Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Witness to Myself





Seymour Shubin
Witness to Myself

Hard Case Crime, 2006

As a teenager Alan Benning once spends a holiday with his parents in a mobile home at the ocean. Alan runs along the beach, steps into the woods and about a mile away from where his parents left off meets a little girl. Her kite is stuck in a tree, and Alan helps remove the kite. Sexually excited, Alan attempts to touch the girl, she begs him not to hurt her, Alan panics and strangles her first, and then throws her on the ground.

Returning to his parents, Alan lays down with a fever, until the family is going away forever from the small town where the beach was located. From that moment fifteen years passes, Alan graduates from university, becomes a successful lawyer, gets a promising job in the charity-specialized company, dates a sweet and sympathetic nurse. But the episode at the beach, the outbreak of violence, does not make the hero rest. He should go back to this town and try to find out whether he had killed an innocent girl or not.

The novel with such dubious hero (an attack on a little girl does not honor him) is not told by Alan himself, but by someone close to him, his cousin Colin, working as a true-crime journalist. Colin writes articles for several tru-crime magazines, knows many detectives, watches popular TV shows about unsolved murders. And as the story is told by journalist, whom Alan have never talked about his only crime to, you can at the very beginning of the book conclude that Alan will pay for his act - and repent before his cousin.

Witness to Myself is a fine example of modern noir, quick, chilling, appealing for sympathy towards the main character, but which does not overdo it with the psychological stuff. Alan could easily come off the pages of an early novel written by Highsmith, only Shubin is not burdened with psychological layouts, trying to move faster with his story. Alan is of that category of noir heroes, whose near-perfect existence marred by a single shameful act from the past. And this act is sitting like cancer in his brain. Sooner or later, it will still kill its host. And it seems the more ideal he is for those who surround him, and in the course of the novel Alan really in everyone's eyes will be almost a saint, the harder he gets along with his past.

Shubin is a veteran writer and Witness to Myself indicates that the writer is still in excellent shape.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Whole Lie





Steve Ulfelder
The Whole Lie

Minotaur, 2012

Conway Sax comes back, this time plunging right into political intrigue. Savannah Kane, Conway's former lover, also a member of Alcoholics Anonymous group who are calling themselves the Barnburners, asks him for help. Savannah has a relationship with a candidate of the upcoming elections for governor. Someone blackmails a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, and Savannah asks to find a blackmailer. Conway is not eager to help some rich politician, but can not refuse Savannah. The Barnburners are on the first place, helping each other, and then only everything and everyone else. Conway receives a check for a lump sum from the candidate, feels something’s wrong, but still takes the case - the money from the check can help Conway buy his business off his girlfiend Charlene. Then someone kills Savannah, staging her death as accident, and to reveal a chain of crimes for Conway becomes a matter of honor.

The first book about Sax offered a twisted plot and believable characters, but suffered from stylistic roughness. In The Whole Lie Steve Ulfelder polished the roughness without losing the suspence of plot and fullness of the characters. Conway Sax in this book has become even more sympathetic to the reader, thanks to the narrator’s talents in Ulfelder. Often crime fiction with an amateur sleuth (and Sax is somewhere in between an amateur and a professional sleuth for AA group) disappoints with its infantilism: the protagonist, having thrown all his usual routine, runs as a madcap, revealing a world conspiracy, putting his life at risk many times in the book as if forgetting the fear. Sax is also engaged in a dangerous game, nevertheless does not become irresponsible. He cares about his business, small problems of Charlene’s daughter, trying to find such middle ground, that his detective affairs doesn’t interfere in affairs of the heart. But it’s hard to carry through.

Ulfelder with this novel definitely will not bore you. The book not only entertains, and even gives practical advice, and it is always useful to read the book from which you learn something new:

«You wouldn't believe how hard it is to tail a guy. It's not like TV at all.

Barnburner duties had taught me the only way to follow a car was to stick your nose right up his back bumper, make sure you got through the same lights he did, and hope like hell he wasn't paying attention.»


Books about Conway Sax are the best there is in the genre today.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Memory Book





Rowan Coleman
The Memory Book

Ebury Press, 2014

Claire is the main protagonist of this novel. She is in her early forties, she is the mother of two daughters, married to a man younger than herself. Claire has everything to enjoy in life, if not for one major obstacle – her Alzheimer's disease transmitted genetically from her father and rapidly progressing.

Claire even before diagnosis knows that something is wrong. She could forget a word, put somewhere something and doesn’t find it later, could forget what she was doing a moment earlier. Claire knew that her chances of getting Alzheimer's is 50:50, but she hoped that the disease will pass, or at least postpone its arrival until the old age.

At the beginning of the novel we read the scene where Claire meets her future husband, Greg. He repaired the roof of Claire’s house, at the time a single woman with a teenager daughter, and when Claire could not remember where she put the money to give Greg for the job, Greg called her out on a date. Acquaintance grew into something more, the relationship became serious, and Claire, who before Greg rarely dated men, decided to get married. Marriage with Greg became for her also psychological prop: finding love in adulthood, Claire hoped that it will help her chances of fighting the disease that has not yet come.

But this does not happen.

This book can be criricized and can be praised, but it is intended for one target audience - women of a certain age. The Memory Book is not conceived to win the hearts of wide and disparate target audience, it just does not have the material. A person reading this novel who is not a target audience probably will finish reading after 40 pages and throw the book in the trash.

The novel definetely offers a comfortable reading, without any real life worries and with moderate intrigue. Coleman follows the trend: if novels about Alzheimer's are in trend, why not write another one like this? The author changes narrative angles, switching between four characters, but mostly it is first-person narration from POV of mother and daughter, Claire and Caitlin.

The idea of a memory book is not too new, and this idea is impleneted here so so. It gives us the opportunity to visit the characters’s past, but these excerpts from memory book are written too artificial, too artistic, as if all family members have graduated with degree in philology.

As such, there is no conflict in the book. But there are several semi-conflicts. For example, in the novel there is a small possibility that Claire will be sent to a special hospital, but relatives in the future do not even consider this option. Caitlin’s pregnancy is associated with the conflict "save or not the child?" But again everyone is happily together, and the conflict disappears. Throughout the novel something threatens Claire’s life because of her failing health, but each risk evaporates either by itself, or with Claire’s relatives’ will. We know Claire’s diagnosis from the beginning, so do not count on unexpected development of events.

The only surprise of the book, a personality of a stranger Ryan, holds on a very large assumption. And in general memory lapses happen to the main character's convenience, and only then when it is necessary to advance the plot in the right direction.

On the posotove side is that the book can be read in two sittings. The author’s style is purely serviceable, it helps to push forward an unpretentious story.

The Memory Book offers love at first sight, family love, sleek style and is conflict-free. The Memory Book will not remain in memory, but someone will enjoy it devouring within a couple of evenings.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932





Francine Prose
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

Harper, 2014

This novel is woven from several fictional documentary sources, from letters to memoirs, and tells the story of a real person - Lou Villars, a professional athlete, autoracer, lesbian and a spy.
Before us are letters to parents written by famous photographer of Hungarian origin Gabor Tsenyi, the author of the photo, which gave the title to this novel. Gabor is trying to make a living with the camera, making pictures for newspapers, but mostly asking for money from his parents, calling them Mama and Papa. The photographer suffers because his work is not recognized as art.

«I cannot go on like this! My days in journalism are numbered! I must find another way of supplementing your stipend, another job that will let me have my nights free to wander the city, taking pictures. It’s demoralizing enough to be demoted—or promoted, according to my editors—to the sports pages. But when I actually find a subject worth writing an article about, they refuse to print it.
Last week I attended the event described above. This time I only made a few tiny improvements on the truth. That sparkle of saucy feminine beauty was my invention, as were the hurdles and the bike. And Paris is hardly abuzz about Mademoiselle Lou, though they should be buzzing about this young woman who, in our country, would probably be exhibited as a circus freak.

I would never have heard of this girl if not for my friend Lionel. With typical directness—excuse the language, his, not mine—my American pal remarked that the sight of a big, healthy, muscular girl in pants, running and chucking a spear, made him feel like a happy bumblebee was buzzing in his trousers.»


Unrecognized genius is tormented by his uselessness, until two women, both in love with him, appear in his life. One of them is Baroness de Rossignol, wife of Baron Didi, who can kiss women, but prefers men in bed. Baroness starts to sponsor Gabor so he could open his own studio. And there Gabor can do the most laid-back photos, including photos of naked men in masks. The second woman in love with a photographer is Suzanne Dunois, his future wife, and later widow. Suzanne can not support Gabor financially, but offers him moral support.

Biography of Lou Villars is written by Nathalie Dunois, Suzanne’s niece, an emancipated lady of feminist tendencies. Her book is based largely on speculation and her own interpretations.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 in nature is meditation on a single photograph; complex poem; a dance around a photo. Each documentary source, that build the novel, has its catch and is a parody on the source. The photographer Gabor has a prototype, writer Maine is quasi-Henry Miller, and Nathalie Dunois is a collective image of ladies with higher education and creative instincts, who see everything through the prism of feminism.

Each of these characters is certainly strange, but pleasant, and each has its own unique voice. The novel even to some extent can be called an exercise in style, but the stylistic heterogeneity here is not cutting the story. Each fictional document, underlying the book, looks like original.

What eventually happens to the main heroine Villars is clear from the beginning, but the spirit of the book is not really grim. Yes, there are bile, jealousy, contempt, but all the characters are unsophisticated and nobody will disgust you. That’s true, of course, and for Lou Villars, which made her way from the ridiculous athlete to an almost executioner. Dunois the biographer is trying to find an explanation in the behavior and motives of Villars. Like, she worked for the Nazis from good intentions. Villars caused harm to some, so hundreds could be saved. She believed that protects civilians. And among motives the main is France is to blame, which denied Villars in sports, racing, depriving her of the joy of life, not allowing her to be who she is. But Dunois is a dim biographer, and one shouldn’t believe her. Are the reasons so important why a person becomes what he is? And was it all that simple with Villars, with her revenge to the country and the baron, when he refused to fight for her, the best racer of the country? This novel is a powerful statement about why you can not judge others.

Francine Prose won’t let you take a break from reading once you start. The novel radiates benevolence so that even the chapter about meeting between Hitler and Villars gives warm feelings.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Your Fathers, Where Are They?





Dave Eggers
Your Fathers, Where Are They?

Knopf/McSweeney’s, 2014

The novel is written entirely in the form of dialogue and generally not very different from the play. A young troubled man named Thomas (he is slightly over 30) kidnaps an astronaut named Kevin, whom they once were in college together with. Kevin, of course, does not remember his kidnapper, but Thomas knows who Kevin is. Thomas brings the kidnapped astronaut on abandoned military base in California near the ocean and there he handcuffes Kevin to a pole. The kidnapper only wants to talk with former classmate, to get answers to his questions and promises Kevin to release him soon. The astronaut first swears, threatens, but quickly realizes that the threats are useless. He is completely at the mercy of his captor.

Thanks to leading questions, Kevin starts to remember Thomas vaguely. Back in college, Kevin has set a goal of becoming an astronaut and achieved his goal in a few years. Thomas always liked Kevin, saw him as his role model, the only man that can keep his word. Kevin played baseball for the college team, studied at 4.0, graduated from the NASA Academy, learned Urdu, was a fighter pilot, then became an astronaut, flew into space and planned to get on the Shuttle, when the government canceled the U.S. space program. Kevin is only the first in a chain of people abducted by Thomas.

Eggers always loved experimenting with the form. No less he was keen on politics: in his latest works there are increasing degrees of actuality. In Your Fathers, Where Are They? politics and prose enter into symbiosis, and the result is not the most impressive. For political expression the book is too one-sided and superficial, for the novel tiresome and predictable.

In his novel, Eggers addresses several topics of the day: useless wars, police brutality, budget cuts, pedophilia (along with pederasty, if you use Egger’s choice of words), inadequate parenting etc. The author seemed to be in a hurry and jumps on these topics as valiant steed, only engaging in a dialogue on one issue, as abruptly switches to another. Pressed (no other word for it) into the book are many different themes, only they are revealed too superficially. Eggers seems to be not a stupid man, and he does not know politics at all. He seemed to be grabbed an idea here and there, built his views and now passes them through his characters’s lips. Meaning of the dialogue is an exchange of views, which could change the point of view of another person. It is sad that no one in the novel has not changed his views. Thomas initially is frozen in his views on the world, and no strangers will not change him, and abducted people are less interested in what his kidnapper thinks. What a worldview, when you're chained to a pole. Thomas originally planned to find answers to the right questions, for this he has planned the kidnappings. But after the first quarter of the book, he loses interest in other people's answers, having to read lectures and blaming others for all the sorrows. Thus Eggers fails his original task. And if the main character already knows all the answers and will not change his point of view, then why bother with kidnapping of so many people? Thomas could easily tell his monologue, sitting in the kitchen.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? as a novel are too tedious reading. It’s starting intriguing (somebody steals an astronaut - it's just cool by any standards), and what follows diminishes the intrigue with each page. The reason lays in the main character, who, though an ill person, still pretty bad person. Nothing pleasant in listening to his self-righteous speeches, it's like to find yourself in an elevator with a stranger not happy with his life - the first two floors you sympathize with him, and you want to leave by the third.

After the first third, when it becomes clear that the main reason why Thomas committed the kidnappings, it becomes too boring. Eggers writes briskly, but the dialogue is still deprived of any spark. Perhaps the author did not have enough humor and self-irony. The story of the abduction to the finale becomes a grotesque parody, and the plot seemed to be written by some horror fan with a sick imagination, writing fanfic for some forum.

It's a shame that Eggers spent his talent on this one-sided, uninteresting novel. Fathers, where were you when you gave Dave the opportunity to publish this thing?

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Reckoning





Rennie Airth
The Reckoning

Mantle, 2014

Sussex, 1947. Someone shoots a retired banker Oswald Gibson in the neck, after putting the victim on his knees. A shepherd sees the killer from afar, but can not give a distinct description. It is only known that the killer was wearing baggy clothes and moved quickly, with youthful gait. Shepherd immediately called the constable, police began to surround the area near the river, but the killer seemed to dissolve in the air.

Investigate the murder in Sussex comes Scotland Yard Inspector Styles. Attention of Chief Detective Bureau of the country is attracted by the fact that in Scotland a week earlier in a similar manner an elderly doctor was killed in the operating room. Styles suspects that the murders may be linked. Gibson was a widower, lived modestly, had no enemies. Of relatives he had only a lawyer brother. However, coming servants recall that a few days before the murder, someone visited Gibson. After this visit, Gibson walked thinking about something and even began to write a letter to the Chief Constable of England, inquiring about a former inspector named Madden.

Styles does not know whether this unfinished letter is connected to the murder, but summons Madden, former Yard inspector. Madden, now retired, is mostly engaged in gardening and happy to help, but he doesn’t recognizes Gibson on the photographs.

There are a serial killer, killing seemingly unrelated people, an insightful inspector (in this case, former inspector), scattered through the novel clues, and even chapters, written from the victims’ point of view. Similar novels are published probably by dozens per week in England alone, and this one stands out with bright style and tight plotting.

Rennie Airth avoids hackneyed device when chapters from the murderer’s POV are written in italics. In the novel, there are a few scenes that are written almost from the killer’s point of view, but they do not cause the slightest irritation. The novel’s plot is linear, the story is told clearly, without trying to be "High Literature", which usually ends badly. Here the author’s ability to build the plot is obvious: there is the work of thought, there is footwork. Clues appear gradually, logical, and the investigation is conducted professionally. Each clue is checked out, which again emphasizes the author's skill.

By the middle of the novel it is clear where the investigation will turn that somewhat frustrating. Then the book departs from its course of the classical detective story, floating away in the direction of the country thriller. The killer becomes known, all that’s left is catch him. Airth quite believable handles the scenes of chases and surveillance.

The Reckoning is a nice mystery, not pretending to be something more. It’s a fun read for a couple of evenings.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Eyrie





Tim Winton
Eyrie

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014/ Picador UK, 2014

Perth, Australia, our days. Tom Keely lives alone in an apartment building in a poor neighborhood. He's almost 50, he is divorced, childless, he is out of work. Keely was once known environmental activist, he even appeared on TV screens, the newspapers and magazines wrote about him. But after a conflict with officials, he lost his job because he refused to cover the illegal actions of the authorities. Keely issued dirty linen in public, and now no private company wants to hire him, not to mention the state.

Keely lives on some savings and money from the sale of the house. All that he can afford is a small apartment in the seedy neighborhood. Keely worsens his problems with alcohol and regular antidepressants. Most of the novel we will be see Keely either drunk, or on pills, or hang-over.

Keely rarely comes from the apartment, speaks to no one, occasionally swims in the ocean. His mother Doris, a successful lawyer, and sister Faith, working in the financial sector, worries about Keely. He assures them that he's all right.

Everything changes in Keely’s life when he unexpectedly meets a woman, which resembles someone, in the building,. She is Gemma, a girl from the past. Now Gemma is in her forties, and she raises her grandson - a strange boy with no less strange name Kai. Keely is surprised by this meeting, he did not even know that Gemma lived in the same house with him just down the hall.

Despite its length, Eyrie reads in one breath. That’s not surprising considering that Winton has written 25 books already. The secret of success here is that the book equally attracts with its plot intrigue and an ability to write about everyday life.

Winton pushes his characters to an almost impossible situation, making the novel very dark and kind of depressing. Heroes fall into a trap, and all their actions and attempts are doomed. It is important not to lose the human face, not be on the same level with animals, those who prey on the main characters of the novel.

Despair largely even comes not from an external source, i.e. criminal elements, but from life itself. Keely after his fall from the top steps on the lowest rung of society, at his age left with nothing - except the conscience and moral attitudes. He largely looks up to his father, who was a priest and really saved people. Keely is also trying, but realizes that he lacks hardness. And his moral values are his own ruin. Because of them, he does not fit into society, can not keep in touch with other people.

Actually everyday life stifles Keely and Gemma and the like. They are honest, strong-willed people who simply can not cope with the system. Everything is against them. Toward the end of the novel Keely pawns his computer equipment to the shop to get a little cash. Clerk gives Keely a hundred dollars less than usual just because Keely looks, due to stress and alcohol, as if he were a junkie.
Crime story takes a turn in the second half of the book, and in the first Winton depicts Australian life of bottom. The novel is written in the third person, but such that it is similar to the first. And the voice of Keely is simultaneously resentful and angry at society (and himself), but also from bitter at his own impotence and unwillingness to change something. Such bitterness in his voice helps make the novel drive, when seemingly nothing happens, other than sitting in a stuffy room, swimming in the ocean, a short phone talk with the sister. Descriptions of hangover here are gorgeous, extremely realistic and somewhat painful. It is a rare thing.

“He peeled back the lids with a gospel gasp and levered himself upright and bipedal if not immediately ambulatory. Teetered a moment in the bad weather and shapeless mortification of something like waking consciousness. Which was heinous. Though in the scheme of things today’s discomfort was the least of his troubles. He should be glad of the distraction. This little malaise was only fleeting. Well, temporary. Just a bloody hangover. But for all that a pearler anyway, a real swine-choker. Even his feet hurt. And one leg was still intoxicated.”

In the novel there is no quotation marks at the dialogues, they are part of the main text, but the dialogues are actually Winton’s strong point. It’s difficult to write a believable dialogue between child and adult, and Winton makes it believable.

Eyrie’s action takes place in Australia, though the novel is rather a hybrid of literature of the three countries. From Australia there is destroying heat and large spaces, from English literature dialogues and britanisms and from the American prose the story itself.

Winton is a brilliant stylist, a good storyteller, and his novel is a great success.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Quick





Lauren Owen
The Quick

Jonathan Cape, 2014

Publisher’s blurb beats around the bush, promising a sea of secrets, the atmosphere of Victorian London, epic scope, but is shamefully silent that this novel is about vampires. Bloodsuckers here are the same as in other works of art. They drink blood, die from silver, but almost have no fear of daylight and garlic, hunt at night, and deprived of blood they hibernate. One can turn into vampire through bite, but only if the person gives consent. Without the consent one only dies from blood loss.

The center of vampires in London becomes a mysterious Aegolius club, which includes gentlemen in the exact amount of 52, rich and ambitious. It’s incredibly hard to become a member of the club, but no one knows what the club does and what purpose carries. Among the members there are several researchers who are engaged in a vampire body, strengths and weaknesses of a vampire. They make experiments on the club members and research the old books and try to write their own. Augustus Mould keeps a diary during these studies, and from his writings we learn the essence of the club.

The novel begins not with the Aegolius club, but with the county home, once owned by a wealthy family. Brother and sister, James and Charlotte, were raised almost without parents. Their mother died, their father is out somewhere and servants mostly watching the house, but not the children. Charlotte herself teaches the alphabet to the younger brother: he’s nine years old, and he can not read and write, and hasn’t never been to school. Soon their father, terminally ill, returns home, but quickly dies. One of governesses minds the brother and sister, sends them to school. James then leaves to study at Oxford, and Charlotte remains in Yorkshire with the governess, turning into an old maid.

Was all this publishing disguise (and the author’s, too) worth it? Unfortunately, no. Lauren Owen does everything to hide vampires and give instead of a vampire thriller something sublime. Bloodsuckers here practically are never called bloodsuckers, the word "vampire" is used about five times in the novel, scenes of bloodsucking there are even less. Frustrating, of course, is not the mere presence of vampires, but banal interpretation of the theme and the absence of at least some attempts to refresh the material.

The novel’s main intrigue, associated with vampires, flashes with fake flame and immediately dies out. The Aegolius club and its leadership intentions extension: turn into vampires English high society. But after failing to turn Christopher the plan somehow is aborted. A sound strategy is instantly forgotten, but half a club begins hunt for James, who holds no strategic value. It turns out that the central plot device is pathetic plot device to explain James’s turning.

Generally, all that is connected with the club, is not subject to any rationalization. What is the difference between the Aegolius and the Alia – Owen does not explain, how vampires get along with the rest of the world, despite the fact that the phenomenon of vampirism is widely discussed and, apparently, even accepted as something that really exists – it is not clear.

Chaos reigns not only in the structure of the world of vampirism, but on an example of one vampire in particular, James. Withdrawn and self-taught poet suddenly turns into a sort of Batman, hiding under the cover of night, tearing the fetters, undending bars, breaking faces of nasty bloodsuckers. At the same time, it is not explained how a vampire abstinence works. How a vampire can refuse the call of the blood, why does he necessarily seek first his relatives? The flight and pursuit of James lack elaborate motivation. The club could easily kill James, finding him in a few hours - after all the club has 52 members. And if James promised revenge for the murder of his lover, why he went into hiding? It would be logical to see how he plans his attack.

It is sad that after the flight of James from the club and Charlotte’s coming to London, the novel loses its last remnants of Victorian charm, sinking to the level of a banal thriller. Philosophy gives way to smashing heads, torn feet, point blank shots, glasses full of blood. Even fragile Charlotte, rustic homebody, starts shooting with two hands and run faster than the wind. I'm afraid that the balance has not been met.

Yet the novel is worth reading - but only the first two chapters of childhood of the brother and sister (it’s like a separate story) and of the life of James with Christopher. This is a poignant prose about lost young people not accustomed to life in society. The first chapter explains wonderfully the special affection between the brother and sister and brother’s later fascination with literature.

Supporting characters in «The Quick» are flat, but even the main ones Owen clumsily handles. She has a habit of changing the name of the character, which confuses the reader. The author for entire chapter (or even a few chapters) calls the character by his last name, not mentioning at all his first name, and in the next chapter Owen suddenly begins to call him by first name. So, for a while it is not clear who is who.

The first chapter should’ve been published as a separate story, the rest is throw into the basket.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Whistling Past the Graveyard





Susan Crandall
Whistling Past the Graveyard

Gallery, 2013

Summer of 1963, Cayuga Springs, Mississippi. Nine year old Starla Claudelle lives at her grandma's house. Her father works at an oil rig and spends little time at home, and her mother had gone off to Nashville six years ago to become a singer, and now only sends rare postcards. Stubborn and independent, Starla is often punished by her grandmother Mamie for petty mischief. Despite Grandmother’s harsh words about her mother, Starla praises her mother and waits for the moment when she becomes famous and take Starla from her grandmother.

It seems like Starla doesn’t go to school. She studies a little at home, plays with the neighbor girl, kicks older boys, in the beginning even breaking the nose of one of them. For that Mamie grounds Starla on Independence Day, not allowing her to leave the house to watch the fireworks. Starla nevertheless is out of the house, plays on the playground, where a neighbor catches her. The neighbor threatens to complain to Starla’s grandmother, and then the girl, still in fear of harsher punishment, runs away from home and gets to the highway. Starla plans to walk to Nashville, finds her mother to live with her. Tired to walk, the girl changes her plan and takes a ride. A black woman named Eula on a truck picks up Starla, who are puzzled by a baby inside, a white baby. It begins to darken, and Eula offers Starla to spend the night at her ho,e, and in the morning Eula’s husband Wallace will take the girl where she wants to go. Starla agrees, but when he sees bear-like Wallace, the owner of bad temper and addiction to strong alcohol, the desire to spend the night at Eula’s house disappears. Wallace pulls his wife, baby James and Starla with force home and closes the door on all the bolts.

Whistling Past the Graveyard can be compared with fireworks: it’s, too, something noisy, incessant, kind to the eyes, catchy and colorful. The plot of the novel is as realistic as it is implausible in its fabulousness. I walked from my grandmother here is piling on rights of African Americans, dear, but distant Mother is a witch, and a nine-year girl giving battle to Ku Klux Klan.

Much of the credit that the novel was a success, belongs to the protagonist Starla. If she were not so independent, persistent and resourceful, all the adventures, sooner or later, would have turned sour, and would have made a moist cake of journalism and ordinary story of the runaway child. Crandall made Starla an insightful storyteller, but childishly naive, fair, but merciful. It's hard to write more than 300 pages from the POV of the nine year old child, so much so that it was authentic. Crandall gives Starla as much knowledge about the world as it is needed for the story. 300 pages look convincing, the final 30 are not quite. Actually, in the final pages, we read about the rights of blacks, Martin Luther King, protests, and here it turns into unconvincing journalism. Child will hardly understand this difficult matter.

The story of Starla’s wanderings is a story of splitting the world into black and white, literally. Child maybe for the first time sees an unfair balance between black and white, and begins to realize that the world is not black and white, and everything is mixed. Black can be white. White can be black.

The plot of the book is a whirlwind, flying swiftly, you do not want to be interrupted even for a second. But stylistically Crandall is more conservative and cautious. The novel is written in the southern dialect, but only to some degree. All the characters here, black and white, speak with dialect. And yet the author is afraid of losing literary style. Characters express themselves with something between a dialect and correct speech. So, illiterate people still express themselves not quite illiterately. Crandall gear ups on the dialect, then she reduces the pressure and the characters then almost completely switch to the literary language. We won’t find a complete authenticity there, but the novel reads without much effort.

Susan Crandall has written an excellent novel, which, if not placed in the annals of fiction of the South, then certainly delivers a lot of pleasure.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

My Salinger Year





Joanna Rakoff
My Salinger Year

Bloomsbury Circus, 2014

In the mid-90's 23-year-old Rakoff returnes from London, where she graduated from the university, to her native New York. Young graduate, she changes her plans to go to California, remains in New York, where she lives with her Marxist boyfriend Don in an inferior apartment, and gets a job in an old-fashioned literary agency which the book will be referred to simply The Agency.

Joanna was hired after one interview just before Christmas. She expects that her literary agent assistant duties will include reading manuscripts and search for literary talents, but mostly (at least in the early part of the book) she is doing what usually secretary does: return calls, typing documents, making decryption of recordings, answers to readers’ letters. The Agency, where Rakoff works, still does everything the way it was done in the 40s, when The Agency was established. All documentation is printed on a typewriter, a prehistoric dictophone with foot pedals is used, fax and xerox will appear in the office not soon, computer with internet access in the office will be put towards the end of the first year of Joanna’s work.

Rakoff’s boss, whose name we do not know, is an old woman who is antique as everything in the office. Besides Joanna’s boss, The Agency’s stuff includes several such old women, one of them resigns over the book course - lung cancer. The boss has several clients and talks on the phone with the same range of people, including a Jerry and another man, in which Joanna guesses her boss’s lover.
Joanna’s boss gives her some guidelines: not to give the address and phone number of Jerry to anyone, politely say generally everyone who calls about Jerry to stop calling, do not engage in conversation with Jerry, immediately switch him to the boss’ line. Rakoff does not immediately guess who Jerry in question is until she looks closer at the backs of books, standing in the office, and only then she realizes that Jerry is Salinger.

Rakoff’s memories partially can be attributed to the category of what is called "tangential memoirs." Writer of memories considers it his ot her duty to inform the world about his acquaintance, tangentially, pointing to some famous person. Accordingly, it often happens that the story of the memoirist has no value if it were not for this brief moment of crossing paths with the famous.
In this case, it is true, but not quite so. Salinger here really is included to attract attention. Rakoff did not read his books until she meets Salinger alive in The Agency office and essentially she had nothing to say about him as a writer. In the finale, the author begins an attempt to analyze the works Salinger, tells how they grabbed her soul, but it is not quite interesting to read and it gives a sense if not moralizing, the author’s just trying to impose her views.

Yet to dismiss My Salinger Year as a memoir of another writer trying to sunbath in the glory of someone else would be wrong. Because this book has its value and its charm, just from a different perspective. My Salinger Year is great memoires of the life of the literary agency, of bohemian life in New York of mid-90s. Rakoff's voice there has a passion, wisdom and measure. Her memoir is a sad notes with punching satire. If Salinger here had fictitious name, and you’d get a charming novel about a 20-year-olds. Rakoff has all the makings of the novelist. The book doesn’t have a pronounced plot (the intrigue with the publication of the book is not so clingy), but it is not a thriller, just a fragment of life of a young graduate.

Building up the image of Salinger and his readers (whose letters we read in the course of the book), Rakoff writes without snobbery, but with a bit of humor. Part of the humor stems from the fact that Rakoff first enters into adulthood and she doesn’t succeed at everything.

These failures, "moderate unhappiness", are rooted in the life style of the author. Her society is bohemian young people, with dreams of exhibitions and publications. Accordingly, the problems of the Brooklyn youth are quite peculiar. For these young bohemian people the book is designed primarily for, and that does not make it worse.

My Salinger Year is a voracious read, and its reading is accompanied by a healthy laugh.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Winter People





Jennifer McMahon
The Winter People

Doubleday, 2014

The novel begins with fragments of diaries, written in 1908 by Sara Harrison Shea and these diary pages will be later published as a hardcover book. One of the subplots is about the mysterious death of Sara and her daughter Gertie, another storyline happen nowadays, and in the center of it are two sisters, Ruthie and Fawn, whose mother Alice suddenly disappears one morning.

After a drunken night 16-year-old Ruthie wakes up from the words of her sister Fawn. Their mother Alice did not sleep at home and didn’t return home by the morning. Children's father died, and Alice, ex-hippie, raised her daughters alone in a big house in the town of West Hall, Vermont, located next to the wood and stone array, named the Devil’s Hand. Alice lived off the grid, grew vegetables and bred chickens, selling products at the market, for which she received the nickname the Egg Lady. Alice completely denied all modern devices, lived modestly, was very reliable and just could not disappear, leaving the children alone. Ruthie does not know who to turn to, and looks around the room for clues where her mother may have gone to. With her sister’s help they find a cache with a small pistol, a pair of driving licenses in the name of spouses O`Rourke, and a book of diaries by Sara Harrison Shea. Suspecting that the mother could be involved in something illegal, Ruthie does not report the missing mother to the police, and wants to find answers on her own.

First, it is worth noting that the book has not the most accessible structure. McMahon constantly switches between the characters’s point of view, change the third and first person, uses the direct narrative, the diary fragments, in addition alternating time layers, from the end of the XIX century to the present. I was not sure that the author would successfully implement a very intricate structure. I must admit that McMahon managed to build a house of cards-complicated plot, and it does not fall apart until the very end.

Perhaps only switch between Sara’s narratives are not quite justified. Part of her story is told through the diary and part through direct first-person narrative - and also in the first person. So, the diary and non-diary parts has no real difference.

McMahon is successfully controling paranormal activity in her book. In fact, The Winter People is a novel symbiosis between the mystery and the zombie thriller. Skeptics will find that the author leads us by the nose and there will be a logical explanation for everything, the dreamer will sweep detective elements as clouding otherworldly puzzle. The main point, in general, is that McMahon very sensitively handles evil spirits. People seem to see sleepers\spirits, but it can be attributed to a vivid imagination of a child or inflamed mind of a grieving woman. And when Sara brings her daughter back, the daughter communicates with her mother through knocks and notes, that are not the most obvious actions, pointing to evil spirit.

The book makes one guess until the very end, whether or not the dead could be ressurected. One discrepancy still exists: the essence of sleepers is not quite clearly explained, because it is not clear what these zombi-like creatures eat.

The novel entertains you with amusing secrets, in several places causes goosebumps, but goes not very high from the ground. McMahon does not strive for mysteries of the universe, keeping close to home. Heroes of her books are not all-powerful villains and superwomen, hacking their way everywhere. Ordinary people fall in complicated story with their little problems. Fawn is often sick and wants to play games, Ruthie wants to go to college, but due to lack of money should for a year stay to help her mother around the house and on the farm, Katherine has doubts about the fidelity of her deceased husband. Especially fascinating here are the dialogues between the two sisters. And in general the chapters on two days of life of Ruthie and Fawn during the mother's absence are the best in the whole book.

It’s a little disappointing that in the final quarter the characters lose all common sense and reason, otherwise how can we explain their trip into the tunnels where obviously something bad will happen with them. McMahon too easily, as in a YA fantasy, found a way out of the labyrinth plot. The finale adds a spoonful of tar, but does not spoil the entire picture.

The Winter People is a quality entertainment, a page-turner and smart horror.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hitman





Howie Carr
Hitman

Forge, 2011

Boston organized crime scene was unique. The presence of the Mafia in Boston nevertheless allowed to exist independent gangs. To avoid a permanent bloody fights, Mafia in early '70s formed an alliance with the new Winter Hill Gang. This gang and its main participants are those «Hitman» had been written about.

Hitman from the title is Johnny Martorano, Winter Hill Gang member, on whose account there are more than 20 murders. But Hitman is not a biography of Johnny, for this author Howie Carr had too little information about Johnny. Hitman is a biography of the Boston organized crime scene since the mid '50s to the mid-2000s with the emphasis on Johnny’s personality, his crimes and his subsequent cooperation with the prosecution. Carr without haste tells about changes in the criminal world, following Martorano’s career growth.

Carr definitely has the makings of a novelist. Each chapter he tries to finish with scathing joke or a twist, as he weaves his narrative from three main sources – Martorano’s testimony at the trial, when he made a deal with the prosecution, Martorano’s autobiography narrated to Carr, and the actual information collected by Carr from different sources. Carr, perhaps, is not the best researcher (in his book, there are no references to sources, so some parts read like tales from the criminal world), but a successful collagist, and will make you laugh plenty of times.

Johnny Martorano’s story is full of exciting adventure, betrayal, intrigue, and what we should expect from the criminal world. There are corrupt federal agents, and Top Echelon informants, and daring assassinations, and escape from the law.

Martorano is probably not a typical hitman. First, he pleads not actually be a contract killer. He never killed for money. His murders were friendly help to other members of the group or the killing of informers. Secondly, Martorano was always responsible for his families and children and worked mostly to support his wives and children (earning the nickname Mr. Mom). Third, surprisingly, but the deal with the prosecution for Martorano really was a forced move. Deal with the prosecution in the Martorano’s case was not an attempt to save his skin, but a noble attempt to save the skins of their friends.

"You can't rat on a rat. That's the way I see it."- With this statement in the Martorano’s case it could be hard to disagree, especially when at stake the lives of your friends.

Hitman describes in detail exactly how contract hits were committed, that is another definite plus. This important for understanding the structure of the criminal world book is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Us Conductors





Sean Michaels
Us Conductors

Tin House, 2014

This novel is a fictional biography of Leon Theremin, the Soviet inventor of the musical instrument theremin, and a number of other inventions. The novel consists of two parts – Theremin’s memoirs about two periods of his life, both parts, coincidentally, written in captivity. The first part was written in 1938 during the return (forced) of Theremin from the United States back to the USSR, and the second - in the Soviet sharashka where during the war and postwar years, along with other scientists, Theremin worked for the NKVD. Although Theremin lived a long life (he died only in 1993), this novel covers only a part of his life, mostly related to his beloved Clara Reisenberg.

Success and fame comes to Theremin after the First World War. A young physicist, he worked in St. Petersburg on multiple devices, and then created an unusual and original musical instrument theremin, a complex design that responds to human movement and make sounds. After some practice you can perform classical music on this instrument. The instrument makes a huge impression on everyone, Theremin is even invited to Lenin, where he performs several musical pieces. The scientist and inventor begins to tour within the Soviet Union, gradually perfecting the instrument and doing other developments (including the prototype of a modern TV). In 1928 the scientist moves to the USA to continue his work there, reinforcing his glory and bringing money to the Soviet Union.

Very strange thing this novel is. If you do not pay attention to the writer's name, you can assume that the book was written by a scientist-ex-Gular prisoner, who after the Gulag escaped to the United States, there kearned the language, and wrote this brilliant novel based on other people's stories and the official biography of Theremin. But this novel, who would have though, was written by an American journalist, and not just a journalist, but that man of almost nonexistent profession – a music critic. For a non-immigrant from the USSR, Sean Michaels has a phenomenal eye for detail. Typically, an aspiring author (and for Michaels this is the debut novel) feels very shaky on unfamiliar territory. The book covers very different societies: the birth of the USSR, and jazzy New York, and Kolyma, and closed scientific bureau. And there was a good chance that the American author could slip somewhere. But Michaels hasn’t lost a step.

Of course, someone will be outraged, saying that there are many assumptions in the book. Theremin didn’t know Kung Fu, and he didn’t kill an FBI agent, and much more other things here are distorted and added. However, the reader should understand that Us Conductors is, in the first place, a novel, an invention, as it is called by Michaels, only based on the life of the scientist and inventor. Facts can be distorted, but overall details - there is no falsehood.

There are small mistakes, though. For example, back in the early 30's one of the scientist’s friends calls him «rocket scientist», although the term had not yet appeared at that time. "Black Marusyas" here are called "Black Marias." Michaels politely calls prison snitches informers. Growing up in Russia, Theremin doesn’t yet know what “brusnika” is. In a conversation with the prison authorities Theremin uses as a measure of the length a mile and his superiors don’t correct him.

But all this is stuff that English-speaking readers will not notice. Though the story underlying the novel hardly will leave anyone indifferent. From the outset, the narrator chooses detached tone to his narrative. Yes, he is also the main protagonist, but he seemed to flow through life. He is a talented, successful, sociable, honest, but at the same time gutless and too naive. Having found his love, Theremin doesn’t take actions to win Clara. Generally relationships with women scientists put a stain on the inventor. He married Katya by stupidity, he was young, he says, but almost immediately and broke up with her, not even broke up, just forgot. He tried to win Clara, but it was too late (although he has not lost love for her). He married a black dancer for mercenary motives, and left her, though not by choice.

A lack of will power of the protagonist can be traced throughout the entire novel. After losing his main love, Theremin lost interest in life. Perhaps because of that he relatively easy suffered expulsion, arrest, jail, camp, sharashka. He has survived because of love - and his genius. It is impossible not to admire Theremin: he made many inventions, but he was not particularly proud of them and didn’t have patents. In the United States other people had patents, and his inventions in sharashka was kept as top secret.

For all his life the hero of the novel carried loyalty not only to Clara Reisenberg, but also to Lenin. Meeting with the leader left a mark on the mind of the scientist. For the reader the memories of Lenin may seem ridiculous, but in them we can see all sincerity and inner purity of Theremin. Characteristically, in his memoirs Theremin does not condemn the Soviet government, neither Beria or Stalin. Rather, he remains loyal to the Soviet regime, even after Kolyma. For him, the Soviet Union is not Stalin, it’s still Lenin.

Michaels writes equally captivating about music, camp labor, dancing under the jukebox, testing of new inventions. Us Conductors captures the essence of the XX century through the tragic fate of one scientist. Not every year we read debut novels of such power and brilliancy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vacationers





Emma Straub
Vacationers

Picador UK, 2014

The Posts leaves stuffy Manhattan to Mallorca to spend two weeks in the house of a friend. Posts at the same time are anticipating the holiday and the sea in Spain, but not sure that it will solve their intrafamily problems. But tickets have already been booked, and posts are not going to lose money.

Jim and Fran Posts should celebrate 35th marriage anniversary, their youngest daughter, Sylvia, just graduated from high school and is to college in the fall, and in Spain, Sylvia’s older brother Bobby and his girlfriend and Fran’s best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence will join the Posts.

Each of the guests are planning to spend time usefully. Sylvia wants to take Spanish lessons from a tutor, Jim to has a little workout, Fran to do research for her forthcoming book, Charles and Lawrence to have a break from the madness of the office, and Bobby intends to ask for money from their parents, and his girlfriend Carmen wants Bobby to finally mature.

The original idea of the book is not new: the remote location of the house, gathering of relatives, family secrets rushing out - we have already seen all that. But if in the literature repetition would be banned, we would expect a sad fate: over the centuries there have been written only two dozen books - tops.

Emma Straub plays on semitones, helps the trivial with the sense of humor, though, of course, walks a thin line. This line lies between the commercial literature and literature big and serious, that chasing not the profits, but meaning and recognition. Selection of characters here is entirely of moderately smart novel for women: husband and wife are necessarily writers, kids are cute, but dependent, and the presence of gay couple is required, the landscape is European on top of things, to have material for jokes and sights to see.

This collection of characters could drown any, the most solid, novel, Straub, however, makes these absurd characters to play to her advantage. Moreover, it makes all the characters sympathetic. Each of them individually is either a snob, or a bore, or a coward, or cad, but together these combinations of emotions, human types and qualities makes the whole company surprisingly lively. Straub brings us to the idea that people are not perfect, and that makes them human.

Vacationers in the first place is a book about the complexity of human relationships. Even within one family, the minimum unit of society, there are so many compromises, laws, rules, tacit agreements, I’m not even saying about entire nations.

Straub makes us realize the seriousness of our emotions and feelings, but does not do it with the stern face. Her characters are comic, though they hardly realize it. The novel’s humour is aiming, such that the book does not sink to the level of family romantic comedy.

You can call Vacationers beach reading, the book won’t loose its distinctive qualities.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Criminal World





Henry Sutton
My Criminal World

Harvill Secker, 2013

David Slavitt is a middle-aged crime writer, the author of the thrillers of medium popularity, father of two children, obedient husband. In the morning he drives the kids to school, then writes, and in the evening serves to the university colleagues of his wife cooking for them one dish and then another. And not that David is depressed about his life, it seems like the wife loves him, his books have readers, even though he’s not recognized on the street, and yet the writer's life has lost some direction. The new novel is not written, though deadline is rapidly approaching, the agent presses and requests from David more violence in his books (as an example pointing to a young talent, for whose novel publishers fought at the auction), his wife Maggie distences away from him and spends more time at work.

Slavitt does begin writing his new novel, staying in trend, with a female cop as the main character, and squeezes out a scene ot two every day, while he begins to suspect his wife having an affair with a student.

World couldn’t bear another novel about a writer’s block if My Criminal World wasn’t a subtle satire on the publishing world and the lives of middle-class suburbia. And this satire is quite softie, as David himself.

David himself has no intention to scoff at someone or laugh at something. He is depressed from all sides, he isn’t resting, and he does not dare to argue with anyone. His editor avoids him as a hopeless author, his agent is coddling him and tries to lead to the right path (ie the path of the bestseller), his wife shrugs off and complaines about tiredness. And inner uncertainty pushes the protagonist to such actions, which at other times he would not have thought of. So, a stay-at-home dad turns into the character of moderately suspenseful domestic thriller.

The publishing world is extremely prudent in this novel, so it is relatively easy to make fun of it. Course for commercialization fiction has taken finds his way in My Criminal World. David himself, perhaps, is the last of all the characters who think about money, but everyone else is trying to milk the author of the books before throwing him away. Publicity team prepares a U.S. tour, the agent teaches the writer how to write, the editor meets only with those who bring in cash.

Simultaneously with the main events of the novel we read manuscripts and fragments of the new Slavitt book. His novel is a typical British police procedural, callous, clumsy, with the change of POV in each chapter. Surprisingly, Henry Sutton managed to stylize these fragments from an average thriller. Compared to this Sutton’s novel, Slavitt’s novel looks pathetic. Slavitt is a nice guy, but what a mediocre writer he is.

Henry Sutton returned the faith that the novels about writer’s block could still be exciting and well-written. I will read more from Sutton with a great pleasure, but I wouldn’t ever read Slavitt.