Sunday, December 27, 2009

Many happy returns of the holiday season to one and all! Also Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

I've had a lovely quiet Christmas at casa Bani, and my beloved husband gave me two books: Annie Proulx's Fine Just The Way It Is and another called Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald. Very excited obviously by the former, but actually almost as excited by the latter, since it may turn out to be quite a find if the cover quotes live up to what they promise. I've never heard of the woman, but it seems promising. It's very sweet of him, and here's me only after getting him a box of chocs and running trousers (that turned out to be too big). The shame.

Fittingly I shall conclude by writing about another gift, one of the books my cousin sent me for my birthday, namely Raymond Carver's collection of short stories. Reading up a bit on Carver on Wikipedia (can't be bothered to link now because I'm at work and the computer is soooo slow) I learned that there are apparently two versions of this collection, or at least of many of the stories in it; one being a sort of author's cut since he was unhappy with his editor's heavy editing. It would be interesting to read Carver's preferred version some time. A quote from the Times Literary Supplement on the back cover calls the stories "brilliant shards", and that is an excellent description - they are short, often only describing the centre of something much longer, so you are left to imagine what led up to it and what might follow and why it happened, and they feel as translucent and brittle as glass shards too. I liked some better than others, as is always the case, but in general the whole is still one of the best books I've read. I think the first one, Why Don't You Dance? might be my favourite. It stuck with me most. Very much recommended.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sara Gran: Dope

What. A. Find. Stumbled across it, and borrowed it thanks to the endorsements on the back cover. Kate Atkinson says that it's "a perfect noir pastiche but with a life and character all its own." Lee Child says that "If Raymond Chandler knew then what we know now, he might have written a book like this. Highly recommended." Someone called Robert Rayner says it's "A thrilling, heartbreaking journey through the heroin underbelly of 1950s New York. I was more than hooked. I was blown away." And Robert B Parker (whoever he is) says that it's "Tight and polished and exquisitely crafted."

All these statements are true. It's a really intelligent and moving little novel, about a former heroin addict and small-time criminal who thinks she's gotten her big break when she's hired to find a rich man's daughter. The daughter has become a "dope fiend" and since Josephine Flannigan knows the world of the dope fiends she has been suggested as the best detective. While Joe starts digging she discovers that the job isn't as clearcut as she'd thought, and that the past will always catch up with you. It's definitely noir, but with an edge that makes it anything but parody, it's beautifully sad and heartbreakingly dirty. Loved it. I'm definitely reading Sara Gran's other books - and on her website you can read the first two chapters of Dope if you want to see how good it is.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Some things I've thought about

I read about a Swedish woman caught smuggling cocaine in Brasil, who was sentenced to community service. Apart from working one hour a day in some sort of rehab clinic, she is to spend her time reading Selma Lagerlöf and Harry Martinsson in the court's library, and then present some sort of essay or something to the judge.

There are worse ways to spend three years, I hope she enjoys the literature and profits from her studies.

I think if I do another crime fiction splurge (I think this one is almost over) I want to read books set in Uppsala. There's some sort of exhibition thingy at the library so I picked up a leaflet with reading tips. The leaflet was put together by the former librarian and author Thomas Brylla, who sadly died a little while ago. I have to say that I once read one of Brylla's own detective stories and hated it, but I'd gladly honour his memory by reading one of his favourite genres like this. Of course, Kjell Eriksson is worth it, and so is Kerstin Ekman (she only wrote one book set here though). As for the rest, we'll see.

First I might maybe maybe indulge in something that is apparently called skämslitteratur - that is, books you're ashamed to own/have read. Namely, Jean M Auel. I never did read that last one. I think I want to. When I was a teen I read the sexy bits, obviously, now I enjoy the parts where she describes how they make stuff, and stuff. I'm honestly not ashamed to have read Auel, but possibly a little hesitant to own the influence the books had on me there for a while...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Amanda Cross: Honest Doubt

Now, I like Amanda Cross. So obviously I was delighted to see a Cross I hadn't read on the shelf and immediately brought it home. Last time I read one of her books was in February 2006, and I've had her simmering on the back burner of my brain since, hoping to come across a new one. This is why my disappointment in Honest Doubt is so acute. I didn't enjoy it at all. And I hate that I didn't. [cue violins and sobs]

It's a very recent book, from 2000, and therefore feels slightly anachronistic. My last forays into the world of Kate Fansler were set in the mid-eighties, and this book has that air of really being set in an earlier time, just not. This is the same problem that P.D. James has sometimes, as I've said. Unlike the other Crosses I've read it's not written from Kate's perspective, but as a first person narrative of a private detective known as Woody, who has been hired to solve the murder of a much disliked, mysogynistic college professor who specialised in Tennyson. (Hey, that was a long sentence!) Woody, for some reason that just feels contrived, needs some expert insight into the workings of an English department, so is recommended Kate as a sort of consultant. So from here the story potters on. Woody interviews suspects, on her own or with a local policeman who is very helpful. She is baffled by the intricate mysterious workings of both the department itself and those intelligent academics who talk and talk about academic things until she gets confused and only realises later that she's been distracted. It's just very unrealistic, and has a very uncomfortable air of an academic trying to blow her own trumpet. Unlike! It all ends with Agatha Christie playing a part in solving it all. 

I dunno. Was rather bored to be honest. Of course, I'll read anything else I can find - goes without saying. I've not given up on her.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Marian Keyes: This Charming Man

Okay, not crime fiction. But there are crimes in it.

My soft spot for Marian Keyes continues to be pokeable. As soon as I saw this I nabbed it - and I was the first reader, too! The first to crack the spine. That makes two in one library trip. Almost as good as buying new books!

It's a real brick of a book, must be her thickest yet, and tells the story of three women - well, four really, but the fourth is more minor - who have had a relationship with a politician called Paddy de Courcy. They each get their own section: stylist Lola's is written in the sort of diary style made popular by Bridget Jones, journalist Grace's and her twin sister Marnie's are more traditional narratives (can't remember now if one was first person, don't have the book here and really not important). Interspersed are short paragraphs describing an abusive episode, with no names mentioned. As the book unfolds we find out which woman was being beaten and by whom. The first woman to have her say is Lola, and after ten pages or so I started worrying that the whole book would be in this style, because it's rather tiresome to read. Diary type books are fundamentally flawed, because surely no-one ever writes diaries like that. You don't abbreviate in absurdum yet relate dialogue, you just don't. Like I said, I don't have the book here, but a passage could go something like this:

"Why you here, Dermot" I asked.

"Am here for film night, Lola" replied.

"No film night, Dermot. Have done away with film night. Am tired. Want sleep."

You see my point? I was a bit relieved when the point of view changed to Grace's. However, Lola's parts are needed, because they provide the comic relief necessary between the heavier parts that are Marnie's alcoholism and Grace's worries on that subject (and other things). The Lola bits do feel more "traditional" Keyes, more in her light-hearted style.

The book has a theme subject, and that is abuse of women. All the women have been abused. Your first guess at who the culprit is is probably correct, but it's a bit more clever than that: there are little hints dropped to make you wonder if more of the men featured in the book are sadists, and if you're first assessment of the situation was wrong. It's painted with a broad brush, admittedly, but nevertheless it's well done, because that is what women often face - a perfectly normal-seeming man who isn't.

The "charming man" referred to in the title really isn't, in my opinion, and that is a flaw. There's no way it seems believable that anyone would ever fall for that sleaze, frankly. Charm does work better in person. But I liked the book, several bits were very funny indeed if you know Ireland at all, and the abuse parts made the laughter stick in your throat. As usual the descriptions of an alcoholic sinking way down are fantastic. Marian Keyes may write books with neatly tied up and happy endings, but the fact that she has been through hell always shows. It's never completely rosy and she knows first-hand about the dark side.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

2 x Lee Child

Lee Child was recommended to me by a former colleague, and I didn't have high hopes at all because said collegue also likes Camilla Läckberg, and I was flipping through one of her books that he'd brought to work and oh no, is that a waste of space. But I'm running out of stuff to read on my crime extravaganza, not to mention that I'm getting plain bored with it - see how I've evolved? I want real literature! - so am a bit choosy. But I decided to give Child a try, and got the two books that the library had (in English). They happen to be the two last ones in the series, no. 12 and 13. By chance I also read them in the right order, not that it matters much with this series.

Child's hero is a former military called Jack Reacher, who left the army and is now a vagrant, by choice. If you read that link you find out everything about him, which frankly spoils the books. I've now read the two last ones, and don't know that much. This is a Good Thing, because it's one of Child's strengths as an author - he doesn't feel the need to repeat stuff he's already written about. He can be repetitive in other ways, but he doesn't for example explain in every book exactly why Reacher left the military, why he has money (it's enough for him to choose to never do laundry, but instead just buy new clothes when needed, and to leave quite generous tips), why he drifts. I'm kind of wanting to read the link now, but kind of not. If I come across more of these books I'd read them, and then discover more as I go along. It's a bit of a novelty in this type of fiction to be presumed intelligent enough to follow a plot without having all the background information shoved in my face.

So among the bits I know about Reacher is that he's had a career in the army, as a Military Police. He's been around the world, has been injured several times. He's had some sort of disenchantment with the military, so that's probably why he left, I don't think he was kicked out. He now roams the US and comes across crimes or odd situations which he decided to solve or fix or change, like a one-man hurricane. He's a big man who just plunges into fights and wins. Reading the first book I was quite hooked. You just get flung into the story, and Reacher ploughs through to the end. However, reading the second I could see where he repeats himself (another attractive female police officer that Reacher has sex with for example), so it got a bit less interesting. Plus there were more things that annoyed me in that book, more on that below. There are a few inconsistencies: in Nothing to Lose Reacher comments on all the cups of coffee he drinks - a good brew, a nice cup, but in Gone Tomorrow he says that he doesn't care what the coffee is like really, it's just about the caffeine.

So in summary, much more entertaining reads than I'd thought, but not unflawed.

Nothing to Lose: Reacher is hitch-hiking, and has plotted out a course he wants to follow, a course that takes him through the town of Despair. To his surprise the townspeople act like something out of the Wild West, are openly hostile and kick him out. He goes back to the sister town of Hope and starts looking into what the problem is in Despair, enlisting the help of the sheriff (female, attractive - etc.). I was, as I said, very pleasantly surprised. A good thriller.The red heifer is mentioned, btw.

Gone Tomorrow has Reacher in New York, where he notices a woman on the subway displaying all the signs of a suicide bomber. When he tries to talk to her she kills herself. This drags Reacher into a post-9/11 mess, where he is questioned and detained without his rights. He teams up with the dead woman's brother and an attractive female police officer (natch), and tries to find out why she died. I was more annoyed with this book, because despite it being quite critical of the Terrorism Act and in general of the post 9/11 paranoia, the general conclusion seems to be that the Afghani mujaheddin became Taliban or Al Qaeda, are very viscious and cruel - not to mention a bit crazy - and to sum up the whole thing feels more than a little speculative. Meh.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Charlaine Harris: From Dead to Worse

Let me reassure you that I didn't go from Herta Müller to Sookie Stackhouse - no no, I don't think that would have been bearable. I read this a while ago, actually. I saw it in the library and couldn't help myself - seems like I have a compulsion to read one of each heroine, so since I haven't read an Aurora Teagarden it ain't over yet. But it really is - to me! - hardly readable. And what makes it sour is that, like I said, the books could be so much better if better editor and given more time. Charlaine Harris is, according to this interview, a rape survivor herself, and one does get that shot of true feelings being tapped into here and there. But without better flow to the stories it's just mediocre. Which makes me sad, I want to like her. She seems like a nice person. But so far the most I've gotten out of her books is finding out (via the interview via her website)that Elaine Viets has a pair of custom-made vampire fangs that she uses instead of a gun or pepper spray to deter unwanted attention. How wonderful is that?

This one is about... um... Sookie's brother has marital problems, the werecreatures have some sort of power struggle and vampires from Las Vegas move in and take over the vampire community. I think that's most of it. Wow, she packs in a lot of blood and sex. But she's not the greatest at it that I've come across. Quite interesting though how Sookie is church-going Methodist (or Baptist?) yet has carnal relations very freely and is all into supernatural things and world. Oh, and this isn't the first book, it's the second-to-last one, so one isn't exactly slowly lulled into the alternative universe here. It's full on fantasy supernatural political summaries from page one, and I almost laughed out loud thinking what Nick Hornby would have made of it. Vampire queens, werecreatures and synthetic blood, all in earnest. Ha.