Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Hoard

Reviewed by: Nancy
5 out of 5 stars

Plot Summary

A new breed…a new evil…

Hidden deep beneath its landfill lair of trash and filth, a strange new organism has come to life.  When an accidental fire drives it out, the mysterious creature escapes across the drought-blasted Kansas prairie and finds the home of elderly hoarder Anna Grish.  In desperate need of shelter, it burrows in, concealed amidst the squalor and mess.

When Adult Protective Services force Anna to vacate her junk-riddled home, she moves in with her son and his family.  But there is something wrong with Anna, something more than her declining mental condition and severe hoarding disorder.  Something sinister has taken hold of her, and it’s not only getting stronger, it’s spreading. 

Amidst the wide-open Kansas plains, with endless blue sky above and flat, open vista stretching from one horizon to the next, there is nowhere to hide from…THE HOARD.

My Review

I have yet to watch an episode of Hoarders.   I’m just a little scared that I’ll be able to identify with some of their behaviors.  I’m convinced that somewhere deep down lives a little hoarder screaming to get out.   It is mostly books, but sometimes piles of stuff that I haven’t looked at yet or decided where to put it mysteriously grow larger.  When I was unemployed last summer, I decided it was time to do a major cleanup of my bedroom in order to accommodate the new furniture I ordered.   I went through drawers, the closet, top of the dresser, under the bed, and the armoire.  Books, papers, envelopes, pictures, clothing, yarn, craft magazines, buttons, those tiny plastic bags of extra thread that came with garments I no longer have, gifts from past lovers, pens that no longer work, dead batteries, all got sorted out into various piles – to be discarded, to be donated, and to keep.   The stuff I threw away or donated completely filled up five 30-gallon trash bags.  It took me an entire day just to clean out one room, and that’s probably because I spent an inordinate amount of time looking through many of the items before deciding what to do with them.

My bedroom is now clutter-free, but my husband had to go and buy me an under-the-bed storage bin that I’ve somehow managed to fill up with books, receipts, old bills, small empty boxes that could be useful for gift-giving, you get the drift.  One of these days I need to empty it before it gets stuck under the bed.  

This is the first time I’ve read about a hoarder in fiction.  It is only natural and appropriate that the story of Anna Grish should fall squarely in the genre of horror.  Anna is elderly, socially withdrawn and badly needs help. Her hoard has become completely unmanageable, her cats are neglected, and her house is falling apart.   She has a son, Peter, who has inherited the hoarding gene but is kept under control by his fastidious wife and only allowed to clutter the garage.  

Anna doesn’t want help, but she is forced to stay with Peter and his family.  She misses the comfort of her possessions and Peter notices his mother is different.  Something strange is hiding beneath the layers of filth in Anna’s house.  Now it wants Anna.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story.  It was horrifying, sad, and gripping.  It’s full of realistic and likable characters.  The exploration of Anna’s hoarding disorder, as well as the family’s methods of coping with the problem were sensitively rendered.  

I’m thrilled to have discovered a new horror author and look forward to more of Alan Ryker’s stories.

Also posted at Goodreads

*ARC received from DarkFuse through NetGalley

A Boy And His Dog

Robert Crais
Putnam Adult

Reviewed by Kemper
3.75 out of 5 dog-eared stars

My mother is the office manager for a small city’s police department and several years ago I visited her at work, and she introduced me around the station.  The K9 came in with his handler, and the dog ran up to my mom for a happy dog hello.  He noticed me and immediately went into a Who-The-Hell-Is-In-My-Office mode.  The officer gave him the ‘Be cool.’ command, and the dog was instantly friendly.  After a quick sniff to make sure I wasn’t carrying drugs or explosives (Luckily, I had locked them all in the trunk.), the dog sat in front of me so I could pet him.

The cop was standing right beside him, and my mom said, “Just don’t grab his sleeve or arm or anything.”

I laughed a bit thinking she was joking.

“No, she’s serious.  We’re so close that he’d get a couple of good bites in before I could pull him off if you touched me,” the cop said gravely.

I looked down at the dog who nodded as if to say, “Yes, I am enjoying the way you’re scratching my ears but if you touch my guy, I am gonna mess you up.”

Needless to say, I was very careful not to touch the cop.

So that's my police dog story.  Here's one from Robert Crais:

LAPD officer Scott James had the bad luck to get caught up in firefight with a group of masked man that killed his partner Stephanie and severely wounded him.  Months later, Scott is hiding the extent of his physical injuries that should have gotten him an early retirement.  He's also suffering from a whopping case of PTSD and survivor’s guilt.  He has asked to be a K9 officer not because he really loves dogs, but because he doesn’t want to deal with a human partner.

German shepherd Maggie was a Marine who sniffed out IED’s, but she was wounded in an ambush that killed her beloved handler.  Heartbroken at the loss of her master and suffering from the dog form of PTSD, Maggie is about to be kicked out of the LAPD’s K9 program for being too surly and gun shy to be of any use.  When Scott hears Maggie’s story, it strikes a chord, and he’ll need a good partner since he’s still determined to help track down Stephanie’s killers.

Robert Crais is good at writing damaged people.  Whether it’s an ugly childhood like he created for both Elvis Cole and Joe Pike or a cop left shattered by a traumatic injury like Carol Starkey in Demolition Angel or a police negotiator who loses his nerve after one bad day like in Hostage, Crais always makes you feel their pain. He includes empathy for suffering that is strangely lacking in a lot of crime fiction.

So the story of Scott and Maggie is right in his wheelhouse with the two damaged creatures forming a bond.  You can’t help but like these two, and Crais is careful not to overdo it since it’d be really easy to play the injured dog card and ride it right to the best seller list.  As always, he put in the effort to give a quality crime story and not just lean on the tragic parts too much.

However, this isn’t the best Robert Crais I’ve read. That’s kind of damning it with faint praise though.  While I liked it a lot, it didn’t have quite the emotional heft of some of the recent Elvis Cole books I’ve read, and the mystery/action stuff wasn’t as relentless as in Hostage.  But it’s still good, and Crais’s good is more than a lot of writer’s best.

Plus, you know, it’s got a dog in it.  How can you not like that?

Also posted at Goodreads.

Subversive Literature in Nazi-Occupied America

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Anthony Vacca's rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Vintage (repint)

I don’t know why this is, but for some reason at the library where I work as a sexy librarian (catwoman glasses and tight turtleneck sweaters are standard issue) it has been decided by my co-workers that I am the go to guy when it comes to all matters concerning science fiction and fantasy novels. I find this odd considering I haven’t read a fantasy novel in about eight years and I can count the number of sci-fi novels I have read in my life on one metaphorical hand and still have one or two metaphorical fingers to spare. I have no idea what to recommend these patrons beside some of the obvious sci-fi classics I know about either because of movie adaptations or because I don’t live under a rock.

I am not prejudiced against sci-fi novels (actually, yeah, I probably kind of am: but not in theory at least). One of the aspects I think the genre has that makes it so worth-while is that it is a great vehicle for allegorical speculations about culture and the role of technology within. This is why films like, Blade Runner, The Running Man, Total Recall, Robocop, Alphaville, Brazil (to name a few) are all excellent (in their own, particular ways) pieces of cinema history. I think one of my problems (misinformed preconceptions?) about science fiction, is that the writing takes a backseat for all that speculation. Maybe I can blame all those hours of creative writing workshops and my young love for minimalism (you wouldn’t know that from the way I go on in these reviews), but I am still pretty critical on the whole "telling when you should be showing" aspect of fiction. What does this have to do with sci-fi novels? Well, I am talking about info-dumps here. Unless you are Neal Stephenson or David Foster Wallace, the info dump can be one of the most terrible atrocities known to fiction. They can turn any sense of a natural flow in prose into some kind of mutant creature that flops around on the ground waiting for a mercy blast from a flame-thrower.

Fortunately, we are spared from that in The Man in the High Castle; in fact, it feels like Dick was making a conscious effort to make the world within his sci-fi novel familiar enough so that we wouldn’t have trouble imagining it. One of the main techniques he uses to achieve this is by setting his novel in the present day (at least it was when it was published in 1962) United States. The only difference between our world and the world of Dick’s novel is that, the Allied Forces kind of lost WWII.

Oh, and the Nazis rule the world.

Sure, Japan is still around, and they were given a portion of the U.S.’s west coast for their part in helping out the Third Reich; but now they’re more than a little regretting ever getting in bed with the devil. There is not a lot they can do as the Nazis turn the rest of the U.S. into a violent and crumbling police-state, or as they build gigantic rocket ships towards space (why settle for Earth when you can have the entire galaxy for an empire?)…and we are not going to even talk about the hellhole of a science experiment they turned the entire continent of Africa into. The world is not a better place and, like any good Nazi, they don’t give a fuck.

But these are all the broad strokes of the world Dick is painting; this novel’s focus is not about epic battles of resistance or about the horrors of a dystopian society ran by Adolf and his thugs; instead, this book is essentially an ensemble piece that follows over the course of a few weeks the lives of several different people in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Not all these people know each other or even meet each other over the course of the novel’s narrative, but their lives reflect one another in that Dick uses his cast to work at his central questions of his novel: what does it mean to have an identity in relation to one’s country?

History, obviously, is one way Dick goes about tinkering with his question.

And so we follow around Dick’s assortment of science fiction grotesques: there’s Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese businessman who is beginning to have a crisis of conscious about his role as a successful colonist profiting off of the atrocities committed by the Axis powers; and there is Rudolf Wegener, a mysterious Eastern-European diplomat who shows up at Tagomi’s offices with certain information that may change German and Japanese relations substantially. There is also Frank Frink, a Jewish man who has survived the pogroms by keeping his racial identity secret, and who is now working on a scheme to make fake American antiques to sell for exuberant prices to young, chic Japanese colonists. Unfortunately for American antique dealer Robert Childan, he is the poor schmuck who has no idea he is selling fake Civil War pistols. And we can’t forget Juliana Frink, Frank’s ex-wife, who is living an aimless and restless life as a martial arts instructor, but then a mysterious stranger enters into her life…

Like I said, some plot elements tie these characters together, but there is really only two connecting factors that matter. One is the I Ching, which I know very little (and also care very little) about; but apparently it is kind of a big deal for new age and drug-addled Philip Dick, so of course then it is a big deal for all his characters. It’s apparently quite common for both Japanese colonists as well as Americans to consult this work for help in navigating their lives. The passages where characters consult their I Ching decks or whatever are opaque and I guess jam-packed with fortune cookie meaning.

(Rumor has it Dick wrote this novel while consulting his own I Ching deck. Good for you Dick!)

The other thing that ties these characters together is a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is a scandalous best-seller in Dick’s version of America. The book is essentially an alternate history novel in which the author describes a history in which the Nazis lost World War II. It’s the kind of book everyone is reading (even when they are not supposed to): Jews, Americans, Japanese, and even Nazis. What is kind of ingenious is that this book does not tell of an America or history as we the readers know it, but instead it is a speculation of what could have happened. Some of the imagined historical events offered in this book within a book have a pretty good logic and rationale behind them. It works well enough for the characters in this book at least, because no one can predict history or the future exactly…well, unless you have the I Ching…

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is what helps to elevate this book from being a pretty good pulpy sci-fi yarn, and into a fairly intriguing metaphysical novel. Some of his characters who read this book dismiss it as just sensationalist, and even immoral, trash. Others, like the oppressed Americans (go figure) view this book as something more.

For them it is not just fiction. Not just escapism. Not just another disposable piece of junk "genre" writing.

No, for these deserving readers The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a means for them to reevaluate their own world, their own ideas of self. The book allows them a way to subvert the hegemony of the forces that control the world around them, and allows each reader, even if it is in their own mind, a way to escape to a place that none of the monsters crawling around this world of ours can touch.

And, in Dick’s estimation at least, this is the underappreciated and underutilized power of good old-fashioned fiction, no matter what the genre you classify it away as. Can’t say I argue with the man one bit.

Also Posted on GoodReads

On becoming a lady, and a spy

Ettiquette and Espionage

Gail Carriger
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by: Sesana
4 out of 5 stars

Plot Summary:

Sophronia Temminick is hardly a proper lady. She'd much rather spend her time taking things apart than practicing her curtsy. Her mother has entirely given up on her, and sent her away to Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Little does her mother suspect that at Mademoiselle Geraldine's the course of studies includes assassination and subterfuge along with the more conventional classes.

My Review:

I think that maybe somebody who'd read the entire Parasol Protectorate series to this point may end up enjoying Etiquette & Espionage a bit more than I did. I've only read Soulless so far, which was enough for me to notice that the Finishing School series will be set in the same universe. Fine by me, I really like Carriger's versions of vampire and werewolf societies.

And I did really enjoy this book. It's YA, which is a bit of a change for Carriger. I think she made the jump really nicely by just cleaning up some of the content but leaving the tone mostly the same. She managed to resist the urge to "talk down" to the younger audience, which is a relief. I love the idea of the finishing school, which teaches advanced spying techniques alongside the skills generally expected of a proper Victorian lady. And so our protagonist, Sophronia, learns how to execute both a proper curtsy and an unwanted guest. I loved the idea of their discretion lessons the most: taking tea with a headmistress who has no idea her charges are being trained to be potentially deadly spies. There are plenty of steampunk elements scattered around: mechanical servants, air pirates, mad scientists. They don't intrude on the narrative too much, and I never got the sense that Carriger was overawed at her own cleverness, or expected us to be.

But all that is really just the setting. The plot (aside from the usual boarding school politics) is about a missing prototype of some sort. Sadly, the plot is kind of thinly developed, in favor of developing the boarding school setting. It works, to a certain extent, because I'm really fascinated by the place. The plot, not so much. But there were a lot of open questions left at the end of the first book, and I did feel like they were going to be answered. Maybe I'm reaching a bit, but I feel like this seemingly minor adventure is going to end up playing a much bigger part in the overarching story to come.

Big kudos to Carriger for only giving the slightest hint of a potential romance. Too many books, especially YA books, rush the romance directly from the initial meeting to an all-consuming love in two steps or less. I really hope she continues to handle this well, because I'd really love to see a YA series with a romance that develops slowly over the course of the series, based on mutual respect and admiration. That isn't too much to ask... Is it?

Also posted at Goodreads.

The king is dead...long live the king!

The King Must Die

Mary Renault


Reviewed by: Terry
4  out of 5 stars

The past, they say, is a foreign country. One might even go so far as to say that it is another world full of strange wonders and people who both fascinate and repel. I imagine that is why history so intrigues me and I definitely approach the subject with a heaping portion of romance as I in no way attempt to diminish the veneer and lustre which the intervening ages bring to previous eras. Despite this fascination I generally find myself of two minds when it comes to historical fiction. While the subject matter fascinates me and the promise of even vicariously visiting that foreign country, the past, is a powerfully attractive one I often find myself somewhat unimpressed by many of the books I have sampled in the genre which, for one reason or another, often fail to capture my interest. Sometimes I am critical of the anachronisms (real or perceived) that seem to litter these books as the writer attempts to make the past perhaps a bit too relatable to our present world. Other times I am simply unimpressed by mediocre writing (I imagine it is no more prevalent in this genre than any other, but somehow it particularly grates when I find it here). Then again, sometimes I am simply not interested in what turns out to be more a history lesson than a story with blood and life to it. I was glad therefore to have found Mary Renault’s _The King Must Die_ which proved to be both well-written, full of particular human interest, and displayed the wonder and strangeness of the past in all of its glory. I also consider it something of a return to the love affair I had in my youth with the Hellenic myths which seemed to fall to the wayside as I grew older and other interests crowded them out.

Renault takes as her subject the early Hellenic expansion among the Greek archipelago when the ancient chthonic mother-goddess religions of the autochthonous peoples (the “earthlings”) were being displaced by the more patriarchal sky-god religions of the invaders. The title of the book itself refers to the ancient tradition that the year-king married the goddess (or more accurately her avatar the high priestess) and would then be killed as a yearly sacrifice to the Great Mother in order to ensure the bounty of the harvest and safety of the people. Into this tradition she incorporates the story of Theseus and his rise to fame and power. The son of an unknown father and the daughter of the king of a tiny Hellenic kingdom, Theseus has grown up believing himself to be the son of the god Poseidon. Theseus comes to learn that some of his preconceptions about his birth may not be literally true, though he never loses the sense that there is a deep connection between himself and the Earth-shaker. I like how Renault handles this aspect of her story. The power of the gods and goddesses of the ancient religions permeates the story and is never simply disproved or denied, yet she also doesn’t make them explicit characters in the story and go fully into the realm of fantasy. There are indications of the ways in which these divinities interact with the world, and it is up to the characters (and the reader) to decide for themselves how to interpret these strange and seemingly coincidental events.

To make a long story short Theseus grows in knowledge and confidence and eventually leaves his tiny home in order to find his fortune, and his earthly father, in the wider world. His journeys take him across the wild and bandit-infested Isthmus of Corinth first to the goddess-ruled city of Eleusis and ultimately to Athens. From his early victories and society-changing actions Theseus is finally driven to the event that will cement his name in the history and myths of his people forever: the yearly tribute of youths from Athens to the kingdom of Minos in Crete. Again Renault does a superlative job of taking what is, on the face of it, an utterly fantastic story and bringing its details down to earth without divesting it of its magic and mythic allure. The Minotaur may not be a true half-man half-beast, but he is no less a fascinating power against which Theseus must stand. The bulk of the novel concentrates on the time Theseus spends in Crete at the labyrinthine court of Minos as leader of a team of bull-dancers. These bull-dancers hold a special place in the hierarchy of Crete, on the one hand they are slaves destined to die at the hand of the god’s creature, the bull; on the other they are sacred and popular athletes who, so long as they survive, are showered with praise, gifts, and glory and are an untouchable segment of the populace, forever kept apart.

All of the elements of the myth are here:  the brutal and savage Minotaur looming in the background, the decaying and decadent reign of the monarch known to the world as Minos, the labyrinth built by Daidalos through which Theseus must creep guided only by a thread, and the doomed love of the hero for the unfortunate maiden Ariadne, but they are all subtly transformed. Renault’s transmutation of them in some ways brings them closer to us as they become more plausibly human and understandable as ‘real’ events, but she does not go so far as to allow them to lose the lustre that gives to all true myths the shine and glory which make them everlasting. Of course this is a Greek tale and thus tragedy is a prevalent thread throughout. The tale ends as the first phase of Theseus’ rise and adventures are coming to a close and sets the stage for the final phase of his story in _The Bull from the Sea_ to which I look forward (with suitable fear and trembling on behalf of the man unfortunate enough to be the ‘hero’).

Also posted at Goodreads

The thickest head and the stoutest heart of all of Napoleon's men

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Pocket Classics

Reviewed by: Terry
4  out of 5 stars

What do you get if you take Flashman, remove the streak of yellow from his back and make at least some of the adventures ones entered into knowingly by the participant? Why, you get Brigadier Etienne Gerard, of course! Gerard is a creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, sadly languishing in the shadows with all of his other characters not called "Sherlock Holmes". He is a dashing hussar in Napoleon's Grande Armée who, in his old age, is recalling to the reader the adventures of his youth. The comparison to Flashman is an instructive one, especially in that while Flashman is committed to strictly telling the truth he ultimately becomes more and more a bounder and cad in our eyes, while Gerard (well I certainly won’t call him a liar, but let’s just say he has a spotty memory at best and isn’t the most observant fellow) is a somewhat less than objective reporter, and yet each tale shows him to be a goodhearted man of high ideals.

These are tales filled with derring-do, close escapes and not a few romantic entanglements...I think I see where George MacDonald Fraser got at least part of his inspiration from. Gerard is a very likeable character and narrator for all that he is so full of himself that it's a wonder the hot air doesn't make him float away. His voice is urbane and charming and all of his adventures are rousing good tales. At the beginning of each adventure one almost sees the sunlit café table at which we sit and can almost taste the cognac in our coffee as we listen to the Brigadier reminisce. He really is a charming old campaigner, though not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. Still, for loyalty and sheer bravado one could do worse than having a Brigadier Gerard in one’s army, for while he “has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart” of all of Napoleon’s men.

I was actually a bit surprised at the very real violence and horror of war hinted at occasionally in these stories. Despite being adventure stories of the Victorian era they don't necessarily shy away from some of the less palatable aspects of their subject matter, even if Gerard tells of them with a very wry nonchalance. I was, for example, a bit surprised by the horrific death of one of Gerard's soldiers, buried alive, as related to him by a bandit chieftain, or the recounting by Gerard of a military tribunal of French POWs who punish a traitor in their midst such that "In the morning, when [the English] came for their man with papers for his release, there was not as much of him left as you could put upon your thumb-nail."

When I started this book in tandem with Doyle’s _The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes_ I was asked which I liked better. I had immediately given the nod to Sherlock Holmes, if only for his iconic and fascinating character, but now I’m not so sure. Holmes is great, but Gerard is very charming indeed and there is not a dud amongst his tales. Doyle has really impressed me with his range in these two creations alone and I look forward to the further adventures of both characters, not to mention a look at some of Doyle’s other fiction. I highly recommend the Gerard stories to anyone interested in historical fiction and adventure, especially when it is tinged with good humour.

Also posted on Goodreads

On being the supporting cast in someone else's life...

Fifth Business

Robertson Davies

Penguin Books

Reviewed by: Terry
4.5  out of 5 stars

Robertson Davies is one of my literary heroes. At a time in my youth when I had been engulfed with ‘Canadian Literature’ that was, in my humble opinion at the time at least, depressing, uninteresting, and decidedly parochial, here was a man who wrote stories with verve, humour, erudition and a view to the wider world. _Fifth Business_ is the first book of Davies’ Deptford trilogy, a series of books that centre around people from the fictional small town of Deptford, Ontario. Sounds parochial already, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more. The main character, and narrator, of this tale is Dunstan Ramsay, a man who seems to have been destined to exist on the periphery of the life he is now looking back on. Sharp-tongued and intelligent, Ramsay has let himself fall into the role of school-teacher at an all-boy’s private school, unencumbered not only by a wife and children, but also by any truly close friends. The closest he has is Percy Boyd “Boy” Staunton, the golden boy of Deptford and frenemy of his youth. Boy is everything Ramsay is not: outgoing, active, popular and rich. Boy soon makes his mark in the wider world, parlaying the small fortune of his grasping father into the foundations of a business empire that certainly does nothing to lessen Boy’s innate pride and narcissism. Aside from their origins in a small Ontario town as part of the same generation, the two boys share something else, a link to the tragedy that occurred in the life of Mrs. Mary Dempster. On a fateful winter day, when Boy’s pride is goaded on by the shrewd antagonism of Ramsay, the then-pregnant Mrs. Dempster becomes the victim of a snowball hurled by Boy and meant for Ramsay which had a stone at its heart. This blow not only precipitates the early delivery of her son Paul, but also leads to a loss of cognitive functions that makes her, in the words of the people of Deptford, “simple”.

Forever keeping the facts secret, Ramsay is wracked by guilt over this event for the rest of his life (despite the fact that his was certainly more a sin of omission when compared to Boy’s culpability). It in fact becomes the shaping catalyst for his life and in large part determines the man he is to become. Ramsay takes upon himself the care of Mrs. Dempster (officially at the urging of his mother, who helped to deliver the woman’s son, but ultimately at the prodding of his own conscience) and she becomes for him a figure of signal importance. For Ramsay is convinced that there is something special about Mary Dempster, in fact he is certain that she is a saint. This is not only the result of his guilt, but due to the fact that Ramsay is certain that he has personally witnessed three miracles performed by her (one the resurrection of his apparently dead older brother). Ramsay becomes obsessed with saints and saintliness and his life’s work, his true passion, the study of these enigmatic figures in human history. He is not a particularly religious man, but he is not incredulous of the validity of religious experience either. This is where Davies is able to bring in one of his own favourite obsessions: Jungian archetypes and the mythical significance of history. The lens through which Ramsay sees the world is coloured by this interpretation and it is a fascinating one that informs all of Davies’ other books.

Dunstan Ramsay is an excellent narrator and his voice is pitch-perfect. He seems to contain the perfect balance of incisive observation with a somewhat deprecating self-awareness…though of course we probably shouldn’t take everything he says as gospel. Through Ramsay’s eyes we view the petty concerns and grotesqueries of small town life, things that, while petty (or perhaps *because* they are petty), are more than powerful enough to destroy a human life; we share in some of the horrors of the First World War as well as the ennobling elements of life that can overcome such things; and we witness the ways in which, sometimes unbeknownst to us, our lives are intertwined with those of everyone we meet, no matter how disconnected and solitary we think we are.

_Fifth Business_ isn’t my favourite book by Davies, but it’s a very good one and is an excellent introduction to the kind of writing you’ll experience if you choose to try him out. Not only was Davies a learned man, able to convey his learning in his books without sounding like a school-teacher or a man with a mission to convert (even though he was, perhaps,  both things), but he was also a very accomplished writer:

I know flattery when I hear it; but I do not often hear it. Furthermore, there is good flattery and bad; this was from the best cask. And what sort of woman was this who knew so odd a word as “hagiographer” in a language not her own? Nobody who was not a Bollandist had ever called me that before, yet it was a title I would not have exchanged to be called Lord of the Isles. Delightful prose! I must know more of this.

Delightful prose indeed. Davies’ novels seem to flow effortlessly, partly due to the charming and fluid voice he attains in them, and partly, I think, through his clever weaving of myth and symbol throughout what is, on the surface, a rather mundane plot. Ramsay’s life, especially in his eventually acknowledged role of “Fifth Business”, is not one that is full of monumental events or unexpected novelty, but it is a human life and one which Davies puts into the greater context not only of the lives that all of us lead, but of the mythic symbols and higher meanings that we look to in order to find greater significance in what we do and who we are.

Also posted at Goodreads

The Bride Wore Black

The Bride Wore BlackThe Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich
Dan's rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: iBooks
Price: Probably Not Cheap
Availability: Out of Print!

One by one, men are dying, deaths that at first seem accidental. The only link between the deaths are that each of the victims was last seen in the company of a woman. How are the men connected? Is it the work of one woman or several? And can the police stop the murders before another man ends up dead?

The Bride Wore Black is a great work of suspense. Woolrich does a good job of building the tension and maintaining an unpredicatable feel. The murders were believably done and Woolrich's writing was more than up to the task. Once the Bride's motivation was revealed, everything made sense. While I knew she'd be caught, the twist at the end still threw me for a loop. A note of caution: If your edition has a forward, DON'T READ IT! Mine had a foreward that was spoiler-laden.

One of the features I liked most was the structure. Each group of chapters started with the setup, followed by the murder, followed by the police investigation. I plan on swiping the structure sometime in the future.

If you like noir tales of revenge, this is the book for you.

Later: This is the one work of Woolrich's that I've read that has stuck with me long after I finished reading it.

Also on Goodreads

The Last Good Kiss

The Last Good KissThe Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
Dan's rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: Vintage
Price: 14.95
Available: Now

C.W. Sughrue is hired to rack down an author before he drinks himself to death. Complications ensue and Sughrue takes on a second case while he's waiting for the writer to be healthy enough to travel, finding a girl that's been missing for ten years. Where will Sughrue's cases take him?

Ever read a book and wonder what rock you must have been hiding beneath to never hear of it sooner? The Last Good Kiss is one of those books. Numerous reviewers have described it as a cross between Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson and I saw why not very many pages from the beginning.

The story seemed simple until someone took a bullet in the ass and Sughrue had some time on his hands. The search for Betty Sue Flowers takes Sughrue and his companion on a drunken odyssey through the most depraved parts of the west.

I have to admit that a lot of the twists caught me by surprise, especially one near the end. By far, my favorite part of the book was the relationship between Sughrue and Trahearne. Sughrue himself is quite a character, part PI, part bartender, all drunk. He's like Phillip Marlowe with twenty consecutive years of bad luck behind him. Crumely's prose reminded me of Chandler's in places but bleaker.

That's about all I have to say. It's a crime Crumley isn't more well-known. Four easy stars.

Also on Goodreads

Lawyer Fights Injustice! For Free! Okay, it's a novel.

A WALK IN THE DARK (Guido Guerrieri #2)
Gianrico Carofiglio
Bitter Lemon Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: When Martina accuses her ex-boyfriend—the son of a powerful local judge—of assault and battery, no witnesses can be persuaded to testify on her behalf, and one lawyer after another refuses to represent her. Guido Guerrieri knows the case could bring his legal career to a messy end, but he cannot resist the appeal of a hopeless cause. Nor can he deny an attraction to Sister Claudia, the young woman in charge of the shelter where Martina is living, who shares his love of martial arts and his virulent hatred of injustice.

My Review: In the second installment of the Avv. Guido Guerriri legal thriller series, Our Hero has accepted the case of an abused woman who wants to bring civil suit against her battering, stalking ex-lover. Who just happens to be the son of the most powerful criminal judge in the city of Bari. And he didn't get that way by passing out Christmas hams to the needy, if you get my drift. Martina, at considerable risk to herself, wishes to put an end to the charm in her ex's charmed life by making him face publically the harm he's done her; he isn't, unsurprisingly, prepared to let this happen, and he retains the meanest, most sick-making kind of silk-upholstered shit-sack of a lawyer one can imagine. (The author being a judge, I suspect this character is a sarcastic payback on someone or someones he's dealt with in his anti-Mafia trials.)

Cue Guido's Don Quixote music! Saddle up, Sancho Reader, we're going for a tilt at the windmill of privilege, social and societal. Guido hears about the case with aplomb...she's gotta be kidding, so he slapped her around, this isn't a criminal case, c'mon! stalking? what, a man can't walk down a street?...until a combination of a feminist martial artist/nun, a female public prosecutor, and the head of the local deviant crimes unit all singing the same song makes him listen, and re-evaluate. Then they tell him who is alleged to have committed the crime.

Whoa Nelly! Career suicide help line, my name is don't do it, please tell me everything...and by god, Guido does the amazing and the improbable: He learns to accept that male privilege is a mindset, and society doesn't even notice it. (I'd add straight privilege if it was relevant, which it's not here, but it's equally virulent.) He's already sure he wants to take down the son of the local bought judge because he's an old leftist. (Old, hell, he's a puppy of forty.)

And Guido works his most sneaky, ju-jitsu-inspired magic in the trial that ensues. He really gives it a twist this time. So does the author. SUCH a twist, with nuns and cops and lawyers and sleazeballs all enmeshed in a fracas that had me, no exaggeration, gasping and jumping up and down.

In a paltry 215pp, I lived through the entire range of my emotional reactions to violence. Each of them. In turn, simultaneously, in order of virulence, and finally in catharsis.

I am not a subscriber to the Woman is Saintly Victim school of thought. I do not believe that men are abusers and women victims by nature, despite the crap that infests our fictional bookosphere. The issue of stalking, and its nastier ancillary complexes, is a very real one and a very scary one. The world has mean, nasty, horrible people in it, and by all that's holy, they need to be put away, stopped, found out and exposed. This novel satiated my strong need for that to happen, and it did a brilliant job of it.

The ending, while emotionally intense and not entirely pleasant, came close to being perfect. Close, so event did not happen, and that is my one cavil with the whole thing.

I'm a big fan of the less prurient, more procedural style Carofiglio uses in these books, compared to the confessional, almost pornographic closeness to the dramatis personae most American procedurals use. Don't be surprised if your take on the style changes...from con to pro, but possibly the this installment. It's a balancing act, as it always must be, to decide what details to present, what relationships to flesh out, what to suggest and what to explain. Carofiglio makes the most use of suggestion of any crime writer I've found.

Me likey. A lot.