29 April 2009

Long time gone

I buried another book in the pile on the left-hand corner of my desk after reading it. Honest, I put books there with the intent to write about them the next time I sit down at my desk. Then I cover them with something more urgent. Then I have book orders to ship, and I put more things on top of the "urgent" thing. Pretty soon a month has passed. Then a fortnight more.

Book shipping season is over. That excuse won't reappear until next fall. Urgent? What's urgent for an old retired guy? Getting up to the lake? Reading another book? Cooking supper?

So, I'm catching up. The book I buried this time was Gone by Jonathan Kellerman. I've been on another Kellerman kick this winter and spring. But Jonathan and Faye [at right] have written so many books. Even one of their kids has written a novel.

This book is the 20th "Alex Delaware Novel" by Jonathan Kellerman. Alex Delaware, like J. A. Jance's character J.P. Beaumont, has come into a lot of money. He drives an expensive car and lives in a luxurious home. In both Kellerman and Jance's minds that puts these characters in a situation where they have more freedom than the working stiffs with whom they cooperate. Maybe it makes them more interesting for some people.

Delaware seems to be a part-time clinical psychologist and a part-time, experienced amateur criminal investigator (like his creator who is a part-time clinical psychologist and a part-time mystery writer). Delaware often hangs out and works with his old buddy, L.A. detective Milo Sturgis.

[Latigo Canyon, at left in a realtor's photo, is the site of important events in Gone.]

The story of Gone is complex. A murder here and another there (or I should say one then and another now). A strange family living off the wealth of a previous generation. Wannabe starlets in LA. Kellerman is a good story teller. The complexity might have been overwhelming, but it wasn't -- even though it took me a couple weeks to find time to read the whole book.

I liked reading this book, probably more than I liked the story. One of the online reviewers said that one of the best parts of the book was the relationship and dialogue between Delaware and his buddy Sturgis. I agree. I think it's probably the best part of the book. It's one of the treats that kept me reading all the way through the 360 pages.

Have any of you read this or other Kellerman novels? What did you think of them?

For Kindle

28 April 2009

Along the Rio Grande

Our family book pusher, dropped another book on our pile a couple weeks ago. Thank you, Mary. It was a good one.

The book is Nevada Barr's newest, Borderline.

Building on her own career as a law enforcement ranger with the National Park Service (NPS), Barr has now written 15 mystery and adventure books set in National Parks. She's been all those places (although she hasn't worked in all of them). It's pretty obvious she's more comfortable in the big outdoors than in the big city.

The main character in these books is Ranger Anna Pigeon, a powerful and assertive woman who has battled alligators, wolves, forest fires, and all manner of bad people. She has incredible recuperative powers because she bounces back from physical and psychological traumas that would send most of us into retirement from rangering.

However, after the horrors of the adventures described in Barr's previous book, Winter Study, the NPS puts Ranger Pigeon on medical leave and tells her to take some time off and really get over it. They don't want a PTSD survivor patrollling the campgrounds in any National Park.

That sets up the Rio Grande rafting trip along Big Bend National Park [That's Barr's hat and life vest on the Rio Grande at right.] that Pigeon and her husband take for the next adventure. High water, a drowned woman and her nearly drowned baby, a sniper at the top of the canyon, and a smarmy Texas politician, turn the recuperation vacation into another deadly adventure. Anna Pigeon is going to need another leave after this one.

Barr tells good stories. They're always a little beyond the pale of credulity, but the narrative is so good, I don't let that get in the way (much).

This book continues Barr's tradition. I liked the story and enjoyed reading the book. The deadly tension and adventure in several places led me to interrupt my reading and put the book down. But, I always wanted to go back, and I did. The fact that I fell asleep one evening while reading was caused by fatigue, not the writing.

If you read Borderline, tell us what you think.

E-Book for Kindle

27 April 2009

From Minneapolis

Bird Loomis isn't the only person to send in recommendations recently.

Dan Conrad, whose words have appeared here to great effect in the past wrote again.

As the news in the real world continues to be little but gloom and doom... I've turned (in fiction writing) to a series of heroes and heroines who face problems that would make Hercules wince but never fail to come out victorious--and then some.

Ken suggested Laurie R. King, and I started with Art of Detection featuring Kate Martinelli--a lesbian cop in San Francisco. [For reasons I don't understand, this book's title shows up as The Art of Detection on illustrations.] Now I'm going back to the start of the series and then take up with the heroine introduced in Beekeeper's Apprentice - I think.

My favorite right now is one Molly Murphy who is introduced by Rhys Bowen in Murphy's Law.

Molly is wanted for murder in Ireland (ca1900) but has immigrated (illegally) to New York and is bent on being a private investigator--against all odds.

Then there is Maisie Dobbs who enters in a novel by the same name by Jacqueline Winspear. It doesn't hurt that her experiences as a British nurse in W.W.I and her being part gypsy give her uncommon insight.

Then there is that disgraced son of a British nobleman who solves murders in high places (with help from his sometime actress, prostitute, spy girlfriend) in 4 novels by C. S. Harris. I'm about 80th on the waiting list for the 4th in the series.

Oh, then there's my favorite so far this year, and not just because of the name. Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News. It takes a while to get going but when it does, hold on to your hat. You'll love that teenage girl and older heroine even more than the featured detectives.

That's it for now. Got a bunch of books on Christianity as it was before Constantine (to say nothing of the Apostle Paul) twisted things around to create a religion unrecognizable by the early followers of Jesus. Enough for now.

See also:

25 April 2009

From the prairie

Nancy and I just enjoyed our latest Netflix video, Scotland, PA (second viewing). It's a film we found unexpectedly when it was new in 2001. It's a contemporary rendition of Macbeth done, as the director said, for those kids in high school who read the Cliff Notes version while getting high. Most ot it works pretty well for those of us who read the real thing while straight. It's worth checking out.

But, it's over and I'm still awake on Saturday night.

Bird Loomis, just in from Baghdad and soon to be off for Jarkarta, wrote from Lawrence, KS. (Bird might have grown up near Scotland, PA.)

One of my great pleasures is to read mysteries (and all fiction) with a strong sense of place. K.C. Constantine's Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, is outstanding, as is Steve Hamilton's Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I've never set foot. Likewise, C.J. Box's Wyoming, and so forth.

This becomes relevant, in that Dennis Lehane's recent The Given Day offers up his usual wonderful depictions of Boston with a twist - it's the city of 1919 that provides the setting for a novel based on the police strike of that year.

As a reader, I'm a sucker for first-rate historical fiction; it's a “two-fer” that delivers both lots of easily digested information as well as a compelling story line. My personal favorite here is Gore Vidal's Burr, which offers a highly persuasive analysis of the tangled Burr-Hamilton relationship, wrapped in a truly entertaining fictional package. Lehane's tale may not rise quite to the significance, literary achievement, or the pleasure of Vidal's work, but it's close.

Over the years, Lehane has moved from writing a series of highly competent crime novels to producing a superb stand-alone crime novel (Mystic River) and a mediocre thriller (Shutter Island). With the exception of this last effort, his work uses blue-collar Boston as a richly detailed venue.

More than most crime writers, Lehane brings his characters to light through their links to place. Indeed, they're often prisoners of their personal geography, albeit willingly so on occasion. Lehane possesses a cinematographer's eye, so it's little wonder that Mystic River won an Academy Award and that both the book and the film transcended the crime genre. In many ways, the under-rated Gone, Baby, Gone may be the equal of Mystic River as a film, and it served as a transition for Lehane between his crime writing and his more recent fiction.

For all his development as a novelist, however, Dennis Lehane had given little indication, at least with his long-form fiction, that he was ready to produce a major historical novel. But that's just what he's done. Lehane begins his story with a wonderful set piece - of Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox traveling east during the 1918 World Series. Their train requires repairs, and first Ruth, then a number of other players, happen upon a pick-up baseball game among a group of talented black amateurs. This thirty-page short story, while complete in itself, is tied into one story line that is reminiscent of Ragtime in addressing the racism of the day.

Just as Ruth is headed for Boston, so is the story, with a rich mix of first and second generation Irish grappling with issues of duty, unionization, and various pecking orders, both social and economic. Dennis Coughlin, a young, talented police officer and son of a much-admired captain, finds himself torn between his loyalty to the force (along with his ambitions) and an increasing recognition of the plight of most police officers, who suffer on low wages and insulting working conditions.

The 700-page book also includes a racial subplot, some romance, and the appearance of a young J. Edgar Hoover, a stiff and officious Calvin Coolidge, the revolutionary John Reed, and of course, the Bambino, who ends the book, riding with Coughlin to New York, where they will both begin new lives in 1919.

Dennis Lehane knows how to write dialogue that keeps the narrative moving, as well as edging up to the line of improbability without crossing it. I have no clue whether he'll go back to crime novels, or head to ward even more unfamiliar ground. But he's demonstrated both his adventuresome nature and his substantial talent, and one would hope that his ambition continues to move him in new directions.

Brief extension.
Ian Rankin and Lee Child are among my favorite crime writers. Rankin's John Rebus, an Edinburgh police detective [played by John Stott at left], and Child's Jack Reacher, an ex-military loner, are predictable characters in their own ways, and one doesn't look to either for great surprises. Rather, one hopes that Rankin and Child will deliver the goods.

After reading ten or so Rankin novels and six or seven Child books, I find that I'm not at all tired of Rebus, the phlegmatic Scot, who can be downright unpleasant, but never uninteresting. Reacher, on the other hand, is pretty much a one-trick pony, although his trick - winning against all odds, then walking away, is often a compelling one. Still, in two recent books, Rankin's A Question of Blood entertains at a high level. Indeed, Rankin is as good a crime writer as any writing today.

Lee Child surely does continue to entertain, but in Nothing to Lose Jack Reacher seems, to me, to be going through the motions as he seeks to understand the strange politics of the twin Colorado towns of Hope and Despair. It's not quite as corny as this set up would suggest, but the humor in the names eventually peters out. [Lee Child portrays Jack Reacher in a New York Public Library mock trial at right.]

For those who have read neither Rankin nor Child, they're both first-rate, but for the long haul Ian Rankin's John Rebus is by far the more compelling character. With Child, the sequence of the books is not too important, but the Rankin volumes are best read in order. That way you have to wait a bit, and become familiar with Rebus, before reading the best of the series - Redemption Men. It's well worth the wait.

20 April 2009

Human story

David and I had some spare time because Little Tel Aviv was closed on Wednesday for Passover prepartion. Instead of lunching there, we ate at Subway.

Where do we often end up in our spare time? A bookstore. I really wasn't going to buy anything because I had three books on the pile at home -- one of them a library book.

But, the title, artwork, adn the plot teaser tempted me and I gave in.

It turns out that William Kent Krueger lives in Minnesota, and the story in Thunder Bay takes place in northern Minnesota and Ontario.

It's a story that spans more than 70 years and involves a lot of secrets that people believe they are keeping from one another. You know, like those secrets within families that really aren't secrets. In this story, as in so many of those family "secrets," many people know part of the secret, but no one knows all of the secret.

One bit of the story involves a 90-year-old Ojibwe shaman. Another bit centers on an eccentric and very successful mining company executive. Other bits involve domestic life of an all-America murder mystery/adventure feature family and the mourning of a retired and recently-widowed cop. There are Hallmark moments involving a young boy and dogs. There are frightening moments involving people killing each other. There are a couple of sad love stories. There is intrigue and mystery.

And Krueger is a good story teller. Characters are well-drawn. He doesn't venture too far into the implausible. I never lost interest or felt rushed by the story-telling. He's written seven other books like this one (according to his publisher), and he's won 8 minor-league prizes for them. I may go looking for another someday, but since I bought this one, I've read 3 books and there are still 3 more on the bedside table.

If you've read Thunder Bay or another of Krueger's books, let us know what you think.

13 April 2009

Narrow focus. Too bad.

I was getting anxious about reporting on another bit of light reading I'd done. Shouldn't I be reading more substantial books? I even started a non-fiction book (more about that when I've finished).

Then it occurred to me that my serious, substantial, non-fiction reading does not come in books. In fact, most of it isn't even on paper.

Every day, I read headlines in at least 16 online news sources (they really aren't newspapers). And that doesn't take into account the fact that one of those sources provides links to half a dozen Nigerian newspapers' web sites.

I also read entries in at least half a dozen blogs.

And I write about how to teach with one or two of the articles I read in my teaching comparative blog for teachers (and some students) of comparative politics. When necessary, I also write updates to my book, a study guide for students of AP Comparative Government and Politics. I also labor through textbooks when new editions come out.

So, I guess I can read chewing gum "literature" in my spare time. And I shouldn't feel embarrassed.

Therefore, let me introduce Skeleton Lake, A Nik Kane Alaska Mystery by Mike Doogan that I picked up at the Northfield Public Library. [A Skeleton Lake at right]

When I saw "Alaska" on the cover, I probably was thinking of Dana Stabenow, who has done a fine job of writing adventures and mysteries set in Alaska. The bits of sea ice floating in the cover illustration probably made me think of the season just passed. And I really did want to read a new author's work.

Mike Doogan is a newspaper columnist and an Alaskan state legislator. He writes in complete sentences and spells all his words correctly (or at least his editors insist that he does). He tells this Nik Kane story in a complicated way.

Nik Kane, nearly washed-up old detective is coming in and out of consciousness during the first half of the book. He was badly wounded and in his pain-killer facilitated dreams, he sometimes recalls his childhood and other times a vexing 20-year-old murder he never solved. It's an intriguing plot device, and over time, I felt like I got to know Kane a little bit. Not much, mind you, but a little. But I never cared about him. If he'd died on page 50, I wouldn't have missed him and the story could have continued somehow. But he didn't die.

His childhood traumas matter a great deal to the 60-year-old Kane, but I never got to the point of empathizing with his pain and longing. His ruminations on the old homicide never really got me interested.

Then, on page 234 of a 300-page book, I read what Doogan's story should have been about. Describing Kane's family, Doogan writes, "A nun, a volcano about to erupt, a gay guy, a beauty queen, and a lifestyle-a-minute drifter, Kane thought. Does that make me the normal one? God help us all."

This should have been a book about the Kane family. Add Kane, the cop who spent 7 years in prison, his sister who died of breast cancer, and a brother who disappeared into the maw of Vietnam to the crew described above. I almost drool thinking of the stories surrounding those 8 people. Why did Doogan choose to write about Nik Kane? Why not write about the nun? Or the volcano of a brother who, "looked like hell; overweight, unshaven, and in need of a haircut. He was the one who had the most conventional life; a wife, five kids, a big house in the Seattle suburbs, an important job, a deacon in the church... There was something in there fighting to get out and it didn't look like it would be pretty when it emerged."? Or Barry, who was a hotel manager in Bangkok, who "lived with somebody named Kongsangchai who everyone was careful not to ask about."? etc. etc.

Harriet Klausner liked it better than I did. If you read it, let us know what you think. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.