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

Posts tagged ‘Ed McBain’

Crime Always Pays

I’ve been on a reading binge lately, mostly devouring a lot of crime fiction novels. I try to balance out my reading with some non-fiction and what might be called more “serious” novels, but when it comes down to it, crime fiction is usually my main entrée. Here are some short reviews of what I’ve read lately: a few recently published novels, along with older titles from the vaults. Some qualify as traditional mysteries or police procedurals, while others drift into spy and espionage territory. Just don’t dare call them thrillers!

MC-burning

Michael Connelly – The Burning Room

This is another strong entry in Connelly’s beloved Harry Bosch series. I’ve read them all up to this point and I ain’t stopping now. Connelly remains one of the best in the crime fiction business. This time around Bosch is paired with a new partner, a young Hispanic woman who is on the rise in the police department. My favorite part of this book, as in all Connelly novels, is the investigative thread. I enjoy the way that Bosch picks up seemingly random clues and finds something buried in there that turns out to be crucial to the case that he is investigating. Another cool aspect to the Bosch novels is the way the Connelly weaves a music thread into the story. Bosch is a traditional jazz fan and finds that listening to music helps him to maintain a certain “momentum” when investigating a case. At one point in this novel, Bosch puts on a Ron Carter CD, Dear Miles, because he “was looking for rhythm, and Carter’s vibrant bass line leading the quartet would certainly bring it.” My only complaint about this book was the climax to the story. After so much digging and perseverance, not to mention copious amounts of good luck, the ending came much too soon and left me unsatisfied. But, as typical of Connelly, there is a final twist at the very end of the novel that will leave you pondering: what will Bosch do next?

 

Sandford_Deadline

John Sandford – Deadline

I thought that this was one of the better recent entries in Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series of novels set in Minnesota. In all of the other books in this series there was a disclaimer of sorts in the book’s preface, something along the lines of how Sandford wrote the novel in collaboration with a fishing buddy, friend, or someone else. But this time around there is no such notice, so it appears that this novel was written entirely by Sandford with no outside help. Like his novels in the “Prey” series, this is a well-paced story with a few sub-plots amidst all the murders, and this time around some dog-napping. Despite the blood and body count, Virgil’s antics and the witty dialogue keep things on the lighter side. In fact, I thought that this was one of Sandford’s funniest books yet. Yet another strong point to this novel was the cast of interesting if not bizarre characters. I would love to see the likes of Johnson Johnson and young Muddy turn up again in future novels. But of course the star remains “That fuckin’ Flowers”, the goofy but canny investigator who always gets his man — along with a few women. Fans of this series will find this one to be another engaging, page-turning delight.

 

mosley_rosegold

Walter Mosley – Rose Gold

There is not much deviation in formula or style for Mosley in this latest entry in the long-running Easy Rawlins series. And for fans of Easy and company that’s a comforting notion. As a storyteller, Mosley does a good job of sustaining interest, but I found parts of the plot, and the various sub-plots, either implausible or confusing to follow. Plus, there were far too many characters to keep track of. All those names became a mental jumble after a while. As usual, Easy Rawlins himself is a mess of contradictions and emotions. Sometimes he is an astute, thoughtful fellow, a caring and kind parent, possessing a rare intellectual curiosity and insight into people’s problems. But at other times he is a rash, headstrong, even violent man, unable to control his emotions or actions. Nevertheless, Rawlins and his friends and characters such as Mouse, Jackson Blue, and Jewelle remain enjoyable company, and the story moves along at a brisk pace, taking you back to Los Angeles in 1967, in all its glory and strife.

 

franklin_crooked

Tom Franklin – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

I read this novel on the recommendation of a friend and I need to write him a thank you letter; I totally loved this book. I have no hesitation in saying that this was one of the best books that I’ve read in a year or more. It’s that special. Tom Franklin weaves an intriguing story — one that qualifies as a true mystery, but also as a solid work of literature — and populates his novel with very well-sketched characters. The dialogue is crisp and believable, and the story is carefully paced. In every aspect, this is simply an outstanding novel. Such a wealth of emotions, complex relationships, and sub-plots at work in this novel, that I could write a full essay on it. Suffice to say, this is a memorable read.

 

mcbain_alice

Ed McBain – Alice in Jeopardy

For most fans of Ed McBain, those who have enjoyed the fine Matthew Hope series and the outstanding 87th Precinct series, this novel will be a huge disappointment. It’s populated by shallow, unlikeable characters, an unbelievable police investigation, and some totally unnecessary sex scenes. There are moments — very brief ones — where the old magical McBain style jumps off the page, particularly in the second half of the book when it seems like McBain finally hits his stride, only to lapse into ridiculous scenarios and lame dialogue once again. I realize that this was one of the last books he wrote before he passed away in 2005, but it’s really not up to the quality of work that earned him such praise and devotion from readers. If you’re a McBain fan you might want to read this one anyway, but don’t have high expectations.

 

berenson_counterfeit

Alex Berenson – The Counterfeit Agent

I have mixed feelings about this latest installment in Berenson’s John Wells series. On one level, it’s another addictive, gripping read, a solid addition to a very good series. On another level, it’s predictable and offers pretty much the same formula and action that Berenson has used in his other books: an “impossible” assignment that can only be saved by the heroic efforts of John Wells; a bleak situation which looks like the end for our hero; Wells dispersing cash like he is a walking ATM. Some of it gets tedious, but Berenson still has a flair for storytelling and crisp dialogue, all of which help to keep the pages turning. The biggest strike against this novel is the ending … or rather a lack of one. It’s not quite the tidy climax you might expect, or at least hope for. Instead, the story is “to be continued” in yet another novel next year, Twelve Days. I realize that this is a “shrewd” move on the part of the publisher and their marketing weasels, but I think other readers will be as annoyed with this tactic as I am. And yet, I’ll most likely read the next installment … at some point.

 

maxim_wangel

John R. Maxim – Whistler’s Angel

This novel is a good companion to Maxim’s excellent “Bannerman” series. Although Bannerman doesn’t actually appear in this book, he’s mentioned several times and some of his associates pop up for cameo appearances. This Whistler novel, however, doesn’t have as hard an edge as the Bannerman series. In fact, there are times when the characters, especially the villains, are so bizarre that it reminds me of a Carl Hiaasen tale. One bad guy in particular fits the Hiaasen mold: a raving right-wing religious nut, sporting gashes in his face from cut glass (but telling people that the cuts were from wasp stings!), who totes around a golf bag that is packed with bombs, sandwiches and bottles of Snapple. Maxim’s writing is so descriptive that you can picture this crazed yahoo walking unsteadily down the street in his golf spikes. The protagonist of this novel, Adam Whistler is a also very memorable character, as are Adam’s father, the curious “twins”, and the angel herself, Adam’s girlfriend Claudia. Maxim is truly a top-shelf crime fiction writer and this is a worthy companion to his other books.

 

spiegelman_thick

Peter Spiegelman – Thick as Thieves

This is a novel that requires a bit of patience. Frankly, I almost gave up on it several times, putting it down and going back to it a few days later. But I kept plugging away and plowed through it, saved by the fact that the plot finally became more focused and gripping in the second half of the book. I think a good edit would have helped prune some of the sluggish parts of the book and made this a tauter tale. Another problem is that there were far too many characters in the story, most of whom I didn’t care about or like. This was actually an intelligent, well-written novel for the most part, but too much time and effort — too many pages — were spent on detailing the planned heist and not enough on character development.
hansen_nightwork

Joseph Hansen – Nightwork

I’ve read about a half-dozen books in Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter series and like them, but I usually end up thinking I should have liked them more than I did. Hansen’s prose is lean and tight, a style that has earned him comparisons to classic mystery writers such as Ross MacDonald, and the big “twist” to this series is that the main character, Dave Brandstetter, is a gay private detective (specifically, an insurance claims investigator) and a tough, hard-nosed one at that (bucking against at least one stereotype). This novel has its share of interesting characters, as Dave investigates a series of troubling “accidental” deaths. Sometimes I marvel at Hansen’s deft writing style, and other times I groan at the way he succumbs to stereotypes when portraying a minority character (such as Cecil, his young black live-in boyfriend, or the Hispanic gang-banger in this novel). So no, it’s not all fantastic, but still well worth a read, especially for mystery fans looking for something a bit different than the usual crime caper.

 

standiford_blackmtn

Les Standiford – Black Mountain

I’ve read most of the books in Standiford’s “Deal” series and have enjoyed them all. This novel, however, is not part of that series and introduces us to some new characters. The story is not set in Florida as the Deal novels are, but drifts from the concrete jungle of New York City (in particular, the underground corridors of the subway system) to the beautiful and dangerous splendors of the Wyoming wilderness. Some scary stuff, some funny stuff, plenty of interesting characters, and Standiford does an outstanding job of describing the beauty and danger of the Wyoming mountain terrain. Parts of the story fall into cliché story at times (particularly one aspect of the story’s climax), but overall I thought this was a really good novel, a nice departure from Standiford’s typical fare.

 

hurwitz_trust

Greg Hurwitz – Trust No One

The first book I ever read by Greg Hurwitz was The Crime Writer, a clever and compulsive read. This stand-alone novel proved to be another very excellent read. The main character, Nick Horrigan, doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting protagonist at first, but the more the novel evolves, the more you find yourself rooting for Horrigan and getting into the flow of the story. In addition to the plot twists — and this one will indeed keep you guessing until the end — I like the way that Hurwitz develops the characters and their relationships in this book. There is the complex relationship between Horrigan and his mother, plus the special bond he had with his late step-father. Throw in a beautiful, brilliant ex-girlfriend and a mysterious homeless man whom Horrigan befriends, and you have a fascinating cast of characters that help to make this novel quite a treat.

 

Advertisements

Good Books, Boring Books, More Books!

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.

 misterpip

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.

 camelclub

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.

 mumbojumbo

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.

 hickorywind

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.

 mcbain-like-love

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.

 higgins_eddiecoyle

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.  

 ellis_breach

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.

 Silva_Defector

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.

 demondakar

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.

 

midnighthouse 

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.

Elmore Leonard’s Last Ride

I was very saddened today to hear about the death of author Elmore Leonard. I was a big Elmore Leonard fan, having read nearly everything he ever wrote, except for a few of his early westerns, a recent short story collection, and the children’s books.

Elmore-Leonard01

I have vivid recollections of the first time I ever heard of Elmore Leonard. It was, I’m pretty sure, in 1988, and I was doing a phone interview for a music magazine with Dan Stuart, the leader of the great band Green on Red. When I asked what he was reading lately, Dan mentioned the new Elmore Leonard novel, Freaky Deaky. I had to confess ignorance; who was Elmore Leonard? The name sounded like some old blues musician! Dan Stuart, however, soon set me straight, giving me a quick crash course in the greatness of Elmore. Dan Stuart sounded like he knew what he was talking about — and anyone that can record an album as amazing as Gravity Talks, will always be cool in my opinion — so curiosity got the best of me and the next day I tracked down a copy of Freaky Deaky. I devoured that book in a few short days. It was like a drug; I needed more Elmore! I tracked copies of his older crime fiction novels at used book shops in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, and then began buying hardcover editions when new novels came out every year afterwards.

elmore_freaky-deaky

So yeah, I became a big fan. In fact, I would say that reading Elmore Leonard was my inspiration for discovering other crime fiction authors too; everything from the old classic writers such as Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, to Florida legends like John D. MacDonald and James W. Hall, and the new generation of greats such as Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Ed McBain, John Sandford, Michael Connelly … and well, you get the idea. I became a crime fiction fanatic. Thanks to Elmore Leonard. And a tip of the hat — and guitar — to Dan Stuart too!

greenonred_gravity

greenonred_best

After reading most of his crime fiction I also began reading some of the old westerns that Elmore Leonard wrote early in his career. I would never consider myself a fan of cowboy stories or westerns, but Elmore made these stories riveting. And really, they weren’t actually that much different than his crime novels, utilizing crisp dialogue and oddball characters to create very atmospheric settings and action-packed tales. Even his short stories were cool. About the only book I haven’t liked was his recent novel, Djibouti. But hey, the guy was 87, and reportedly working on a new novel, at the time of his death, so you gotta give him a little slack for any recent novels that weren’t up to par. Other than that slight blip, his other novels are classics of the genre. Actually, two genres. Another great writer who is going to be missed very much.

Elmore_completewesterns

Fun Finds

I love hunting for old books when I’m on the road. In Yangon, the outdoor bookstalls on Pansodan Road can sometimes yield little treasures, and in Phnom Penh I always seem to find a gem or two at Bohr’s Books. While in Kuala Lumpur last week, I visited some several secondhand bookshops and also the BookXcess outlet in Petaling Jaya’s Amcorp Mall for some good cheap remainder titles.

One of the goodies I found at the Junk Bookstore in KL (and yes, that’s really the name of this shop) was Every Little Crook and Nanny a 1972 novel by Evan Hunter, the author also known as Ed McBain. Every Little Crook and Nanny is a bit different than McBain’s popular 87th Precinct series of novels, ones that have been dubbed “Police Procedurals.” This one is more of a comic caper, reminiscent of Donald Westlake’s delightful Dortmunder books. The Hunter novel features a cast of (almost) lovable Mafia goons, a hapless kidnapper, and a bizarre police officer or two. Good fun.

 

I also found a battered copy of Hot Day, Hot Night by Chester Himes, which is the sixth novel in the classic Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series. First published in 1969, this is a 1975 edition, big afros on the cover and all. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle called Himes “the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler.” Mayhem yarns? Whatever you want to call this style of crime fiction, it’s the addictive kind, and I look forward to reading this old Chester Himes novel very soon.

 

Yet another goodie I was thrilled to find was William Kotzwinkle’s Jack in the Box, one of the more warped coming-of-age tales that you are likely to read. Comic books, teenage hormones, and a wacky cast of characters make for a very humorous novel. Kotzwinkle is a brilliant writer who has written some of the funniest books around, The Bear Went Over the Mountain being one of most hilarious novels of all time, in my opinion. Really, that book was one of those laugh-out-loud tales that you’ll think about reading again a few years later, just to see if it’s still as funny as it was the first time. Jack in the Box isn’t nearly as guffaw-able, but it’s still an entertaining read. Kotzwinkle, by the way, wrote the screenplay for a movie you might have heard of: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

In addition to that lot, I found old paperbacks from authors such as Kingsley Amis, J.D. Donleavy, John D. MacDonald, Charles McCarry, Trevanian, Jonathan Raban, Arthur C. Clarke, E.L. Doctorow, Erle Stanley Gardner, M.C. Beaton, and two old “Quiller” novels by Adam Hall. Definitely not the latest best sellers, but this delightful mish-mash of books was just what I was looking for.

February 2012 Reading List

Joe Boyd – White Bicylces

The book, subtitled “Making Music in the 1960s,” also bleeds a bit into subsequent decades, a period when Boyd was working with some of the more interesting musicians on the planet as a manager, producer, and label owner. Boyd started off working with blues and folk artists in the US, until migrating to England, where he worked closely with the likes of Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and The Incredible String Band. Some marvelous stories and anecdotes help to make this an engrossing read. The only gripe I have is that, considering Boyd’s multi-decade career, the book is too short and doesn’t go into more depth on some of the fascinating artists he met. Perhaps he’s saving more stories for another volume?

Norman Lewis – A Voyage By Dhow

This is a collection of essays that the great travel writer penned from various locations over a multi-decade period. Lewis died at the age of 95 in 2003 and was travelling — and writing — until near the very end of his life. Back in the early days of his career as a journalist, Westerners seldom visited some of these destinations (Yemen, Paraguay, Soviet Union, etc.) that he covers in this book. His earlier books about Southeast Asia (A Dragon Apparent and Golden Earth) are especially fascinating for their observations of countries such as Burma and Cambodia. As always, Lewis has an astute eye for detail and the ability to see the big picture. In one particularly penetrating essay in this collection, Lewis comes across a dubious group of missionaries in Venezuela who are attempting to “convert” a primitive tribe to Christianity, and in the process wean them from their traditional way of life. Sadly, of course, such missionaries are still allowed to spew their poison around the world. We could use more writers like Lewis who question — and challenge — such destructive practices.

Loren Estleman – Roses are Dead

Estleman has written dozens of books over the years, most of them stellar examples of classic crime fiction (he also writes Westerns once in a while). His Amos Walker series is particularly good. This novel, however, is one in his Peter Macklin series about a Detroit hit man, published in 1985. I had never read any of the Macklin books before, so I was looking forward to this one. While it was good, I didn’t think it was nearly as well written as the Amos Walker books or his excellent Detroit historical crime fiction series (Whiskey River, Motown, King of the Corner, Edsel, Jitterbug, etc.). Still, this is a writer more mystery fans should read.

David Leavitt – The Indian Clerk

Leavitt is one of the writers who is so good that he leaves you in awe of his talent. I read two of his books many years ago (The Lost Language of Cranes was particularly good), so I figured it was time to get back on board. And I’m glad I did. Set in the early 1900s, during the First World War, this is very compelling story enriched by Leavitt’s elegant prose. Leavitt introduces the reader to a bunch of quirky, closeted British mathematicians who are contacted by a young man from India who turns out to be a mathematical genius. These were all real individuals in history (Bertrand Russell also pops up in this tale), but Leavitt has taken a few liberties with their lives to spice things up.

Michael Koryta – Sorrow’s Anthem

I’m on a roll with this Koryta guy, devouring any new book I can find by him. This is one in his Lincoln Perry series, featuring a young private investigator, ex-cop who reluctantly takes on an unusual case. Fans of crime fiction authors such as Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and John Sandford should go for Koryta’s books. Everything I’ve read thus far has been quality stuff.

Lawrence Block – A Drop of the Hard Stuff

This is the long-awaited new book in Block’s long-running Matt Scudder series, featuring a recovering alcoholic. I couldn’t wait for the paperback, so I sucked it up and bought the hardcover. That’s how much I like Lawrence Block’s book. Rather than a brand new contemporary adventure in Scudder’s life, however, this one takes the reader back to a case that Scudder was working on about thirty years previously. As usual, Block’s characters are an agreeable bunch, all of whom always seem to be on the same page, both literally and figuratively. It’s almost as if they could finish one another’s sentences. Nonetheless, this is an addictive page turner that Block fans will devour. Because the story takes us back in time, we are not treated to current Scudder characters, most notably new wife Elaine, or his funky rhyming’ sidekick T.J.

Fannie Flagg – I Still Dream About You

I’ve enjoyed reading Fannie Flagg’s books for many years. Reading this latest novel, however, I was shocked at how poorly written it was. The writing was simplistic and full of so many dull clichés that it made me wince. Where were the editors? It makes me wonder who really wrote this book. Certainly not the same author who penned gems like Fried Green Tomatoes and Welcome to the World, Baby Girl. I hope this one was only a freak misstep and not the sign that Fannie Flagg has totally lost it.

Mark Kurlansky – 1968

This is an account of the many turbulent events that took place around the world in 1968. In addition to what happened in the US that year (assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, student protests, LBJ declining to run for another turn, the rise of Nixon, etc.), Kurlansky sheds the spotlight on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and incidents in Poland, France, and Spain. Most of this book were very good, but Kuransky’s account of the year didn’t grip me as much as I had hoped. Admittedly, I found the parts about Poland and other European countries of little interest, and would have liked more detail about the ramifications of what happened in the US during that tumultuous year.

Bill Granger – There Are No Spies

Two decades ago, Granger was hailed by no less than Ed McBain as “America’s best spy novelist.” A pity he is not better known nowadays. Perhaps such “spy” tales now seem dated, but this and other books in the Granger’s “November Man” series are all very entertaining reads. There Are No Spies is also part of “November Man” series, and it’s another cracker (as the Aussies would say). With its many double-crossing characters and nefarious espionage activity, it reminds me a bit of those great Ross Thomas novels. Really, I think Granger is that good a writer.

Miguel Syjuco – Ilustrado

This was a recemt winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. In awarding that prize, the judges called this novel “brilliantly conceived, and stylishly executed.” Stylishly executed? That should have been a hint right there. I tried, but I couldn’t even finish this one. Syjuco show signs of being a very good writer, but the story jumps around so much — in both location and points in time, all while offering different narratives, that I lost interest . Like many of the regular Booker Prize winners, this was yet another highly-praised book that gave me a headache and puzzled the hell out of me.

Reading List: December 2011

Jo Nesbo – Nemesis

Another installment in Nesbo’s increasingly popular Harry Hole series of detective novels, all set in the author’s native Norway. Harry Hole reminds me a bit of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus character; a real maverick police office that delightfully annoys his colleagues. I’ve read three of Nesbo’s books now and plan to keep going. He has been compared to another popular Scandinavian mystery writer, Stieg Larsson, but Nesbo is a much better writer.

 

 

Robert Hicks – Widow of the South

Picked this up to read just because it looked interesting and had a nice blurb on the cover, comparing it to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which was an excellent novel indeed. I’m not a big Civil War buff (unlike one guy I knew back in Florida, who sold most of his record collection to buy a musket for Civil War re-enactment events!), but I found this combination of historical fiction and a love story to be very gripping. I’ll be eager to read more by this author.

 

Laura Hillenbrand – Seabiscuit

I’ve never been a big horse racing fan, or even a fan of horses for that matter, but this novel is about much more than horses and racing. Hillenbrand is a skillful writer and she keeps the reader’s interest throughout this great book, merging 1930s history with a fascinating cast of real people that were devoted to an amazing horse. Hillenbrand’s research and writing skills help to make the reader feel like they really knew these people.

 

Martin Cruz Smith – Stalin’s Ghost

I hadn’t read a book by this author since Gorky Park many years ago, but after hearing many customers rave about his writing, I felt it was time to try another one. This recently written novel features the same protagonist, police investigator Arkady Renko, and is once again set in Russia. Smith is certainly a very gifted writer, but his storytelling style, use of too many characters (maybe it’s all the Russian names that trip me up!) and convoluted subplots often left me confused and not so eager to keep turning the pages. The story was far from boring, but after finishing this one I’m not compelled to read more books in the Renko series right away.

 

Eric Newby – What the Traveller Saw

This is a collection of essays by the famed travel writer, covering a variety of unusual destinations around the world over several decades. Newby’s writing is both informative and amusing; he truly has a special eye for people and details. The book is also illustrated with many striking Black & White photos taken by Newby.

 

 

K.C. Constantine – Always a Body to Trade

This is one of Constantine’s delightful Mario Balzic crime novels, featuring the cranky, profanity-spewing Rocksburg, Pennsylvania police chief. First published in 1983, this one is a delight, as are all of the Mario Balzic novels; little gems that need to be rediscovered.

 

Michael Connelly – The Drop

The latest Harry Bosch mystery, this one finds the hard-headed L.A. detective wresting with investigations — old and new — and trying to raise his increasingly independent teenage daughter. Biggest surprise; the kid like some of her father’s favorite jazz albums! Another strong novel by one of the best in the business.

 

Danny Goldberg – Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life in the Rock and Roll Business

Goldberg reflects on his many years in the music business, from starting as a young rock magazine writer, to being tour manager for Led Zeppelin in the early 70s, running a record label in the 90s, and working with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana during the Nevermind period. A fascinating memoir with plenty of good tales. I especially enjoyed the chapter about Warren Zevon, one of rock’s most underrated geniuses.

 

James McBride – The Color of Water

This famous, bestselling memoir is about a mixed race man whose mother was white. McBride tells his own tale, while interspersing his mother’s own reminiscences between chapters. His mother grew up in a very conservative Jewish family but later became a Christian. The author also seems to have deep religious beliefs, thus there’s a bit too much Jesus babbling in the book for my tastes. But overall this is an unusual and interesting read.

 

Ed McBain – Ghosts

I’ve loved reading McBain’s 87th Precinct series of police procedural mysteries — I read three or four of them each year and still have a dozen or so to go — and this one is another good one. It’s very short, at under 200 pages, but a very fun, and sometimes funny, read.

 

Recent Reading

On the road, at home, and occasionally at work, here are some of the books that I’ve read in the past month or so. All real books with stained pages and no digital versions.

 

Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana

I went on a Greene spree about 20 years ago and read five or six novels, then didn’t read anything again until last year when I belatedly finished The Quiet American. I found a copy of Our Man in Havana while browsing the street book stalls in Yangon recently. This is a very gripping tale, and probably the funniest thing I’ve ever read by Greene.

 

T. Jefferson Parker – Renegades

Parker continues his run of strong mystery novels, this one featuring the ingratiating Charlie Hood character once again. Parker’s vividly real characters, sharp dialogue, and deft plotting have elevated him to the top tier of those currently purveying the crime fiction genre.

 

John Sandford – Buried Prey

The latest in Sandford’s addictive “Prey” series of mystery novels, featuring sharp-dressed crime-stopper Lucas Davenport, is another winner. Some truly hilarious moments amidst all the violence and suspense.

 

Norman Lewis – Naples ‘44

Lewis is best known as a travel writer, but this book is more of a memoir of the time he spent in Naples, Italy as a soldier during World War II. As always, Lewis graces the pages with descriptive prose, giving the reader a real feel for the place and time. And his fondness for the kind but beleaguered Italians he meets during his time in the city comes pouring off the pages.

 

Chester Himes – The Heat’s On

This is one of the novels in Himes’s acclaimed “Harlem Cycle” featuring police detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. In addition to being a highly entertaining work of crime fiction, this novel, like others that Himes wrote in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, sheds light on racial relations and tensions in the United States. It’s akin to exploring an entirely different world, far from that of mainstream white America. Realistic dialogue and absurd scenarios make this an entertaining read. For some bizarre reason, the novels of Himes remain more popular in France than in his native US. Himes died in 1984.

 

Jo Nesbo – The Leopard

Nesbo is the hottest new writer on the mystery circuit — hailed as the “next Stieg Larsson” due to his Scandinavian roots no doubt, although Nesbo is Norwegian and Larsson was Swedish. This is the newest of five novels that Nesbo has penned so far, and I liked it a lot. Much better writing than Larsson (or, at least, better translating) and an endearingly complex character in detective Harry Hole (yes, that’s his unfortunate name). I’ve already started reading The Snowman, figuring I’ll just go in reverse order until I get to the first one in the series.

 

David W. Moore – The Superpollsters

This is a fascinating insider’s tale about the history and “business” of opinion polls, particularly those involving politics in the USA. It’s a bit dated, having been written and published in the mid-1990s, but it’s still an important book and offers an illuminating look at polling and the mistakes that are often made by these “experts”. After Thailand’s recent polling debacle — in which all of the major opinion polls made huge miscalculations in their projections — this is a must read for anyone who has doubts and reservations about the accuracy and ramifications of polling.

 

Bill Pronzini – Boobytrap

Pronzini is one of America’s better, yet more unheralded mystery novelists. This novel, published in the late 1990s, is one in his “Nameless Detective” series set in San Francisco. Absolutely stellar stuff; sharp dialogue, memorable characters, and lots of tension.

 

Joseph Hansen – Early Graves

Hansen wrote many mystery novels featuring the Dave Brandstetter character, a whiskey-drinking insurance investigator who is also gay. Inevitably, Brandstetter ends up solving crimes that the police cannot. Early Graves is one of the better books in the series. A few troubled, if not screwed-up characters, along with Brandstetter’s sexuality and a turbulent relationship make for an absorbing novel.

 

Ed McBain – Lullaby

I can’t get enough of McBain’s wonderful 87th Precinct “police procedural” novels, and this ranks as one of the best of the bunch. And it’s certainly one of the longest in that series. Between the frenzied action, and colorful characters at the precinct, McBain shows that he is also a skilled writer who can move the reader.

 

Tag Cloud