Thursday, December 22, 2011

Grimm Tales, edited by John Kenyon

Apologies to the one or two people who may occasionally read more than one of my blogs, but I'm doing a bit of a blitz for Grimm Tales, a new ebook that I have a story in. More importantly, I've read the rest of the authors and believe me when I tell you that my contribution matters little either way to this fine and fun collection. Here is a bit of the blog post I put up on Confessions of Ignorance last night:

Normally I have a bit of reluctance to turn my blogging world into a platform for self-promotion or even other promotion, but this time, I have no scruples. Riding on the coattails of my betters, I've got a story in a really terrific new anthology. Grimm Tales, edited by John Kenyon and with an introduction by the Galway master of crime writing himself, Ken Bruen, features a whole host of up and coming crime writers, all working out their own variation on the premise of taking a well known fairy tale and ringing some changes on it in a piece of contemporary crime fiction.
John posted this challenge sometime toward the end of last year on his blog,
Things I'd Rather Be Doing (I believe I actually learned about it through the crime community connecting blog of Sean Patrick Reardon, Mindjacker), and about seventeen of us took the challenge and came up with something that looked pretty much like a crime story. There was a contest, and there were first, second and third place winners, but basically everyone just did this in the spirit of fun. That would have seemed to be the end of it, but one way and another John thought maybe a book could be made of it, and Untreed Reads gave him the greenlight for an ebook. I believe we all quite enthusiastically agreed to be part of the project. I mean, how hard is it to say yes, when the story has already been written?)

John has been faithfully shepherding the project through to publication and keeping us all posted on the book's progress. I don't know why it came as such a surprise to me when a couple of nights ago, he emailed us all that Grimm Tales was live. But it was a pretty exciting one.

I like--really like--to read mysteries and crime fiction, but I'm not a crime fiction writer, so I have have a bit of a sheepish feeling about my own part in this. If you happen to read my story, you will quickly see that it is not really noir. It doesn't even totally qualify as crime fiction. So I was happy to get a little and quite unexpected nod from Ken Bruen in his introduction, making me feel that at least it was okay for my story to be included.

Anyway, enough about me. Rather than focussing on highlights, I'll just mention that a variety of familiar tales (and some not so familiar) and a smaller showing of nursery rhymes inspired the very various stories to be found here. For some reason, "Hansel and Gretel" had an outsize number of takers, but as you will see the outcomes are very, very different.

As you might suspect, Untreed Reads is all about ebooks, but if you don't have an ereader, don't despair. There is certain to be a format that you can download on to your computer if that's your option.

You can check the link out

Monday, December 19, 2011

Who to read after Kim Jong-il--James Church

I thought I'd just post this brief reminder about a series of excellent mystery novels by the psuedonymous James Church, who is said to be a former field agent in North Korea and other parts of Southeast Asia. I have reviewed the first one, A Corpse in the Koryo here, but there are four in all. I've read the second one, Hidden Moon, and have the next two to look forward to. It was actually this piece in Slate on The Man With the Baltic Stare  that convinced me to give them a go, as I had mistakenly thought that they were about South Korea and more 'cozy'. Yeah, don't ask me how that happened.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Embers, by Sándor Márai

I first got on to this by reading the blog postings of James Henderson over on Goodreads. He writes excellent lucid reviews on books which tend to interest me a lot, though often I haven't head of them before.

 Sándor Márai, or Márai Sándor, as he would have been known in his birthplace, is now categorized as a Hungarian writer, though he was born in the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire in a town called Kassa, which is now part of Slovakia. The background story to the work is interesting if not absolutely necessary to know. The book was lost for  many years, and was only translated into English from the German translation. Márai ended up in of all places, San Diego, and took his own life there in 1989.

You would never guess from the book that the author had travelled far beyond the time and space of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire. It takes place primarily in the home of an old General, who has shrunk his life into a tiny portion of the once grand house that he was born in. Here, he receives notice of a visitor, and prepares the house for his reception. The man is old, but it is his still older nurse who sees to this task. The visitor arrives--it is his boyhood friend, whom he has not seen for forty-one years. The night and the book are all about what has caused this breach in affection. It is an attempt to set the ledger straight.

This is a very beautiful book. It is quiet, solemn and grave. It is one of those few books I've read where I feel that the author really is a medium for another era, for a way of being in the world that is foreign and closed off to us now. If you happen to have read Penelope Fitzgerald's wonderful The Blue Flower, you will have some slight sense of what you are in for.

Perhaps it isn't even so much the historical aspect that is so intriguing in these works. It is the ability to convey connections between people that are not expressed in the more straightforward, let it all hang out mode of our time. Embers is really a novel about friendship, and it is a deft, if skewering analysis of that bond. What connects and what comes between.

The only exception I'll take to the book is provisional, which is Márai's conception of friendship such as he describes as purely male. Perhaps it is. This doesn't suggest however that women don't also have friendships of considerable depth and power, though Márai may have thought it does.     

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, by John McFetridge

Usually when I read a novel, I get a sense pretty quickly about how well it jibes with my own reading taste. Sometimes an author has to grow on me. And sometimes, more rarely, something mysterious happens where another look will have me completely on board.  

I read the first book in the Toronto Series, Dirty Sweet, a couple of years ago now, I think. Although I liked the book, I was a bit taken aback by its milieu of schemers, cops and hookers, and though I could admire it technically, I wasn't completely on board with its intent. It seemed to me like more of a guy's book, and I didn't really feel like I was part of its target audience. Fair enough, I thought. Not everything works for everybody.

Somewhere around Christmas last year, though, I read a short story John reprinted as the wrap up for a  Christmas challenge they did over at Do Some Damage, Santa in a Red Dress . I'm not quite sure if it has crossover characters from Dirty Sweet, but it is the same patch of territory he's working there, and there are definitely some of the same people in Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. In any case, I had the pleasant experience of recognizing the voice and realizing how much I appreciated it that time around.  

Recently, then, I pulled a copy of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere off the shelf and dove right in. "Dove right in" is a pretty apt set up on this book, when I come to think of it, though that's probably all I should say about that.  Let's just say that something unexpected happens to a hooker and a john in the course of their normal transactions. It's typical of McFetridge's stories, I think that once the cops arrive, the guy basically just wants to get out of there, but the girl is interested and realizes that this is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her. However, they are but prologue to our entertainment here, which takes us on a vast tour of what can only be called Toronto on the make.

Americans like me, who live a long way from Toronto and from Canada in general, don't necessarily have a real conception of Toronto at all, but in some ways, the city as portrayed in these books could be likened to the Wild West. A lot of new money and a lot of new population--from everywhere, but, not least, from Quebec, where the radicalization and government takeover of the French speaking populace sent a wide swathe of the English speaking segment of the province to seek new climes in the late seventies.

You've got a lot of characters in Everybody Knows, but Toronto itself is the central unifying factor. A map of the city would be a great help in reading this book, because so much of it involves driving around through different neighborhoods, each with its own microclimate and history.

The police, as far as I can recall, are carryover coppers from Dirty Sweet, but you don't really need to know that. Each is coming from their own specific personal situation outside the crimes they are investigating and one excellent thing John has down is capturing the patter of their daily lives in between bouts of crime solving. In particular, the lore of the police force comes forward in the odd moment--tales handed down, which are wonderful nuggets kneaded into the whole.

This book doesn't really have the kind of plot that can be summarized in a paragraph or two. As with Dirty Sweet, I was impressed by how effectively the plates were all kept spinning. Mainly, the story revolves around pot, or more specifically, pot production and distribution in the Great Lakes region. There are quite a few ideas floating around in the book for those of a criminal persuasion, although beware, felons, there are a lot of disincentives for following this path. Not everybody ends up okay.

Although this does still seem like a guy's book, I have to say that the women in John's stories are always the more interesting to watch. The guys can be crafty and smart, but the women in adverse circumstances are really the ones who think outside the box.

One thing I've left out here is the humor. It is so dry, so deadpan that in a way I think you have to move into the novel's atmosphere before you get that much of the story is comic.

The obvious comparison is to Elmore Leonard, I think, but my hit in the moment on the difference is that Leonard's characters tend to be a bit dumber than McFetridge's. Some of McFetridge's characters are dumb, but mostly they're crafty and enterprising, and the fact that they are living on the lower end of the socio-economic scale is more random than blameworthy. They tend to be energetic and vital--it's maybe the cops who are a little depressed.

The next book in the series is Swap. I hear it's newly available on Kindle. As for me, I've got the hardback and I shouldn't think it would be awfully long before I get to this one, either. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Cold Cold Ground--a teaser

Adrian McKinty's The Cold Cold Ground is coming out in January. Even so, you're not going to be able to buy this in the U.S. just then. If you want it, you can preorder it from or Serpent's Tail, or, if you must, .

But as of today, you can read a sneak preview of the opening. Go take a look, then come back here. I sense diminishing returns here but never mind--it's fine if you stay over on that excellent blog instead. Feel free to comment. He won't bite. At least, he's in Australia, so if you're on another continent, you're pretty safe...


So did you check it out? I think this opening is trademark McKinty. It's a synecdoche of the book as a whole, and perhaps of McKinty's work in general. You have the  compact poetry of the language, the violence of the scene observed, the casually thrown off cultural references from many levels, the diligent attention to factual detail, the dark humor, and the absolute refusal to bow down before anybody's sacred cows.

I have read the book in manuscript form and if you liked that sample, it only gets better from there. I'll review the book when I actually read it in published form.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Confessions of an Economic Hitman, by John Perkins

Another one that I've wrapped up recently. I was actually reading this for a project I'm doing. I was expecting it to be a bit more cloak and dagger than it actually is. Basically, Perkins is trying to atone for a career in which by slanting economic data in certain directions, he and the people he worked with were able to convince the right people in various nations of the world that they should throw in there lot with U.S. and corporate interests. Then general effect of these projects seems to have been to build a lot of infrastructure in these countries which the countries in the end couldn't pay for, making them coercible and more amenable to our, and I use that word with a bit of hesitation, agenda.

Perkins met more than a few of the major players during his time in the game, and his talks with people who went against this agenda are valuable in and of themselves. He had a conversation with the popular General Torrijos before he died in a plane crash, as well as a chance encounter with Graham Greene, who was a friend of Torrijos.

I thought Perkins put his thesis together in a readable and accessible way, though I found myself wanting to read a critique of his book, as I'm a bit out of my depth judging it myself. Nevertheless, it does give you a lens to view the world, and some things that I didn't really understand before at least fit into place in this picture.

A couple of things that have struck me since because of this book. First, I was listening to something about Iraq as the U.S. 'wraps things up there' and they were saying something about access to Iraqi oil. Now of  course I've long heard about this idea that we went into Iraq only for the oil, but after reading Perkins book, I suddenly saw something inexorable about this process, and that an eight or nine year war costing thousands of lives and incredible expense is really just a hiccup in this process of attaining access to that oil. I don't even attribute to a U.S. policy or any nation's agenda so much as to a kind of mindless machine, or as Perkins calls it, the "corporatocracy".

I also just happened to watch the beginning of Reilly: Ace of Spies last night and it turned out that Reilly's first mission in Baku, which was part of Russia at the time, but was before and since a major city of Azerbaijan, was really to collect information on oil.

That was 1901.

Perkins just happens to be coming to town at the end of this week, and I'm going to do my best to hear what he has to say about present developments.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Don't Look Now, by Daphne DuMaurier

I finished this book a few days ago. It was another one I read for the Good Reads discussion group. We knew of the creepy nature of some of DuMaurier's stories, so thought it would it be a good pick for spooky October. I think we all pretty much enjoyed it. It was a bit longer than some of our other choices, and perhaps a tad more uneven. The first tale in the book, the title piece 'Don't Look Now', was made into a Nicholas Roeg movie that you may have seen--I'll definitely be renting it at some point, as others in the group seemed to have thought it was good and faithful to the story.

Another filmmaker seemed to have diverged a bit more, and not to DuMaurier's liking. Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds' was taken from DuMaurier's tale of the same name, but he shifted a few things, including the locale, and perhaps even the larger meaning. It's easy to understand why it might irritate her, but I thought that the deeper tale, which is about our individual helplessness before natural events we are powerless to control, seemed to me to be carried through faithfully. I had the same creepy feeling from both. And Hitchcock, as I learned from a friend, had his reasons for setting it in Northern California. He had read a newsclipping from my very own community, where the birds were mysteriously attacking people. There was a logical reason rather than a supernatural one in this case, though. The birds had conumed an element from a red tide in the bay, which was messing with their tiny little heads.

I found the stories had their strengths and weaknesses. They are definitely of a period and reminded me a lot of certain movies of the forties. There is nothing wrong with that, but some of the stories seem slighter because of that, and read in a row, it can be like watching too many B movies. But DuMaurier's strengths more than compensate. She is excellent on setting, and when she lavishes attention on a character, like the usherette in 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger' she usually nails them.

The introduction to this edition is provided by Patrick McGrath, who is known for writing fiction in the Gothic style himself. I think both McGrath and DuMaurier demonstrate that there is still plenty of room in fiction for this sensibility.

Monday, October 31, 2011

All Hallows Read--Carpathian Shadows

Happy Halloween, everyone. The night is young in California, but it's probably not so young where you are. Anyway, even though it's a little late, I thought I'd mention Neil Gaiman's new tradition of giving a book for Halloween. A younger, more savvy friend and coworker told  me about it. It's called All Hallow's Read. She was getting a bunch of used horror books for all her pals, and I thought I'd reward her generosity by doing the same for her, but was a bit stumped on what she wouldn't know about already. Then it hit me. One I was certain she wouldn't have read was Carpathian Shadows, vol. 2. Why? Because most of the copies extant in Santa Cruz were sitting under my desk at work. There are frankly not that many moments where I think of this volume and conclude it is the perfect gift, but this is one of them.

About ten to twelve of us participated in the joint venture of writing a haunted (or is it?) castle anthology and my story appeared in this second volume. That's why I have a few copies on hand. I like my story pretty well, though it's more comic than scary, and there are definitely a few that are scarier.

If you're interested, you can get the ebook HERE, and although my status of working in an Indie bookstore prevents me from naming the place you can get it as an actual book, which is the only way you could really give it away, it's named after a great river and it's not the Mississippi either.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Award nominees and a miscellany of other news

As I'm reading several things at the moment and getting to the end of none of them soon, I thought it might be fun to mention a few exciting things in the book world.

First, two authors I think are terrific, Declan Burke and Alan Glynn, are on the shortlist for the Irish Book Awards, which you can vote on HERE. I haven't gotten to Bloodland yet, but I've read two other books by Glynn and  so I'm certain he is worthy of consideration. Burke's Absolute Zero Cool, which I have read, is super. And this says nothing at all about the other nominees. Why not check out the site and at least make a list for your TBR pile?

A flukey surprise of going to the site is that I discovered Anna Carey who was once a part of a reading forum I participate in, is up for another Irish Book Award in the children's category for The Real Rebecca. I have bought it since finding out, but haven't got a chance to read it, but knowing her through the virtual world as I did, I am sure this book deserves to be on the list.

Two more books from Irish or more specifically Northern Irish writers are not up for awards yet, but that's because they are barely or not even out yet. Gerard Brennan's The Point is getting heaps of praise before it's even hit the streets and I am super excited that it is probably being lofted my way even now. And you too can now order it from Book Depository now.

And the one I have read, although in not quite final form, is Adrian McKinty's The Cold, Cold Ground.
I loved this book, even unfinished. It's not going to be out till January, but you owe it to yourself to preorder it here and now. You know how January is. The holidays are over and the resolutions fade fast and you have nothing much to look forward till at least spring. Treat yourself to this now, and you will have a very pleasant surprise waiting for you just when you think there is nothing much left to live for.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

All the Dead Voices, by Declan Hughes

I finished this fourth book in the Ed Loy series a couple of days ago and as usual with Hughes' work, I enjoyed it a lot. I'm not going to say too much about the plot here, as really you should start at the beginning of Loy's story with The Wrong Kind of Blood. The series starts with Loy returning to Ireland after twenty years away, ostensibly to bury his mother. But his American Dream is in tatters too, and he's not going back right away--as I guess you can tell from the fact that this current work is set in Ireland too and he hasn't been back to the States in between.

I like the homage that Hughes pays the late Ross MacDonald's work in the Loy series. Ireland has a lot of family secrets to dig up and apparently no tradition of P.I.s with shovels until the advent of Loy. This fourth novel is a bit outside the usual pattern, although there's no need to panic--a ruined family or two lies at the heart of the tale. But All the Dead Voices takes on the consequences of the Troubles and there's more mention of paramilitary organizations than we're used to dealing with in Hughes' works. Actually, a good companion novel from north of the border would be Stuart Neville's recent Collusion.

Personally, I missed seeing more of Loy's old friend Tommy Owens in this book, as he always provides a bit of comic relief, albeit usually of a criminal kind. He's there, though, for a few crucial plot points. And that'll have to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries 8, edited by Maxim Jakubowski

After quite some time, I'm finally finished with this anthology. This is not because it was a drag--quite the contrary. It's just that they don't call it 'mammoth' for nothing. And I don't really like to race through a short story collection.

I haven't been much of a mystery anthology reader in the past, nor had I really gotten all that tuned into mystery short stories. I'm not sure why, they just seemed abrupt in relation to the novels I usually read. But several people I know to one degree or another through the blogosphere actually had stories in this one, and I was more than eager to grab a copy. I am awfully glad I did.  In addition to the fine work of my virtual pals and acquaintances, Gerard Brennan, Paul D. Brazill, Declan Burke, Nigel Bird, and Jay Stringer, you've got bestseller types like Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson, and many people who've work I know of but hadn't yet gotten a chance to read, like  David Hewson and Stephen Booth and and Christopher Brookmyre. And then known favorites like Colin Bateman and Simon Brett.

The scope of the book is vast--from cozy to seriously twisted (I'm looking at you, Mr. Brennan) and ranges from the historical to the contemporarily topical. One of my favorites of the book is the strange and initially disorienting 'As God Made Us', by A. L. Kennedy. Seriously, though, there isn't a rotten apple in the barrel.

One thing I did miss in this collection was any sort of contributor notes. The book does cite where the story was originally published and of course there's always the internet, but  after you read a story you like it's always nice to be able to look in back and find out a little bit more about who they are.

It's a quibble though. Pick up a copy of this fine volume and enjoy it at your leisure. You'll find great storytelling and a whole list of authors you want to read more of. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Deviant, by Adrian McKinty

Although I did a review of this book already over on  Goodreads, I thought I'd delay writing one here till closer to the true publication date, which is upon us. I had a pleasurable afternoon reading it before I was set to go on a trip this summer, but have been aware that there's been a bit of resistance to it, which I thought I might address here, even while knowing that this review is unlikely to be read by anyone from its true audience, which I think is probably the middle school age range. It is really perfectly suited to the type of kid who enjoys Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series, which I somehow got involved in on the recommendation of my nephew, and which I've also enjoyed quite a lot. As with Horowitz, I enjoy the range and subtlety of McKinty's efforts for an adult audience more, but that's because, well, I'm an adult.

We have a prologue style opening in Deviant, which I'll get to in a  minute, but once we get to the real protagonists story, Danny Lopez's path reminds me a bit of Jamie O'Neill's in McKinty's previous trilogy, The Lighthouse Books. Both boys leave a big but familiar city for a smaller more isolated place. Danny doesn't find an entry point to another planet, of course, but the world he encounters in the high Rockies of Colorado is a pretty weird one all the same. The school he'll be attending has a lot of very strange rules--though the kids, being kids, soon find ways of circumventing them.

Having been moved around a few times as a kid, I liked the depiction of how Danny has to figure out who his real friends are going to be. It looks easy at first, but isn't necessarily in the long run.

The stakes are a little higher for Danny than just fitting in, though. There's a cat killer on the loose in Cobalt, and along with his skateboard, Sunflower, Danny's cat Jeffrey is one of the few things Danny cares about. Uh oh.

The opening of this book starts in the mind of the cat killer, and I suspect that may be off-putting to some readers. Even I, who have enjoyed all of McKinty's books, wasn't sure I would be able to handle a book written completely in that voice. But have no fear, folks--that's just the set up. It's actually a pretty good little story within itself if you can get past your dread and read it.

A couple of questions did arise while I read the book, and while I'll do my best to make them non-spoilerish, I am going to put them  in the comments section, so you have been forewarned.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi

This is another book I've chanced upon because I've been part of the NYRB book club over on Good Reads. It's really a quiet gem of a book, short and in some ways simple. We've been having quite a good discussion of it over there if you want to take a look--although you might have to join the group to see it. I'm not really sure how that part works.

The story begins in a moment of nervous anticipation. Skylark,  the daughter of two aging parents, is leaving for a week in the country with relatives. The threesome has never really been apart before. Skylark, despite the lighthearted quality of her name is the unmarriagable spinster daughter in a provincial outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Though the novel was written many years later, after WWI had come and gone, the year is 1899 in the story--a year when it must have appeared that things would always be as they had been before. For me, part of the sadness of the book is that the characters do not know that in a few years time, extraordinary changes will have found there way even to sleepy Sárszeg. But the author certainly does, which made us wonder a bit why he had chosen this moment and represented it in some ways as eternal. More than one commenter in the discussion found there was a fairytale quality to the story.

Although this did not strike me as a purely satiric book, it is possible to read it as dark humor. In fact the author does signal this in some ways, because not only is Skylark one of the least aptly named people in the world--the parents apparently still call her that from a time when she would still sing--but she is not even the main character of the story. Most of the time she is offstage. This is not to say that she is an incidental character--she is in some ways the prime mover of the tale. Or maybe more accurately, the prime non-mover.

Once she is gone, the parents are left, very reluctantly, to their own devices. By stages, they rediscover and in turn show us this little town, which despite its provincial quality turns out to be quite a lively little place. I think this fits in with a realization that the journalist Miklós Ijas (who is surely a stand in for Kosztolányi himself, also a journalist) has at one point. He is one of those brilliant youths who is always longing to get away to the capital, as perhaps rightly, they should. He has a different destiny. But in becoming aware of the poignancy of the plight of this little family, whose members both love and are trapped by each other, he gains a deeper insight into the common bonds of humanity he shares with them. I had wondered how Kosztolányi, a famous and brilliant Hungarian literary figure, could write so penetratingly of people who shared none of these traits. A moment of similar empathy in  his own life probably lies behind this beautiful little novel.      

Monday, September 12, 2011

Death's Dark Abyss, by Massimo Carlotto

We often think of noir in terms of the American literary scene, but I'm not sure if anyone hits the true depths quite like those who write around the Mediterranean. I was going to say the Italians, but in fact my last visit to European noir was the trilogy by Jean Claude Izzo, who was part of the Italian immigrant community in Marseilles, but was, by nationality, French. You might think that the Italians would be a little too sunny for noir, but you would be wrong.

Carlotto's novel is about as bleak as it can get. I'll try not to spoil the first few pages for you, but let's just say that a jewelry robbery goes very horribly wrong and ends in a terrible crime, which leads one of the robbers to end up in jail for this crime, while his accomplice gets away.

Flash forward fifteen years and a man who's life was ruined by this fiasco receives a letter from a lawyer requesting that he help the incarcerated robber be pardoned on compassionate grounds. Although at first the man refuses, gradually it occurs to him that the imprisoned man might be manipulated into leading him to the accomplice, who has never been caught.

I think the book is a great introduction to noir, because it runs counter to many of our more usual assumptions about what makes a good tale. Neither criminal or victim are exactly what you would call role models, but both have a lot of energy and the stakes are very high. One question that the book raises is whether there can be atonement for horrible crimes. I remember being a bit dissatisfied with Ian McEwan's take on this in his own book, which even takes atonement as its title. Basically, he says no. I think this book provides a slightly different answer. I think what Carlotto would say is that there is no easy atonement. You'll have to read the book to find out why I think the qualifier is important.

(This post also appears on the Europa Challenge blog, a site you should definitely check out!)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

I had a chance to read a very wonderful book last month, thanks to joining up with the New York Review of Books books discussion at Good Reads. The first book that was picked was this short novel by the Tove Jansson. Jannson is pretty famous for her Finn Family Moomintroll childrens' books, though somewhat oddly, not so much in the U.S. I guess Astrid Lindgren of Pippi Longstocking  fame was our token Nordic writer for that era, but I do plan on reading them now.

The Summer Book is a series of related stories about summers spent on a small island off the coast of Finland that center around the lives of a grandmother and her granddaughter, Sophia. Sophia's father plays a somewhat peripheral role. Jansson's niece and her own mother were the models for this very wise book, and the whole family in fact spent much time out on these lonely but beautiful islands.

The discussion we had over on Good Reads was very thought provoking and we all found a lot of things to love about this book. I think for me what was most intriguing was the relation between the very old and the very young, which I think Jansson nailed. Life is a different thing when we are not in the midst of all the striving. I think these two states often have a lot to say to each other, though often in a subtle and indirect way. 

Check out this beautiful book if you get a chance. I actually read it in the "Sort Of" edition, which has a fair number of photos. The NYRB edition has a lot of her drawings.

You are spoiled for choice, really.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Cozy Knave: A Gershwin and Penrose Mystery, by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Occasional readers of this blog couldn't be blamed for assuming that when it comes to mysteries, my preferences lie towards the darker end of the spectrum, populated by tough guys and gals who'll stop at nothing to get to the bottom of a  crime or, uh, commit one. But I actually got into reading mysteries through the likes of Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham, and later practitioners like Simon Brett and Dorothy Simpson. In fact one of the blogs I have on my blog roll is Miss Lemon's Mysteries, hosted in a behind the scenes kind of capacity by Elizabeth Frengel, but presided over, surely, by the spirit of Miss Felicity Lemon, Poirot's right hand gal.

All this to say that it's certainly no leap for me to read Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen's The Cozy Knave, which wears the mantle of the British village cozy proudly. The fact that the author is Danish will not cause bafflement to anyone who reads her djskrimiblog , as Jakobsen is a regular reader of British crime fiction, cozy and not so much so. Suffice to say, Ms. Jakobsen knows her stuff.

The story opens with the return of a prodigal son of sorts to the village of Knavesborough. He has set himself up in a newly acquired stately home, bringing his butler along in tow. The residents of Knavesborough, particularly those of the feminine variety, are of course quite curious about this turn of events, and when the village is invited to a housewarming party at Netherdale Manor, who are they to say no?

Needless to say, there will be a murder or two in the course of the tale, old  history will be  unearthed and newer secrets revealed. With a large cast of characters, many of them far from cleared of suspicion, it takes a good guide to lead us through the labyrinth. Constable Archibald Penrose, with little help from the powers that be, but a lot of help from his fiancee, Rhapsody Gershwin, is such a guide, and 'what we know so far' gets summarized in an unobtrusive way between he and Rhapsody at several points in the book. An old-fashioned 'cast of characters' list at the front of the book might be helpful in such a populated work, although to her credit, Ms. Jakobsen uses very memorable names to help sort that out a little. ( You'll see.)

It would be unfair of me to go further into the plot, as in this type of book, plot is everything in a way that it isn't in many other literary forms. If you like the Midsomer Murders television series, based on the mysteries of Caroline Graham (and which the The Cozy Knave  actually mentions),  you are a fair way toward enjoying this book already. You can buy it in a variety of formats from Smashwords--the link is in the title above.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Absolute Zero Cool, by Declan Burke

This is a novel of so many excellent parts that I don't really know where to start. Why don't you take a look at this video of John Connelly helping to launch the book for Liberties Press? I mean, who would you rather listen to, really--him or me? I know which I'd choose.

If you watched the video, you will know that this is not your average crime novel, in either content or design. Having read two of his other books, I can attest that Mr. Burke is quite capable of writing a really good book in the more conventional forms, but that is not what he is setting out to do here. The conceit is that the character "Declan Burke" is visited, while on a writer's retreat, by a character who was thought up for a book that never made it to a final draft. Karlsson--or Billy, as he now apparently wants to be called-- asks to be let out of the limbo that is the fate of an unfinished character. He turns out to be a hard guy to say no to.

I believe I would have been a bit bewildered by this book, which I might have expected to be a caper, though of the darkly comic kind, if I had not been clued in by an early blurb of Adrian McKinty's, mentioning another Irishman who wrote sui generis fiction, Flann O'Brien. Having read O'Brien's The Third Policeman not that long ago myself, I was more prepared for the 'outside the crime fiction box' story than I might have been.

Although much of the book is about the hammering out of a novel between the fictional Karlsson and the, well, equally fictional Declan Burke, the book's dark energy is really Karlsson's, I think. He has a Mephistophelian charisma, if not what you could really call charm. When Karlsson, as Billy, meets Declan Burke at the writer's retreat, he is missing an eye, and sports an eyepatch. I was curious about that throughout the book, and may have missed a beat when it was explained, but an Irishman with an eyepatch always has some relation to Joyce, I suppose. For me, though, and this is just my own take on the thing, the one-eyed nature of Billy has everything to do with his monomania and, forgive the pun, lack of perspective. His relentlessly dark vision of our life on earth is persuasive, at times funny, and yet always bracing. He is the classic case of the guy who is too smart for his own good, by which I mean beyond the reach of help, because this is where he chooses to put himself.

The title of the book refers to the coldest possible temperature, which is more theoretical than actual, in which all energy is frozen. Nothing moves. This reminds me of Dante's version of hell, which is not heat, but ice. Karlsson, who want to bring everything down, is perhaps an agent of such a space, but Karlsson, much as he would like to go his own inexorable way, is, despite himself, still moved by love and loss, even as the book draws toward its close.

Karlsson is certainly an aspect of Declan Burke, for where else could he have come from? But Declan Burke, as either character or author, has learned a thing or two more about life, thanks to marriage and a child, than poor Karlsson ever dreamt of in his philosophies. Karlsson, I think, is aware of the lack.

Don't worry, Karlsson. You can always hope there will be a different sort of ending in the  movie.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Red Lights (Feux Rouges), by Georges Simenon

I'm on a bit of a New York Review of Books imprint kick lately. So much so that I recently joined the Good Reads NYRB Classics group in hopes that this would bump some of these great books up the list a bit for me. That idea has already paid off. But the idea of reading this roman dur from the great Simenon came through a slightly different channel, when I read fellow Good Reader James Henderson's brief review of the book. I was intrigued, because I had no idea that Simenon had written any novels that were not set in Paris or its environs, let alone in the U.S.

This novel came out here in 1953. It starts off on Labor Day weekend, when Steve and Nancy Hogan are preparing to leave New York and join the mad throngs heading to pick up their kids in parts north. For Steve and Nancy, the road leads to Maine.

As it's the nineteen fifties, they are of course going to have a drink first. For Steve, it's clear early on, that it's not going to be just one.

Simenon is pitch perfect on his mid last century American suburbanites. It's not a surprise in one sense--he lived for some years in Connecticut.  We are in Mad Men territory, of course, but Simenon's vision is less of an exaggeration than the television show. But the feeling rising in the heart of our protagonist is very similar to that of Don Draper, without the mysterious past (which Simenon's book reveals to be an unnecessary dramatic twist). Despite the good life that they have, Steve feels somewhat strangled by it, which comes out when he drinks as a nasty sort of antagonism towards his wife, who has risen to a position of somewhat greater stature than Steve's and which he resents.

I was somewhat surprised that Simenon chose to characterize Steve's hostility to Nancy as a rare thing, brought on by the end of summer and an uncharacteristic overindulgence in alcohol. His manner, though truthfully rendered, would seem to me to be more realistic as a more common occurence. However, perhaps this is just a different kind of pattern. In any case, although Steve's longing for a more manly, freer, life comes across as selfish and immature, it also comes across as authentic. Faced with his part in the annual automotive migration north, which will restore all to domesticity come the end of the holiday weekend, anyone would resent that feeling of being a mere cog in the great wheel. And it is really only when he falsely turns Nancy into the prime denier of his wishes for freedom that he begins to go very badly wrong.

I happened to watch Goodfellas for the first time in its entirety the other night. I  am not particularly interested in gangster flicks, so I was probably a bit overdue to appreciate this one. It was good, and I was struck by a similar longing in the main character to escape what he considered the pathetic life of the schnooks--the ordinary, law-abiding, slightly boring civilians who in the end he finds himself among despite all his intentions.

Steve's story takes him to a different place. But the question of how to escape the subjugation of self that is part of what civilized life asks of us is not really answered. I have a feeling Simenon didn't answer it for himself completely, either. Nor have we.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household: on the value of imprints

At Bookshop Santa Cruz, where I work, we not only sell new books but used ones. Eventually, and inevitably, some books of both these categories end up discounted further, and are called Sidewalk Sale books. We haven't done an actual sidewalk sale for many a year, but occasionally we pull these
books away from their spot by the window and feature them a bit more prominently. You'd think that these would be the most sorry rejects in the store, but the truth is, many of the real gems are hidden there, and if I could only read books I found among these for the rest of my life, I would probably still die quite happy.

Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male is such a book. I'd heard of Household before, but never been tempted to pick up his work before. And with such a title, I certainly wouldn't have rescued this book from the bargain bin, even at a reduced price. Why did I? Because it was published under the imprint of the New York Review Books. Because I saw that it had one of their distinctive covers, I didn't reject it out of hand, but picked it up. And once I started reading--well, you know how it goes with good books.  You end up getting hooked.

Not that the cover illustration itself is a sure seller. It pictures what looks to me like a very frazzled and probably dead animal.  What an imprint says to someone like me is that a publishing house or a small wing of a publishing house that I respect has decided that this volume is worth backing. In the case of the NYRB books, these are often if not always reprints of work that has slid into some degree of obscurity. They may have had their heyday, they may not. Over on their webpage, they even have a slot where you can suggest an out-of-print title for them to think about republishing.

Rogue Male is a classic cat and mouse tale, with the also classic twist that the hunter soon becomes the hunted. The unnamed protagonist is a professional hunter who has decided on a kind of whim to see if he can  break through the defenses of a dictator and get close enough to shoot. He is not actually going to shoot the man, of course, just see if he can do it. He comes within a hair's breadth of success, but a miss is as good as a mile in this case. Tortured and then left for dead, the hero of the tale manages to escape and begin a thrilling journey across all kinds of terrain. It turns out to be a bit more complicated than that, but that's enough to set you off with. I will just add that there was one point in the story in which I had to break off and go to work, and I actually felt quite uncomfortable leaving the narrator in the predictament he had found himself in.

Victoria wrote what I found to be a very helpful introduction to the book (which I read afterwards), giving me a bit more context for the yarn Household spun. In particular, she explains what Household meant by 'Class X' in the novel. It had a sort of snobbish possibility in it that I was wary of, but in fact, I did Household a disservice. In his own life, Household was quite a traveler and one night shared dinner in a restaurant in Toledo with a Spaniard of limited means. After he left, Household got up to pay his bill, and found that the man had paid it for him ahead of him. This kind of gesture went a long way with him, and embodied the qualities of the Class X type of person far more than any outward credentials.

There is a moment or two in this tale that are definitely not for the squeamish, but if you're willing to entrust yourself to a writer from Class X  and if you're looking for a vivid and gripping read, this is the one for you.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

You Too Can Be a Dickens Researcher

I do actually have a couple of book reviews to put up, but I  thought I'd let all you literate types know about this request from the Dickens Journals Online, posted on the Guardian blog. They are asking us ordinary Dickens fans to dig in and help them analyse Dickens' role as editor. You can read all the details HERE

I haven't signed on yet, because this is a busy time for me, but I do plan to take a look... 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Absolutely Free: Absolute Zero Cool

I can't take credit for the idea for this blog post. I saw it first over at Gerard Brennan's Crime Scene NI. Those who know Declan Burke's wonderful blog, Crime Always Pays, or have read any of his earlier novels, Eightball BoogieThe Big O, or Crime Always Pays, are really hoping to get the word out on his soon to be released Absolutely Zero Cool. I  haven't read it yet, but I did pre-order it at Book Depository dot com, and I can't wait. Adrian McKinty, another fantastic crime writer and blogger says it follows in the tradition of The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien, and if it's even half that book it will be worth every penny and then some.

But if you're short on pennies, why not hop on over to the contest Mr. Burke is throwing on his blog to win a free copy? All you have to do is post your favorite 'story within a story' novel and leave your email address for a chance at a free one.  (Don't worry--you'll figure out the contest when you get there.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

Despite her massive popularity in the West, I hadn't read Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto's books before. I didn't really have anything against them, but they looked too pop and light to really be my thing. I felt pretty sure they were meant for a younger demographic than mine. At the same time, I knew that as I started The Lake as my choice for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I really didn't know what to expect, or even if The Lake was representative of her work as a whole. As to the last, I still don't.

The Lake is very beautiful, a quiet revery of a book. I worry a bit that it might seem simplistic to some, but I thought it had a lot to say. The narrator of the story, Chihiro starts off the story with the fact that the first night her neighbor Nakajima stays over with her, she dreams about her dead mother. As her mother has died not so many months before and the Nakajima character is someone new in her life, I think we can say that this is a threshold moment, the point where new life is growing out of the ashes of the old.

If you read any of the blurbing on the book you will know rather more quickly than I did what Nakajima's story is, but I think I'll give you the option of letting that unfold as it did for me--slowly and over the course of the book. It doesn't give much away to say that Chihiro has only recently moved to Tokyo to try and begin her professional life--or some kind of life, anyway. As a graphic artist, she has accidentally fallen into a role as a muralist who is even beginning to be well known. Nakajima  is a neighbor who lives across the way in another multi-leveled apartment building. they observe each other from this distance and very gradually become acquainted.

One thing that impressed me in this novel was the way that distance itself worked to foster a relationship between these two people. Chihiro is still grieving her mother's loss, and Nakajima is profoundly damaged. Neither would have been able to meet the other in a bar or any other shallow, superficial place. They meet, they don't force each other into any particular role--they grow closer in a more organic, unhurried way.

Despite her grief, despite being a somewhat adrift artist, despite having a mother who was ran a club and wasn't married to her father, Chihiro is a normal person. To be in relation to Nakajima she has to acknowledge that she is out of her depth--that she can't and never will be able to empathize her way into his story, because some stories are outside our normal human ken. Chihiro realizes that the call of death is strong in him, and that at some point it may become too strong and he may give in to it.

However much I loved him, and as beautiful as the world was, none of it was powerful enough to take the weight off his heart, that heaviness that dragged him down, into the beyond, making him yearn for peace. My body sensed it. And my soul.   

It would be easy, in this circumstance, to make Chihiro, the female character, too self-sacrificial. But instead, she goes on with her life, taking up a new mural project and lets life unfold. It's not so much that she does anything in particular for Nakajima, as that she tries to understand what love in this circumstance could be. She opens herself up to the experience.

There are some friends at the lake of the title who Nakajima will eventually take her to meet. There's a slightly otherworldly and even ghostly aspect to this pair and I am wondering a bit if other readers will be put off by their somewhat supernatural abilities. For me, though, it felt like yet another new aspect of reality that Chihiro had to accept and surrender to, and that her reaction mirrors the reader's own.

I thought the portrait of mother loss was particularly sensitively done. Yoshimoto renders the subtle psychological state that new grief can be. When for example, she is offered an unexpected opportunity to take up a new life, she registers her mother's absence anew.

I wanted my mom to be alive, tying me down. To be showing her disapproval, telling me, I don't know, going abroad?--it's so far and we won't be able to see each other. I yearned to hear those words, to hear her saying them. But I never would again.     

I know that others who are taking up the Japanese Literature Challenge are planning to read this book, and I'm very interesting to hear what they have to say about it, especially as it relates to the larger context of her work.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

This latest bestseller from Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City, probably doesn't need much in the way of introduction here. It follows the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party through the early 1930s. It looks at the period and life in Berlin in particular from a unique angle--that of the family of the American ambassador William E. Dodd, who was posted there, drawing particularly from his writing and that of his daughter Martha, although his wife and son were there the whole time too, and are somewhat underrepresented in this book. Drawing on a variety of documents, including the letters and journals of the time, it paints a portrait of Berlin in the early 1930s, a period in which Hitler had come into power but had not yet taken absolute control.

Dodd did not come out of a diplomatic background, and was actually a professor at the time he was summoned to represent the U.S. under the Roosevelt administration. As the book reveals, there was the equivalent of a Good Old Boys club in the diplomatic services and Dodd definitely didn't fit the bill. He took the job in order to have more time to finish what he considered his own great project, a book on the old South.

In some ways, the book is a little harsh on Dodd in his greenhorn neophyte role. He had been in Germany as a student and did not at first grasp the historic moment he was actually in. Yeah, terrible, except that no one else really did either. I liked the bit at the beginning that explained that Americans did not really understand the nature of the beast they had encountered in the Nazi regime. It never was a question of rational pursuasion, for power was all the thugs understood.

I did connect pretty deeply to this book, because it is just a few years before my mother's own time as a young single woman and I think the family circumstances may have been similar. Her father raised himself by his own bootstraps in the same way as Dodd did, and lived a professional life in the law, though doubtless encountered some of the same sort of good ol' boys in that profession that Dodd did in the diplomatic one. And my mom, though I trust and hope wasn't quite such a party girl as Martha was, would, from her background, probably have entered into this true den of iniquity with the same brand of naivete that Martha sported.

It's incredible to hear how long the U.S. was fixated on the repayment of the war bonds owed by Germany from World War I. All sorts of other people looked the other way even when some fresh cruelty had been brought to their attention because they did not want to offend the Germans into defaulting.  Even the Jewish communities in America were divided on how far open revolt against the Hitlerian regime should go.

One thing that stood out for me in the book was a short chapter on how well the Germans treated their animals, at the same time they were carting Jews off to be offed as if they were nothing more than so much Jewish lumber. This is a part of the pre-World War II psyche that I still don't understand, and Larson does not try to illuminate it, so much as just put it in the general picture. I find it interesting.

One of my great teachers, Page Smith, toward the end of his life lamented the end of narrative history for the non-historian, which seemed at the time to have given way to highly specialized monographs  by professionals. I wish he had lived to see the likes of Larson, Krakauer, and Kurlansky, who write well-researched books about important historical subjects and bring the crowds in. I hadn't read any of these authors, so it was interesting to read this book. I found it easy to read, but I also noticed the brevity of the chapters, and I was a little put off by the ending, which seemed a bit hasty. But I think Larson does a public service by showing exactly what the mindset was in the days before Hitler's total control over Germany. It's a complex portrait. People were facing the unimaginable. But there were many signs that there were there for all to see, and the international community was clearly culpable in sittting by while dark forces took over a country that had not too long before understood what it meant to be a member of civilization.  

Friday, July 8, 2011

Europa challenge

I discovered this challenge pretty much by chance.  I've been intrigued by small publishing houses like Europa for the past few years, and I'd even hazard a guess that for readers who aren't totally driven by the media in their selections of what to read, imprints like this one may well be the way they'll shop in the future.

Many people will already know the house through their biggest success so far, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by psuedonymic writer Muriel Barbery. Still haven't gotten to this one yet, but I have read the likes of Gene Kerrigan, Jean-Claude Izzo, and Amara Lakhous through the auspices of this imprint.  All were well worth the time.

I haven't quite signed on to the challenge yet, but don't wait for me. The entrance gate is HERE.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Happy Fourth

Although I wrote this up for my story related blog I thought I'd put it up on a couple of my other blogs as well. Have a great holiday.

Happy Fourth of July weekend, everyone. In honor of the day (though largely by coincidence), I've made my self-published novella The Bird Watchers available again. The real reason this is all happening now is that has offered people the option of getting a proof copy of a new work, and while I've been working on that, which is actually a sequel to this one, I realized that I might as well make this one available again too. "For a limited time only" as they say, the book will be available at cost, or as a free download. At some point I'll probably boost the price a dollar or so but for now, I'd be interested in comments from anyone who wants to take the time. As a self-published book, it's got all the flaws that come with the territory, but more people than just my mother seemed to have liked it the first time around, so give it a go if you'd like.
The link at Lulu is HERE .

(I also don't know if the download works as a true ebook, but there's nothing to lose by trying it out.)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Influencing Machine

The Influencing MachineThe Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not much of a radio listener, so the fact that Brooke Gladstone is a well regarded NPR managing editor did not bring this book to my radar. I happened to listen to her highly entertaining talk with our local radio host, Rick Kleffel, and resolved to read it at first opportunity. Brooke claims that she wanted to write a comic book about something even before she found her topic, and with the help of illustrator Josh Neufeld, who has previously done another comic or graphic novel about New Orleans, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which I would also like to read.

I don't know about you, but I love what's been happening with the graphic novel/comic book format in recent years. I know that visually, I don't probably take in all the detail, as the longtime fans of the form would, but I do really like this medium for the way it handles material, giving you a visual and verbal way to take in all the information.

There's a lot of content to this engaging and deceptively easy to read book, but I'll paint what I take to be Gladstone's theme in broad strokes. She wants people to know, as they face the accelerated pace of new media in a new technology, that people have been through such mind-bending, anxiety producing exciting times before. Long, long before. She wants us to know that media bias is nothing new, and that objectivity is at all times problematic. She wants us to know that lies do seep into the news media and not always on the side of your enemies, either. That governments give the current media freedom with one hand and take it away with the other--because it's in their nature to do so.

There's a lot of history, a lot of interviews with our contemporaries who also happen to be commentators, and a lot of fun pictures of Brooke Gladstone sneaking around in a lot of scenes that you might have remembered just a wee bit differently. Never mind--that lapse is accounted for in this book too.

View all my reviews

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

The good thing about blogs is that you don't really have to write an actual review of a book. So taking that liberty, I thought I'd write a little about what it was like to read Sebastian Barry's prizewinning novel, The Secret Scripture, in the context of reading it for a book group. Lately I've become a bit resistant to the whole book group angle. Well, actually, I was always pretty resistant. I'm not a fast reader, and I have a lot going on in my life most of the time, so reading things that someone else chose for me to read has never been all that appealing. But there is a lot to be gained, I've found, in reading something you never would have gotten to and then being able to get together with a group of people and discuss it. More than a literary discussion, though it can be that, it tends to bond you as a group over time, enough so that, though I would be quite happy never to read a book group pick, I can't really see not going to the group when I can. Hence my dilemma.

I missed the meeting where this book was chosen, and entered upon the project even more halfheartedly than usual. I had some other things to read ahead of it, so took my time and then found myself reading the book only in the brief moments of my breaks from work, or while waiting for the bus. As the fated Tuesday began to loom its ugly head, I realized that I hadn't really slotted enough time for it, so I had to choose whether to abandon the idea of completion or power on through. I had already reached about page 90 and hadn't really decided.

The Secret Scripture tells the tale of Roseanne McNulty, a hundred year old woman living in a mental institution somewhere not too far outside the Irish city of Roscommon. It is also the story of the psychiatrist Dr. Grene, who must oversee the evacuation of all the tenants of the asylum and decide who is fit to live in the outside world again. Somewhat improbably, he spends a lot of time trying to decide whether Roseanne would be up to that, when nothing about her age or circumstance would appear to indicate it. But Roseanne is a compassionate person, and Dr. Grene, going through some recent emotional hardship of  his own, is in need of some connection. Both characters keep journals of their encounter, although for different reasons.

Now I have to say that the beginning of this book left me unmoved. But the question, always, with book group reading is, would I have felt that way if I had picked it up on my own and read it at my leisure? In the current circumstance, I found it captivating enough to keep going, but I also felt a certain distance from it, wondering why we had to have the trick of the two narratives, and why we had to have this improbable 100 year old narrator, who never for one moment seems mad enough to be in an asylum. Even the quiet moments of insight left me irritated. It all seemed too familiar, and what didn't seem familiar felt contrived.

As well it should have, as it turns out.

I think it was somewhere around page 90 that a couple of scenes of such startling beauty and yes, perhaps horror appeared and I suddenly thought, well, I want to know what happens. I looked at my watch and made a calculation. Yes, I could finish the whole thing before the book group if I set aside everything else. And so I did.

A lot of people go to book groups without worrying too much about finishing the book. Our group is about as anarchic in spirit as they come and no one would ever look down upon you for not finishing. No, the requirement comes solely from me and it's not because I want to be the 'good one' in the group, it's that I really can hardly bear to have the ending of a story given away. Even if it's a book I don't care about that much. So I have more than once had these eleventh hour ordeals to go through. I don't work on Tuesdays so I do have the option of  doing an all out push at the end, and have taken that route more than once.

In this case, I did feel okay about making that decision. We ended up talking about the book more than we sometimes do, and I was able to side with a member who had loved the book and give evidence of waht we had liked about it. Some other members thought the story was a little too neat, but as I had been completely taken in, I didn't feel that way. And we all agreed that there were some absolutely breathtaking scenes.And one really scary one in a haunted house kind of way-- well, to me anyway.

But the curious result of reading the book in that way is that it has left not a trace in my emotional life. I loved it when I finished it, but I may have only loved my own sense of accomplishment. It turns out to be a bit like cramming for finals, which I also did in my day. You have mastery in the moment, but after the moment is over, much of it blows away.

Once again, this book fulfills the requirements for the Ireland Reading Challenge even though I should probably be getting on to other countries' literature...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Goosefoot, by Patrick McGinley

What an odd little tale! I read this book because I'd once read McGinley's most well known novel, Bogmail, and had enjoyed it (though not quite as much as the person who had recommended it to me), and had at some point picked up this one. It was an impulse to pull it off the shelf the other day and read it instead of something else I was meant to be attending to.

The story opens with Patricia Teeling at a crossroads in her life. She has just finished off an agricultural degree, which her very simpatico Uncle Lar has done most of the funding for. Lar of course wants her to take over his very shipshape farm, but Patricia wants to try city life and sow some wild oats before she settles down, almost certainly for life. So she quickly finds a teaching job in Dublin, leaving the Irish midlands behind.

And there her troubles begin.

I have to say that I read this book almost completely wrong. I took it to be a rather convincing novel of a young woman's quest for her own authentic path, which includes finding a vocation and also a mate. The fact that all the men in her life are either very limited or very dicey--except for Uncle Lar, of course--and that having experienced the city she is no longer a country girl and still not yet an urban one--makes this path particularly difficult.

Actually, though, this is a crime novel. Though no one in the book seems particularly avid to solve the crime, this is still the case, and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that McGinley never loses sight of the fact, even if we do. I see in the Wikipedia article that he is an admirer of Flann O'Brien, and this I think explains a lot about his approach. The same article links to a New York Times book review of the book when it came out, and although I think it's the kind of review that gives too much away, it's definitely worth reading afterwards.

And it also makes the book worth reading again after you come to the end.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Shaken: Stories for Japan--Editor, Tim Hallinan

I think I'd better start off with a disclaimer. I am not absolutely thrilled by the whole Kindle model in general. I'm a bit uneasy about a future in which all our books are 'in the cloud', and where one corporation might be able to make that book disappear overnight, whether for good reasons or ill. I don't like the exclusivity of the Kindle model either.

That said, though, this is an example of a good use of a new technology. This anthology, a 'Kindle Exclusive', was put together by Tim Hallinan and all proceeds go to help the people of Japan. It's a terrific list of writers who have contributed to this effort, and it's only going to put you out $3.99. You can download a Kindle reader for free to your computer, which I've done for precisely such an occasion. Believe me, reading books on my computer is not going to cut into my desire for bound books any time soon, but this was a great idea, and I'm happy to support it. I haven't actually read my copy yet, but this is one of those times where I thought getting the word out was probably more important than any actual commentary I might make.

Here's a list of contributors, in case that might entice you further:

Basho, Brett Battles, Cara Black, Vicki Doudera, Dianne Emley, Dale Furutani, Timothy Hallinan, Stefan Hammond, Rosemary Harris, Naomi Hirahara, Wendy Hornsby, Ken Kuhlken, Debbi Mack, Adrian McKinty, I.J. Parker, Gary Phillips, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jeffrey Siger, Kelli Stanley, C.J. West, and Jeri Westerson.