Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reading Treats for Halloween

Happy Halloween!

I hope you're all set. Plenty of candy, terrific costumes. And a great book for after all the lights are doused except the one you use to read.

If you don't yet have a book, check out the ones below. Not everybody enjoys being terrified, so some of them are simply entertaining. I like being scared on occasion, but there are some novels I'm too chicken to read. Take, for example, Ryu Murakami's Piercing (an obsession with an ice pick, I'll spare you the rest), Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon ("harvest" is an unnerving enough word right there) or Jonathan Aycliffe's Naomi's Room (ghost of a murdered 4-year-old, so nunh unh!). I'm afraid to crack open Jack Ketchum's famously horrifying The Girl Next Door, which involves the torture of a child.

I did read American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis and found it outrageous and disgusting. On the other hand, I've enjoyed many types of horror including The Wolf's Hour by Robert R. McCammon (a British secret agent--a werewolf, I kid you not--goes behind German lines in WWII), Joe R. Lansdale's The Drive-In (the horror fest isn't restricted to the screen), Ray Bradbury's From the Dust Returned (it's homecoming time in Illinois for the Eternal Family), Scott Smith's The Ruins (a group of friends finds terror in the Mexican jungle), Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie (Quentin P. is a young sexual psychopath; I can't believe I read it let alone liked it), Stephen King's Pet Sematary and The Shining, Thomas Harris's Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs and Ramsey Campbell's Incarnate (an experiment in prophetic dreaming goes wrong). Let's see some more.

Lock the doors. In The Wolfen, by Whitley Strieber, New York detectives Becky Neff and George Wilson investigate a wave of suspicious deaths, after the mauled corpses of two cops are found in a junkyard. These killings were not committed by a Fido or a Buddy. To say this novel, narrated by both humans and intelligent nonhumans, is suspenseful is an understatement.

When Cambridge professor Andrew Martin solves a certain math problem, the super-advanced inhabitants of the planet Vonnadoria are alarmed. The Vannadorian narrator assumes Martin's appearance but he knows nothing about humans. "Martin" arrives on Earth to destroy anyone who knows that the problem was solved and to gather more information about Earthlings. He is confronted with Martin's neglected wife, his moody teenage son and unfooled dog. The Humans by Matt Haig (2013, Simon & Schuster) is a sweet and funny novel about what it means to be human.

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is a haunted house classic for its characters and the pacing of its rising terror. Dr. John Montague, who is interested in the supernatural, rents Hill House from Luke Sanderson. Theodora and Eleanor, both with previous paranormal experience, arrive at Dr. Montague's invitation to aid him in his investigations. At night, the caretakers wisely stay away while the others get little sleep.

A fun caper novel in which agoraphobic Bernadette Fox, a talented architect, disappears from her Seattle home the day before the family leaves for Antarctica. Her teenage daughter Bee is determined to track her down using emails, articles and receipts. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2012, Little, Brown) contains eccentric characters and is charming.

There's something about Halloween night that makes me think of steampunk. James P. Blaylock's comic sci fi novel Homunculus is his first book about scientist/explorer Professor Langdon St. Ives. It features gigantic emeralds, a ghostly dirigible flying around Victorian London; and the evil Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, who hopes to raise the dead.

Dan Simmons has written many standout sci fi/horror thrillers. His Carrion Comfort, about a group of people with a psychic "Ability" that has allowed them to control other people's behavior at a distance throughout history, is a disquieting 750 pages.

Red Sky in Morning (2013, Little, Brown), by Irish writer Paul Lynch, is noir with beautiful, lyrical writing. The story concerns an accidental murderer named Coll Coyle, who's pursued across Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1832. Fans of Cormac McCarthy should take note.

Helen Oyeyemi, a 28-year-old British writer, is someone to watch. Her 2012 book, Mr. Fox, is an examination of marriage through an unusual love triangle involving a writer, his wife and the writer's character. White Is for Witching is another unconventional book. It has a complex structure and multiple narrators. The story centers around fraternal twins Miranda and Eliot Silver, who live in England, in a Gothic house haunted by generations of its inhabitants. After the death of their mother, Miranda develops an insatiable and violent pica (a craving for nonfood items). Disturbing and mesmerizing, it will keep you awake.

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites (2013, Little, Brown) is based on a true story. In 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, convicted of murder, is sent to an Icelandic farm to await execution because there is no prison available. The farmer's family at first wants nothing to do with her but they warm to her as time passes. Agnes confides some of her story to Tóti, a priest, but she tells us everything. This book, with an atmospheric setting and fascinating characters, is outstanding historical fiction and a moving story.

Roger Zelazny's satirical A Night in the Lonesome October features a nonhuman narrator, Snuff, Jack the Ripper's dog. Other characters come from Victorian Age Gothic fiction and they all have an intelligent animal "familiar." During October, everyone becomes Players in the Great Game, culminating in a ritual on Halloween. Then, doors appear in the fabric of reality separating this world and the world of the Great Old Ones. The fate of mankind hangs in the balance at this time. If you think it sounds weird, you're right, but I was transfixed.

Let's close with Edgar Allan Poe, whose Complete Tales & Poems is particularly well suited for reading on Halloween.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review of David Ellis's The Last Alibi

The Last Alibi by David Ellis

On Thursday, Della Streetwise will tell you about some sure-fire scares for Halloween. She'll also include some titles for those whom the name "Stephen King" inspires a mad scramble for the exit. Today, I have a suspenseful book that kept me up late, turning pages to see what in the world was going on and how it all would end. It doesn't pit its hero against rampaging zombies, a deadly virus, or a crazed killer. (Well, okay, sorta that last one; but, not in a way you'd expect, even after you read my review.) It takes place day-by-day in a Chicago murder trial. Flashbacks to six months earlier interrupt the trial and count down to the present, so we see how Jason Kolarich comes to sit at the defendant's table, and not in his usual role of defense attorney. Early on, Jason tells us he'll probably testify, but he's not sure if it will be enough to establish reasonable doubt. He's sure of only one thing—that when he testifies, he will not tell the truth.

Jason, a former college football player, was a prosecutor before he joined his best friend, Shauna Tasker, in Tasker & Kolarich. Now in his 30s, he grew up with his brother Pete in a dysfunctional home, where "Dad volcanoes" made conflict avoidance an art form. Jason still dislikes conflict in his personal life, but he lives for it in the courtroom. We first meet him in 2009's The Hidden Man, when he defends a man accused of a revenge killing; by then, Jason had already won fame involving a case of high-office political corruption, detailed in Breach of Trust. (Note: Edgar Award-winning author and lawyer Ellis prosecuted and convicted Governor Rod Blagojevich in the sensational 2009 impeachment trial before the Illinois Senate.) Last year, Jason took on the murder defense of a homeless Iraq war vet in The Wrong Man.

Now, in The Last Alibi (August 2013, Putnam), Jason hasn't been himself since blowing out his knee while running earlier in the year. Out of court, his life is a shipwreck. He's beginning to feel like a shill; even if he gets his clients off once, sooner or later, they'll find themselves behind prison bars. Shauna and Joel Lightner, the firm's private eye, say Jason looks like shit and wonder what the heck is wrong with him.

This is the Jason who begins to court the beguiling court reporter, Alexa Himmel. It's also the Jason who eyes an odd-looking new client and doesn't know what to make of him. Recently, two women James Drinker knows have been found, stabbed to death. Drinker says he didn't kill them, but he's afraid he'll be arrested. In fact, Drinker wonders if he's being framed and asks Jason how he'd go about framing somebody. Jason helpfully mentions a few things he'd do. Then he suggests Drinker go to the police before they come to him.

But Drinker doesn't want to go to the police. As more women die in a similar way, Jason begins to suspect that his client is killing them; yet, he can't ethically report his suspicions. Inevitably, Jason comes to wonder just who is framing whom.

You don't need to be a fan of courtroom dramas or legal thrillers to appreciate The Last Alibi, although there's plenty here for such fans to love. For Jason, a trial means war. It's not so much that he loves to win as that he hates to lose. It's a pleasure to learn his insider's view of the courtroom's characters and what he thinks of the prosecution's strategy and witnesses' testimony. While Jason's attorney, Shauna, is conscientious and competent, she's not highly experienced in homicide cases, and Jason often overrules her proposed strategy. Even so, he tells us he wouldn't consider anyone else defending him. The reader only incrementally understands his defense, as Jason and Shauna slowly reveal the legal strategy and what happened before trial.

I really like series regulars Jason and Shauna, who both narrate. I feel I have a handle on what makes them tick, and on the motivations of the other characters, too. Writer Ellis does a superb job of unexpectedly yanking the plot this way and that, and of heightening suspense with the hints Jason drops and Shauna's self-revelations. Inside and outside of the courtroom, The Last Alibi thrills. It's a perfect fall or winter read. Get comfy, because you won't want to put down this diabolical legal thriller before you're finished.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mmmm, Bacon

In recent years, there has been a bit of a trend toward making famous figures protagonists in mysteries. Oscar Wilde in Gyles Brandreth's series, Jane Austen (Stephanie Barron), Daphne du Maurier (Joanna Challis), Josephine Tey (Nicola Upson), the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII (Peter Lovesey), Beatrix Potter (Susan Wittig Albert), Dorothy Parker (J. J. Murphy) and many more. Just check "Real People" under Stop, You're Killing Me!'s Job Index to see the others.

Janice Law has picked a not-so-famous figure: Francis Bacon (the 20th-century painter of famously gruesome art, not the 17th-century philosopher) for the protagonist of her mystery series, which she began in 2012 with Fires of London, and follows up with The Prisoner of the Riviera (Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, December 10, 2013).

A Bacon self-portrait. Yikes! And this is subdued and almost cheerful compared to most of his work.

Bacon is a surprising choice for a mystery protagonist. He was booted out of his home by his domineering father for being flamboyantly effeminate, and lived on his wits, mostly in London, seeking out wealthy older men to keep him. More often, he lived with his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who had always been more of a mother to him. But don't be fooled by the seeming domesticity of a grown man living with his old nan. She didn't put any sort of a crimp in his style. The two of them used his studio as an illegal gambling den at night, and she passed judgment on any prospective lovers who answered his coyly-phrased advertisements for a "gentleman's gentleman."

Janice Law sets Fires of London in 1940, shortly after the wartime blackout made nighttime London a place of misty, impenetrable blackness. She has Bacon acting as an ARP (air raid precautions) warden, walking a beat at night. One night, he learns that one of his acquaintances in London's gay demimonde has been brutally murdered in a nearby park. Not long afterward, Bacon literally stumbles on another victim. Feeling under threat himself, Bacon uses his patrols and contacts to try to find the murderer.

Law skillfully mixes wry humor with heart-thumping suspense. Bacon's scenes with his nan are a little like a comedy double act; full of charm and chuckles. The mood changes completely when Bacon stumbles through nighttime streets and alleys with only falling bombs and incendiaries as illumination to help him avoid threats from a host of attackers. I've read a lot of World War II-era mysteries, and several novels that take place during the London Blitz. I don't remember another that did such a good job at conveying the chaos, fear and exhilaration of being on the streets during a raid.

For her second Francis Bacon novel, The Prisoner of the Riviera, Janice Law jumps ahead to 1946. At first, I was disappointed that Law had chosen to leave the London-during-the-Blitz setting after just one book, but I quickly got over it. Setting stories in the immediate postwar period seems to be all the rage these days, or maybe that's just a coincidence in my recent reading. It's a rewarding period because, as Law has one character put it, in France "power was lying on the ground during the war" and it was picked up by dubious characters who couldn't just return to the plow when the war was over. These characters abound in The Prisoner of the Riviera.

Let's back up and set the scene. Francis is out for dinner in London with his longtime lover, Arnold, when they come upon a man who has been shot and is bleeding to death in the street. Francis uses all his ARP training skills to keep the man alive until an ambulance arrives, but it doesn't look good. He is contacted shortly afterward by M. Joubert, proprietor of a London casino that holds a dauntingly large number of Francis's gambling chits. Joubert tells Francis that the man, a Monsieur Renard, did die after a few days in the hospital, but left a farewell letter for his wife, who lives in the south of France. If Francis will deliver the letter, Joubert will tear up Francis's chits.

There's something rotten about this setup, right? You and I know it, and so do Francis, Nan and Arnold. Aside from the imbalance between the value of the gambling chits and the going rate for in-person mail delivery, there's something fishy about that letter. Francis and Nan couldn't resist painstakingly removing and replacing the wax seal on the letter, and they suspect it's really a coded message––though one they can't crack without a cipher key. But it's cold, grey and rainy in London and the rationing means the food is even more depressing than the weather. Who can resist the siren call of the Riviera?

After enjoying a few days in the sun, Francis decides it's about time to deliver the letter to Mme. Renard. Afterward, he narrowly avoids attack from a couple of goons as he heads back to his hotel and, soon after that, he learns that Mme. Renard was found murdered later that same day––and he is the number one suspect.

Attempting to clear his name and avoid a long stretch in a French prison, Francis uses a couple of false identities to investigate the murder and figure out what this supposed farewell letter really is. He's not the only one interested, and soon it seems that the entire south of France is seething with characters who are after the letter, Francis and each other. They all seem to have had secret underground pasts during the war, but it's impossible to be sure which side they were on, if not both, and whether their current intentions are to help Francis, use him, abuse him or carve him up.

Here's an odd thing. When I read The Prisoner of the Riviera, I kept thinking about P.G. Wodehouse. In part it's because most of the story is set in the south of France, where Bertie Wooster often used to travel to get into trouble gambling and falling in love. And here's Francis, on his arrival in Nice: "Have I mentioned my fondness for sailors? I have a weakness, as Nan would say, for members of the maritime profession, for the toilers of the sea, for jolly jack-tars and also the not-so-jolly ones, who are really more to my taste." Can you see a Wodehouse-ish style in that? I can.

There's a lot more about Janice Law's writing style here that makes me think her Francis Bacon is a sort of Bertie Wooster-ish character–––if Bertie had a dozen or two more IQ points, considerably less of "the ready," liked risky sex (with men) and kept running into murders. The books are written in the first person, and even when fists are flying or guns are blazing, there is an air of Bertie describing one of his sticky wickets.

And, like Bertie Wooster, Francis is soon beset with troubles involving false identities, mistaken impressions, getting caught sneaking into other people's houses and bedrooms––and even being bedeviled by a pair of troublesome aunts. I found the book a dizzyingly improbable but delightful caper, just like a Wodehouse story. Unlike a Wodehouse story, this one does have a great deal of serious crime and danger in it, but for mystery lovers, that's all to the good.

Janice Law
During the Golden Age of mystery, a typical novel would clock in right around 200 pages. For a skilled writer, that was plenty of time to limn the characters, bump off the victim(s), and collect enough clues to solve the crime. Janice Law may not be a high-profile mystery writer, but she's a longtime author with an Edgar nomination under her belt (in 1977, for Best First Novel), and she knows how to write a good, tight story in that Golden Age manner. At a little under 200 pages each, these books are quick reads, but terrifically entertaining. I should note that the books include sexual content, but there are no detailed or graphic descriptions.

Note: I received free review texts of the ebook versions of these titles from the publisher, via Netgalley. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review of John Searles's Help for the Haunted

Help for the Haunted by John Searles

October 31st is next Thursday. Along with stocking up on candy for trick-or-treaters and rustling up a decent costume, you'll want to find a good book. Holding it will keep at least one hand out of the Halloween candy dish while you wait for your doorbell to ring, or you'll want it for relaxing in bed after attending that knock-out costume party. It doesn't need to be a book that leaks blood and gore when opened; there are plenty of books that get you into the spirit of Halloween by only deliciously raising the hair on the back of your neck.

Such a one is John Searles's Help for the Haunted (September 2013, Morrow/HarperCollins).

Its narrator is an intelligent 14-year-old girl named Sylvie Mason, who skillfully ushers us back and forth through time as she investigates family secrets and her parents' deaths. Sylvie was present when Sylvester and Rose Mason were shot inside a dark church during a blizzard nine months earlier; however, the account she gives the Dundalk, Maryland police doesn't hold up, and the suspect in custody may be released. Sylvie is honestly confused about what actually happened, but she also lied to protect her rebellious older sister, Rosie. In addition, Sylvie wasn't entirely forthcoming about what went on at her family's home.

Sylvie's protectiveness and reticence come naturally. She is "the good daughter," the one her parents were proud of and could rely on to do what was needed. Sylvester and Rose were devout Christians who had a national reputation for their work with people "whose souls have been occupied by malevolent spirits, spirits that have no intention of leaving on their own." They lectured on a circuit and responded to requests for help. People were understandably curious about what went on inside their shabby Tudor house at the end of Butter Lane, but their daughters were forbidden to talk about it to anyone—no matter who it was.

The Masons' mysteriousness, renown, and murders lead Sylvie's schoolmates to either shun or harass her, and Rosie, now Sylvie's legal guardian, is antagonistic. Poor, miserable Sylvie has three days before her next interview with Detective Rummel, and she's determined to know the truth of her parents' murders by then. Sylvie's investigation requires her to step out of a bubble and navigate the cross currents in her family's lives.

While Help for the Haunted involves demonology, it's unlike William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel The Exorcist. It's Sylvie's coming-of-age story; an interesting examination of family relationships; and an exploration of the nature of faith, ambition, and love. It explains how the power of belief can create a reality and shape the truth.

I enjoyed Searles's characterization, use of symbolism (e.g., Sylvie's tinnitus and its never-ending "shhhh"), descriptions (a young woman is referred to as a poisonous flower blooming), foreshadowing, and skill in building tension. Very early in the book I began dreading the next mention of the word "basement." The Masons' basement plays a major role in the story's spookiness, and I really liked this touch; a psychiatrist will tell you that fear of a basement is symbolic of a fear of the unconscious. I also liked the varied use of ghosts. Rose Mason, who has translucent skin and a great sense of calmness, is described as an apparition. People are haunted in many ways: by ghosts from the past; by words spoken and unspoken; by motives of vengeance, greed, or the desire for the truth; by their conscience; by evil.

Searles employs many plot elements whose appearance is guaranteed to trigger unease and heighten suspense. There are too many to mention, but a few include a not-overly-bright babysitter; Halloween night; an old dental chair; a hatchet mounted on the wall "the way a fisherman would display a prize catch;" a movie theater gone to seed; and especially, Penny, the Raggedy Ann doll. The book only occasionally dawdles; as a whole, it's very well paced, and I was reading like mad toward the end.

For a great Halloween read, accompany the remarkably eerie Help for the Haunted with a few miniature Snickers.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Daughters Galore

And then there was the matter of skin. When I look back on it now, when I look back on the girl on the dusty road carrying a newborn baby and a bucket, I now realize I knew nothing about skin. Skin touched me only lightly within Cradock House. It was only beyond its walls that the world divided itself so strictly between black and white, with coloured falling awkwardly in between. Yet I thought I understood those grades of colour. I thought I could even manage under the new word called apartheid. Only once I came to live across the river did I realize I was wrong.

In 1919, gentle Cathleen Moore left Ireland to sail for South Africa, where she was to marry her fiancé, Edward Harrington, whom she had not seen for five years. Their home was to be in the Karoo, a semi-desert territory far from the coast. Before long, the family had grown to include Miss Rosemary and young Master Phil. Miriam was their housemaid, and in 1930 she gave birth to a little girl named Ada, after Madam's sister in Ireland. She was welcomed into the household. The Housemaid's Daughter, by Barbara Mutch, is the story of Ada.

From the beginning, Ada felt like part of the family. She helped her mother with her work around the house––cleaning, ironing and polishing––but, at the same time, Cathleen quietly began to teach her to read, and because Cathleen's daughter Rosemary showed no interest, Cathleen also began to teach Ada to play the piano. There are strict conventions about how Mistress and maids are to interact, but Cathleen gets around most of them. Subtly, Cathleen opens her heart to Ada, as she accidentally-on-purpose leaves her journal out for Ada to read and learn from.

Ada grows up alone; isolated from exposure to other children like her. And so she has no real sense of what the world is like.  She is naïve, innocent and at the same time strong and resilient, as she struggles to understand things. She tries to get a grip on wars, which can leave some wounds only on the inside, as happened with Master Phil in North Africa in World War II. She struggles to understand the new fears of apartheid, which strangle the area in the 1950s, and finally she has to come to grips with a terrible thing that happened to her that has her in fear for her life and those of people she cares about.

What is at the root of this fear came down from the mixing of blood within a single family. It had terrible power, this difference in skin between mother and child. It became another kind of war; one that forced disputes among people, divided old friends and turned strangers into enemies. She also had a shame that she would carry all the days of her life.

Music had been the source of Ada's strength throughout the years. She used it to bring peace and comfort to her family, and it enabled her to make a living when otherwise she might have starved. Ada spoke the language of music. She could hear Grieg in the ripple of a river like Cathleen did, yet she she could recognize Township Bach in the rough-and-tumble life of the people. She played it all and and more. Mutch has a poetic way with words, and her descriptions of Africa, the Karoo and the people evoke many strong emotions. Keep a hankie on hand.

Ada was a special daughter and she had a special daughter. But that may be another story. I keep coming across these stories about unusual daughters.

Rei Shimura is a prototypical American daughter in that she, too, is of mixed ancestry and this is far from unusual in a melting-pot country. Her father is Japanese, while her mother is of European extraction. Rei grew up in San Francisco, but has more an affinity for the Japanese side of her heritage and had lived for some time in a small apartment in North Tokyo. The Samurai's Daughter, by Sujata Massey, tells about Rei's line of work, which is in the Japanese antique trade. At present, Rei is taking a sabbatical to take on a personal history project. She hopes to make a record of the style in which the Shimuras had lived before the massive modernization of the 1960s. She was interested in the artifacts of that life, such as the cooking pots, the quilt designs and garden patterns.

She knew that her father had sold several artifacts from his past in order to be able to buy a large house in San Francisco, but she also wanted to understand why her father had gotten rid of some of the more valuable items the family owned, and was puzzled by his negative attitude about them. One artifact he sold was a letter from the Emperor Hirohito himself. Rei flies off the handle easily, so she doesn't communicate easily with either of her parents and she doesn't get the answers she seeks from them. Her hope is to recoup some of the items.

Rei's fiancé, Hugh Glendenning, is a lawyer involved in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of people forced to engage in slave labor for Japanese companies in World War II. They are hoping for recompense, since it was their hard work that gave the now-successful companies a good start. One of these clients is in San Francisco, and is brutally murdered. Rei gets drawn into this case, as her research delves into the war years as well.

One thing that Rei learns is that although she may look Japanese, speak Japanese and live in Japan, she has much to learn about the culture and the deep, hidden fears and sentiments that persist despite modern times. Rei is somewhat like a Samurai warrior ancestor herself, in that she is combative, resilient and traditional. There are 10 books in the Rei Shimura series and they are educational as well as entertaining. Massey's latest book is The Sleeping Dictionary, first in the Daughters of Bengal series, published by Gallery Books in August 2013. I hope to review this book about a daughter soon.

Sometimes, after reading of very dark deeds, I like to lighten my spirit with something from Michael Pearce. One of these is The Snake Catcher's Daughter. Pearce's mysteries take place in early 20th-century Egypt, when that country was governed by the British, the Egyptians following the code of the French, the Sultan was under the influence of the Ottomans and, of course, there were many other miscellaneous fingers in the pie.

There were those who appreciated the changes the British made, such as abolishing the kurbash, which was a whip used for punishment and extracting confessions, but there were those who liked the old ways better––especially the lucrative methods of job advancement by bribery rather than performance. Garth Owen, the Mamur Zapt in charge of the political crimes section of the government, becomes aware of a plot to discredit many of the British officials and cause them to lose their jobs.

One such man, a policeman, is found drugged in a snake pit and this is leading to all sorts of rumors of untoward behavior. The wily Mamur Zapt has to keep one step ahead of the nefarious plotters and he does this with the help of a young girl who has learned her father's trade, since he is too drunk to take care of business himself. She provides an all-too-necessary service in the land of the Nile. She is a snake catcher. She helps Owen catch the snakes he is after as well.

The list of books about daughters goes on and on, and I can't wait to read Laura Joh Rowland's The Shogun's Daughter (September 2013, Minotaur), a historical novel that takes place in ancient Japan. Another historical novel is The Kingmaker's Daughter, by Philippa Gregory, which chronicles Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, and how he used his daughters politically. Linda Lafferty's The Bloodletter's Daughter is another book about violent ancient times. Bad boys have daughters too, as is seen in The Con Man's Daughter by Ed Dee. In this book, ex-cop Eddie Dunne runs from the Russian mob, the FBI and more while trying to save his daughter. One of my favorite Suzanne Arruda books is The Serpent's Daughter, in which Jade del Cameron must save her own mother from evil forces in exotic 1920s Morocco. Maybe the book that started my interest in daughters of crime fiction is Bootlegger's Daughter, the beginning of the Deborah Knott series, by Margaret Maron. Knott is an attorney looking to be a judge in North Carolina, who gets involved in southern politics and crime.

Now, for books about sons, you'll have to wait for a future post.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review of William Boyd's Solo

Solo by William Boyd

In a New York Times book review of William Boyd's James Bond novel, Solo, Olen Steinhauer (one of my favorite modern espionage writers) writes that "[Ian] Fleming’s Bond was only rarely a fully fleshed character. More often, he was a catalog of likes and dislikes, and it’s this very hollowness that has allowed later generations to imbue him with their own sensibilities." I think Steinhauer has it exactly right. Bond has continued for 60 years now, in books and movies, and each generation enjoys a different Bond; one suitable for that age's zeitgeist.

Though Boyd sets Solo in 1969, when Bond is a 45-year-old agent, the book reflects both present-day concerns and the weary cynicism we now have about governments and their minions. After Bond celebrates his forty-fifth birthday on his own, drinking champagne and martinis in the Dorchester Hotel restaurant, his boss, M, gives him a new mission. Disguised as a journalist for the French international agency Agence Presse Libre, James is to head for the African nation of Zanzarim, currently in a nearly stalemated civil war.

The war began when oil was discovered in the southern part of the country, and the country's two dominant tribes go to war, with the south attempting to split off into a new nation, called Dahum. The Zanzarim forces from the north are much better equipped, but the scrappy southerners have been holding them at bay for two years––though at the cost of a famine that has left nearly all of Dahum, except its capital city, graveyards and waiting rooms for death. This could all be present-day Africa, unfortunately; not much has changed in the last few decades. The reader recognizes the scenario immediately.

Anyone familiar with the Bond books and movies will recognize a great deal more than the African scenario. Martinis? Check. Gadgetry? Check (though this book is not remotely the Q playground that some other stories have been.) Beautiful women? Check. Being around Bond too much becomes dangerous to one's health? Check. Relentless and creepy villain? Check. Evocative and unforgettable character names? Check.

Bond's assignment is to make the leader of the Dahumian forces, Brigadier Solomon Adeka, "less effective"––a classic intelligence-game euphemism. Of course, there are plenty of zigs and zags along the way, and many memorable characters. Bond's intelligence contact in Zanzarim, the beautiful half-Zanzari/half-Scottish Blessing Ogilvie-Grant; dangerous Rhodesian mercenary Jakobus Breed, whose previous battle injuries have given him a permanently open and deceptively weeping left eye; local helpers with the monikers Christmas and Sunday; and Bond's "fellow" journalists, including one bloated, misogynist sot from the Daily Mail named Geoffrey Letham and a London stringer named Digby Breadalbane (doesn't that sound like a J. K. Rowling name?) who is grateful for Bond's treating him to beer and cigarets.

When Bond's mission is over, he can't shake the desire to get personal vengeance on those who betrayed him in Zanzarim. That quest takes him to Washington, D. C. The U.S. setting allows Boyd to make a few tart observations about how easy it is for Bond to obtain some pretty serious firepower, and how Americans don't have a clue how to make coffee. (A refreshing change from the usual British complaints that Americans don't make tea according to their strict rituals.)

William Boyd's choice of Africa for his setting was a good one. This is almost home ground for him, since he was born in Ghana himself, in 1952, and was a teenager when Biafra, in southern Nigeria, attempted to secede, triggering a bitter three-year war and blockade, which caused horrific famine in Biafra. And, of course, there have been all too many incidents of war, tribal violence and related mass starvation in Africa since then.

As espionage thrillers go, this is on the more thoughtful end of the spectrum. You'll find action scenes, sure, but this isn't an action-fest and there are no catalog-worthy verbal sketches of elaborate spy gear. It being a Bond novel, we do have descriptions of cars and guns, but not in the near-pornographic detail you see in some of the Bond movies.

Boyd is much more interested in the life of an intelligence agent; what it does to the psyche to have a life of lies and to know that anyone who gets close may pay a heavy price. The Bond of Solo would fit right in if he were dropped down in Boyd's previous books, Restless or Waiting for Sunrise. A perennial issue in Boyd's books is the nature of identity, and though that's not a dominant theme in this book, it is present––which seems only right for James Bond.

Boyd is also a better writer than Ian Fleming. There is a bit of a clunker scene of lengthy exposition toward the end of the book, but there are moments of real beauty in Boyd's prose, and he brings introspection and complexity to his Bond. Boyd's Bond is a fallible man, and far from invincible. If you're looking for a thoughtful, somewhat melancholy spy thriller, Solo is a good choice.

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