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 ...how 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.