Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cleopatra well-written, impeccably researched

Book 58: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra by author Stacy Schiff is well-written and impeccably researched. It's a compelling story of one of history's most elusive figures.

For most of us, almost everything we know about Cleopatra is due to William Shakespeare or Elizabeth Taylor. Her life would seem to belong as much to a soap opera as the history channel.  It is a life so shrouded in the stuff of legend that she would seem to belong alongside some fictional figure of myth rather than any person from history

Until now. Schiff sifts through the innuendo, speculation and half-truths to present our most complete portrait of this remarkable woman who was perceived by her people as not only a queen, but as an actual goddess.

Her biography is the definitive source on the Queen of the Nile. With limits.

The truth is we don't know much about Cleopatra. As Schiff points out we have very little idea what she may have actually looked like. And we're not certain how she died. It was suicide, but there probably wasn't a snake involved. 

And Cleopatra's story is not hers alone. It also belongs to Julius Caesar and Mark Antony as well as the people of Egypt and Rome. It is also more of a political story than a personal one.  Throughout her life Cleopatra was either concerned with securing the throne or retaining control of it. She was, at various times, worried more about her own siblings than the Romans.

Because the historical record is so sketchy, Schiff must work with a limited palette. Her accomplishment, then, is all the more remarkable for in Cleopatra she compares the real woman to the legend and it is the real woman who emerges as one of the most intriguing figures in history.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The sun sets on Moon Over Manifest

Book 57: Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool 

I had a lot of reasons to like this book. The winner of the 2011 Newberry Award, it was written by a Wichita woman and is set in the fictional town of Manifest, Kansas, a stand-in for the real southeastern Kansas town of Frontenac.

I had a lot of reasons to like it, yet I didn't.

There were three reasons I found it disappointing -- the main character, the town of Manifest and the all-to-clever plot.

Abilene Tucker has been sent to Manifest by her father.  It's the middle of the Depression and the pair have been wandering the country until an injury to Abilene causes her father to realize that hopping the rails isn't the life for a 12-year-old girl.

Abilene's voice doesn't feel authentic to me.  Granted, she's been on the road and, granted, it's not unusual  for the principal character in a novel such as this to be precocious, but I never once felt that the voice speaking to me on these pages belonged to a 12-year-old girl living through the Depression.

Much is made by the author that her maternal grandparents lived in Frotenanc -- the town she uses as a model for Manifest -- and she spent time there as a child.  Yet Manifest never feels like a real place.  The author tells us that it is a Kansas mining town, inhabited by immigrants, but that picture is never fully drawn.

Elements of the plot -- the final trickery the townspeople resort to in order to wrest their lives from the hands of the venal mine owner -- are too clever by half.  I'll accept many scenarios from fiction writers -- FBI agents turned bricklayers and cities that exist side by side in some dimensional quirk -- but this final ploy is too clever and complicated to seem even remotely probable.

Even the ending, which should be warm and sweet, feels sentimental and contrived.

Ultimately, Moon Over Manifest reads like a book that adults want children to like. It reads like a book that might have been written in the '50s or early '60s.  I can't imagine too many young readers today taking it to heart. Certainly, it pales compared to the fine Mockingbird, Smiley's The Georges and the Jewels or any of Carl Hiaasen's novels for young adults.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Agent X a deft thriller

Book 56: Agent X by Noah Boyd 

FBI agent turned bricklayer. How's that for concept? Crazy, huh?

One wonders if author Noah Boyd, himself a former FBI agent, actually encountered that scenario during his career with the Feds.  

However the idea came to him -- out of some past reality or the fertility of his own imagination, it works.  Two books into this series, first, The Bricklayer, and now, Agent X, and I am on board. 

As I mentioned in my blog on The Bricklayer stumbling on to these thrillers has a similar feel, the same frisson, that I encountered more than decade ago with Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels.  

What do I like about them? Notably, there is Steve Vail, the bricklayer -- straight out of the Clint Eastwood mold of rugged, independent hero -- who is summoned by the FBI to solve cases they can't break. I love his passive-aggressive approach, the way he sends them off on a wild goose chase, while he holds back some critical piece of information that will help him unravel the case.  

Vail, who is driven to succeed by his father's emotional abuse, can't help himself, yet there's a part of him that enjoys manipulating authority.

I like the Moonlighting-like interplay between Vail and the FBI's Kate Bannon; the sexual tension, the banter that leads to the bedroom.

I like the mysteries, the puzzles that lead to more puzzles and Vail's unwillingness to settle for the obvious solution, his determination to solve the crime after everyone thinks it has been solved.

Boyd is far more skillful than the most authors with only two books to their credits. He handles the pacing deftly, the characters are distinct and the story lines are plausible within the confines of the genre.  

Yep, I'm on the bandwagon.  Let's hope Boyd will be writing, and I'll be reading, Steve Vail thrillers for years to come. The bricklayer is solid.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Uncoupling yields to sentiment

Book 55: The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

Savagery, not sentiment, is expected from the merciless pen of the satirist. 

Yet sentiment, hope, optimism are exactly what we get from Meg Wolitzer in The Uncoupling. The delicious promise offered in the novel's premise -- when all the women in a New Jersey town stop having sex -- is never realized because the normally reliable Wolitzer pulls her punches.

Instead of skewering her characters, she permits them a happy ending. And with this novel that is surely the most disappointing and unlikely ending an author could conceive.

Wolitzer deftly uses a touch of magical realism to set up the story. There is a new drama teacher at the local high school and she decides to stage the Greek play Lysistrata.  In the play, written by Aristophanes, the women stop having sex to end war.

In The Uncoupling. the women stop having sex because they are touched by a weird cold wind -- somehow a product of the high school's production of Lysistrata. The cold wind affects women of every age and station from a middle-aged high school teacher in a model marriage to her daughter, an awkward young women just experiencing her first taste of young love.

When the sex stops, the men do not respond well. They become distant, withdrawn, surly. Some are quick to take offense, while others go on the attack. They say things, rude and offensive, that are meant to hurt.

It is a mistake to assume that The Uncoupling is simply about the differences between the sexes. Those differences are naturally a part of the story. The men miss sex. They really miss it. For the women, the absence of sex surfaces more as a memory of an activity that alternated between duty and pleasure.

In delivering her happy ending, Wolitzer suggests that sex (which is restored) is only a component of the necessary intimacy between man and woman. 

"These people . . . had no idea how to conduct their love lives," Wolitzer wrties. "They let everything fall into comfort or indifference or chaos or disrepair. They'd had no innate sense of how to protect the thing they claimed to care about above all else -- and instead they'd found many, many ways to let it rot. Some people seemed fine, seemed happy and contented with each other, and for the moment they actually were. But you knew that it was only a matter of time--months, years, it depended on the individuals--until their relationships began to erode just like everyone else's. So Fran Heller saved them all from themselves."

It seems too pat, too neat; take sex way for a time and then restore it and all is well. Surely some of the distance that developed in a relationship, some of the bitter words, would leave a more lasting residue. Sadly, The Uncoupling is a bit too optimistic to ring true. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tepper's The Waters Rising a blend of fantasy and science fiction

Book 54: The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri Tepper combines two genres and adds a unique twist on an old convention to produce a spellbinding story of humanity's efforts to save itself from certain destruction in The Waters Rising.

The destruction facing humanity lies both ahead and behind.  Ahead are the rising waters from the earth's core that will soon swallow the earth, and mankind, in a watery grave. Behind is a terminator-like creature, both man and machine, loose on an relentless campaign to destroy humanity.  

The Waters Rising melds elements of fantasy and science fiction in a post-apocalyptic tale that could only emerge from the pen from this incomparable storyteller.

On a journey to perform a sacred mission in the homeland she has never seen, Xulai discovers that there is a second mission for her carry out. And this mission, the culmination of generations of planning, holds the fate of humanity its balance. 

At her side is Abasio, a mysterious wanderer with a talking horse, whose fate is inextricably entwined with Xulai and her mission to save mankind.

From The Gate to Women's Country to Grass to The Family Tree to The Margarets, Tepper's fans have come to expect a rich, complex story filled with vivid characters. The Waters Rising will not leave them disappointed. It is a powerful tale of sacrifice and hope in a future not that far removed from our own.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Just Kids just great

Book 53: Just Kids by Patti Smith

In her award-winning memoir, Just Kids,  Patti Smith makes it evident that her creative force is boundless, her artistry peerless.

Smith, mostly widely known as the "Godmother of Punk," originally saw herself as an artist. She also dabbled on the stage, wrote poetry and experimented with visual art before launching her career as a punk rocker with the release of her influential 1975 debut album, Horses.

Such creative range suggests that no one should be surprised that Smith is also a talented writer.  Yet her memoir, which won the 2010 Nation Book Award for non-fiction, is surprising for its depth, maturity and insight. This is work of such ease and command that you would only expect it from the pen of someone who had been writing books their entire life. 

Just Kids charts her tumultuous relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The pair met in New York City, instantly become close friends and lovers soon thereafter. Both were determined to carve out a career in the arts.  Both proved a source of support and inspiration for the other as they struggled to find their voice and an audience in the toughest city in the world. 

Just Kids is a love story. Yet it's most intimate moments are reserved for its rare glimpse into the growth and development of two artists.  It is also a voyeuristic look at the broad New York City art community in the 1970s.  Rockers Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and playwright Sam Shepard are among the artist who populate this book.

I have never listened to Patti Smith's music.  I knew her name and that she was punk rocker. I knew nothing more until I read this luminous memoir of love and art.

Just Kids is just great.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Twice A Spy has one improbability too many

Book 52: Twice A Spy by Keith Thomson 

In some thrillers the reader is asked to accept a certain level of improbability.  The problem with Keith Thomson's Twice A Spy is that it is filled with more improbabilities than the reader -- at least this one -- are willing to support.

The first improbability, introduced in Thomson's first novel, Once A Spy, is that although former CIA agent Drummond Clark has Alzheimer's he can continue to function at a high level. His skills as an agent kicking in to meet the demands of each perilous situation. He just can't remember a damn thing.

In this sequel, Clark and his son, Charlie, remain on the lam from the CIA who want to kill Clark because they're afraid his Alzheimer's will lead him to divulge sensitive information about an undercover operations he once operated.

Functioning at a high level means, among other things, that Clark can escape from almost any situation  even though he can't remember what he had for breakfast.  Functioning-despite-Alzheimer's is improbability number one. The Clarks' ability to escape, escape again and, yes, escape yet again is improbability number two.

The third improbability -- and this is where the scales tipped for me -- is that Charlie, a horse track habitue and general wastrel, seems to have his father's skills when it comes to espionage.  Whether this is due to a particular genetic strain or osmosis isn't clear.

What's clear to me is that Charlie's abilities, which are clearly going to be the focus of future books, are one improbability too many.

Thomson's books are entertaining, but there are so many thrillers that are better, which don't stretch our credulity to the breaking point, that I can't make the case for Twice A Spy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flyover People conjures memories of a Kansas childhood

We’re 10 days into May and I am only now, with this post, wrapping up all the books I read through the end of April.  I’ve dispatched four books so far in May and I will get to them.

Warning to unwary readers: A substantial number of endnotes accompany this post.

Book 51: Flyover People by Cheryl Unruh

Some books are personally meaningful because of their content. They speak to us. Inspire us. Instruct us. 

We treasure others books because they were a gift from someone special. To pick up the book is to instantly conjure the giftgiver.

Flyover People by Cheryl Unruh is meaningful on both counts.

The book, subtitled Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State1, was a gift from a great friend, a man who is as close to me as my own brothers. A book from him always warrants my attention.

Flyover People is also special because it is about my home state of Kansas. It is a collection of essays – loosely gathered under such as headings as Seasons, Nature, Looking Back, Small Towns and Earth and Sky – that Unruh2 originally wrote for her column in The Emporia Gazette.3 Her column, whose subject is almost always Kansas, makes Unruh a latter day Peggy of the Flint Hills4.

Unruh grew up in the small Kansas town of Pawnee Rock. She is not only a native Kansan, but a true Kansan. I know this because Unruh is one of the few people who finds beauty in the Flint Hills – as do I. 

Most people, speeding through Kansas as they drive from one side of the country to the other, view the state as an unwelcome but necessary span they must traverse. They view the Flint Hills, one of the world’s last remaining tall grass prairies, as bleak and desolate. 

It is neither. But to see its beauty, as with much of Kansas, requires both time and a closer inspection than people are willing to give. Unruh take that time for us. Through her essays, I am able to revisit the state that my wife and I left nine years ago after living there for almost half a century.

Unruh’s essays evoke pleasant memories. She brings to life a place and a people I know so well. In reading Flyover People I recall my childhood in a small Kansas town, my tree house, my parent’s restaurant, my grandparents farm, working the wheat harvest from sunup to sundown, courting my wife, raising our family, working beneath the Capitol dome in Topeka.5

My father and brothers still call Kansas home. My mother, sister and grandparents lie beneath its soil.

My wife and I left Kansas, but it has not left us. Our experiences growing up, the state’s people and its history6, the way it is portrayed in film (I sorta hate Dorothy) shaped us, as did its landscape. There are few trees in Kansas and although is not literally flat it certainly appears to be so. This means Kansans are well acquainted with sunrise and sunset. The horizon is always before us. 

“We are the lucky ones,” Unruh writes, “for every day our eyes rest naturally upon the horizon, that thin line of magic that holds together the heaven and the earth.” 

Kansans are like that landscape. They're open. You see them coming. They’ll give you a hearty wave and warm hello whether they know you or not. They are generous, big-hearted people who know that the true antidote to hardship7 is a helping hand. They are people who care deeply about family and friends. They are people of vision, but practical too. Heads in the sky8, feet planted firmly in the deep, rich soil.

Unruh’s essays reminded me of all this. Her essays provide a rich experience for Kansans, wherever they now live. Yet it isn't necessary to be a Kansan to enjoy Unruh's writing. Her essays will be appreciated by anyone who has a deep understanding of the importance of place, an awareness of how landscape can shape a man or woman.

Flyover People reminded me of who I am and will always be – a Kansan.
1The title and subtitle are a reference to the reality that if you’re not driving through Kansas to get somewhere else, you’re flying over it. We’re not a destination for many. The title also conjures memories of Vern Miller, a latter day Carrie Nation, who as Attorney General tried to stop airlines from serving alcohol while they flew over the state. The airlines, Miller contended, were in violation of the Kansas liquor laws.

2Unruh is a graduate of the University of Kansas as am I. We both have degrees in English. She also studied education. I also took journalism classes. I wonder if Unruh attended Calder Pickett’s History of American Journalism. One of the requirements of the class was to read William Allen White’s autobiography. He was the publisher of the Emporia Gazette.

3Emporia is on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Gazette was owned and edited by William Allen White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and confidante of Teddy Roosevelt. Under White’s leadership the Gazette was one arguably the most influential small-town newspaper in the nation.

4Peggy of the Flint Hills was Zula Bennington Greene. Her column appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal and other Kansas newspapers regularly over a span of 60 years. I once worked as a reporter and editor at the C-J.

5 I worked in the Kansas statehouse for more than a dozen years, serving two secretaries of state and one governor. I think I have been in every inch of that stately building from the basement with its huge limestone walls to the narrow, winding staircase that leads to the top of the dome and a stunning view of Topeka. My wife once wrote and recorded the jingle used by the Kansas Department of Commerce to promote the state.

6 Kansas was a free state in the pre-Civil War days. Our enmity toward Missouri, which emerges these days in a rivalry between the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri, traces to the time when bushwackers from Missouri tinkered with our politics, murdered our citizens and burned our cities. There are many variants on the proper pronunciation of Missouri. I prefer Miz-ery.

7Yes, Kansas is swept by tornadoes in spring, summer and fall. There are few tornadoes in winter, but there are blizzards, sleet and whiteouts. Kansas also experiences drought, heat, humidity and hailstorms of biblical proportions. Settling this land took people of determination. Our state motto is Ad Astra Per Astra -- to the stars through difficulties.  

8Literally. Clyde Tombaugh who discovered Pluto, now referred to as a “dwarf” planet (but not in Kansas I’d wager) grew up in Burdett. Shuttle astronaut Steve Hawley called Salina home. Amelia Earhart was a Kansas girl.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

When the Killing's Done a provocative novel

Book 50: When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle

Arrogance and anger fuel the deeply flawed characters that vie for the right to decide the fate of the animals inhabiting two of California's northern Channel Islands in T.C. Boyle's engrossing When The Killing's Done.

Arrogance belongs to Alma Takesue, a National Park Service biologist, who is determined to clear the islands, Anacapa and Santa Cruz, of invasive species so that the endangered native population might flourish. On Anacapa, Takesue commands efforts to rid the island of rats that have come ashore via shipwrecks. On Santa Cruz, the target is feral pigs.

Anger drives Dave LaJoy, owner of a chain of high-end electronic stores, who is determined to oppose Takesue at every turn.  LaJoy dated Takesue once briefly, but their night out did not go well.  One wonders if his campaign to oppose the park service is because of the abortive romance or because he genuinely believes that the lives of all animals -- even the unwanted island invaders -- is worthy of protection. 

When the Killing's Done pits romance against reason, science vs. belief. Takesue is guided by reason and facts as she sees them. She is convinced that the logic of her argument will sway a rational listener. But the dreadlocked LaJoy is not a rational man. Boyle gives us Takesue's backstory, but not LaJoy's. We do not know the source of his anger, only that it is liable to boil into a violent confrontation at any moment.

The animals of Anacapa and Santa Cruz, whether unwanted invader or failing native, fade into the background as Takesue and LaJoy wage their battle for supremacy of the islands. Their shadowy presence lies at the essence of Boyle's message -- if the two characters are both deeply committed to the natural world could they not sit down and find a way to collaborate, to wrest a win-win from their confrontation.

Perhaps, but Takesue and LaJoy are so committed to their own viewpoint, their own ideology, that they are incapable of seeing merit in the other's stand, however principled or well intentioned. The fate of the animals seems to matter less than winning.

As we've come to expect from his work, Boyle has written a provocative novel that raises far more questions than it answers.  Those questions linger long after the reader has finished this fine novel.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Wonder a work of moral complexity

Book 49: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer 

Since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a significant body of science fiction has explored the moral consequences of scientific endeavor. Other writers, Robert Sawyer among them, have extended the genre's exploration of moral consequences to decisions made by individuals, governments and humanity writ large.

In his most recent novel, Wonder, Sawyer concludes that humanity is doing just fine, thank you.

Wonder, part of a trilogy that began with Wake and Watch, examines what might happen when the Internet wakes up.  There is a long tradition of speculation among writers about what the emergence of an A.I. -- artificial intelligence -- might mean to the fate of humanity.

Mainly, the speculation is that a sentient machine is not good for humanity.  Recall Hal 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus by D.F. Jones (both which became films) or, in film,The Matrix. One of the characters in Wonder asks, Why are the representations of a sentient machine, in books and film, always evil?

Sawyer ask that question too in the course of the trilogy. His A.I., dubbed Webmind, is benevolent. First discovered and then tutored by a teenage girl, Caitlin Decter, the Webmind, is committed to aiding the advancement of humankind.

In the course of the novel Webmind cures cancer, sets to work eliminating AIDs, brings Democracy to China and is willing -- and most capable -- of serving as Dear Abby to millions of human on a one-to-one basis. Settling merely for an appearance on Jeopardy is far from this clever machine's mind.

Caitlin is one of Sawyer's most fully drawn characters. Her and her family (her father is autistic) and cast of school friends add richness to Sawyer's novel and help us to understand what the emergence of an A.I. might mean to a man rather than the collective mankind.  There is, for example, a scene late in the book when a high school bully who is threatening Caitlin's boyfriend is cowed by the "light" and enlightenment that Webmind has brought to the world.

Caitlin's mother, Barb, and Webmind engage is a "chat" about a moral arrow, the concept that through time humans have progressively widened the circle of entities they consider worthy of moral consideration -- men of other races, women, gays, the unborn, animals and, naturally in Wonder, a sentient machine. (It's also worth noting that Sawyer launched this moral arrow a long ago in others books where the moral arrow has encompassed aliens and Neanderthals.)

Not that everything in Wonder is sunshine and roses.  Whether it's a schoolyard bully, a zoo that wishes to neuter an exceptionally intelligent ape, oppression in China or a heavy-handed American government that fears what it doesn't understand, Sawyer acknowledges wildly varying levels of moral development. The tension in Wonder derives from our government's efforts to destroy Webmind before "he" becomes too powerful.

Sawyer delivers a thoughtful, entertaining exploration of what the emergence of a sentient machine might mean to the humanity. His approach -- to humanity's fate and to a machine that's smarter than us all -- is a rarity in the annals of science fiction.

For as we've come to expect from this author, Wonder is a work of moral complexity, filled with optimism and hope.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Death of Sweet Mister a violent aria by a noir master

Book 48: The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell

"Him joining the group changed the feel of it the way one lit match does suddenly change the feel in a hay barn."

That sentence, with its odd, little rhythm and construction, which produces an awkward, yet stately tone, hiding the latent violence of the moment before laying it bare, is vintage Daniel Woodrell.

Woodrell, who sets his noir masterpieces in the Ozarks that he calls home, commands violence with the skill of a concert pianist.  The actual physical violence in Woodrell's The Death of Sweet Mister is limited or off the page.  But like the lit match in the barn, the threat of an explosion -- the suggestion that a quiet moment can become deadly in an instant -- is always present. And it is the threat of violence, its very imminence, that is Woodrell's canvass.

The "Him" in the quote above is Red, a particular unsavory piece of work, who inhabits violence like most men inhabit their skin. Red strikes out at his girlfriend, Glenda, or punches her teenage son, Shuggie, in the stomach with disturbing casualness. 

Perhaps even more disturbing is Red's constant verbal attacks on Shuggie, recruiting the boy to steal drugs from the home of sick men and women recently discharged from the hospital or his easy disregard for the boy's presence when he is having sex with Glenda or some other women.

Red is one of those men who wants what he wants when he wants. And when he's denied his desires, violence is his default setting.

But this story belongs to Shuggie, its narrator. His mother affectionately calls him her "Sweet Mister".  Shuggie despises Red and fears him, yet he is one of boy's few male role models. There is no other male figure in Shuggie's life to suggest that there are other ways to behave. 

The suggestion of violence is palpable throughout this slender novel.  The actual violence is tame by most stanrdards -- to a point.  And that point is reached in the novel's final pages when Shuggie undergoes a terrible and violence transformation.

A transformation that does, indeed, lead to the death of Sweet Mister.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx a mildly diverting work

Book 47:  Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx

A melange of memoir, family history, western lore and nature writing, Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx is a mildly diverting work of non-fiction that, even at its best, never approaches the brilliance of her most notable fiction.

At its heart, and recalling nothing so much as Tracy Kidder's 1985 House, is an account of Proulx's efforts to build her dream house on a Wyoming clifftop.  Few human undertakings as fraught with frustration and drama as having a new house built. All the more true when the new house is located on Wyoming cliff that is scoured by unceasing wind and beset by harsh winters that grip the land for much of the year.  

Bird Cloud, which is what Proulx calls her 640 acres of raw Wyoming land, has moments when it is both interesting and entertaining. For me, Proulx's account of the construction of the house -- the battles between the architect and the builders over design and what really works, the rising costs and the ultimate realization that she can't inhabit the house during the worst of Wyoming's winter months are the best parts of the book.

Unfortunately, Proulx fills the relatively small book (slightly more than 200 pages) with such an assortment of material that it leaves the reader constantly unsettled.  Become enthralled with the challenges of building the house and you are suddenly immersed in observing the wildlife that populate Bird Cloud. Become intrigued by that and you're off again on some new tangent that, inevitably, is more interest to the writer than the reader.

All in all, I would have preferred a series of magazine articles on each of the disparate elements of this book. That would have provided a series of more satisfying reads. It would not, however, have helped offset the increasing cost of Proulx's dream house turned nightmare as the author is clearly hoping this book will do.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Connelly on top of his game in The Fifth Witness

To quote Randy Newman, "Baby, I'm guilty." I am six books in arrears on my posts. That's due to the arrival of Portal 2 two weeks ago.  Yep, I chose playing a video game over blogging.

Now that the game has been dispatched (the single player at least), I can turn my attention to the stack of books on my computer table. Here's the first:

Book 46: The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

I do not know how Michael Connelly does it.  For years, the former journalist has written one best seller after another. His novels, which manage to be both popular and critically acclaimed, were largely police procedurals featuring L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch.  There was also the occasional one-off.

In 2005, with The Lincoln Lawyer, Connelly introduced a new character and a new direction. The character was a clever and charismatic defensive attorney, Mickey Haller. The new direction was the courtroom drama. Somehow, Connelly didn't miss a beat. The Lincoln Lawyer -- now, as they say, a major motion picture -- was one of Connelly's best books.

Last year, in The Reversal, Connelly did his own version of World's Finest or Marvel Team-Up, pairing Bosch and Haller in a riveting story that had Haller working for the prosecution. 

Haller returns for a solo gig in The Fifth Witness, and he's back as a defense attorney. His client, a woman losing her home to due to foreclosure, is accused of killing an employee of the bank that held the mortgage.

Haller doesn't care if his client is innocent or guilty. The reader does and Connelly laces the book with clues as to who killed the banker.  Clues I didn't notice until the end of the book when Haller and I arrived at a similar conclusion.

The courtroom drama isn't my favorite sub-genre of mystery.  I find so much of the inside the court goings-on a tad tedious. Not with Connelly.  He has full command of the material -- never letting things get stale or boring. He has full command of the pace and characterization too.

Connelly reaches the bestseller list book after book because he's a masterly writer. Police procedural or courtroom drama, it doesn't seem to matter.

I don't know how he does it, but I am exceptionally glad he does.