Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Readersplaining Your Books

It's hard to believe summer is over; before you know it, you'll be composing a wish list for Santa. I've been working on my own list for what seems like forever, because my Santa, a husband who has known me for 25 years, has a head full of ideas about what books I'd like. Bad ideas. An idea will start out on track (he knows I'm interested in sports, politics, and current events) before derailing and heading into the weeds (but I really cannot get into a biography of former pro basketball player/North Korea visitor/oddball Dennis Rodman). Wouldn't you think he'd automatically know this?

Because who wouldn't want to see if his or her head
would fit through the hole in that chair

Apparently not. I've asked Hubby to keep certain facts in mind when he book shops for me. These facts explain why some books are up my alley. I've given a pair of these facts below. Maybe they'll jump start your own readersplanations before your Santa begins shopping.

I appreciate good food and drink––and crime fiction characters who do, too.

One of my favorite old series features Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Wolfe is a gargantuan genius who loves food, books, and orchids and refuses to leave his New York City brownstone on business. His side kick, Archie Goodwin, provides the witty narration. Books I liked best include Too Many Cooks, Some Buried Caesar, The Doorbell Rang, and The Silent Speaker.

Italian crime fiction is a good bet for mouth-watering food. Take Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano books. They are best read pinned open with one arm while the other arm stays busy hoisting rigatoni and a bold Italian red mouthward. In addition to the food and Sicilian atmosphere, I like Montalbano, a world-weary but decent man, and his colleagues. The latest, A Beam of Light (translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli; Penguin Books, September 1, 2015), finds three crimes requiring Montalbano's attention. On the personal front, Montalbano's eye strays from long-time lover Livia to a gallery owner named Marian.

No, thank you, I'd prefer to remain ignorant.
We can't skip France. It's hard not to love the Dordogne and Martin Walker's books about Bruno Courrèges, chief of police. Reading them is the next best thing to a visit; one can almost smell and taste the meals described on the pages. In The Patriarch (Knopf, August 2015), Bruno's attendance at a birthday celebration for a World War II veteran is ruined by murder. One also finds murder in the darkly comic and macabre The Debt to Pleasure, by John Lanchester. The Nabokovian book's unreliable narrator, arrogant gourmet Tarquin Winot, provides recipes à la Brillat-Savarin and a travelogue as he follows a couple to Provence.

I can't say I first think of the English when the topic is good fictional food; in fact, what initially pops into my mind is James Hamilton-Paterson's weird and wacky Cooking with Fernet Branca. Its part-time narrator, the Englishman Gerald Samper, is a ghostwriter for celebrities ("an amanuensis to knuckleheads") and an amateur cook. He lives in Tuscany, although his kitchen seems to be located in hell. Ice cream with garlic and Fernet Branca and mussels in chocolate are bad enough; consider yourself lucky my divulging the ingredients of Alien Pie would be a spoiler. While Samper's recipes are atrocious, this book is a treat.

At first glance, some books of crime fiction seem unlikely to stimulate the appetite. No matter, John Harvey's food descriptions in his Charlie Resnick police procedurals always send me to the kitchen. At home in Nottingham, that melancholy cop tends to his cats, listens to jazz (readers get educated), and rustles up a delicious sandwich or a cup of decent coffee. Wait, we can't forget the paper towels; one of Resnick's men says that if he ate as messily as Resnick, his wife would make him sit out in the garage. Harvey's characters are no strangers to life's miseries or ironies. I like that about them and the books' look at their relationships and the social issues in post-Thatcher England. The first one is Lonely Hearts.

Here's a comforting thought.
I'm an insomniac who often reads until I fall sleep.

Now, I can bore myself to sleep by reading the instruction book for my washing machine, but this can be torture. So, I usually give the instruction book idea a pass and instead read a suspenseful novel with one eye open. That way, my goal of falling asleep is already half accomplished. Does it impress you that I figured this out as a kid? Actually, suspense is best read with one eye in bed; there's something about the reduced field of vision that makes the tension bearable. For bedtime purposes, the book should not provoke the sort of fear that sends you diving under the bed, but, rather, should make you cringe and beg the character to rethink what he or she is doing, such as pawing through a murder suspect's dresser drawers while the suspect is, naturally, beetling home early because he forgot something. One example of this cringing and begging sort of one-eyed read is Joyce Carol Oates's Jack of Spades (Mysterious Press, May 2015), in which the alter ego of best-selling crime-fiction writer Andrew J. Rush steps in to protect a secret.

Another route to dreamworld is reading a book whose accelerated pace leaves me feeling so depleted by its end I can't help but nod off. Duane Swierczynski's Canary (Mulholland Books, February 2015) fits into this category. Swierczynski is known for his stomp-on-the-gas pacing, plot twists, and unlikely heroes/heroines. In Canary, his unlikely heroine is college honors student Sarie Holland, who is forced to become a confidential informant for Philadelphia narcotics cops. Reading Swierczynski makes me wonder what it would be like to share a meal with him; whether we'd eat by stopwatch.

Always only too happy to encounter Moby-Dick in my reading
For times when sleep is obviously a long-distant goal, an engrossing book like The Whites, by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt (Henry Holt, February 2015), is a good pick. The "Whites" of the title are the NYPD's Moby-Dicks, those great white whales who escaped justice and who continue to haunt the cops who pursued them. One of them has now re-surfaced for disgraced Sgt. Billy Graves. Price, whose previous novels include Lush Life, about the murder of New York City bartender Ike Marcus and its aftermath, has a terrific ear for dialogue. That, these books' rich prose, and their original, psychologically complex characters make for great reading.

If sleep is hopeless, but I'm really tired, give me a book with crisp prose and an interesting setting. Malcolm Mackay's Glasgow Trilogy (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence) is suitable. While these books have received international critical acclaim, they were only published in the United States by Mulholland Books last April. They involve a Glasgow crime syndicate trying to eliminate the competition. At their heart are two hitmen: the legendary Frank MacLeod and the up-and-coming Calum MacLean. Mackay's writing is clear and easy to follow, and he brings the criminal underbelly of Glasgow alive. Man, what lives these characters lead. I read this trilogy three nights straight because I wanted to know what happens to Frank and Calum.

That's it for my 'splaining today. Good luck with your own readersplanations.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Review of Philippe Georget's Autumn, All the Cats Return

Autumn, All the Cats Return, by Philippe Georget (Europa Editions, 2014)

My favorite mysteries are the ones that expose me to a different world. That's something I get with the Gilles Sebag series, which began with Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored (see review here), and is followed up by Autumn, All the Cats Return. Sebag is a homicide inspector in Perpignan, in France's Mediterranean south, just across the Pyrenées from Spain. Perpignan is a center of the Catalan region and the reader has the pleasure of being exposed to both French and Catalan language, food and culture.

In this new book, the reader's cultural and historical horizons are broadened even further by the book's main plot, which is the murderous targeting of Perpignan residents who, back in the 1960s, were Pieds-Noirs, French residents of Algeria, during the bloody fight for independence.

French President Charles de Gaulle reached a cease-fire agreement with the Algerian independence forces, which outraged a rogue group of French army officers, who formed a guerrilla force called the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, or OAS. The OAS brutally attacked their opponents, hoping to terrorize them into acquiescence with continued French rule. Despite the appalling numbers they killed, they were unsuccessful and most Algerian residents with French ties fled to France.

Corpses in the streets were commonplace
during the Algerian war for independence
Now, when an old man is discovered executed in his Perpignan apartment, with "OAS" painted on his door, Gilles Sebag and the rest of the squad soon figure out that despite the decades that have passed since Algeria gained its independence, someone is targeting old OAS fighters. After all this time, they have tough challenges to identify potential new victims and to figure out who the murderer could be.

At the same time, Sebag is anxious to help his grieving teenage daughter by conducting an unofficial investigation of the death of her school friend, who was on his scooter when he was struck by a delivery van. The cop assigned to the investigation isn't known for his work ethic, and Gilles wants to make sure his daughter and the dead boy's family know exactly what happened.

If you haven't read the first Gilles Sebag, that's OK. There is not much that happens in the first book you need to know to enjoy the second. There is a running theme from the first book that continues in this book about Sebag's fear that his beloved wife had an affair, but you don't really miss anything on that plot element if you haven't read the first book.

To appreciate this series, I think you need to have a strong interest in reading books set in unfamiliar locales. You must also enjoy a long book with a deliberate pace and an often melancholy tone. The book includes the Victor Hugo quotation "Melancholy is the happiness of feeling sad," and that's an apt comment on the book's own style.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review of Lissa Evans's Crooked Heart

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans (Harper, July 28, 2015)

Crooked Heart is the story of Noel Bostock and Vee Sedge, a couple of misfits in England during World War II. Noel is a 10-year-old orphan boy, living with his eccentric godmother, Mattie, in her rambling old house near Hampstead Heath. Mattie was a suffragette in the '20s and has a disdain for anything conventional, including the evacuation of children at the beginning of the war, keeping a house tidy, finding a new school for Noel when his old one closes, or listening to the local ARP Warden's lectures on air raid precautions.

Mattie decides to educate Noel herself, going on nature field trips to the Heath and setting him essays on subjects like "Would You Rather Be Blind or Deaf?," What is Freedom?" and "Should People Keep Pets?." Noel is happy not to have to go to school with other children, since his experience is that they are usually stupid and like to bully him for his nerdiness. When Noel and Mattie are not in session in their home school, Noel reads detective stories and Mattie sings old protest songs.

Mattie's eccentricity becomes more marked as she falls victim to dementia. At first, it can be amusing, like when she can't remember the last name of the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, though she knows it's a bird's name, like Owl or Ostrich. Noel reminds her that it's Sir Christopher Wren, and she thanks him, but responds "I can't help thinking 'Sir Christopher Ostrich' has a tremendous ring to it." Far too soon, the sad day comes when Noel must be evacuated from London.

In St. Alban's, an odd boy like Noel doesn't find any quick takers, but the promise of government subsidy eventually persuades Vee Sedge to take him in. Vee is middle-aged, the sole support of her dotty mother, who spends her days writing letters to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and her lump of a son, Donald, who uses his heart murmur as an excuse for utter sloth.

Vee is barely scraping by, cleaning houses and doing other odd jobs.The war gives her a chance to make some much-needed money on the fiddle, like so many others. Vee's particular scam is to collect for fake charities. The problem is, she's just not very good at it; too nervous and bad at keeping her stories believable and consistent. Noel, the world's youngest management consultant and business partner, turns Vee's business into a far more successful entrepreneurial effort.

The US cover (top) is fine, but
isn't the UK cover striking?
This is all just the setup of the plot; one of the best setups ever. Once Noel and Vee meet, the plot thickens, with the two discovering other much more serious crimes afoot. This partnership will evolve in ways both comical and heart-warming, and these are a couple of characters who feel so real you'll miss them when you close the covers.

But don't forget, this is an English novel, which means that just as there was very little sugar allowed by a wartime ration book, this is a story that is never overly sweet. It reminded me a bit of John Boorman's wonderful semi-autobiographical memoir of his boyhood in wartime England, the movie Hope & Glory.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Review of William Boyd's Sweet Caress

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd (Bloomsbury USA, September 15, 2015)

As a young woman, Amory Clay learned a game with her uncle Greville. You must encapsulate someone with just four words. Years later, Amory's daughter describes her as "pretty, stubborn, clever, complicated." And yes, those are all apt descriptions of Amory. The "complicated" is especially true. Amory is someone who can be both guarded and outgoing, careful and impetuous. I loved reading about her so much that I devoured the book in a couple of days and I'm still walking around in a sort of haze of the people and world William Boyd has created.

In this novel, Amory tells her life story in a chronology, interspersed with segments from her 1977 journal, when she has retired from her career as a photographer and is living in a seaside cottage in the north of Scotland, taking walks with her black Lab and enjoying dinners and drinks with a tiny circle of friends. In between, there are stories of family joys and traumas, struggles to become a professional photographer, love affairs, adventures in London, New York, the battlefields of World War II and Vietnam, and the bittersweetness of looking back on life and confronting old age.

Having read Boyd's Restless, a terrific novel about a female spy, I wasn't surprised at his skill in presenting a full-fledged female character. He never falls for the temptation to take his fictional creation and make her some Amazon who accomplishes fantastic feats. His Amory has her successes, but she doesn't become a household name and, by her own analysis, commits several crucial mistakes and has many failures in her life.

She has evolving and complex relationships with her shell-shocked father, her younger brother, her piano virtuoso sister and the men and women in her life. Each relationship feels true, each character is unique. Amory's internal commentary on her life and those who have shared it is unflinching, sometimes very funny, and she never feels sorry for herself.

Boyd's skill at characterization is matched by his ability to convey a sense of time and place. We go from English country life just after World War I to London and decadent Berlin and Paris in the 1930s, various World War II locales, New York City, Saigon and Vietnamese skirmish sites, southern California during the Charles Manson era and Scotland from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Whew! But it's all so real and so deeply felt that I absolutely hated to turn the last page. I just wish I had a thimbleful of Boyd's writing skill so that I could get across the feeling I had reading this book, which is my favorite read of the year.

Note: I received a free advance review copy of the book. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review of Henry Hemming's The Ingenious Mr. Pyke

The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy, by Henry Hemming (PublicAffairs, May 2015)

I picked this to read because I'm fascinated with 20th-century espionage, but the story is at least as much about the amazing mind of this little-known character. Geoffrey Pyke's mind wandered constantly, putting together different sights and experiences to come up with novel solutions to problems some people didn't even know existed.

Pyke's ideas ranged from using specially designed snowmobiles to tie up more Nazi troops in Norway during World War II and keep them out of the battlefields, building massive aircraft carriers out of ice and wood pulp, and constructing an oil pipeline under the English Channel to supply the D-Day invasion. But Pyke wasn't just a war tactician.

Pyke and his three siblings lost their father when they were young, and their mother told them she would gladly lose all of them to have him back. Being effectively an orphan must have had something to do with Pyke's interest in childhood development, which led him to start a school whose techniques and philosophy are influential even today. Pyke was also influential in the development of the field of public opinion gathering, firmly believing that this could help prevent war and combat anti-Semitism.

Building a prototype of Pyke's ice ship
Though he worked closely with Lord Louis Mountbatten and was known to Churchill, Pyke's commitment to anti-Fascism and his many Communist friends made him a target of MI-5 surveillance at the same time he was working for Britain on the war effort. MI-5 became convinced Pyke was a Soviet agent. Another goal of this book is to answer that question. Read the book and find out for yourself what the author concludes.

This is a quick and engaging read, and I think it should be of interest to people who enjoy 20th-century history and biography. I was left wishing I could have gotten to know Pyke better, but I doubt there was much more the author could have dug out about him.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Book review: the legendary last novel by the author of Get Carter

Ted Lewis was the author of Get Carter (initially titled Jack's Return Home), the inspiration for the Michael Caine classic crime drama. The hard-living Lewis died in 1982 at age 42, and the legend has been that his last novel, GBH, not Get Carter, is his real noir masterpiece. The problem is that GBH (which stands for the crime of Grievous Bodily Harm) went out of print in the UK almost instantly after it was published in 1980, and it wasn't published in the US. But now we can all find out if the GBH (Soho Crime, April 21, 2015) of legend is the real deal.

In GBH's two-track narrative, crime boss George Fowler alternates between his life in London, where he ruthlessly hunts for the traitors within his organization, helped by the members of his ever-shrinking trusted inner circle. The London chapters are called Smoke, and they alternate with chapters titled Sea, in which Fowler is now in a coastal town, where he is as alone and bleak as the the off-season beachfront.

The story is gritty, deep dark noir. Fowler's business is extremely nasty porn, and he's relentless, ultra-violent and increasingly unhinged in his pursuit of his betrayer. As the chapters alternate between Smoke and Sea, we learn how Fowler has come to the state he's in when he retreats to his luxurious, but empty, seaside house, and what the consequences will be of the choices he's made.

Lewis's prose is stripped down and searing. One aspect of it I wasn't crazy about is its purposeful lack of clarity. Names are given, but we don't know who they are for some time. We don't even know Fowler's first name for awhile, nor what his criminal empire is all about or why he's having various members of his organization tortured. I thought the story was more than tense and compelling enough not to need this element, which just seemed gimmicky to me.

Noir fans will want to give this vintage London crime drama a read. Some, maybe even most, may find that the clarity issue that bothered me adds an air of creepy suspense.

Notes: I was given an advance copy of the book for review. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.