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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Sentence: 'History of the Rain'

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:

We have mixed metaphors and outlandish similes for breakfast.

-- Niall Williams, History of the Rain

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: 'Invisible Streets'

Invisible Streets
By Toby Ball
Literary fiction
July 2014
Overlook Press
ISBN: 978-1468309027

One of the great strengths of literary fiction is that it is able to discourse on any number of issues and philosophies. When done well, the fiction that can do that, while not broadcasting from the rooftops its frantically beating heart because it's also telling an entertaining story, is fiction that deserves to be shouted about from great heights.

Toby Ball's Invisible Streets is right up there, especially when considered with his two earlier books in the same setting.

Ball's third novel set in a fictional City that resembles the Big Apple, Invisible Streets stands alone from The Vaults and Scorch City, and is set in another time jump from the second novel, to the 1960s. Yet it has some familiar characters and themes for readers of the first two books. (The cameos come right as they are needed for this novel and include the one most anticipated at a crucial time.)

Invisible Streets follows the paths of three men involved in different ways with a huge remodeling project in the City. The New City Project is changing the shape of town, decimating old ethnic neighborhoods, moving the haves farther away from the have-nots, and having a far greater sociological impact on the population than its creator, Nathan Canada, may have ever imagined or cared about. Canada, who resembles Robert Moses, is a take-no-prisoners urban developer with contacts above and below regular commerce and political structures.

But although the novel involves his big project, it's not really about him. It's about three of the men who are concerned about the development from different perspectives. Frank Frings, known to readers of Ball's earlier novels, is back and still a left-leaning newspaper columnist. His old paper has been taken over by a Murdoch-style rag and he's about the only reminder of the old days. He's not given much respect there, but he still has his contacts and curiosity. So when his retired boss needs help finding his grandson, Frings agrees, and finds the college boy's disappearance may have something to do with an LSD study at his university. There were plenty of nondisclosure agreements signed and lawyered-up or discredited professors surrounding the study.

Torsten Grip is a detective on the force, although he's not too popular after his partner died in a shoot-out and he got away. As with most cops in the City, he's not clean but may not be excessively dirty in comparison to others. One of the construction sites for The New City Project is missing all of its dynamite. The usual suspects are what's left of the old Communists, Kollectiv 61, but perhaps that's a setup by whoever really took it. In a world as noirish as this one, anything is possible.

Phil Dorman is Canada's right-hand man. Hired right out of the Navy, he's the guy who gets things done in the neighborhoods and with the contractors at prices that favor his boss. He's the man who can't be bribed. But does he realize that isn't the same as being clean?

Although human life isn't particularly cherished on these mean streets, one death takes the main characters by surprise and becomes a catalyst for the narratives of all three characters.

Into this mix, Ball has included many of the political and sociological ideas taking shape in the 60s and which have seen a resurgence in recent years. In addition to the three main strands in the narrative, Ball has included excerpts of writing and media by Frings and others that emphasizes a debate about cities being for people or cities being for machines, about living and working spaces that can serve human needs or corporate needs. They are lightly used and could serve as writing workshop examples of how to get across a political or sociological idea in fiction without drowning the narrative in polemics.

All three of Ball's novels set in the City have the feel and weight of a Warner Brothers noir masterpiece. There is a great word picture that would make a superb visual midway through the novel. On a large map, the areas that once were brightly colored to represent different neighborhoods are shaded grey as the New City Project takes them over. The City itself is grey, but the dark and light in this story rarely mix compatibly.

Invisible Streets works as both a thriller and as a contemplation of social philosophy in action. Taken with its older two brothers, this is fiction that can entertain as well as provide the spark of an idea or two about what's important to us as individuals and as members of society living together in a city.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, August 4, 2014

Review: 'Fourth of July Creek'

Fourth of July Creek
By Smith Henderson
Literary fiction
May 2014
ISBN: 978-0062286444

The American West has long been a haven for people who want to be left alone and those who despair of society. But loners and misfits aren't always alone. Sometimes they have families and those families have children -- children who may be loved or who may be barely endured, but either way, they can be children who are not cared for.

Pete Stone is a social worker assigned to a vast territory in the northwest corner of Montana, of sparsely settled pockets not of civilization, but of people. He's like a lot of those people. His marriage is broken, his teenage daughter is sullen and doesn't get much attention from a father with a demanding job, and he drinks. A lot. His successes trying to help children and listen to the adults purportedly caring for them are few but he still plugs away at it.

Between other hard-luck cases, Pete is called when a wild child appears at a school one day. Even in the pre-computerized days of the late '70s and early '80s, the dawn of the Reagan era, it's unusual for a boy in such a state to have no records. The boy, Benjamin, doesn't consider himself neglected. He and his pa live in the woods off the land. Headed up toward camp, Benjamin's father warns Pete away, obviously willing to shoot him.

That father is Jeremiah Pearl, who knows the end times are coming. His dearly loved wife saw the signs coming and had the whole troop of Pearls, including all the babies, leave Indiana and head for the woods where they might have a chance to survive.

Pete leaves foodstuffs and clothes in a niche in the woods. Sometimes things get taken. The distrustful Pearl gradually doesn't quite trust Pete, but accepts his help and then him. In between spells when they spend some time traipsing through the land, Pete's wife leaves Montana for Texas, where there is a chance of a man taking care of her and their daughter, and their daughter realizes she's got nowhere to go. So she leaves. And it's about as blandly dire as one would think.

The sections where Pete tries to navigate the system through several states, trying to find a young runaway daughter, shows how easily children fall through the cracks of a social system set up to protect them, and shows the heartbreak of parents who love their children but don't know how to take care of them. So do the sections where that daughter, Rachel, becomes a child of the streets.

Whether it's parents who can't handle being parents, children forced to grow up and fend for themselves, people who believe what they are told or people who don't believe the evidence in front of their faces, Henderson's debut novel is filled with innocents who wonder about what has happened to them or who cannot handle what they see going on. Most of the people in the novel feel helpless about what they see, whether it's a small-town judge heartbroken when Reagan wins, a female social worker who was an abused child or a federal agent who regrets the choices he has made.

About the only people who don't feel helpless are Pearl and his son. Pearl is a combination of just about every paranoid, black helicopter-fearing loner who have inhabited the crannies of Northwest empty places for decades. He's also far more than that, and the dull despair that sometimes enshrouds Henderson's people is a great contrast to this character who searched so hungrily for something to believe in, and chose wrongly.

Henderson's novel earns its humanizing, heartfelt climax and coda both because the scope of the characters' journeys are so well-drawn and because the little details are so right. This is a highly political and social novel that is tightly anchored to its characters and setting. To have carried this off with no preaching or screeching is a remarkable achievement, and an uplifting reading experience.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday Sentence: 'History of the Rain'

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read last week, presented without further context or commentary:

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.

--Niall Williams, History of the Rain

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: "Winemaker Detective' series

Treachery in Bordeaux
Nightmare in Burgundy
Deadly Tasting
(Winemaker Detective novels)
By Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen
Crime fiction (French series)
2012-2014 (English translations)
Le French Book
ISBNs: Treachery: 9780985320621
Nightmare: 9781939474285
Deadly: 9781939474223

Benjamin Cooker is a winemaker in this French detective series, consulting with vineyard owners and wineries, dispensing his opinion in a popular guidebook and serving on wine juries. It's a good life for this half-British, half-French lover of good wine, food and cigars. But just like Jessica Fletcher or any number of cozy amateur detectives, he doesn't go looking for murder. It finds him.

The series begins with Treachery in Bordeaux, in which wine in three vats of one of his longest friends has gone bad. Since the distraught man owns one of the last wine estates remaining within the city limits of Bordeaux, its prestige needs to be protected. He needs someone to look into things quietly, not with a splash. And that's just what Cooker does. Along the way, he acquires an assistant, indulges his love of art and local lore, and discovers what happened to the wine and why. As a series introduction, it's a breezy read with a very interesting motive behind the crimes that occur.

Nightmare in Burgundy, published in trade paperback on July 31, finds Cooker and assistant Virgile travel to that other renowned French winemaking region. Our hero is inducted into a highly honorable organization that celebrates the fruits of the grape. Odd graffiti is discovered in various places around town. Cooker realizes the writing is in Latin. An old friend, an aging monk, helps him find the Biblical verses that correspond. And Virgile is adept at enchanting at least one local young woman.

When disgust at the graffiti leads to death, Cooker is the one to put the pieces together. The plot is wrapped up very quickly in this short novel, but its conclusion brings to mind a classic mystery. As with the debut novel, all the pieces fit together smoothly.

Deadly Tasting
, the fourth book in the series, requires Cooker's expertise when an elderly man is found dead and, in his humble abode, are 12 wine glasses with only one filled. What wine is it and how might that be pertinent to the crime? Then another body is found, and another. Cooker has to put the pieces together before the circle is completed. Again, the motive of what's going on is clever and, as with the other two mysteries, the clues have a lot to do with France and French winemaking.

The novels are very quick books to read. On occasion, there are things that don't fit into such a light premise, as some crime scenes that are more gory than usual in cozy mysteries and jarring vulgar language that is thrown in when many other alternatives are available. It's not that crime fiction should -- and hardly does -- shy from such things. But they do stand out in what are otherwise light, cozy reads.

Although people who know France and French wine will more fully recognize the lists of names that are used in the books and what they mean, those who appreciate gastronomic delights will enjoy this aspect of the series. The French lore and history are especially enjoyable aspects.

The series has been adapted to French television and, based on these three entries, shows the potential for many stories.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Fourth of July Creek

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further commentary or context. Except to mention that it was difficult to find just one passage.

A hospital visit was supposed to happen just after the morning shift change, but a teacher had broken up a huge fight in the local high school parking lot, and by the time everything was sorted out Debbie's appointment had been scotched. She asked to go to the ER once, but it was a faint request made to a cop shop full of a dozen sullen high school wrestlers and officers calling their parents. She went to lie down. No one saw her spasm or heard the jouncing of the springs under the thin mattress as she had the heart attack that killed her.

-- Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek

Review: 'I am Pilgrim'

I am Pilgrim
By Terry Hayes
Crime fiction (espionage thriller)
May 2014
Atria Books
ISBN: 978-1439177723

A wise and rumpled NYPD detective has a stumper of a murder case in a seedy hotel. Everything that could identify the victim's body has been removed. Coincidentally, he knows one of the world's most accomplished investigators, a shady operative who worked in a division that not even the CIA was supposed to know about. So he'll help.

Just when the noirish quality of this story has been established, the scene shifts for a longish segment about a totally different story in Terry Hayes's debut novel. And it switches again. And again.

Hundreds of pages later, the threads all come together -- and come together very well. But this novel isn't really about that murder case. It's about the shadowy investigator called in by the cop. He's going to be set on the trail of a Muslum radical whose family was done wrong by the Saudi royal family. So this heartbroken young man is going to become an Osama-like radical and decide to bring down the United States instead of attacking the Saudi royal family (which is an actual political stance of some radicals but doesn't look too logical put that way).

The long, involved story of how the radical's childhood and what happened to his family is an engrossing story. So is the story of the investigator's childhood. So is the story of the NYPD detective. And of several other characters who come within the widening, then tightening, circle of the story's structure.

This kind of storytelling may not work for every reader. The book was not a pageturner because just when the narrative draws one into a certain character's story, changing to another character's story -- especially in a long flashback -- may make readers feel they've wandered into a different book and decide to put it down for a spell. Others may enjoy the badminton effect of going back and forth.

Whichever reading preference one has, Hayes, a former journalist who did the novelization for the original Mad Max and wrote the screenplay for the second film in the series, knows how to pull the storytelling strings within each section. And he knows how to finally pull the strings together. As a bonus for those who don't appreciate political bon mots in their thrillers, there are only two such little dumplings in the story. For those who do not look for a long commitment in their thrillers, be warned; the U.S. hardcover version of this novel is more than 600 pages.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission