Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mist on the Saltings, by Henry Wade

I picked up this 1930s British mystery after seeing it praised on mystery writer Martin Edwards' blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? recently. I'm a little surprised as I go back to Edwards' posts to see that he hasn't reviewed it directly, but really only mentioned it in admiring aside. Edwards is more than familiar with Wade's work, though, and has even written a piece for him for an encyclopedia of crime edited by Barry Forshaw.

Henry Wade, it turns out, is a pen name. You can understand why Major Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet CVO DSO may have wanted something shorter to go by on book jackets, even barring other reasons for the pseudonym. Aubrey-Fletcher served in both World Wars, played cricket and found time to be the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire at one point in his life, but that didn't keep him from writing what by all accounts are some excellent mystery novels.

The story largely takes place in a Norfolk fishing village called Bryde-by-the-Sea. Although a fictional place, I suspect that Bryde is in some part drawn from a similar village called Wells-next-the-Sea. Both names have a touch of irony to them, as neither are actually by or next to the sea at all, but separated from it by a good stretch of silted up land, the "Saltings" of the title. Much of the plot of the story is complicated by the fact of having to get around these parts by means of various boats and ferries, minding the tides as they ebb and flow. There's a map as a frontispiece to help understand the lay of the land, at least in my Harper Perennial edition, although it was more helpful in a general way than on specifics.

The cast of characters include native Norfolk residents, but also a handful of newcomers. Much of the story revolves around the situation of John and Hilary Pansel, who had come to the little community with high hopes of relaunching John's career as an artist a decade or so before, but whose dreams have faded a bit overtime. Dallas Fiennes, a successful novelist, has also come there to work on his latest project, and it is he who manages to drive a wedge between the two. When someone is murdered, as of course someone must be, outsider and native alike are put on the list of suspects.

The novel builds slowly and psychologically, and it occurred to me that for that reason alone it's easy to see that it is not of our era. You have gotten a long way into the book before any murder has occurred. It is both a portrait of a village and a study of a marriage in addition to being a mystery. Another thing that struck me as atypical is that there is a regular hierarchy of policemen on the scene--just when you think you've reached the guy in charge, there is still another someone above him.

In trying to learn a little more about Wade and about the Saltings, I was surprised to come across a piece in tribute to Jacques Barzun, who I know and admire from his encyclopedic work From Dawn to Decadence. Barzun was also a crime novel aficionado and in fact wrote extensively on the genre. As Hugh Van Dusen wrote in a little centennial tribute:

 At one lunch I mentioned that I had just read Mist on the Saltings by Henry Wade, which had been published in England in 1933. Jacques proceeded to give me an exact plot summary and a précis of its narrative virtues — a remarkable feat of memory, even for Jacques.

I don't read as many of the Golden Age style mysteries as I once did, but looking at the other authors listed at the back of this edition, I am reminded of how much I enjoyed the high level of intelligence and craft displayed in them. It's nice to revisit the era when they were prevalent now and again.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Cold Cold Ground--a vindication, and the Europa Challenge blog, 2014

I'm a little behind on posting reviews here--apologies to anyone to whom this might possibly matter. Thought I'd make up for it a bit by linking to the Nancy Pearl "books from the past", where it turns out that someone with a national audience has mentioned one of my favorite books of recent years, Adrian McKinty's The Cold Cold Ground. Here's the review, if it is a review, that I wrote here when it came out.

And here is the interview with Pearl.

Another of her picks, A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam, has been recently reprinted by Europa Editions, just in time for you to select if you decide to join us all over at the Europa Challenge blog. Details for 2014 are HERE.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Mr. White's Confession, by Robert Clark at EIL

Almost forgot to post that I have a new review up over at Escape Into Life. Check it out. As I mentioned there, I actually got a new perspective on this book when I realized that the epigraph is from St. Augustine's Confessions. Since it's in Latin, I even managed to find a translation of it, and found its reference to memory linked it to Clark's novel in significant ways. But I wasn't able to work in a part slightly ahead of this in the Confessions which I think is even more apropos, so I think I'll post that here:

"Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this am I myself. What am I then, O my God? What nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding immense. Behold the plains, and caves, and caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable things." (10.17.26)

By the way, this is from an article on the Confessions by James J. O'Donnell, which you can find HERE.

I have to admit that I have never had a lot of interest in reading Augustine, perhaps early influenced by Rebecca West's dislike of him. But I have to admit that his explorations of self and memory in relation to faith and God in the Confessions look quite intriguing.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Blunt Darts, by Jeremiah Healy

After some other commitments, I'm finally done reading the third of Joe V.'s crime writer recs, Jeremiah Healy, following previous reads of Loren Estleman and Jonathan Valin. It's always hard to know where to start with an established series. In the first two cases, I simply went with what was readily available, but for Healy, I decided to start from the beginning of his Boston based John Francis Cuddy series. I'm not sure that that was the best choice, but at least it gave me the background of the character.

Cuddy is a former insurance investigator who's been forced out of the business after refusing to take part in some shady dealings and decides to go out on his own as a P.I. He has recently lost his wife, and if all that wasn't enough to deal with, he's also a Vietnam vet. It's perhaps a bit much to unpack in a first novel, and I'm curious to see where Healy takes all these elements in future books, but in this one, it mainly amounts to a few graveside visits where Cuddy talks to his wife, a drinking problem, and a bit of a violent streak.

The mystery Healy unravels for us is a good one, involving a missing boy whom nobody but his grandmother seems to care all that much about. It's a tangled tale with enough suspects to make it complicated, though they are all a little black and white. The women in the book, interestingly, seem a bit more complex, and the older women in the story don't let Cuddy off lightly in his assumptions about them. I liked that.

In this novel at least, Healy doesn't show quite the descriptive gifts that Estleman showed in his novel, and of the three male crime writers, it is still Estleman who stands out. But this may still prove to be a case where I caught him at the top of his game and the others at the beginning or end of their writing careers, so I'll have to give them each another try if I find the time. It's been fun to finally delve into familiar names that I never got around to reading at the time that they were perhaps most prominent. It does seem to be another era, writingwise, as in so much else.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Becoming William James, by Howard M. Feinstein

I've been reading this book for a biography website which is in the middle of a re-launch. Although undoubtedly I will be posting a link to that once it's up and going, I don't want to duplicate the review here. Since the guidelines for the website explicitly rule out talk of its personal impact, though, I think it's fair to mention a few things of a more personal nature here.

I was initially interested in this book because of my connection to William James through two UCSC professors, Page Smith and Paul Lee. Early on in my college days, I purchased or was given several of the William James Society's pamphlets or chapbooks, one of which was James's speech, "The Moral Equivalent of War". Long before Chris Hedges wrote his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, this pamphlet was circulating around Santa Cruz, and influencing people to find their own equivalent peaceful action that would hold the intensity and bonding and high purpose that being comrades in arms brought soldiers in wartime.

The William James Society still exists in Santa Cruz today, and you can find what it's focusing on these days HERE.

Although I can't put up my own review just yet, I did really like this review from Notes on the Cultured Life, which gives a good summing up of the family dynamics that this book is tracing. In any case, Becoming William James is a compelling read, and has a lot to say about Americans and their work identity, particularly when they are struggling to find out exactly what that work is.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Falconer at EIL, and personal news

I've put up another review at Escape Into Life, this time on John Cheever's Falconer. Although for the sake of people finding it who might be interested, I used the current cover over there, I actually read an old pocket book edition, which seems to be my preferred mode these days. Adds a certain period feel that I enjoy. So I'm using that cover here.

On a personal note, and if you read my Confessions of Ignorance blog you may already know this, I have a story up at One Teen Story, thanks to a workshop I took there. You can read "Inconstant Moon" HERE if you are so inclined. If you have an interest in writing short stories, I would recommend signing up for their blog, because they do this workshop every so often. You get a lot of prompts to work in, and for some reason that challenge helps you puzzle out a story. It's fun. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Haiku Apprentice at EIL

My review of The Haiku Apprentice by Abigail Friedman is up over at Escape Into Life now. I was happy to pull this extremely winning account of an American diplomat's study of haiku in Japan out of the memory closet for a new round of readers. Check it out here. And while you're there, you'd do well to check out some of the recent art and poetry features as well. I saw Caravaggio's paintings in a new way when aligned with Andrea Potos' poems, and, though Halloween is past, I enjoyed the haunting poems feature, illustrated by the eerie art of Dan May.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Happy Birthday, Albert Camus

Having just recently read The Stranger for the first time in practically my dotage, I now am preening a bit on reading it in the year of his centenary. Purely by chance, but you preen where you can. I wouldn't have known it was his birthday today except for some random postings that rolled up on my other blog's blog roll. As I don't have a new review of anything by him, here are a couple of links, which both tend to stress his Africanness (even if Algeria, as yet, does not).

The Guardian tells us that neither France or Algeria are putting up much of a fuss this year.

And Tim Allen at the Oxford University Press blog argues that Camus should be considered as a Francophone African writer, as he lived in Algeria until he was 27. Do check this out for some lovely translations by Allen of Camus' words. There is a very beautiful passage about Algeria, and I'll take the liberty of quoting Allen's translation of Camus' credo right here:

“I know that my inspiration is in The Wrong Side and the Right Side, in this world of poverty and light where I lived for so long and whose memory still keeps me away from the two opposing dangers that menace every artist: resentment and satisfaction. […] I was placed halfway between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all is well in this world and with history; the sun taught me that history isn’t everything.” 

My own personal intention for honoring Camus is to finally read his posthumously published and incomplete work The First Man (Le premier homme),  a novel based on his youth in Algeria, which my aunt had asked me to read and which I unfortunately did not get to while I could still share it with her in a meaningful way. But in honoring him, I will perhaps fulfill a tiny portion of the debt I owe her too.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Black Spider at EIL--and All Hallow's Read

My review of this 19th century arachnophobe's nightmare is up at Escape Into Life now, just in time for Halloween.

And speaking of Halloween, don't forget to participate in All Hallow's Read.

Here's Neil Gaiman explaining how incredibly simple it is.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Free crime writing workshop from some of Ireland's finest

I caught this on Rob Kitchin's blog last night. Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, Niamh O'Connor and Jane Casey are offering a free web TV workshop on October 30th. I'm a big fan of Bruen and Hughes, and though I haven't read the rest of the quartet yet, I've heard their names mentioned enough in the crime writing world that I'm sure they will be great to hear from too.

As I write a lot about  various crime novels here, I thought there might be at least one or two people who'd be interested in trying this. I'm going to give it a shot even if I'm mostly a crime fiction reader, not a writer. The only catch for me is that, as a Californian, this conference is going to be taking place at about two in the morning. Still, it seems like kind of a once in a life time opportunity. So check it out.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford and, in particular, Miami Blues seem to be making the rounds of that small portion of the crime writing world I frequent and Adrian McKinty's review of this first book in the Hoke Moseley series has called forth a lot of reminiscences from other readers. I had for some reason started with the second book in the series, New Hope For the Dead, when the paperback first came out in these eye-catching yellow covers many years ago, and liked it a lot, though perhaps more for Moseley's trying to adapt to the new reality of daughters foisted upon him than for anything strictly related to crime solving.

As I recall, I read the next book in the series, Sideswipe, and was put off by some violent event that occurred, I'm not sure what. In any case, I never got to the first one.

In this first book, I'd say that Moseley is more or less a work in progress, while the character who proves most interesting is the villain of the piece, Freddy Frenger. "Fredrick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California", as the first sentence tells us, seems to have pre-dated the sort of actors that I can see playing him now--a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Brad Pitt. Charming and without any scruples involving others whatsoever, Frenger lands in Miami and causes a death right away. Freddy assumes from the get go that his release from prison will be a temporary sort of thing, which makes some sense out of the improvisational nature of his jaunt through the greater Miami area. Along the way, he becomes entangled with Susan Waggoner, a prostitute and naïf who is a transplant to Miami herself. Frenger quickly inveigles her into what he calls a "platonic marriage" in which he is by turns kind and cruel. Willeford somehow manages to make Frenger attractive as a character even though he is not, well, a nice person. To say the least.

The novel is both casually misogynistic and homophobic, and, as with many other books of the era written by men, it's hard to tell whether this is a portrait of the protagonist and his buddies or attitude of the author himself. Suffice to say, if you are going to derive the pleasures the book offers, you'll just have to put up with it. If you're a woman, you've no doubt done it before.

One thing I do want  to take issue with, though, is the constant description of Susan as dim-witted. By random coincidence, I have just recently read The Stranger for the first time, and in fact it is the subject of my last post. I find Susan Waggoner and Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger, to be remarkably similar characters, but Meursault is praised for  his qualities of openness, honesty and transparency, while Susan is called dim-witted for similar actions and attitudes. Meursault is the hero of his own story, while Susan is portrayed as simply the foil in another person's trajectory. Both are incredibly naïve, but only one is shown as stupid because of this, and I don't think I'm wrong in thinking that gender has some small part to play in this.

Not that I'm equating the two works as a whole. The Stranger is a masterpiece and Miami Blues simply an enjoyable comic tale. But I think even Camus would have to defer to Susan Waggoner (and Willeford) when it comes to vinegar pie.      


Friday, October 11, 2013

The Stranger--a paradox, and perhaps a dissenting opinion

I am determined to get up this post about my last book group meeting before I attend my next book group meeting, even though that is only a few days away, because I was very struck by this odd effect that Camus's famous novel about "the stranger", or "the outsider" had. Perhaps the best translation from the French  L'Étranger  is really "the estranged one". So it is very interesting that this tale of a person who is in some ways estranged from society should have been the catalyst of one our most enthusiastic, connected and communal discussions. Not only did everyone show up, but even a member who no longer lives in town showed up, and unlike many meetings where we talk a little about the book and a lot about everything else, the story of Meursault in the aftermath of his mother's death brought forth discussion right away and the conversation didn't let up for a long time. I found myself wondering what it was about this isolated figure that brought about such, well, solidarity? 

I didn't ever read The Stranger in school, so this was a fresh run for me. I am glad I didn't have to tie the book into Existentialism or hear prevailing theories as I tried to come up with some new theory for a paper or exam. My take on the story seems to be a bit different from what others have said it is supposed to be about. I found it not at all odd that a son would walk around in a state of numbness after his mother's death, and though his having put her away in a home with other people because of financial exigencies might have shocked French-Algerian culture of the time, it certainly would raise no eyebrows in American society today. It would seem, on the contrary, he did the best he could for her.

My own experience of the death of people close to me has several times been like that of Meursault in the sense that there is a slightly unreal, out of body experience in the face of the actuality of death, and also a kind of taking stock of one's own physical reality. There is a glimpse of our own eventual dismemberment and so we look at ourselves to see if we are in fact all there. I found that after Meursault went home, he was doing much the same thing, testing the "reality" of reality--the job, a sexual encounter, and so on. I didn't actually take it to be his ordinary state and thought that if Camus had wanted to describe a very disassociated young man who just goes on about life like that normally, he wouldn't have thrown in the death of the mother at the very beginning. Significantly, we don't really know Meursault's relation with this woman, as, by the time we meet him, she is already dead. The things I have read about the book suggest that Meursault is just very honest and he is reacting against conventional response, but in fact, his response to his mother's illness is very conventional--he doesn't abandon her, he finds the best place can for her in the circumstance, and one which apparently gives her some late life happiness.

One of my group members responded to my associating to my own mother's death with the statement that she hadn't really been grief-stricken at her mother's passing. We didn't get to continue with this, but much later, I remember thinking that part of the whole point of The Stranger is that it doesn't actually matter what you feel. The death of a mother is a stage in the human journey, and it isn't so much about what you do with it as the fact that, unless you die first, you must undergo it.

I had the temerity, perhaps under the influence of wine, to read the final passages of the first part of the book aloud to the group. The plus side of this was that one member, who is a nurse and a Buddhist, said, "oh--it's a birth experience." We all came around to this perspective, more or less.

Though other reviews have praised for his impeccable honesty, to my mind,  he is crucially lacking in the quality of empathy. Intellectual honesty actually means little in relation to this. Meursault does wake up from the daze of being into questions of life and death, but I'm not sure he ever awakens  to what it means to be a human being--that is, someone conscious of the fact that they co-inhabit the world with other living creatures, and have a responsibility to others as well as to themselves.

The moment that continues to stick with me is that of the shooting that lands Meursault in prison. When reviews talk about Meursault as 'an ordinary man', I tend to agree that most of us can imagine getting caught up in a moment when he or she could shoot or at least harm someone else, especially if there is some provocation. But for me there is a crucial difference between that first, reactionary shot, and then the four more that, after a pause, followed.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Saturday Night at Magellan's, by Charles Rafferty

I meant to get in at least one review here before I slipped in a link to my new post over at Escape Into Life, but sometimes life doesn't go according to plan. Anyway, this is a really nice little collection of stories, which I think you'll enjoy. While writing that review I somehow neglected to mention an aspect of the stories that really struck me, and that was the strong connection to nature that is present throughout.

In any case, here's the LINK.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Bananamania 2.0

Or at least that's what I was inspired to call my latest post over at Escape Into Life, in which I acknowledge how long it's actually taken me to get around to reading Banana Yoshimoto's novella, Kitchen. Check it out HERE.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Music Lovers, by Jonathan Valin

Another book out of the "authors I knew of, but never quite got around to" file, and again brought into my sphere of attention by "Joe V". The Music Lovers is another detective novel that is situated quite a long way into its series. Not that it matters much with this one. Whatever the setup is with his girlfriend Jo, she is out of town, and remains so for the course of the book, so there isn't really anyone you have to catch up with but the central figure of Harry Stoner himself.

The book begins when Stoner is hanging around his office on a cold winter's night with nothing better to do, when an odd little man called Leon Tubin appears, wanting Harry's help finding out who stole his priceless record albums. Actually, he's sure he already knows who stole them. He just wants to prove it.

Thus begins Harry's entry into the world of Cincinnati audiophiles. They love music, but they probably love their stereo systems even more. It perhaps goes without saying, then, that they are all men. Do men still compare audio equipment now? And if so, has it become something different than a grown men's boys' club? I can remember the era when this was big, vaguely, but it seems to me they must have moved on to something else. Or maybe speakers are just as important to compare and argue about as ever and I am just not in the know.

In any case, this situation, like a couple of the others in the book, signal it as not our own time anymore. I can forget how far away the early nineties are from us now until I read a book written in that time, where a character can still fume over the whole Reagan/Bush administration--Bush senior, that it, who now seems almost benign. Some of the plot points turn on the fact that people can't reach each other on their landlines--because landlines are the only thing anybody has. It gives you pause to think about how so many plot devices just dropped out of writers' hands with the advent of the cell phone. Not that I have significantly better luck reaching anyone on their cell phone than their landline even now, but that's another story.

One of the pleasures of reading detective fiction is that they are such a good vehicle for exploring a city or a region. I don't know Cincinnati--I'm not sure I've ever even driven through it, so it's a pleasure to read about it through Stoner's eyes as he takes us to various neighborhoods and suburbs of the city. He obviously knows his city, just as he obviously knows the music that the music lovers frequently partake of in the book. (Actually, I see that Valin pretty much left writing mysteries behind in favor or writing magazine articles for audiophiles.)

All of the characters in the book are somewhat oddball, but there is one that was actually puzzling, not to mention uncomfortable to encounter. Sherwood Leoffler, who could be said to be Leon Tubin's nemesis, is portrayed as a bigot who is not really all that bad. He borders constantly on saying some unforgivable racial slur, but his fellow audiophiles seem to be resigned to this, even when the jibe is at them. I really found myself wondering what Valin was trying to do here and never did quite figure it out. Perhaps he had a real life model that he was trying to render faithfully. In any case, it was an experiment that didn't quite pan out.

I had a feeling as I read this book that it wasn't the kind of book that would be written today. It's a good, solid enjoyable read, but in reading it, I realize that today's mysteries are ratcheted up a little from its pace. No editor would let Stoner amble around and meet quite so many suspects, or, all in all, to have quite so little mayhem in the midst of this. Or at any rate, I can't think of anyone writing quite this kind of thing. I think even someone who might be a rough equivalent, Michael Connelly, has ratcheted things up a bit, or at least he had in the last one I read.         

If I'm right, it's too bad, because there should definitely be a place for mysteries that revolve more around detection than violence and mayhem, but don't shy away from it totally either.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Wee Danny, by Gerard Brennan

Wee Danny
"Miss moves as if she knows I want her. She can read my thoughts sometimes. Sends me wee signals to prove it too. Like when the pencil rolled off her desk at the start of this class. It landed right in front of me. I pushed back my chair, ready to hand it to her, but she just raised her hand, cool as fuck. And then she stepped in front of me..." 

So opens Wee Danny, the novella that follows the continuing adventures of one of Brennan's Wee Rockets characters, Wee Danny Gibson. Danny is now separated from his Beechmount, Belfast cohorts and doing time in a home for a young offenders, but is within sight of release if he can just keep his act together. What are the odds, do you think?

Although a short tale, I think this marks a further development in Brennan's writing, as the first person narrative allows him to get further into the head of his protagonist than some of the earlier stories have done. I'd say that the earlier tales were more sociological and this one is more personal. There's a poignancy in moments that seems new to me. The friendship Danny forms with another incarcerated youth is very sweet, though in a tentative and far from sentimental way.

Shades of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest as well as My Bodyguard but never derivative.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Escape Into Life

I'm writing today to announce my new role as book reviewer over at Escape Into Life. Escape into Life was the brain child of Chris Al-Aswad, who founded this online magazine devoted to poetry and the arts before his tragically young death in 2010. I learned of  Chris through Kathleen Kirk at her blog Wait! I Have a Blog?, where she frequently posts both pictures and poetry from EIL. I've searched through some of these and I think this blog post may be a good introduction.

EIL was kept alive through the efforts of Chris's sister, Mandy Al-Aswad, and poets and artists like Kathleen. I am not entirely sure what I'm doing among this talented and somewhat rarified cohort, but it is an honor to have been asked. I mentioned to Kathleen that I read a lot of different kinds of things, including crime fiction, and wondered what exactly they might be looking for from me. She said that what they really wanted to do was encourage reading, so to write about whatever I liked. I'll try to make it a lively mix.

To be honest, I'm not really sure how reviewing here and reviewing there and the short reviews I put up on Good Reads are all going to fit together yet. I am not the fastest reader in the world. Going to have to up my game a little, I think.

For the moment, though, I'll just say that my first review for Escape Into Life is on Renata Adler's Speedboat, and you can find it HERE.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Silent Thunder, by Loren D. Estleman

I don't know about you, but my what to read next method is neither orderly nor logical. I have stacks of books that I want to read in my house, and mental lists of things I mean to get to, but, unless its something I'm required to read for a book group or some other objective, my choices tend to be impulsive, spur of the moment things.

So after mourning in passing the announcement of Detroit's bankruptcy in mid July, I was eager to find a book by an author recommended by a guy I'll call Joe V. over on another blog. He recommended the Amos Walker series of Loren Estleman because of their Detroit setting.

Until quite recently, and for a long time, I worked in a bookstore, and had more than a passing acquaintance with the mystery section there. Estleman's name was quite familiar to me, but somehow I had never gotten around to him. There are a lot of authors like that in the book biz--you think you know something about them, simply because you've noticed them on the shelf. Sometimes the fact that they are prolific, and Estleman is prolific, works against them--you tick it off as you shelve it as "another Estleman". It's a fairly neutral thought, but all the same you've written the author off without really stopping to examine why.

But I was wrong about not being interested in Estleman, as I often am about authors I haven't read yet, but have somehow managed to categorize anyway. Silent Thunder was an absorbing read. Amos Walker is a Chandlerian sort of detective, but never seems derivative. In this book  he hired to help keep Constance Thayer from being imprisoned for the murder of her husband, which she has already confessed to. Seems like a bit of a longshot of a case, but that doesn't stop Walker from taking it. The fact that her husband turns out to have been storing an unholy amount of weaponry in the basement does make it seem she may have a fighting chance.

One of the rewards of genre fiction that non-genre readers don't understand is that a long running series, whatever the ups and downs of individual books, gives a writer a long time to focus on the object of his or her interest. Quite often, one of those interests is place. So we have Tony Hillerman's evocative Navajo mysteries set in the Four Corners region of Arizona and New Mexico, and Janet Evanovich's comic Stefanie Plum series sending a love letter to Trenton, New Jersey (it would have seemed unlikely until she did it, but that's what talent's for). And then there is Estleman's sustained meditation on Detroit. Perhaps it's only from this perspective that the writing seems elegiac. Even when this book came out in 1989, there was a sense that the glory days of a great city had long since passed.

One of the great things about having a private detective as a protagonist is that they do get around. Amos Walker crosses many lines in his circumnavigations of the city and environs. One thing that surprised me, though it shouldn't have, is that just outside this industrial city is farm country. I say it shouldn't surprise me because much the same is true of Chicago, with which I am more familiar. Estleman also gives us a nice gradation of the different suburbs surrounding the harsher city core.

Unlike many recent bestsellers, where action counts and good writing not so much, Silent Thunder gives us many beautifully observed passages without letting the pacing suffer. He has a wonderful descriptive style, that gives us many nicely delineated portraits of the many characters that come and go throughout the book. I'd say that these portraits are not particularly generous to women, but then they aren't particularly generous to men either.

Silent Thunder is the ninth in this long running series (Estleman is currently up to number 22), but as Joe V. said, it doesn't really matter where you start. Just grab one and plunge right in.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Walker Percy on Elmore Leonard

''Most thrillers,'' says Elmore Leonard, ''are based on a situation, or on a plot, which is the most important element in the book. I don't see it that way. I see my characters as being most important, how they bounce off one another, how they talk to each other, and the plot just sort of comes along.''

As all mystery and crime fiction readers will know by now, Elmore Leonard has died at the age of 87. I've been an intermittent reader of his work over the years, and always enjoy it when I do. I have nothing particularly new to add to the eulogies, but I thought I'd post a link to a piece Walker Percy wrote on Bandits for the New York Times book review some years ago. I was probably more of a Walker Percy sort of reader than a crime fiction reader at that point, and I think Percy may have shifted an unconscious snobbiness I had about genre more than I really knew at the time. Reading Leonard helped too.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Magdalen Martyrs, by Ken Bruen

I see that it's been far too long since my last reading of a Jack Taylor novel, but don't take that as a mark against these terrific books. You could make a case for just sitting down and reading all the Taylor books in one go, as they are really just the picaresque adventures of one ne'er-do-well Irish ex-garda (or cop, if you haven't heard the word). A case could be made for a sidekick in the form of his garda coat, which he refuses to return. But though I don't show restraint in all that many things, I do tend to pace myself a bit with authors I like, as I don't like the idea of running out of their books before they can write more.

Bruen's vision may be a little bleak for some. I'm sure that many Americans have had an experience of Galway, the setting for the novels, that was not much like this one. It's a nice city for tourists. When I was there, we stayed in a castle, visited a few of the city's many bookstores, heard some trad music and watched the street performers. All that. However, unlike Colin Dexter's vision of Inspector Morse's Oxford, which has fictionally wreaked havoc on what is by all accounts a pretty peaceful town in reality, I feel fairly certain that Bruen's vision of Galway and by extension Ireland itself is a real one. Not the only one, but a real one. The Magdalene Laundries with their institutionalized abuse of "wayward" young women and which this book takes its title and elements of its plot from, were real. Jack Taylor's hatred of priests (except for one surprisingly sympathetic one he meets in this book) is not just an odd character quirk but based on a culture where Catholicism held unchallenged sway for far too long. (And that's not meant as a jab at Catholicism per se, though it is a jab at unmitigated power wherever it's found.)

I should mention that these books are funny, though funny in the way that jokes were funny in, say, Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution. If you can't take your humor a little dark, then this is not the author for you. And it's not so much about jokes, as the way Taylor (and presumably Bruen) observes life.

The thing that most stands out for me with the Jack Taylor books is that Jack, though an alcoholic, a druggie, a failed cop and in some ways, a failed everything is still first and foremost a reader. I think there are few portraits of the reader as such that are rendered so convincingly. Taylor finds his way through life by the light of books, and if you think that's meant as some sort of moral prescription for the reading of books, you'd be wrong. Books don't make Taylor a better person. They are simply one of his strategies for survival.

As a reader, rarely will you find a fictional work that opens so many doors to other books. In fact, the case is usually with fiction that the author pretends that all these other rooms don't exist. With Bruen's books, you feel like you could quite easily wander off into the world of Thomas Merton or George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane, all of whom have chapter heading quotes (and I have to wonder, does Bruen match the quote to the story or the story to the quote or what exactly?) and never get lost, because you would still be exploring the same vast literary house.  

Long may these rooms and passages connect.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dan Kois' mass market marathon

One of my all time favorites.
In the not too distant past, and for a long time, I was the mass market buyer at the bookstore I worked at. Even when I started the job, the mass market book phenomenon was already beginning its long decline, though it didn't seem like it to me at the time. By the end of my employment, mass market was being written off by all but a couple of publishers. Although I haven't conducted a thorough investigation, what I hear frequently is that first, trade paperbacks killed them off, and then it turned out that genre fiction, which most mass market books are at this point,  lent itself very easily to being transformed into ebooks. They both have something of the same consume and dispose quality in people's minds.

Cheesy cover, great book.
Even when I began, though, mass was always a bit looked down upon by many of my coworkers, and I have to say I never really understood that. If you didn't like mysteries or sci-fi or romance, there were still always a strong line of classics that were to be had cheaply in this format. Jane Austen, Salinger, even, rather unbelievably, considering its density, Les Miserables. But even current literary efforts often took this form. So  I never really understood the condescension towards the format.
I'll read a book in almost any form, but I do have a fondness for mass market. So I was very pleased to see Dan Kois embark on a mass market marathon over at Slate this month. In celebration of his efforts, I checked out the used book shop at our local library yesterday, and picked out a couple of classics off the shelf. I was spoiled for choice, really.

What kind of rubbish was it? The Americans and The Aspern Papers/ The Spoils of Poynton, both by Henry James. 50 cents a pop.

Just to illustrate my point.



Sunday, August 4, 2013

Guns of Brixton, by Paul D. Brazill

Did you happen to see Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? If you liked that film than I'm pretty sure you will like this fast paced story as well. Brit Grit with a double shot of humor is the way I'd describe it. The madcap plot (which begins with someone's brains being blown out, so don't say I didn't warn you) carries on at too fast a pace for me to summarize here. The humor tends to be of the ribald variety, but it operates on other levels as well--puns on popular culture, nods to more high tone cultural references. The overarching style is irreverence. Brazill doffs his hat to no icons.

"I need a break. I'm getting tired of London."
"I thought they said that if you are tired of London that you're tired of life?"
"Yeah, well they had obviously never been to Chiswick on a Saturday morning when all the yuppie mums are dragging their spoilt brats around after them. The bland leading the bland in The Land of the Twee."

Like that.

I should also point out that Paul writes some of the best short reviews on Good Reads and elsewhere that I've come across. They are succinct and accurate but also generous. They do what the best reviews tend to do, which is to make you want to read what he's just read, even if it isn't what you would have picked up on your own. So check them out.

(This blog post was originally posted on Good Reads.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Turtle Diary, by Russell Hoban

"Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come."
                                                     --Wallace Stevens
                                                      (from Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction)

The journey through books can sometimes be an uncanny thing. As I was reflecting on my recent read of Turtle Diary, I was thinking how apt this epigraph was. It only gradually dawned on me that it was the epigraph of an entirely different book, which I was more or less concurrently reading. On the face of it, the books bear no relation to each other. Turtle Diary is a short novel told in intertwined voices by two more or less lonely people living separate lives in London, circa 1975. The Particulars of Rapture, where the epigraph actually resides, is an extended and scholarly meditation on the book of Exodus by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. And yet it turns out that one book has very much to say about the other.

Turtle Diary is not a love story, at least not in a conventional sense. And it has a rhythm that we do not expect from more conventional tales. Things that we might think impossible to accomplish are managed relatively easily, while things that might seem quite manageable are actually nearly impossible for our protagonists. They are conscious of need, but they are also conscious of their own necessities. A middle-aged life, as both of these characters make clear, is already at least "half-baked". It can't be molded into just any old shape anymore. The near solid edges have to fit together. Salvation must come in an unconventional form, as it does for the Israelites in Egypt. It gives not much away to say that for William G. and Neaera H., the deus ex machina comes in the guise of sea turtles.

William and Neaera are not exactly opposites--rather too much alike in some ways, William thinks. But they do represent masculine and feminine principles all the same, and according to Wallace Stevens and to Avivah Zornberg, the particulars of rapture are dependent on this mysterious embrace of opposites. Although other things happen in the book, it is their particular comingling that will launch change.

Zornberg, I think, has much to say about what precisely is ailing these two. It isn't just loneliness, although that is an aspect of it. In her understanding, Egypt in Exodus represents the place of constriction, paralysis and silence.

"This is the fundamental issue of Exodus: how to be redeemed when Egypt, that enervating soulscape, has one in its pincer grip? From such a perspective, Israel in Egypt cannot be redeemed--no separation is possible..."No slave ever escaped Egypt" (Mekhilta) What makes release possible, or, in midrashic language, what makes the people fit for redemption? What is the turning point in the history of unarticulated misery? And what, again in midrashic language, is the secret of redemption?"

How one person--or one people--escapes this pincer grasp is what both these books set about to find out.

When I bought this novel, the salesclerk happened to have read it and spoke enthusiastically about it, but said, it is bleak, though. I told her that bleak didn't bother me. What's odd, though, now I've read it, is that, though it does indeed have its bleak moments, it's nowhere near as bleak as another Hoban book I've read, The Mouse and His Child. And that was a children's book. Talk about your constriction and paralysis. But as John Clute is quoted as saying in an intro to Turtle Diary, all of Hoban's adult books are tales "of glorious escape from physical and psychic bondage".   And, spoiler alert, even a clockwork mouse in a children's tale has some hope of that sort of redemption.

(The illustration above is from the edition of the book illustrated by Hoban's then wife, Lillian.)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

An Accident in August, by Laurence Cossé

My timing might seem suspicious, but it is pure coincidence that my reading of this book coincided with the advent of the Royal Baby. Still, it didn't seem like such a bad thing to be remembering Lady Di at this hour. In an alternate universe, after all, she is at this moment a doting grandmother.

Laurence Cossé uses the moment that took Diana's life (as well as that of her fiance and her driver) as the catalyst for this suspense novel, which imagines the story of the driver of the mysterious 'slow moving car' that had the world speculating for weeks after a certain high speed accident in a Paris tunnel  onAugust 31, 1997. It is not so much the Princess of Wales' life as it is the aftermath of her death that is evoked in this novel and then only as the background to the situation of its protagonist, Lou, the fictional driver of the Fiat Uno that the famous Mercedes collided with.

As the novel opens, Lou knows she has just made a mistake, but doesn't yet know the magnitude of it, nor does she even understand why she chose to flee the scene rather than stopping. What she does know is that her life has changed overnight. The question is, what is she going to do about it?

Other novelists might imagine a happy life, shattered, but this is not precisely the tack that Cossé takes. Although at first we are simply absorbed in Lou's current plight, gradually we come to understand that until this moment, Lou's life has been somehow incomplete. She has recently allowed her boyfriend to move into her flat but is already beginning to regret this a little, and we come to realize that this isn't really about him, but about her. As her predicament unfolds, what she notably doesn't do is include him in on it. So even before the crisis occurs, there is a 'me against the world' mentality in Lou. And what Lou discovers as the book goes on is that the crisis brings out both her strength and her resourcefulness. Without giving away any more of the plot, I will divulge that by the end of the novel, Lou is not so much a changed person as a truer version of herself.

Although Diana's life doesn't play a huge part in the story--Cossé refers to it in passing from time to time--it's clear that it is this particular car crash and no other that could have set this story off and running. A key theme is the nature of celebrity, and Lou could be said to be an anti-Diana, both in physical type and in her loathing of the idea of fame--not just notoriety, but any kind of fame whatsoever. Not wanting to have her picture taken in connection with the accident is not just a preference, it is part of the core of her sense of identity and strength.

The novel first came out in France in 2003, though Europa didn't bring it out in English until 2011. Our distance from Diana is greater now than when the book was written. What oddly seems at an even greater distance, though, is the era in which the book is set. We don't realize how much the world has changed until we read a book set pre-millennium. Lou keeps track of how far the police may be from apprehending her by reading various editions of the papers. Perhaps it is different even now in France, but in my part of the U.S., papers coming out at different times of day is a thing of the past. Lou's world seems rich in print options, and following her story involves wading through many more pages than we would do today. At the same time, today she wouldn't be going out for papers at all. She'd be holed up, reading them on her computer, or perhaps her smart phone.

Even now, conspiracy theories are alive and well about who was driving that Fiat Uno--and why. But in 2006, the Daily Mail published a convincing story about who the driver is likely to have been. The person in question isn't much like Lou superficially, but there are some strong similarities all the same. Whether or not Le Van was driving the Fiat Uno that night, Lou would find much to commiserate with in his (non self-incriminating) statement:

"The experience has been hell for me. It almost ruined my life, but I have been strong and pulled through.
"My family and friends have been badly affected. It has to stop now, but I fear that it never will."

(This post was originally posted on The Europa Challenge Blog, a challenge that I'm currently running pathetically behind on.)

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bloodland, by Alan Glynn

I happened to be reading Bloodland at the same time a blog post came out from the excellent Martin Edwards, addressing the question, How Many Characters in a Novel? Too many characters was actually the main complaint members of my book group had about the last book under discussion here, Creation, by Gore Vidal, a problem I thought could have been ironed out a bit by a simple list of characters at the beginning to refer back to. Edwards is talking specifically from the point of view of mystery writer, though, and this has some bearing on Bloodland, which I would call a mystery in the broader sense, though I have seen others refer to it as a classic conspiracy novel.

I suspect that in today's reading climate, where everything possible must apparently be done to keep the reader from giving up and turning on the television or  some other device, the opening of Bloodland will be off putting for some. After an initial scene in Africa, you have three more starts to the book, all involving dyads or triads of men. I'm pretty game  to try complex openings, but even I had some worry whether I was going to be able to keep track of all the players--Ray and Jimmy and Phil and Larry and Dave. You get the picture. And then about forty pages in another group of men are introduced.

I bring this up only to say, don't be put off by this. You'll figure it out. Everything's connected--which is also a theme of the book as a whole. And the men, as you get to know them, are distinct characters.  You won't confuse them.

The basic idea of the story is that Jimmy Gilroy, a talented but unemployed young reporter who's lost his job in the moribund newspaper industry, has landed a little gig writing a combination bio and exposé of a scandal ridden celebrity, including her tragic death in a helicopter crash. Unwittingly, by taking the assignment, he has just pulled the small thread by which a very large web is going to unravel. His first glimpse of this result is when he's called by Phil Sweeney, an old friend of his dad, who asks that he back off the "last days" angle of the story. Instead of seeing this as a favor he owes the older man, Jimmy is offended and hangs up. This action is what sets the plot--or perhaps I should say plots--in motion.

Bloodland is extremely ambitious in scope, which is why we need not just one protagonist but many as it unfolds. Glynn adeptly connects American and Chinese depredations in the Congo to the crash of the Irish housing market, celebrity scandal and presidential ambitions. What has perhaps not been noted enough is that it is also a meditation on fathers and sons. At least two of the main characters are father haunted, and while the fathers may be gone, the friends of the fathers remain, trying to steer the course of the future through these adoptive ties to the sons.

For a failed reporter, Jimmy is perhaps a little too lucky as the story unfolds, and I wasn't entirely convinced that as he finds his way through the labyrinth of collusion and deceit the very powerful men he confronts would have been quite so panicked as they prove in response to his investigations.

Though it's true--they do have some very big things to hide...  

Monday, July 8, 2013

Creation, by Gore Vidal

For the most part, my book group found this to be something of a clunker. And to be perfectly honest, I also found this book to be a slog. I'm still trying to understand exactly why that is, because, based purely on concept, if I were going to pitch this book for a TV series, I would say it was I, Claudius meets the travels of Marco Polo.

I think one problem with it is that for a story that covers Greece, and almost all of the Near and Far East, it is curiously static. This may be in part because Vidal chose to tell this from the point of view of a very old, blind man, and so some of the more dynamic events of his own life are not of much interest to him anymore. And Vidal has deliberately chosen his narrator to be not a central historical figure, like, say Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, but instead a chronicler of the real movers and shakers of his era. To put it another way, as Paul Theroux wrote in his review in 1981, when the book was new: "Anyone looking for libido in this novel will be disappointed." And actually, Theroux's appraisal is quite just and worth reading. You can find it here .

However. All these things being true, it is still a worthwhile read. It is set in the fifth century B.C., and "anybody who was anybody" was there. I have long heard about the almost miraculous explosion of consciousness in this era, when not only the Greek philosophers began their inquiries, but in quite separate spheres, Confucius and Buddha also were holding sway. Cyrus Spitama, half Greek, half Persian and the grandson of Zoroaster to boot is Vidal's fictional creation. He is young enough and ambitious enough--and well connected enough, although he never seems to think so--to be able to journey to see all of them in one lifetime.

The novel's interests are not those of most novels. Vidal is inquiring not into our social interactions but our political ones, and above and beyond that, his character Spitama is preoccupied with the subject of Creation, with all the different ideas that were going on in that vast part of the world on how everything came to be, and how we are supposed to live as a consequence. It is a hugely ambitious undertaking, and if Vidal didn't write the novel we wanted him to write, he certainly wrote the novel that he wanted to write. I spent much of the time I was reading it wondering how on earth he did it. How did he know enough about multiple, vastly different political and religious/philosophical realms to do it? One reason I persisted with the novel is that I knew that even if it took a bit of effort, I was never going to have another guide through this period as good as this one.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was that Vidal chose to tell it all from the point of view of a Persian. What little most of us know about ancient history, if we know anything at all, and on my part, that's not much, comes down to us from the Greeks and Romans, or, on another track, from the Hebrews. To have the Persian perspective on the Persian Wars--even just an educated guess as to how it must have seemed from their angle-- is a nice way of turning different truisms on their heads. And though the book is not particularly droll, though every once in a while Vidal's wit shows through, it is funny to see Cyrus moan about the Greeks so much. We are used to bowing to them without knowing them all that well. Cyrus, though half Greek himself, does not bow to their superiority. It is a little hard to know what Vidal himself thought of them.

I liked the way the book helped me put together the relation of all these concurrent empires in time and space. They were all in one way or another looking to receive heaven's mandate--which meant world domination. And yet, in Cyrus's view, on a basic level, they were self preoccupied and not interested in the other cultures beyond the horizon. Cyrus is always returning from some expedition or other, full of tales and adventures, and finding that no one cares. (Of course, it may have been that they, like we, simply found him not to be that scintillating a storyteller. It happens.)

I also found it interesting to read about democracy when it was young, especially in the context of recent news from Syria, Iran and Egypt. The interplay of the military and democracy seemed particularly apt. It takes a power other than democracy to enforce democracy, then as now.

If you have an interest in this period and have the kind of disposition it takes to get into a long, slowly paced book (it definitely doesn't feel as if it was written for our current historical moment), give it a go. But if you do, you might start writing down who's who as you go. Because Gore is not going to help you with that one. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

I have a great fondness for books that I think can more generally be classified as contemporary comedies of manner. Diane Johnson's French novels, like L'Affaire and L'Divorce; Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club; Cathleen Schine's Rameau's Niece--you get the picture. They are witty, cerebral, often romantic but just as often anti-romantic; usually familial. Above all, they require a light, deft touch.

Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette? falls into this confectionary category. The story is about a family of three that has somehow ended up living in a monstrous old decaying house in Seattle, which at least one member of the family thinks of as the remotest hinterlands.  Bernadette Fox is a very eccentric former architect, her husband Elgin Lane is a highly esteemed but very abstracted Microsoft developer, and their daughter Bee is both precocious and kind. This is the story of their unraveling.

If I tell you, as almost everyone who writes about this book will, that Semple used to write for Arrested Development, you should have a pretty good idea of the style of its humor. Told with an equal degree of skill in a variety of literary forms--the email, fax, magazine interview, PR memo and so on--the story gently skewers the upwardly mobile classes of Seattle. Except for the Microsoft bit, a lot of this book could have been set in certain Westside neighborhoods of L.A., but, especially through the voice of Bernadette Fox, Semple reserves some particular barbs for Seattle itself.

The book opens with Bee's reminder that her parents had promised her the granting of a wish if she maintained a certain high standard in school. Her wish turns out to be a trip to Antarctica. This would be a tall order in most families, but not this one. However, though she can't back out of her promise, Bernadette doesn't really want to go. She begins to figure out an escape route.

In a subplot, the private school that Bee attends is hosting a fundraiser to attract some "Mercedes parents"--i.e., clients from an economic bracket just slightly above their own. Subsequent preparations do not always bring out the best in people.

If there is one downside to the story, it may be that it centers a little too much on the "First World problems" of a very privileged class of people, Mercedes driving or not. On the other hand, Semple has a very good ear for the way people who are unaware of their great good fortune talk to themselves and to each other. The genteel warfare that goes on over the Galer school fundraiser is expertly observed. But Semple's humor is of a type that never puts any of these people absolutely beyond redemption.

And as a counterpoint to all of this, we have Bee, who is privileged in a very different sort of way, because she should never have survived in the first place. She grounds the book because she is not a satiric character, because she is steadfast and true, and because she's going to find out where Bernadette went, no matter what.   

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Crocodile Tears, by Mark O'Sullivan

I got a bit depressed the other day when I read an article about the decline of the paperback over at Slate. True, the article basically says that things may not be as grim as all that, but the gradual or not so gradual trend away from paperbacks in favor of ebooks seems to be unstoppable. Maybe it's the right moment to put in a good word for paperbacks, then. Mark O'Sullivan's Crocodile Tears seems an excellent book to use as an example.

I happened to win my copy of Crocodile Tears, but that didn't create much of a bias, as I had already been interested in it and was planning to send off for a copy of it anyway. Its appearance in my mailbox came as a pleasant surprise.

I recently listened to an agent's podcast about what hooks a reader--what gives a reader a feeling of solidity about a book and assures him or her that they are in for a good read. I thought at once of Crocodile Tears, because more than just having a good cover, which it does, or jacket blurbs, which, oddly, it doesn't, the book itself has a reassuring solidity--you feel that the publisher took some time in thinking the design of the book through, and that some care went  into the project. So even before you begin reading the text, you have that sense the agent mentioned of being in capable hands and off for a good ride.

Crocodile Tears is a crime novel set in Dublin. It shares some characteristics with the work of another Dublin writer, Declan Hughes, in its portrayal of the decline and ruin of a  privileged Irish family, complete with great house and troubled past. It also bears some similarity to the fiction of Alan Glynn and Declan Burke, who have both written crime novels set in Ireland of the  contemporary era, which is to say, post boom.

At heart, though, this is a police procedural, with the typical police team dealing with various crimes that emerge out of the first death. Its main protagonist is Detective Inspector Leo Woods (and one small gripe I had about the book was that this ponderous title was used in so many instances where "Leo", or "Woods", or "DI Woods" would have done just fine), and he is a sad and complicated man. Suffering from Bell's Palsy, which paralyzes and distorts one side of his face, Leo is portrayed as in some ways beyond help for his personal afflictions, which are spiritual and psychological as well as physical. As readers, or at least as this reader, we are never quite persuaded that he is as far beyond the pale as he thinks he is, which perhaps opens up material for future books. All of the police are in fact captured midstory--Detective Sergeant Helen Troy, who has just recently been promoted to this new position but is carrying a lot of  familial baggage with her; Superintendent Aoenghus Heaphy, who has undergone a painful and cosmetic enhancement under the impression that it will help him rise; the super capable but preoccupied Detective Garda Ben Murphy, and so on. These are the kinds of characters that will only get better if the series continues.

The story is satisfyingly complex, and takes us not only into the rarified heights of wealthy neighborhoods, but to failed housing estates and abandoned hotels as well. O'Sullivan sets his tale during a record cold spell, which only adds to the bleak atmosphere he is creating.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this in advanced reading copy form, with no blurbs or other info, based solely on my regard for the author's previous writing. If you can come to the book in anything like the same kind of way, I urge you to do so. What I can tell you is that it is the story of a family with some missing players, told in the distinctive voice of Rosemary Cooke, who is one of its members. It's an odd family, but no odder in many respects than, say, the one Arthur Phillips writes of in The Tragedy of Arthur, which I happened to be reading concurrently.

This is a novel that carries you along in what may seem at first to be a lighter fashion, but it will take you to some very deep places. Read it.

(I originally wrote that short review for Goodreads, slightly frustrated by my inability to say more without giving anything away. I have since listened to this terrific discussion between Fowler and Rick Kleffel of The Agony column, and was really impressed by their ability to get into the story structure without revealing plot spoilers. The link is here. )

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Midnight in Peking, by Paul French

I posted a review of this book on Good Reads awhile ago, before it won the Edgar for Best Fact Crime this year. Somehow I neglected to put anything about the book here.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
It's an odd coincidence that this book forms such a perfect companion piece to Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. Although I'm sure the publishers recognized a good popular history when they saw one, French tells us in the end how he came upon this tale, and I think it was the fact that it was an intriguing story more than any immediate sense of commercial possibilities that drove him on.

Both books are set in roughly the same period, this one beginning in 1937, Garden of Beasts in 1933. Both feature families of one culture thrown into another one on the verge of war, and both are particularly about the father and daughter of that family.

There, of course, the similarity stops. Germany and China are not much alike, and the personalities of the father/daughter pairs are not all that much alike either. But the device proves very flexible as a way of telling one family story and opening it up to render the society at large in a particular decisive and now lost moment.

As you read all the way through to the author's notes at the very end, you will realize how extraordinary it is that we have the story of what happened at all. It is down to a father's determination--though the fox spirits may have helped just a little.