Sunday, December 18, 2016

A couple of chaps

By sheer coincidence, I've both recently reviewed a chapbook and put one together myself. The review is for the  somber but timely work The Muddy Season by Matthew Raymond and can be found at Escape Into Life.

The shameless self-promotion is for a little Christmas story I just put between two covers. I thought this up last year, but didn't get around to it then. And even this year I remembered a little too late. How good the story is, I can't say, but I'm pretty pleased with myself for seeing the project through to the end. Inadvertently, and through no fault of mine (if only you knew how true this was), I think the cover turned out pretty well, or at least is something close to what I envisioned. I've made it as close to free as CreateSpace will allow me. If you want the actual chapbook you can order it HERE. If you want to read it on Kindle you can order it HERE. If you don't want to order it and just want to look at the cover, that's fine too.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Paradime by Alan Glynn

I am sure Declan Burke is right about "the recurring theme of paranoid conspiracy that has run like a seam through Alan Glynn’s work" and I will direct you to his excellent review of Paradime for a more nuanced look at the book and Glynn's work as a whole than I will attempt to give here. But what struck me in particular was its relationship to The Dark Fields, which was published here as Limitless and spawned both a movie and the recent TV series of the same name. I was surprised to learn or perhaps remember that The Dark Fields is actually an earlier work and the three books of the Globalization Trilogy (Winterland, Bloodland, and Graveland--read them) were written in between it and Paradime. This is because the protagonists of both The Dark Fields and Paradime seem to be kindred spirits.

Paradime is not a reworking of the earlier story. Danny Lynch faces a different situation than Eddie Spinola. Spinola's catalyst for self-exploration was a performance enhancing drug, while Lynch's is having a chance to 'become' his doppelg√§nger. What is similar and striking, though, are both the conditions from which these characters emerge and those to which they aspire. Both  books tell of modern day rites of passage for men who for reasons both personal and political have previously failed to complete them.

In his review of The Dark Fields, Burke describes Eddie Spinola as someone who goes from being a "dysfunctional bottom-feeder to master of the financial universe in just a few months." This holds equally true for Danny Lynch. Both novels are set largely in New York City, which Glynn, an Irishman, had the opportunity to observe for a period of several years. Perhaps as a non-native, he can view Gotham with greater perspicacity, while we Americans simply take its way of operating for granted. In any case, things have grown grimmer since The Dark Fields--the kind of bottom feeding available to Danny is even less nourishing than it was for  Eddie. While Eddie worked in a nongratifying area of copyediting, Danny is suffering from PTSD and, on the outs with the very dicey Gideon Logisitics, he's very soon going to have no money at all. Both men respond to a siren call and quickly find themselves alone in extremely dubious moral circumstances.

What's interesting to me is  not so much that both men fall for the lure, but that they fall for it so easily. At the start of their stories, they are already on shaky moral ground. What they lack most specifically, I think, is any real capacity for discernment. I'm not someone who'd be likely to sing "Give Me That Old Time Religion" or promote a return to family values, but these are essentially deracinated young men, more than ripe for any suggestion that seems to give them access to the powerful world they see all around them but have  almost no hope of gaining. One of the more disturbing things about these books is that neither Danny or Eddie seem all that unusual. In fact either one might be a kind of everyman of our times.

My review of The Dark Fields is HERE. I seem to have had more to say about it than I remembered.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben

I'm still wending my way through different discoveries from Bouchercon in New Orleans this year and probably will be for awhile, though not single-mindedly. Some of the authors I'm planning to read I've never heard of, but some of them I've known about for a long time and just never gotten around to.

Harlan Coben is one of the latter. One of my friends got on to him quite early, but this didn't kick his work up the list for me. His protagonist, Myron Bolitar, being a sports agent was not quite the draw for me as for my friend, since I'm not that into sports, though when I come to think of it, I tend to actually like stories about sports. And maybe the original cover of as Coben himself humorously termed it, a 'bleeding football" didn't help.

On the other hand, it was a distinctive image, in retrospect memorable and these days it's collectible, baby.

So what was the reason I finally decided to read Deal Breaker? It was on account of the engaging persona of the author. Named a guest of honor at this year's Bouchercon, he was interviewed as the conference opened by none other than Michael Connelly. (Don't worry, Connelly was himself interviewed at the Long Beach conference a couple of years ago.) Lot's of good stuff from both men. One of my favorite moments was when the discussion was opened up to the public and someone said something like, "I know what we get out of you being here, but what do you get out of it?" There was a weighted silence and then Coben burst out: "Are you kidding?" And then went on to say how much readers mean to writers.

I caught a glimpse of Coben at various times during the conference, including on a couple of floats, and if he wasn't having a grand old time, well, you could have fooled me.

Deal Breaker is about the sea of troubles that surround a big fish quarterback that Myron is just about to land. Though this is the first book in the series, we are meeting Myron after several big things have already happened to him--he's been a basketball star, been felled by a sports injury and already lost what seems to have been his true love. The back story emerges naturally, almost as though we should somehow already know it. Maybe there was an earlier book that never made its way into print--maybe not. It doesn't really matter.

Deal Breaker definitely walks down some mean streets-- rape, gangsters and prostitution all feature. But Myron is a funny guy, and there is plenty of comedy to balance out the dark spots. If anything, he maybe maintains his equanimity too well in the face of danger--though he's got nothing on his sociopathic sidekick Win. Though  I think Win adds an interesting element to the story, his feats on behalf of his friend do tend to pull the story out of the realm of strictly realistic fiction. But all in all, this is a good thing--we find ourselves in the world of Myron Bolitar, and  it's  definitely a place to which we want to return.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Confession by Domenic Stansberry

I ran the mystery section in our local indie bookstore for way too many years. By "run" I mean, I did some of the ordering, some of the recommending, some occasional dusting and a lot of the shelving. What I do not mean is that I am any kind of authority on mystery and crime fiction or that it's the only thing I read. However, I do know a lot of author  names. This can be a problem when you go to a big mystery conference like Bouchercon, as I did in New Orleans midmonth. It can be quite awkward to admit how many authors you should have read by now but haven't. I know just about enough to know how much I don't know.

So I recognized Domenic Stansberry's name immediately when I met him in the bar/lounge/lobby area of the Marriott while waiting for a friend, but had to admit that I hadn't read his work. We had an interesting conversation, discovering that we had both been at UCSC in fairly early days there, which can be a kind of recognition factor in itself. Anyway, I resolved to bump his work up to the top of my list, and so picked up a couple of his titles in the almost overwhelming book room at the conference. It was purely by chance, then, that I started with his Edgar award winning The Confession. I did not know it was an award winner at the time, I just saw that it was the right kind of size for the plane ride back.

The Confession was published by Hard Case Crime, an imprint which publishes hard-boiled crime fiction, and the covers of which seek to emulate the lurid covers found on pulp fiction of yesteryear. I say "yesteryear", because I don't know the exact era of such covers, only that they have a nostalgic quality to them. Pretty much everything I know about Hard Case Crime I learned on Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders, and if you're intrigued, here's a list of his posts about the imprint.

Hard Case Crime seems a perfect place for The Confession to have come out, or perhaps it only seems inevitable in retrospect. Although the story is contemporary, more or less, there is a tone to it that could have been from an earlier era--say, that of the novels of Ross MacDonald. In fact, it seems possible that Stansberry deliberately left out clues that would signal its precise historical moment. I am not sure that he ever uses the words "cell phone", for instance, but only phone. With the cover and even the old style font of the book, we are a little outside of our present zeitgeist. On the other hand, geographic place is quite specific in the book,  and perhaps provides clues to readers more astute than I am.

One of my sisters lives in San Rafael, and it was an added pleasure of the book to find the region used for a setting. There are several iconic features of that area which Stansberry uses to good effect. Mt. Tamalpais looms over the whole, its legends and significance revisited several times in the story. The chilling view of San Quentin from the upscale communities around the northern shores of the bay is perfect for the mood, and it is in reality one of those visual contradictions that anyone who takes the ferry from San Francisco to Larkspur Landing must grapple with, whether consciously or not. And then there is the Marin Civic Center, famous as a Frank Lloyd Wright design, but housing the Hall of Justice, not to mention adjoining jail cells burrowed into the hillside.

Jake Danser is a forensic psychologist who has somehow found his way into this community, and recounts the story of a time ten years before which was, shall we say, more fraught. He's got problems with his girlfriend; he's got problems with his wife. He's got problems with a court case in which he's supposed to be providing the insanity defense for a man accused of a woman's murder. And that's all I'm going to say about the plot. Read it for yourself.

Apart from the psychological game that Stansberry plays with us, drawing us into a 'did he or  didn't he?' loop, Stansberry is a terrific descriptive writer. I've already mentioned his evocation of setting, but the ruthless dissection of character that Jake Danser evinces could only have come from Stansberry's own powers of observation. Which makes me, you know, think twice about having sat across from him in a bar...


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Orlando at EIL

I'm a little behind on posting in general this summer, but I thought I'd at least mention my post about Virginia Woolf's Orlando over at Escape Into Life. This was a reread for me, and one that I got more out of the second time around.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott

I like to read mystery series. There is a certain pleasure in familiarity, in knowing what you're getting. But there is at least an equal pleasure in reading a novel that does not follow at all from the one proceeding it, and in fact, couldn't even be postulated from it. Such is the case with Shot in Detroit.

Concrete Angel, which I reviewed here last year, was a tale of psychological suspense in the "Mommy Dearest" vein, not so much a crime novel per se, since the crime happens in the opening pages, but an unveiling of all that comes before and after. A mother/daughter story, it bears some relation to Abbott's own crime writing daughter Megan Abbott's novel The End of Everything, focusing as it does on the darker side of family and close community.

Shot in Detroit is not a family drama, at least on the surface. Although Violet Hart's mother Bunny, a career waitress, appears in the story, she does so more as a cautionary tale, and in some ways only underscores how alone and adrift Violet really is. Violet is a professional photographer approaching forty, and Violet's panic about her career's trajectory is somewhat akin to a woman experiencing the promptings of her biological clock. There's a kind of "now or never" quality to her desperation.

The opening pages of Shot in Detroit find Violet heading out before dawn to Belle Isle, an island park in the middle of the Detroit River, hoping to find subject matter for a first rate photograph. By this, she doesn't mean the charmingly picturesque. Belle Isle is a misnomer for "a huge park in a spectacular state of decay." This is Detroit, circa 2011, a city that's hit bottom but doesn't know it yet, and hasn't imagined even the tentative hopeful resurgence it's experiencing now.

Violet wants to make art. Though she carries a press pass, she parts ways from the school of photojournalism--her aim is aesthetic, not news or story driven. She perhaps has more in common with an odd young guy who spends most of his time out on Belle Isle making his own obscure outsider art from found objects. Let's just say that there isn't a line Derek Olsen won't cross in pursuit of his vision, and as the novel progresses, this becomes increasingly true of Violet as well.

Violet's career hopes surge again because her occasional lover Bill, a black mortician known for his flair in dressing a body, calls on her to help with an emergency: he needs her to take a photograph of a corpse. Despite the macabre nature of this request, Violet finds inspiration here and requests to be notified whenever there is a young black man who has been brought to the mortuary.

We are introduced to them and the reasons they have ended up there through some of the chapter headings. Although I would have predicted that there would be a lot of gang violence, these deaths are not so stereotypical. Some of the men have fallen victim to the kinds of accidents that any mortal might be subject to. But others fall prey to the violence and other dangers of living in a poverty-stricken city. Violet hopes to be able to capture enough of their portraits to put together a meaningful show.

Violet may be obsessed with her artistic vision, but she constantly questions her own motives. Some of the answers she needs might be found in the epigraphs from famous photographers that head up other chapters. In fact, these artists are actually the family, the tribe that Violet finds so lacking in  her own life.

It is always a mistake to deduce what an author might be like from their fiction, and I think this probably goes doubly for crime fiction. Though I don't know Patti Abbott personally, I do have some sense of her persona from her popular blog, and there doesn't seem to be much evidence of a Violet in her kind and gracious personality there. But that's the great thing about crime fiction. For both writer and reader, there's a chance to experience unclaimed aspects of our beings.

Check out Patricia Abbott's interview at Dana King's One Bite at a Time if you'd like to know more about the background of this fast-paced and thought-provoking novel.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Rain Dogs up for the Theakston

Crime fiction readers who also read this blog--I assume there is some overlap--might want to know that Adrian McKinty's Rain Dogs is on the shortlist for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award (which has got to be one of the best names for an award ever). As he says on his blog, J.K. Rowling under nom de plume is also nominated, and as popularity is a factor in the judging the odds may be against him. But if you've read Rain Dogs, why not join with me and give old "Robert Galbraith" a run for his money? Because, as we all know, he hardly needs it.

The place to cast your vote is HERE.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Some reflections on reading Moby Dick at Escape Into Life

Forgot to mention that I posted a little piece about finally reading Moby Dick over at Escape Into Life last Friday. Not really a review--I wouldn't dare. Nevertheless, I loved the book, was provoked and moved and disturbed by it in turns. It was the right moment to finally tackle it as it turned out. I hope such a moment comes for you, if it hasn't already happened. The post is HERE.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Door by Magda Szabo reviewed at Escape Into Life

My review of Hungarian Writer Magda Szab√≥'s novel The Door is up at Escape Into Life. I happened to read this novel for two different reading groups. It's a New York Review Books republication of another author little known in the U.S., though quite famous in Hungary and to some degree the rest of Europe. The problem is that little of her work has been translated into English, though some has been translated into French. Long live translators, and long may NYRB prosper in its exalted quest to bring great but unknown work to the light of day again. Support them if you're able. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein

It's been awhile since I've read one of Linda Fairstein's crime fiction series featuring Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper and  her pals Detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace. A reference to another book set in the New York Public Library led me to wonder if Fairstein had ever written one with that setting, and much to my delight, I found that not only had she, but I actually had one sitting unread on my shelf!

Fairstein, who was the head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan district attorney, made good use of her experience working with victims of sexual assault in her earliest books, educating readers on victims' rights in a variety of ways. That said, her real strengths as a crime writer lay elsewhere, I think. It was a few books along that she hit on her winning strategy of setting her crimes in the actual buildings, monuments and institutions of New York, and I believe the real reason I've kept reading along is for her terrific research into places we may have heard of--though sometimes not--but never knew that much about. The iconic New York Public Library was an obvious choice for her to get around to at some point.

Alex Cooper's life outside the world of crime may seem to be a little too good to be true, except that judging from the evidence it's modeled to some extent on Fairstein's own life, in which she was married to a prestigious Manhattan attorney and has a home in Martha's Vineyard just as her protagonist does. It always strikes me a little odd, then, that her descriptions of this rarified world are often are the flattest parts of her books. For me at least, it's very hard to care about her latest romantic involvement with the Frenchman Luc something or other, and as he has a very small role in this long book, perhaps Fairstein found it a little hard to care about him too.

The passionate heart of the books always lie with the trio of Coop, Chapman and Mercer, and with Mike Chapman in particular. In Chapman I think Fairstein really created a character that leaps off the page. He is a salty, often obnoxious, and definitely not politically correct sort of guy, but his sterling qualities cannot be hidden by his banter. Unlike her old and good friends outside the law, whose virtues are frequently articulated by Alex, she doesn't have to tell us about Mike's virtues, because we feel them. The connection between Mike and Alex feels real and contains elements of attraction, and he expresses his admiration for her by frequently mocking her, which she never mistakes as malice. Nor do we.

This book contains much lore about the library, as well as the world of rare book collectors and the equally covetous world of map aficionados. It perhaps goes on a little too long, particularly if you don't care about any of that stuff. And perhaps you shouldn't read Fairstein if you can't warm to a story that provides a lot of factoids for their own sake. For me, though, and for a lot of other people apparently, given her bestseller status, her gimmick really works. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Shenzhen: a Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle

I first got on to Guy Delisle when I read a blog post of Adrian McKinty's recommending another book of his called Burma Chronicles. I went on to read the book. I'd forgotten this, but apparently, I liked it well enough that I went on to write a review myself.

This year, I made it to the National Free Comic Book Day, the one day of the year when I become something of a comic book maniac, thanks to the generous support of the day by two great local comic book stores, Comicopolis and Atlantis Fantasy World. And I like to buy something just as a thanks for the free fun stuff. So this year, one of the graphic novels I bought was another Guy DeLisle book about Shenzhen, a major financial center in Southern China, just north of Hong Kong. Close in geographical distance, but separated by differing histories, as Hong Kong lay under British rule and influence for a century and a half.

Delisle didn't make light of some of the repressive aspects of Burma, or Myanmar, as it's now called. But as he was there with his wife and young child, there was a different quality to his life than there is in this one, where he is visiting for a short period of time to oversee outsourced Chinese animation for a French company.

Looking at various Good Reads reviews just now, I see that people were less enchanted with this book than they were with Burma Chronicles, as Delisle doesn't really take to Shenzhen. But I found it a very interesting portrait of a traveler's isolation and alienation in a country where he doesn't speak the language and contacts with people he can talk to are few and far between. Weekend visits to Hong Kong and even Canton are different experiences, but Delisle is constantly frustrated in his attempts to visit the countryside, not by the powers that be, but by his inability to catch the right bus or find the right bike route to do this. The book records an experience of Shenzhen circa 1997, and nearly twenty years may have made a difference as far as accessibility for foreigners goes. But in that year, it seems to be a busy, rather somber and functional place. The dark palette he uses to show it is quite different from the more sunny one he used in Burma Chronicles.

Even here, though, Delisle comes across some quite touching displays of human compassion and interest in him, and despite a certain despondency he is unable to conquer, he is quick to record the human side of the city as well.

I'll read more Delisle, though will perhaps pace myself a little before I take on, say, Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea...

Friday, May 13, 2016

Age of Blight by Christine Ong Muslim at Escape Into Life

My review of Age of Blight: Stories by Christine Ong Muslim was posted today over at Escape Into Life. We've featured some of her stories there before if you want a sample of her writing, though they are not part of this collection. These are disquieting tales about the past and the future and maybe some other reality entirely. When I say 'disquieting', I mean that in a good way. Check it out.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Dying for a Taste by Leslie Karst

I count a fair number of mystery writers among my friends and acquaintances by now, most of whom I've originally discovered through their connection to the mystery and crime writing world. But my friendship with Leslie Karst long predates her writing a mystery novel, though probably not before her aspirations to be a writer blossomed.

So it's with an almost family kind of pride that I've watched her journey through writing a manuscript, getting an agent, and finding a publisher. Dying for a Taste was published last month and a couple of weekends ago I attended a very fun book signing at the local wine bar Soif, a fitting venue for a food centered mystery.

Sally Solari is a retired lawyer who has found herself back in the family's Italian restaurant on Santa Cruz's wharf. She's formed a close friendship with her Aunt Letta, who has otherwise moved away from the family and opened a restaurant of her own, Gauguin, which serves a more innovative menu than the traditional Solari's.

But the opening pages of the novel reveal that Aunt Letta has been stabbed to death in her own restaurant, and her head chef is the prime suspect. Sally can't believe this of Javier, who was more like an adopted son to Letta than an employee, and soon finds herself involved in trying to prove him innocent.

Over the course of the novel, Sally discovers that the aunt she thought she knew so well hadn't shared many aspects of her past with her niece. Turns out there are plenty of other suspects that might let Javier off the hook.

In an interview Karst did with our local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, she refers to the book as a "snarky cozy", describing it in the traditional cozy vein "but it's a little edgy." It is also a culinary mystery, finishing off with some recipes referred to in the book. At her signing, Karst mentioned that even the more casually described instances of cooking are recipes you can follow to create the items she mentions. As she holds a degree in culinary arts in addition to her law degree, I think you can take her word on that, and as someone who dined on some of her fine meals, I definitely think you should.

One of the most appealing aspects of the book for me was the way Karst nails the Santa Cruz setting, not only with many lovely descriptions of the actual environs here on the Central Coast, but also the complex dynamics of the town. Like Karst I came to college to go to the university here, and like so many others, we never really left. But beyond the university and the more liberal aspects of the town, there has always been an older layer, and Karst nicely captures the longstanding Italian-American community here, whose  hard work in the fishing and canning industries  long predates the coming of the university. And "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" is not the credo of all it's citizens.

Dynamics around food issues and animal activism also play a role, and in general the novel provides a nice snapshot of our cultural moment, at least as it plays out on the Left Coast.

I thoroughly enjoyed this satisfying tale, and look forward to the next, which is already in the works. Now all I have to do is find someone to cook those recipes for me...

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

I'm part of the one percent!

Okay--before you get your class hackles up, I am not (by any stretch of the imagination) a billionaire. This a different one percent. I received an email from Goodreads today, which tells me I am in the top one percent of reviewers there. This, I am absolutely certain, is a quantity rather than quality measurement, but we take what praise we can get, right? I was a bit surprised to be in this percentile, as it seems that a lot of people I am friends with over there have written a great deal more. But I assume they will all have gotten the same email. Or maybe even one that says they are in the top .5 percent or something.

Apparently, I've written 227 reviews there since I started blathering on there in August of 2008. Goodreads itself is heading toward it's fifty millionth review, so as you can see, my contribution is very small potatoes.

Goodreads also included the review I've written that has gotten the most interest. Was it for one of the many excellent mysteries I've read since signing up there? No. Was it for some lost classic that one of the several book groups I'm in have turned me on to? Nope, wrong again.

It's for Point Blank, book 2 of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider  series. Here is the review in its entirety.

I'm mildly addicted to Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series. Interesting, because they're basically spy novels, which are not really my thing, and geared toward middle school, which is, well, not my age group. And they aren't really aimed at my gender either. I just find them very fun.

My only quibble with this tale is that Horowitz descends to the all too common device of making a female villain also ludicrously ugly. It's apparently okay to incessantly mock someone's looks if they're also wicked, but unfortunately it has the effect of making moral failure and physical unattractiveness somehow equivalent. Too bad, because the appearance of this co-criminal is quite irrelevant to the story.

Fortunately, it's a minor aspect of this adventure tale of derring do.

I gave it three out of five stars.Not exactly a probing  literary essay, but I stand by it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, at Escape Into Life

I've got a post up at Escape Into Life today. It's about Elif Batuman, a Turkish-American writer who developed an unexpected passion for Russian language and literature. I wrote a bit about her reflections on this passion, but there is much more that I left out of her astute analysis of different Russian writers. The last chapter on the original The Possessed (i.e., Dostoevsky's) is particularly insightful and illustrates her idea of how books inform life and life informs our understanding of them. I've also found some cool links about Batuman's work elsewhere, which you should definitely check out, whether or not you bother to read my review.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Hanging Out With Pam and Em, part one

The reading gods strangely decreed that I should read two classics of Western literature one after the other. Although coming from different periods and written by authors of different countries, there are some interesting similarities about them. Both were written by men, featuring shall we say strong-willed female protagonists, and both broke new literary ground for the novel.

I read Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson because of a curious project a friend of mine has taken on. Because he feels that in his youth he avoided reading long books, in recent years he has tried to correct that, and occasionally succeeded in inveigling his friends into joining him in reading a series of what he calls "tomes". Different friends have responded to different lures, but through his offices I have finally tackled The Way We Live Now, Tristram Shandy, and, well, a fair amount of Humphrey Clinker. And now, Pamela. I thought I had attempted Pamela back in my college days, and was interested in completing the project. About halfway through, and somewhat to my dismay, I realized that it hadn't been Pamela at all, it had been Clarissa, Richardson's later and some say greater work. By that time, though, it was too late to back out.

Pamela, in case you have never heard of this 18th century bestseller, is a novel in letters showing the triumphant resistance (it's in the title folks, so that's no spoiler) of a very young servant girl to the unseemly advances of her late mistress's son, who has now become her master. At about the halfway point, though sensing what was coming, I was still hoping that our Pam would somehow find a musket and rid herself of her tiresome master and all his cohort, but sadly, this is not how it all works out. For me at least, Richardson manages to make the master so creepily loathsome that any redemption for him seems implausible, and unlike Mr. Darcy and all the other subsequent dark romantic heroes who finally become noble ones, Mr. B____ does not quite manage a personal transformation.

It is hard to read such a book absolutely straight, meaning as its original audience would have taken it. Pamela, in her triumph, took the world by storm. People not only read the book; there was merchandise.

As a form of the Cinderella story, and hence a prompt to upwardly mobile aspiration beyond its normal scope, it's no wonder that one Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wickedly called it "the  joy of the chambermaids of all nations."

According to the introduction to my old Signet edition by John M. Bullitt, Richardson was asked by two booksellers he knew to write a little book "for handsome girls who were obliged to go out to service ... how to avoid the snares that might be laid against their virtue." He happened to remember a true story which he had heard many years before, and so the character of Pamela sprang into life. It is safe to say that Pamela got away from him, as she does pretty much everyone in the book itself, by one means or another. Despite Richardson, she became psychologically real, a little like Pinocchio, or the Velveteen Rabbit. And the "little book" ended up being in excess of five hundred pages.

Pamela had a lot to get off her chest.

1750 portrati by Joseph Highmore

The letters and events are repetitious and go on too long. Dr.Johnson, according to Bullitt,wrote, "If you were to read Richardson for the story, your patience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself; but you must read him for the sentiment." My friend found one of the obstacles to be the way Richardson wrote dialogue in this book, which doesn't follow our modern conventions with quotation marks and distinct paragraphs, but I didn't find this a problem. I was actually rather fascinated by this alternate way that Richardson (or Pamela, since it's her letters we read)  rendered the way people speak to each other.

On the other hand, there is a tension and a nightmarish quality to the book that I found truly disturbing, while my friend found it all somewhat comical. Some of Mr. B___'s attempts on Pamela reminded him of some frat boys he had the opportunity to observe in action one summer as they schemed to assault some college girls' equivalent of virtue. Perhaps it's a difference between men and women, because Henry Fielding's short work Shamela takes Pamela to be too knowing by half. Although I don't mind the idea of parodying this work in theory, the first half of the book is about a guy holding a fifteen  year old girl completely in his power, and not really having to atone for it in the second, whatever Richardson himself may have thought about his redemption. And I found it worrying that throughout the book Pamela has absolute reliance on God to see her through. Worrying not for her, but for other girls in similar positions, who, equally virtuous, did not have such happy rewards, through no fault of their own.

My friend saw a sort of Gandhian figure in Pamela, which I found interesting. He mentioned someone saying that Gandhi couldn't have succeeded if he hadn't found in British values a line they wouldn't cross. Even Pamela's ability to faint at certain strategic moments reminded him of non-violent resistance. I'm not sure how well that strategy would have worked in real life for other Pamelas, though. As we know from the results of date rape drugs, men are not always put off by unconsciousness.

And I'm pretty sure that none of the administrators of the British Empire ever called Gandhi a "sauce-pot."

I'll take up the second book in part two.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

Today is the American launch of Rain Dogs, and if by some good fortune you happen to be in Manhattan this evening, you can actually go to a reading by the author at the Kinokuniya Bookstore. Details HERE.Yes, it's a little weird that a Northern Irish crime writer is doing a reading at a Japanese bookstore, but weird in a cool way. 

I say American launch because the British version of Rain Dogs actually came out a couple of months ago, and like so many of his fans, I couldn't be bothered to wait for the U.S. edition, so read it awhile ago. I don't see any huge harm in starting with this book, but the fact is that this is a series, and if possible, you should start with The Cold, Cold Ground and work your way forward. Although the books are dense with all sorts of allusions, half of which go right over my head, they are actually very fast reads, so it won't take you long. 

The series follows the adventures of Sean Duffy, Catholic police detective on a largely Protestant Northern Irish police force, through the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Rain Dogs brings us up to 1987. I'll save talking about the opening till last, but Duffy's personal life is yet again on the downspin, as Beth, the girl who's recently moved in with him, is very decisively moving out. Duffy, who can be morose at the best of times, isn't taking this too well. Although I won't say that he doesn't have time to worry about that, because, being Duffy, he manages to find some, most of it is quickly taken up with two cases--an irritating theft in a local hotel, which unfortunately involves some badly needed international investors, and a much more consequential death at Carrickfergus Castle (which may be more familiar to you in its alternate incarnation in the television production of The Game of Thrones). And it isn't long before the maddening possibility emerges that this may be a locked room mystery murder.

Maddening, because Duffy has already solved another locked room mystery during a previous case in In the Morning I'll Be Gone. And what are the odds that he'd run across another in his lifetime? Luckily for him, his junior partner, Alex Lawson (who McKinty completists will already know from the standalone Hidden River) has the math on that.

I happen to have read the opening of this book several times, because McKinty put up the beginning chapter and then chapters on his blog, and of course, I then started over when I read the book. In it Duffy once again manages to find himself in the presence of a celebrity of that time. In an alternate universe, it might actually have happened...

Here is McKinty reading that opening scene from the first chapter:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Way We Live Now, again

Far be it from me to turn this book review blog into a political commentary, but after just watching a segment on Lawrence O'Donnell on a shady Trump deal in Mexico, I just have to say that a Donald Trump was foreseen by Anthony Trollope in The Way We Live Now when he created the character Melmotte, who enters the political realm in England from a vague but somehow glamorous business past. Everyone is enamored with his wealth, but  he eventually learns that politics may be a step too far. He even has a shady railroad deal out in the American West, which proves to be more than questionable.

Read your classics, people. It could serve you in good stead in areas you least expect it...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

I first made the acquaintance of Tom Crowley as a mystery writer, not a memoirist. He was attending the 2014 Bouchercon in Long Beach and we started up a conversation on that first evening, which ultimately led to my reading the first of his Matt Chance mystery novels, Viper's Tail, which I reviewed here at Not New For Long a while ago. One of the things that I found interesting about that book was how Matt's former life as a soldier came through and affected his choices in the present.

So it was with great interest that I read Crowley's account of his own experience as a 'grunt' in Vietnam. In his forward, Crowley writes about the niche he is trying to fill with this account. He says that there are autobiographies by authentic war heroes,  and there are books by war correspondents, often excellent, but not really reflecting the day to day life of the soldier on the ground. Crowley wanted to speak for the many combat veterans who for the most part haven't really spoken out about their experiences. As Crowley himself found, it is no easy thing to do to revisit traumatic memories long enough to write about them.

Crowley came into the war before our national disillusionment about it had set in, so despite being pressured into service by the looming specter of the draft, he was able to enlist on his own terms. As someone who came of age in the years of protest, it was interesting to me to read of how army life was experienced before the corrosion of trust had set in. Crowley shows  himself to be molded in a particular American grain by resolving early on to do his best, to make the most of it, and even the grueling boot camp days and officer's training he seems to have taken more as a challenge and actually enjoyed. And once given a platoon on the ground in Vietnam, he takes his responsibilities seriously.

Although Crowley claims to be no hero, he does prove himself to be a leader of men, and is conscientious and resourceful in the way he treats the soldiers under him. One short maxim which was passed on to him by a more seasoned soldier as he was about to take up his command was one that I have actually tried to integrate into my own life a little more since reading this book, though admittedly in situations where the stakes aren't anywhere as high. "If you think it, do it." The idea here was that even if you and your troops are bone tired from marching down some trail all day, trying to stay alert for ambushes, if you think to set up a perimeter that can be guarded, you should do even if every bone in your body just wants to rest.

Countering this American resoluteness and ingenuity, though, is a growing sense of how the war is really being played and by whom, and the career military takes some heavy criticism as the book progresses. Decisions are made by higher ups for political reasons that have nothing to do with the troops on the ground but only the generals' long term career aims. Although, Crowley is restrained in his expression of this, it does come through all the same.

I am not normally a student of the history of the Vietnam war, knowing just famous names and battles, the tunnels of Cuchi and other things that are part of our vague cultural associations with the place. So one thing that surprised me was to learn that for the most part, the Vietnam was fought by soldiers who were only there on a one year tour of duty (long enough, obviously, if you were one of the soldiers.) But this set up a dynamic where the North Vietnamese were steadily watching and learning about their opponents, while the Americans were inevitably always learning everything all over again. Although perhaps this doesn't mean the American mission was doomed from the start, it's certainly one scenario that can't help crossing one's mind.

This is a fast, absorbing read even if you aren't a vet or someone passionate about reading war history. It succeeds in interesting us in the life of one foot soldier who perhaps isn't as ordinary as he claims to have been, but nevertheless experienced what many, many young men did in that war and helps us to understand it better. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

I was intrigued with the premise of this book after reading about it recently on Rob Kitchin's blog, The View from the Blue House. Rob writes admirably concise, fair and nonspoilerish reviews of crime fiction and you should check out his blog if you need some recs, as he covers a wide swath of territory.

"Slow horses" is what the book's  elite spy world calls fellow spies who have been put out to pasture but refuse to quite die. Usually their banishment is due to some screw-up that can't be swept under the carpet. The case of River Cartwright, who leads us into this world, is given as an opening example. Then we're introduced to Slough House, the refuge for these ne'er-do-wells, and the punning source of the failed spies' nickname. Let's  just say the place has no resemblance to MI-5 headquarters and that's putting it mildly.

I like Herron's description of the particular hell that these people, once members of the best and the brightest, find themselves in. Their actual jobs are no more boring than a lot of people's work is, but it's the haunting sense of what could have been but for one slip, one lapse, one indiscretion that makes this a purgatory for them. As in Dante's description of hell, there is no camaraderie, as everyone is both too preoccupied with themselves and too aware of their neighbors' failures to reach out to each other. However, a kidnapping is about to change all that.

The subsequent story is nice and twisty, and although some of the twists can be foreseen once you get the way Herron's plotting works, I still found a few clever surprises. And the author is successful in keeping a large cast of characters distinguishable from each other and giving them all their own story arc and the story unfolds nicely.

As I may have mentioned a time or two before, I do love me a good London novel, and as Slow Horses takes place almost entirely within its environs, it fit the bill for me on that level too.

Slow Horses is the first of a series and I happen to have a galley of the second, Dead Lions, which I'd picked up just because of the Soho imprint.

Lucky me. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

A Good Man in Africa at Escape Into Life

My review of Willam Boyd's first novel, winner of the Whitbread Prize and the Somerset Maugham award, is up at Escape Into Life. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Call Me Ishmael

I'm a little behind on the reviewing end of things here, but that doesn't mean I don't have news. I just got an email from Poets and Writers magazine this afternoon about an innovative and book related idea. It's called Call Me Ishmael. Apparently, if you happen to be in one of a few select but soon to be expanded places, you will see an old-fashioned rotary phone and  that phone might start ringing. When you pick up the receiver, someone will tell you about a book they read that's had a major impact on their life. From what I understand of it, the idea is a little bit like Storycorps, where "ordinary people" tell some key story from their lives. Only this one is all about books.

If you don't see any old style phones  near you, fear not. You can also just go to the Call Me Ishmael website and watch an old-fashioned typewriter type out someone's message as they speak it. New features apparently weekly. At the bottom of that page, you will find the steps that you too can use to tell a story about a book you loved.