23 December 2012

Question about Rendell

Anyone have an opinion about Ruth Barbara Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh?

Marilyn Stasio, who reviews mysteries for the New York Times, made Rendell's new book, The Child's Child, sound intriguing.
“Subtle” is an inadequate word for Ruth Rendell. So are “crafty,” “cunning,” “clever” and “sly.” Although these are accurate descriptions of her confounding technique, a better word would be “surprising.” Whatever it is you might think Rendell is up to, especially when she’s writing as Barbara Vine — that’s not it...

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think about Rendell/Vine's books.

21 December 2012

It's not nice to fool an old man

A month ago I picked up Christopher Fowler's Ten Second Staricase at the Northfield Library. It's subtitled "A Bryant & May Mystery." Reading it was a confusing and slow project.

I suppose I shouldn't have begun with the fourth "Bryant & May Mystery." There were lots of ways that I was adrift from the first page. I should have guessed since the two characters of the subtitle were the heads of London's Peculiar Crimes Unit.

My other problem was that I kept trying to read it in the late afternoons and evenings. The times of day, the confusion, and the writing kept abetting my fatigue. I seemed unable to read for more than a quarter hour without falling asleep. No wonder it took me a month to finish the book.

Throw in a lot of London mythology, a bit of vampire lore, and some cultural history about the "Highwayman," and I was getting less entertained. And that, after all, is a main reason for reading a book like this.

The investigative process used by these agents of the Peculiar Crimes Unit are anything but normal. But that didn't help me since much of it was based on following clues based on arcane London history. The plot is ridiculous. The cops are too weird to admire. The other characters are enigmas and even less interesting than the detectives.

Merry Christmas from Bryant & May
I finished because I hoped the ending would make sense out of some of the rest. It didn't really help.

Have you read any Christopher Fowler or Ten Second Staircase? What did you think?  

Write and tell this little bit of the world.

Dan Conrad wrote: "I don't know if it was Ten Second Staircase, but I once began a Fowler book thinking stories related to something called "The Peculiar Crimes Unit" -- and in London -- would just have be interesting.

"Wrong. I think I got about a quarter of the way through and gave it up."

02 December 2012

Short and sort of non-fiction

While at the Northfield Library, I picked up another book by Karin Fossum. This one is The Water's Edge. The primary characters are, once again, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his partner, Jacob Skarre. They're smart and careful cops.

 Christian Skolmen as Jacob Skarre
and Bjørn Sundquist as Konrad Sejer on Norwegian TV

I've thought that a couple of Fossum's books were very good and a couple others weren't. This one borders on good from the not so good side. Luckily, it's short -- about half the size of most of the mystery novels I read.

Also, I want partial credit for reading non-fiction (see previous entry). The primary crime in this story involves paedophilia. I'm glad the crime is neither graphically described nor discussed at length. However, Fossum obviously did a lot of research on paedophilia in order to write the book and she passes on what she learned through the voice of Jacob Skarre. Skarre "does" his research in the course of investigating this case, and he passes on what he learns about profiling paedophiles, about paedophilia in the USA, and about the liklihood of serial killings. All that telling does offer some education to Inspector Sejer and the reader, but it's not fiction. Nor does it move the story along.

As in other of Fossum's books, much of the investigation takes place off stage (off the page?). It reminds me of the handy partners that Detective Kate Beckett has on the TV series, Castle. Beckett says, "You guys and the uniforms go canvas the neighborhood and find out if anyone saw anything." And magically in the next scene, the partners show up with the results of the canvas. Well, Sejer and Skarre have a good crew at their police station who carry out much of the investigation off the page. That creates some complications for the main investigators in this story, but it does mean that little happens during the course of the story telling -- and that's been true in others of Fossum's books.

That inaction works pretty well because Fossum tells the main story and two or three side stories in first person narratives. She's done that in other books too. One of those side stories is intriguing -- especially at the end. Intriguing enough that I wish it had been more fully told.  

The Water's Edge was pretty good. Not great. Certainly not as good as Fossum's best (He Who Fears the Wolf or Black Seconds ).

Have you read The Water's Edge?  

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

28 November 2012

Tales mostly lost on me

The world lost a number of wonderful people that I knew in the past year. In 2008, I shepherded one of them, at the age of 88, into the local Democratic caucus, and the excitement of a thousand or two people milling about the Northfield Middle School so she could cast her vote for Obama. Another, at age 90, asked a friend to take her to an exquisite dinner, and announced afterward that she was ready. A few days later she died. A third asked me, through her daughter, why I seemed to read nothing by mysteries. (I never got to answer the question.)

But the question stuck with me for months. It's true that all of the books I've read in the past couple years have been mysteries.

Now, in another part of my life, I read political science and scan the headlines of a dozen online news sources every morning looking for things that might help teachers of high school courses in comparative politics. I post the things to a blog that attracts a couple hundred people a day. (That's about 50 times as many people as look in at this blog.)

That's all to say that I read more than mysteries. But non-fiction books? Not so much.

In any case, I scanned the new non-fiction shelves at the library recently and picked up The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean. It's subtitled Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by our Genetic Code.

I feel particularly ignorant about our genetic code, so I thought this might be a good introduction.

Not so much.

Now, I've heard about this thing in Literature that's called "voice." I think Sam Kean could use some study about the voice in which he writes. I had to get to the second half of the book before I caught on to the fact that Kean was telling stories. I wasn't always sure there was a connection between the topic he started out with and the examples ("stories") that accompanied his explanations.
The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour coded by element and the detailed structure of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. -From Wikipedia
Describe this in words. I dare you.
It seemed mostly like an inadequate textbook. I had to go online to make sense out of his description of chromosomes, genes, and all the other bits of DNA. Then, every once in awhile, Kean would throw in a sentence or two that sounded like a smart alec remark a high school student might make. Other times he'd try to describe an incredibly complex process like making DNA sculptures without a diagram.

There were some interesting stories and lots of facts about our genetic code. I've forgotten most of them.

I do think I'll go looking for another bit of non-fiction to read and hope it's more Literary.

Have you read Kean's The Violinist's Thumb? What did you think of it? Do you think non-fiction can be Literature?

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

Non-fiction can be "lethal?"

In another part of my life, I post excerpts from bits of journalism to a blog. The bits are related the countries and the curriculum of the AP course in Comparative Government and Politics.

I don't usually post excerpts here, but this appeared in an op-ed section of the New York Times and it's a good introduction the book I just finished.

You can tell I haven't studied Literature because I don't know what that means. As a teacher and a social scientist and historian I always assumed that non-fiction could be Literature.

Now any of us who have been subjected to textbooks knows that some non-fiction will NEVER be Literature. I don't know why most textbooks are so poorly written that they induce sleep more than admiration. That's an argument for the study of more non-fiction.

Why anyone would find more study of non-fiction a "lethal dose," is beyond my ken. Unless, of course, the objection was to the lack of good examples. How about beginning with the essays of Stephen Jay Gould? There's a guy who wrote Literature. Literature about ancient things and evolution.

Well, the book I finished is not Literature. That's coming up next. Meanwhile, what do you think of Sara Mosle's ideas about non-fiction?

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

What Should Children Read?

By Sara Mosle

[T]he Common Core State Standards [are] a set of national benchmarks, adopted by nearly every state, for the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics in grades K-12...

Depending on your point of view, the now contentious guidelines prescribe a healthy — or lethal — dose of nonfiction.

For example, the Common Core dictates that by fourth grade, public school students devote half of their reading time in class to historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other “informational texts” ... Alarmed English teachers worry we’re about to toss Shakespeare so students can study, in the words of one former educator, “memos, technical manuals and menus.”

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”...

One education columnist sums up the debate as a fiction versus nonfiction “smackdown.”

A striking assumption animates arguments on both sides, namely that nonfiction is seldom literary and certainly not literature...

As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing...

I love fiction and poetry as much as the next former English major and often despair over the quality of what passes for “informational texts,” few of which amount to narrative much less literary narrative.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways...

Narrative nonfiction also provides a bridge between the personal narratives students typically write in elementary school and the essays on external subjects that are more appropriate assignments in high school and beyond...

There are anthologies of great literature and primary documents, but why not “30 for Under 20: Great Nonfiction Narratives?” Until such editions appear, teachers can find complex, literary works in collections like “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,”...

If students read 100 such articles over the course of a year, they may not become best-selling authors, but like Mr. Gladwell, they’ll get the sound and feel of good writing in their heads. With luck, when they graduate, there will still be ranks of literary nonfiction authors left for them to join.

05 November 2012

Volcanic ash covers a crime scene

I found Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's book, Ashes to Dust, A Thriller, on the "new books" shelf at the Northfield Library. I had vague memories of reading Last Rituals a couple years ago and checked out this newer book.

Yrsa signing books
As I noted before, Icelanders are part of a country small enough to dispense with family names most of the time. In her books, most of Yrsa's characters are identified by first names only. As her books get translated, globalization proceeds, and Yrsa publicizes herself on Facebook, she adds her family name. And she adds family names to some of her characters. (However, her lover from Last Rituals is still only the German lawyer Matthew.)

I noted that the title on this dust jacket seems to include a PR person's sales pitch that Ashes to Dust is "A Thriller." Last Rituals was labeled "A Novel of Suspense, but lacked much suspense. Ashes to Dust is not thrilling. In fact, it's anything but exciting. It's interesting. The story is well told. It's about the investigation of a forty-year-old multiple murder and a contemporary murder that might be connected. What kept me reading was not the pursuit of thrills, but curiosity about what chain of events was going to explain the discovery of three bodies and a severed head in the basement of a house covered by volcanic ash in 1973, and whether or how a 2010 murder is related to the earlier crimes. In the back of my mind I kept wondering when something thrilling might happen. But the thrills never came.

There were opportunities. The bodies had been discovered by archaeologists excavating some of the houses buried by the volcanic eruption. Thóra and her assistant prowl around the basement in the dark. They meet with tough-looking sailors on a dock in the dark. They take an aimless tourist cruise as the only two passengers in order to talk to a shady sailor. There are opportunities for thrills, but none are taken.

Nor did I feel any emotional attachment to the characters. Some of them were interesting. Most were just there. The motivations of several of the key players didn't make much sense or weren't explained very well. Students of Stanislavsky and Strasberg would have a terrible time portraying these characters without a lot of imaginative work. Too bad that Yrsa didn't do more of that work.

So no thrills. No emotions. An intellectual puzzle well told, but only partly explained (sounds terribly Scandinavian). Attorney Thóra once again does nearly all the detective work. It seems the Icelandic cops, especially the small town guys, are too overworked to pursue clues — even in a murder investigation. Thóra's love interest is offstage and considering a job offer in Reykjavik, but she isn't sure how to encourage him without seeming too needy. (Even that bit of emotion gets stuffed.)

I enjoyed the puzzle and the way that Yrsa revealed the pieces of it. It wasn't riveting.

Have you read Ashes to Dust? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

01 November 2012

More Scandinavian mystery fiction

Dale Stahl wrote as promised because he finished the Jussi Adler-Olsen Department Q novel he'd begun.

Here's what he had to say:
I enjoy Jussi Adler-Olsen's Dept. Q novels. However, I notice a persistent theme among some of these Scandinavian/Northern European-type authors: a tendency toward apocalyptic views of human nature and overcoming obstacles to solve a crime.
[My note to Dale: go watch a couple Ingmar Bergman films.]
Adler-Olsen's main character is Carl Mørck, who is a classic, irascible, irritable guy who is more thoughtful and smarter than everyone else on the detective force. But, he's likable for his human desires, foibles, heart pounding self doubt and limitations. Still, the crime in the first Dept. Q novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes, is so outrageous because of the horrific treatment and torture of the victim, that it is almost beyond believability. If it weren't for the real life treatment of someone like Jaycee Dugard (held captive for 18 years), I might have just thrown the book away. Still, there is something compelling about Mørck and his assistant Assad. In addition, I always find a a novel in which the plot revolves around a cold case or a past event compelling. I liked it and was glad I read it.

Then I got the follow-up book, The Absent One, and was even more irritated by the ridiculous, over-the-top crimes and bad behavior of the gang of suspects: wealthy boarding school kids who delight in sexual promiscuity, violence, and the torture of animals and innocent people. It irritated the hell out of me, yet I am Scandinavian and have just enough pessimism about human nature to believe that there are people out there who are that base and brutal. So, I read the book doggedly to the end, and I will be damned if I don't read the next one.

The finish was absurd, the denouement implausible, but I want to find out if Mørck ever gets to have a relationship with his crush and therapist, Mona. And I want to find out if he ever solves the crime which involved an ambush that killed one of his two best friends and paralyzed the other. That story was begun in the first book.

[Dale seems repelled by the savagery; attracted by the romance and the mystery. Those of us who read murder mysteries (even if they're cozies) have strange motives, don't we]

[Questions: Is it a coincidence that Mørck's assistant has the same name as the former dictator of Syria? And, is it a coincidence that Mankell's detective Wallander has a black lab named Jussi?]

[One answer from a publication "In the Footsteps of Wallander," a tourist brochure from the Ystad (Sweden) Tourist Office: Wallander named "the dog Jussi after the famous mid-20th century Swedish tenor Jussi Björling."]

Have you read anything by Jussi Adler-Olsen? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted.

28 October 2012

Back to the Swedish zen detective

Donna Leon's story about a Venetian detective was told at a ponderous pace. Håkan Nesser's story about a grumpy, northern-European detective moved at about the same pace, but seemed more lively. Nesser is a successful and popular Swedish writer, but only 5 of his books have appeared in English. All five feature Inspector Van Veeteren, who seems not to have a first name.

The last time I read about the investigative work of Inspector Van Veeteren, I called him a zen detective, because he seemed to spend nearly all his time contemplating the crime he was investigating. Very little actual investigating went on. In fact, little action of any kind took place. The book was long on characterization and scenery and very short on events.

It's been three years. I saw Nesser's name on the Northfield library bookshelf, and picked up The Inspector and Silence. I'd forgotten my impressions of Borksmann's Point.

Inspector Van Veeteren is more active in this investigation of the murders of two young girls from a summer camp in isolated woods near a lake. He's called away from his home "precinct" to help a rookie rural police chief with a case far outside his basic training. Van Veeteren actually goes to the crime scenes. He actually interviews people trying to piece together what has happened and how and why. He pursues leads and travels more to interview more people.

Meanwhile, there's a rag tag assemblage of forensic experts, detectives, and investigators called in from around the country to help the tiny local cop shop deal with tragic and dramatic crimes and an influx of reporters. One reason the murders were the focus of so much press attention was that the victims were attending a "summer camp" run by a messianic leader of a secretive religious cult. The suspicious leader disappears and the three women who were helping run the camp and the "confirmation" program for the near-adolescent girls refuse to talk to the police.

It's lucky so many helpers were called in to carry on the investigation (and carry the story forward). Because, Inspector Van Veeteren spends lots of time contemplating. At one point he rents a boat and some cushions, takes a couple bottles of mineral water, and rows up the local river. At some point, he ties the boat up the river bank and spends most of a day contemplating. Other times he walks in the woods or takes long drives. That might not be bad for the story telling, but Nesser offers no real hints about Inspector Van Veeteren's thoughts during these zen retreats from reality.

No wonder the ending was such a surprise to me. Somewhere in his meditations, Inspector Van Veeteren gets a clue that sends him (and some associates) running after a suspect, who had hardly been mentioned in the book. They catch him on the verge of another murder.

Okay, I'll stop complaining. This time Nesser included enough story telling to keep me more interested than the last time I read one of his mysteries. And at the end of this one, Inspector Van Veeteren, who has been contemplating retirement throughout the book, walks into an antiquarian book store that is for sale. According to the Nesser fan site, listed below, the inspector does retire to the bookstore, even though he keeps getting involved with old colleagues in more investigations. Nesser also began writing mysteries about another Swedish detective. Swedish television produced a series of Inspector Van Veeteren programs set in the years after his retirement.

Have you read The Inspector and Silence? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

A four-minute interview with Håkan Nesser (in English)

21 October 2012

Big Venetian Flood

If it really mattered, I suppose, I'd keep track of how book titles and authors' names got on to my reading list. But it's just a "to read" list.

Donna Leon
So the name Donna Leon is on my list. I don't know how it got there. Perhaps Dale mentioned one of her books. Perhaps I read a review somewhere. Maybe Dan or Bird mentioned her. It really doesn't matter unless I owe someone a thank you. And I do owe someone a thank you for this recommendation.

When I was last at the Northfield Library, I found Leon's book, Acqua Alta. It was one of several of her books on the shelf and it was the oldest one. I thought I'd begin with an early book, so I could continue with her oeuvre if I liked this one.

Well, I liked this one a bit. I liked it enough that I'll go back and read another of Leon's mysteries. It's a story about an investigation by Venetian Inspector Guido Brunetti. I liked the inspector, in part because he went home for lunch with his family and he was actually at home with them in the evenings. This guy was not a workaholic like so many investigators.

When an American archaeologist, away from her research in China, is attacked by two thugs from the south of Italy (i.e. mafia guys), the inspector who had met the victim a couple years earlier at an exhibit of Chinese artifacts in Venice, is drawn into the case. Just as his boss is warning him not to get involved, the mayor calls and asks that the police assign one of their very best to the investigation.

It seems that the American's lover, a famous diva in European opera, is a friend of the mayor. So, Brunetti is assigned to the case.

As he investigates, there is another murder and the suspicious death of an archaeologist in China that seems related. There are stolen antiquities and cleverly made fakes. And there's a rich guy without a job from the south of the country who has just restored a big old fancy palace in Venice.

Lots of elements and clever links between them. Believable work and discoveries by Brunetti and his colleagues.

Flooded Piazza San Marco
But, the story telling plods along like someone trying to wade across a flooded piazza. (Catch the title? Acqua Alta. It's Italian for high waters.) Whenever there is heavy rain or exceptionally high tides, Venice is filled with sirens warning about acqua alta. City workers quickly go out and set up raised boardwalks so people can walk around the city without wading in knee-deep water. The high water keeps people from moving around quickly and somehow it keeps this story stuck in first gear most of the time.

The second thing that gave me pause was Venice and its floods. The city's reputation is of a beautiful and civilized city. But, with regular floods of its piazzas and the "ground" floors of buildings? I can't imagine living in a house where I had to wade in the front door and go up a flight of stairs before I could remove my knee-high boots. (Of course, I can't imagine living in a flood plain either, but many people do. Meanwhile I live in a place where snow and cold dominate the weather for 5 months of the year.)

Maybe the next Donna Leon book I read will be told with better meter and in a different season.

Have you read Acqua Alta or another of Donna Leon's books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your experience.

Donna Leon interviewed at the Toronto Library

07 October 2012

Good story telling in the Peak District

I've been recovering, just not very quickly. I keep feeling guilty because I haven't excelled at recovering. (Will the docs give me bad grades?) Now that I'm not sleepy all the time, I do have energy to read.

From the Northfield library I picked books by two authors who have entertained me before: Thomas Perry and Stephen Booth.

I started the Perry book, Silence, first, but I didn't finish it. It reminded me of his Jane Whitefield books that I have read. The good guys are practically super heroes. The bad guys are practically super villains. Silence is a chase story, like the Jane Whitefield stories. About half way through the book I got bored with the cat and mouse chasing.

Then I picked up Stephen Booth's Scared to Live. I read all of it and enjoyed just about every minute I spent following the stories and "listening" to the characters. Like his other books, this one is set in the UK's Peak District. It's an area of hills, lakes, mountains, and abandoned farms which is dominated by the UK's first national park. It's a park that has 4 to 5 times as many visitors per year as the USA's Yellowstone. (It's near metropolitan Manchester.)

But there are villages and towns, private dwellings, and private farms within the park. So there are also British police. Booth's stories revolve around the crime fighting of Derbyshire force. DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry are the main cops on the job, but there are others on the force. And, whenever things get busy, people are called in from other places. In this story a cop from Bulgaria even joins the hunt for bad guys.

A reclusive woman is murdered. A mother and her two children die in an arson fire. Two people are killled by hitmen in Bulgaria. A Bulgarian immigrant dies in his isolated caravan on a farm where he had been working. A baby disappears, her nervous father is attacked, and her uncle jumps off a tower meant for sight seeing.

Once again, Booth tells several stories, some seemingly related and others not. However, before everything comes to a conclusion, some of the stories that seemed related turn out not to be and others turn out to be connnected. Booth does this well.

None of the stories get neglected or falter. The connections that appear and disappear seem unforced. The ending, when everything has to be explained seems a little contrived (as with the other Booth novels I've read), but I can live with that since the rest is so well done.

Did I say I really like reading Scared to Live? Well, I did.

Have you read Scared to Live? How did you react to it? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reaction.

30 September 2012

New from Quebec

Dale Stahl wrote that the new Louise Penny novel, The Beautiful Mystery, is a good one. (He also takes credit for getting Fred Vargas' name on my to-read list.)

"[Penny's new novel is] not, like the earlier ones set the little village of Three Pines. Instead the story takes Chief Inspector Gamache to a remote monastery in the wilds of Quebec. Gamache and his assistant Beauvoir move in to the monastery to figure out which of the monks killed one of their brethren. The investigation is complicated by the fact that the monks have all taken a vow of silence -- except for their chanting during midnight masses.

"There is a side mystery about the origins of Gilbertine chants, and, as in earlier books, a strong undercurrent of the simmering feud between Gamache and the corrupt hierarchy of the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec Provincial Police). There's definitely a sequel to follow, hopefully in which Gamache finally makes his play to rid the Sûreté of corruption!"

That recommendation might send me back to read another Louise Penny novel.

Has anyone else read The Beautiful Mystery? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

One other part of Dale's note was that he's begun a book by Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes.  He also likes this one. Set in Copenhagen, it features Detective Carl Mork and Dept Q. It's Adler-Olsen's 2007 novel that was titled Kvinden i buret in Danish. We'll hear more later. Won't we Dale?

Jussi Adler-Olsen at Good Reads

26 September 2012

Video based on literature

I don't usually write about visual media. But I've had some health problems for the last month and have not had enough energy to read much more than newspaper headlines.

This afternoon I logged on to Netflix looking for a couple old favorites (think The Prisoner and SCTV; they're only available on DVDs).

What I did find was Wallander, the Swedish TV series. I enjoyed the BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh as Henning Mankell's dyspeptic detective, so I decided to take a look at the original.

The Swedish series is made up of 29 episodes. The one I watched was Hämnden (The Revenge). It was the first episode of the second season and released to theaters before it was broadcast. For that reason, it might not be fair to compare this with the episodes of Wallander produced by the BBC.

Henriksson as Wallander
In any case, it was so much more satisfying than the BBC episodes. There were several themes: immigrants to Sweden; women's rights; the role of the military in a system that runs on rule-of-law, and how to preserve civil liberties in the face of terrorism. Oh, and there's some personal stuff about Kurt Wallander.

Krister Henriksson, who plays Wallander in the Swedish version, portrays a more human, less depressive detective than Branagh. The detective still has no life beyond his job and his dog -- even though he had just bought a house on the coast outside of Ystad, the small town he works in.

I look forward to watching other episodes of the home-grown Swedish version of Wallander, even if I have to read sub-titles keep track of what's going on.

Have you seen any of the episodes of the Swedish series, Wallander? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

Or go to Netflix.

15 September 2012

Comic book wannabe

The other book I read in the past week was a novel. It was labeled "A Thriller." What it really wanted to be was a comic book. Either that or a Jason Bourne movie with a female superhero. (I wasn't surprised to read that she thought Robert Ludlum was a writing role model.)

Taylor Stevens
The Informationist is a first novel by Taylor Stevens.

The hero of the tale is a young woman with as many lives and deadly skills as Jason Bourne. And she survives as many plots against her as he did.

The words regularly get in the way. It begs to be a comic book or a graphic novel. It probably really begs to be an action movie with a superhero star.

Hired to find a young woman missing for four years in Africa, Vanessa "Michael" Munroe assembles her resources and support team and heads off for some of the deadliest countries on earth to find the missing girl.

Double crosses, ambushes, unbelievable resources, suspect supporters, and really, really evil guys chase her, tie her up, dump her in the ocean, shoot at her, kill her helpers, but Munroe survives and carries out her mission -- even though her employer doesn't want her to.


It's all too much a fantasy world. I skimmed as much as I could. I would have paid more attention to a graphic novel of this story.

Now I'm off to the library to look for new things to read.

Have you read The Informtionist? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

Reading while ill

Somehow I had this notion that if I were ill enough to limit my physical activity but not my mental acuity, I'd probably read a lot.

Well, not this time.

For a couple weeks now I've been physically limited. I don't think I recognized how much the stress and anxiety was limiting me in other ways until yesterday. Now, I'm trying to relax until the doc "does a procedure" next week that promises to make things a lot better. We'll see.

I did struggle through two books, but it shouldn't have taken 3+ weeks to get through them.  

Fred Vargas
Fred Vargas' name got on my to-read list somehow -- probably because of a New York Times review.

When I saw her name on a book at the library, I pulled it off the shelf. When I got the book home, I wondered about it. Although it was labeled a "Chief Inspector Adamsberg" novel, the title was Seeking Whom He May Devour. And the cover art included two wolves.

I was worried I might have latched on to a werewolf novel. Not quite.  

Seeking Whom He May Devour is set in the eastern French mountains. It's a confusing story of shepherds, their composer friend, a Canadian bear researcher, and (in the second half of the book) Inspector Adamsberg. Did I mention that the advertised main character didn't show up until I was half done with the book. And then, he went off to read police reports for a lot of the rest of the book.

It's not about werewolves, but the shepherds are convinced that the bad guy they're chasing is one. It is a chase story as well as a mystery with lots of "off-screen" death (mostly sheep) and unexplained actions. It's confusing. If it wasn't for the cell phones that some of the characters pull out once in awhile, it seemed as if it was set in the 1930s.

I never got terribly interested in or attached to any of the characters. I never got involved in the story. There's lots of description, but most of it seemed unnecessary. The ending was more bait and switch than being distracted by red herrings. (Of course, my distraction might have been caused by my not feeling well.)

Then I discovered that Fred Vargas is actually Frederique Audoin-Fouzeau, a French archaeologist. (Following the footsteps of Kathy Reichs of Bones fame?) Her novels have won awards from the Crime Writers Association.

I don't think I'll pick up another Vargas novel if I come across one unless someone convinces me that Seeking Whom He May Devour is atypical of her work.

Have you read Seeking Whom He May Devour or another of Vargas' novels? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

22 August 2012

Once again, Maisie Dobbs

The last couple times I read a Maisie Dobbs novel by Jacqueline Winspear, I almost despaired of reading another really good one. One of the books I read was more a romance novel than a mystery. The other, unexpectedly, neglected lots of detail and reality. It's been a year, and I was tempted by nostalgia and picked up Elegy for Eddie from the new books shelf at the library.

I'm glad I did.

There is a noticeable lack of historical detail in this new book compared to the earlier ones. Maybe that's because the author has moved from London to Los Angeles. But, it might just seem that way because the coin-operated gas fire places and 1930's fashions are no longer such novelties to me. However, I complained about the reliability of Maisie Dobbs' 1930 MG. The reputation of those cars is/was that they practically required a ride-along mechanic or a driver skilled in small repairs. But until this book, Maisie never experienced a break down. This time the car broke down while parked behind the city home of her lover, who had to call in a mechanic to get it running again.

I really was unhappy with the romance of The Mapping of Love and Death. Well, this time Maisie's romantic relationship is still around, but Maisie is obviously doing some inner work to come to terms with her desires for independence, her desires for the man in her life, and the contradictions between her working class background and her elevation to high society. It wasn't just her smarts and skills, but the generosity of her former employer and her late mentor that brought her wealth and position. Part of the work Maisie has to do is figure out how to best use her good fortune to help people around her without becoming a benevolent dictator.

And the story around which this is told fits with Maisie's inner struggles. Working class people and newly rich industrialists are involved. A young man, Eddie, who we might now call an autistic savant dies in what appears to be an industrial accident. However, there are suspicions that the accident might have been part of the factory owner's struggle to keep unions out of his plant. Eddie had a way with horses and the costermoners (fruit and vegetable sellers who made the rounds of London neighborhoods) regularly called on him to deal with sickly and unruly horses. Since Maisie's dad was once a constermonger, a local group calls on Maisie to sort out the questions surrounding Eddie's death.

Ah, but the resistance to unionization might not be the real intrigue. Eddie, the savant, was also able to sketch things in great detail from seemingly casual glances. (See the story about Stephen Wiltshire.) What did Eddie see? And was all this connected to the death of a crusading journalist who bought Eddie drinks once in awhile? And why did the bully who was suspected in Eddie's death also kill himself? Or did he? And was the reporter's death an accident?

I thought it was a well-written, complex mystery. I also enjoyed the fact that Maisie Dobbs once again had an inner life that was interesting. In earlier books she struggled with PTSD from her years as a front line nurse in France. Now, she was working through more fortunate, but still difficult, changes in her life.

I'm glad I didn't let my disappointments of a couple earlier novels discourage me. If you're looking to begin reading about Maisie Dobbs, I do recommend starting with the earlier books. And you have my permission to skip the couple that preceeded Elegy for Eddie. (See the Wikipedia entry for Jacqueline Winspear to see the books and publications dates.)

Have you read Elegy for Eddie or another of Winspear's books? How did you react?

 Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

Jacqueline Winspear, speaks at Politics & Prose
Bookstore about Elegy for Eddie and writing

13 August 2012

Back to the Peak District

I picked up another of Stephen Booth's book at the Northfield Library. I'm glad I did.

The Dead Place is set, like Booth's other mysteries, in northern England's Peak District. Detective Constable Ben Cooper and Detective Sergeant Diane Fry are, once again, primary characters. The highland moors and the frenemies status of the cops are important features in the plots and the progression of the stories.

Part of the Dark Peak District
Like the Navajo Nation in Tony Hillerman's masterful books, the northern, Dark Peak District is an overwhelming presence in Booth's stories. There are many isolated places and people, but there are many people around. That seems to me a necessity for a long series of books. Similarly, the people who live in the rural Peak District are "outsiders," like the Navajo. DC Cooper is a native and understands a lot about the locals and their culture, much like Navajo cops Leaphorn and Chee did on the rez.

I'll press the comparison a bit farther. Both Booth and Hillerman created interesting characters, plotted stories that held my interest, and told those stories well. Hillerman's stories were usually less complex than Booth's, and I liked them for that. Booth seems to revel in complicating stories and alternating between telling threads of them. I do like the way that Booth's telling brings all the disparate people and events together, but getting there is a bit frustrating at times.

(All this about how Booth's writing reminds me of Hillerman is also reminding me of how much I miss those novels about the people of the Navajo Nation. I might have to do some re-reading.)

Ah, but The Dead Place. DC Cooper and DS Fry begin by searching for a crime after a body is discovered in the moors. But, the person discovered died of natural causes and was supposedly cremated by a local funeral director. Then there are anonymous letters and phone calls hinting at other bodies and predicting murders. There are Booth's usual diversions and the development of the working relationship between the two main cops. The book kept me reading throughout, even when we hosted a couple of wonderful toddlers and their mother from California for a week. Maybe it was the distraction of the little ones, maybe it was the hangover from the awfulness of the previous book, or any number of other things, but I didn't think The Dead Place was as good as the earlier books by Booth that I'd read. But, it was enjoyable. I will look for another when I return to the library.

Have you read The Dead Place or another of Booth's mysteries? What did you think?

Write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted.

12 August 2012

Pretty damn stupid

If you asked me about Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel, I'd tell you it is pretty damn stupid.

If you asked my why I read most of it, I'd tell you I am pretty damn stupid.

The trouble is that I suspect the authors would be delighted with that description of the book and me.

Take two guys. One of whom spent years writing humorous newspaper columns. That's a way of saying he was two (or three) clicks short of funny. (That was my stupid attempt at being as humorous as Dave Barry.) The other guy wrote for Saturday Night Live, Gary Shandling's Show, Monk, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. (That's my second attempt as being as humorous as Dave Barry.)

Don't get it? Neither do I. And it makes more sense than the book.

I think what happened is that these two guys had too much to drink one night and challenged each other to collaborating on a book. Somebody wrote the first chapter with a humorous cliff hanger ending and passed it to the other guy. The other guy wrote a second chapter building on the humorousness of the first and ended it with a humorous cliff hanger, and passed it back to the first guy for the next chapter. Both of them were intent on stumping the other with their chapter non-endings and stupid developments.

Much of the humorousness reminded me of absurd things my 6th-grade buddy and I would make up after reading a new issue of Mad Magazine (25¢ Cheap). Pretty damn stupid.

23 July 2012

Television and published fiction, 2

The other TV series that became a favorite in our household in the past couple years was Bones. The series was created by Hart Hanson and based very loosley on a character created by Kathy Reichs.

Reichs is a forensic anthropologist who works in North Carolina and Canada. When she's not identifying bodies and causes of death, she writes mystery/adventure novels featuring a forensic anthropologist named Temperance (Tempe) Brennan. Brennan, coincidently, works in North Carolina and Canada. Just to complete the circle (as is done on Castle), the Brennan character on television writes mystery/adventure novels in her spare time featuring a forensic anthropologist named Kathy Reichs.

 Convoluted enough?

Emily Deschanel (TV's Temperance Brennan) and Kathy Reichs

We sort of discovered Bones a couple years ago, and liked it well enough that we have now used our Netflix subscription to watch all the seasons we missed. That led me to Déja Dead, Kathy Reichs' first novel. Mostly I was curious about the translation from printed pages to episodic television.
  1. Any similarites between Reichs' main character and the title character of Hart's TV series (except for the name and occupation) is purely coincidental. I find the television character -- annoying know-it-all, Asperger-like robot, and all -- much more interesting.
  2. The television series is better written.
  3. There is a virtual absence of humor in Reichs' book. The humor on the tube is one of the big attractions for me.
  4. Reichs' character is a loner. She's always assuming responsibilities that are not hers and venturing out on her own to do things she believes no one else can or will do. As a result, she's frequently in danger and in trouble with her bosses and colleagues. Since I never developed any sympathies with the character, I keep thinking about how stupid she was. (She reminds me of Sara Paretsky's and Sue Grafton's heroes. I often thought they were pretty stupid too. That's the main reason I don't read those authors' books any more.)
  5. The book is full of procedural detail that seem to come right out of textbooks used by physical anthropologists or medical examiners. (Hint: it's dull.)
So, now I've seen the origin of the television series. Hart Hanson must get nearly all the credit. Kathy Reichs is still involved as a technical advisor with the title of a producer.

I won't be going back to another of Reichs' books. Will you?

Have you read Déja Dead or another of Kathy Reichs' books? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

13 July 2012

Fiction and TV

I'm sort of embarrassed by how much TV I watch. It's a default activity even more common than trolling the Internet. One attraction is that it is so passive, although it's not as passive as it was when there were only half a dozen channels available. (I won't go on about remembering when two broadcasters in Minneapolis/St. Paul shared one channel. That was really ancient times, i.e. before 1955.)

The permanent residents of this house have become fans of a couple television series that remind us of the screwball comedies starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The "remind" is crucial because neither Bones nor Castle is a full-fledged screwball comedy, but they do feature couples, ambiguous relationships, and adequately snappy dialogue. Close enough for network TV.

Both also have links to novels. Temperance Brennan, the main character in Bones, is based on the protagonist of Kathy Reichs crime novels. And the Brennan character is a successful mystery writer, as well as an irritating polymath. Things are more complicated in Castle.

Andrew Marlowe
Andrew Marlowe is the creator and producer of Castle, the television series. One of the main characters in that series is Richard Castle, a writer of mystery and romance novels. But, if you look in a book store or at Amazon, you'll find that Hyperion has published four crime/mystery novels featuring the main characters of the television series, Kate Beckett, a New York City detective and Richard Castle, author. The televison series characters in those books are called Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook. And just to cement the illusion, actor Nathan Fillon, who plays Richard Castle on TV is pictured on the back cover as Richard Castle, the author of the Nikki Heat books.

I get seriously confused if I try to keep this all straight when watching television. It's worse when reading one of "Richard Castle's" books. But that's what I did. I read Naked Heat by "Richard Castle." (Online speculation about who actually writes these books is rampant. The best one I read suggests that creator Andrew Marlowe is the writer. He credits his wife in the acknowledgements as "co-conspirator." And Marlowe gets writing credit for 79 of 81 episodes.)

 Naked Heat reads like a book-length treatment of an episode of the series. There are the requisite snappy lines once in awhile. There are the murders, the suspects, the bad guys, and the red herrings. The relationship between Heat and Rook is not as ambiguous as the one between Beckett and Castle. The ambiguity is reduced in ways you might expect the Castle character to write it.

But, an episode of Castle lasts 43 minutes. The book is nearly 300 pages. Things move slowly in the book. Discussions among the detectives are much more interesting when they quickly take place on screen than when they drag out in print. Quick cuts between scenes on TV work better than blind transitions on the printed page. This plot might work well as an episode on TV. Maybe it has, because I haven't watched all 81 episodes.  

Naked Heat was entertaining if not engrossing. I don't think I'll go looking for the other "Richard Castle" books. I will probably watch new episodes on TV, although I expect there aren't many left. As the Castle-Beckett relationship becomes less ambiguous on the television screen, one element of the tension that holds things together (or apart, if you prefer) will disappear. And so will the television series.

 I'm sure I'll find something else to watch (if not read).

Have you read Naked Heat or another of "Richard Castle's" books?  

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

Scott D. Parker's review on his blog.

The publisher's YouTube promo for Naked Heat


The television cast and writer at Comic Con 2010.