musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Here is a roundup of some of the books that I’ve finished reading in the past month or two. They run the gamut from old familiar authors and crime fiction to a few new authors (new for me, at any rate), plus some non-fiction to break up my crime-centric reading habits.

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Lloyd Jones – Mister Pip

This novel was recommended by a friend a few years ago, but I only recently got around to reading it. Wow! This is an amazing little novel, one of the best that I’ve read in recent years. This novel is both a love letter to “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, and the powerful, uplifting story of a young girl living on a remote island country torn apart by civil war. “Mister Pip” refers to the character in the Dickens novel, but it also ends up as a reference to young Matilda’s eccentric yet inspiring teacher, Mr. Watts, the lone white man living in her village. The book has more than its share of funny, lovely, and tender moments, but before its conclusion the reader is also confronted with tragic and horrific passages. In the end, however, this book is a triumph, showcasing the magic and power of a good teacher and that of a good book, and more importantly the power of believing in yourself. Highly recommended.

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David Baldacci – The Camel Club

I thought it was about time that I read a book by Baldacci, seeing as how he is so popular nowadays. What’s all the fuss about, I wondered? “Baldacci is a master at building suspense … will leave readers breathless” raved a review in Booklist. Another blurb on the back cover of the paperback edition of this novel tells us that “David Baldacci is one of the world’s favorite storytellers.” Well, I read this book, and I’m still puzzled. Baldacci may indeed qualify as an entertaining storyteller, it’s just unfortunate that he’s not a better writer. Judging from this book, his writing skills are mediocre at best. His prose is bland and unimaginative, and the characters don’t quite gel. The simplistic tone of this novel felt like something geared towards middle school readers. And yet this guy is one of the most popular writers around, selling millions of books. Not an author that I plan to read again.

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Francis Wheen – How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

This is basically a collection of essays in which Wheen deftly critiques the “retreat of reason” we’ve witnessed in the past several decades, particularly in areas such as politics. This is an engaging and stimulating book, but some parts get bit “too deep” and plodding, or at least overly intellectual as to tax my simple brain. But overall this is a very thought provoking, and often very funny book. I especially enjoyed Wheen’s skewering of “Self-Help” and Motivational hucksters — you know the ones; those “visionary” types who write best-selling books on how to transform your life or become filthy rich. Wheen also offers entertaining insights on the double-speak practiced by so many politicians, and accounts of “great leaders” who rely on astrology and religious beliefs for guidance and decision-making. Scary indeed. Wheen’s total demystification of the bizarrely beloved Princess Diana is also a highlight. Well worth reading.

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Ben Fong-Torres – Hickory Wind: The Life & Times of Gram Parsons  

If you don’t know the name, Gram Parsons was a very influential musician, one who pioneered the fusion of country music and rock. He was the leader of the Flying Burrito Brothers and also briefly a member of The Byrds. He also recorded with the Rolling Stones (and did his share of drugs with them too) and Emmylou Harris. It also helped cement his legendary status by dying young, at the age of 26 (watch out for those morphine and alcohol cocktails!), a bizarre incident compounded when one of his buddies stole his body from the funeral home and set fire to it in the desert near the Joshua Tree Park. This biography by veteran Rolling Stone magazine writer Ben Fong-Torres covers all the Parsons bases, from Gram’s childhood in Waycross, Georgia and the citrus groves of Winter Haven, Florida (my old neck of the woods), to his various musical projects. While fairly comprehensive, I don’t think it properly conveys how influential Parsons was, nor tells us why his music appealed to some many people, both fans and fellow musicians. Nevertheless, it’s a good introduction to a talented musician.

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Ed McBain – Like Love

McBain was one of the absolute masters of crime fiction and this 1962 novel is one of the best of his early 87th Precinct episodes. A bit of the dialogue is dated (but delightfully so, in my opinion; I love sentences like “Don’t get sore at me!”), but for the most part the story holds up very well. Once again, we are entertained by the dependable cast of Detectives Carella, Hawes, and Meyer Meyer. This is a typical McBain tale that is equal parts funny, sad, heart-breaking, and joyful.

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George V. Higgins – The Friends of Eddie Coyle

File this book under the “I just don’t get it” category. Higgins was a highly revered writer who has influenced many other writers of crime fiction. Most reviews remark on his brilliant use of dialogue. Well, okay, the guy DOES have a flair for writing realistic dialogue, but this novel consists of about 95% dialogue, much of it just people running their mouths, yapping about things that don’t have much relevance to the plot. Guns, banks, guns, stickups, and more guns. Frankly, I found the whole thing tedious. A true master of dialogue, such as Elmore Leonard, would have used a fraction of what Higgins throws at the reader. From my perspective, this whole story was pointless.  

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David Ellis – Breach of Trust

I’ve become of a big fan of David Ellis’ books recently, particularly the engaging Jason Kolarich series. I’ve read two other books in that series, but belatedly got around to reading this one, the first of the bunch. I’m very impressed with Ellis’ writing style and this novel doesn’t disappoint, packed with both creepy and caring characters, and plenty of intrigue and suspense. You can read a synopsis of the novel elsewhere, but suffice to say, it has plenty of twists and turns. Ellis had me guessing until the end. Ellis belongs on the top shelf of current mystery and crime authors. Don’t dare call him a “thriller” writer; he’s better than that.

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Daniel Silva – The Defector

I’ve been hooked on Silva’s Gabriel Allon books this year and this is another gripping and absorbing addition to that series. Although well-written and featuring the usual charismatic cast of characters from previous Allon tales, in many ways this is also a very predictable tale with too many clichéd passages. Yes, once again something goes wrong with the planned operation and of course it’s up to Allon to save the day. And you can count one plenty of “last minute” heroics and other timely miracles to ratchet up the suspense. But is all that really necessary? Really, it gets a bit tiring. Silva is a good enough writer that he shouldn’t have to resort to such cheap literary tricks to hold the reader’s interest or to create suspense. Those relatively minor quibbles aside, I enjoyed this novel very much. It also helps to have read “Moscow Rules” before tackling this one, as some of the same participants from that novel make encore appearances in this tale too.

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Kjell Eriksson – The Demon of Dakar

A review in the Globe and Mail called the book “riveting … it’s hard to see how the author could do any better. Eriksson is a gifted storyteller and a great creator or character … terrific.” The New York Times Book Review was even impressed, saying “With Kjell Eriksson, what we find is an extraordinary depth of feeling for honest people caught up in serious crime.” My thoughts: This is a bland, predictable crime tale populated by miserable, unlikeable characters. Horribly dry, bland dialogue does nothing to keep the pages turning. Too often, I suspect, something gets lost in the translation with these Scandinavian writers, and this could be a prime example.

 

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Alex Berenson – The Midnight House

I had never read anything by this author, but he was recommended to me by a customer whose opinion I trust, so I decided to give this one a try. Basically, this novel falls in the spy/espionage genre. It’s brimming with plenty of adventure and interesting characters, although some of the scenarios in the story stretch the bounds of credulity. But I enjoyed this quite a lot and plan to read more books in this series, starring CIA agent John Wells. But I’ll need to go back and start at the beginning of the series; there are apparently three other novels in the series that precede this one and I think I missed too much of the back story by starting with this one.

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