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.

16 August 2011

Stories to read

The other book I checked out during my last trip to the Northfield Library was Jana French's In the Woods. I wish I'd kept track of where I learned about this book. I'd like to thank someone for the recommendation. As it is I have no idea how this book ended up on my "to read" list.

After the last two books I tried to read and didn't finish, I really wanted a book to like.

French won me over on the first page. Her prose and the images she created with them were wonderful. Let me quote:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland's subtle mixed for a connoisseur's palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasking of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it backs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants.

I know, I've said I'm a reader who likes stories. What French did was snare me with a gorgeous scene. On page 3, she begins telling one of the stories in the book. And she does tell stories well. One of the stories is an awful story of the disappearance of two 12-year-old children that happened a dozen years before the other stories. Oh, and when those three children went mising, a third child survived without memories of what happened. Another story is about a young policeman who has achieved his professional goal of becoming a homicide detective. There's also a story about the relationship between the detective and his partner, who is a smart, mouthy, and very competent woman. The primary story is about the murder investigated by these partners.

In the first third of the book, the detectives' partnership reminded me of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Gal Friday. The smart dialogue and the knowing cooperation is a joy to behold. It changes after that, and I didn't like as I was reading, but in the end, the changes made sense and offered a bit of realism to the fiction.

The story about the children who went missing is told partly in flashback and partly in the words of old police reports. The linkage is that the detective was the child who survived without memories.

The mystery is complicated and intriguing, if murder can be intriguing. It's a major case and a whole raft of characters are drawn into the situation. A third detective joins the main pair and is almost immediately a part of the screwball comedy dialogue.

The last half of the book tells the story of the dissolution of those amazing relationships and the investigation into the details of the murder. It's well done.

I liked the characters. I enjoyed the telling of the story. I came to accept the development of the characters, even though they changed from the very attractive people introduced early in the book.

Also, after struggling unsuccessfully to wade through two books, I not only read this one, but I read it eagerly.

Tana French remains on my 'to read" list. She's written two more books since this 2007 first novel. The other two are also in the Northfield Library. I look forward to checking one of them out.

Have you read In the Woods or another French's books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

10 August 2011

Double failure

I'll take these failures on myself, but I had lots of help.

Nancy brought Connie Willis' All Clear home from the library. I picked it up and took it to the cabin named Sidetrack because I'd read The Doomsday Book, Remake, and To Say Nothing of the Dog years ago and liked them. There was another Willis book, Promised Land, that I wasn't so fond of.

All Clear was advertised on the dust jacket as another of Willis' time travel novels. I'd found that to be an entertaining and clever device in earlier books. The plot device is that Oxford University historians about 50 years from now discover a method of time travel that lets them go into the past as researchers and return to their rooms in mid-21st century Oxford to write eye-witness accounts of historical events.

Willis' characters are most interested in what went on in London during World War II (as in To Say Nothing of the Dog).

I quickly found out that the 600+ page All Clear was the second of two volumes telling one story. Since I'd read earlier time travel books, I thought I could get by without reading the first volume, Blackout. It turns out I could get by without reading all of the second volume as well.

How many times do I have to read some internal dialogue about a character's fears that she's trapped in the past? Or that she's done something to trap another researcher in the past? Or that one of her colleagues has done something to change the course of history? Well, Willis seemed to think that one or another of her characters just had to say those things to herself every few pages. And how often was it necessary for me to read about the anxieties of getting to work on time or the exact details of what trains were necessary to travel from one part of London to another?

Willis is a successful author, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't need an editor.

[Short aside: Nancy's website features a quotation from T. S. Eliot: "Even a superb writer needs a good editor. A merely good writer needs a superb editor."]

To Say Nothing of the Dog was full of humor and joy. This book was full of anxiety and stress. Okay, the V-1 and V-2 rockets and the Blitz were no fun in London. But the earlier book was also set in London during World War II London. If Blackout, the first volume is a twin to this one, I'd suggest that someone abridge the two and make a (400-page?) science fiction novel out of them. I might have enjoyed reading that and even finished it.

Then I picked up Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time at the Northfield library. It got on my "To Read" list because of a review in the New York Times. Stacey D'erasmo wrote that "Petterson’s narratives tend to unspool in the first person, in hushed, confidential tones. Tight-lipped with one another, his characters open their hearts to the reader, making us witnesses to their most private selves. He makes the reader lean in, out of the wind, to listen closely..."

I'd read Out Stealing Horses a few years ago and liked it. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for the moody, self-indulgent, un-selfconscious internal dialogues in I Curse the River of Time either. The main character wasn't interesting to me.

Another book I didn't finish.

Oh, well. My "To Read" list is still long. It was disappointing that one of the books on the list is only available from the libary as an e-book for an e-reader. I don't have one of those yet. But books? I can handle lots of them.

Have you read Connie Willis' All Clear? or Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your experience.