19 December 2011

Started early, took a long time

I wasn't totally discouraged by my attempts to make sense of Kate Atkinson's first novel. I still had good memories about Case Histories. Besides, I'd bought a paperback copy of the newest of Atkinson's books about the adventures of Jackson Brodie, Started Early, Took My Dog. Not only was it a paperback book, I bought it at the end of term sale at Carleton's book store.

As with Case Histories, the book starts out with a plethora of names and few other identifiers. I finally resorted to taking notes, like I did when I read Queen of the Night. Some of the people figured prominently in the stories. Some of the people just happened to be in the area. I was over two-thirds of the way into the book before I could stop checking my notes every couple paragraphs. Here are the notes I took at the back of the book. (I long for the days of the huge Russian novels I used to read that had the casts of characters listed at the front of the book.)

It was about two-thirds of the way into the book that Atkinson began to really tell her main story. That's probably why I didn't have to refer to my character notes as much. Atkinson has stories, lots of them: backstories, side stories, distracting stories, main stories. At the beginning there are few hints about which is which. And she writes little scenes from these stories and seemingly throws them into the book, often without warning. No chapters to speak of. Sometimes a date, sometimes not. Sometimes a horizontal line between scenes, sometimes not. And there are lots of people. Did I say that already?

I really don't want to work this much for a diverting mystery story (or two). I'm having second thoughts about going back and reading the two other Jackson Brodie books. In addition, the plots of the two main stories are, to my mind, overly complex. And the resolution was too quick and slick. It was almost as though Atkinson's word processor told her she had written 100,000 words and she felt she needed to end the book before she got to 105,000 words. [The endings of the television series Bones are like that. (It's one of the three or four TV series that gets watched at our house.) Big mystery, fantastical scientific investigation, a little detective work, and in the last 2 minutes the bad guy confesses or is said to have been arrested. Quick and slick.]

I liked wondering about the main mystery and one of the subsidiary ones. There was one good red herring. Some of the over-complexity was caused by a less than interesting back story. Jackson Brodie needs to get over himself before there's another story about him. Atkinson has to get over over-complicating her novels. Complexity and obscurity do not make for better story telling. (Although at times I think that's what critics imply.)

Have you read Started Early, Took My Dog? What did you think? Anyone besides Dan read other Kate Atkinson books? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your response. Or you can just post a comment at the end of this blog entry.

05 December 2011


I have read half a dozen of Thomas Perry's books. I have really liked them. (Search for Perry at the Delicious index for this blog.)

I picked up a recent Perry book at the library. It's one of a series he's written featuring Jane Whitefield: Runner. Jane Whitefield is a kind of magician who helps make people disappear because really bad guys are threatening their lives. She pulls out wads of cash, piles of previously established identities, formidable martial arts skills, and years of experience to create new people out of old ones.

Here are the Heart of Gold and Green Lantern awards for improbabilities and super heroism. The story is overwhelmed by those characteristics.

The other thing to note is that Perry's skills in creating and maintaining tension and suspense are as great as his sense of humor (that appears in his other books). Given the nature of the story: professionals searching across the country for a scared, pregnant, 20-year-old, tension and suspense cannot be relieved until the end of the story. Okay, but I'm not obligated to read 440 pages of gripping fear and anxiety. I read about half way through the book and then skipped to the last three chapters just to see how Perry tied up the loose ends.

Have you read Runner or another of Perry's "Jane Whitefield" novels? What did you think of it (them)? How did you deal with the tension? Is my imagination just too active? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

02 December 2011

Help. What am I missing?

Back at the end of September, I had the pleasure of reading Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. In October, I had the pleasure of seeing the three mystery novels about Jackson Brodie (the first of which was Case Histories) turned into BBC mysteries on the PBS series Masterpiece Mystery. I'm still looking forward to reading the other two Brodie mysteries. But not because of Atkinson's prize winning first book.

Because Case Histories was so good, I headed for the library with Atkinson's name on the top of my to-read list. I had several books to choose from and checked out Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Back in '95, the book was named the Whitbread Book of the Year (now called the Costa Book of the Year). It's a respectable British prize. According to the prize's web site, "The Costa Book Awards is one of the UK's most prestigious and popular literary prizes and recognises some of the most enjoyable books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland."

According to the relevant Wikipedia page, the awards "are given both for high literary merit but also for works that are enjoyable reading and whose aim is to convey the enjoyment of reading to the widest possible audience. As such, they are a more populist literary prize than the Booker Prize."

Notice how I haven't said much about my reaction to the book yet?

I figure I need some instruction about this book.

I only got a bit past half way through it. And I only read that far because I recalled that at about the half-way point the elements of Case Histories began to come together and become a book and a story.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum didn't come together and gave no signs of coming together. It's a mish-mash of partial characterizations, incomplete anecdotes, and confusing descriptions of events.

And it took a long time for me to get half way through the book. I had the tendency to fall asleep after reading a few pages.

By half way through the book, I'd begun to distinguish between some of the characters, but not all of them. There was the narrator, who began telling the story at her conception. Some people in Mississippi might have appreciated the fetus' omniscience, but it was confusing, especially since after her birth, the narrator seemed not to know everything. There was the narrator's sister, Patricia, whose life would have made a more interesting story. The narrator's parents were intriguing, but not terribly interesting. And there were a bunch of other people, most of whom I could not distinguish from one another.

When I gave up on this book, I picked up Thomas Perry's Runner. By page 10, I was hooked on the story and caring about the characters. I really should have dropped the Atkinson book and picked up the Perry book long ago. I'll write something about Runner soon.

So, has anyone read this who can instruct me about why Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a prize-worthy novel? Or has anyone had an experience like my discouraging one? Write and tell me and the rest of this little bit of the world what you think.

05 November 2011

One good read deserves another

I finished the C. J. Box book on a good note. The end of the book was its best section. So I was anxious to read some more. Nancy took the first draft manuscript I was working on to Chicago with her, so I couldn't keep revising that. To keep me off the streets and out of the bars, I read some more.

The other book Mary had left for us was a J. A. Jance book, Fatal Error. This Jance book features Ali Reynolds, former LA news reader and a wanna be cop now living in Arizona on a pile of money she inherited from her late husband. (There's a Jance theme: Reynolds and the star of the Jance book I finished not long ago, J. P. Beaumont, are both rich as Croesus because of what they were left by now-dead spouses.)

The Beaumont book, Betrayal of Trust was a great one for me.

This Ali Reynolds book was nearly as great. I did decide to award it one Heart of Gold for improbabilities and I almost gave it a Green Lantern for superheroics.

But, the stories that Jance tells in this book flow so well and are so integrated, that I enjoyed reading it. It even kept me up past my bedtime last night so I could finish it.

The story begins with a former LA rival of Ali's who was also "let go" by a television station becsause mature women don't attract the right audiences for newscasts. Ali's "friend" starts drinking too much, eating too much, and chasing the wrong men too much.

One of the men she "chases" is online, and when she discovers that the online boyfriend is stringing several women along, she decides to expose the guy and begins interviewing the women he's been virtually involved with. The problem is that one of the names on the list she finds is his employer in a scheme to build and sell drone bombers to really bad guys.

The employer is a no-nonsense, heartless crook who begins offing the people involved with the scheme when they're no longer needed. Ali's friend is down the list, but she is on the list.

The murders involve city and county cops all over east LA and central California, so lots of cops get involved. (I did have fun looking at Salton City in Google Earth since that was one of the settings in the book. Man, what a dump -- even from satellite photos!)

Ali, who has finished police academy training, but is not a cop, works with lots of real cops who are suspicious -- especially when she drops a few thou on a private jet to get an off duty homicide detective from one crime scene to another.

There are lots of complicaitons and lots of nooks and crannies in this story, but they fit together so well. (That is what earns the Heart of Gold award for too many coincidences.) Jance tells the stories well, both through dialogue and narration.

J. A. Jance talks about the origins of two of the stories in Fatal Error.

It's such pure entertainment, that I almost feel guilty enjoying the reading so much.

So, have you read Fatal Error by J. A. Jance? or another of Jance's 43 novels? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it (them).

02 November 2011

Wilderness adventure

Another book that family pusher Mary left with us was C. J. Box's new book, Back of Beyond.

I approached this book with a fair amount of caution. I've liked some of Box's books and disliked others. I was especially cautious after the enthusiastic pleasure of reading J. A. Jance's Betrayal of Trust. Some of Box's books were so violent and intense that I couldn't read the at bedtime. I do need my beauty sleep, you know. Besides, I was in the midst of a writing project of my own. (Be assured, you won't be interested in reading lesson plans for teaching comparative politics.)

So I began slowly and read a chapter at a time sporadically. I was trying to get a feeling for what was to come later. There was a lot of foreshadowing in the early chapters, and I wondered how far I would get into this story. I began anticipating a suspenseful, long, frightening drama of good guys hunting bad guys in the wilderness of Yellowstone.

The main character (Why is it that I resist using the term "star?") is disgraced Denver detective Cody Hoyt. He got a second chance at his career in a county cop shop in rural Montana. Box has created a character so flawed, that he's almost a parody of the mystery/adventure novel "star." Hoyt goes off the deep end (again) when his AA sponsor is killed and his son heads off on a wilderness pack trip with a man who is to become his step-father. Of course, the killer might also be on that pack trip. And no one knows who that killer might be.

Fortunately, to my little mind, Box exercises his writing skills in complicating the plot rather than creating frightening suspense. Horses and bears and wilderness plus competing evil plots and a couple fathers trying to bond with adolescent children, accompanied by an old codger who knows how to handle horses, make a good mix.

Yes, it's violent and bloody, but I wasn't tempted to quit reading. I actually read the last 100 pages avidly.

I really liked Back of Beyond. The flawed main character actually had some redeeming qualities. I'm sure I wouldn't like the guy, but he was brave and smart (mostly). His efforts to find and protect his son were admirable (mostly). My immediate reaction would be that the ends didn't justify the means, but this story is is like one of those ethical dilemmas that appear regularly in philosophy texts. So, maybe the ends did justify the means in this case. (Philosophers can jump in at any time here and present arguments.)

Have you read Back of Beyond or another of Box's novels? Write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted?

16 October 2011

Losses and Recoveries

After struggling through Laurie R. King's latest book, I grabbed a book from a small stack left at our house by Mary, the family book pusher. I wanted to read something entertaining and, if possible, interesting. The book I picked up was J. A. Jance's Betrayal of Trust. It was entertaining and some of the characters were interesting.

There's a story in this book; actually several stories. It's what I was missing in Pirate King. Of course, maybe it was just me and "where" I was when I read it. There are events in Betrayal of Trust. One after another. Some of them seem to causally related (even when they are not). There are a couple of tragedies, some betrayals (as I would expect from the title), there's a revelation, and the beginning of a story of hope warm the hearts of Horatio Alger fans everywhere.

It's a "J. P. Beaumont novel" according to the cover. That means the main actors are Beaumont and his wife and detective partner Mel Soames. They work for the state's attorney general on special investigations. Going back at least as far as Nick and Nora Charles, they are independently wealthy and doing cop jobs because they want to.

The story begins with a snuff film found on the cell phone of the governor's step-grandson. The story expands from there to a suicide, two murders, at least three betrayals, an arson, and another murder. Luckily J.P. and Mel aren't expected to do all the investigating themselves. The AG keeps pulling more people into the case to follow up on clues.

In the midst of this complicated investigation, Beaumont gets an e-mail from an aunt he didn't know he had. He'd grown up with his mother who had been rejected by her family and the family of her lover who died before Beaumont was born. J. P.'s mother never told him who is father was and named him Beaumont after his father's home town. Suddenly there was the prospect of filling in the second half of his family tree. But first there were bullying, murder, and sex abuse cases to resolve.

I enjoyed reading this one. The story swept me along and kept pulling me back to the book as I tried to do other things. Luckily, it was cold and windy at the little cabin on the lake and I didn't really have to work at cleaning and closing during the first 24 hours we were there. I finished in time to write this before I had to tackle spider webs, dirty floors, and cupboards and a refrigerator that needed emptying.

Have you read Betrayal of Trust? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

King's Pirate

Back in September, Nancy and I had the pleasure of meeting Laurie R. King. She is the author of the Mary Russell mysteries featuring Ms Russell and her mentor Sherlock Holmes. King was in town to sign and read from her latest (11th) Russell mystery, Pirate King.

Besides being novelties, Nancy and I thought that the first few Russell mysteries were terrific. We also discovered King's Kate Martinelli series, written about a San Francisco detective. To us, they are equal to the best of the Russell mysteries.

The gems of King's books, in my mind, are the dark, yet hopeful novels about the lengths to which good people will go to do good things. I still wish those books are somewhat based on reality.

But back to Pirate King. The book required lots of research and travel to distant lands. We enjoyed hearing from King about her experience of writing the book. It was a bit weird to have her lead her audience at the reading in an amateurish and off-key new version of a Gilbert and Sullivan classic. (The new words were relevant to the new book.)

It was a treat to hear King read the first chapter. I often imagine an author's voice when I read, and now I'm pretty sure I had King's voice right in my head.

We gladly bought a copy, had King sign it it, and went home looking forward to reading the book that had been so much fun for the author to write. I got to read it first because Nancy was busy finishing a couple big projects.

It took a long time for me to read this book. Things began slowly in this mystery. In fact, the first real "event" didn't take place until half way through the book when one of the main characters pushes the other overboard during a crossing of the Mediterranean. And things didn't pick up much fro that point on.

I came away from the book feeling like I'd read an essay on movie making in the 1920s. (Remember all that research King enjoyed?) Following that was a little travelogue about Portugal, a briefing on heteronyms, a short history of the pirates of Morocco, and a description of an old Moroccan palace where the women of the movie company were held prisoner. (Remember the exotic travel King enjoyed?)

In my mind, stories are made up of events — one following another, often causally related. Essays and travelogues sometimes include themes and even events, but they are not mystery novels. This novel includes a flimsy plot, a bit of intrigue, and a dash of adventure, but it's more essay and travelogue than mystery novel. Enough said (for me).

I know the Russell books sell and they're what the publisher wants, but I want another Kate Martinelli mystery or another Darker Place.

Have you read Pirate King? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

08 October 2011

Old gem

I'm working my way through Laurie R. King's latest book very slowly. So, I'm posting a 2002 entry from the old ReadingOnTheWeb site. It's about a book full of important ideas that's still one of my favorites.

To keep my sanity and to keep my brain cells functioning I must read something besides mysteries and depressing things like Michael Moore's commentary.

Chinua Achebe, like Stephen Jay Gould, is one of my heroes. A wise and perceptive man, he's written several beautiful novels about Nigeria. They may have been works of fiction, but they were true stories.

I picked up his most recent publication, Home and Exile at the Carleton bookstore. It's based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard a few years ago.

Achebe gave me hope and made me doubt that hope in the span of these few pages (105 to be exact).

He makes the case for the power of story telling. His thesis reminds me of George Orwell's.
In the end I began to understand. There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative.

Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like. Just as in corrupt, totalitarian regimes, those who exercise power over others can do anything..."
He then cites an epiphanal experience he had in a university classroom as the central metaphor for a discussion of how the "civilized" world captured the African narrative for over 400 years. At first it was done out of wonder, then to justify slavery. Later, the civilized world wrote to rationalize colonialism and then to defend its reputation.

He and his generation of African students, scholars, and writers began recognizing their loss and began inventing their own narratives.

Even today, as "the empire writes back," Westerners fight a rear guard action to maintain possession of the Third World's narrative.

V.S. Naipaul wins plaudits and is discussed in suburban book groups for describing the depravity and deprivaton of the Third World and deploring the childish resistance of Third Worlders to assimilation into Western civilization. And conservative scholars react to multiculturalism as if recognizing validity in something other than Judeo-Christian civilization threatens the importance (not to mention the superiority) of Greek, Roman, and Anglo Saxon values.

Achebe offers hope that more peoples will reclaim their own narratives, but one bit of pessimism startled me. It's possible, he says, that the damage done by "civilization's" control of the description of Africa and Africans for so many centuries and the propaganda sown by those narratives has made it impossible for us and them to see each other as equally human.

My idealism was challenged directly in a humanistic way. The shock was a danger to my naivete. At my age I shouldn't be vulnerable to such shocks. It does mean I'm still learning, but has my idealism been that superficial? Perhaps so. When confronted by Achebe's words, I knew I shared his fear.

Dehumanization of Africans by Europeans began before slavery. It grew more powerful and even scientific later. In the USA, slavery and the accompanying racism has shaped our culture in powerful ways. Can we, the purveyors of the toxic myth, overcome it? I sure don't know. We've made some progress in our civic behavior during my lifetime, but internalizing common humanity may be beyond us. Furthermore, can the victims of such description overcome the lies, the insults and the dehumanizing treatment? I can only accept Achebe's doubts.

This is an important book. If we're going to survive as a world, as a civilization, as a culture, and as a nation, we need to learn the lesson taught by this wise man. Read the book. If your library doesn't have it, ask them to find it. If you can afford the $10 it costs, buy it. It's Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe, published by Anchor Books A Division of Random House, Inc. The ISBN is 0-385-72133-1.

26 September 2011

Surprise! Surprise!

My expectations for a good book are probably pretty low. I don't demand big truths like Barbara Kingsolver. I like a story well told. I want to read about characters who are more than marionettes or caricatures. I like realistic stories to remain realistic and for fantasy stories to make me wonder.

As I finished Case Histories while sitting in front of the little lake named Blake, I realized I'd gotten more than I expected from a good book. Kate Atkinson's book took me by surprise because I expected just another mystery novel. This one was more.

The story is well told, but it's told in little episodes from different points of view. Sometimes the episodes were only a paragraph long. Sometimes the voice telling the story switches from one character to another with little warning. As a reader I had to constantly be "on my toes" -- no groggy reading or skimming through this one.

The book begins with three tragic and horrific short stories set in 1970, 1979, and 1994. A child disappears, a young woman is murdered, and a girl runs away from neglectful grandparents after her father is killed by her mother. Gradually these disparate events begin to come together in the files and investigations of a private investigator in Cambridge (UK). Former police investigator Jackson Brodie is approached in the course of a few days by people involved in these three "cold cases" for help in resolving them.

There are two or three principals involved in each of the stories, and Brodie is an experienced investigator who asks good questions and has good instincts for evaluating the answers he gets. Most of the people he meets and talks to are interesting and complicated, and, as the story progresses, so is Brodie. Atkinson sends him off into very personal internal daydreams in the middle of interviews sometimes, and they are very revealing. As distracting as those were to me as a reader, they didn't seem to distract Brodie from his quest for more information. However, Brodie's past includes a couple horror stories as tragic as the ones he's investigating.

I thought that Atkinson's writing was so evocative of the characters' emotions that often I could only read short bits at a time. It's realism without improbabilities. Well, there's one big and one smaller improbability, but I can always let a remote coincidence or two slip by. Neither the story nor the characters depended upon the improbabilities.

Case Histories is the best book I read this summer. Since summer is officially over, that's a wrap.

So, who recommended Kate Atkinson? Come on, out with it. You deserve some credit somewhere in karma. Have you read Case Histories or another of Atkinson's novels? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it (them).

Jason Isaacs (actor who plays Jackson Brodie) interviews Kate Atkinson about the BBC adaptation of Case Histories

Trailer for the BBC series Case Histories

Teaser for the BBC series Case Histories

18 September 2011

Little Canadian treasure

I'm pretty sure I know how Still Life got on my "to read" list. It was one of those innocent-sounding questions that Dale Stahl asked at the end of one of his e-mails, "Have you ever read anything by Louise Penny?"

My answer was, "No," but based on his recommendation, I put her name on the list.

I'm really glad I did. Tana French probably puts extra efforts into the beginnings of her books and Louise Penny must put extra effort into dialogue that reveals characters. And she creates characters that are more than names and titles.

For example, her Inspector Gamache has to tell his wife that he can't attend his grand-niece's christening because there's been a murder.

The scene unfolds: "'Did you murder this person?' Reine-Marie asked her husband when [he] told her he wouldn't be at the two-hour service on hard benches in a strange church.

'If I did, I'll find out...'

'"I'll just tell them you're drunk, again,' she said when he asked whether her family would be disappointed he wasn't there.

'"Didn't you tell them I was in a treatment center last time I missed a family gathering?'

'Well, I guess it didn't work.'

'Very sad for you.'

'I'm a martyr to my husband,' said Reine-Marie, getting into the driver's seat. 'Be safe, dear heart,' she said..."

Penny doesn't have to say much more about that relationship later in the book. Similar exchanges illuminate other characters and relationships.

And there's a story -- a complicated plot. For a story set in a small Quebec town near the U.S. border, there are quite a few reasonable suspects for the murder of a beloved, retired school teacher. There's even that chance that the death was a hunting accident, which caused a frightened outsider to run away. If Penny's later books take place in the same little town, I'll begin to suspect the Cabot Cove ("Murder She Wrote") syndrome, and I'll be very disappointed.

Right now I'm very happy to have read Still Life. It seems obvious to me that Penny loves the place and characters she created. If she keeps Inspector Gamache and his assisstant Jean Guy Beauvior and sends them around Quebec, she can avoid creating a death trap village like the one Richard Levinson and William Link created for Angela Lansbury.

I highly recommend this one. Good characters, good story telling, no great gore, no sex (not even a kiss), few improbabilities, and no super heroism. Oh, and there are some literary references (Auden, Davidson, and Plessner) that are not out of place.

Have you read Still Life by Louise Penny or another of Penny's books? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of them.

15 September 2011

More on "cozies"

After disagreeing with Dan about Rhys Bowen and Molly Murphy mysteries, I discovered that the discussion group at Once Upon a Crime, a Minneapolis bookstore, was talking about Rhys Bowen last night.

I couldn't go because Nancy and I had made plans to go hear Laurie R. King at a Barnes and Noble near St. Paul. So I suggested to Dan that he might want to go.

Turns out he couldn't go either because he had tickets to hear Maria Muldaur. That turned into a digression about Muldaur (whose performances we both like) and about Pandora, which has become my primary music source.

This morning, after enjoying the presentation and reading by King, I found Laurie R. King's blog's hosting a guest blogger, Rhys Bowen!

Bowen and King, it turns out are good friends. And, as Bowen points out in the blog, they both write about women doing unusual things.

I pointed out the blog post to Dan, who wrote back,
Loved the blog--surprising connections.

What Rhys Bowen writes, about women doing things that people thought they couldn't or shouldn't, is exactly what the last two things I've written are really about: the Cokato [MN] girls playing basketball in the 1920s [the PDF version], and Amelia Earhart flying -- and consciously using her fame as a flyer to push for more opportunities for women and girls and to inspire them to grasp them.

On top of that, she makes reference to Amy Johnson (Britain's Amelia Earhart) whose biography I am currently reading. Almost weird. Thanks.

By the way, as I wrote earlier, if you didn't like Molly Murphy you would absolutely abhor Lady Georgiana. It is like going from Classic Comics to Archie and Jughead! But I love 'em. Unlucky you! 

Here are my clarifications:
  • I have no problem with women doing unconventional things. I have a problem with people doing the improbable and unlikely in fictional venues where most things seem realistic. (I like Lewis Carroll and Jasper Fforde.) My example: Bowen's Molly Murphy flees Ireland and arrives penny-less in Liverpool, where the police are looking for her. As she flees down an alley, she's pulled into an unmarked door. What greets her there? Murderous attackers? Dangerous delinquents? No. She is greeted by a woman who gives her a ticket to America so Molly can deliver two children to their father in New York. And the scheme, right out of an I Love Lucy episode, works.

  • It's not just improbabilities. Laurie R. King, who, by the way, called her Mary Russell books "cozies" last night, writes well and creates pretty believable characters. Once you get beyond the conceit of a recent Oxford grad becoming an investigatory partner to Sherlock Holmes, the rest works pretty well. It works because King describes fairly realistic characters, tells good stories, and invents good dialogue. Bowen often relies on the old standby, "and then a miracle happens" to her handsome and daring cutouts of characters. I think an author ought to offer something besides, "It'll all turn out right in the end."

  • An author ought to do more than write grammatically correct sentences and put events in chronological order. Laurie R. King might write "cozies," but she's only able to write one a year. Bowen writes 10-15 books a year. And no, she's not that more talented.
In a few days I'll finish another book and write about it here. It probably fits into the "cozy" category, but the author has a way with words and manages to create more than cardboard cutouts of characters. Just wait. You can join this discussion. Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

13 September 2011

Dan Conrad disagrees

This deserves more than relegation to a comment on my Rhys Bowen review. Dan wrote,

Hey, c'mon! You just trashed my favorite "sleuth!"

I've read 'em all and can hardly wait for the next! And if you think Molly Murphy is light, just try Rhys Bowen's "Royal Pain," etc. series featuring the 37th in line to the English throne--in the 1930s. They make the Molly Murphy stories seem positively Bergmanesque!

Here in this vale of tears. I like, from time to time, to turn to something lighter where you KNOW everything will turn out just "peachy-keen" in the end. Maybe it reflects the fact that I first learned to love reading by devouring comic books.

And, seeing the others on your "don't read" list I think now that I better check out M.C. Beaton and Ngaio Marsh as well. If I want something dark and heavy and thought-provoking I can always reread Hardy, Eliot, Woolfe or Brookner -- or go back to something profound like Elegance of the Hedgehog (also among those you have trashed).

We've been agreeing on too much--so about time we could argue a little!

I'll have to gather my thoughts for arguing. And I'll have to go back and see what I said about Elegance of the Hedgehog. Did I really trash it?

And I can hardly wait for your reactions to Beaton and Marsh.

I didn't know you were a closet "cozy" fan. Never had a hint.

12 September 2011


I ventured back to the Northfield library, "to read" list in hand. Well, actually, it was in my pocket.

I began near the top of the list. The name Rhys Bowen was near the top and incredibly handy on the library shelf. There were a number of books there by Bowen, and I pulled the first Molly Murphy mystery, Murphy's Law, off the shelf.

It's a lightweight. There are just barely over 200 pages, it's not much more than a paperback in size and weight. Unfortunately, it's a literary lightweight too.

It's set in turn of the 20th century New York, and the book jacket advertises Molly Murphy as a female detective. I was hoping for something akin to the better Maisie Dobbs stories. The story is akin to a comic book plot -- not even a graphic novel. It gets a whole slew of Heart of Gold improbability "awards." I couldn't begin to describe the improbabilities here.

I get impatient with Margaret Coel for writing so much romance novel into her mysteries. Murphy's Law seems to include a minor mystery as a framework for a THE BIG KISS scene. Not a sex scene, a kiss scene!

Give me a break!

On reading the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Sunday, I learned what I'd found in Bowen's book: a "cozy." Mary Ann Grossmann was writing about a self-published book she thought was wonderful and hoped it would help the author find a publisher. The author didn't know it, but with Grossmann's help learned he'd written a cozy. I didn't know what a cozy was, but I read one.

Too late, I read the back cover. The selected press blurbs (carefully chosen and edited, as we know, to present the book and the author in some desired light) would have warned me if I'd read them while standing in the library. Kirkus Reviews compares Rhys Bowen to M. C. Beaton. A Denver Post reviewer compares her to Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beaton, Christie, and Marsh are all on my "don't read anymore" list. To top it off, someone at Publisher's Weekly says, "This mystery is sure to appeal to those who prefer old-fashioned , heartwarming stories to tawdry tales full of graphic sex and violence." That was written about a book published in 2001. Hey, I like my tawdry tales (to a degree).

So Bowen goes from my "to read" list to my "don't read anymore" list. Have you read any of Rhys Bowen's "mysteries?" How did you react to them? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

08 September 2011

Betrayal of the reader

Dan Conrad also wrote about another gripe he has about some writers.
While I'm at it, I wish to raise another gripe of mine -- besides series of novels going on longer than they merit. That is when authors break a kind of pact I think they (should) have with readers.

The pact is that as readers we will more or less suspend disbelief and go along with the story, even enjoy being led astray as we go, but NOT be suddenly tricked in a kind of "Ha, Ha, I sure made an ass out of you" revelation in the last two pages.

I don't mean a solution to the mystery that you never suspected, but being told at the end that the whole thing was actually someone's nightmare, or the ravings of an inmate in an asylum, or the last thoughts (before the killer returns) of a murder victim who you have been continually led to believe was going to escape, etc.  

Two such that come to mind are Shutter Island by Dennis LeHane (& movie w/ Leaonard Decaprio) and the more recent Sister by first time author Rosamund Lupton. Both novels are exceptionally well written page turners which makes it doubly irritating to get to the ending which is a: "WHAM! Ha! Ha! Fooled Ya! -- Did you really believe that story? -- Well, maybe it happened as I told it--or maybe some of it, or maybe none. Now I can tell you that ya got all worked up over absolutely nothing. HA! HA! The jokes on you!"

Perhaps they think such an ending moves them out of the mystery genre (with its pact?) into something more Shakespearian in level of tragedy -- or something. 

Does this bother you? I know lots of people loved the two mentioned novels, so maybe I shouldn't be upset.

[Well, I'm the one going around giving negative awards for improbabilities and refusing to read books where I expect to see too many of them.

[I agree that an author who betrays readers is a jerk. I don't want to read about angels, miracles, protective spirits, and sprites unless I'm reading something that's obviously fantasy.

[What do you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.]

Dan Conrad on Jacqueline Winspear

Dan wrote and I thought his comments deserved a couple posts rather than just a Comment on the blog entry.
My reaction to A Lesson In Secrets [Winspear's previous book] was that Jacqueline Winspear had finally run out of things for Maisie Dobbs to do that would last longer than a short story and filled in the rest with countless side stories that were neither very interesting nor in any way relevant to the main plot.

I wouldn't blame Sidetrack [the cabin] for making you doze off. You suggest the story lines are put in to be taken up in later novels. I hope not. When an author begins to write more about the personal lives of the characters -- main and otherwise -- than they do about the core story line I fear they are "running dry"on that series and should move on to something/someone else. Or quit trying to market the books as "mysteries."

Like The Help is, I think, a really great book to read with no mystery in there to move it along, just fascinating characters with interesting stories to tell.

07 September 2011

ála Stephen King

If Stephen King can make a classic car into an evil symbol, why not a snowman? Bill Watterson did just the opposite with snowmen in his comic strips. Jo Nesbø followed the Stephen King model in his 2010 book, The Snowman.
When I saw Nesbø's name on the shelf of new books, I recognized it. (That's the other reason I didn't need my "to read" list when I last went to the library.) Once again, I don't remember how Nesbø's fiction was recommended. Should I be keeping track of that too? Well, if you recommended this Norwegian writer, thank you.
The Snowman is a murder mystery focused on the search for "Norway's fist serial killer." According to a creepy Wikipedia article, there was one Norwegian serial killer, but nothing like the one in Nesbø's book.
The good guy in Nesbø's fiction is "antihero police investigator, Harry Hole," according to the book jacket. He gets a partner in this book who is a stunningly attractive young woman from across the Norwegian mountains (and cultural divide, evidently). There are several comments in the book about how the natives of Bergen are so different from the people of Oslo. Who knew that some Bergensians don't really think of Oslo as a capital city. Or that Oslo natives look down on people from Bergen. In spite of the prejudices in the Oslo cop shop, every male cop in the book except Hole drools over (and sometimes on) Katrine Bratt.
The killer the unlikely pair pursue seems to kill on the day of the first snowfall and builds a decidedly non-Watterson snowman at the site of the murder. As things progress, parts of the victims' bodies become parts of the nasty snowmen. (Maybe they were really snowwomen, since all but one victim was female. But Nesbø doesn't go there.)
The red herrings in the plot are good. At least twice I was tempted to think that Hole and Bratt had found the killer. But I could tell from the number of pages I hadn't read yet, that the story wasn't over. And the last line of the book suggests that the story isn't over yet. Look for a sequel.
I generally liked the book. Most of the story telling is good. The characters are interesting, although not as well-defined as I'd like them. But, there's too much story telling. I skimmed through the end of the book as Nesbø went on and on about the background of the killer. It was as though he'd gone to all the work of creating a back story and he couldn't leave it out of the book. I think he could have left it out.
Nesbø, who is described on the book jacket as "a musician, songwriter, economist, and author" has had three other books published in the USA. I think I'll keep his name on my "to read" list and look for another of his books someday. There's also a film based on his novel, Headhunters, that premiered in Norway and Germany this summer.
Have you read The Snowman or another of Nesbø's books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.
BTW: Does anybody know what the Scandinavian "ø" does to pronunciation? Or what it's purpose is? It's a pain to type on an English keyboard. Rather like the little circle above some vowels (å). That's a mystery to me as well.

06 September 2011

What's good?

While at the cabin called Sidetrack, I read both of the library books that I'd brought with me. There's an interesting library there of books we've finished at the cabin and left behind as reminders, but I wasn't interested in starting a major reading project. So I picked up Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver. It was (and still is) on the bedside stack of potential reading.

I only read a couple of the essays, but one of them addressed a topic that I've wondered about here, why do I like some books more than others. I do know that my state of mind has a lot to do with my affection for a book. But there are other reasons. For instance, I really do like a well-told story.

Here are a couple of Kingsolver's comments that had me shaking my head in agreement. They are from "What is a good story?" that she wrote about her experience editing a collection of short stories.

Her first answer sounds like a textbook declaration: "What makes writing good? That's easy: the lyrical description, the arresting metaphor, the dialogue that falls so true on the ear it breaks the heart, the plot that winds up exactly where it should."

A couple pages she later, she is more personal: Good writing, she says, "should pull off the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces... It will tell me something remarkable, it will be beautifully executed, and it will be nested in truth..."

I'm not sure I demand "large truths," but the rest of what Kingsolver says sounds to me like a good beginning definition of good writing.

By the way, her praise for short stories, tempts me to look up the volume she edited and read some short stories. She wonders in her essay why people don't read much short fiction. I usually avoid it. I wonder why?

Do you read or avoid short stories? Why? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

It's Maisie again

I went back to the library, "to read" list in hand, but Ididn't really need it this time.

On the cart of recently returned books by the front desk was Jacqueline Winspear's A Lesson in Secrets. I don't know how Dan Conrad's request for this book from the Minneapolis Public Library is working its way up the waiting list, but Northfield's copy was just sitting on the cart waiting for me. I picked it up, checked it out, and never got 20 feet from the entrance. It was a satisfying and efficient trip to the library.

Sir Oswald Moseley, infamous for leading the British Union Of Fascists before
the second world war, figures indirectly in this story.

Reading A Lesson in Secrets was not as satisfying or as efficient. The book is once again full of fascinating details about fashion and technology of everyday life in London of 1932. There is a theme concerning the Crown's secret intelligence bureau and its focus on Bosheviks in Cambridge's colleges, while ignoring the growing influence of fascists and Nazis on campus. There's also a story about organized crime and a protection racket in London. In fact, there are many stories in this book. Too many by my lights.

Because there are so many stories here, none of them (not even the primary one) really get told well. There's the young widow that Maisie takes under her wing. There's Maisie's assistant Billy and his family. There's a story about Maisie's father, a widower for 20 years, and his new "girlfriend." There's Maisie's romance. And then there's Maisie's undercover job for Crown. Oh, and you might add that there's a story of Maisie's cover as a philosophy lecturer in a Cambridge college. (She's supposed to report on anything untoward she finds on campus.) There's also some of Maisie's reminiscences about her own student days in Cambridge. Well, you see the problem: how to tell all those stories in 321 pages. Winspear tries to do that and ends with, "Yes, time would give up her secrets. She just had to wait." Not great.

Those last lines affirm what I felt throughout the book. These are transitional stories. Most of them lead to future stories. The young widow, like Maisie, makes her way in the world. Billy and his family have a new baby and a brand new house with "an indoor lav." Maisie's father finds a boon companion for retirement. Maisie and her titled lover, in a romance novel, sort out how to merge their strong individual lives and compromise with the expectations of post-Victorian English high society. Maisie finds such satisfaction in teaching philosophy that she turns her detective agency over to Billy and the young widow while she commutes between her lover's London mansion, his family's estate in Kent, and her classrooms in Cambridge. And she probably takes on a few more undercover jobs for the crown while accompanying her lover (husband?) on his business trips around the world.

There are also some things missing. I just can't believe that Maisie's little MG roadster starts everytime she turns the key and it never breaks down or gets a flat tire. (MGs were not modern Toyotas.)

1930 MG like the one Maisie Dobbs drove.

How is it that Maisie and her friends never come in contact with the destitute and unemployed of 1932 England? I'm pretty certain that Winspear did the research, but were developers really building new, semi-detatched homes on the edge of London in '32? And then there's her lover's international business (and another character's global trading company). How was it that these companies were prosperous as the world's economies were falling apart?

So, I wasn't completely satisfied with the book. I wasn't efficient either. I kept falling asleep between chapters yesterday. There's something about being at the cabin called Sidetrack, looking at the lake, and doing bits and pieces of maintenance that are relaxing. And the relaxation led to several naps that interruupted my reading.

Check out A Lesson in Secrets for yourself. Then (or if you've already read it) write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

30 August 2011

Families: can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em

The other familiar name I found at the library was Tana French. Well, of course it was familiar, I just read In the Woods two weeks ago. This time I found Faithful Place and decided to see if French had written a book as good as the first one.

I have come to the conclusion that French must spend a lot of time on the beginning of her books. I wasn't lured in by the first paragraph this time, but by the first two pages. I once again felt drawn into her story and quickly became interested in the characters and what was going to come next. The opening scene, by the way, describes a film noir foggy night on the outskirts of Dublin and Frank Mackey, a young man waiting for the young woman he's about to elope with.

That's the beginning of the background story. The contemporary story takes place 22 years later and the young man from the first scene is the main character. All those years later, Frank's a cop who gets involved in the investigation of the disappearance of the girl who never showed up for the elopement.

He's also a guy surrounded by families. There's the family he grew up in and from whom he estranged himself. And there's the erstwhile family of his daughter and his ex-wife. Oh, and I suppose there's also the family at the cop shop that he's sort of part of.

This stories in this book are really frameworks for exploring what families can do to their own. Frank ran away from his family even though his intended never showed because he knew it was deadly and feared what it might do to him. His erstwhile intended's family isn't much better. The situation reminded me, in less dramatic and less drastic ways, of how my parents distanced themselves (and their children) from most of their families. They'd seen conflicts and nasty behavior and kept in close contact only with most of their parents. So Frank's absence from family for a couple decades is understandable to me. And after reading French's version of family life, I have trouble imagining why all of the people in the book's families didn't run away.

There's really not a lot mystery in this plot and only a bit of suspense. But the way French tells the story and gradually reveals more and more about the characters kept me reading once again. Unlike Coel's The Silent Spirit, I never resisted going back to read more when I had the opportunity.

The ending is a bit romantic (like Coel's), but I can live with that. If French pursues the story line suggested in the conclusion, I expect it will be less romantic, since most of her stories are grittily realisitc.

I liked the book. I didn't think it was as good as In the Woods, but I'll pick up French's second book (Faithful Place was the third) if I find it in the library.

Have you read Faithful Place? If you have, write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted to it.

Frustrated romance; frustrating mystery

One of the familiar authors I found on my last trip to the library was Margaret Coel. I didn't realize how familiar I was with Coel's books until I looked back at what I'd written about her books here. The earliest entry was in 2002 on the old pre-blogging blog ReadingOnTheWeb. I have averaged just over a book a year by Ms Coel. Some of them I've enjoyed a lot; others have been disappointing. Her story telling is not always top notch. She seems to slip into the romance genre when she spends much time writing about the relationship between a Jesuit missionary/recovering alcoholic on a Wyoming Indian Reservation and a middle-aged/native/divorcee/lawyer working in a nearby town.

In this new book, The Silent Spirit, Coel wanders dangerously close (in my mind) to romance while writing a mystery novel. Maybe she's writing more for a female audience or maybe she sees this as a balance to the superhero antics of Sue Grafton's and Sara Paretsky's characters.

The story is built around a young native man and his attempts not only to make something of himself, but to do something important for his grandfather. That important something is directly connected to his great-grandfather's involvement in the 1923 movie The Covered Wagon.

The two books I read just before this one (In the Woods and Junkyard Dogs) dragged me in and pushed me to keep on reading to the end. However, I read The Silent Spirit in spurts and often went back to it reluctantly. It seemed to me that some episodes were well-told and flowed right along. Then, reading the next episode was like slogging through a mucky swamp -- slow and difficult.

It turned out that the ending was one of the good parts. The widely-flung bits of plot, and a few irrelevancies, came together in Coel's romantic (in a philosophical snese) ending. The last 75 pages made me glad I'd mucked through some of the earlier bits.

Have you read The Silent Spirit? Write, and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

Other Margaret Coel books I've written about:

18 August 2011

Nice doggy. Nice doggy.

I had a busy morning yesterday. After my morning walk, I worked from about 8:00am to 1:30pm. (Working breakfast and working lunch) Things just piled up. I read the headlines and half a dozen articles in the 18 news sources I look at each morning. Found 3 articles that I prepared for the Teaching Comparative blog with bits of commentary and excerpts. I posted 4 excerpts and a comment to the blog that people had sent me. (I aim for one posting each week day, so this was quite unusual.) Then I got carried away trying to explain why the Texas governor is either ignorant or playing to the ignorance of his audience about money and banks. I posted a bit of my outrage at Google+. (If you look at it, you'll have to scroll down to the post with the graph showing the components of the money supply, since I don't know if there's a way to link directly to the posting.)

Finally, in the early afternoon, I showered and went off to run errands. One of them was to the Northfield Library. I returned the Tana French book I'd just finished and went off in search of new things to read. But, oops, I'd forgotten to bring my "to read" list.

That meant I was reduced to looking for new books by familiar authors. Good luck. I found a new book by Craig Johnson. I've written about Another Man's Moccasins and Death Without Company. I liked them, but I'd given both of them Heart of Gold awards for improbabilities.

Well, Junkyard Dogs gets a Heart of Gold and a Green Lantern (for super heroism).

This is another "Walt Longmire Mystery." One bit in the book has the sheriff getting a physical exam during which the doc catalogs his injuries and scars (including a broken bone in one foot and a partially detached retina). After that the super hero sheriff gets banged around some more, but still comes out able to see, walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time. More than any mere mortal. Give us a break, Johnson.

The book also gets awards for improbabilities. I only noticed a couple of them while reading the book, but some biggies popped into my head as I went to sleep.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I was was so entranced with the story and the pursuit of the villains, I finished the book about 11:15pm. Less than 12 hours after checking it out. And I sort of cooked dinner in there and talked to Nancy while eating it.

Craig Johnson relies of his super hero and on improbabilities, but he spins a mean yarn. The characters are pretty one-dimensional, but he spins a mean yarn. Winter on the high plains of northern Wyoming is brutal, but Johnson spins a mean (and complex) yarn. He kept me going for a long time. Oh, did I mention that there's some good humor in the book, too? Like the opening scene where grandpa ties himself to the bumper of the car in the yard while he cleans the chimney, but his granddaughter-in-law doesn't know it and drives off. (Grandpa survives that one, and it's funny because he does.)

Do you need more recommendation from me?

Have you read Junkyard Dogs? Or another of Craig Johnson's mysteries? Write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted.