Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book 22, 2010: To Hell On A Fast Horse

Billy the Kid had the good fortune to die young. Pat Garrett the misfortune to live many years beyond that fatal night at Fort Sumner when Sheriff and Outlaw clashed.

As Mark Lee Gardner notes in his meticulously researched To Hell On A Fast Horse, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West, the pair "are forever linked . . . in legend, but historically, in the memories of their friends, and enemies."

Sadly, for Garrett, Billy has all the glory. In film and fiction, and popular memory, Bill Bonney is a dashing young gunslinger, while Garrett is generally a footnote -- the man who gunned down Billy the Kid. Some even contend Garrett's action was less than heroic, that he took Billy by surprise and never gave the outlaw a chance to defend himself.

As Gardner notes, Garrett's misfortune extended far beyond such criticism or a lesser role in popular imagination, then or now. As the glory of his exploits faded, Garrett fell on hard times as a result of a series of poor business deals and was ultimately shot in the back while trying to sell some valuable New Mexico land. His murder was never solved.

Gardner's book is a fitting tribute to Garrett and the Kid, providing the reader with a history of this now legendary Western chase that is both edifying and entertaining.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book 21, 2010: The Farmer's Daughter by Jim Harrison

" . . . and the three of them drove over to a stream a few miles away and went swimming. Marcia had a boom box that worked off the cigarette lighter, a couple of six-packs on ice, and some baloney sandwiches, a regular Montana picnic."

The theme that links the three novellas in this newest work from Jim Harrison may well lie in the Patsy Cline song, The Last Word in Lonesome is Me.

References to the song, written by Roger Miller, appear in all three novellas collected in The Farmer's Daughter, which is the title of the book and the first and finest of this trio of stories.

Alienation, a craving for the solitary life and the restorative value of wilderness are attributes linked to the three main characters; that and a line from the song: "My heart is as lonely as a heart can be lonely. The last word in lonesome is me."

The farmer's daughter is Sarah Holcomb, who, according to the first line of the story, "was born peculiar, or so she thought." Peculiar, she may be. Certainly, Sarah is a fiercely independent young woman, who cares deeply for her horse, her dog -- that she inherited from a grizzled old ranch hand -- and the ranch hand, whom she shamelessly flirts with, despite their difference in age. Sarah is also endearing and one of Harrison's most vivid characters.

Sarah is high school age through most of the story, which is largely concerned with her efforts at self-discovery, taking revenge for a rather clumsy sexual assault and finding a way to flee Montana, although she isn't going anywhere without her horse and dog.

Brown Dog Redux is the story of Brown Dog, a mixed race man who, to put it simply, is a mess. Brown Dog is a hound dog. He loves women. Fat or skinny. Tall or short. Young or old. When women are in his vicinity, Brown Dog has only one thing on his mind.

Despite this proclivity, Brown Dog manages to be a pretty good father to his adopted daughter Berry, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. Brown Dog is wise enough to know that Berry does more good for him than he does for her; protecting him from the worst of his impulses, which -- if it's not women -- is booze.

Like Berry, the wilderness offers Brown Dog protection from himself. He literally flees to the wilds of the Upper Peninsula to fish and meditate, although that is not a concept known to Brown Dog.

The Games of Night is the oddest of the three stories. Harrison suggests that the protagonist, who is attacked by a wolf cub and carnivorous hummingbirds while a child, is some sort of werewolf, transformed by the viruses dancing in his blood.

It is this transformation, brought on by the full moon, that leads to the games of the night. The character has only a hazy memory of these "games," but they include lust as well as excessive physical appetite and exertion.

The Games of the Night contains a surprise appearance by novelist Louise Erdrich and her sister, Lise. Our werewolf is camping along the Bois de Sioux River near Wapheton, North Dakota, where the sisters grew up.

"Heard chattering on small gravel road. Two girls bird-watching on their old bikes. They looked Indiana or at least half-breed, from local Chippewa reserve. Said their names were Lise and Louise . . . I was sideways to them and when I turned they screamed, "Rougarou, rougarou, rougarou' and raced off on their bikes."
Harrison, now in his early 70s, has written some marvelous stuff in recent years. First, there was the The English Major and now The Farmer's Daughter. Each subsequent book is a literary treat that may not come our way again.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Aquisitions

The Possessed
, Elif Batuman
The Devil's Redhead, David Corbett
The Girl With The Glass Feet, Ali Shaw
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver
Rebel Yell, Alice Randall

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Two Banks' novellas highlight The Price of Love

The Price of Love and Other Stories by Peter Robinson collects two novellas -- both featuring Inspector Banks -- and an assortment of short stories. Banks figures in some of the stories, in others he does not.

Robinson is principally a novelist so this collection does not show him at his best. My sense is that if you are a fan of his work, and Inspector Banks, you will enjoy this collection. If you are unfamiliar with Robinson, I'd give it a pass.

Monday, February 22, 2010

After A False Spring, The Sundown

The failure of Pat Jordan's career as a professional baseball pitcher gave us one of the best baseball books ever written. A False Spring, Jordan's affecting account of his abortive pitching career, appeared in 1975 and quickly secured status as a sports classic. A few years ago, Sports Illustrated ranked it 37th among the 100 best sports books.

After the Sundown -- written four years after A False Spring -- is no classic. A minor work by a major player, it is a pleasing diversion. Its the difference between a sunny, Sunday afternoon and a pitcher with the good stuff rather than the great stuff. Yet what's important to remember -- it's still a sunny Sunday afternoon and someone is working carefully and competently for our pleasure.

After the Sundown is a series of profiles of former athletes: a pitcher (naturally), a race car driver, a football player. The game, if you will, has left each of these men behind, but they have not always been ready to leave it. Perhaps no writer is better equipped than Jordan -- a pitcher of great promise who never once stepped to the mound in the major leagues -- to tell these stories with empathy and understanding and grace.


Still reading: The Price of Love and Other Stories by Peter Robinson
Next up: To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner

Sunday, February 21, 2010

New Acquisition

To Hell On A Fast Horse, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West by Mark Lee Gardner.

Blurbs on the rear jacket are by Hampton Sides, David Dary and Robert Utley -- that's an impressive collection of Western writers/historians.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book 18, 2010: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The best non-fiction books have a strong narrative thread.

Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin are all superb examples of how non-fiction can be far more enthralling and entertaining than anything found in fiction.

We can now add The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot to that list.

Released earlier this year to critical acclaim, Skloot's book -- years in the preparation -- is part science, part biography and part horror story. At its most basic it is the story of HeLa, a line of cells commonly used in medical research around the world. The cells were taken from a Baltimore woman, Henrietta Lacks, in the 1950s without her knowledge or consent while she was being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The cells proved to be "immortal." Prior to the HeLa cells, all cells removed from a human and placed in culture had quickly died. The cancerous cells removed from Henrietta Lacks did not die.

But Henrietta's cells weren't merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity . . . They kept growing like nothing anyone had seen, doubling their numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on tops of hundreds, accumulating by the millions . . . As long as they had food and warmth, Henriett's cancer cells seemed unstoppable.

Soon Henriett's cells had been shipped to medical laboratories around the world and were widely used in a variety of research. They were flown into space and exposed to nuclear explosions, and ultimately contributed to enormous scientific advances.

But the story of HeLa cells is not merely that of scientific progress. It is also the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family. Her children did not learn that their mother's cells had been taken and had survived or that they were widely used in medical research until decades after Henrietta's death.

The success of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks lies in Skloot's decision to tell the compelling life story of this poor Southern black woman as well as that of her descendants. In many respects, the book is as much about Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, as it is about her mother or the doctors and scientist who appear in these pages.

The horror surfaces in two respects. As an adult, Deborah discovers that she had an older sister who was confined to a mental institution not long before her mother's death. The cruel treatment afforded her sister emerges late in the book and is a haunting and sobering reminder of how poorly people suffering from mental illness or retardation can be treated in America.

Another horrifying aspect of the book is how indifferent science is to the Lacks family and how slow scientists and doctors were -- and continue to be -- in recognizing that the HeLa line of cells came from a fellow human being. Millions of dollars were made through the sale of the HeLa cells, yet Henrietta Lacks' children could not afford health insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book that performs many valuable services. For example, Skloot's afterword explores the use of human tissue in medical research today, indicating that it is still largely unregulated. She has brought a measure of pride and comfort to the Lacks family. But her most valuable contribution is in revealing that the HeLa cells once belonged to a vibrant young woman, who loved to dance and to laugh and who loved her family.

Henrietta Lacks is the silent hero of this story and we all owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for her enduring contribution to medical science.


Skloot will appear at 10 a.m. Friday, March 19 at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. She will join Jason Vuic, author of The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History, and Bethanne Patrick, author of An Uncommon History of Common Things, in a panel presentation, The Uncommon History of Many Things--from Cars to Human Cells.

Book 17, 2010: The Mexican Tree Duck

I still don't know exactly what James Crumley's The Mexican Tree Duck was about.

There's a kidnapping and drugs are being smuggled into the country. Somehow the beginnings of the dispute that is being played out traces back to the Vietnam War, but that is the extent of my understanding.

This is the second book by Crumley that I've read and I have concluded that his books are about attitude and atmosphere, rather than any coherent narrative. There is a lot of violence and heavy weapons and drug use.

I wish the the sum of the parts added up to something greater, but it doesn't. And I wish that I liked Crumley's writing better than I do, but I don't.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Doors Open cements Rankin's reputation

Books 15 and 16 comprise the range of reading experience, from fast-paced pleasure to a slog through a messy fraud of a book.

The pleasurable read belonged to Ian Rankin. Doors Open was issued in 2008 in Great Britain, but it was just released here last month.

Doors Open is the story of a millionaire who has grown bored. His boredom leads him into planning an art heist with a banker and an art professor. The heist goes well, but -- as you would expect -- nothing else does in this thoroughly entertaining thriller.

Rankin is one of the leading writers in the popular thriller/crime/mystery genre and Doors Opens only serves to solidify his street cred among readers.

A Quiet Belief in Angels is the first book from R.J. Ellory. Frankly, I hope it is his last. It's a misogynistic, disturbing mess; over-written from the standpoint of content and style. Obstensibly set in Georgia before WW II, the characters don't sound like crackers. This is one of those novels where every adult in well spoken and far wiser than almost anyone you've met in real life.

And then there are the errors of chronology. Early in the book, when a particular event takes place, it's 1943 and our narrator is 15. One hundred pages later, recalling the same event, it was 1942 and he was 14. I could let errors of commission like that slide if the entire book weren't so bad.

Every woman in this novel -- every woman -- dies a horrible and disturbing death. Yes, this book does have something to do with a serial killer, but the fate of some of these woman goes beyond that.

The writing, stylistically, is turgid. It might be accepted as elegant by some with its nascent dawns, but try reading it. This is the first book in a long, long time that I considered abandoning before I was midway through. I stayed to the end and now I'm wondering why.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Borders 1, Customer Service 0

I'm not the type given to rants. Not normally. Well, OK, once in a while maybe, but not on these pages. Not until now, not until returning from a failed shopping expedition to my local Borders.

Let's go back to Tuesday to set this up. Tuesday I went to Borders expecting to buy a book. It was just released that day and I had every reasonable expectation of finding it on the store shelves. Except it wasn't to be found. The computers said it was in the store, but I couldn't find it and a rare helpful employee couldn't locate it either.

I went back today. It wasn't on the table where the computer indicated it should be. I walked up to the checkout and asked for help. Essentially the woman blew me off. There was no one waiting in line, no one eagerly waiting to buy a book, but she gave a cursory glance to the sheet of paper with the book listed on it and said I'd have to go to the Information Desk. She'd have someone meet me there.

But no one did. I waited a while, looked a little longer and left.

I know Borders has experienced difficulties in the past. I know they are struggling to generate a respectable stream of revenue. Look at their music section, it's a shadow of its former self. I know that its employees labor under two expectations 1) get the books on the shelves and 2) take the customers money. But is a little basic customer service too much to ask?

This kind of experience is exactly the sort of thing that sends people to the computer to shop online or buy an ebook.

I can't say that I won't go back. I want books more than I want to stay angry, but I'm not going back any time soon. And there are multiple bookstores within easy distance of my workplace, so I can take my custom elsewhere for a while.

And while I am on the subject, is it too much to ask that bookstore employees know a little bit about books? I tried to buy Wolf Hall at this same Borders a few months ago and no one had heard of it. Presumably, they hadn't heard of the Booker Prize either.

Computers are handy things, and its especially nice to be able to look up an obscure title or two. But wouldn't you think Borders employees might know where to find certain titles, certain authors without resorting to electronic help?

I still like to browse, to hold books, to study the cover and the contents, so this isn't enough to send me online -- and sure as hell won't drive me to an ebook (but that's a rant for another day) -- but it is going to send me elsewhere. And I hope for a good long time.

This also seems like a good time to say something about independent bookstores. I buy from several -- Politics & Prose, Murder by the Book, the Mystery Bookshop in Seattle, Mysterious Galaxy -- and I often pay full price plus shipping. I do this because of the customer service I receive.

Independent bookstores live in a world of small profit margins that are largely made possible because they know books and they know their customers. Customer service ranges from book recommendations to signed books to books shipped with dust jacket covers and to occasionally throwing in those little extra promotional items that collectors love.

Suddenly I understand why people use their blogs to rant and rave. I have run out of choler much as I ran out of Borders this morning. Trust me, I plan to keep running.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New acquisitions

  • The Savannah, Rivers of America series by Thomas L. Stokes
  • Willie Mays The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch
  • Phil Gordon's Little Black Book by Phil Gordon and Jonathan Grotenstein
  • Phil Gordon's Little Blue Book by Phil Gordon

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Food Rules and The Godfather of Kathmandu

The value of Food Rules by Michael Pollan far exceeds its slender size.

The book is 139 pages long. There may be more words in the introduction than in the entire text that follows. Some pages contain only an illustration; those with text may have only a sentence or a paragraph at the most.

This condensed approach is not without purpose. Pollan is interested in results. In Food Rules (more on that title later) he takes the seven-word guiding principle from In Defense of Food -- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. -- and expands it to 64 rules. Pollan understands people will be more like to read the rules, and put them to work in their lives, if they are packaged in a way they can be easily consumed. He's stealing a page from the industrial food complex he dislikes so much.

Despite its small size, Food Rules is brimming with common sense and sound advice. The book is divided into three categories based on that seven-word principle listed above. The first section: Eat Food. The second: Not too much. And the third: Mostly plants.

In his introduction, Pollan recommends adopting at least one rule from each section. I found that's not so difficult to do. For example, in the first section one rule is to buy snacks from a farmer's market (16). I do. My favorite rule is found in that section: It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car (20). I don't have a lot of trouble following that guidance.

I do struggle with section two. I could eat more plants. But I do well with rule 32 -- don't overlook the oily little fishes -- because I am fond of sardines.

Among the rules in section three, I need to take the recommendation to eat more slowly (49) to heart. I have two brothers and we learned to bolt our food or you might leave the dinner table hungry. But, again, I find rules here I can live with: Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does (57) and Cook (63)

Food Rules is meant to be taken seriously, yet there is an element of fun here that shouldn't be overlooked. It's enjoyable to flip through the book -- it can be read in one brief sitting -- and identify the rules you follow now, the rules you'd like to follow and those that will really, really give you trouble.

Some of that fun is also found in the title. Food Rules can be taken literally. It is a set of rules to guide our selection, preparation and consumption of food. But it is also a declaration -- food rules!

If Food Rules whets your appetite for more try these earlier books by Pollan: In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma. Both are exceptionally good books.


My enthusiasm for John Burdett's Thai thrillers slipped a notch with his newest novel, The Godfather of Kathmandu.

Many of the ingredients that I enjoyed in the past books are present in this one: the exotic deaths, the descent into the Oriental drug and sex trade and the catty running commentary on our Western culture.

The exotic death is represented by a Hollywood filmmaker who is found eviscerated, the top of his skull removed and a small portion of his brains scooped out.

Even as detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep sets out to determine if this strange death is a murder or some eerie, intricate suicide, he is also caught up brokering a massive drug deal between a police colonel, an army general and a Tibetan mystic who intends to use the drug money to fund an invasion of China.

The Tibetan mystic is more distracting than diverting. Sonchai falls under his spell and sets out to seek spiritual development. This doesn't take up much of the novel, but it does slow it down. Burdett's three earlier Bangkok novels are better.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Blurbed Again!

Biblio's Bloggins was blurbed again! This one has been up a while, but I just noticed it. It's a blurb from my blog on Will Beall's L.A. Rex.

Book 12, 2010: Give My Poor Heart Ease

I got the blues reading Give My Poor Heart Ease, Voices of the Mississippi Blues by William Ferris.

I got the blues thinking of all the voices within this book that are stilled now. Stilled long before Barack Obama became our nation's President. An event I think many of the people speaking from these pages longed for and dreamed of, but never truly dreamed would come to pass.

Give My Poor Heart Ease is not merely a chronicle of the blues -- that unique musical genre that grew out of the African American experience in the heart of the Mississippi Delta -- although it is every bit that. It is also a chronicle of a people -- poor, uneducated, exploited -- who found a voice through music; music that let them express their sorrow and their joy and that has slowly united many people, of all races, through the simple, yet fundamental, message conveyed by the blues and the appeal of a 12-bar chord progression.

"The blues is like a tonic," says B.B. King, one of the voices within this book still living (and still playing). "There's a blues for anything that bothers you . . . The blues are the three Ls, and that would be living, loving, and hopefully, laughing . . ."

Give My Poor Heart Ease is an extraordinary work. In extensive interviews conducted decades ago Ferris has captured the voices of everyone from poor sharecroppers to the late Willie Dixon, who wrote any number of blues classics, and King, who is the reigning ambassador of the blues at the advanced age of 84.

In addition to the interviews, the book is laced with photographs taken by Ferris in his travels through the Delta. The photographs add depth and understanding to the text. There is also a CD with songs from many of the people Ferris interviewed as well as inmates in Parchman Penitentiary and a DVD that features work chants at Parchman, a church service, Mississippi folktales and a house party.

It's a rich and illuminating collection of material on our African American history, Mississippi and the Blues. And when combined with his earlier work, Blues From the Delta, released in 1978, it establishes Ferris as one of the foremost chroniclers of the Blues.

Ferris will appear in March at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. He will appear at the Southern Cafe and Music Hall, 103 S. First, at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 18. I plan to be there.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

New Acquisitions

My Secrets of Playing Baseball by Willie Mays with Howard Liss.
1967, Viking Press.
Purchased from Brian Cassidy.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Book 11, 2010: Gutshot Straight

Shake Bouchon knows he shouldn't open the trunk, but he does it anyway. How else would he find the girl? Stir up mobsters in L.A. and Vegas? And find himself trying to hock a packet of ancient foreskins in Panama for a cool $5 million?

And how else would the reader have such a great time?

Shake, short for Vanilla Shake, the sobriquet given Bouchon by fellow inmates in the prison where he's serving time for GTA, short for grand theft auto, is the main character in Lou Berney's hugely entertaining noir-ish Gutshot Straight.

Within 24 hours of his release from prison, Shake opens that trunk. There's a girl inside. She tells Shake she's a Mormon housewife whose husband has gone missing. It isn't long before he realizes she's an ambitious stripper who has ripped off Vegas mobster, Dick Moby, aka The Whale.

The plot is secondary here. It's entertaining, and without slowing the action down for a heartbeat, Berney does a great job with Shake's philosophical musings on the importance of making wise choices. Shake decides he makes good choices about half the time, which explains why he's in so much trouble so quickly.

That's a nice little twist on the genre, but what's most entertaining -- and Berney is channeling Elmore Leonard here -- is the dialogue, mostly between Shake and the beguiling stripper from the trunk of the car, and the whole aura of coolness that these two strive for and strike.

Yet what I liked best about Gutshot Straight is that as much fun as the first 270 pages are, the final 21 pages are even better. The penultimate scene is a brilliant parody of an armed showdown and the final scene, well, the final scene is just flat funny.

Gutshot Straight is an appropriate title for the risks Shake takes, but the book reads more like four of a kind.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Reading and Book Miscellany

Currently reading:

  • Give My Poor Heart Ease, Voices of the Mississippi Blues by William Ferris (taking my time with this one, reading only one or two of the interviews each day).
  • Gunshot Straight by Lou Berney (I'll have more to say later, but 100 pages into this thriller set in Vegas I think Berney may be the new Elmore Leonard).
New acquisitions:

  • Food Rules by Michael Pollan
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (great review in the New York Times)
  • Wild Child and Other Stories by T.C. Boyle
Intriguing new website: Coverspy. Whenever I am on the D.C. Metro or flying, I try to check out what other people are reading. Returning from Vegas this weekend, I realized I may not be able to exercise this particular bookish nosiness much longer -- ebooks to the right of me, ebooks to the left. I spotted at least three ebooks on the plane and it is impossible, unless the reader is at your side, to notice what's being read.

Last read: The Hidden Man by David Ellis is the first book I've completed in February and the 10th in 2010. Late in this thriller there's an improbable event that ruined the novel for me. (Wait! What just happened! Let me read that again. Oh?!) Besides being improbable and annoying, Ellis doesn't let this plot point unfold properly. The reader is by it (at least I was) and has to go back and re-read a few sentences to be certain that what happened really happened. Yet, Ellis makes much of this event throughout the final pages of the novel.

The result is that I am not nearly as enthusiastic about The Hidden Man as I might have been otherwise. The protagonist, attorney Jason Kolarich, is mourning the death of his wife and child when a mysterious man shows up in his office with a briefcase full of cash. The man hires Kolarich to defend a man accused of murdering a child molester. The accused man is Kolarich's childhood buddy.

Kolarich is given explicit instructions about how to handle the trial, but he doesn't play well with others; especially mysterious figures who threaten him and his brother.

The book is OK as thrillers go, but if you see my previous post there are better books in the genre out there just now.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wrapping up January: Three suspense novels

January's Reading List

1. My Father Is A Book, Janna Malamud Smith. Memoir
2. Literary Life, Larry McMurtry. Memoir
3. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens. Fiction
4. Half Broke Horses, Jeannette Walls. Fiction
5. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman. Fiction
6. Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich. Fiction
7. The First Rule, Robert Crais. Fiction
8. Rizzo’s War, Lou Manfredo. Fiction
9. The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton. Fiction

Nine books in January. A sub-standard effort if we're going by numbers alone, but a nice month if the quality of the books are what we focus on. I closed out January reading three suspense novels and February is going to be devoted largely to that genre. These three were terrific.

First, The First Rule, the long-awaited Joe Pike novel by Robert Crais. Every novel from Crais is long-awaited. I'm already anticipating his next book. I confess, I'm a fan and The First Rule only solidifies that standing.

The First Rule features Joe Pike, the sidekick to Elvis Cole, World's Greatest Detective. As a sidekick, Pike was limited to the novelistic equivalent of a cameo. He'd enter a scene, say little, kick some butt and exit a few pages later. But Crais, yielding to his own good judgment and reader requests, gave Pike his own book in The Watchman. Let's just say it went well, and Pike is back in his own novel once more.

There's a missing baby, a cache of automatic weapons and a two warring Serbian crime lords. None of that matters. Not really. It's all an elaborate framework to showcase Pike. The driving factor in The First Rule is that a man who once served alongside Pike as a mercenary is brutally murdered, along with his wife and two children, early in the novel. To the Serbians, they were mere collateral damage. To Pike, their deaths represent a wrong that must be set right.

The Serbians have a set of rules that guide them; an actual written code and the punishment for violating it is death. Pike has his own code -- take care of your own -- and it is Pike's relentless drive to satisfy the tenents of his unwritten rule that gives the novel its title.

Pike is larger than life. A force of nature with more in common with a couple of Marvel superheroes than most characters in the current crop of suspense novels, except Lee Child's Jack Reacher. And that's fine. Fans know what they're getting -- a hugely entertaining novel.

Here's another rule: Pike is a former sidekick now. There will be a third novel featuring Joe Pike. And many more to follow.


Lou Manfredo's bio on the jacket flap of Rizzo's War says he "served in the Brooklyn criminal justice system for twenty-five years." I'm not certain what Manfredo's complete resume looks like, but he was a cop. And Rizzo's War is a book only a cop could write and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

Rizzo's War is the story of two Brooklyn detectives -- a veteran and his ambitious young partner. Manfredo gets the tone exactly right; the hours of tedium and paperwork punctuated by brief interludes of sordid crime. Sordid, but mundane: a young woman horrified by a wienie wagger and a burglar who cruelly murders an old man's dog fill the early pages of this novel.

Manfredo doesn't dismiss these crimes. Instead, he writes, these are the crimes that scare people the most:

. . . they get scared because when they hear about something like that, they worry about their kids, their wives, their husbands, or their old parents. That's what scares people and that's what I -- what we -- do. The little crimes have the biggest effect on most of the people. It's like a cancer eating away at the quality of their lives. Me and you, we're their chemotherapy. We fight the cancer, keep it at bay. We may never win, not completely, but we're all these people got.

But Manfredo is striving to capture something serious here. The veteran unveils his career philosophy early to his new partner -- nothing is ever right or wrong, it just is. About that time the two are enmeshed in a case that tests this homespun philosophy and that can make or break their own careers. A city councilman's daughter has run away and the detectives are asked to find her. Beyond her own emotional illness, there is a reason this young woman has fled her home.

Rizzo's War is a novel painted in shades of gray. What's right? What's wrong? Cops make choices every day in which they cross the line. A discount on dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. Escorting that same restaurant owner to the bank at the end of the day. These are mild infractions, but larger ones await. Can a cop -- even a clean one -- ever truly avoid violating the network of policy and laws drawn up to guide them?

And does the end ever justify the means? After all, chemotherapy kills cancer cells.

This is a powerful and promising debut novel by Lou Manfredo.


The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton has one of the most engaging protagonist and inventive concepts of any suspense novel I have read in some time.

Michael is scarred by tragedy. He's in prison when we meet him and he doesn't -- he can't -- speak. Michael is a boxman, a safecracker of unusual skill. He doesn't use drills or explosives, but a Zen-like calm and an almost eerie ability to hear and feel the inner workings of any safe he touches.

How Michael becomes a boxman while still in high school and how he later ends up in prison is the subject of The Lock Artist. We also discover the horrible secret of his past. Why he no longer speaks and why that's going to change when he is finally released from prison.


And finally a shout out to Shel who called me a few weeks back and said I had to read Rizzo's War and The Lock Artist. He had that right.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Orlean and Saunders join Folger reading series

Susan Orlean and George Saunders read from their works Monday as part of the PEN/Faulkner reading series at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Orlean, a willowy redhead, read excerpts from three articles: "Shooting Party", which originally appeared in The New Yorker September 29, 1999 and was later collected in My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere; "The American Man, Age Ten", first published in Esquire; and "Devotion Road", another New Yorker piece. Both "The American Man, Age Ten" and "Devotion Road" were collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People.

Saunders read his short story "Victory Lap", which was published in The New Yorker October 5 of last year.

Orlean’s writing is reminiscent of the 60s and early 70s when non-fiction articles by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and other practitioners of new journalism gave magazines such as Esquire, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone an immediacy and relevancy they are unlikely to ever enjoy again. Her articles are vibrantly written, sharply observed and laced with wry -- often self-deprecating -- humor.

There’s an easy explanation for why Orlean’s photograph appeared on the cover of both My Kind of Place and The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup – she makes intelligence sexy.

Saunders is the author of the essay collection The Braindead Megaphone, the short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation and the novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. I’ve not read any of those works, but I have read – and loved -- his children's book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip,

Saunders used a host of voices throughout his reading, which was like listening to an episode of The Simpsons. This guy needs to record his own audio books.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Guest Blogging the Virginia Festival of the Book

This is unexpected and cool. Way cool.

I have been invited to be a guest blogger for the 2010 Virginia Festival of the Book, March 17-21 in Charlottesville.

Other 2010 guest bloggers are:
Elizabeth McCulloug
Bethanne Patrick
Rick Sincere

Our charge: " . . . pick some Festival programs that interest you, read the books, blog about them, come to the related Festival programs in March and blog about that too. "

Nothing could be simpler. I've been looking over the festival schedule recently, identifying programs of interest. I've already purchased my tickets to hear Colum McCann and Elizabeth Strout. Their books -- Let the Great World Spin and Olive Kitteridge -- were two of the best I read last year.

William Ferris will put in an appearance to talk about his book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. I'm currently midway through it. Unfortunately, Ferris appears at the same time as Tim Wendel (baseball) and Roland Lazenby (basketball). This is one of those occasions when I'd dearly love to be in two places at the same time.

So, between now and March 21 it's same bat time, same bat channel for more on the Virginia Festival of the Book.