Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Rawlins' return the highlight of recent reading

A few thrillers, a graphic novel and a couple of fantasies are among my recent reading.

Book 87: Little Green by Walter Mosley

Easy Rawlins is back from the dead.

His resurrection is a welcome one.  Not only to readers, but to Mosley, too. The author writes with verve in Little Green, with a vibrant muscularity that's been missing from his books since Easy's car plunged off that cliff at the end of Blonde Faith.

Easy -- largely recovered from his injuries and awakened from a months-long "semi-coma" -- grows stronger and more vital with each passing page.

He locates a missing man, quickly quashes a case of corporate blackmail and makes the scene with L.A. hippies. Impossible activities for most men with one foot in the grave, but not the indomitable Easy Rawlins.

Welcome back Mr. Rawlins. Mr. Mosley, too.

(And, in the event you were wondering, the novel has nothing to do with that marvelous song from Joni Mitchell's Blue album.)

Book 88: Donnybrook by Frank Bill

Reading Frank Bill's first novel leads me to think of Miranda Lambert's song, Time To Get A Gun.

Or perhaps a freakin' tank. That's what I've been thinking.

The characters in this fast-paced and violent yarn -- men and women, alike -- are as deadly as a cottonmouth and just as quick to strike.

As with his debut collection of short stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, Donnybrook is set in southern Indiana, a patch of country along the Ohio River that I've sworn to avoid.

Book 81: Free Fire by C.J. Box

C.J. Box, a former newspaper writer and editor, excells at turning today's headlines into captivating myseries.

That's exactly what he's done with Free Fire, the 2007 entry in his stellar series featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett.

Joe, fired in the previous book, is back on the Wyoming payroll. The state's bombastic governor has dispatched Joe to Yellowstone's "Zone of Death" where a shifty Wyoming attorney has escaped prosecution for the murder of four people due to a loophole in the law.

While probing into the motive behind the murders, Joe uncovers a scheme between park personnel and a shady corporation to steal Wyoming's natural resources. A scheme that could make billions and may lead to directly to the governor's office.

Book 77: Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman

On the strength of her superb debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying, author Becky Masterman is guaranteed a publishing contract for more novels featuring her protagonist Brigid Quinn.

A retired FBI agent, Quinn is a novelty in the genre -- she's an older woman.  And as much a gritty, determined rule breaker as any of her male counterparts.

Masterman's debut is masterly and Quinn is a welcome, and refreshing, addition to the ranks of fiction's hard-boiled heroes.

Book 78: King Rat by China Mieville

King Rat is China Mieville's debut novel. It's a spookhy, noirish mashup, equal parts fantasy and fable.

Every book that's emerged from Mieville's pen since King Rat is lurking in these pages in the shadowy recesses of London's sewers and slums.

Book 85: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft and adapted by I.N.J. Culbard.

The graphic artist I.N.J. Culbard has a genuine knack for capturing the eerie atmospherics of H.P. Lovecraft's stories.  This is another fine adaptation.

Book 84: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Let me just put this out there: I don't like Rowling's series. I don't like its characters or the premise itself.

My biggest beef is with Harry Potter himself. He's a prat (look that definiton up, please). Spoiled. Pouty. Quick to take offense. Short tempered. And, frankly, a bit dense.

The stories are a simplistic high school confidential with the thinnest veneer of fantasy and magic.

What disturbs me the most is that Rowling talks down to her young readers. The best YA (young adult) books -- those written by John Green, for example -- are edgy and honest and reflect a genuine respect for young readers.

What saddens me the most is the thought of the many fantasy novels and series vastly superior to Rowling's books that have gone unread in favor of books featuring this half-Muggle prat.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Inter-connected tales in Lemire's Collected Essex County are worthy of Alice Munro

Recent reading includes several graphic novels and three works of non-fiction.

Book 63: Punk Rock Jesus by Sean Murphy

Religion and reality TV collide in this dark and provocative graphic novel written and illustrated by Sean Murphy.

DNA from the Shroud of Turin is used as a starter kit to clone a modern-day Jesus Christ.  Many doubt his divinity, others wants to use him for their own ends. Jesus -- who calls himself Chris -- has his own ideas about how he wants to live life, including a star turn as the lead singer for a punk rock band.

Punk Rock Jesus is a disturbing work with more questions than answers. It amply demonstrates the broad range of subject matter found among current graphic novels. It lends itself perfectly to Murphy's artistic vision.

Book 70: Collected Essex County by Jeff Lemire

Collected Essex County by Jeff Lemire features inter-connected stories worthy of fellow Canadian Alice Munro.

The stories of a lonely boy living on a remote farm with his uncle, two brothers whose dream of playing professional hockey are shattered when they fall in love with the same woman and a country nurses who tends to her patient's emotional needs each build on the other into a satisfying whole.

Lemire's seemingly rough-hewn art perfectly reflects the poignancy of these stark tales. This is a graphic collection that fits nicely on the shelf alongside the best literary fiction.

Book 79: The House of the Baskervilles adapted by Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard

This adaptation of Conan Doyle's classic tale of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson lacks the spooky atmosphere of Culbard's take on Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. Still it's loads of fun.

Other graphic novels worthy pursuing: The Killer (Vol. 1) by Jacamon and Matz, Cairo by Willow and Perker and Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan. (These were books 80, 82 and 83 for me this year.)

Book 72: Mint Condition by Dave Jamieson

A lively account of the rise and fall of the baseball card industry. Remember -- it's only cardboard.

Book 73: With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

There's a formula for memoirs of a certain type: 1) self-centered parents (or better yet one parent) given to drink or violence; 2) failure to learn the lessons imparted by the parent's mistakes; and 3) the author repeats those mistakes as an adult only to reform and write a hit memoir.

Memoirs they do get weary.

Book 74: Bossypants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey is a funny woman. A very funny woman.  Bossypants is funny book -- at times. At times, it's not. And sadly when a joke falls flat on the page, there's no where for it to go.

I'm told the audiobook of Bossypants is a hoot. I'll bet that's right.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Joyland is King at his finest

Recent reading: two novels from the Hard Case Crime series and a third book that belongs in the series.

Book 47: Joyland by Stephen King

As I read Stephen King's Joyland, I forgot that I was reading a book by Stephen King.

A back-handed compliment, perhaps, but a compliment nonetheless.

A little bit of a murder mystery with a touch of a ghost story, Joyland's deepest pleasures derive from its tender coming of age story.

This is King at his finest.

Book 62: Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

In the 1950s, Fredric Wertham, a German-born American psychiatrist, nearly destroyed the comic book industry with his charges that funny books led to juvenile delinquency.

Max Allan Collins uses those real-life events as the backdrop for his delicious murder mystery, Seduction of the Innocent.  (Wertham's book was also titled Seduction of the Innocent. A recent New York Times articles reports that a recent study suggests "Wertham misrepresented his research and falsified his results.")

I was unfamiliar with Collins until stumbling upon this Hard Case Crimes entry. Now, like the girl in the TV, commercial "more, I want more."

This is unadulterated fun.

Book 61: Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen almost plays is straight in Bad Monkey, a new thriller that isn't as over the top as many of his previous books.

While fishing near Key West, a tourist reels in an arm that appears to have been separated from the rest of its body by sharks.  But Andrew Yancy thinks it was murder. And if Yancy can prove it, he's confident he can reclaim his job as a sheriff's deputy.

In typical Hiaasen fashion, there is a bizarre story behind how the arm came to be floating in the waters near Key West.  A story that Yancy uncovers through diligent police work.

But you'll have to read the book if you want to know whether he got his job back.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Le Carre's A Delicate Truth recalls Smiley, Karla and the Circus

Book 65: A Delicate Truth by John le Carre

The tension is palpable in John le Carre's fine new thriller, A Delicate Truth. In his most recent novels, the story has been sacrificed to le Carre's anger. Here his anger -- at private security forces, wealthy Americans and Britain's inattentive national leaders -- drives the narrative and produces a high caliber thriller that recalls the author's best work.

Book 60: Red Planet Blues by Robert Sawyer

Sci fi author Robert Sawyer expands on his award-winning novella, Identity Theft, in Red Planet Blues. I wish he hadn't. This is a disappointing book. Sawyer's concept of a shamus on the red planet is more clever than convincing.

Book 67: In Plain Sight by C.J. Box

In Plain Sight is the sixth (2006) book in the Joe Pickett series by C.J. Box. It's a violent story in which Joe makes an unfortunate decision certain to reverberate in future stories. Unless you're committed to reading the entire series -- as I am -- I'd take a pass on this particular novel. It's not Box's best.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Non-fiction reading includes a memoir, literary criticism and natural history

Recent reading includes three works of non-fiction -- a memoir, literary criticism and natural history.

Book 68: The Books of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon's memoir -- his first work of non-fiction -- ranges from Sarajevo to Chicago. Surprisingly, the book doesn't become truly interesting until Hemon reaches America.

Hemon led a pleasant and largely uneventful life in Sarajevo. He left that city before the outbreak of war -- a war that ultimately led his parents and sister to flee to safety in Canada.

Hemon recounts his struggle to adjust to America and to Chicago, a uniquely Midwestern city. He slowly assimilates by engaging in chess matches in Rogers Park, pickup socceer games filled with immigrants all attracted to the pitch by the taste of home it offers and by walking through Chicago's many neighborhoods.

The most powerful passages are found in the book's final section in which Hemon recounts his youngest daughter's death due to a rare and virulent form of cancer.  The family's struggle is both heroic and heartbreaking.

The Book of My Lives is an interesting read, but feels premature. Hemon is a relatively young man -- still in the early stages of his writing career -- with many more lives to live.

Book: 58: Eminent Outlaws, The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram

In Eminent Outlaws, Bram contends that the gay revolution was first a literary revolution.  He believes that the outpouring of literature from writers such as Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote led the current status quo -- increased acceptance of homosexuality and single-sex marriage.

Bram overstates the case for a literary influence over current societal norms. Some of the works cited were never particuarly perceived as gay literature nor in the time period that some of these writers were best known was there a general awareness that they were homosexuals.

And there is always the sad truth that most literature is more talked about than read.

Bram's theory aside, Eminent Outlaws is an intriguing, but incomplete survey of more than a half-century of gay literature.

Book 64: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Cooked is a disappointing offering from Michael Poll, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The Omnivore's Dilemma was a groundbreaking work with wise guidance, and the rationale behind that guidance, on better, healthier eating.

Cooked is nothing more than an author exercising the luxury of his indulgences -- and getting paid for it.

Pollan's interest in roasting whole hogs, baking bread and brewing beer are the meager ingredients in a thin serving of personal journalism, science and philosophical musings on natural history.

Keeping the methaphor in the kitchen, Cooked is a bland and insubstanial dish.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The dysfunctional dance of families featured in novels by Strout and O'Farrell

Recent reading includes two novels about dysfunctional families, life in a London neighborhood, the first detective novel in the English language and a collection of disturbing short stories.

Let's begin with those books about family life.

Book 56: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout   
Book 66: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell 

Family secrets are at the heart of these two fine novels.

In The Burgess Boys, the secret revolves around a father's death. In Instructions for a Heatwave the secret lies at the heart of a father's disappearance.

Those secrets are less important to either story than the bonds of blood and shared history that ensare parent and child alike. Within the mysterious graviational pull of those forces long-simmering resentments, childhood hurts, parental favoritism, inter-dependence, guilt and elusive love pinball wickedly among fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. 

O'Farrell perfectly captures the family dynamic time and again. A dynamic that can quickly produce tears of frustration in an independent adult:

"Aoife has to resist the urge to grind her teeth, to throw something at the wall. Why is it that twenty-four hours in the company of your family is capable of reducing you to a teenager? Is this retogression cumulative? Will she continue to lose a decade a day."

Strout brings her family together when a nephew of the two Burgess boys hurls a pig's head into a mosque in their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine.  While Strout keeps that storyline alive, it is merely a diversion. The real story here is not the clash between immigrants and long-time denizens of Shirley Falls, but the clash of emotions within the Burgess family.

O'Farrell's family assembles, for the first time in years, after recently retired banker Robert Riordan steps out to buy a newspaper and never returns. Conflicts among the siblings, and with their mother, must be resolved before the search for their missing father can begin.

The previous novels by Strout (Olive Kitteridge) and O'Farrell (The Hand That First Held Mine) were stellar works.

Both these novels shows the authors in top form, although I found Instructions for a Heatwave to be a richer, more satisfying read that seems certain to attract interest from Booker Prize judges.  O'Farrell has quickly become a novelist I respect and enjoy.  
Book 57: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I thoroughly enjoyed The Moonstone, a 19th Century novel considered to be the first English language detective novel.  The Moonstone is an epistolary novel (it's told through a series of letters).

The various voices allows Collins to tap a rich vein of sly humor and fashion a complex novel from a seemingly simple event -- the theft of a rare Indian diamond.

Book 55: Capital by John Lancaster

In Capital, the personal stories of the residents of Pepys Road, London, are connected by a series of sinister postcards, photographs and videos.

The individual stories are not without interest, but the novel falls short of its sweeping ambition. It's never clear exactly what point Lancaster is attempting to make.

Book 59: Dark Lies The Island by Kevin Barry

This 13 short stories in this collection by Kevin Barry are similar to the work of George Saunders, but darker and more disturbing. Barry is a writer to watch.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Atkinson and Wolitzer deliver early entries for 2013's best books

Book 51: The Fruit of Stone by Mark Spragg
Book 52: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Book 53: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Book 54: The Paris Review, Spring, 2013

Head to the nearest independent bookstore and buy copies of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings

You're going to want to read these books, which are certain to make a good many 2013 top ten lists. Life After Life will be a nominee for the coveted Booker Prize and The Interestings will make the shortlist for the National Book Award.

That's how highly I regard these two novels.

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd who never draws a breath when she is first delivered in her family's home in February, 1910.  First delivered because Ursula is re-born and on this occasion the doctor arrives in time to cut the umbicial cord that's strangling her from around her neck.

Each time she dies -- a drowning, a fall from a roof, a savage beating, a bombing during the Blitz -- Ursula is re-born and her life subtly, imperectibly altered.

Atkinson has always been skillful at weaving together diverse plot lines into a satisfying and coherent whole.  Here, she is at her most inventive in this brilliant, compelling novel.   

Some have compared the book to the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. Yet unlike the movie, Ursula doesn't live the same life over and over again. She lives different lives.

(I think it's more like the Marvel Comics that asked "What If . . ." What If Doctor Doom became a hero? What If Wolverine battled Conan the Barbarian? It's a question we've all asked ourselves: What if I hadn't taken that job? Gone to the bar that night? Taken that class? Decided to walk rather than drive?)

Part of Atkinson's brilliance is in the simple recognition that one small change leads to many others; changes we can't anticipate and might like to take back. It's those little changes that lead Ursula's life into directions we can only consider absurd from the perspective of that snowy night she was born, but that now -- looking back -- seem altogether appropriate.

Ursula isn't aware of the changes in her life. Not exactly. There is a nagging sense of deja vu.  (In a clever bit of humor one family member quips that "deja vu" was probably the first French words Ursula learned.) She's also led by compulsions, seeminlgy irrational fears and unexplained impulses.

One thread that holds constant throughout Ursula's ever-changing lives is her family.  If the changing nature of her various lives unfolds with purpose and toward a single end, it is driven by a love for them.

(As a side note, I can't remember reading a book that so thoroughly documents the horrors of civilian life in London during the Blitz.  Ursula's various lives cast her in various roles during World War II, roles that allow us to experience the intermingling of fear and courage exhibited by the citizens of that city to the fullest.)

There are similarities to Life After Life in The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Lives don't re-start in Wolitzer's novel, but we do see how uncertain the direction of our lives can be and how one act -- large or small -- can determine the path we go down.

The Interestings is the story of six teenagers who meet at a summer camp for the arts.  Without the least irony, they proclaim themselves the Interestings, so convinced are they that they are interesting and certain to live interesting lives.

Yet their lives unfold in unexpected ways.  One enjoys great professional success and the riches that success brings. Another, while still a teenager, must flee the country to evade prosecution for rape. The others' lives fall between those extremes.

The Interestings is about regret, about the road Frost evokes -- the one taken and the one not taken -- and it is about learning to accept the hand we're dealt, an acceptance that never comes easily, if at all.

With The Interestings, Wolitzer vaults into the upper ranks of American writers. Here is the book that Jonathan Franzen wanted to write.  Closely observed, wry and insightful, its characters treated with compassion and unsparing honesty, The Interestings is the most powerful, accurate and evocative commentary on American life to emerge in years.  


I found something jarring about Mark Spragg's prose in The Fruit of Stone. It felt too stately, too mannered, to tell this story of two long-time Wyoming friends in pursuit of the woman they love.  The story of loss and love needed a gritter tone than Spragg's supplies.

The Spring, 2013, edition of The Paris Review is a rich and rewarding read. 

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Quick takes on recent reading

Book 45:  The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists from Granta

Compliments to Granta, a British literary journal, for its Winter, 2012, issue featuring The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists.

Wish I could recommend the issue, I can't. Maybe its cultural. Maybe its the translations. Perhaps its me.  Whatever the reason, few of the stories featured here left much an impression.

Among the best of the short stories was Still Life by Vinicius Jatoba.

Book 46: Interventions by Richard Russo

Interventions, three stories and a novella, by Richard Russo is notable for form and content.

Russo and his daughter, the artist Kate Russo, designed the this book, which is actually four small paperbacks in a slipcase, as a tribute to the printed book. A color print of a Kate Russo painting is bound into each volume.

This is the first publication for the novella, Interventions.  Both short stories have been previously published; Horseman in The Atlantic and The Whore's Child in Russo's short story collection of the same name. High and Dry, which sees first publication here, later appeared again in Russo's memoir, Elsewhere

The short stories and novella are well-written pieces and Interventions is a lovely addition to any collector's bookshelves.

Book 49: The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

I disliked this novel from Lynn Coady, which is meant to represent a series of angry emails from one college chum to another.  

Because the text doesn't read like an email or resemble an email, the reader never accepts the author's initial premise. Combine that with a thoroughly unlikeable narrator and this book is a massive dud.

Book 50: Paris Review Winter 2012

If you can still find a copy of this literary journal at your local newsstand pick it up. From the interviews to the short stories, it is a rich and rewarding read.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Eisner and Simon: giants of the comic book business

A biography and autobiography of two giants of the comic book business.

Book 43: Will Eisner, A Dreamer’s Life in Comics by Michael Shumacher
Book 48:  Joe Simon, My Life In Comics by Joe Simon

It's was once said that only two men in the comic book business could read a contract -- Will Eisner and Joe Simon.

That's significant for two reasons. Both men retained control over their creations, while so many others signed over their rights for a mess of pottage. And both men had lucrative careers, receiving full value for their artistry and their imagination.

While still in his 20s, Eisner launched his own studio. Such respected artists as Lou Fine, Reed Crandall and Jack Kirby worked in the bullpen Eisner assembled.

Eisner had a hand in creating Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Blackhawk, Doll Man, Uncle Sam, The Ray and Black Condor. Yet he didn't especially care for superheroes, which led to the creation of his most famous character, The Spirit.

The Spirit was Denny Colt, who was something of anti-superhero. Denny, a former cop, lived in a graveyard. He wore a mask, but also a suit, tie and fedora.  The Spirit was notable for its mood-setting splash pages, femme fatales and inventive storylines. 

Eisner always believed the comic book format of text and sequential art could be written to appeal to adults.  It simply required more mature subject matter. That belief led Eisner to write and illustrate A Contract With God, which explored a man's loss of faith after the death of his adopted daughter. It was among the earliest graphic novels. Others followed.

Simon started his career drawing illustrations for newspapers.  Harlan Crandall, art editor for Macfadden Publications, which published slick publications like Photoplay, True Romances and True Detectives, saw something in Simon's work and steered him into comic books.

Simon soon teamed with Jacob Kurtzberg, who later changed his name to Jack Kirby.  Together, they created one of comics best known, best loved and most enduring characters -- Captain America.

Later, just because they could, Simon and Kirby created Young Romance, the first romance comic. Their prolific partnership also led to the Newsboy Legion, Manhunter and Boy Commandos. 

Michael Schumacher's biography of Eisner is superbly done.  A clear sense of Eisner as a man and an artist emerges. Schumacher also ably explains Eisner's importance to the industry, especially his influence on a generation of artist.

Simon's autobiography is breezy, fresh. The man's love for his work bursts from the pages.  

Eisner and Simon influenced generations of artists, as well as writers and readers.  It's not an exaggeration to say that the comics and graphic novels we read today, the movies and TV shows we watch, have their roots in the pencilings and fertile imaginations of these two men.

Will Eisner, A Dreamer's Life in Comics and Joe Simon My Life in Comics are foundational works for anyone wanting to understand the nascent comic book business and how we arrived at where we are today.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Haruf and Shipstead: authors in command of their craft

Two wise and insightful novels that explore the interaction of families within closely knit communities.

Book 42: Benediction by Kent Haruf

As in two earlier novels, Plainsong and Eventide, Kent Haruf's Benediction is set in the small town of Holt on the high plains of eastern Colorado.

As the novel opens, Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store, learns he is dying of cancer.

Against the backdrop of Dad's rapidly approaching death, Haruf examines the rhythms of life in a small town with its closely observed -- but unspoken -- rituals.

Among those rituals are visits to the dying.  It is in those visits that we meet most of the book's characters.

There is Dad's wife of many years; his daughter, who has made the drive from Denver to provide care and comfort in her father's final days; and, off-stage, Dad's long-absent son, alienated from his father because of his homosexuality.

A neighbor provides food, support for Dad's wife and keeps unwanted visitors at bay. Her young granddaughter, Alice, who recently lost her own mother to cancer, is a counterpoint to Dad. She is a little frightened of him. He is drawn to her innocence and fullness of life.

Other visitors include an elderly farm woman and her daughter, recently retired from teaching; a disaffected pastor; and two employees of the hardware store.

No matter how briefly each character appears they are finely drawn, distinct individuals. It is one of Haruf's strengths as a writer to draw accurate portrayals with only a few well-chosen words.

He also handles this material wisely, deftly, with great respect, warmth and affection for his characters and for the town of Holt.

This tender, warm-hearted novel is a bittersweet benediction and a celebration of a small town and its people.

Book 44: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

The characters in Maggie Shipstead's comedy of manners, Seating Arrangements, do not fare as well as Haruf's.

They are self-centered, small-minded, petty snobs who would be eminently unlikable if Shipstead did not handle her material with such humor and skill.

As one character observes she "had almost forgotten how these families worked, how they were set up to accommodate feigned ignorance, unspoken resentment, and repressed passion the way their houses had back stairways and rooms tucked away behind the kitchen for the feudal ghosts of their ancestors' servants."

The family in question belongs to Winn Van Meter. Winn, his wife and two daughters have gathered at their ancient family retreat on the New England island of Waskeke.  There, Winn's eldest daughter is to be married.

Winn's is less focused on the wedding than he is the public knowledge of his youngest daughter's abortion, the sexual advances of a bridesmaid less than half his age and his inability to be admitted to a private golf course on Waskeke.

The knowledge that he may have been blackballed from the golf club truly rankles Winn.

Seating Arrangements is one of those novels that invites readers to quote passages to hapless bystanders.

Here's one:

"You ought to go to law school," Oatsie said decisively. "You'd make a wonderful lawyer. You have beautiful hair." 
"Thank you," Livia said. When she was old, she wanted to be like Oatsie: imperious, brusque, and given to non sequitur.

And another:

"It's so cold in this restaurant. I don't know why you chose it." 
"I didn't choose it," Winn said. "Dicky and Maude did." 
"They wouldn't have. They know I don't care for the cold." 
"Maybe," Winn offered, "you're feeling the chill of approaching death." 
She gave him a long, gloomy squint. "This family is falling into the middle class," she said.
The humor -- and there's lots of it -- arises naturally from the material, although Shipstead doesn't play it all for laughs. She's an insightful writer and her close observations of the manners and mores of the upper class are reminiscent of the work of Edith Wharton.

The characters in Seating Arrangements and Benediction come from vastly different worlds, but they have in common authors who employ an eye for detail, a keen understanding of human behavior and a command of their craft.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Don't let the Ghostman vanish

Book 41: Ghostman by Roger Hobbs

Ghostman is a promising debut thriller from Roger Hobbs.

When a casino heist in Atlantic City goes awry, the crime boss who ordered the robbery calls Jack Delton.  Jack, who is something of a criminal's criminal, is told find the missing money and that favor you owe me goes away.

The favor arises from a botched heist years earlier in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Jack made a mistake and while he escaped, most of the crew didn't. What's worse, the money was left behind.

Now he can square his debts if he can tiptoe a fine and deadly line between two warring crime bosses and the FBI.

Ghostman, a name that Jack awarded himself because of skill at disappearing, is rich with detail.  There is, for example, an impressive passage on federal payload, how the Federal Reserve transport millions in cash. The money is scanned, vacuum packed and bundled into a 60-ton pallet of fresh $100 bills.

That's a tempting payload for any crook.

The catch, according to Jack, is that "the federal payload is essentially an ink bomb placed in all the money that comes out of Washington. Every couple of hundred bills , there's a very thin, almost undetectable, explosive device."

And the device has three parts: a packet of indelible ink, a battery that doubles as an explosive charge and a GPS locator that acts as a trigger. The pallet of money is kept on an electromagnetic plate. Remove the money from the plate and the batteries embedded in the money start to drain. 

"If the batteries run out, the cash blows up. If the cellophane gets cut open prematurely, the cash blows up. If the GPS locator hooks up with the wrong satellite," Jack explains, "the cash blows up."

And if the cash blows up before Jack recovers it, he can't square his debts.

Whether that explanation of the federal payload is accurate or merely the product of Roger Hobbs' fertile imagination, it sets up an intriguing story line that pits Jack against two sets of bad guys, the law, and the clock.

The entire book is rich with such explanations of criminal operations.  

Perhaps Hobbs, who looks like a teenager in the author's photograph on the jacket of the book, has a great imagination. Perhaps, in his brief life, he's had a past career as a master criminal. 

Whatever the case, Ghostman is a first-class debut. 

If  Hobbs doesn't vanish as easily as Jack Delton  -- and I think the success of this first novel guarantees he won't -- I'm ready to add Hobbs' future books to my must-be-read-immediately pile.