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.