Thursday, December 5, 2013

Broken kids, broken families

LIVE TO TELL By: Lisa Gardener ISBN: 0553807242, Recorded from:, New York : Bantam Books, c2010 I read a lot, and usually, I can finish a book, decide it’s worth talking about and put it in my list for later Blog posts. However, every once in a long while, a book slips inside my personal “reading” space, and finds me where I “live”. I don’t always recognize what’s happening until the very end, although there are some signs deferring things such as food and sleep so I can keep reading. I certainly know it *has* happened, though, as soon as I read the last word. For a moment, I find myself a little breathless, a little dizzy, an “shell shocked” enough that forming simple mental sentences is difficult. It never lasts long, maybe for the space of an in drawn breath, and with my “wow” or “oh, my god” on the exhale, I’m released. I can’t altogether define what is required for such an effect, either. Sometimes it is writing that is so astoundingly lovely that the urge is to read sentence by sentence, practically memorizing each sentence, then writing them down, to be considered separately, with the same attention one would give, say to a haiku. Usually, though I think it’s a combination of writing, plot, character development, the handling of themes or issues …which all coalesce into something close to miraculous for me, takes away my breath, my words and my thoughts for a time, and leaves me enriched beyond measure. Such a book was Live to Tell by Lisa Gardener. It is one of the earlier D. D. Warren books, and I’ve read and liked other books in the series, but this one …got me good, so to speak. It has all the things one expect from Lisa Gardener, excellent writing, great characters, some of whom you love, some of whom you love to hate, and a plot that builds and builds and then glues you to your seat and the book. So …what was special about this book? In this book, the plot revolves around very troubled children and the ways in which they are both destroyed and helped. We don’t usually think of mental illness in terms of very young children, but it exists, and the author shows its extremely dark side with incredible vividness, but she also shows those health care specialists who are in the trenches, fighting with indomitable courage to help and hopefully to help save these little ones. Both stories are profoundly moving, and the children themselves break my heart and make me want to scoop them up and hug them at the same time. Added to the usually riveting plot, and the characters who walk off the page and stay for dinner (and if you’re going to cook for D. D. Warren, be prepared to cook a *lot*), this is one of those books that have changed me just a little, and this book is now a part of what I sometimes think of as my mental DNA.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dark legacies

THE NIGHT BEFORE By: Lisa Jackson ISBN: 0821769367, New York : Kensington, c2003. Savannah GA, one of the 3 cities not destroyed during the Civil War, is an ideal setting for this suspense novel. This city seems to lend itself to tales of suspense, dark, tangled mysteries involving ancient, deadly family secrets or the supernatural. One gets the feeling that no one ever quite walks alone here; that eyes are watching in the darkness, and that, just beneath the beauty of this town of the very old South, there is seething decadence, filled with shadowy surprises. I think this novel could only have taken place here, and it certainly contains all the elements one would expect; an old and aristocratic family, a mansion made more fascinating by its age and disrepair, interlocked, twisted lives and even more twisted minds, intricately plotted unsolved murders, and a whole large closet full of very dark family skeletons. Savannah is, however, also a modern city, and against this dark, decadent, fascinating background, modern people try to live open “normal” lives, and a modern police force attempts to use up to date techniques to unravel the past. That unraveling is part of the satisfaction this book provides, but the real strengths of this novel are the presentation of the environment in which it is set, and in the extremely careful and skillful character development. Many of these characters have very serious issues and pathologies, and the author develops each in such a way that those flaws, and in some cases, those flaws are extremely dangerous, that the internal landscapes of the characters are as much a part of the suspense as is the action described by the plot. In many ways, this is one of those books best read in full sunlight, and following its twists and turns requires the same care one would use in trying to find one’s way out of a labyrinth, but, by the end, all mysteries are resolved, all questions answered, and, like sunlight after a summer storm, the reader closes the book with a feeling of hope for the future of some of the characters who have suffered so much.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Lady of Distinction

A LADY OF DISTINCTION There are some fictional characters who have become so famous in their own rights that they step from the pages of their books and become part of our cultural lexicon. I remember reading a comment made by Harlan Ellison once that Sherlock Holmes and Super Man should be added to Jungian archtypes, because they have become part of our universal consciousness. There are other characters who, though not so universally known, are so well known by those who read the series in which they predominate, that they are often thought of, and are spoken of, not as characters but in the same ways we speak of friends or acquaintances. This is especially true among fans of a particular series, but a few are even more well known than the series in which they were created. It is one of these I’d like to talk about, for a while. David Weber created an excellent SF series, revolving around the life and career of Dame Honor Harrington, and it is she who I’d like to discuss for a bit. I became acquainted with her series some years ago, and I’m allowing myself the self indulgence of re-reading this group of excellent books, which begin with “on Basilisk Station”. The books are well worth reading, and, perhaps when I’ve finished all of them, I’ll discuss them. However, Dame Honor is so well developed that she has, at least for me, acquired many aspects of individuality that make hre feel “real” to me, at least mentally and emotionally, even though I am well aware that she is a figment of the vivid imagination of an extremely skillful author. Yes, I like and admire Honor. She’s the kind of person who I’d love to be able to invite to my home for dinner and an evening of conversation, and she has character traits that I value and admire. In fact, if she existed off the page, she’s the kind of person whose friendship I’d highly value. She is intelligent, decisive, observant, can think logically, and is deeply compassionate. She will perform her duty, always, and she knows, and willingly pays, the price that sometimes involves. For a military commander, that price is measured not only by the lives of her enemies, but by the lives lost of her crew, and sometimes of her friends. She isn’t unbelieveably brave or “perfect”, and therein lies her deep humanity. Sometimes, she questions herself, and her right to do what she does, in the most basic of moral and ethical terms. Sometimes, she’s scared nearly to death, fears that she’s made the wrong decisions, and she knows that, in battle, especially in space, the most hostile of environments, mistakes lead to absolute distruction. Yet, for all that, she forces her way through, does the absolute best she can, and accepts the results … and to my mind, *that* is one of the ultimate tests of an individuals’s strength. Yet, she does not lack humor, nor does she force herself not to care about the people around her. She can laugh, even at herself, and her friends probably outnumber her admirers (and there are many of those). In short, Dame Honor Harrington is such a beautifully created character that the books about her become, unintendedly, (and that is how it must be to work) the backgrounds against which she is painted.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

let me go a-wandering

THE OLD WAYS: A JOURNEY ON FOOT By: Robert Macfarlane and Robin Sachs ISBN: 9781470816919, Reissue of:, [Ashland, OR] : Blackstone Audio,p2012 There, sometimes, books that are so beautiful that they burrow their way into me, and make a nest in my soul. This is such a book. It is, ostensibly, the story of a walk through most of Europe, into the Middle East and into Asia, and it is that. That story is fascinating in its own right, filled with delightful characters and intriguing landscapes, history and folklore. But it is different from most travel journals, because this walk was made not on roads, but on the paths made, step by step, over centuries of use. Some were intended to herd animals, some as shortcuts, but each path, in its own way, was a spontaneous reaction to the needs of the people who lived there, and took little, if any account of Governments or traffic patterns. Along the way, the authors discuss sea lanes (again, not the formal ones, but those made by the sea itself, and the imperatives of those who derived their living from it. We are also given a glimpse of skyways, primarily those used by migrating birds. This is a book of motion, and of deep introspection on a wide range of subjects. It is the story of people, each of whom offers something unique and wonderful to the reader, if not the world, and most important, it is a reverent celebration of the beauty and diversity of the Earth on which we live. The writing is so exquisite that I often felt I was reading a book length poem, and I often had to stop reading for a time to contemplate an image or a sentence. It is a slow read, or should be, with ample time taken for appreciation and thought, because one of the things this book does is encourage the reader to examine and follow his/her internal paths, those made by experience or memory, and the reader is encouraged, by the very nature of this book, to meander far and wide. I found this book so richly dense that I couldn’t just sit down and read it through, as I usually do, but had to read some, think some, read something else for a bit so that I could digest what turned out to be a banquet, then come back to it. As I said, this book will stay with me for a very long time, and I find that, in the way of truly fine books, it has changed my perspective of things in subtle ways.

Friday, November 22, 2013

High School Friends ...

NEVER TELL A LIE By: Hallie Nephron ISBN: 9780061567155, Recorded from:, New York, NY : William Morrow, c2009 This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and, while she hasn’t sailed right on to my personal A list, I’d certainly be willing to read more of her work, although I won’t hunt it down. This is the type of tight little mystery/suspense novel that is perfect for a rainy (or snowy) afternoon, accompanied by appropriate food and drink. Cocoa and gingerbread come to mind, but that is a highly personal consideration. A warm afghan or quilt to burrow into would be appropriate, as would a kitty ensconced in lap. The story is part mystery, part suspense novel, and part psychological study, and all are nicely balanced. The author knows how to build suspense, how to gradually increase it, until the final scenes, which defy interruption by just about anything. The characters are nicely drawn, particularly the main characters, and the writing is brisk, spare but entirely effective. There are some extremely unusual twists, though once they occur, they make perfect sense, and the reader realizes things almost *had* to be the way they were, because one of the problems with living in the town where one grows up is that, eventually, past foolishness can come back to haunt, occasionally in extremely lethal and twisted ways.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A matter of motivation

BELIEVING THE LIE By: Elizabeth George ISBN: 0525952586, Recorded from:, New York : Dutton, 2012 I have always found that this author and Ruth Rendell have very similar styles, though, of course, they also each have their own distinctive voices. But, in my mental reading shorthand, this is a Rendellesque novel, so I expected, and got, several things. All of the elements of a good mystery are most certainly there; there is the crime, (or … is there?), there are the investigators and the suspects (who keep popping their heads up for inclusion at unlikely times and there is the evidence, both circumstantial and physical. However, George, like Rendell is as interested in human motivations and relationship dynamics as she is in what was don’t, to whom and by who. So, in a story which is as much character driven as plot driven, everyone, including the investigators, come under Ms. George’s microscope. Each person in the story has something to contribute, and something to hide, and in digging around for those hidden things, some of which become crucial, the investigators open all sorts of Pandora’s boxes, some of which belong, not to the suspects, but to the investigators. This is not a fast paced action filled read. Instead, it is a leisurely stroll through the hearts, minds and motivations of several people, and a map of how each person connects and interacts with, each other in what is, to put it mildly, a dysfunctional family. When the dust finally settles, not only do we see each person reflected in a very honest and unflattering mirror, but each person knows far more about themselves. Sometimes this is a positive thing, leading, it would seem to increased wisdom, and sometimes, they are forced to confront their own venality, greed and/or emotional neediness, and no, they aren’t pleased; but I, the reader was. There is the crux of the matter, and the central question. “was a specific death by drowning an accident, or was it murder? Everything else spins off that question, and as the investigators become familiar with each family member, they realize that each had valid motives to hate, if not to murder, the victim, and that, just beneath the wealthy, civilized vaneer that this family presents to the world, there is a whole graveyard of skeletons, some of which are extremely destructive, and all of which, in the end are retrieved and examined. But investigators are people, too …and no investigator can entirely set aside his/her humanity when on the job. In this case, some very hot buttons get pushed about as hard as is possible, and by the end, some of the investigators aren’t sure whether they have done more harm than good, and neither are we. As in any examination of any group of people, we find that they are neither all “good” or all “evil” (altough 2 of them come close to that). As in life, each person is some of both, drivin by their needs and desires, and usually focused on their own imperatives, and that applies to suspects and investigators alike. Ms. George is masterful in handling this, never over or under stating her points, so that, while the portraits she draws are entirely accurate and believable, they are never characatures or cartoons. This is not, as some books are, a gathering of the nasty and malicious, however. There are characters with whom we can unabashedly and wholeheartedly sympathize, not as the lesser of several evils, but as good people in situations that force them to examine themselves and others, and make sometimes difficult choices that will effect themselves and others, and they do …and they do it right, in my opinion. This author’s writing is a joy to read, because it is always meticulous, sometimes evocatively beautiful, and, when appropriate emotionally devastating. She always takes her time, and never glosses over details. For that reason, her characters are well rounded and fully developed, her scenes are lovingly and richly set, and her landscapes are profoundly alive. This book is set in the lake district of England, which can appear lovely and benign, and turn quickly into something as erie and lethal as the best Romantic Gothic novel setting with its deadly, shifting sands and tidal bores. All in all, this book is a reading feast, on all levels.

Monday, November 18, 2013

malicious flames

PYRO By Earl Emerson ISBN: 0345462882, New York : Ballantine Books, c2004. Firefighters and law enforcement officers of any stripe or agency have always had, and always will have, a very special place in my heart. No doubt this stems from the fact that I have both in my family. My Grandfather was a volunteer firefighter for many, many years, and I vaguely remember, as a very little girl, being allowed, (under very *very* close supervision) to crawl over, and climb around on one of the firetrucks his company used. He understood that I “see” by touch, and he always made sure (occasionally by bullying) that I got the chance as often as possible. So, it isn’t surprising that I enjoy books about firefighting, and the people who do it. This book is no exception, especially since the story is actually several stories in one. First, it is the tale of an arsonist, the damage he did, and the methods by which that damage was controlled and conquered. One learns a lot about techniques and even more about the dangers these brave men and women face, sometimes on a daily basis. Some of this is fairly graphic and specific, and, if you have a good imagination as I do, by the time the smoke clears, you are *entirely* glad you are just reading about, and not experiencing what Is described. The book is, however, the story of a family which was destroyed by the actions of an arsonist, and by one man, who had to confront lifelong emotional and psychological issues, before they destroyed him. The 3rd story is about Fire Department politics and bureaucracy, at its very best, and at its very worst, and about the way a firehouse functions, in very human terms. The final story is really a character study of a long time arsonist, and we get to see how he functions, what he feels, how he thinks, and eventually, how he self destructs. All 3 stories are told simultaneously, and are so intertwined that they cannot be entirely sepearated, and the result is a very fast paced, exciting and, ultimately, emotionally satisfying book. The writing is extremely good, with vivid descriptions, and technical detail handled in such a way that it help the reader understand what is happening and why, without bogging the reader down with too much detail. I’m not sure how this is set up in print, but the book is narrated by several people, alternatively. There may be spacing in print that makes this easy to follow, but if you are listening to the book, as I did, it can initially be more than a little confusing; so here’s a hint that I found helpful, and may help other readers to acclimate more quickly. The first thing to remember is that the narrative of the main character is not identified. That is done only when another character is speaking, and until you realize that, it is easy to think there is only 1 person narrating, and since each narration may well involve perspective changes, and contain information that other characters can’t possibly know, it can be disorienting. The clue is that each narration is like a chapter, with a title for the narration, and if not the main character’s is preceeded by “according to …. “. The reader does not make much of a distinction between voices, though once yu get into the book, you do see subtle pace and tonal changes that give good clues, and they are always consistent with each character. More to the point, the author distinguishes each voice using speech patterns, rhythms, and idiom. This makes every character have a unique voice, and once you learn them, the author could omit the identification and the narrator could omit the voice distinctions, and you’d still know who is talking. I enjoyed this book for its plot, its character development, and for its writing skill.

Down an ugly rabbit hole!

ALICE IN JEOPARDY By: Ed McBain ISBN: 0743262506, New York : Simon & Schuster, c2005., Ed McBain has been an icon in the world of mystery fiction for, almost, as long as I have been alive, and I won’t even try to begin to list either his accomplishments or contributions to this genre. I became acquainted with his writing through his 87th Precinct novels, which I have always dearly loved, and while I’m not as well acquainted with his other series or stand alone novels, I do know 2 things. If I find a book written by this author, I will read, and there is a 99.99999% chance that I will love it. This is a standalone novel, and, while it doesn’t have the intensity of the 87th Precinct books, at least not until the breathtaking climax, it has that special McBain touch. The story is told with just a touch of tongue in cheek humor that pokes gentle fun at everybody, law enforcement, the FBI, the villains, and even the victims. I can’t think of another author who can turn a dangerous situation into a comedy of errors without destroying its lethal seriousness, then with what *should* have been an expected plot twist (and never is) untangle what has become the mother of all Gordian knots into a single strand so strong that it supports everything, until he ties it all up with a neat bow. The characters in the book are, as always, quirky enough to be very recognizable and believable. Each of them is complicated enough to be 3 dimensional, and there are no stereotypes, not even among the minor characters. This author also has a grasp of dialog and human speech patterns that are sometimes amazing. He can portray a conversation between multiple participants in such a way that even though it is being read by one person, it reads like the free for all such conversations have. He can do the same when people are talking at cross purposes, not listening, interrupting one another to finish a sentence, and the result is a piece of writing that is layered and multi-dimensional. The best part, of course, is that all of us have been in such conversations, so what at first glimpse might *seem* chaotic and unnatural resolves itself into entirely recognizable speech patterns. This author writes with a “light hand” in that his writing is never pretentious, self conscious or obviously “literary”. It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss it as merely adequate to tell a story. Oh, it does *that* impeccably, but the writing is strong enough and subtle enough, to support what is being written about, on all levels, without overwhelming the subjects under scrutiny. This, to me, is one of the marks of the finest authors, and, to my mind, Ed McBain could hold his own in any writing style or venue. In fact, I have sometimes had the thought that even his grocery lists would make good reading!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Of Dynasties and Kings

WE SPEAK NO TREASON By: Rosemary Hawley Jarman ISBN: 0515085677, Boston, Little, Brown, 1977, c1971. , Many years ago, I happened to read a very sympathetic biography of Richard III, and it changed my view of him, permanently. Unfortunately, I can no longer remember either the title of the book, nor the author. However, it was comprehensive and beautifully written, and, in the introduction, the author presented a case for King Richard’s innocence so well, that it made far more sense to me than the usual perspective most people have of that king, based primarily on the writings of the Tudors (who conquered and destroyed him) and Shakespeare’s play. When I found a recorded copy of We Speak No Treason, I thought this was the book I remembered, and decided to revisit it. I was wrong, however, though it deals with the same subject, the presentation, if not the slant, is entirely different. However, I was certainly not disappointed. This is also a wonderful book, which tells the story of Richard’s life, not directly, but as he, and the events of his life, affected 3 people with whom he interacted closely. It also tells the stories of these people, and so, in the end, we have a vivid, fascinating, and complex picture of a critical time in the history of England, and we see the ending of one dynasty and the founding of the next. Each character (and there are many) is carefully and lovingly drawn, and since sometimes we see pieces of the same event from the perspectives of more than 1 person, we are given a fairly panoramic view of the reign of Edward IV and later the reign and death of Richard. By the end of the book, we have come to care for these people, to understand them, and often to sympathize with them, well, I did, at least. The writing is close to exquisite, presenting Medieval England in such 3 dimensional terms that I could easily lose track of exactly where I was in time and space. For those who find this period of history interesting, I would have to classify this as a “you won’t regret reading” book, but I do suggest that if you haven’t, that you read a good history of the period from the beginning of Edward IV’s reign to the end of Richard’s reign at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. If you don’t have at least a basic straightforward idea of what happened, this book could become extremely confusing, because, like life, this tale is not always tidy in its presentation; and therein, I think, lies much of its charm. We don’t “see” events, but we live them, as though we were experiencing them in company with the person currently telling his or her story.

Friday, November 15, 2013

murder, drugs, and smuggling

THE BLACK WIDOW’S WARDROBE By: Lucha Copri • ISBN: 1558852883, Houston, Tex. : Arte Público Press, c1999. Have you ever started reading a book which has been classified as being in one genre, to discover that, while the classification may be correct, the real interest of the book has little to do with its specified intent? This is one of those books, and even though the mystery isn’t the most interesting element of the story, I found it worth reading for another, unexpected reason. The story is told by, and set in the environment and culture of, the Mexican-American (or Chicano) community. Even better, it is approached from that point of view. I know far more about other immigrant communities and cultures, and while it is always best to learn from personal interaction, this book gave me a glimpse into the culture, and one bit of insight that I find invaluable. The book is set in California and Mexico, and, even with the mildly supernatural elements, the story, including the mystery is believable. Along the way, we learn some probably less well known Mexican history, get to “visit” a beautiful and moving “Day of the Dead” celebration, and meet some delightful characters. The culture is described so naturally and unpretentiously that it is simply the background setting of the story: yet also because of this naturalness, it is more easy to see, and begin, at least, to try to understand, cultural expectations and assumptions different from those with which a reader deals on an everyday basis. All in all, I’m glad to have found this author, and I expect to find, and read, more of her work.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The duties of a lady of quality

ETIQUETTE AND ESPIONAGE By Gail Carriger ISBN: 9781619693166, New York, N.Y. : Hachette Audio, [2013], p2013., I am just beginning to discover Steam Punk, and, so far, I am finding it delightful. I love the idea of inserting elements of fantasy and unhistorical technological advancement into a familiar historical setting. There is a certain whimsical charm in imagining dirigibles floating over Victorian or Edwardian England, while “ladies of quality” learn the fine points of appropriate mannerly behavior, conduct, and, oh yes, along the way, how to efficiently spy, manipulate, commit espionage and kill …with nothing more lethal than a pair of embroidery scissors or eyebrow tweezers. Throw in some vampires and weir wolves (who have found places in polite society), and what you get is a part fantasy, part spy story, part mystery romp through time and space. This is the first of 2 books, which introduces us to a definitely off kilter but marvelous world, replete with political machinations, evil scientific geniuses, unexpected but believable (mostly) inventions, a flying school, duchesses, heiresses, marriage games, and a climax that has all the exuberance and silliness of the very best slapstick comedy. The characters are sometimes too zany to be real, though by the end of the book, I found myself accepting them, perhaps because the central characters are *very* believable, and often sympathetic. The plot is …well, a cross between a roller coaster and a mostly harmless fun house ride, and the colorful writing holds it all together, making the reader forget some of it makes absolutely no sense until the last page has been turned or the last word heard. This book, and its sequel, Curtseys and Conspiracies, don’t have a serious bone in their decorated petticoated (with horsehair petticoats, thank you very much) bodies. They don’t make the reader contemplate Universal truths (well, not many, though they do raise issues involving the nature of friendship and loyalty), or provide much insight into society. But like the nicest meringue, they melt on the mind, leaving a very satisfyingly sweet taste on the palette.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The War to end all wars ...and murder

A TEST OF WILLS By: Charles Todd, author ISBN: 9780062091611, New York : Harper, 2011., This is the first book in a series that follows the career and life of Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard, a recently returned WWI veteran. As often happens, this is a wonderful series to read, and a challenging one to discuss, because of its complexity, its depth and it’s broad and beautifully drawn setting, physically, psychologically and emotionally. First, though, these are traditional mysteries. The case is meticulously developed, usually through interviews and less formal discussions with involved people. We see each puzzle piece as it is discovered, examined and carefully placed in its position, sometimes correctly, sometimes not (at least, not at first). For those of us who are used to the adrenalin rush of fast action thrillers, this book may feel like a “slow” read, and, in a way it is; but its satisfaction comes from the painstaking search for, and final discovery of the truth of what happened. But this book is much, much more. It is also the story of a terrible war, its aftermath, and its lasting effects on all levels. WWI, perhaps more than any previous war, shattered society, culture, nations, and the lives of individuals, soldiers and civilians alike. We become intimately acquainted with one such soldier, Ian Rutledge, who came home shell shocked, and is still haunted, not just by what he experienced, but by the effects of something he had to do. He is deeply wounded, spiritually and psychologically, by nightmares, by terrible claustrophobia, and by what could be either a mental construction, a sort of hallucination, or something else …but he does not live alone in his mind, and the one who shares it is part enemy, part conscience, and, increasingly, part partner. Inspector Rutledge must solve a case whose solution could have serious political consequences, even destroy his career, and at the same time, he must come to terms with his internal “ghost”. He does, as we might expect, and, along the way, we observe the effects of a war in which most of Europe lost a generation of young men in the space of 4 years has had on those who are left. This book is as intricate and as well planned as one of those jigsaw puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces which, when assembled produce a picture. It is that assembly process, with all its differing components that makes it, and the other books in this series fascinating for me. Each incident and each character has an important place, and also connects to other incidents and characters to form the entire piece. While this is not consciously a literary novel, it is so beautifully written that, without overwhelming the reader, it forms very solid foundation and frame into which all the elements come together.

Monday, July 1, 2013

taken unaware

I will freely own to emotional reactions, to books, songs, movies, even (heaven help me) TV shows. A touching or even a blatantly sentimental scene can bring a tear or so, and I usually know very well I’m being “played” and smile sheepishly while the tears trickle down my cheeks. There are other reactions, though. I well remember being grateful that I watched Schindeler’s List in the comfort of my own home, because I wept helplessly through it, and this time, the reaction was more than trivial. Usually, I know when such things are coming, but once in a while, a book will ambush me and take me completely by surprise. I do *not* expect to be completely undone while reading a frothy Phryne Fisher novel, for all love! I’ve been reading some of the later books in this charming series, and it is “growing up” in terms of the seriousness with which it is treating some very delicate issues, but it is still light, though enjoyable and satisfying fare. Imagine my surprise then, when, while reading “Queen of Flowers” to find myself, not with a tear in y eye, but weeping! This was not a pathetic or sad incident, but one that portrayed incredible bravery, compassion and promise. War is a terrible thing, (and I seem to have been reading a lot of WWI novels recently), and all too often terrible wounds blight the lives of very young men who end up not just horribly hurt but tossed aside, from society, from friends, and even from those from whom they should have been able to expect love and support. So, to read of how one such mold wasn’t just broken but utterly shattered, completely undid me. Sometimes, though, I have come to learn that the tears that fall so freely and irrationally are expressions of gratitude and hope, because I am reminded that, with all our faults, my species is still capable of empathy and a kind of unconditional love.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

the joys of local color

I recently finished one of the Hamish Macbeth novels by M. C. Beaton, this time Death of a Village (ISBN: 0892966777, Recorded from:, New York : Mysterious Press, c2003). I would classify these as light cozy mysteries, since the mysteries are fun, sometimes a bit complicated, but certainly less than totally engrossing. The characters are far more fun, as is the rather gentle humor. The real reason I keep coming back to visit Hamish, though, is the setting. M. C. Beaton has one of the most finely honed senses of place I’ve ever come across. The Scottish Highlands village of Lochdubh has become very familiar territory, and I would fully expect to be able to find anything I wanted if I were to be set down there (though that would have to be a magical process). I’d also know most of the people who live there, at least the “regulars” like Angela, the doctor’s wife, with her rather unique cooking and many cats, the Minister’s wife (from whom I would probably try to hide), the gossiping twins, and all the rest. The magic of these books, for me, is the village where much of the action takes place, and even when Hamish is working elsewhere, it is still the home of these novels. It is lovingly portrayed in all seasons, in its beauty, in its storms, and in its damp and muddy chill. While reading any book in this series, I can feel the strong pulse of the village around me, and I can bring it quickly to mind, even long after finishing a Hamish Macbeth mystery. The portrait of Lochdubh is vibrant and loving, but it is also realistic. The author avoids the trap of idealization, and it is this avoidance, I think, which makes Lochdubh feel almost like a 2nd home. In fact, don’t I own or rent a cottage there? If I did, it would be within walking distance to the harbor wall, where I would most like sit for contented hours, enjoying loch and village. Then I’d probably get dressed up a bit and stroll over to the Italian restaurant to have some excellent food and a visit with Willie and Lucia, then to the pub, just to see who’s around. This is all fanciful, I know, but M. C. Beaton makes such fancies charmingly easy.

Monday, June 24, 2013

From Dirk to Jack ...

I recently finished Tom Clancy’s Threat Vector, and coming soon after reading Clive Cussler’s Atlantis Found, I found myself thinking about both authors and their books. Perhaps I’ve got a basket of mixed fruit here, but …since I enjoy both, for different reasons, I’ll follow this train of thought, and see if I can get a nice fruit salad out of it. Where the Dirk Pitt books are pure and wonderful thriller opera, having less to do with reality than the allure of nail biting adventure, Tom Clancy’s fiction, especially the Jack Ryan series, while containing a plentiful helping of nail biting adventure, are also, and perhaps primarily, texts on technology (I won’t even go there, since I’m emphatically unqualified to talk about such things) and global politics. Both authors know how to tell a good story, and have been telling good stories for a very long time …may they live long, prosper, and *write*! Both authors have created excellent leading and supporting characters, people you would recognize immediately if you met them, and people with whom I could easily imagine having very interesting conversations, though I expect they would find me very boring, indeed. Both series show these characters developing, maturing, succeeding, making mistakes, and fighting their battles, public and personal, as best they can. Both authors write wonderful fight scenes, whether on the ground, underneath the ocean or in the sky, and Tom Clancy includes all the technical information a reader needs to understand how everything is done, and exactly why what happens happens. I read both authors for some of the same reasons, and enjoy both for their ability to create rousing adventure tales, but if the Dirk Pitt books can be compared to excellent mind candy, then the Jack Ryan books are a mind banquet, with several courses and appropriate vintage wines. One of the things I love about the Jack Ryan series is the grasp and explication of politics and diplomacy on a global level. This is accomplished while we are watching Jack Sr. learn how to first become an intelligence operative, then an intelligence administrator, and, finally, President of the United States. We learn while he learns, and the “dance” performed by the leaders and Governments of the world is intricate, complicated, ever changing, and absolutely fascinating to this reader. Tom Clancy is as comfortable describing the machinations of Governments (or those within them who are trying to supplant the Governments for their own purposes) as he is in describing how a fighter jet or submarine works. He also has the ability to make such complex material understandable to the layman, and I always come away from reading one of his books with a broadened perspective and a greater understanding of how the world works and how those in power do what they do. I also feel as though I’ve “checked in” with friends I’ve known for years; after all, I remember when Jack, Jr. was a little boy, and his sister a babe in arms, and I’ve seen Jack and Kathy through marital crises, illnesses, and difficult career choices. More to the point, I have come to like and respect this family, and their friends, regardless of the fact that they exist only in the pages of fiction. While I thoroughly enjoy my time with Dirk, Al, the Admiral, and the other characters in the Dirk Pitt series, I find it far easier to “confine” them to their proper books, because they seem bigger than life. They are believable in most ways, but somehow, like James Bond, they are not quite believable.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mental vacation destinations

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books and reading. When I was tiny, my Grandmother was almost always available to read to me, sometimes from the little children’s books that predominated in my toy chest, but sometimes, she would read things that were supposed to be beyond my comprehension level. She never pushed me, but made such reaching out a grand adventure, which we shared. Then I learned Braille, and *then* I discovered my school library, realized that between the covers of every book in that seemingly huge room adventures lay in wait, just for me, and I’ve been an avid explorer ever since. Each book I read leaves me with gifts. Some books broaden my knowledge base in areas of interest, or even create new interests. Some books challenge my assumptions or let me see things from a very different perspective. Some books are so beautifully written that they leave me breathless and mentally dazzled, and a very few books do all these things. A few books (and I never know beforehand which they will be) strike a chord so deep within me that they change me at my core. Any book, even the most frivolous, can set a train of thought in motion, though. There is another kind of book I enjoy, not for its depth, but because it lets me take a mental vacation. The Dirk Pitt novels by Clive Cussler delight me in this way. The plots stretch suspension of disbelief to the absolute limit. Some of the characters are either under or over developed. Both Dirk Pitt and his son are almost (but not quite) typical super heroes, who can do anything, beat any villain in a fight, and always get the “girl”, but they suffer just enough to be endearing: yet these books work, and work well, partly because the stories are so incredible that I just *have* to find out what happens next, and they contain the kind of drama and excitement of “thriller opera” at its best, and partly because the books are very well written. Mr. Cussler is wise enough not to make the romantic interests of either Pitt lovely but brainless; in fact, the ladies of these books are true equals of both father and son, have their own careers, and can definitely hold their own. Are these books shallow? Absolutely. Are these books good reads? You bet they are! Reading them is like watching Star Wars, and they appeal to me for many of the same reasons. They are very high quality mind candy, and everyone benefits from a healthy serving of mind candy, from time to time, I think.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The evil behind the masque

In the garden of beasts: love, terror, and an American family in Hitler's Berlin Larson, Erik. ISBN: 0307408841, Recorded from:, New York : Crown, c2011. In some ways, this is one of the most horrific (not the book, but it’s content) and terrifying books I’ve ever read. It is an intimate look at a very specific period in history, and we know a great deal about that period. What makes this book so effecting is the events it chronicles, yes, but also the context in which those events unfold, and the lingering echoes that demonstrate that yes, given even similar circumstances, the whole terrible scenario could repeat itself. I remember reading, a very long time ago, a story (in translation) by Thomas Mann about a pair of darkly twisted, but beautiful and glittering twins. These twins were symbols of Germany between the World wars ...frenetic, glittering, but underneath hollow and filled with poison. At first glance, the trappings of society effervesced and sparkled, especially the social life in Berlin, but even here, there was an essential brittleness, a need to drink harder, dance more, outshine everyone else, lest the diamond (paste gem, actually) develop cracks and fall apart. The cracks were already there, though, and it was only a matter of time, and the determination of a few men that let all the poison out. One reads about nightclubs with 30 different rooms, and wonders long can this last? Against this terrible, gaudy setting the story of an American family evolves. Watching as each is first taken in by, and then utterly revolted by, what is happening is at the very least, educational. An entire country was being hijacked and perverted, and no one seemed to care, or even be watching. I can’t talk sensibly about this book without speaking, if only a bit, about one of the factors that contributed enormously to the Nazi party’s success and the unwillingness of the European (and I include America in this) community to act more quickly and with more force. Had they done so, it is possible that they might have prevented the second World War, although there were other factors that might have still led to that war. But there was a tacit if not active acceptance of anti Semitic bigotry, even in the highest places in Government. Anti Semitism has a long and brutal history in Europe, and while its effects are less visible, still exists, on both sides of the Atlantic. Like all forms of bigotry, these attitudes produce nothing but destruction, and its results are well known. But, the fact is that, had the repression of the Nazis been aimed at another segment of society, or even another group, say Protestants, the reaction would have been very different. The family at the center of this story consists of the new Ambassador to Germany, his wife, son and daughter. Ambassador Dodd was an anomaly in the Diplomatic corps. He wasn’t independently wealthy. He was an academic, and a self styled Jeffersonian democrat. He was diplomatically and politically na├»ve, which destroyed him in the long term, but he was also honest, and one of the first to see what was happening in Germany with clarity. However, like Cassandra, he spoke the truth, and no one (or very few) believed him. The other main character, his daughter, first fell in “love” with what she saw, and was completely taken in by the show the Nazis presented to the world at large. She entered wholeheartedly into the nightlife and the intellectual society of Berlin, enjoyed popularity and several affairs, and only later, when the “corner” had been turned and the Nazi hierarchy came out from behind its curtain of illusion, did she realize that she had bought into a false dream. The book itself tells this terrible story quietly, ruthlessly shining a light on that world and that time. Reading it was a wrenching experience for me, both because of what happened, and even more because, while tracking those events, I could see, without much effort, how it could happen again, and how likely it would be that the reaction of the people living through the events could again be deceived and fail to react in time.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Only in chicago ...

In a pig's eye: a Jimmy Flannery mystery By R. Wright Campbell ISBN: 0671703285, New York : Pocket Books, c1991. I enjoyed this book, mostly because it brought back so many memories of Chicago and its politics. I lived in that city for almost 5 years during the reign of Richard Daley SR. and the Democratic political machine. I certainly had seen political games before, having lived in Baltimore, but I was completely unprepared for Chicago! Still, it was fascinating to watch, and this book provides an inside view of how the system worked, even 20 years later, after the Mayor’s (funny, I still think of The Mayor and Richard Daley Sr. in the same thought) strangle hold had been broken or at least dented, and several reforms had been set in place. Had this book been set anywhere else, it couldn’t have worked, because the very unwinding of its plot required the politics of Chicago, party, neighborhood and ethnic to unfold and intertwine. They do, though, and sometimes I got the feeling I was reading a social study as much as a mystery. Some of the characters in the book are truly engaging, though, and their humanity is heartwarming, as is the humor that runs like a golden thread throughout the entire book. Again, it’s “Chicago” humor, but it’s still funny, even if you never lived there. If you ever did, it’s twice as much fun. This book is part of a series, and, while I won’t go on campaign to read the others, I will happily do so should one of them happen to cross my path.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Christmas in June (couldn't wait for July)

Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop: 'tis the season to be deadly : stories of mistletoe and mayhem from 17 masters of suspense; short stories collected by Otto Penzler. ISBN: 1593156170, New York : Vanguard Press, 2010. The story of how this book came into being is as wonderful as this book. There is, it seems, a truly wonderful book shop in NY, and each Christmas, an especially commissioned short story is given to special customers as a holiday/thank you gift. The rules are simple. The story must take place during the Christmas season, and at least some of the action must take place in the book shop. Other than that, the authors are free to work their will, and oh, they do! This collection contains 17 stories. You probably won’t like all of them equally, you might not like some of them, but I’d be willing to bet my cat (if I had one) that there would be at least 1 (and probably more) that delight you. Most are light, some are truly funny, and one, once you see what the author is doing is so cleverly hilarious, both in language and plot, that I just had to read it twice! This collection features some of the best known names in detective fiction, and reading those contributions almost feels like a shared social occasion. Alan Westlake and Dortmunder are there: Ed McBane is there: as is Mary Higgins Clark (just a tease of names to whet your appetite), and her wonderful story actually got a tear from me ..of happiness, I might add. This book won’t change your life, or even tell you how to live it, but it could easily become, I think, one of your treasured holiday traditions …to be sampled at quiet times during that hectic time, accompanied, of course, by a glass of well doctored eggnog, some Christmas cookies, or perhaps leftover snacks from the tree trimming party.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Three fun mysteries, a Flapper, a car, and a kitten

I’ve recently discovered a new more or less cozy series, and while it’s pure mind candy, it’s very good mind candy. The books are short, easy read, and sparkle with well done dialog, nicely drawn characters, and excellent, convoluted plots. The author is Kerry Greenwood, and the books feature Phryne Fisher, an Australian P.I. They are set in 1928/29, and have much the same charm as the Daisy Dalrymple series, set in England during the same time period. They are published by Tullamarine, Victoria, Australia : Bolina Audio ; Grand H. The books I’ll be talking about, more or less in one big, fluffy, bon bon are: Flying Too High, Murder on the Ballarat Train and Death at Victoria Dock. There may be more in this series, but if so, I haven’t found them, and while I found them charming and will certainly read any I happen across, they aren’t quite good enough to search for. Even while reading these books, I was strongly reminded of the Daisy Dalrymple books by Carolla Dunn, as I’ve already mentioned. The 2 series are by different authors. They take place across the world from one another, but they are set during the same time period, and their heroines, although very different in some ways, share an essential goodness, strong sense of justice, warmth, humor and courage. Had they met, I think they would quickly have become fast friends. Phryne is an exuberant, unapologetic libertine, who delights in her “lovely young men”, and has no scruples whatsoever in seducing and then enjoying them. If the reader can accept this, (and there is something so honest and innocent in her lascivious behavior that one almost must do so, as do the members of her extremely eclectic household), one can also quickly see that she is warm, caring, delightfully self reliant and independent, and courageous when it really counts. Phryne also has the habit of adopting (literally, in 2 cases) people and kittens, and she has the absolute loyalty of those who share her home, and those with whom she works, both on and very much off the police force. In each case, the mysteries are very engaging, and in some cases show the seamier side of life with understanding, empathy for life’s innocent victims, and outrage at certain injustices. Aside from all this, she is an aviatrix (as she firmly demonstrates in Flying Too High) and has other unlikely skills that come in handy on several occasions. Oh, and she has an absolutely wonderful bright red car, the only one of its kind in all of Australia, upon which both she and her chauffer/cum butler lavish affection verging on adoration. The writing is crisp and vivid, and one gets the feeling that there is a gentle smile, and sometimes a wink, just behind the words. Phryne may be a flapper, love fancy clothes, fast cars, dancing on airplane wings and lovely men, but there is absolutely nothing superficial at her core. She is bright, practical, tenacious, and more than willing to take risks with her own life to save a child or bring a murderer to swift justice.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Comments on The Black Dahlia Avenger by Steven Hodel

Black Dahlia avenger: a genius for murder By Steve Hodel ISBN: 1559706643, Recorded from: New York, NY: Arcade Publishing; distributed by AOL I’ve read my fair share of true crime books, and I’m used to a certain pattern. The crime and investigation are described in detail, and very little background or biographical information concerning the participants of the event is included. The specific event takes precedence, and the emphasis is strongly on the resolution of the crime. Black Dahlia Avenger does not fit that mold, and was so different that it took me a while to appreciate exactly what the author was doing. I found myself becoming impatient with the biographical information, until I understood its importance. Once I did, though, I found the entire book fascinating and very much enjoyed reading it. This is the story of a darkly dysfunctional family, written by the son of a serial killer father. It revolves around one of the most famous unsolved murders of the 20th century, the Black Dahlia murder. This crime has been so absorbed into popular culture that even its name evokes a specific time period and place. Books have been written about it, and movies have been made about it, but the Black Dahlia murder has always remained unsolved …until now. True, it has not been officially solved, there has been neither trial, nor conviction, nor punishment, but the presented evidence is so overwhelming that it has received endorsements from leading people in the criminal justice field, so as far as I’m concerned, that counts. But, this book is far more than the story of a crime. It’s a set of portraits and a family history that nearly gave me nightmares. The father of this family was one of the most horrific people I’ve ever encountered in any book, not for his brutality, (though he most certainly was brutal) but because of his brilliance and the ways in which he constructed his own rules of behavior, which gave full license to, among other things, child abuse, incest and murder. The Black Dahlia (Elizabeth Short) wasn’t his only or first victim. She became a part of the licentious, sadistic, perverted world constructed by George Hodel and his friends, and paid the ultimate price for her association with it, and with him. In this book, we see that world through the eyes of the author, his son Steven. He tells the entire story quietly and pragmatically, with little comment, and, in that quiet telling, the absolute horror and inhumanity of the world in which he grew up reveals itself. It is also a depiction of corruption and cover up in very high places, and reveals an almost complete disregard for law by the very institutions established to protect and enforce it. We learn of how criminals were protected and of how officials in law enforcement profited from criminal activity. In short, if the criminal was of value to certain police officials, his crimes were “buried”, and he was never required to account for them in any way. Again, the killer in this book made himself very valuable to these corrupt officials, and was given carte blanche to do whatever he chose, and he chose to commit incest, rape, murder and other serious crimes. This book is long, intricate, and the kind of reading best done in the full light of day. The horror story here isn’t graphic, and yet it has a profound effect, mostly, I think, because it is so carefully, and unemotionally, told.

Book staging: settings and backgrounds

There are 4 things I look for in a book. They are, not necessarily in order of importance, 1. Plot: 2. Character development: 3. Setting and atmosphere: and 4. Quality of writing. This time, I want to talk about settings and atmosphere. While there are notable exceptions, books are not “performed” on an empty stage with no props or costumes. The background setting places any book in context, whether historical or modern, and the more vivid and vibrant it is, the more life it gives to the story. Sometimes, (and this is especially true in series that all take place in the same setting), the setting can become so real that I seem to slip into it completely, and have to reorient myself when I stop reading or finish the book. I can even become just a bit “homesick” for some settings, like the bayou settings of the Dave Robichaux books, or the little MN town where the Cookie Jar mysteries by Joanna Flukes take place. The background can never overwhelm the story, but when it is well done, a few words or a paragraph can set a scene so indelibly that it remains unforgettable, and, in my mind, the action of the story unfolds naturally in it. I can see the buildings, hear the sounds, natural or otherwise, feel the weather, and be a kind of invisible and passive character in the story happening around me. When this happens, I am unabashedly delighted!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Once upon a profile

I’d like to talk about 3 books by Alan Jacobson. They are: The Seventh Victim, Crush, and Velocity, and are published by Vanguard Press. I’d classify these books under the category of police procedurals, although this category has spawned several sub categories, so this would be more like an FBI procedural. The main character is a profiler, and the books revolve around her investigations of 3 difficult cases. Karen is a funny, feisty lady with some serious anger management issues, but she is also absolutely dedicated to her work, willing to explore possibilities that go against the grain of the investigation, and can be totally loyal and loving to the people close to her. She’s prickly in the extreme, but she’s also the kind o friend that you treasure, because you *know* she’ll be there for you when things get up against the wall tough, and you *know* she won’t ever lie to you, or try to manipulate you for her own purposes. Serial killers, however, don’t get such privileges; in fact, where they are concerned, she is relentless and implacable. There have been so many serial killer novels lately that they have almost become a drug on the market, and can become stereotypical. What sets this series apart, aside from Karen herself (and she goes a long way toward doing that) is the depth of FBI procedural and profiler knowledge the author displays. He goes into detail about how an investigation is run, especially one of those task forces that include police officers from local jurisdictions, and he explains exactly how profiles are constructed, what they can and can’t provide, and the pitfalls that can sidetrack investigators. Like most really good stories, this one has more than one theme. Alongside the investigations is Karen’s personal life, which keeps distracting her in major ways. Despite these distractions, which are heart rendingly serious, she manages to unravel some very tangled skeins, with often dramatically breath holding action. All 3 books (and I think there are more) are very well written, and, just when I was beginning to dismiss the killer as “another typical serial killer who ...” the author changes the game, raises the stakes, and keeps me surgically attached to his books. Great stuff, if you like this kind of book, which I do!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Branches on the mystery tree

The mystery genre has developed many branches since its introduction into fiction. Like any old and flourishing tree some branches are very large, and have developed branches of their own, and even those smaller branches produce offshoots. Sometimes a branch depends on its uniqueness because of the character or occupation of the primary detective. This has given us Priests, Nuns, Rabbis, Ministers and University Professors (as samples) who find themselves in positions which require them to untangle mystery knots and solve crimes. Another sub branch of the cozy is what I call the theme cozy. This usually involves people with special interests, is often as interested in the skill set or occupation around which the plot revolves, and depends as much on the lives of the main characters as on the mystery being solved. So, we have, among other things, cat mysteries, dog mysteries, knitting, cooking, cookie shop, wine making or collecting, and house renovation mysteries. These are almost always in series, and, while each presents a crime (usually murder, of course), the series itself tells the story of a specific person, that ‘person’s immediate family and environment, (town, village, etc.) and love life if not married, and family life (kids spouse and pets) where appropriate. While there is almost always a police presence of some sort, the indomitable sleuth is either barely tolerated or outright discouraged, because, after all, the owner of a cookie shop or the president of a knitting group is emphatically not a professional law enforcement officer. At some point in the series, the detective usually wins the grudging respect of someone in law enforcement and gains some access, albeit with many reservations. Sometimes the market seems to be flooded with these theme mysteries, and many readers find them shallow. Well, usually they *are*, but they are popular because they work. The crimes are often cleverly constructed, the characters are often very well drawn, sympathetic and believable, the continuing story of the main character’s life and experiences is engaging, and, last but not least, the theme provides interest of its own, and not just for people who are interested in the topic. I have absolutely no desire to renovate an old house, for example, but I enjoy the “Home repair is homicide” series by Sarah Graves, partly because I collect tidbits of home renovation knowledge I may never need, but which is still interesting. One of my favorite series is the “cookie shop” mysteries, especially because I love to bake, and the recipes included are an extra treat. Of course, any mention of this type of story must include homage to Dick Francis, who brought the world of horse racing brilliantly to life during his long and illustrious career, and to Lillian Jackson Braun, who delighted readers (including this reader) for many years with her charming “cat who …” books. In short, most of the books in this sub-genre are mind candy, but at their best, they are pure, and scrumptious, Godiva!

Musings on Historical Fiction

Historical fiction can loosely be defined as an original work of fiction which takes place in an historical period and is usually set against important historical events. The story may or may not include more than passing references to those events, and may or may not contain famous personages of the time as major or minor characters. However, the goal is not to reproduce an historical event, but to use it as a “stage” on which to enact an original story. Sometimes, the historical research is extensive and impeccable. Sometimes there is minimal research, and the author plays fast and loose with even well known facts. Usually, however, main or crucial events aren’t changed. For example if Julius Caesar had avoided the assassination attempt, or survived it, the fiction would change from historical to alternate history (an interesting genre in itself.). Characters who never existed do things that never (but perhaps could have) happened. If one is to enjoy such fiction, it is important to understand that it is not history. It isn’t even, at least directly, a commentary on history. It is not objective, either, because we are seeing the events from the viewpoint of the fictional characters, and perhaps, through them, the author. In other words, it is history seen through a specific lens. I don’t think this devalues historical fiction. If it is well done, the reader can gain an understanding of a specific time period or event by seeing a different perspective, and can interact with that event in the way one does when reading good fiction. Many people, young and not so young, have been drawn into an interest in history itself not from a textbook, but from a good historical novel. Any appraisal of historical novels, therefore, should be made keeping these things in mind, and evaluated not solely on historical accuracy, important as that is, but also, and perhaps primarily, on the original story. Such books must meet 2 criteria, then, that of accuracy and good research, and that applied to works of fiction.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Once along a village road

Comments on Over My Dead Body by Claire Lorrimer ISBN: 0727859854, New York: Severn House, c2003. This is a charming little English Country village mystery, replete with eccentric characters, lovely Kentish countryside, a whole gallery of sleuths (who give due homage to Ms. Marple), a dire curse with attendant ghosts and, even a kitten, who plays a crucial role in the resolution. Someone is killing members of the Road Committee (something I’ve never encountered, but which is eminently sensible in the circumstances), and it is up to the residents of the people who live along this private road to find out who, and why. These characters include a young married couple (with babies), 2 very eccentric elderly sisters, one of whom exceeds the norm in eccentricity, a retired rector, a famous author, and a crippled Battle of Britain pilot. All have spouses (except for the sisters), and all have reasons to be concerned about the plans for the road proposed by the richest neighbor. One of them, apparently, is so concerned that he or she is taking matters very much, and very permanently, in hand. The plot is very clever, the characters are delightful, and the writing is very good. Aside from the fact that the CID detective who is trying to figure out what is going on is a bit more willing to discuss the investigation than I find credible, this book works, and it is the perfect accompaniment to a rainy afternoon, a plate of snacks (savory or sweet) and, if not a cuppa, then perhaps some rich hot chocolate or excellent coffee.

Comments on River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Thoughts and comments on River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh Reading this book is as delightfully exotic as a bizarre in a foreign country, and I found it a completely involving experience. But, because of its complexity, diversity, and energy, I have been trying to talk about it here, for most of a week, without being able to produce anything readable or remotely rational. Technically, it is the story of a specific event that occurred in Canton, China in the 1830s. This event led, almost directly, to the beginning of the Opium war, and so it is pivotal, just as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was in 1914. But it is also the story of an extended family, the story of one man and his son, and the stories, in differing depths of characters who were joined by the this event. What makes it hard to talk about though is that it is like a pebble dropped into a lake. At the center is the story, but the ripples are it implications and the areas of consideration they create; and those range from thoughts on such personal issues as family, integrity and loyalty to the broad issues of British imperial history, current East/West relations and even our own “War on drugs”. Then there is the philosophical consideration of addiction, in all its forms, and the incredible damage and destruction on all levels that result from it. Because of my cultural experience and mindset, the setting, early 19th Century Canton, was exotic enough to seem nearly alien, and so vividly portrayed that my imagination slipped easily into the streets, houses and especially the boat community of the Pearl River. This city was the main point of trade access between China and the rest of the world, so it became a crossroads where traders and others from all over the world came into contact and interacted with one another and with the Chinese, both officially and unofficially. The British East India Company was China’s primary trading partner, though it was, at that time, a fairly one sided partnership, and the East India Company was by far the partner who reaped the most profit. There was one predominant import, and that was opium. Suppliers bought the product in India, and brought it to Canton to sell to East India Company traders, who sold it to consumers in China, who flooded the Chinese consumer market. We enter the story just as the Chinese Government has determined that opium was destroying their country from the inside, and had decided to rid itself of this poison. As so often happens, this realization took time; almost half a century and thus came too late to be resolved easily. Against this political and commercial background and inextricably intertwined with it are the very personal dramas of a father with 2 families, only one of which he can officially recognize, his son, and the story of a search for a rare plant. This book is so exquisitely written that all these different tales and characters come together seamlessly and vibrantly, reflecting the permutations of the main themes in ways which function both as comment and amplification. However, above and beyond all, this is a compelling story about “real” people and because of that, it is also totally involving and profoundly effective. The author’s prose is glorious in its vividness and lyric beauty. His characters are entirely believable, and, even though we are transported to very different cultures, they seem exotic, but never completely alien, because the author emphasizes the human dilemmas that bind us all to one another.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

How I Read

I read a lot of audio books (which is listening, technically, I suppose), and, while a reader I don’t like probably won’t make me stop reading the book, a reader I like very much can and does enhance my enjoyment. I’ve just finished one such, and am reading another, so it seems like a good time to talk about book narrators. I just finished Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson (the Walt Longmire series). It is produced by the NLS (National Library service) which provides recorded and Braille books for the print impaired (I understand why they use that phrase, but it doesn’t make me like it any better, sigh). Anyway, it’s read by Jim Zeiger, and his voice and reading style is absolutely perfect for this series. He has the Western drawl down pat...the slow, almost lazy way of speaking, touched with a kind of humorous cynicism, as though the speaker takes very little too seriously, especially himself. His interpretation of Walt is so believable that I can’t imagine anyone else having his voice. I’ve never seen the TV series, but I expect I’d have some serious “getting used to” to do. He does just as well with most of the other characters, especially the Native Americans. I’ve listened to other books he has interpreted, and while they were well done, this is the kind of perfect match that makes his performance an integral part of the book for me, and part of what I look forward to when I begin another Longmire book. I’ll have a great deal more to say about this series at some point, because I enjoy it very much. The 2nd book is River of Smoke by Amitav Jhaveri Ghosh read by Sanjiv Jhaveri. This is a commercial audio book which has been produced, with permission, by the NLS. This reader is perfect because of the subject matter, the profusion of dialects and the numerous foreign words and phrases. The reader’s English is impeccable, but I suspect it is either a 2nd language, or, more likely, he is entirely bi-lingual. Whatever the case, it is an absolute joy to listen to his interpretation, because he brings this richly complex book, with its diverse characters from many cultures to vibrant life in a way which nothing else could. I’ve done much of my reading using audio books (which we used to call talking books) for most of my life, so many of the books I love most have a specific voice associated with them. Some of the readers I’m listened to were truly wonderful, and, when I was young, it almost seemed as though the reader had somehow transported him or herself into my room, and was present with me …that, in fact, we were enjoying the book together. In a way, I felt as though I knew some readers, though, of course, I didn’t, and they didn’t even know I existed. Still perhaps, in some way I can neither understand nor explain, there was, and is, a connection between me, the listener, and the reader, if only for the time that I am listening to the book.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Diviners/Libba Bray

The Diviners by Libba Bray ISBN: 9780316126113, Little Brown: NY: 2012 Although this book is classified as YA fiction, I suspect that’s because most of the protagonists are young adults. The thematic material of the book, however, deals more than a little graphically with murder, religious fanaticism and even war. The plot of this book is certainly readable, and there is humor and humanity to balance the violence and horror. While the characters are well drawn, even memorable, the real star of this book is the city of New York in 1926. The 20s are roaring at full force, and the entire city throbs with a sense of liberation and an urgency to embrace life at its best. Young women are shortening their skirts and their hair, and stepping out to taste the delights of jazz clubs, forbidden drinks and romance. Harlem is experiencing a Renaissance of music, writing and art, and its musicians draw all New York to its clubs. The city is so well described that I found myself becoming nostalgic for a place that existed long before I was even born. It teemed with life of all sorts, and it gloried in its energy and brashness. The theater ruled, and the Ziegfeld girls pranced from performance to party, giving little thought to their futures, or to the often less than luxurious circumstances in which they lived. They had what they wanted: They were in New York! Yet, just beneath the surface, a serial killer, who turned out to be much more, produced his own horrific drama, leaving mutilated bodies along the way and preparing, on a supernatural level for something far more devastating. His enemies were few and not quite competent; still, they won, through their persistence and courage. While WWI was long over, it provides a dark undercurrent that threads its way through the story. We are reminded that part of the frenetic activity we see is a reaction to the horror of that war, when almost everyone could count a loved one among the lost. The author’s excellent research and especially her use of period dialog turned this book from a repeat of a fairly often explored theme into something fresh, vibrant and very pleasing. Random Thoughts. I have visited NYC a few times, and while I enjoyed my visits, I was always glad to go home. I don’t have the temperament for its pace or its noise. I think I love the idea of NYC. Its iconic presence is always there and just knowing that orients me in a strange way. It’s a brassy, brash, irreverent place that never sleeps and never gives up or in. The destruction of the Trade Center wounded it, but not for long, and it came back with a shout of defiance, and always will. It seems to contain the world on an island, a place where one can find anything from anywhere.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Le Carre: a romance of words

[Enter Post Title Here] I am not going to discuss a specific book in this post. Instead, I want to talk about one of my favorite authors, John Le Carre. His work is my personal gold standard for stories about espionage and such, and I read a lot of those. I discovered Le Carre’s work in college. I happened to read “A Small Town in Germany”, and I was hooked, for life. I’ve read most, if not all, of his books, and while I prefer his Cold War stories, and will read and reread anything that features George Smiley, I love them all. I find his work deeply satisfying on a number of levels. They are, I suspect, far more realistic about the methods and mindsets of most secret agencies. They don’t depend on either gadgetry or violence; rather, they are stories about people who may or may not be professional spies. There is action, of course, but it is supported by the thoughtful preparation of minutiae and exploration of motivation. When the action scenes do come, they are at the pinnacle of an extremely carefully constructed pyramid, and more effective because of that. By the time the guns come out, we care about the people involved on both sides of the fight, and we understand both the necessity and the tragedy of what happens. For Le Carre, as for George Smiley, violence is the last and least preferable resort. The agents and support staff aren’t super heroes, nor are they ultra beautiful people. They are as flawed and complicated as I, the reader, am; they have warts, they might be dumpy or ungainly, some of them drink far too much, some have obstreperous children that keep threatening to disrupt important meetings, but all of them know what they must do, and do it well. There are, of course, plenty of office politics, and they are, in many ways the same that we, the readers deal with. They are petty and venal, and sometimes they result in unfairness and injustice; but in the end, it is the service that survives. I find Le Carre’s work satisfying intellectually. The gentleman can write! His prose is, in its quiet way, exquisite, and he has drawn word pictures that have stayed in my memory for years. Sometimes I’ll forget exactly in which book a scene occurred, but I acutely remember, for example, George Smiley coming home from one of his rambles and looking up at his bedroom window, only to see his wife Anne, stretching as luxuriously as a well satisfied cat, with her head turned to speak to someone. Each word of that description was calculated to pierce the heart of the reader, so that it was hard not to cry out, with George Smiley “Oh, Anne!” There are many, many such moments in this canon, but talking much about them, out of context, would spoil the joy of discovery when reading the books. I once had the pleasure of listening to an interview with John Le Carre on public radio, and, as part of that interview, he read a bit from his latest book. He reads almost as well as he writes, and, perhaps oddly, the cadence of his words, his tone, his emphases, were exactly the same as I “heard” them in my mind, and had done for 40 years. His writing flows like a quiet, deep river. The rocks, shoals and whirlpools are there, but they always come as a surprise. Suddenly, we are caught up in an implacable current, and we rush from point to point with the characters. Character development is, of course, one of the foundations of good literature, and again, Le Carre excels. His characters are a mix of traits, noble and petty, confident and tortured, each with his or her own demons, and, at least usually, each with redeeming qualities that make them too human to hate entirely. Each of them, in various ways, hold up mirrors in which we can see part of ourselves, and so, we are almost forced, if we want to be honest, to relate to them; and yes, that includes the villains, including Carla and Anne. They interact with us and with the other characters as they must, given who they are, and we end up knowing very well who they are. Like most genre fiction, there are patterns we expect. In some ways, these books can be classified as formulaic …the service must catch a spy, and prevent plots from coming to fruition; yet, within those perimeters, each story is unique, and each book leaves the reader slightly changed, and wanting more by this author. bb

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Grandmother opened the universe of books for me when I was a baby, and it is she I must thank for instilling the love of books and reading into my intellectual and emotional DNA. She read to me as a small child, and taught me to treasure, among other wonders “A Child’s Garden of verses”. It worked so well that, to this day, I give that book as a cradle gift to any dear friends who have babies. But she also used to tell me tales from great literature; at first they would be very simplified, but, as I grew older, she would add details, and then, one day, she would call the librarian at our school and tell her that I was ready to read the book, and the librarian would present me with the first volume. They became close conspirators, though neither of them ever inhibited my own explorations. I inherited another reading preference from my Grandmother, the extreme enjoyment of mysteries. She loved them so much that our family used to tease her about her “gory books”, but I owe her for introducing me to such great authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, and much later, it was my pleasure to return the favor by introducing her to authors she hadn’t found, yet. I did find Sherlock Holmes on my own, and promptly, at the age of 9 or so, feel deeply and helplessly in love! I wasn’t deterred either by time or the fact that Mr. Holmes didn’t exist, save in his stories. A girl does what she has to do, so I read as much of the Canon as I could, and then reread them, several times. I still enjoy them, and yes, he still owns a tiny piece of my heart. I love to read, and I love to talk about what I read, often with delight and excitement, and that’s what I intend to do here. I won’t be writing “reviews” because I’m not a professional reviewer. Instead, I’ll just write about what I’ve read, talk about why I liked it (or didn’t), and often offer some random thoughts suggested by the book. I often find myself following meandering mental trails while reading and I’ll share those, too. What I’d really like to see, though, is chat about books, the thoughts engendered by them, and, always, suggestions for my continental sized TBR list!