Thursday, June 24, 2010

50 books as mid-year approaches

The Trade of Queens, Book Six of the Merchant Princes by Charles Stross

Beyond writing his own brilliant brand of science fiction, Charles Stross has an absolute knack for reviving sub-genres created by other writers.

There is, for example, the absolutely weird, but totally captivating "Laundry" series that blends the creepy "things-go-bump-in-the-night" imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft with the thrilling espionage novels of Len Deighton.

In his "Merchant Princes" series, Stross taps into territory mapped out by the late Roger Zelazny. (Stross also credits the influence of H. Beam Piper.)

The Trade of Queens is the sixth and -- for now -- final installment in the Merchant Princes series. Although Charlie leaves this particular series with more questions than answers, one can understand his desire to explore new ground.

It's a good series, not a great one. Inventive, as all Stross books are, and throughly entertaining. Where else would you find Dick Cheney conniving to lure an alternate-universe group of narco-terrorists into bombing Washington D.C. (dispatching both the President and his residence) so that he can seize the reins of government? That's not really a question, the answer is nowhere.

Don't worry, Cheney's reign as President doesn't last long, although his successor is no prize either. I'll miss the series, but I'm confident that whatever Stross cooks up to replace it will be equally satisfying. In the meantime, I have one installment of the Laundry series yet to read.

Roger Maris, Baseball's Reluctant Hero by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary

The authors of this overdue biography spend far too much time at the beginning of the book exploring a rift in the Maras family. Yes, Maras. Roger and his brother and parents changed the spelling of their name after moving from Minnesota to North Dakota.

The undue focus on the Maris family feud is the only quibble I have with this biography. The authors' knowledge of the game is sound and they do an especially good job of placing Maris' career in perspective.

A few observations gleaned from the book:

  • Maris was a talented, all-around athlete who had a deep understanding of the game of baseball. He was no mere slugger who got lucky in 1961. His defensive skills have historically been over-looked and under-valued.

  • In a 12-year career, he played in seven World Series, winning three. He was a four-time All-Star and two-time MVP. His teammates, whether the Yankees or the Cardinals, universally respected him as a man and an athlete. Mantle sobbed at his funeral.

  • George Steinbrenner emerges as a hero in the Maris story. Treated abysmally by the Yankees ownership while a player there, Maris nursed a long and bitter grievance against the club. Steinbrenner finally convinced Maris to return to Yankee Stadium where he was gob-smacked by thunderous applause.

  • The New York press in 1961 was mean-spirited and irresponsible.

  • Cardinal fans were much more knowledgeable about the game than their New York counterparts.
There's a preponderance of baseball bios in print just now. This one belongs at the top of any sports fans reading list.

The New Yorker, June 14 & 21; June 28
The New Yorker unveiled its "20 Under 40" list -- 20 writers under 40 that the magazine believes are among the best of their generation.

My thoughts on the stories of these writers in the two issues listed above:

The Pilot by Joshua Ferris: Ferris is always interesting. This story is a little creepy, but in a good way.

Here We Aren't, So Quickly by Jonathan Safran Foer: Mercifully brief. His novels were better.

What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone by Philipp Meyer: Meyer's American Rust was good, but not great. I liked this short story a lot.

The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire by Rivka Glachen: Must be part of a novel.

Lenny Hearts Eunice by Gary Shteyngart: I couldn't finish it. I liked Absurdistan a whole lot more. At least I finished it.

Dayward by ZZ Packer: Part of a novel that I really want to read.

The Kid by Salvatore Scibona: I liked this better than his novel, The End, which I didn't like much at all. Again, this must be part of a larger work.

Twins by C.E. Morgan: Promising.

The Young Painters by Nicole Krauss: Part of a novel? I certainly hope so, it didn't make the grade as a short story.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book 48: The Girl With Glass Feet

Every reader comes to a book with a certain set of expectations. Sometimes those expectations are met. Occasionally exceeded, and -- all too often -- expectations fall short.

That was my experience with Ali Shaw's debut novel, The Girl With Glass Feet. I'm not sure where the expectation came from, but I was anticipating a fantasy novel. What I got was something altogether different.

There are elements of the fantastic in this novel: a beast who turns any creature who looks into its eyes entirely white, moth-winged bulls and, most notably, a girl who is slowly turning to glass beginning with her feet.

I expected these odd elements to come together into a fantastic whole. I expected a quest. Wizards. Great battles. Heroism. Fantasy novels require something of the epic even in a prosaic setting: Think of the terrifying barnyard battle between good and evil in Walter Wangerin's superb Book of the Dun Cow.

There's none of that here. There is a love story and while it doesn't rise to the level of say Romeo and Juliet it has its moments. The young lovers evoke something heroic in one another; each is able to rise above their limitations -- one to face death bravely, the other to confront life.

It's an OK debut, but only that. Over-written as such novels tend to be. Quiet, but perhaps too quiet, too reserved. It wouldn't be a bad book for a wintry weekend amid ice and snow and lowered expectations.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Further thoughts on The Hand That First Held Mine

I'm still thinking about Maggie O'Farrell's The Hand That First Held Mine.

This first observation contains something of a spoiler. I won't go in to much detail, but take note, I don't want to ruin this novel for anyone.

There's a character in the novel who is both the victim of a deception and who later deceives another character in a similar manner. I didn't pick up on this at first and then I was gobsmacked. It's a brilliant piece of writing on O'Farrell's part.

I also neglected to mention in my post yesterday that the author's handling of her two main female characters is extraordinarily tender. It reminds me of the song Be Careful by Patty Griffin. Here's a sample lyric from that song:

All the girls working overtime
Telling you everything is fine
All the girls in the beauty shops
Girls' tongues catching the raindrops

All the girls that you'll never see
Forever a mystery
All the girls with their secret ways
All the girls who have gone astray

Be careful how you bend me
Be careful where you send me
Careful how you end me
Be careful with me

Be careful how you bend me
Be careful with me

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book 47: Maggie O'Farrell's fine The Hand That First Held Mine

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell (book 47)

Both the writing and storytelling in Maggie O'Farrell's powerful The Hand That First Held Mine contain a rare elegance and skill. Authors often fall prey to overwriting, which distracts from the beauty of the narrative, but not O'Farrell who writes with a clarity and a certainty that are a joy from the opening sentence to the final one.

The novel is made up of two stories that ultimately converge, although initially it is difficult to see how this can be.

When we first meet Lexie Sinclair, in the mid '50s, she is in her early twenties and soon to flee her parent's home in Devon for the arms of her one true love in London. While in London, Lexie also learns a craft and later becomes a talented and enterprising journalist.

Elina Vilkuna, whose story is set in the present day, is a young Finnish artist married to a London film editor. When we first meet Elina she is recovering from a near fatal delivery of a baby boy.

Motherhood unites Lexie and Elina. O'Farrell writes poetically of the almost inexplicable love that wells up, like water from some spring deep in the earth, after the birth of a child. And, she writes with equal power of the drudgery -- the endless chores, the feeding, the crying, the cajoling.

In an article for her newspaper, Lexie writes: "We change shape . . . we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair. We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, a shred of beloved fabric, a plastic doll. We lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective. Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies. They breathe, they eat, they crawl and -- look! -- they walk, they begin to speak to us."

Motherhood, too, unites them in an unexpected way.

O'Farrell stitches the women's two stories together neatly with a slow, but steady hand. A painting is discovered in a bedroom. A name emerges that ties one character to another. And then the read becomes aware of a variation on another name.

As the novel's end approaches, it is clear that from Lexie's standpoint something horrific has taken place, but what and how only unfolds in the final pages.

There is great sadness here, but joy too; enough for a reader to smile through tears.


One final note on this exquisite book. Take a look at the dust jacket from England that is pictured above and then find the jacket from an American edition. The American edition stinks. The cover of the English edition first attracted me to this book and, to me, perfectly captures the essence of the novel.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Three thrillers comprise June reading

Off the road. Back to the blog.

Three thrillers comprise my latest reading -- books 44, 45 and 46. There's no mystery here. These are all noir-ish, hard-boiled thrillers featuring a distinctive anti-hero.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
Let's take them out of order and start with the book that influenced the others -- James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss. You can bet that Child and Corbett were influenced by Crumley. Even if they haven't read his work, they've read Lehane and Connelly and Pelcanos. And they have read Crumley.

In a September, 2008 interview with the Washington Post, written following Crumley's death, Pelecanos said: "If you asked us to name one book that got us jacked up to write crime novels, it would be The Last Good Kiss. He (Crumley) tried to describe the country in the wake of Vietnam. It wasn't a detective novel. It wasn't a cop novel. He showed us a crime novel could be about something bigger than the mystery itself."

There's violence and sex and a mystery here, but it's the tone that is most important. Crumley's P.I., C.W. Sughrue, is a man with a distinct code of right and wrong. He's hard drinking and has a touch of the romantic. He's the kind of guy that will take a beating silently, but get riled, to the point of murder, over the death of some dogs.

The Last Good Kiss doesn't end well. It's not meant to because Crumley's take on the world is that it's screwed up and men like Sughrue will do the best they can, but it's never enough. Ultimately, they have to walk away -- sadder, but wiser.

61 Hours by Lee Child
Child's anti-hero, Jack Reacher, would recognize Sughrue. Reacher's a bit more polished, but only a bit. Late in this novel Reacher dispatches a bad guy, who also happens to be the local sheriff, with a shot to the head. Reacher has never hesitated to execute his own brand of justice.

But I had problems with this book -- and I am a fan of Child's work. Reacher's a little late taking down the sheriff. The answer is right before him, but he doesn't recognize it until two good people die. That offended my sense of justice.

Plus, there is some doubt that Reacher survives his most recent escapade. Child's clever in how he sets this all up, even introducing a character that could conceivably (but not really) step in for Reacher in a new series. Authors get bored, I understand that, but I don't like the uncertainty created by this cliffhanger.

Besides, in a interview with journalist Craig McDonald Child notes that John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series was "one of the great series of all time . . . He kept that going for 21 books. That would be a great target to aim at."

Reacher will be back.

The Devil's Redhead by David Corbett
I've been a fan of Corbett since reading his second novel, Done for a Dime. Such a fan, in fact, that I am flat out pissed that his most recent two books have been paperbound only. Obviously Corbett is still searching for his audience, but this decision by his publisher is inexplicable. Listen folks this guy is a great writer and a great read.

His first book, The Devil's Redhead, is a nice little love story. Really. Yes, there's a lot about moving shiploads of marijuana and the meth trade in California and the battle for supremacy of said trade, but the heart of the novel is Corbett's anti-hero, Danny Abatangelo's efforts to reunite with his lost love.

It's an exquisite tale that finds time to be instructional among the over-the-top violence.

Read all three books, but for my money Corbett is the guy.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Final photo from grand tour of Europe

This is my final "book" photo from Europe. This was taken at the Schloss Vollrads vineyards. I liked the juxtaposition of wine bottles and books.

Recently finished the new Jack Reacher novel, 61 Hours. Some thoughts on that book soon. It will contain spoilers.