Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review of Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Here's the thing. I very rarely give a book an unadulterated rave review. As a Mainer, I was brought up to practice moderation. To say I liked a book is fine, even that I liked it a lot, but to say I loved it is a display of flamboyant emotion my fellow Mainers would look at askance. But there's no help for it; I did love this book.

Now the hard part. What's it about? Well, it's an old-fashioned tale of British Empire swashbuckling adventure (think The Man Who Would Be King, or King Solomon's Mines, for example), a science fiction technology fable, a family drama, a coming-of-age story, a jeremiad against contemporary finance-world fiddles and the modern Orwellian state that tortures its citizens to protect our freedoms, and also a tragedy, a comedy, a romance. Hmm, that's not very helpful in giving you a picture of the book, is it? What if I say it's about a supervillain known as the Opium Khan who, with his "Ruskinites," an army of black-clad man-machines, and the assistance of the cynical complicity of the modern security state, works tirelessly over decades to achieve the power of a god over all of humanity, all the while countered by ingenious men and women and their steampunkish submarines, trains, various other devices and a network of extremely quirky characters and one ancient, blind, bad-tempered and one-toothed pug? No, I thought not.

Let's try another tack and look at the plot. Joshua Joseph ("Joe") Spork is a young London clockmaker and restorer of various types of clever machines, like Victoriana automata. He is the son of the late flashy gangster, Matthew "Tommy Gun" Spork, and the grandson of Matthew's disapproving clockmaker father, Daniel. Despite his love for his father and affection for the gangsters of the Night Market, where the criminal underworld meets periodically in a grand secret bazaar, Joe is so determined not to be like him that he has, as he says, dedicated his life to being mild. He's a quiet, law-abiding man, so shy and retiring he can't bring himself to follow through on the world's most obvious hint when a generously bosomed barmaid takes his hand and holds it over her heart.

Joe isn't a complete saint, though. He knows the sin of covetousness when he doggedly visits ancient Edie Bannister and feels sure she's working up to offer him some really excellent piece of machinery to work on. And she is, but she might have left it just a little late. What she has is a piece of a device that, like the atomic bomb, has the power to end all wars or destroy the planet, depending on who controls it. And, suddenly, a lot of very bad men, including government men, want to be the ones to get their hands on it and are willing to do whatever it takes to Edie, Joe and everyone they ever knew, to achieve their goal.

There follows a tale of dazzling imagination and invention that takes us back in time to Edie's youth as a highly skilled secret agent, doing battle with supervillain Shem Shem Tsien and falling in love with Joe's genius inventor grandmother––the creator of the sought-after device. This long trip into the past is no digression, though, because everything that happens there is supremely important to Joe's story in the present.

Have fun storming the castle!
In fact, though this is a long book crammed to the bursting point with anecdotes, people, places and things, not a single bit of it is frippery. It's all a part of the grand and intricate machinery that drives this epic story, one in which Joe ceases to be mild and embraces everything he ever learned from Matthew and his world. Why? So he can save the universe and get the girl, of course.

All of the characters in this book are deftly drawn, the plot is always easy to follow despite its complexity, and Harkaway writes with a scintillating and abundant style that is just to the good side of florid. I'd say the book would make a crackerjack movie, except you'd miss the playful ingenuity and repleteness of Harkaway's prose.

Harkaway is the son of famed espionage writer John le Carré. I imagine he knows a thing or two about growing up with a larger-than-life father, and that has added poignancy to Joe's story. Harkaway has chosen to follow his father's career and we should be glad he did. Though I warn you, this book may ruin you for any other reading for awhile. When I finished it, I was still so far under its spell that nothing else appealed to me. Everything else seemed muted and timid by comparison. I know, I finally thought: I'll just go find a copy of Harkaway's first novel, The Gone-Away World!

Angelmaker was published in the U.S. by Knopf on March 20, 2012.

Note: I did not receive a free copy of this book. I bought the audiobook and may well go out and buy a copy of the hardcover; that's how sure I am that Harkaway is going to become a big name and that I'll want to savor this book again. As for the audiobook, I just want to say that Daniel Weyman is the best possible narrator of this material. He understands that this is a story that needs to be acted, with absolute abandon, and he throws himself into it with all the energy and dash it deserves.

A version of this review appears on the Amazon product page, under my Amazon username.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back to Square One

Have you ever wanted a do-over for some parts of your life? Or at least an opportunity to choose a different one of Robert Frost's paths? Many of us, if given the opportunity, can at least dream about it. But dealers in fiction have all the tools at their fingertips to create salad days in a well-established mature character, or at least present a more youthful portrait of their protagonist. Authors do this by writing a prequel.

The word "prequel" is of recent origin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "prequel" first appeared in print in 1958. It was used by the well-known Anthony Boucher of mystery writing and Bouchercon fame. He used it in an article in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction when he referred to a specific work. In the 1970s and 80s, it came into wider use when describing movies like The Godfather: Part II, which took place temporally before The Godfather. I knew this word was not listed for any spelling bee in my school.

I really enjoy prequels, because they give the readers an insight into the development of a favorite character. Some readers don't care if books in a series are read in order, but I prefer orderly progression of aging, relationships, and career development.

Undersheriff Bill Gastner is a favorite character of mine in Steven Havill's Posadas County series. In the more recent books, he has retired from law enforcement and Estelle Reyes is the new Undersheriff, but in One Perfect Shot, the eighteenth book in the series, Havill takes us back to a time before the first book in the series took place. We've gone back a decade or so earlier, when Gastner is Undersheriff. Gastner is called to the scene of Larry Zipoli's death, a county road in broad daylight, where Larry has been shot and killed while working grading a road. The case is one that fits Bill to a tee; a dead man in unusual circumstances, no apparent clues, but a puzzle for which the pieces are out there and he will find them and put them together.

In this case, he also has at his side Estelle Reyes, who is on her first day in the job of Deputy for the Posadas County Police. We learn she is gorgeous, which is something not focused on in other books in the series.

The story foreshadows her special intuition and very sharp eyes when it comes to incongruities at the scene of the crime. Bill Gastner is as solid and unflappable as ever, and he walks her through the initial points of good law enforcement.

Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell's solitary and somewhat morose Inspector is not exactly mysterious, but The Pyramid, which was written after eight earlier books in the series, tells the story of Wallander's beginnings and explains some things about Wallander that we might have wondered about in other books. This collection of five stories explores Wallander's early career as a rookie cop. It also details his relationship with the girlfriend who later became his wife. Some things were predictable: no one could have spent much time with that woman without coming to despise her. She kept Wallander under her thumb, but somehow he still loved her, years after their divorce.

It became easier for me to understand his relationship with his daughter, Linda, and the pattern of self-denigration when he mentions it in the books. One cultural tidbit I found interesting is that when his daughter went to college at 18 years of age, she was considered on her own financially. Really! Where was this man's head? Solving murders of course.

I consider The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas a prequel only in a sense. It was the first in the Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series, but it was published in the U.S. after five years and four other books.

Adamsberg is a very unusual but very engaging character. He is somewhat of a genius at getting to the heart of a pattern. He has a distinct intuition about weird events and people. On the other hand, he loves one woman deeply but treats her badly. His main mission in life––besides his work––is to find his Camille and then drive her away. He is now the head of the Paris murder squad.

In The Chalk Circle Man, we get to meet Adamsberg as he is leaving the small town in the Pyrenées where he spent his childhood as a barefoot boy running around the foothills, and where a police inspector once told him he was not cut out to be a policeman because there was no room for wild creatures like him. By this she meant his curious way of solving murder after murder by a combination of uncanny instinct and intuition.

Now, at the age of 45, he has the respect of those around him because of his intuition for solving crime, but as a newcomer to Paris he is still an outsider. His charm is insidious, though, and when strange chalk circles begin appearing on the pavements overnight––all of which encompass bizarre objects––his squad believes Adamsberg's assurance that one night the chalk will encircle a murder victim. And the search for the culprit is on.

Reading this book before the others adds a new dimension to the Adamsberg character that augments the enjoyment of the rest of the series.

Sometimes when I start a new series, I look at the website Stop, You're Killing Me! to check out the order the series' books are written in, and if there is a prequel I read it first. I did this with Cactus Heart by John Talton. In it, David Mapstone, who is a former history professor, has just been hired by the Sheriff's office in Phoenix. His job is to be related to the investigation of cases in which the history of the area is a factor.

His first case begins after the chase of a thug into a warehouse exposed the bones of a decades-old child murder that has little fingers reaching into the present, as well as to the past of some very important people in the city. This early story introduces us to a bit of Mapstone's past and lays a nice foundation for the future books, although they would have been fine without it.

There are history lessons in all of Talton's books that I find fascinating. They are mostly about the evolution of Phoenix from cattle town to the fifth largest city in the country, and about how Arizona has morphed to its present state.

If you were to write a prequel to the mystery that is your life, how far back would you go? I think a person's life in their twenties is the perfect place to start. There is still dampness behind the ears, but it's a decade of great change and usually a time when future paths are set upon. Mankell talks about these years. On the other hand, there are those who think that life begins at 40 (I never met one of these people, mind you)––in which case, some of these prequels are set in the right time.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Memories Are Made of This

I'm sure you've walked into a room, only to discover you've forgotten what you planned to do there. And maybe you've heard the comment, "You'd forget your head if it weren't screwed on." Finding yourself headless would create a world of problems; however, this isn't The Twilight Zone, so we won't explore this topic further. The head sitting so firmly on your shoulders is capable of generating enough Big Headaches for you, like, how do you know what you're perceiving is reality? Can you trust the validity of your memories, the foundation of your self-identity? Is it possible for your memories to be implanted or altered?

These are questions David Ambrose poses in his 2000 book, The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk. The title refers to Luis Buñuel's surrealist film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which some friends are trying to have dinner together, but their plans are constantly thwarted by disturbing events, odd scenes involving other characters, or their own bizarre dreams. None of these interruptions cause the friends to give up the idea of sharing a meal; they relentlessly continue their efforts, despite the illogical or impossible nature of what's happening around them.

Like a viewer who tries to make sense of that movie, a reader must figure out the actions of Ambrose's characters, who may not be what they seem. Brian Kay is a middle-aged man with brain damage caused by a viral infection. He remembers everything before the virus, but he can't turn experiences since then into permanent memory. Susan Flemyng, Kay's neurologist, conducts research in visual memory in Washington, D.C. When the book opens, she is enjoying close relationships with her father, husband, and young son. Charlie Monk has difficulty remembering events from his youth. He's currently a James Bond figure working for an agency so secret it doesn't have a name; Charlie takes instructions from a man he knows simply as Control. In between his super-heroic feats, Charlie relaxes in Los Angeles with beautiful women and good wine.

As the plot progresses, the characters and the reader relax no more. Dr. Flemyng explains:
"Chuang Tzu was a Chinese sage who lived twenty-five hundred years ago. He told once of how he dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who now dreamed he was a man. People have been telling that story ever since, because it represents something that mankind has always known instinctively--that we can never be sure whether the outside world corresponds to the picture of it that we have in our head. We can't even be sure that the outside world is actually there."
While The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk isn't a ghost story, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw comes to mind. Ambrose cleverly and energetically twists his futuristic thriller's plot, and the reader will need to interpret what has happened. This is one of those books that provoke thinking about the nature of evil.

After choosing his identity and memories, this shopper
should choose a good memory-foam mattress.

Carsten Stroud's Niceville, published in June 2012 by Knopf, is another. Sylvia Teague has often thought Niceville, founded in 1764 by four families who've now been feuding for a century, would be "one of the loveliest places in the Deep South if it had not been built, God only knew why, in the looming shadow of Tallulah's Wall." On top of this limestone cliff sits an ancient forest that whispers and creaks around a large sinkhole, full of cold black water, called Crater Sink. Cherokees considered it a place of evil; all the present-day citizens know is that nothing goes into Crater Sink and comes back out. In addition to this unsettling place, Niceville claims a bothersome statistic: people disappear at a much higher rate than the national average.

The latest such disappearance is Rainey Teague, Sylvia's 10-year-old son, last seen looking into the window of Uncle Moochie's pawnshop. A few days later, the kid is found. Oh, man, you'd never guess where. This is the point in the book when I visited the likker cabinet for a glass of bourbon and settled deep down in a comfy chair to savor Stroud's vivid writing, oddball characters, black humor, and crazily complex noir plot.

What else? Two men rob the First Third Bank, and a third coolly shoots not only the cops pursuing the first two, but also the people covering the chase in the news helicopter. Then the shooter puts on his Ray-Bans and lights a cigarette, "consoled by the warmth and the lovely light" of what promises to be a pretty evening. Do I need to tell you these three outlaws have watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? I must also mention a dentist who poses and then photographs his unconscious female patients in erotic tableaus, and a civic leader who installed a video camera in the bathroom his teenage daughters use.

Obviously, those characters make a mockery of the name of the town, but lawyer Kate Kavanaugh tries to be nice. Her client just won a divorce custody case against her husband, the extremely nasty Mr. Christian Antony Bock, who should, but doesn't, ooze down into a dank cellar and stay there. Although Kate's husband Nick is troubled (he served in Iraq with the Army Special Forces), he's now a more-than-competent lawman with the Cullen County Criminal Investigation Division, and he adores his wife. Kate's dad is a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, and her sister is married to a hot-tempered jerk who runs a private security company. Sorry, I was talking about good guys, and the bad guys keep intruding. There are only so many nice people in Niceville.

There are more disappearances, macabre deaths, and mysterious events that can only be explained in supernatural terms. Like Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280, Niceville puts a comedic edge on crime. And like The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk, it will give you a chance to contemplate how memories can entrap their creator and others, and identity can be manipulated for evil purposes.

This gothic thriller isn't for everyone. It's not a soothes-you-to-sleep read. If you appreciate dark humor, lyrical writing, and a plot that's spooky as hell, master storyteller Carsten Stroud wrote it for you. Let's hope very hard we'll see a sequel.

Note: I received a free review copy of Niceville.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Revolt of the Books

I couldn't make sense of the sight that confronted me the other day when I was walking down the hill on my way home. As I got closer I took off my glasses and wiped them with my shirttail and settled them back on my face and I had to believe what I saw.

Was it my books trying to escape, or was it my house trying for some literary emesis? I know I have too many books to get them all the attention they deserve, but I try to take care of them.

I should have realized something was up when I saw my Perry Mason collection trying to sneak out through the ceiling.

My family did have some sharp comments about my tendency to overfill my den with all my spy thrillers. I guess this is what they were talking about.

I thought  they were upset about the books in the living room tending to buzz and swarm at times. I could have calmed these tomes down with just a few sweet promises of warm caresses in the near future.

I have to admit that one of the bedrooms has some wall issues. WHAT?
A Kindle you say? Digital future reading as a punishment for all book hoarders? Oh, Big Brother, won't you spare me that dire discipline?

It all started with a crack.

As I piece it together now, there was some grumbling after I threw some books at the wall. But I was provoked by someone who said she was too busy to read. Implying, of course, that reading was doing nothing important.

"Readers are Leaders," I cry and I have the pin to prove it.

So the books took a vote, decided that what they couldn't accomplish alone, they could succeed at together. So they began to form a chain––as directed by all those knitting, quilting and flower arranging books I have––and they headed out the door, looking for blue sky.

Some rocked
Some rolled

It went viral, of course, but these volumes wouldn't know anything about that. Before the week was out, my books were being joined by others who were escaping owners and readers of all kinds because they were not being appreciated enough. Their freedom cry is apparently "We can't take it any more!"

Now, when they can, they build themselves neat little towers that are symbols of "ad astra per legere" (to the stars through reading).

Actually all the book constructions are the work of Spanish artist Alicia Martin who is saying her piece about the digital age.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mountain Murders: Two New Releases

A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller

Acker's Gap, West Virginia, is set in the incredibly beautiful, endlessly rolling Appalachian Mountains. Like too many of the poverty-stricken towns in the area it is also, according to the author, "An ugly place, a place riddled with violence––the special kind of violence that follows poverty, the way a mean old dog slinks along behind its master."

Following her divorce, lawyer Bell Elkins had brought her teenage daughter Carla back to her birthplace from the bustle and sophistication of their upscale Washington D.C. life. Against the advice of old friend Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, she ran for and was elected County Prosecutor. A rash of crimes caused by the recent tsunami of new and more dangerous drugs into the county has kept both Sheriff and Prosecutor working very long hours without ever getting close to the major supplier.

Bell's relationship with her 17-year-old daughter, Carla, is difficult. Carla is at that unattractive stage of adolescence where all adults are to be despised, parents in particular. However, that sullen "hard ceramic glaze of cool" that Carla presents to the world is briefly shattered one morning when she waits in a restaurant for her mother to pick her up.

Her mother is, as usual, late––has probably forgotten her again. The world in general, and Acker's Gap and her mother in particular, suck big time. And how can those three old guys having coffee and chatting and laughing possibly be enjoying themselves? Carla spitefully hopes she is dead before she gets that old and wrinkled. Then the door opens, there are three soft pops, and the heads of the old men explode in sprays of red and gray. As the door closes quietly, Carla catches a fleeting glimpse of a gun barrel and little piggy eyes in a thin face.

Bell hears the police call and races to the scene and her daughter. But when the sobbing and badly shaken Carla attempts to describe the event to her mother, Bell, in prosecutor mode, hushes her, telling her not to discuss it until the police take her official statement. This proves a serious mistake on several counts. By the time the police take her statement, Carla, thinking she has seen the killer at a party she was forbidden to attend, has decided to lie and try to find him on her own.

Bell's judgment in bringing her daughter home to these rural mountains for safety was curious. Her own upbringing here was marred by violence and murder, facts that she has never shared with Carla. Mountain people are famously secretive, so despite the fact that the older residents of the town all know Bell's history, her daughter has no idea what drives Bell so hard professionally.

The book offered a number of interesting and believable characters and motives. While the action dragged a bit in the middle, the richly developed characters, vivid descriptions, and beautiful prose kept me reading. I usually read several books at once, but the setting and characters in this book kept me continuously engaged.

Julia Keller was born and raised in West Virginia and now works as cultural critic and reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her feature coverage of a deadly tornado outbreak in Illinois. A Killing in the Hills was published by Minotaur Books and released on August 21, 2012.

Cloudland by Joseph Olshan

Nurse Angela Parker vanished during a January Vermont blizzard on her way home from a ski trip. She had called her husband from a rest stop on the interstate to say she would be home soon. She never arrived. Months later in rural Vermont, newspaper columnist Catherine Winslow, out for a walk on a March afternoon, found Angela's body posed in the melting snow near a fallen tree. Angela had been strangled, stabbed, then buried in the fresh snow, probably shortly after she spoke to her husband. Like several similar recent victims in the Connecticut Valley, she had some disturbing religious tracts stuffed in her pocket.

Catherine had been an investigative journalist in New York until she left after a disagreement with an editor. She moved to Vermont with her teenage daughter and taught literature at a local college, a job she lost after the administration received several anonymous letters documenting her affair with a student. She finally found her calling as the author of a nationally syndicated Household Hints column.

Her daughter has moved out, so Catherine now lives alone with a pair of dogs and her bad-tempered house pig, Henrietta. There are only three occupied houses up on Cloudland, and her neighbor Anthony, a psychiatrist, is called in to consult on the apparent serial murders. When Catherine notes the similarity of the staged victims with the religious tracts to those in a very obscure unfinished novel by Wilkie Collins, both the detective and Anthony involve her directly in the investigation. Huh? While Catherine owns one of the very few copies of the Collins novel, she has lent it out to a number of different people over the years.

It took me three tries to finally finish this book. Catherine as first-person narrator annoyed me terrifically; despite her extensive back story she never came alive for me. She remains a narcissistic middle-aged woman who lies to herself and others and makes unfortunate life choices. The willingness of the police investigator to involve her in the investigation of the case didn't make sense for most of the book. And, unusually for me, I had figured out the killer well before the book ended. While the author's descriptions of the setting were lovely, living inside Catherine's head for the length of this rather disorganized book was not a pleasant thing.

Joseph Olshan is the author of 10 novels across a variety of genres. His first book, Clara's Heart, was made into a movie starring Whoopie Goldberg. Cloudland is based on a true story of the serial murders of six women in Vermont and New Hampshire. The killer has never been caught. Cloudland is published by Arcadia Books and will be released September 1, 2012.

There were many similarities in these two books: the rural mountain settings, the divorced protagonists with older daughters and complicated back stories, and the unusual motives for the crimes. Yet I happily immersed myself in one, and could hardly bear to finish the other. First-person narration for the length of a novel is tricky, unless the narrator is either a very sympathetic or a very amusing character. Catherine is neither, and I think Cloudland suffers as a result.

Note: I received free copies of both of these books in exchange for reviews. Versions of these reviews may appear on Amazon and GoodReads under my user names there.