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. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Tiger's Wife as good as advertised

Book 38: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

I can admit I was wrong. I just don't like to do so.

I missed The Tiger's Wife when it was released to much acclaim in 2011. And, as the months went by, I became increasingly skeptical that the book could be as good as so many critics and readers insisted it was.

After all, the author, Serbian-born Tea Obreht, was only in her mid 20s when the book -- her first -- made its debut. What could she know? About life or writing books?

The Tiger's Wife was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Orange Prize -- making Obreht the youngest author ever to win the prestigious award. She was also named one of The New Yorker's 20 under 40.

Still, I wasn't convinced, and then I read the book.  

I was wrong. Very wrong. The Tiger's Wife is not good. It's great.

Obreht combines magical realism and folklore with a gritty realism as a young doctor shares the story of her grandfather's life and her relationship with him.  The story, set in an unnamed Balkan country, encompasses both the present and the past of her grandfather's childhood.

Obreht's narrator seeks to understand her grandfather, and their relationship, through the stories he told her. Stories of a "deathless man" whom the grandfather meets on several occasions in his life and of a young woman from the grandfather's village, a deaf mute, who befriends a tiger escaped from a zoo.

The Tiger's Wife is about how we use stories to shape the narrative of our lives.  And about how those stories may be passed from generation to generation, instilling our lives with purpose and meaning. And it is also about how we can come to understand both others and ourselves through the stories that are important to us.

The Tiger's Wife is a singular work of beauty and power.

Book 40: The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

Like The Tiger's Wife, The Death of Bees is a first novel.  That's about the only quality these two books share.

The Death of Bees is hugely disappointing. It is the story of two sisters who have buried their parents in the backyard.  It's not immediately clear how the parents died, although that mystery is resolved in the course of the story.

The sisters are in in their early teens and conceal their parents' deaths so they can remain together.

It is in constructing the characters of the sisters that O'Donnell fails badly. 

One sister, the oldest, is a caricature. She's a slag -- a free-spirited, promiscuous girl -- who rejects authority. Did I mention that she's very smart? She doesn't even need to study to get good grades. And, really, she has a heart of gold.

The youngest sister is weird. People think she's simple, although she's not. She merely chooses to talk like a character from a penny dreadful.

One character we've seen a thousand times before. The other character is just unbelievable.  The result is that the reader never cares about either sister or the resolution of this dismal novel.

The Tiger's Wife is that good. The Death of Bees is that bad.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gaiman's return to Marvel Comics prompts a new look at the ground-breaking 1602

Book 39: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman

The announcement that Neil Gaiman is returning to Marvel Comics with all his considerable talents seems an appropriate time to revisit 1602. (That, and the fact that I recently stumbled upon a lovely first printing of the hardcover in a local bookstore.)

First issued in 2003 as an eight-part comic book series, 1602 was a groundbreaking work boldly re-imagining Marvel's Silver Age heroes in a 17th Century setting. It featured Gaiman's writing and the art of Andy Kubert (Joe's youngest son).

I didn't like 1602 when it first appeared. I read the first four issues of the series, but never completed it until this month.  

I now admit that I erred in my initial judgment of Gaiman's work.  Then I found the re-casting of the Marvel characters that I knew so well off-putting. Now, I find the series, and its fresh look at the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Daredevil, Doctor Strange and other Marvel greats, to be a work of brilliant re-invention.

In 1602, freed from the constraints of our time and of Marvel continuity, Gaiman reveals the essence of these characters we know so well. My favorites include:

  • Nick Fury, head of the Queen's security, is a dark, restless, furtive figure, a manipulative man, foreshadowing the Fury we know, first, as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and later as the shadowy rebel leader of Secret Invasion, Dark Reign and Secret Warriors,
  • Matt Murdock as a blind Irish troubadour in Fury's service, carefree and fearless, 
  • The Angel as a gaunt, ethereal youth longing for the freedom of the skies,
  • and a wolfish Magneto hiding his own agenda behind the robes of a torturer for the Inquisition.

Perhaps the most brilliant re-casting is Steve Rogers, Captain America, as a blonde-haired, taciturn Native American, who moves through the narrative as an enigma and the ultimate key to resolving the dangers that threaten to destroy the England of 1602.

Kubert's art is the perfect accompaniment to Gaiman's narrative. 

Together the two men have produced an inventive work that casts these beloved characters in original roles, yet which preserves and celebrates the essence that has made them enduring figures for more than a half-century.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Macfarlane's The Old Ways celebrates the joy, the romance of walking

Book 37: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

The word “ways” in the title of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot carries two meanings with it.

There is the obvious meaning of “ways” as “the course traveled,” a path, route or road.

There is also “ways” as in the “method, style, or manner of doing something.” A meaning clearly intended by Macfarlane whose book is a joyous, romantic ode to walking past and present.

Macfarlane writes about his travels on foot in England and Europe in The Old Ways. He also evokes the writings and perambulations of walkers long past.

For me, he is particularly compelling when he writes of two paths; one I hope to travel and one that I have travelled.

The track I hope to travel is on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. This remote outpost first came to my attention, only a few months ago, through the mysteries of Peter May.

It is clear from the writings of both men that Lewis is bleak, yet beautiful.

A thatched cottage in Amberley.
The second path Macfarlane travels that resonates with me is the South Downs Way, an ancient trade route that stretches 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne on the English Channel. I walked the Downs a few years ago during a span of nine days. It was an incredible experience, challenging and rewarding.

It is thrilling when a passage in The Old Ways refers to the village of Amberley in West Sussex because I have been there too. The bed and breakfast where I lodged was a beautiful home owned by a generous, Corgi-loving couple. I ate dinner in the local pub, The Black Horse, which is the center of village life.

To me, Amberley remains the very image of an English village.

America has nothing like the footpaths that crisscross England. There you may find yourself walking through a farmstead, only yards from the landowner’s home; crossing the edge of a field of oilseed rape or barley; or rambling through a pasture, softer than most carpets, to the curious gaze of grazing sheep.

The Old Ways is a dangerous book for its romantic portrayal of the joys of walking tempts the reader to set aside his book, lace up his shoes and head outdoors in search of a path, old or new.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Harrison and Crace in top form in new works

New books from two writers I greatly enjoy.

Book 35: The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison

Recently, in a post on Goodreads, a woman expressed her dislike for Jim Harrison's writing. She couldn't understand his appeal as a novelist.

And that I understand. Harrison, an important American writer with an impressive body of work, isn't to every reader's taste.

I started reading Harrison more than two decades ago.  He was writing a monthly column for Esquire.  It was about hunting and fishing, food and the outdoor life. I wasn't interested in hunting and fishing -- I'm still not -- but something in Harrison's work spoke to me. It wasn't long before I started reading his novels, novellas, poetry and short stories. I haven't stopped yet.

The River Swimmer is comprised of two novellas that are exactly the sort of stories I have come to expect from Harrison.  He has always been a writer attempting to define the role of men in today's society. He's interested in fine food and the arts, the outdoors -- both in embracing the grandeur of nature and in subduing the wilderness, in the physicality of man and, more and more recently, mortality.

All these elements are present in the novellas, The Land of Unlikeness and The River Swimmers. 

The stories are bookends. In The Land of Unlikeness, Clive, a 60-year-old man, struggles with the physical decline brought on by aging and the failure of his youthful dreams to be a successful painter. He is tormented, too, by the nearby presence of a woman he loved and lusted after as a teenager.

The protagonist in The River Swimmer is Clive's polar opposite. Thad is still in his teens. A virile young man who attracts women like flames attract moths and who swims vast distances almost effortlessly. 

Magical realism, which appears occasionally in Harrison's work, haunts this story. There is almost a mythical quality to Thad's attraction to water and his uncanny abilities as a swimmer. He also sees strange, other-wordly creatures in the river near his home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Like Clive, Thad is contending with changes that portend a new direction in his life; something he both embraces and fears. The wealth of a rich girl who becomes his lover offers the promise of travel, education and position in society, but he fears a loss of freedom.  

Both characters are on the cusp of unsettling changes: one entering manhood and the other poised on the edge of old age.

Book 36: Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest is a tour de force by the British writer Jim Crace.  A fable about the destruction of a remote English village, it doesn't carry much of a message, but it is a highly enjoyable read.

Twin columns of smoke signal the beginning of the ruin that is to come. One column signals the arrival of three newcomers, staking their claim to a plot of land. The second arises from a fire in the Master's hayloft and stable.

That unfortunate fire is the first step in the systematic dismantling of the village, which is riven by secrets, distrust and change.

The story, which unfolds over the course of seven days, is told by Walter Thirsk. Once the Master's man, he married a village woman. Although he labored alongside the villagers for years, Walter comes to realize that he was always an outsider.

Walter is an unreliable narrator.  He presents himself in the best possible light in every account he puts forward, yet questions about his true role in the village's destruction linger.

Crace is a masterful writer.  In Harvest, his command of tone and setting, and his understanding of human nature weave a compelling tale of cruelty and self-interest.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Two story collections shine; one falls short

Book 31: Tenth of December by George Saunders
Book 32: The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Book 33: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Three story collections; two of recent note.

On its front page, The New York Times Magazine proclaims George Saunders' Tenth of December "the best book you will read this year."

Hyperbole, perhaps, but than again maybe not.  This is a wonderful collection brimming with stories that are quirky, provocative, humorous and deeply humane. 

My favorite is the title story, Tenth of December, a tender story in which a fat little boy with an overactive imagination sets out to save a man determined to take his own life. In a bit of turnabout, it's the little boy who needs rescued.

And yet in the very act of being rescued he becomes the rescuer as a man confronting his own mortality grasps the value of small kindnesses and the richness of life.

This is a story that is better -- richer -- with each reading.

Saunders' stories, which can approach the bizarre, are like no other story collection I can recall. Prospective readers may view that as a warning or an invitation, or a little of both.

Ann Beattie's The New Yorker Stories is a fat collection of short stories that appeared in the pages of The New Yorker between April, 1974, and November, 2006.

Beattie is a commanding writer and these stories -- very much in the vein of Alice Munro or William Trevor -- are stunningly good.  Beattie's ability to reveal a depth and clarity of emotional insight from a brief scene or passing encounter is unmatched.

In only a few brief pages, from some modest moment in a person's life, Beattie delivers something powerful and true and incredibly more vast than the canvass upon which she works.

It saddens me, somewhat, but I like Karen Russell much more than her writing.

As an individual, I find her funny and bright and warm. For me, those qualities are not found in her writing.  

I approached Vampires in the Lemon Grove much as I approached George Saunder's Tenth of December. I knew the stories here would be very different from what anyone else was writing -- eerie, disconcerting, strange.

I found those ingredients, but what I didn't find were stories that tapped some deeper vein of understanding or insight. I truly struggled, at times, to understand what Russell, the writer, was trying to achieve.

I will applaud, with enthusiasm, her story, Proving Up.  Here, in this story set on the Nebraska plains, she she skillfully takes a story in the most unexpected direction and displays a deft hand at evoking horror from the quotidian.