of course I urge you to do just that, but I am very happy that I have this sweet little printed book, if 'sweet' is a word you should apply to any of Mr. Brennan's work, which possibly you shouldn't.

One thing I was realizing as I read this short novel, and that is that I never really know what to expect when I open a Gerard Brennan book. Just when I think I have him sussed, it turns out I haven't. If I knew what the plot of this story was at some point, I had since forgotten, so a book with the title Bounce could have been about anything. I think I half expected a caper. Instead, I found a touching portrait of a bouncer. Touching portrait of a bouncer, you say? In Derry-Londonderry?

Yep.

The story is pretty straightforward. Paddy is a bouncer at a night club, a scene he doesn't have much trouble controlling, but he's also the father of a son just becoming an adult, who happens to be gay. Although you might expect that Paddy's problem would be about coming to terms with his son's identity, he has long since accepted that. His problem is really how he, as a restrained, non-emoting tough guy, can connect with his boy, whom he loves but also wants to protect in a homophobic culture.

The story couldn't actually be more timely. Just by coincidence, I happened to learn that there is a bill up currently in the Northern Irish Assembly that, if passed, would make it legal to deny service to gay, lesbian and bi people in restaurants, hotels and other businesses. So the struggle for equality is far from over in the North. (Although for sheer benightedness, my own state of California possibly takes the cake right now, as there is a guy currently trying to get a proposition on the ballot which would make it legal to shoot gay people.)

But I digress. Although most of the other books I've read of Mr. Brennan's focus on gritty action, and there's a bit of that here, this one is really more a portrait of an old style guy who is coming to terms with a new age and culture the best he can. I liked Paddy a lot and I really dug the Norn Iron speech patterns evident throughout.

One thing I admire a lot about Gerard Brennan's writing life is that he doesn't seem to worry too much about fitting standard formats. He somehow always seems to find a way to put his stuff out there. The only question, really, is--whatever will he get up to next?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty and some Irish crime reviewers

British edition

I just realized that St. Patrick's Day would be a great day to review the "fourth in the trilogy" Sean Duffy novel, which is supposed to be released tomorrow in the U.S.. As I couldn't wait for that, I went ahead and bought the British version a while ago, and put up the usual blurbs on GoodReads, etc. at the time, but thought I'd wait for the U.S. publication to write a little more about it.

As I recall it, McKinty himself didn't know that there would be a fourth book when he finished the last installment in the "Troubles Trilogy", but I believe that was a marketing strategy from on high anyway. As he tells it, he dreamt the ending and then pretty much knew he had to write it.

But I'm not going to tell you anything more about that. Get to the end yourself.

As Gun Street Girl opens (all titles in the series are taken from Tom Waits' songs, and luckily for us Tom is pretty prolific) Sean Duffy is a sadder and older if not perhaps wiser man than he was when we first met him in The Cold Cold Ground. He's been through the wars since then, meteoric rise, meteoric fall, and now lies in some indeterminate place in the middle. It's 1985 and he's a marginal part of an international team that is lying low on a Northern Irish beach on a November night waiting for some smugglers to come ashore. What could possibly go wrong?

American edition

Let's just say that Duffy is not particularly surprised at the outcome and handles it in a characteristically Duffyesque way.  But there's no rest for the wicked, or at least their pursuers, and soon he's on to other adventures, both criminal and political.

You can read the Sean Duffy series for the politics, the humor, the historical context, the music references, the occasional bleak philosophical aside or just for the great writing. This one you might want to get just so you can read about the Northern Irish dating scene, circa 1985. So what are you waiting for?

***

And if this isn't enough to whet your Irish whistle, why not head on over to Declan Burke's place, where he's done a St. Paddy's day round up of some of his reviews of Irish crime writers over the past few years. I've read a few of these books by now, so I can vouch for him...He's got a new one coming out himself here before too awfully long...





Check out his St. Patrick's Day Rewind HERE.

Oh, and I see that Rob Kitchin has compiled his own St. Patrick's Day list of reviews over at The View From the Blue House.
Such is the richness of the offerings of current Irish crime fiction that the lists don't even cross over that much.
Rob's current book is on offer there as well.


Friday, March 6, 2015

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel at EIL

My review for the short novel An Experiment in Love is up at EIL this weekend. Although the BBC production of Wolf Hall is soon to appear on PBS, I chose this book because I was stuck for reading material on a trip and found it in a charming new and used bookstore in San Anselmo called Whytes Booksmith, which I recommend if you're hanging around the small downtown,as I was. I read Wolf Hall a few years ago now and have meant to read something else of Mantel's for awhile, so this was the chance. It's short and engaging and doesn't present the same kind of difficulties that Wolf Hall does--although I love that book. Anyway, check out my review at Escape Into Life if you're so inclined.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Mystery at Lilac Inn--Nancy Drew Mystery Stories by Carolyn Keene

I know--you think I jest, right? But no. After I lost my backpack on a trip north a week or so ago, I found myself without any of the reading materials I had brought along for the journey and so started looking over my sister's shelves, where I was staying. It was going to be a short visit, so I didn't want to get into anything too long, and frankly my brain was a little fried from the mishap, so I wasn't looking for anything too heavy, either. She had a few old Nancy Drew books shelved amid more substantial fare, and as I in some ways associate Nancy Drew with convalescence, the fourth book of the series seemed quite apt.

This is the one where Nancy and her friend Helen canoe up a river to an old inn which their friend Emily and her soon to be husband Dick are renovating as a bed and breakfast. It doesn't take long for trouble to find Nancy, though, as their canoe gets rammed straight off the bat by an unknown assailant. The inn has its share of problems too, and on top of all that, Nancy has a mischievous and very talented double.  

There were several things that surprised me about the book. First off, it's a nice twisty suspense tale, somewhat improbably in parts, but logical enough if you allow its premises. I was a little unprepared for how uncozylike it was in feel, including an explosion, a truck running a car off the road and near death by drowning to name but a few incidents.

Another thing I was unprepared for was the respect Nancy received from men and women alike. Her competence was treated as a given by everyone, perhaps with the exception of one or two baddies. Not only does everyone treat her as a real detective, but she is pronounced by the local paper as the best in her skin-diving class, and so on. Although she is described as exceptional, there is no indication that this is particularly so because she's a woman. I liked the way that Nancy was able to fit comfortably into more conventionally feminine situations like getting ready for a wedding and fixing up and old house, but reserves herself for other things as well. At the very end of the book (not a spoiler), her friends apologize for talking about there steady partners, but she cuts them off, saying that for the present, her steady partner is going to be mystery.

Although this cover was the iconic cover of my childhood, I happened to notice that this 1961 edition was actually a newer version of an original tale told earlier. Looking this up on Wikipedia, I learned that the series was revised at the insistence of the publisher and part of the reason was to remove racial stereotypes from the original series, although the solution was apparently to eliminate non-white characters all together. And the novels were also shortened considerably, going from 25 chapters to 20. This is explains the feeling I had in several places of the mini-crisis at hand being resolved and accepted awfully quickly.

The article does say, though, that some of Nancy's rougher edges and more confrontational stances are smoothed down a bit in the versions I read as a kid and they find her a little too relentlessly upbeat. Perhaps. 

Wikipedia also discusses a trenchant criticism by novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, who finds Nancy too WASPish and privileged. And indeed there is a sort of golden glow around the Drews and their friends, which feels nostalgic. But where Mason finds  that while "adventure is the superstructure, domesticity is the bedrock," I'm still impressed that in this book that predates the latest feminist wave, it is not taken as aberrant but as just assumed that a young woman would want adventure as much as anyone.