28 January 2010

More from "Michael Stanley"

On her Facebook page, Kit Naylor pointed out this blog post written by Michael Sears (half of the Michael Stanley writing duo).

The Quality Mystery
One evening last week when the new Kubu novel had been put to bed for the day, Stan and I talked about the issue of quality in mystery novels. We started off discussing what we thought quality meant, and ended up wondering if it meant anything at all beyond personal taste...

Stan and I came to the conclusion that it was all a mystery and went to bed. Can anyone help us with this mystery of quality?

21 January 2010

Questions, questions

Bird Loomis wrote after reading about my experience with Michael Connelly on CD:

"Never been a bad Harry Bosch book. It is interesting to read about aging detectives. Just read the most recent Ian Rankin book, in which Inspector Rebus finally retires. Does an author have his /her protagonist age or not? What I like about Bosch and Rebus is that they reflect back on the past, sometimes addressing issues from past cases. K.C Constantine had Mario Balzac retire, bu tit didn't quite work. I wonder if Rebus will find a way back?"

All I can add is that somewhere I read that Connelly has written a book about Harry Bosch's younger half-brother. Harry might get to retire and Connelly could write on.

A book I didn't read

I had a long drive last month. I've found that audio books (I still want to call them books on tape) make long drives a lot more tolerable than any other minimal distraction. Freeway driving is tedious, but paying attention -- even semi-consciously -- is important. Music is not enough of a distraction. A video is too much. Talk radio is too episodic. But, a decent book, read by a decent actor is just about right.

The day before I left, I went to the Northfield Library and looked through the collection of books on CD. I came home with a 9 CD version of Michael Connelly's Echo Park.

It was only a 4-CD drive, but I was hooked on Echo Park. I spent time quietly listening to the last 5 CDs after I got home. Connelly is a great story teller. And it helps that Len Cariou was the reader. Cariou played Shakespearean roles in Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a neo-classical role at Minneapolis' Guthrie (that I remember as intimidating), and musical and comedy roles on Broadway. Cariou never tried to impersonate the characters in Connelly's story, but he acted the parts and kept the voices distinct.

Echo Park is a story that features Connelly's dective Harry Bosch as a 60-something guy reflecting on his career and life while being reminded of an old murder he couldn't solve. The reminder was a confession to the murder by a guy caught with two dismembered corpses in his van. However, things are hardly ever what they seem in these books. And Harry Bosch is hardly ever the normal cop. That's why he deserves to be the featured character in so many of Connelly's novels.

The beginning of the book is a flashback to a key scene in the old murder. Here's a very good video version of that opening scene.

There are politics, romance, suspense, danger, and action in this book -- as in all the other Harry Bosch novels. Those are reasons the books are so popular.

The other reason for the popularity is Harry Bosch. Connelly has been creating this character for so long, that Harry is a pretty complete "person." He's dedicated to justice for victims more than he is to law and order, exacting police protocols and political correctness. He's haunted by demons from his past and separation from his daughter who is growing up far away from LA. It's the edginess and the vulnerability that makes him attractive.

Son Jim pointed me to the Harry Bosch novels long ago (thanks, Jim), and now I've read three and listened to one. I have another on my bedside stand that I think I'll get around to soon.

Have you read Echo Park or another of Connelly's mysteries? What did you think? Write and tell this little part of the world about your reaction.

20 January 2010

Death in the desert

A couple weeks ago, Gary Sankary wrote about A Carrion Death, a book he'd just read. He said he "loved it."

He wrote just after he got his Sony Reader and a library card from the Amery, Wisconsin library. I don't know if he read the book on his Reader or "borrowed" the book from Amery. Those are just coincidental facts I know.

Gary's recommendation sent me to the Northfield Public Library where I found a copy of A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley. The book is a murder mystery set in the capital of Botswana [capital city, left]. (Go ahead and click on that link to the Wikipedia page about Botswana or this link to the CIA World Factbook page on the country. The CIA has a much better map. You know you want to find out where it is and what it's like.)

Michael Stanley is actually two guys, a Michael and a Stanley. Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Trollip lives part of the year (presumably the warmer part) in Minnesota and part of the year in South Africa where Sears lives.

The book is over 400 pages of darn good story telling. These guys work well together. I especially liked the numerous short little chapters that advanced the story and made it easy for me to read a few before sleep and pick up where I left off when I awoke.

The book revolves around Detective David "Kubu" Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. If you're expecting some kind of exotic Third World tale involving primitive sleuthing and technology, you'll be disappointed. Kubu, a huge man nicknamed "hippo" (in English), is a thorough, rational, thoughtful investigator. His forensic support team provides him with trace evidence identification, finger print comparisons, DNA analysis, and numerous other CSI-type services. He doesn't hike through the veld. He drives a department Land Rover. He doesn't ride a decrepit third class rail coach from HQ to the other end of the country, he flies. There is a peripheral character who shows up with mystical messages about what's going on, but he wouldn't be out of place in a seance in New Orleans or a fortune teller's front room in Queens.

The carrion death that opens the story of the complex mystery is the discovery of a murder victim's corpse, torn apart by hyenas at a wilderness water hole. Identifying features are missing, although the body is of a white man. Is it a wandering tourist? A European geologist? A gangster? No one knows. No one is reported missing at first. Detective Kubu goes to work even though his boss is a friend of one person who might be involved.

One thing I liked is that Kubu has a wife and parents and in-laws that he's involved with. He goes home after work (although not as soon as his wife would like). He and the Mrs. spend Sundays with his parents. He invites friends to dinner. He's not as overwhelmed and obsessed by the job as many of the stars of mystery novels.

Oh, yes, the mystery. As Kubu investigates, more people are found who are connected to the place and perhaps to the dead man. Then a couple more people are obviously murdered, and evidence connects them to the carrion death. And all this in a country whose geography is dominated by the Kalahari Desert and the Makgadikgadi salt flats (most of the people live near the rivers in the east and north of the country); a country that can't produce food, but has very profitable diamond mines. What begins to look like the cover up of a scheme to sell blood diamonds, becomes something insanely different.

And Michael and Stanley tell the story well. There's another Detective Kubu mystery in existence and a third on the way. I'll be keeping my eye out for them.

See also:

The end of newspapers?

Marc Reigel wrote from Ohio about a book he enjoyed recently. It's not one many people are likely to have seen, but you can probably find it if you look at the bottom of this entry.
I recently read Late Edition, by Bob Greene, who hails from Columbus, Ohio. I enjoyed the book for a variety of reasons:
  1. It's about the decline and almost sure demise of the printed newspaper as a part of American life, and therefore it's a commentary on the gains and losses of "progress";

  2. my dad ran a small town newspaper from 1956 to 1974, and those times provided a "micro-scale" example of the things Greene identifies in his experience as a reporter for the long-defunct Columbus Citizen-Journal;

  3. and finally, I really enjoyed Greene's journalistic style–perhaps because of my experiences as a newspaper man's son, but just as likely because of my twenty years as an English teacher, pleading with adolescents to "write in active voice!"

So, I wrote an email to Bob Greene, since, SURPRISE!, his email address appears on the book jacket! I'll include it here to illustrate how I felt about the book and why I'm recommending it to the readers of ReadingBlog:
Hi, Bob–Thanks for recommending that I read your latest book, Final Edition, a while back. I just finished it yesterday, on a plane flying back from frigid Tampa (where the golf vacation was frozen out but the computer worked just fine).

As I might have told you in previous correspondence, my dad was the publisher of a small-town newspaper in Minnesota from 1956 to 1974. I witnessed first-hand the Frankenstein-ian changes you describe in Final Edition, from the elimination of the linotype operators (my dad employed a blind man to do that job for the once-a-week Photo News in Owatonna, MN) to the "cold-type" process that preceded computerization–costing the blind man his job. Then on to the reduction in advertising revenue (I clearly recall eating at local restaurants on " due bills"). Then on to the nationalization of the news sources (the competitor, The Daily People's Press, soon carried national columnists--perhaps even your columns appeared there). Then on to oblivion: after he sold the paper in 1974, the new owner turned the Photo News into a weekly "flyer" devoted to advertising only, no photos, no news . . . . it lasted a year.

So, as I read the book, I felt like I was the cognizenti: smelling the hot lead of the linotype, seeing the paste-pots, feeling the smoothness of the high-quality newsprint (after all, my dad's paper WAS the Photo News), tasting the sandwiches brought back to the city desk by a copy boy . . . .

Somewhere around 1960-61, I worked episodically and not particularly dexterously as a paper-assembler on Wednesday nights. My job was to lay the first page on the conveyor belt so the rest of the "assemblers"–all girls, and all with much faster fingers than mine–could place successive pages on the soon-to-be-folded paper.

My "work" there was, I now realize, my dad's attempt to give me, literally "hands-on" experience in the production of the paper. I would have been better off if he would have let me write a few words, I think! After all, I ended up teaching high school English for twenty years before I made up my current job as a consultant to school districts, parts of which include writing grants, reports, and improvement plans.

I wanted to share a little of "my story" with you, since I so resonated to the anecdotes, personalities, and events you describe in Final Edition. They took place across the country, in thousands of newspapers, big and small, large circulations of 100,000 or a million, and the 5,000 papers my dad's little enterprise produced one-a-week in rural Minnesota.

Something has been lost in translation, I think, to introduce a movie metaphor, with the inevitable demise of the "real" newspaper–the one you could hold, feel, read, think about, shuffle, use to start a fire or wrap a fish.

Thank you, Bob, for writing an appropriate epitaph for the enterprise . . . .

Marc Reigel
Grandview, Ohio

And then, Mr. Greene wrote back to me:
In writing Late Edition, I tried to tell the story the way I did for this reason: I hoped that, by telling the story of that one mezzanine newsroom, I could come close to getting down on paper what it is we all may be losing as the inevitable changes in the newspaper world, and in America, take place. What you said in your letter-- especially those great stories you told about the Photo News, and your experiences there-- tells me that you understand all of this very well.

I'm honored. If you think any of your friends might like the story in the pages of Late Edition, I'd be very grateful if you would recommend it to them. I'd like for this book to reach the people who will appreciate it the most, and you may know who some of those people are. I hope the sound of all that laughter and good times in the long-ago city room will reach them.

Thank you again for your thoughtfulness, and your kind words. It means a lot to me.

Bob Greene

I thought this interchange illustrated something about writing, too.

Perhaps writing promotes making connections between writer and reader on a deeper, more personal level than, say, speaker and listener. Writing can be viewed on the reader's time; speaking needs to be heard on the speaker's time. You know, now that we are clearly, if not officially, well past "middle age"–oh, all right, I suppose 65 can be the new 45, at least for an evening–I find that reading trumps listening on issues I want to explore more fully.

So, I'm recommending Late Edition for readers who might resonate to that concept. A reader can read the book as though he or she might read a newspaper–if there were any newspapers left to read; and, yes, the style is journalistic: crisp sentences, sharp words, few adjectives, active voice.

Perhaps something has, indeed, been lost in translation with the loss of a bit of Americana: the daily, if not twice-a-day, newspaper.

Thanks for sponsoring this forum for sharing ideas about books, for so long and so well, Ken. As Bob Greene says, "It means a lot to me."

Here at the ReadingBlog, we'll remain a venue for reading and asynchronous written discussion -- even on the Internets (as long as it doesn't get as expensive as mailing costs did for the actual newsletter. You're welcome and thanks for all the good words, Marc.

RIP Robert B. Parker

Gary Sankary pointed out the blogger at Swanshadow who noted the passing of one prolific author.

The final bullet
Books live forever. Authors, sadly, do not.

Robert B. Parker has been my favorite novelist since 1977, when I checked out Mortal Stakes, the third novel in his now-legendary series of books featuring the one-named private detective Spenser, from the Novato High School library and immediately fell in love. (In a purely platonic and literary sort of way.) I quickly went back and read the two preceding novels in the skein, The Godwulf Manuscript and God Save the Child.

My life has never been the same...

19 January 2010

Poetry on Capitol Hill, DC

Bird Loomis from Lawrence, KS, pointed out this article about an English prof working for a Senator. (I wonder if Garrison Keillor and POEM know about Huck Gutman?)

Huck Gutman brings a bit of poetry and verse to U.S. Senate colleagues
The old friends -- the senator, Bernie Sanders, and the chief of staff, Huck Gutman -- live a Washington paradigm: a fraction of a life here, a fraction elsewhere. For some, Washington can never be a whole place. "At times for us, it can be a lonely road," Gutman says one afternoon…

Gutman, a pleasantly rumpled 66-year-old with a thick, gray Vandyke beard and a puckish glint in his eyes, is searching for the right words to explain Washington in a windowless basement restaurant of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He pauses, starts to say something, stops and looks around. A stray senator chats quietly with an aide a few tables over. To his left, a reporter tries to extract secrets; to his right, papers are being shuffled. Conversation hovers at low-hum.

"This is a very strange world we're eating in the middle of," he confides. "It's entirely absorbed with itself. It's all so inside the Beltway. I feel the occasional need to break out of this world."

And so it is that he began lobbing poems into the e-mail inboxes of every chief of staff in the Senate. Each note offers escape through verse. Meaty, challenging, thought-provoking lines, accompanied by pages and pages of Gutman's analysis. Poetry that has nothing to do with cloture votes or amendments or motions to recommit. Poetry intended to get his BlackBerry-addicted, tunnel-visioned, life-as-a-treadmill colleagues to think about the "huge dimensions of life that get shortchanged" in the grinder that is Capitol Hill.

Gutman, you see, is also an English professor, though he's on an extended leave of absence from the University of Vermont. Poetry is his way of connecting on a different plane…

Incongruently, one reader Gutman can't seem to reach is his buddy, Sanders. They have been friends for years… Even though they "talk for hours, talk about everything," Gutman still hasn't managed to turn Sanders into a poetry fan…

Still, Gutman always finds others to enlighten. Little by little, he becomes a kind of Capitol pied piper of poetry. His poetry e-mail list is approaching 1,500 recipients, including many former students and literary thinkers from around the world. ("You will publish the address, so people can sign up, won't you?" Gutman says one afternoon. Sure, Huck. It's LISTSERV@lit.uvm.edu.)...

Icelandic treasure

Last August, I was mildly interested in Arnaldur Indriðason's Jar City. In September, I read Indriðason's The Draining Lake. I remember liking it, especially because there was more going on in the book besides describing a mysterious death and unraveling the clues leading to an explanation. I wanted to read more of what Indriðason had to say.

Another of the books I picked up at the pre-Christmas sale at the Carleton bookstore was Indriðason's Voices. It turns out that this book was written after Jar City and before The Draining Lake. Well, now I may have to go back and reread both of them.

Voices is a very good book. Maybe I missed things in the other two. I did comment when writing about Jar City as a "nice" book, that there was another story going on that involved the main character's daughter. After reading Voices, I want to read about that more carefully.

The complexity I mentioned when I wrote about The Draining Lake exists in Voices as well. I want to go back and see if there are things I missed in that complexity.

Why did I like Voices so much?

Well, first of all, I would have titled it Ghosts, even though Voices is a direct translation from the Icelandic title Röddin. Ghosts would have been misleading because it's very much not a ghost story. But nearly every character in the book is haunted by people and events from the past. And they're not haunted in subtle, Freudian ways. Their everyday behavior is directed and controlled by their memories.

At first the story appears to be about a random murder with no motive and no suspect. But as main character Inspector Erlendur asks questions, things get more and more complicated. And when people begin telling more truths, the murder case gets even more complex. Before long there are many possible motives and suspects.

The mystery story is a story that is well-told and unfolds as Inspector Elendur asks questions and thinks things through. I felt like I shared with Elendur the gradual revelation of what really happened in a dark hallway in the basement of one of Reykjavik's hotels.

But there are many other stories in this book. They're about abandoned and abused children. It turns out that the murder victim, some of the suspects, Erlendur, his daughter, one of Erlendur's colleagues, a boy featured in a sub-plot, and a couple other characters fall into the category of people handicapped by abuse and neglect.

Inspector Erlendur is disturbing to me as a character with no ability to reflect on his own behavior or break out of destructive patterns even though he knows he should want to. The backstory in this book helps explain that character and his incredible relationship with his children, especially his daughter. That father-daughter relationship develops in this book and that makes me want to go back to Jar City and be reminded what was said about it there.

As in The Draining Lake, there's an interplay between the mystery story and the back stories in Voices. Since the stories this time centered around parents and children, I am tempted to dig out Hamlet (last read on a rainy day in Copenhagen nearly 20 years ago) and reread that as well.

All this wondrous complexity suggests that there are more interesting stories in others of Indriðason's books. He's written 13, ten of which have been translated into English. I have Arctic Chill (2009) on my bedside table and some re-reading to do. Indriðason could become a project for 2010.

Carol Stoops recommended Jar City. Thank you, Carol. Jar City led me to The Draining Lake. Anybody read any other of Indriðason's books and have comments? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

See also:

11 January 2010

Details about Michael Stanley

Heads up for anyone (Gary Sankary?) interested in learning more about "Michael Stanley."

From Janet Rudolph's Mystery Fanfare blog, a guest posting by Stanley Trollip, who is half of the team that writes under the name of Michael Stanley (see A Carrion Death).

Partners in Crime: Michael Stanley.

Rudolph wrote, as an introduction, "Continuing the Partners in Crime series here on Mystery Fanfare, I asked Stan Trollip, one half of the writing team known as Michael Stanley to Guest Blog about writing collaboration."

Two bonuses are photographs of Trollip and his writing partner Michael Sears. Some people might be excited to know that a third Michael Stanley novel is nearly done.

10 January 2010

Early in the last century

Dan Conrad wrote with another enthusiastic recommendation.
After reading your latest blog, I may be adding to your reading load by suggesting something that could put you even further behind.

I just finished Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd and it is, in my opinion, a terrific book. Its the first in what they promise to be a series of Bess Crawford mysteries.

Actually, I think Jacqueline Winspear could have a copyright case against them as Bess Crawford is so like Masie Dobbs you could switch the names and never suspect the difference: she's a plucky WWI British nurse to start with.

Still it is, if anything, even better. The characters are so interesting I didn't even notice that 90 pages had gone by and there was no real mystery yet, just a highly engaging narrative. But once the mystery starts to unravel, well, don't plan on going to bed early.

I am also wondering if you have read other books by the mother-son team that goes by the name Charles Todd. I see they have a whole series of mysteries featuring Ian Rutledge and am wondering if you are aquainted with those. This is the first I have heard of Charles Todd, but I suspect that's not the case with you.

First, this is the first I've heard of Charles Todd (whoever they may be).

Second, even if it's merely as good a Masie Dobbs story, it will probably be worth my time.

Third, I found A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley at the Northfield Library and began reading it today while David and I were at the laundromat (five loads for the family this week and doing them simultaneously rather than sequentially was worth a trip to the south edge of town). So far, Gary Sankary is on target: it's an engaging story about an exotic place.

And Michael Stanley, like Charles Todd, is a pseudonym for a pair of writers. One of the pair who make up Michael Stanley has Minnesota connections.

Fourth, I still have Echo Park by Michael Connolly and Voices by Arnaldur Indriðason to write about (and Voices is very good).

Fifth, reading good books at leisure is not a burden ("adding to your reading load"). And, as an old retired guy, I have more leisure than most people and more than I used to have, so recommendations are always welcome. Even if the list grows longer. (I have another Arnaldur Indriðason book on my bedside table already.)

What to do first? What to do first?

08 January 2010

African mysteries

I am falling behind. I have two books to write about. I did just finish the next to last chapter on a textbook project, so maybe I'll have time.

Meanwhile, Gary Sankary wrote from Apple Valley, MN, "BTW, just finished the first Detective Kubu book, have you read that one?

"I read Carrion Death by Michael Stanley and loved it."

That's enough to send me off to the library tomorrow. Has anyone else read that or The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu?

06 January 2010

Needed: suggestons for a potential teacher

Dan Conrad's son, now in his mid-20s, dumped his post-college corporate job last summer and headed for Japan to teach English.

He really likes what he's doing and suspects he might want to teach when he returns to the states.

He asked his dad for books, "You asked what I wanted for my b'day and I was thinking that one idea would be a book about teaching elementary or middle school. Either a story from a teacher or even a book on education theory."

So, Dan is looking for recommendations.

Do you have any? Add them as comments or send the to me and I'll pass them on to the birthday gift-buying dad.

05 January 2010

Oh, darn

Nevada Barr has written many good mysteries set in U.S. National Parks. Several have been suspenseful and violent. One, set in Carlsbad Caverns, was too intense, dark, and deep in the earth for me. Most have been very good, partly based on Barr's work as a park ranger in several of the parks she wrote about.

(See Winter with Wolves and Worse, Along the Rio Grande, Endangered Species, Firestorm, What a Deal!, High Country, and Hunting Season.)

Our book supplier, banker Mary, dropped a new Nevada Barr book at our house at Christmas time. Its setting is not a National Park and its main character is not Park Ranger Anna Pigeon. It's much more a suspense and terror story than a mystery. It's set in New Orleans. The title is 13½.

One of the main characters is a serial killer. Even the survivors at the end are victims. The plot resembles a masquerade ball in which it's difficult to know who is who.

Barr tells the story in disjointed chapters that aren't quite short stories in themselves. There's little insight into the minds of the main characters until the very end of the book, and by then the insights seem abnormal. And by that point, I had figured out who was who in the masquerade, but I didn't really care. I finished it only to see how Barr pulled the strings together at the end, not because I was really interested in the story any more.

Maybe this was practice for writing outside a genre and a framework. I wish Barr well in another, better endeavor.

Then again, maybe 13½ was too intense, dark, and deep for me and I should go back to reading depressing Swedish mysteries that are so much the rage that there are bookstores in Germany that specialize in them.

If anyone else reads 13½, write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it. I really would like to know about someone else's reaction.

Tell this little bit of the world...

I keep inviting you to offer your opinions on books here.

If you write about a book, like Bird Loomis did recently, your words get published as a regular blog entry.

However, if you offer a comment on something already written here, I have been adding those as "Comments" on the original.

Turns out that I didn't realize how thoroughly those "Comments" were buried in the blog.

Oops! Sorry.

For instance, Dan Conrad responded to my negative reaction to Kjell Eriksson's book. A couple weeks later, he asked if I'd missed his comments.

I hadn't missed the comments, I'd thoughtlessly buried them in the "Comments" section.

From now on, your comments will become new blog entries with a link to the original entry.

Here's how Dan reacted to my thoughts about The Cruel Stars of the Night.
I agree. I read Cruel Stars of Night a couple years ago and quit about 1/3 of the way through (which I almost never do) as by that time I didn't care one iota what happened to any of the characters. It was so bad I have sworn off Swedish mysteries since -- except for Stieg Larsson. I see I was wise not to finish it.

I really do want to encourage you to add your 2 (or 3) cents' worth to this forum. From now on, your comments will get as much emphasis as whatever I find worth saying.

03 January 2010

Flashbacks as bad as the present

When I was shopping a few weeks ago at the Carleton bookstore discount day, I picked up another mystery by Craig Johnson. Back in November, when I read Death without Company, I was intrigued, but not sold on Johnson's writing. But I thought it was worth reading another.

So, I bought Another Man's Moccasins, "the fourth book in Craig Johnson's award-winning Walt Longmire series..."

This one was better. It's a complex story that begins in Vietnam in 1968, involves some post-traumatic stress, and concludes in northern Wyoming's Absaroka County in the early 21st century. Johnson tells the story well. The flashbacks to '68 are vivid and detailed. The investigation of the death of Vietnamese woman in northern Wyoming, who had a 40-year-old photo of Sheriff Longmire in her pocket, lurches along, as I imagine things do in real life (not like the smooth, budget-free sailing in 48-minute TV episodes).

I came to like and care about the main characters in this story. Maybe they're more realistic by this fourth novel. (Death without Company was the second.)

This book gets at least one Heart of Gold for improbabilities, but they are in the set up of the plot, not the events. That makes them more forgivable to me.

So, I recommend this one. If you read it, let us know what you think. Write and tell this little bit of the world how you responded to it.