16 October 2014

Familiar author, new story

I have four books sitting next to my desk that I've read and haven't written about. All of them were written by authors whose earlier books I'm familiar with. All of them were at least good.

Should I do more than make a list of them?

Well, of course.

The top of the pile is The Spider's Web by Margaret Coel. Coel writes about murders on Wind River Reservation in north-central Wyoming. We drove through the area a year ago. It's full of deceptively big mountains, beautiful green valleys, and desolate-looking prairies.

Coel's main characters are the Boston priest assigned to the reservation parish as a way to help the recovering alcoholic, the Arapaho attorney who returned to the rez after law school, and local and reservation lawmen.

This plot revolves around the murder of a young Arapaho who seemed to be turning his life around and an outsider who identified herself as his girlfriend. And there are other mysterious characters who haunt and threaten the main characters and other locals near the parish church and Riverton, the town in the southeast corner of the rez.

St. Stephen's parish (the model for Coel's church)
People go to and from Jackson, Wyoming in the story, but it's a three-hour drive through Dubois. Of course, in the wide west, a three hour drive is a short jaunt. I knew people in Wyoming who drove 75 miles to the grocery store and 75 miles back.

Coel writes well. She treats the landscape almost like Hillerman did. Her characters are almost as complete as Hillerman's were. Her plots are as complex as Hillerman's were. I was a big fan of Tony Hillerman, so to say that Coel is almost as good as Hillerman is high praise.

I liked The Spider's Web. If you haven't read any of her books before, I think you ought to go back to one of her earlier books to get a taste of what she does. One of her early books really strayed near frustrated romance (focused on the priest and the attorney), but she hasn't repeated that. If you like what you read, go to the library or a Half Price Books store and read away.


Now I have three books on the pile next to my desk. Back to reading.



03 September 2014

Artistry

A few years ago, I invented an Improbability Award for books whose plots contained unlikely or wishful events. My inspiration for this was the spaceship Douglas Adams created in The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The spaceship, called the Heart of Gold is powered by the infinite improbability drive, which is governed by the Browian motion in a cup of hot tea. The absurdity of the whole idea startled and amused me. Other authors have startled and amused me with highly improbable events and circumstances to power their stories.

I think I have to hand out an Improbability Award in the nth degree to Steve Hamilton for The Lock Artist.

Adams' Heart of Gold

This book was on my "to read" list and I have no idea how it got there. It was an Edgar Award winner. It is well written, however, Hamilton often seems intent on slowing down the plot in order to describe everything he can imagine. I skipped and scanned through many paragraphs. If I later discovered I'd missed something important, I went back and skimmed more carefully. But that happened only rarely.

But the whole story and all the plot lines in the story are solidly based on improbables. The main character survives a tragedy that kills his family. He is left mute because of the experience. So, it's ironic that the whole book is told by that character in the first person. Hamilton does that part well.

The main character becomes a professional safe cracker by the time he's 17 years old. Even though he's a social outcast in school, he wins the love of a nearby school's most beautiful. Several people he "works" with on major thefts are killed, but he's left unharmed. His uncle gives him a motorcycle. Without practice or training (or a license), he speeds across the country a few times without accident or traffic ticket. On probation for his first theft, he's assigned a restorative justice project. The guy he is to work for is in a tight spot with some gangsters who lent him money. That leads to more safe cracking work. Later, one of the cops who "knows" our hero, saves him just before another of his partners in crime is about to blow his head off. And of course, it all ends happily ever after.

Hold it. Was I reading a mystery, a coming of age story, or a romance?

If you can deal with the unlikely circumstances and sequences of events, you might well enjoy reading The Lock Artist.

If you read it or another book by Steve Hamilton, write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.


27 August 2014

Danish police mystery

Someone, somewhen recommended Jussi Adler-Olsen's The Keeper of Lost Causes. It ended up at the top of my alphabetical "to read" list.

Adler-Olsen's whole name is Carl Valdemar Jussi Henry Adler-Olsen. An online biography notes that he grew up in "several mental hospitals" in Denmark. (His father was a doctor at the hospitals.) He studied medicine and politics, authored cartoon scripts and comic books, and, in 1997, began writing fiction.  

The Keeper of Lost Causes is his first fiction publication. At 400 pages it's about 100 pages too long.

The mystery is satisfyingly complex and the detective work seems deftly done. There are truly awful sections about a kidnap victim tortured for years in isolation.  

Adler-Olsen keeps things moving adequately in the main story line. But there are too many words.

I nearly awarded this an improbability medal for the way Adler-Olsen wrapped things up at the end. I don't think things work that way.

This was not one of those books I wanted to read because I enjoyed the reading. It wasn't so awful that I wanted to drop it in the wastebasket. I did have to keep taking breaks while reading.

The main character is a middle aged detective who is in the midst of his mid-life crisis and PTSD. In spite of his determination to take advantage of his situation to hide until retirement, he gets sucked into this cold case.

It was made into a movie in Denmark in 2013. It's showing in selected US "art houses" now.

Okay. Anyone else read The Keeper of Lost Causes? What did you think? Write. Tell us in this little bit of the world how you reacted.


17 August 2014

Crows

I think crows are ugly and noisy. They are good at cleaning up road kill. Craig Johnson's Sheriff Longmire likes crows. There are crows mentioned in the story. Maybe their presence has some meaning. I don't think so.
Johnson
One of my finds at Half Priced Books was a 2012 book by Craig Johnson. Johnson, who says he lives in a town with a population of 27 He is the guy who created Sheriff Walt Longmire. I've enjoyed a couple early books and some of the first A&E episodes of Longmire. (The most recent episodes got too dark and threatening for me to enjoy them.)

Well, I got a deal on As the Crow Flies, a story about the things that kept the good sheriff from attending to the details of his daughter's wedding arrangements. He'd promised, and as a widower, his best helper was his buddy Henry Standing Bear. Oh, and his mother-in-law to be, who turned out to be quite capable of stepping in to compensate for the sheriff who gets pulled into murders on the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. We all "know" that the county sheriff has no authority on the res or in Montana, but Longmire gets arrested and dragged along to the crime scene by the new tribal chief of police, Lolo Long.

It doesn't help that the FBI gets involved and Chief Long is a rookie chief in over her head. And when the primary suspect is murdered, everything gets more complicated. Especially since the Longmire wedding is fast approaching, and someone is manufacturing "evidence."

Well written? Yes. I laid down to read a few pages before sleep one night and an hour and a half later, I had finished the book without realizing it was nearly midnight. This was another book that kept me so occupied I nearly forgot I was actively reading. Johnson uses events to move the plot forward and he is great at describing action in the present tense. He also uses humor to keep the characters realistic and likable.

After finishing, I was tempted to award Johnson an improbability medal, for his use of a peyote-fueled vision quest, but the evidence revealed by the drug was really only a sidelight to the story.

So, here's another recommendation.
I also recommend that you look at plot summaries for the TV series Longmire. I don't know how involved Johnson is in the script writing (I'd guess only minimally), but if the summary looks good, check it out on A&E. The cast and the acting are good. New Mexico does a good job of standing in for Wyoming.

Have you read As the Crow Flies or another Craig Johnson novel? What did you think of it? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.



12 August 2014

Imitation Eliot

Dan Conrad, great fan of 19th century English novels, wrote after reading a new book.
I just finished The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. It's in no way a mystery, more an attempt at writing a George Eliot type novel -- at which she pretty much succeeds, though Gilbert's heroine, botanist Alma Whitaker, does a couple things George Eliot could not have put in her novels if she wanted to (which she probably did).

Here's a line from the book that I like. It gives a feel for the writing style she adopts: "Alma accepted and admired the Lord as the designer and prime mover of the universe, but to her mind He was a daunting, distant, and and even pitiless figure. Any being who could create a world of such acute suffering was not the being to approach for solace from the tribulations of that world. For such solace, one could only turn to the likes of Henneke de Groot [the family's ancient housekeeper]."



11 August 2014

Three winners

A couple years ago I read Camilla Läckberg's The Preacher. It was okay, but I had issues with it. Last year I read Läckberg's The Ice Princess. I had issues with that book too.

Läckberg
In spite of those issues, I picked up another book by Läckberg from the bargain table at Barnes and Noble. I started reading it only to discover that it was the third book of a series. So I found the second book at Half Price Books and the first, in paperback, for full price at Barnes and Noble. I didn't read them in order. I read the second one first, then the third one, and then the first.

It was okay to do that because the links between the stories are minimal and the continuing characters are really well developed and distinctive. Patrik Hedstrom is a small town detective and his girl friend, Erica Falck, a writer, are the two main characters in each of the novels. They're accompanied by various family members, friends, and colleagues. All of those people have lives that compete for attention with the mysteries Läckberg dreams up.

And I don't have the reservations about these books that I had about Läckberg's first two novels. She manages two story lines in each of the books that only really merge near the end of the book, but she isn't playing with the timeline and the sequence of the story telling.

Okay, the first book in the series is The Stonecutter. One of the stories here begins in the early 1920s and revolves around a skilled quarryman, an upper class girl, their unhappy marriage, and their twin sons. The other story concerns the murder of a very young child just as Patrik and Erica are expecting their first child. Of course there are other side stories, but they are not intrusive.

The second book has the English title The Stranger. (Camus fans be patient. This is not related to the story or the philosophy in that stellar French exposition of existentialism.) A literal translation of the Swedish title is The Jinx. Patrik and Erica get married and Erica is overwhelmed by motherhood and depression. In the meantime, a local woman dies in an auto accident that looks like murder and a cast member of the Swedish version of Big Brother, filming in town, is found dead. In a small town, Patrik finds himself directly involved in investigating both murders, and feeling guilty about neglecting the new baby and his stressed wife. The second story line in this books is very opaque and dream like. I ignored most of it.

The third book is The Hidden Child. Patrik is on paternity leave, but he has real trouble not pushing the stroller and the baby past the police department and not responding to invitations to visit for coffee or a quick run to a crime scene. Erika has returned to her writing, but she's trying to do most of it in her home office. While organizing things in that office she finds a Nazi medal among her late mother's belongings. She tries to find out what it means and how a very anti-Nazi Swede ended up with such a thing. Well, the history teacher she asks about it is killed. The secondary story is set in World War II Sweden and revolves around the murdered school teacher and his small group of friends who were just a bit too young to be soldiers in the 1940s. These two stories work together much better than the stories in the earlier books.

But...

It was such a pleasure to read books that I wanted to read and finish (even though that would mean I'd be done). That was true for all three books. I can say that the characterizations were very well done. I can't tell you whether narration, or dialogue, or cause and effect moved the stories on, because Läckberg used all three, but none were obviously prominent. Except for the vague and dream like secondary story in The Stranger, the elements of the books worked well together.

I'd wondered if Läckberg's first two books were written according to a recipe that didn't quite work. If Läckberg adjusted her recipe for these books, she's done it very well. These 400-500 page novels were never daunting or too much. I enjoyed nearly everything.

I urge you to give them a try. I'm confident you don't have to be Swedish or a Minnesotan to enjoy them.

Have you read any of Läckberg's novels? What did you think of them? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.


29 July 2014

Good buddy John wrote from the wonderful Willamette Valley

I find great pleasure in poetry.

Many people consider it a tease or worse, artsy. Billy Collins writes a couple of very satisfying poems about, "how we want to tie a poem to a chair and beat a confession out of it."

When there was no time for books, I turned to poetry. Huge rewards. Beauty, angst, love, name it, it is there.

Heaney
Through odd circumstances I met Seamus Heaney. He was a wonderful man.

Truth, in a few words is what a poet can do.

Cummings helped me woo my wife, Neruda  has helped me and others with some tough moments. Poetry can be a joy or a mystery. It seems all art is art or not,  depending  on the consumer. I love what I love and do not worry much about critical response. Love, you
Your thoughts?
Write. Tell this little bit of the world.