Friday, September 19, 2014

Sleepless in Scotland

I looked for Nervine in my bathroom cabinet without success.
It's Friday night at the end of a head-spinning work week, the sort of week when you crawl home and you're too tired to even think about what's in the fridge, so you eat vegetable soup straight out of a can without heating it up; and then you collapse onto the bed, but when you close your eyes, the gears in your brain are still clicking and clacking away, and there's no chance you can simply slip into slumber. This is when you face the facts: sleep will no doubt come later, but what you need to do in the meantime is flush work out of your head by picking up a book and pouring yourself something to wash it down with. Since the big news this week is the Scottish decision to remain in the UK, I vote we decide on a setting in Scotland.

Now, you can go several ways: you can go quiet with a visit to a private girls' school in Scotland in the 1930s with Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or, you can tell yourself your head is already whirling any way, so why not make it really gyrate with the fantastical Lanark: A Life in Four Books, by Alasdair Gray, set in Glasgow and a hellish version of that city called Unthank. Or you can opt for a charming and relaxing read with Compton Mackenzie's 1947 book, Whisky Galore, in which the S.S. Cabinet Minister, carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whiskey, is wrecked off the remote fictional Scottish islands of Great Todday and Little Todday during World War II. Happily, unlike those scrambling Scottish islanders, we can pour a glass of Macallan before the bottle threatens to disappear under the ocean surface.

If none of those books sound good, how about an unusual thriller? The protagonist and some-time narrator of Steve Alten's The Loch is Zachary Wallace, a brilliant young marine biologist, whom we meet during a catastrophic encounter with a giant squid in the Sargasso Sea. This experience is Zack's second near-drowning (his first came on his ninth birthday in Loch Ness), and the trauma sends him into a downward spiral in South Beach, Florida. Zack is suffering from hydrophobia and night terrors when he receives a message from his father, Angus, in the Scottish Highlands.

Zack hasn't seen Angus since his parents divorced, and his mother took Zack to America when he was nine. Now, 17 years later, Angus is on trial, facing the death penalty for the murder of an Englishman, Johnny Cialino. Angus's defense? Basically, "I punched Johnny, and he fell into Loch Ness, where he was eaten by you know who." Once Zack arrives, Angus asks his hydrophobic son to prove the Loch Ness monster's existence. Grisly events ensue, and a media circus develops. The Loch is soon swarming with searchers. Templar Knights even appear. Oh, boy!

It's hard for me to convey the flavor of this 487-page book. It's not one of those short-chaptered page turners that make you feel as if you have ADHD. Writer Alten is interested in ancient Scottish history and the roles of mutation and natural selection in evolution. This is not to say this thriller isn't far-fetched; however, given its premises, it hangs together in a stew of history lessons, swashbuckling action, pulse-racing horror, and budding romance.

It begins with a prologue set in 1330, when Sir Adam Wallace possesses Robert the Bruce's heart in a silver casket. From time to time, several pages of hard-to-read print appear, giving us Adam's 1330 journal entries. They explain how Zack carries the curse, "wrought by nature," that's haunted the Wallace men since the passing of Robert the Bruce. Chapters close with quotations from scientists about evolution and from eye-witness accounts of the Loch Ness monster. It's a long way to the end; shortening could have been done. There's not a whole lot of dialect, but what's there is annoying. Zack occasionally irritated me, too. But, give the guy his due. He returns to Scotland and faces his demons, and I enjoyed losing sleep reading about it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

National Book Awards: Fiction Longlist

On the heels of the British Booker Prize shortlist come the American National Book Awards longlists in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature. The five-book shortlists will be announced on October 15th, the day after the Booker winner is announced. We will learn the winner in each NBA category on November 19th.

While we're waiting for Scotland's decision on independence, let's take a look at the NBA's 10-book Fiction longlist below:

Rabih Alameddine: An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, February 2014). Aaliya Saleh is 72 years old. She was born in Beirut and still lives quietly in her apartment there. Translating a literary classic is the highlight of her year, even though no one else will read it. Now that life is threatened. I loved this beautifully written book, narrated by an unforgettable woman, and rushed to get Alameddine's The Hakawati, a saga about four generations of a Beiruti family.

Molly Antopol: The UnAmericans (W. W. Norton, February 2014). Antopol is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Awardee. This is a critically lauded short-story collection, set in various countries, involving Jewish immigrants who struggle with feelings of estrangement.

John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 16, 2014). Darnielle, a musician and lyricist for the Mountain Goats, has crafted a novel about a disfigured young man who created and runs the role-playing fantasy game, Trace Italian, from his southern California apartment.

Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, May 2014).​ Marie Laure is blind. She and her father, master of locks at the National History Museum in Paris, flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast during World War II. In her dad's pocket is a famous gem, sought by a Nazi treasure hunter.

Phil Klay: Redeployment (The Penguin Press, May 2014). Klay served in Iraq with the U. S. Marines. This is a collection of powerful short stories about fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and fitting in back home afterward. I read it and shelved it with books such as Herman Wouk's The Winds of War, Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, and Pat Barker's First World War trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road).

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (Knopf, September 9, 2014). Set in the days before and after the Georgia Flu eliminates most of humankind, this dystopian novel features a band of Shakespearean actors traveling through the Great Lakes region of North America to perform for scattered groups of survivors.

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck & Other Stories (The Dial Press, April 2014). McCracken is a former public librarian whose The Giant's House was a National Book Award finalist. Publishers Weekly says she has a "slightly askew manner of looking at the world," which should make this collection focusing on loss very interesting.

Richard Powers: Orfeo (W. W. Norton, January 2014). When Peter Els's dog has a heart attack, he calls 911. Responders discover the 70-year-old composer's home microbiology laboratory. The feds think he's a bioterrorist, so Els scrams. I enjoyed this book, Els's reflections on life, music, and technology while on the road.

Marilynne Robinson: Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 7, 2014). This is the third in Robinson's trilogy of books set in Gilead, Iowa (Gilead and Home are the first two) and tells the story of Lila, who became Rev. John Ames's wife.

Jane Smiley: Some Luck (Knopf, October 7, 2014). Rosanna and Walter Langdon raise their five children on a Denby, Iowa farm. This is the first in a trilogy that begins in 1920 and will cover a century.

The books I haven't read on this longlist are on my list of books to read. I loved last year's National Book Award for Fiction winner, James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, rollicking historical fiction about abolitionist John Brown (see review here). I'll be very curious to see this year's whittled shortlist and winner.

P.S. My twice-promised Monday review of Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You fell victim to an unexpected deluge of work. I realize my credibility is shot, but I will have the review done on Monday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie

There are a few significant dates that seem to stick in my memory, despite the fact that they have become moveable celebrations, such as Columbus Day, October 12, Washington's birthday, February 22, and Lincoln's birthday, February 12, and I celebrate them in my own way.

I also like to celebrate Agatha Christie's birthday, September 15, by reading one of her books. Christie is the most widely-published author of all time, in any language, not counting Shakespeare. And we don't count the Bible.

This year, I picked Crooked House, which Christie always claimed as one of her own special favorites. She said she saved it up for years, thinking about it, working it out and waiting for the time when it was ripe in her mind and ready to be put down on paper. Like many of her other books she took the title from a nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,

He found a crooked sixpence 
upon a crooked stile,

He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse

And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

The crooked man of this story is Aristide Leonides, a Greek immigrant from Smyrna, who had come to England near the turn of the century, where he opened a restaurant. He worked diligently and, very like the ancient Greek king Midas, everything he touched was a success. He was not exactly crooked, but he was the type of man who made the authorities realize that there "oughta be a law"––and then there was one.

Leonides built himself a higgledy-piggledy mansion and had a large family. The narrative begins in a way familiar to Christie fans, by means of a serendipitous sleuth. In this case, that sleuth is Charles Hayward. Charles, a young man working for the British foreign office, met and fell in love with Sophia, Leonides's granddaughter, when they were both in Cairo, but their relationship was interrupted by the war and they put everything on hold.

When Charles returns to England, hoping to reunite with Sophia, one of the first thing he sees is the obituary of the magnate Aristide Leonides. Leonides has been murdered and the police suspect someone close to the old man. The family is not allowed to leave the house. Charles arranges to meet Sophia that very night.

Sophia slides down a drainpipe and sneaks out to meet Charles to fill him in. There are few family members left at this point. Aristide's first wife has been dead for a long time, and he has a young, nubile 24-year-old spouse whom Sophia describes as a harem wife, a woman who rather likes to spend her time sitting around eating sweets, reading novels and perhaps carrying on with the young tutor who is teaching Sophia's younger brother and sister. Sophia describes the tutor as somewhat of a rabbit, easily frightened.

The other family members are Aristide's oldest son and favorite, Roger, who is a ne'er do well who can't escape his dependence on his father. Roger's wife, Clemency, is a scientist who has all the knowledge necessary to do murder in all sorts of ways––and the cold-bloodedness to go with it.

Sophia's father is the second son, Philip, who suffers from severe sibling rivalry and shuts himself in the library all the time. Sophia's mother is an actress who has been moderately successful, but insists in remaining on center stage even when at home.

Edith de Haviland, Leonides's unmarried sister-in-law, the sister of his first wife, has never cared for the old man, but moved in to care for the children and stayed. Sophia has two younger siblings: Eustace, a victim of polio, and Josephine, who is 12, precocious, plain––a very unpleasant character who makes you wish for a Flavia de Luce.

Poison is one of Christie's favorite modes of murder, and it is clear from the onset that eserine, an eye drop, was injected into Leonides instead of insulin; that is no secret. All of the family members are equally adept at doing this evil deed. All may be seen to have motive and opportunity. The means were available to all. The drops, the needles, syringes and insulin were out in the open. All this is grist for Christie's mill.

Sophia tells Charles that she cannot marry him until everything is cleared up, and according to Scotland Yard there is no way to get evidence one way or the other.

Of course, Charles Hayward is in the right position to be an inside man. And we are reminded that he once worked for Special Branch. But he has quite a job to do in this crooked house. Crooked because, as Sophia points out, everyone is twisted and twining, interdependent in unhealthy ways. Sophia is afraid, because she is aware of inborn ruthlessness in all of them, and she believes that all of them in the end are capable of murder, herself included.

There is a subtle psychological tension as the family members eye each other and each person has his or her suspicions. Josephine, a very sneaky child, insists she knows who the murderer is and the tension ratchets up a notch when another death by poison, meant for this little snoop, misses its mark and kills another innocent victim. It is, indeed, a very crooked family that keeps turning on itself.

I enjoyed my classic Christie birthday present very much.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review of Broadchurch by Erin Kelly

Broadchurch by Erin Kelly, based on the story by series creator Chris Chibnall

Back a couple of years ago, I read about a psychology study claiming that people who had been "spoiled"––meaning that they'd learned major plot points in advance––actually enjoyed a book or movie more than those who hadn't. I think that knowing a story in advance can add another layer to the experience; if you know what's going to happen, you may have a more nuanced experience when you see a movie or read a book.

That's why I was interested in reading Broadchurch (Minotaur Books, September 2, 2014), even though I'd watched the Broadchurch series already, on BBC America. (I wrote about the series at length here.) I had David Tennant, Olivia Coleman and Jodie Whittaker in my head whenever Alec Hardy, Ellie Miller and Beth Latimer appeared in the book, and that brought them even more vividly to life. And the novelization allows the reader to know the characters' thoughts (to some extent) and provides a closer look at why some characters do what they do.

West Bay beach, Dorset, filming scene for the Broadchurch series
Author Erin Kelly has written five novels, psychological thrillers, including the recent The Burning Air (see review here) and The Ties that Bind. She has a lean writing style, but with a richness and skill at conveying emotions that works very well in adapting the story written for the screen by Chris Chibnall. The murder of 11-year-old Danny Latimer in the small Dorset beach town of Broadchurch makes friends and neighbors begin suspecting each other and questioning whether they could have prevented Danny's death. This is an excellent setup for the kind of psychological drama that is Kelly's specialty.

Chloe, Mark and Beth Latimer, grandmother Liz
Danny's murder is devastating to his young parents, Beth and Mark, who married when they were teenagers; his older sister, Chloe; and his grandmother. They don't know what to do with the rage that boils inside them, the grief that follows them from room to room and crowds them when they sit on the sofa. Beth, an avid runner, particularly feels the claustrophobia of feeling penned inside the house, but when she rushes to the grocery story to escape, the reactions of the other shoppers make her want to run them down with her cart.

Mark has a secret about where he was when Danny was killed, and the way life works in a small town, he hangs onto it even when it means he falls under suspicion, not just from the police, but even Beth.

DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman)
And there is more drama with the investigators and journalists. Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller is not only longtime friends with the Latimers, with her son having been best friends with Danny, but Ellie is forced to partner with new-to-town Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, who has been slotted into the job that she'd been assured was going to be given to her. Alec Hardy is terse, seems to think everybody in Broadchurch is an idiot, and is battling personal demons. Hardy and Miller begin as nothing but rough edges to each other, but the friction begins to rub away the edges as they desperately work to keep the investigation on track, despite an increasingly fractious local population and the jackals of the press.

Maggie, Olly and Karen
Olly Stevens, Ellie's young nephew, is a fledgling journalist with the local paper, run by the tough-but-tender veteran, Maggie. Olly hopes to break into the big time, like Karen White, a brash reporter for a big national daily paper, who finds it difficult to reconcile the demands of her editor for tabloid-style stories with the sympathies she increasingly has for the Broadchurch locals. Karen knows Hardy from an earlier case in another town, and they are bitterly at odds.

Along with being an excellent psychological thriller and whodunnit, the story is a rich portrait of small-town life in this beach community on the Dorset coast. You don't often come across crime fiction that takes so seriously the effect of murder on a community. The story races along, with plenty of action, tension and emotion. If you prefer fairly short books, don't be put off by the book's 433 pages. It's a fast read, both because of its pace and the fairly large type.

Anna Gunn will play Ellie Miller in Gracepoint
You might have heard that Fox will be broadcasting a 10-part remake of Broadchurch, called Gracepoint, starting October 2. Despite what I said earlier about having no problem watching/reading after being spoiled, I'm not so sure about Gracepoint. I just watched all the videos on Fox's site and it looks like a pale imitation of Broadchurch. So many scenes have almost exactly the same direction and dialog, but the actors (except for David Tennant, who reprises his role––I guess he's that anxious to become better known in the US) have that buffed and homogenized look that American producers think we want, rather than the very real-looking actors that the British readily cast. From the videos, it appears that looks have been elevated over acting skills, compared to the British cast, at least in some cases. (I'm not talking about Anna Gunn's acting, but just look at some of the other actors' videos.)

I would strongly recommend watching Broadchurch (available on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix)––and reading this book––and then deciding whether you want to see Gracepoint. And look for the second season of Broadchurch, which is being filmed now in the UK and will air on BBC America sometime early in 2015.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Crime Writers Association Shortlists Announced

The UK's Crime Writers Association has announced its shortlists for three of its major awards. I always get excited about the CWA shortlists because some of these books are new to US publication or, in some cases, not even published here yet.

The winners will be announced on Friday, October 24th, at the Crime Thriller Awards.

In the lists below, I've indicated the US publishing information.

The CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year

Paul Mendelson: The First Rule of Survival (Apparently not published in the US)

Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In (Minotaur, 2013)

Paula Daly: Keep Your Friends Close (Grove Press, August 19, 2014)

Wiley Cash: This Dark Road to Mercy (William Morrow, January 28, 2014)

The CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger (debut novels)

Ray Celestin: The Axeman's Jazz (Apparently not published in the US, though the book is set in New Orleans)

Antonia Hodgson: The Devil in the Marshalsea (Mariner Books, June 10, 2014)

A. S. A. Harrison: The Silent Wife (Penguin Books, 2013)

M. J. Carter: The Strangler Vine (Putnam Adult, March 31, 2015)

The CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger  (thrillers)

Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard (Sarah Crichton Books, January 14, 2014)

Robert Harris: An Officer and a Spy (Knopf, January 28, 2014)

Terry Hayes: I Am Pilgrim (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, May 27, 2014)

Greg Iles: Natchez Burning (William Morrow, April 29, 2014)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Channeling Your Inner Psychopath

It has been many years since I read a self-help book (I'm pretty much beyond help at this point), but The Good Psychopath's Guide to Success caught my eye and fancy. Catchy title, and it deals with a kind of cop-out increasingly common in mysteries and thrillers, and possibly in the real world as well. Who, what, where, when, and why are the five Ws of mystery fiction, and readers love digging them out alongside the detective. But as soon as the word "psychopath" is applied to the culprit, motive becomes moot.

Psychopaths in fiction are understood to be serial killers for motives barely discernible or sufficient to the rest of us. Once one appears, the balance of the story, while it will likely contain some hair-raising passages, is actually pretty lame and pointless for the avid armchair investigator. It morphs into a race-to-catch-him-before-he-kills-again thriller. So who are these mysterious story spoilers, these cold fish, these mass murderers, and what drives them to do what they do?

Professor Kevin Dutton is a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy. He has spent his career at the University of Oxford studying psychopaths, and is the author of a previous popular science book on the subject, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success.

Andy McNab is a former SAS officer and the successful author of several war thrillers, two of which are purported autobiographies of action during the Iraq War. He is also the highest scorer ever in Dr. Dutton's ongoing psychopathic research project.

The purpose of The Good Psychopath's Guide to Success, co-authored by this unlikely pair, is to expose the more useful qualities of the psychopath and to teach the diligent reader how to get in touch with them in himself, to improve his own life.

Many of the qualities Dutton attributes to psychopaths are positive or neutral. Charisma, fearlessness and mental toughness, ability to monofocus, and impulsivity are all normal and generally harmless traits. But add in a total lack of both empathy and the capacity for remorse, and you may be looking at a psychopath. Not that psychopaths don't understand empathy on an intellectual level; they don't––literally can't, if Dutton is correct––feel it, although most of them are superb manipulators of the emotions of others. This seems confusing, in light of his apparently conflicting theory that psychopathic characteristics can be selected and reinforced in the average person. Like many self-help books, this one has interactive quizzes at the end of many chapters, so you can evaluate your own psychopathic tendencies. Or you can take this test online.

So what did I learn from this book? I learned that brain patterns in psychopaths are different from the norm. Parts of the amygdala, the "crocodile brain" that controls emotion, are missing or malfunctioning in psychopaths. Many of the qualities that define psychopathy are present in all of us, in varying degrees at various times, but the psychopath is literally unable to make certain mental and emotional leaps and connections that define civilized society.

In war and sports, psychophaths can be assets; their lightning-fast decisiveness, fearlessness, and unrelenting drive toward a goal, regardless of the price paid––by others––can achieve objectives the more scrupulous might not. Their criminality, or lack of it, seems to be situational, rather than proceeding from anything recognizable as conscience or empathy. The cleverest of them may become CEOs of major corporations, sports stars, or politicians. However, according to this article in LiveScience, while psychopaths make up only one percent of the general population, they comprise 25 percent of all men in federal prisons. Yikes!

The Good Psychopath's Guide had rather a lot of chummy "me and my mate Andy" passages that made me wonder a bit about the relationship between researcher and subject. And an annoyingly EXCESSIVE number of words were CAPITALIZED, presumably for emphasis. The sections Andy wrote display a level of narcissism and sheer bloody-mindedness that we might expect from a psychopath. What I hadn't expected was his pervasive sense of humor, even when discussing the torture he underwent as a POW in Iraq.

But did any of this help me to better understand and appreciate the psychopath of detective fiction? Or how to channel my own inner psychopath to improve my life? Not really; the emotional disconnect required seems to be inborn or learned very young. The message seems to be: don't waffle, go straight for what you want, ignoring any faces you happen to step on in the process, unless they can be useful to you. Don't take anything personally, even defeat, but look for advantage in every event. (Nice if you can manage it.)

The book was full of wickedly humorous anecdotes, and several jokes that seemed to be stuck in anywhere, rather than to illustrate a particular point. It offers a lively and interesting, if somewhat troubling, look at a condition most of us, I hope, will never really understand. Hannibal Lecter and The Joker are no more comprehensible to me than they were before.