The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

February 28, 2009

February: Hearts and Darts

Time to look back at what I read this past month. Thomas Perry's Runner, Joe Barone's The Body In the Record Room, and Ken Bruen's Sanctuary were all good enough for me to rise above my blogging apathy and write reviews for. Hearts to them. A big heart to Earl Emerson's Cape Disappointment. I plan to write a review for it as soon as I catch up on my sleep. I was up nearly all night finishing that one, which I think is Emerson's best book yet, even better than Into the Inferno.

Books I should have written reviews for because they deserve that good things be said and written about them:
Rogues Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life by Craig McDonald. His interviews with the likes of James Crumley, Daniel Woodrell, Kinky Friedman, et al, are remarkably candid and conversational in tone, rather than interrogatory. If you are a writer, there's something to learn from these men. If you are a reader, you'll find them entertaining, particularly if you are familiar with their work. One of my favorite quotes (and there are too many to post) is from Kinky Friedman: "When you publish as many books as I do, Craig, well, that's an index of an empty life. That's all it can mean." What do you think, is Kinky right or wrong or -- as I think -- both?

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson. When Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire visits his daughter in Philadelphia he ends up spending his time trying to find who bashed his only child's head in. Johnson has such a good internal knowledge of his characters and is so comfortable with them that he doesn't hesitate to take them out of their milieu or to put them in awkward social situations. Johnson is so good at his job that he makes it look effortless. But if it were really that easy we could all do it. Truth is, few can.

Books I enjoyed but for one reason or another I didn't fall in love with them:
Spade & Archer by Joe Gores, a prequel (to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon) that explains how Spade and the doomed Archer became partners, how Effie Perine became Sam's gal Friday, as well as provides three interrelated mysteries for Sam to solve. Kudos to Gores, the guy has major cojones, because anyone who tackles the icon that is Sam Spade is setting himself up as a human pincushion. That Gores mostly succeeds is due to his own talent and skills. For me, oddly enough, it is the third mystery of the book that doesn't work as well for me as the previous sections. Odd, because that's the section of the book where I understand Gores worked from some original Dash Hammett material or ideas. And while Gores is a fine writer -- not that he needs me or anyone else to tell him that -- I still missed that cold camera's-eye view that Hammett brought to his writing. Gores sometimes captured that detachment, sometimes not. And I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book enough that I hope he gives us another Sam Spade story, maybe post-Falcon.

Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? The author writes elegant prose and creates fascinating characters and interesting situations. As a thriller the story gets a bit top-heavy with coincidence, but really, the writing is so fine that that wasn't a real problem for me. My problem, and I confess it's probably mine alone, was that I couldn't buy into the complex structure of the story. The story follows several characters but never the most intriguing one, the one at the heart of the story. I'm sure that was a deliberate decision by the author and that she had very good reasons for doing so, but for me it didn't work. It masked the attributes of that character so that it became hard for me to empathize or to buy into some of that character's actions late in the book.

Down In the Flood by Kenneth Abel. Even though Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on New Orleans, lawyer and former bag man Danny Chaisson can't leave the city until he finds the grand jury witness who's been abducted by a pair of ex-NOPD officers. As a thriller the pace is a little slow for my taste. Abel doesn't create as many subplots or twists as in his previous Danny Chaisson books. But as a day by day account of how difficult survival was in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina the book is unflinching. The prose is vivid and Danny's unwillingness to let himself off the hook of responsibility makes him one of my favorite NOLA characters. And the climactic scene is a doozy, one worthy of Hollywood.

The Sky Took Him by Donis Casey. In this outing, Alafair Tucker, with oldest and youngest children in tow, ventures to the big town (in 1915) of Enid, Oklahoma, to be a help to her sister as her brother-in-law is dying. Alafair involves herself in the disappearance of a relative. I always enjoy Alafair's perceptions of her world and there are some interesting characters but I thought the revelation of the killer was both predictable and a little contrived. I blame the big city for being a bad influence on Alafair, and I'm sure that as soon as she gets back to the farm she'll be right as rain.

Books that I regret to report I did not enjoy; not to say they were bad books, they have their strong points. Fortunately they all have their fans and do not need my approbation:
Marcus Sakey's Good People was a disappointment to me. The prose and the mechanics of the book are fine, but I never warmed to his main characters, a couple deep in debt, desperate for a baby, who stumble on enough dirty money to fund more attempts at in vitro fertilization (failed IVFs come at $15K a pop). Maybe it's just me, because I've never had a strong compulsion to recreate, but I was rooting against them all the way.

O' Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor includes some fascinating information on funerary art but I had trouble staying awake for the rest of it. At some point the various relationships between characters who did not interest me overwhelmed the mystery.

Super In the City by Daphne Uviller. My mistake, I thought the book was supposed to be a mystery. An honest mistake on my part. It's really chick lit, and as such may be pretty darned good, I haven't read that much in the genre, but this book wasn't to my taste. But if you do like chick lit, this one zips right along and works hard at being clever. It's about one Zephyr Zuckerman who becomes the super in her parents apartment building and starts to discover all the tenants' nasty little secrets. Except most of the story is about crashing parties and dates and relationships and how to get one and, well, what I presume is the usual chick lit fare.

February 22, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Does Jack Taylor have a problem? He's abandoned his plan to escape Galway and fly off to the USA, staying in Ireland instead to oversee the recovery of his friend Ridge, who's trying to offset a recent mastectomy by indulging in Jack's favorite vice: drink. Meanwhile Jack is fighting, with only partial success, his own addictions. In the midst of his wreck of a life comes a letter from a psychopath: a death list that includes two cops, a judge, a nun and a child. Oh, yeah, Jack has a problem all right. You see, he doesn't know his name was omitted from the list, sort of accidentally on purpose. And the cops -- never Jack's most indulgent acquaintances -- don't believe the list is genuine. So Jack Taylor does have a problem. You think?

BTW, the book jacket on the left is the UK version, on the right is the US version. I'm much more partial to the one on the left. Not only does the UK version appeal to my eye, but that white feather pictured has much to do with what's in the story.

REVIEW: What to say about a Bruen book that hasn't been said? As always the pace is swift, the action harsh, the hurt deep. Bruen keenly points out, in ways that fill the narrative rather than interrupt it, the early results of the worldwide recession being sharply felt in Ireland, only recently the world's second richest nation. He also captures the gradual loss of Irish culture due to the effects of globalization. The churches and the pubs are the most numerous reflections of the old ways, and the churches are losing ground fast. Or maybe their sins -- the pedophile priests and the Magdalen laundries and the brutal teachers -- are coming back to haunt them. And in Jack, Bruen personifies the ruinous results of the national preoccupation with alcohol.

Bruen is a master at creating characters without really describing their physical features. Beyond Jack's limp, hearing aid, and artificial teeth (yeah, the years, the booze, and the beatings are all catching up now that Jack can't run so fast), I've no idea what he looks like. But Jack's soul, severely scorched round the edges, is a perfect picture to me. And it is in this book, the seventh in the series, where the reader begins to see the culmination in Jack of everything that has gone before. Maybe this time, at last, the deaths of the innocents will mean something more to him than an excuse to reach for the bottle, because this time Jack's story ends with a touch of hope rather than of black despair, and the reader finds that Jack may have learned a measure of forgiveness. And if he can forgive the one person who has most grievously wronged him -- well, is it possible Jack could actually join the human race? And if Jack can do that, isn't there hope for the rest of us?

Here are two excerpts from the book, just to show how Jack can swing from deep tenderness to calculating sarcasm. In this first scene, Jack is with a dying man, a man grossly obese and whom Jack had met only one time previously.
Jesus, I couldn't help but like this poor sad bastard. He was unable to move because of his sheer girth and he still had fucking manners. That killed me and I swore an oath, an unholy one, that I'd make that bitch suffer as I killed her...

I have never hugged another man, not even me own beloved father. It's our upbringing -- you never put your hand on another man unless you want to lose it from the shoulder. Now I leaned over and put me two arms around this massive man.

He started to cry, muttered, "Thanks, Jack."

Fuck, fuck, and fuck it all.

This hugely obese man, lonely as only the truly lost can be, was thanking me and he wouldn't let go. I had the horrendous thought,
He's never had a hug in his whole life. And that the first should have to be from a fucked, deaf, limping trainwreck like me...

In this second scene, Jack has encountered Father Malachy in the park. Malachy is Jack's long-time nemesis. Malachy was also his late mother's best friend, and it's an understatement to say that Jack didn't get along with his mother.
I asked, "Do you believe in angels?"

He looked at me, suspicion writ huge. "Why?"

I could feel a warm mellowness beginning to take hold. God bless pharmaceuticals.

"Well, you're a priest, sort of, and angels and all that stuff is your... How should I put it? Your merchandise."

I saw a slow cunning light his eyes and knew he was ready to retaliate.

He said, "Your mother was an angel."

I let him savour that for a bit then said, "So was Lucifer."

February 21, 2009

Profoundly giddy.

Earlier this week I had an email from the local bookstore, Foul Play. 'We have received a copy of Bruen's Sanctuary. It's yours, free, if you want it.'

IF I want it? I knew it had to be an ARC because the book isn't slated for release in the US until late summer. No problem, that's okay with me. And besides. they were also holding a book by Ruth Dudley Edwards I'd ordered. So I trundled on over to the store and John (co-owner) said, 'We have some other promo books if you want to take a look. We've already sorted out the ones we're going to read.' Sure, why not? I might even find one I want.

Friends, I came away with a staggeringly good haul. Besides the new Ken Bruen book, I snagged forthcoming books from John Hart (The Last Child); Adrian McKinty (Fifty Grand); Dennis Tafoya (his debut novel,(Dope Thief); Craig McDonald (Rogue Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life); and Kenneth Abel (Down In the Flood).

A wealth of riches.

So I've just this minute finished Craig McDonald's book, and as I love to hear (read) writers talk about their craft, crime writers in particular, this book went to the top of my reading stack. I'm not going to write a full review here (because I'd want to quote from every author), but I do want to note a couple of things. First, there's the quality and range of work by the 16 interviewees, including my sainted Bruen as well as James Crumley, Daniel Woodrell, Elmore Leonard, Andrew Vachss, Lee Child, et al. Writers with critical success and writers with commercial success, and poles apart stylistically.

Then there's the quality of the discussions, because there seems to be more natural give and take between McDonald and the other authors than one usually finds in interviews. Credit that to McDonald being well-read -- studied, even -- in each author's oeuvre, as well as intelligent questions that do not simply repeat from author to author. Combine those qualities with men who are (mostly) willing to discuss what they have done with their lives, and I found myself hating that each interview had to end.

To my surprise, I have to say that my favorite interview was with an author whose work I've not read, Andrew Vachss. Sure, I've heard of him, and now I have to read his books. Printed interviews lack the vocal inflection that is so vital to human communication, but in the Vachss interview, he came across with such intensity and intelligence and affability, that I was sold.

For those in the writing life, for those considering entering into it, when you try to assess why (and at some point you will), reading Rogue Males is a good place to start.

February 14, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Sunrise Mental Hospital, Sunrise, Missouri, 1954. Meet Roy Rogers. No, not that Roy Rogers. An inmate who thinks he is Roy Rogers. When Roy, who may be mentally unbalanced but could never be considered stupid, finds a murdered ex-priest in the record room of the asylum he opens up more than one old can of worms, and the ex-priest isn't the last body that's going to be found.

REVIEW: When I began this book, I had the impression it was going to be one of those cute, quaint cozies. Wrong. I would never describe the book as a thriller or noir or edgy; instead there is an overwhelming tenderness in this story that I would never have guessed at from reading the dust jacket. Author Barone will not denigrate his characters by relegating them to the 'cute and quaint' genre; they are not merely eccentric, they are genuinely ill. But like the main character, Roy Rogers, through whose eyes we read the story, the mentally disturbed are not necessarily stupid or irredeemable. They face daily challenges most people cannot fathom, and -- the author drives this point well and truly home -- they have value.

Neither should the reader expect the Sunrise hospital to be a modern equivalent of the hospital in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. This is not a story about the shocking abuse that occurred in many such institutions (and still occurs today, in both hospitals and nursing homes). For the most part, Sunrise is an orderly place where the employees are led by the 'little man' in trying to help and heal the world's least understood illnesses. Barone never gives a name to the 'little man' in charge of Sunrise. Little man is what he is both physically and metaphorically, a David battling against, to borrow from Ben Franklin, "odds greater than a more merciful God would have allowed." To protect him, the one human who sees value in the lives of these sad people and maybe Roy's lifeline to a world without demons and delusions, Roy must rise up to embody his namesake and find the killer without bringing political retribution (and possible closure) on the hospital.

I won't kid you and say this book is brilliantly written. There are a few too many minor characters cluttering the landscape and some of the expressions used seem far too contemporary for 1954, but the problems really are minor and for me, were easily overlooked. The mystery binds the story together, but it is really Roy's growth and struggle to understand both himself and the world that made him which touched my heart. I found the story alternately amusing, poignant, intriguing, and so very sad. The sadness is because the author's message about how we care (or mostly don't) about mental health treatment in this country is too true, and too easily charted in the dollars and cents of state budgets, in the number of homeless and the degree of violence among the homeless, in the trickle-down Reaganomics that put so many of the mentally ill on the streets to fend for themselves or in nursing homes ill-equipped to deal such patients. Or in prison where they get little or no treatment and are often killed by some of the 'sane' people.

I never felt the author got preachy about his topic; the message was there in the character of Nevaeh, a woman who had never had a home in her life until she was institutionalized, whose greatest fear was ending up back on the streets to once again be prey for affluent juvenile delinquents. The message was there in the town's shame of having a lunatic asylum in their midst, in their greed and desire to close it and replace it with manufacturing. The message was in the little man's unflagging courage to fight a war he knew he could never win. And the message was there in Roy Rogers, both cowboy and inmate, in their desire to do the right thing.

I particularly liked the way employees and patients sometimes banded together to keep the hospital running quietly. The following excerpt is a fine illustration. Here, the 'little man' needs Roy to do him -- and the other patients -- a favor. The 'Harry' referred to is Roy's sidekick and strong right arm and animal lover.
"Harry has a puppy under his bed," he said to me when he got me away from the crowd.

"Good for Harry."

"You know we can't have that. I know how Harry feels about animals, but we can't let him have a puppy on the ward."

"Take it away and he'll just get another one."

"I've done all kinds of things for Harry," the little man said. "I got him the job cleaning out the horses' stalls, and he tries to leave them flowers. Now he's hiding a dog under his bed."

"Maybe we could build a doghouse out around the barn."

"And let Harry keep the puppy there," the little man replied. He was considering it.

"It wouldn't work," the little man said finally. "We'd have to get the dog its vaccinations and get it neutered or spayed -- I don't even know what kind of dog it is." ...

The little man seemed to stop and think a minute. Then he shook his head. "We can't do it," he said finally. "Half the patients in the place might like to have a pet. We just can't do it."

And that was that. The little man was a good man, but he could be hardheaded, too.

"I'll give you two days to get the dog out of there without..." He paused.

"Without what?"

"Without upsetting Harry." The little man smiled and then walked away. He knew what he was asking me to do. Find a way to let Harry keep the dog. Harry wouldn't be happy any other way. But find that way without anyone around the hospital knowing what was happening. In other words, go around the rules, but don't let the authorities know it, and the little man was the "authorities."

Well, his wish was my command, so I set out to do it.

And you know what Harry named the dog, don't you?

February 2, 2009

REVIEW: RUNNER by Thomas Perry

SYNOPSIS: A young, pregnant Christine Monahan is on the run from her ex-boyfriend and his gang of professional thugs. She turns for help to Jane Whitefield McKinnon, a stranger whose work is taking people 'out of the world.' No, not killing them, making them disappear. She shows people whose lives are at risk how to assume new identities, new lives. Kind of a one-woman version of the Federal Witness Protection Program. When Jane, a Seneca, helps the hunted, she becomes prey also. But five years have passed since Jane did that kind of work. She married, and the digital world has made it a lot harder for people to vanish. Her skills are not only rusty, but outdated. But how could she refuse a frightened young girl who just wants to have her baby and live in peace? Especially when Christine's enemies are crazy enough to plant a bomb in a hospital just to smoke her out? Seriously, the family who want to find Christine, they're sociopaths. Their DNA went off the rails a couple of generations back.

REVIEW: After too many years, Thomas Perry has provided readers with a new entry in his popular Jane Whitefield series. I'm a long-time Perry fan of both the Whitefield series and his standalone novels. Metzger's Dog, The Butcher's Boy, Sleeping Dogs, Pursuit, Death Benefits -- I enjoyed them all immensely. But I thought perhaps I had lost my taste for Perry's work because two of his last three novels, Night Life and Silence, were books I did not enjoy at all. And I didn't read Fidelity, the book published prior to Runner.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened Runner. I needn't have worried. Jane Whitefield is back, with a vengeance. No, seriously, she's out to deliberately hurt somebody this time, something that's always been against her personal code. Perry has not lost the voice of Jane Whitefield, and the story he tells in this book is of an older Jane, a Jane who is ready -- she thinks -- to leave behind the dangers of eluding professional hunters and have a family. If the Jane of the early books was unusually stoic and heroic, this newer, mature version of Jane, with her doubts and desire for motherhood, is more interesting and more sympathetic. She's still a dangerous woman though, and that's why we all like her, right? And when a woman who desperately wants a child has to protect the unborn, who in their right mind would want to stand in her way?

Only those people crazy enough to go after Christine Monahan. The Beale family are an interesting group of sociopaths, because they don't think they are crazy. And on the surface, at first, they don't act crazy. But their motivations give away their secret. The Beales are not cartoon crazies, they are much more dangerous. They are the affluent workers of America, the ones with the overdeveloped sense of entitlement coupled with the certainty that they, and only they, are the real victims.

You might think that giving Jane a higher degree of emotional angst might slow the pace. Nope, this book gallops along from the opening chapter. In those chapters where the perspective is other than Jane's, the story does slow a little but it's never for long and those other perspectives, Christine's and the people searching for her, serve to ratchet up the tension each time Jane moves back into the spotlight and you, the reader, know better than she what forces are allied against her and Christine.

Thomas Perry has a gift for writing cat-and-mouse, hide-and-chase stories, and he's in fine form in this book. Here's an excerpt in which Jane and the hunters play a night game of chicken:
Jane squinted at the two sets of headlights coming toward them. One car pulled to the left as though to pass, but it was the front car. Now there was one car coming toward them in each lane. Jane switched on her headlights.

The car approaching in Jane's lane blinked its high beams on, then off.

Jane switched on her brights and left them on. She kept her foot on the gas pedal, maintaining her speed toward the car in her lane.

"Don't play chicken with them!"

"I'm not playing," said Jane.

The pair of cars stayed together, streaking toward them. In one of the cars, the driver punched the horn three times, then stiff-armed it, holding it down so the sound started high and seemed to go down the scale as the cars approached.

The row of four headlights kept growing bigger and brighter. The two cars seemed to be linked, impossible to separate, impossible to avoid. Christine put her hands in front of her face. "Oh God oh God," she said.

The car in Jane's lane wavered a little, then altered its course slightly and moved to the shoulder of the road to allow Jane to pass between the two cars, but Jane muttered, "It's not that easy." She pulled onto the shoulder, too, so she was once again on a course to collide with the car.

February 1, 2009

REVIEW: January Round-Up

January was bitterly cold, snowy and generally dreary, much like the winters I remember from childhood. So much for glorious reminiscences.

A quick overview of my January reading, excluding those books I've already reviewed:

I enjoyed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. The girl, Lisbeth Salander, is anything but wishy-washy, while the two plot lines were both intriguing to me. One is a mystery about a young girl who went missing nearly 40 years earlier and one is a financial crime caper. Despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews, this is not a perfect book. The author, may he rest in peace, was clearly a crusader and he crammed as many of those crusades as possible into this book. The main crusade is about the level of violence against women in Sweden. Frankly, it's horrifying, and worse, few of the victims are as ready as Lisbeth Salander to take up the cudgels in their own defense. Larsson didn't need to tackle any other social ills to make this a terrific story. The other crusades are about corruption in the financial industry, the lack of ethics in journalism, and I disremember the fourth one I noted. My faulty memory. Anyway, there are several passages that read like a newspaper article rather than a novel, expounding facts and figures in a dry fashion. Also, the sheer number and relationships of the Vanger family members involved in the mystery presents a challenge for the readers. Despite the flaws, I never lost interest or felt like putting the book aside, and I will read the sequel.

L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker: The only other book I had read by Parker was Silent Joe, an Edgar winner but not one I cared for. In fact, I avoided Parker's books afterward. The summary on the book jacket for L.A. Outlaws was very persuasive though, and I'm glad. It's a violent tale about a flashy schoolteacher-cum-armed robber who may or may not be a descendant of the famous California bandit, Joaquin Murietta. And the cop who sleeps with her and wants to catch her, and has his own secrets. And a killing machine named Lupercio who will never stop until he gets her and the diamonds she stole. Sharp dialogue, well-drawn characters, and a scorching pace. A sequel, The Renegades, is due out next month.

Two tales by Donald E. Westlake, and you know I won't have anything bad to say about them: Somebody Owes Me Money and A Likely Story. ALS is not a crime novel, it's a novel about a writer fighting for his work and trying to straighten out his family life. I enjoyed the witty insights into the publishing industry. SOMM is a crime fic tale, about a young NYC cabbie who just wants to collect on a bet, but someone murdered the bookie and everyone -- the cops, two rival mobs, and the bookie's sister -- think the cabbie was involved.

Fatal Impressions by Wayne Warga. A story about art forgery and theft that sounded promising but the main characters, a married couple named Rachel and Jeff, are so perfect they set my teeth on edge. The book has a terrific beginning but lost its way right about the time that the murder of Rachel and Jeff's close friend should have made the story more intriguing. Shortly after that, I was unable to suspend my disbelief for the duration of the book.

The Case of the Deceiving Don by Carl Brookins, and Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs. I didn't enjoy either of these books and for the same reasons: The prose lacked any flow or rhythm that would have allowed me to enjoy the characters. Not that the characters were all that interesting. I thought TCOTDD had a good premise but the contruction of the book got in the way of the story. And I can't think of any praise for CB, sorry. Dull plot, flat characters, stilted prose -- did they really get a tv series out of those Bones books?

On the plus side of my reading ledger, I've really enjoyed the short stories I've read so far this year. My favorite to date is Peter Blauner's Going, Going, Gone, a nightmare of a tale about a man who gets separated from his very young child in the NYC subway system. This story just sucked the oxygen right out of my lungs.

And now on to February. It's Superbowl Sunday. Do the Cards have a chance? I sure hope so.