22 April 2012

Dale Stahl wrote

Since basketball season is done and the rush to Advanced Placement exams is just beginning, Dale had time to drop a note to this little bit of the world.

Jo Nesbø is really good. His main character is a Nowegian detective, flawed but liekable, Harry Hole, alcoholic and a guy you just like despite it. Series of books starting with The Bat, which I have never found, including The Redbreast and The Devil's Star and The Snowman. Loved those three and highly recommend them.

I like this guy (Hole) better than Mankel’s Wallander (at least the later versions; Mankel getting a bit pedantic in his old age!)

The latest book by Nesbø is The Headhunters. My wife is currently enjoying it and I am eager to grab it when she is done! Not Harry Hole but intriguing suspense.

Read a great book by Fred Vargas featuring Commisarie Adamsburg, French Detective. Liked him, liked his team, liked the story of a monstrous old superstitious belief fueling a modern killer, and am going to read some of the older books in this series. French cops, like in Louise Penny’s novels in Montreal area, are always eating and drinking something delectable; makes one want to sip a drink and have a snack while reading!

Finally, if no one has done this, I highly highly recommend reading all of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet’s works. The Thin Man, outstanding period piece. Great dialogue, great mystery great picture of America in 1932 or so. Chandler is the definitive hard boiled mystery writer. Philip Marlowe is my hero. I love every one of those books. The Long Goodbye, The High Window, The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely. Dialogue amazing, stories intriguing, must reads for any mystery fan!

Bird Loomis and I wrote about The Snowman and Jo Nesbø, and we both liked it. So did most critics.

Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, aka Fred Vargas 

I'll have to add Fred Vargas to my "to read" list. When I saw her photo, she wasn't the Fred I expected to see. She's also an archaeologist.

As for the classics, I remember well going back and reading The Thin Man books. I think it was in the days of actually-printed-on-paper-and-mailed newsletter, Reading. It was a treat as are the old movies. And the old movies of the Chandler books are also wonderful. I second the recommendations.

Event telling (not story telling)

You've probably read that I like good story telling. I also like well-created characters. Karin Fossum has created and described some good characters, primarily her "hero," Norwegian police Inspector Konrad Sejer. She has also told some very good stories. I read the first one in 2006 and liked it. I've gone back and read several others. Some better and some not as good.

 In the best of her books, the story telling and the characterization are equally well done. She's written ten books featuring Inspector Sejer. The one I checked out from the Northfield Library was The Indian Bride, published in 2007. Strangely, there's not much there about Sejer, except for a routine interaction with his old, cancerous dog. And there's not much story either. And when I finished the book, I wasn't sure the story was over or the mystery resolved.

You don't have to accept my reaction. The Los Angeles Times gave it a LA Times Book Prize, so somebody thought it was better than I did. That's not unusual or unexpected.

 The Indian Bride's story centers on a Norwegian bachelor farm equipment salesman. At the age of 51, enchanted by a photograph in a book, he flies to India to find a bride. And he finds a bride. After a whilwind courtship, the happy couple is married. He returns to Norway. She settles things in Bombay and follows him. But, the groom's sister is in a car accident and he's attending her in the hospital when his wife arrives from India. The cab driver sent to meet her misses the incoming bride. The bride finds her way to the village of her future and then disappears.

Inspector Sejer is called in when a body is found just outside the village. As you might expect, the rest of the book is a combination of police investigation and Sejer's meditations about who, among the suspects, was most likely guilty.

The most interesting story is the trip to India by a small town Norwegian, but even that isn't well told. I think that if Fossum had found a middle aged, parochial Norwegian from a small town and taken him or her to Bombay and shared the physical and cultural shock, she'd have had a lot to tell. There's some mention of the discomfort of the heat, but that's about it. And what about the courtship? How does this large Nowegian man make enough conversation with the waitress at the tandoori restaurant to convince her to marry him? What is there about her and her life to make running off with the big guy attractive to a 30-something Indian woman? How do they communicate given his limited English and non-existent Hindi? Oh, there are stories to be told. But they're not in The Indian Bride.

And the police investigation takes place mostly "off-screen." Sejer ruminates about the various suspects. And about the time an arrest is made, a couple of the regulars at the village cafe speculate reasonably about the guilt of someone who hadn't been a suspect earlier. Was the case solved? Or will it come back to haunt Sejer in another book?

So this wasn't a Fossum book that was wonderful for me. It won't deter me from reading another if I see her name on the spine of a book on the library shelf, but it won't send me purposefully searching for another.

If I'd looked carefully at the ReadingBlog entries, I'd have seen that Dan Conrad wrote a couple years ago that he didn't like The Indian Bride.

Have you read The Indian Bride? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

21 April 2012

A twofer

Dan Conrad mentioned he was reading a William Kent Krueger novel. I've enjoyed a couple of Krueger's books, but found others too intense for my bedtime reading. (If I can't get to sleep after reading a chapter or two, I know I won't enjoy the rest of the story. Yes, I know I could read before 9:00 pm and do it in a chair instead of in bed, but that would require a yoga-like flexibility that I have trouble with.)

Dan was reading Vermillion Drift, and I asked him to let me know what he thought of it. He did and added a bonus.
You asked me to write and tell you what I thought of William Krueger’s Vermillion Drift. What I think is that it is a well written, highly engaging and satisfying tale. There was some of the gruesomeness you noted in his other books, but since it mostly took place 40 years earlier it was not particularly disturbing. I enjoyed the novel, and particularly that the main character’s links to the Native American community and culture are critical to unraveling the mystery.
Now, that's what I like to hear. I think I'll add this to my "to read" list.

Then Dan added:
But that’s not really why I’m writing. I next picked up another book from the library and began reading. What happened next, occurs about once in a hundred books. About 1:30 a.m. I looked at my watch and said: “It doesn’t matter. There’s no way I can go to sleep until I’ve finished.” And so I read on to the end. The book is titled The Boy In The Suitcase by two Danish women, Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, and is the first of their “Nina Borg” series to be translated into English.
Nina Borg is a Red Cross nurse in Denmark, but that has little to do with the story which is about her going to a public locker at the request of a friend and finding there a three year old boy, naked and drugged, in a suitcase!
The rest of the story is told in a series of short chapters, each chronicling the actions of the four or five main characters. Unlike some such frameworks, each chapter moves the story forward and never feels like sidestepping or going backward. Gradually you learn the who, how and why as you move, with rapidly increasing pace, to the denouement. If and when the next in the series is translated, I will have my reservation in on the first day!
Now, there's a great recommendation. The Boy In The Suitcase is also going on my "to-read" list, and probably above Vermillion Drift. Have you read either of these? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

On the left are links to buy books. On the right are links to buy e-books.

The literati are abuzz

Bird Loomis sent me a link to Ann Patchett's response to the Pulitzer Prize Board's decision not to award a prize for fiction this year. The New York Times op-ed was "And the Winner Isn't..."

Patchett, who had a book eligible to compete this year, said that "It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one." And, as a book store owner, she "can’t imagine there was ever a year we were so in need of the excitement it [a Pulitzer Prize] creates in readers."

She also bemoans about an American culture where "book coverage in the media [is] split evenly between Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games. She'd prefer "to have people talking about The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous masterwork..." [I pretty sure she meant it was published after Foster's death, not that he wrote it from an afterworld.]

Patchett ends with a standard cultural defender statement: "Let me underscore the obvious here: Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.

"Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost."

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

And while you're at it, here's the list of Pulitzer Prizes for fiction (before 1947 it was for novels):

    •    1947: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
    •    1948: Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener
    •    1949: Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens
    •    1950: The Way West by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
    •    1951: The Town by Conrad Richter
    •    1952: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
    •    1953: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
    •    1954: No award given
    •    1955: A Fable by William Faulkner
    •    1956: Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor
    •    1957: No award given
    •    1958: A Death in the Family by James Agee (posthumous win)
    •    1959: The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor
    •    1960: Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
    •    1961: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    •    1962: The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor
    •    1963: The Reivers by William Faulkner
    •    1964: No award given
    •    1965: The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
    •    1966: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter
    •    1967: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
    •    1968: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
    •    1969: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
    •    1970: The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford by Jean Stafford
    •    1971: No award given
    •    1972: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
    •    1973: The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
    •    1974: No award given
    •    1975: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
    •    1976: Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow
    •    1977: No award given
    •    1978: Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson
    •    1979: The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
    •    1980: The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
    •    1981: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    •    1982: Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike
    •    1983: The Color Purple by Alice Walker
    •    1984: Ironweed by William Kennedy
    •    1985: Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
    •    1986: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
    •    1987: A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor
    •    1988: Beloved by Toni Morrison
    •    1989: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
    •    1990: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
    •    1991: Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
    •    1992: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
    •    1993: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
    •    1994: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
    •    1995: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
    •    1996: Independence Day by Richard Ford
    •    1997: Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser
    •    1998: American Pastoral by Philip Roth
    •    1999: The Hours by Michael Cunningham
    •    2000: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
    •    2001: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
    •    2002: Empire Falls by Richard Russo
    •    2003: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
    •    2004: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
    •    2005: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
    •    2006: March by Geraldine Brooks
    •    2007: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    •    2008: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
    •    2009: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
    •    2010: Tinkers by Paul Harding
    •    2011: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
    •    2012: No award given.

I've only read half of dozen of these. The Old Man and the Sea and To Kill a Mockingbird were the ones I liked best. Chabon's mysterious brick, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was my least favorite.

What have you read? What did you think? Is this a list of America's best fiction from the last 65 years? Or just a committee's award to get us excited about reading fiction?   Write and tell this little bit of the world.

15 April 2012

Good cop, bad cop, worse cop

It didn't take me long to get back to reading another "crime novel" by Stephen Booth. I was impressed with Black Dog, so on my latest trip to the Northfield Library, I picked up Booth's second book, Dancing with the Virgins.

Characters and characterization were big attractions in the first book, and remain important features in this one. Here's how important they were to me: there were times as I was reading this mystery, that I nearly forgot about the plot and the mystery and wondered about the characters.

The main people in Black Dog are for the most part the main people in Dancing with the Virgins. There's the local boy following in his father's footsteps on the police force. There's his nemisis, the rising star imported from the big city, who beats him out for a promotion. The other officers in the local cop shop are there, with a couple additional people mentioned for the first time.

Oh, and the virgins? They are large upright stones on the moor that local legend says were young women of ancient times who danced on the Sabbath and were turned to stone as punishment. In the midst of the circle of 9 "virgins," a 21st century woman is found murdered. The victim was a "mountain biking" cyclist, attacked not far from where a hiker had been attacked a week earlier. The quiet, rural community is alarmed and demanding that the quiet, rural cops do something about the crime wave.

There are other things going on as well, but it takes a long time for the stories to develop and merge. Maybe that's why I became more interested in the people at times.

The young detective and his nemisis are polar opposites. He operates on gut instincts and an almost religious belief in finding justice. She relies on logic and the presecribed routines of the police manual. She plots her statements and actions like a military campaign. He responds to the needs of the people and the situations around him. Both of them have secrets in their pasts. Both of them wonder about the other and can't imagine how their opposite mangages.

But several of the other characters in Booth's book get pretty extensive development. The poor farmer for whom everything is falling apart; the attack victim whose face is badly disfigured by scars and whose being is disfigured by partial memories; the murder victim, who seemed alone and isolated (like the main characters); a park ranger whose 30-year "career" as a caretaker of his aging mother ends with her death; and a pair of sad-sack misfits who get violently dragged into the story because the VW van they're living in breaks down in the vicinity of murderous violence.

I liked this book. Stephen Booth's ability to profile the people in his stories is at least as good as his ability to craft the stories. He's now written a dozen books. However, I find it difficult to imagine reading that many more books centered on the people in the first two. Booth is not Tony Hillerman and the wilderness of the Peak District is not the wilderness of northern Arizona and New Mexico and Booth's detectives are not Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I'm hoping that the next Stephen Booth book I pick up will have different characters and settings.

Have you read Dancing with the Virgins? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it.

13 April 2012

Once upon a crime

Okay, I've never been there. I've driven by, but never stopped. But this sounds like a place I ought to go given my penchant for reading mysteries.

Once Upon a Crime Mystery Bookstore offers good reads, great service
When you first step through the door of Once Upon a Crime, located on W. 26th Street just off Lyndale in Uptown Minneapolis (only five minutes away from Metropolitan State University’s Minneapolis campus), the word “cozy” comes to mind. First, you inhale the instantly relaxing smell of paper, ink, and aging wood. Waiting to be petted is the store dog Shamus. The Border Collie-Dalmatian-Lab-German Shepherd mix lies on his stomach by the door, carving a bone with his canines. And of course there are the mystery books—in total 20,000 to 30,000 of them. This abundance of hardcovers and paperbacks sit on bookshelves that line the walls and fill parts of the small room’s interior.

Always at the ready to help navigate you to the book of your dreams are the owners of Once Upon a Crime: Pat Frovarp and Gary Shulze. The two bought the store from former owner Steve Stilwell on August 1, 2002…

In the spring of 2011, Once Upon a Crime was nationally recognized for its promotion of mystery literature with the Raven award. According to Once Upon a Crime’s website, “the award recognizes outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing.” Frovarp and Shulze received the trophy raven at a ceremony in New York City...

Minneapolis bookstore publishes mystery anthology
"Write of Spring," an anthology published by the folks at Once Upon a Crime bookstore, will be published this spring by Nodin Press. The book is a collection of mystery stories by Brian Freeman, Ellen Hart, David Housewright and a whole slew of other local writers; it was compiled to mark the store's 25th anniversary.

Gary Shulze and Pat Frovarp, bookstore owners, won the Raven Award two years ago from the Mystery Writers of America. They promise that this book is not just their first, but also their last, venture into publishing.

The book will launch at the store's annual Write of Spring celebration, which runs from noon to 4 p.m. April 7 and brings in dozens of mystery writers in one-hour shifts. (The store is at 604 W. 26th St., Mpls.) All royalties will be donated to Memorial Blood Centers.

Welcome to the website for ONCE UPON A CRIME MYSTERY BOOKSTORE
Pat and Gary at ONCE UPON A CRIME are informal, low-tech, and happy to provide the best customer service around. They carry thousands of new mysteries, thrillers, and crime fiction and also have a large collection of rare, used, and hard-to-get volumes. They can order almost any book. Feel free to call ahead to check to see if the book you want is in stock: 612-870-3785 or EMAIL. Please drop a note if you would like to be on the e-mail notification list for information about upcoming appearances.

08 April 2012

Degrees of separation

"This little bit of the world" got a little smaller this winter. Jeanette Hohman died at age 92. It's not just that this little bit of the world is already small enough, it's also that Jeanette was a remarkable and interesting woman. I say that even though I just barely knew her and met her only twice, I think.

When I stopped publishing Reading on paper, Jeanette was one of the people for whom I printed out web pages. She was the person who, last fall, asked me why I seemed to read only mysteries. Then she suggested The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

When I was last at the Northfield Library, I found Blake's book in the fiction section and remembered the title. Now I've read it. And I wish I could call Jeanette and talk about it.

In many ways it's a well-written book. But...

There's a good short story at the beginning of the book that would be great if you added in some of the characterization that shows up at the end of the book. It's about finding adulthood and confidence of self. It's a tragedy, but one that raises important questions.

There's another short story in the middle of the book about a reporter trying to make sense out of a randomly cruel and deadly European world in 1940. The fact that the young woman is an American, acting with American impulses and assumptions makes it more tragic.

There are a couple of unfinished short stories in the book as well, but like the American reporter who seem unable to find the end of the stories she reports on, Sarah Blake seems unable to finish the stories. One of them is about childhood and loss while another is about seeking the future and death.

There's an ingenious plot device in the middle of the book which appears to tie the early short story to the incomplete short story about the reporter in Europe, but Blake abandons the device and portrays her character staring out to sea from the town on the end of Cape Cod. This from a young woman who is quoted as saying, "'Whatever is coming does not just come... It's helped by people willfully looking away. People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth. The minute you start thinking something else, then you've stopped paying attention -- and paying attention is all we've got.'"

Maybe I was supposed to see the unfinished stories and the unused plot links as part of what Sarah Blake was writing about. Maybe I was paying attention to the wrong things. But, I am too dense to recognize Blake's topic. Maybe Jeanette knew.

It seems to me that this is almost a novel. But when I finished, I wondered what it was about.

Oh, and the title? The postmaster in that small town at the end of Cape Cod wondered what effect she could have on her community if she simply didn't deliver some of the mail. It turns out it wasn't her, but the visiting reporter, trying to recover from her war time experiences, who refused to deliver some mail. But, in the end, it didn't matter.

Have you read The Postmistress? What did you think it was about? Do you think Blake had a message? Or was she just telling incomplete stories? Come on. Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions. (And recruit a new reader to this little bit of the world.)

02 April 2012

Saturday dilemma

I had a book I thought I'd read last weekend. It turned out to be engaging enough that I finished it late Saturday afternoon (not late Sunday). The library was closed. I didn't have any other books on my bed side pile. No! Was I to be banished to television land? Yikes! Did I have to talk to the family gathered here. Luckily, we went out to dinner -- great Japanese scallops for me and equally good food for everyone else. And we talked to one another. We even continued talking to each other after dinner. At bedtime I resorted to a collection of sermons by John Cummins, one the two preachers who has made me think and feel.

The book that encouraged conversation by being good enough that I finished it before I expected to? Black Dog by Stephen Booth. I don't know how Stephen Booth's name appeared on my "to read" list, but there it was when I was last at the library. I looked at several books and chose Booth's first, Black Dog.

The title is a red herring. There's a black dog in one of the stories, but it's a bit of distraction. Booth tells stories well, and there are several in this book. And, in a self-proclaimed "crime novel," it's the characters, not the stories that stand out.

The main character is a local boy doing well, hoping like his father to become a police sergeant in the Peak District of northern England. However, he's haunted by his father's sainted memory in the community, in part because his father died bravely in the line of duty. The supporting cast includes an ambitious young detective constable who has been newly assigned to the district and is an unexpected competitor for the sergeant's position. There's the Dickinson family, headed by Harry, who keeps acting guilty because he has secrets to keep. His granddaughter seems to be a potential love interest for the main character, but she seems secretive too. The local "aristocrat" might be the recipient of sympathy and concern because his daughter has been killed, but he's a nasty piece of work who, as a self-made man, never understood noblesse oblige. There are others, in the village and in the cop shop, who appear and leave an impression. But the characters make the story work.

I know I've said I like story telling, but a decently told story with interesting and engaging characters makes a book a pleasure to read. And I enjoyed reading this one. Somehow Booth never lets the description of characters get noticeably in the way of telling the stories, and the characters never obscure what's going on in the stories. As I said, I spent more time reading on Saturday afternoon than I intended and finished the book after the library closed.

It was the first time I sort of wished I had an e-book reader so I could download another book.

So did you recommend Stephen Booth to me? If so, many thanks. After all that character development, I expect to read about these people in more "crime novels."

Have you read Black Dog or another of Stephen Booth's books? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reaction.

The author's web page
A summary of 478 ratings at Good Reads
Maddy Van Hertbruggen's review at Reviewing the Evidence
Luke Croll's thumbnail review at Murder Express