Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Banker’s Daughter

Emran Mian
The Banker’s Daughter

Harvill Secker, 2012

Hanna Mehdi is 20-something-year-old daughter of the former owner of a major bank in London. In is the beginning of 2008, and Hannah with her father, whom she calls Baba, for nearly three years have been living in Beirut, where they fled from England, when the bank collapsed. The bank, which was the largest Arab bank in the world, had collapsed under mysterious circumstances. People standing at the helm, managed to escape from London, and so far the public doesn’t known whether Baba lost all his money, along with all other depositors, or he shamelessly appropriated the depositors' money.

In Beirut, Hanna and her father lead a comfortable life. They live in a luxury hotel, Baba has his own yacht, Hanna wears expensive clothes. For days, Baba just drinks cocktails by the pool, and Hanna is not busy with anything special. From Beirut they will not be be forced to the interrogations, so Hanna's father is not worried that justice will reach him and his daughter here in Lebanon. But in Beirut the Mehdi family is still under cover, without revealing to anyone who they really are. Hanna graduated from the university as an art historian, pretending here that sge is an art dealer who she in general actually is. With no artistic talent, Hanna became an art dealer.

The novel opens with a scene when she sees on her father’s laptop a photo with cut-off head of a certain man on it. Hanna knows that her father and her uncle are capable of violence. She knows that in a world where her father lives, men do what they want, just to achieve their goals. But Hanna is not sure what this photo means. Maybe her father is a murderer and that he had cut off a man's head, but it is possible that someone is threatening him, frightening the old man. The girl is nervous, but does not dare to ask her father directly.

Debut novelist Mian is a man, but the novel’s written from the point of view of a woman, and it is clear that Mian coped with this challenge. While reading the book, you just do not feel that the author is of tune somewhere, or sings flat. Hanna Mehdi is a young woman, with woman's emotions, female logic, with opposition to the world of violent men, with a love of the father, which only a daughter may have. Mian made the heroine of the book not an artist, a person who creates art, but a dealer who is selling art. Choice of Hanna’s occupation emphasizes communication with her father (he and she are working with money), and some sort sensitivity, which should be characterized by a person who is close to the artistic community.

Hanna accepts everything that her father had done, forgives him, but at the same time she leaves the family. Violence, power, big games - it's not for her. The family finally broke up. Hannah is a person of modern times, a person who lives according to rational consciousness. Her father Baba is a man of the past, living by the laws of his ancestors. The banker’s daughter does not accept these old rules, she starts a new life, but she did not deny from her father, so, at the same time, she continues ancient traditions.

The novel is interesting as a slice of the British art world, and as a slice of life of high society in Britain. The author looks at the world of art and the world of big finance through the lens of the Asian world.

Novel, perhaps, does not have enough layers. The book is fairly linear, as flashbacks rather complement and reveal the characters, rather than add any story lines. Also, like it or not, but only Hanna and her father are people with good qualities, all the other characters are like the selection of almost cartoonish villains, even without guns.

Simple, but at the same time catchy prose covers simplicity of the story. The end here is open whuch just suits this book. It asks a lot of difficult questions answers for whose is not an easy find.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Riverhead, 2008

This story of a family curse and the Dominican Republic is told by several narrators (in some cases it's hard to determine from whose perspective the story goes), and the time and place vary from chapter to chapter. The book begins as the narrator explains that all subsequent events can be attributed to a curse - fuku, which was brought by Europeans to the Americas. Modern Dominicans do not believe in the curse, but the current generation of parents believes that it’s real.

Oscar, the protagonist of the novel, from the age of seven had a weakness for girls, and also was the main geek of the Dominican ghetto. After an early incident when he first broke up with a girlfriend, and then another girlfriend dumped him, Oscar is rapidly gaining weight, becoming the thickest on the block. Oscar become SF&F fan, he reads fantasy and science fiction all day, play role-playing board games, watches anime and B-movies, in general. In school, he learns so-so, not interested in sports, does not participate in extracurricular activities. Girls shy away from him, and the friends soon start to laugh at him. Despite all the loving Oscar by high school years is suffering from a lack of steady girlfriend. Moreover, his geek-friends miraculously lost their virginity, and Oscar hasn’t yet.

In Junot Diaz’s style lay the main strength and weakness of this memorable novel. To show the actual integration of the two cultures, the Dominican and American (Oscar is American in the first generation), Diaz throws in the boiling cauldron of his prose pinch of Spanish in the bulk of English. English clearly dominates, but this mix does not confuse and not deterred. Diaz uses single words and whole sentences in Spanish in the text without selecting them either italics or bold, not giving footnotes and translation. Not knowing Spanish, you can still understand 80 percent of the writing, and the remaining 20 to guess the meaning. And the mix of languages is not the only thing that the writer mixed in his book. In the novel, for example, swearing in Spanish and baroque prose in perfect English are mixed, too. Of similes and metaphors, there are those that have a geek origin (reference to Marvel comics, jokes from the B-movies or quotes in Elvish from "The Lord of the Rings"), and there are those that mention Dickens. In narrators’s language Dominican sayings, world like Negro, passages, worthy of the best family sagas are perfectly combined. Since the main characters in the book teenagers and young adults, the tone of the narrative is quite cheerfully and youth, with youth slang, especially in Spanish. But in such a vigorous mix of everything you can find a few flaws. First, the story is told by several narrators, but the style of the book in all chapters is more or less similar, so the difference between the narrators is not very visible. Second, even when the author describes the history of the Cabral family, or something else non-youth, he still continues to use the vocabulary of a 15-year-olds from the Dominican ghetto.

By introducing fantastic element (although this element is rather vague, it was a curse or not, everyone decides for himself) in the novel, Diaz opened his novel to a large audience of fans. Family saga, coming-of-age story are what a "serious public" can find here, but the geek references, curses, and the main character, writing a fantasy - it's all for science fiction fans.

This is a book for everyone, and Diaz knows it. What's it about? About the relationship between generations, fate, the inner strength, will say someone. And they would be right. About that fat people remain virgins, will answer somebody else. And this is also true. He offers a lot of youth slang, which may make you think about the frivolousness of the novel. But then Diaz has a complex structure of the novel, which can not be called frivolous.

The title of the novel includes the name of Oscar, but the book is not only about him, but about his family. Oscar's sister all the time is somewhere on the sidelines, but Oscar's mother is already too voluminous character.

The book contains a number of references, written in small print, on the history of the Dominican Republic, but they are annoying and at times there seem superfluous.

Oscar had quite busy life, and the book was very enjoyable too. This is the book, which, I think, will long be remembered.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Single Shot

Matthew F. Jones
A Single Shot

Mulholland Books UK, 2011

Hunter John Moon goes out of his trailer in the morning to hunt. He illegally kills deers, each time risking getting caught. John’s father has lost the farm at the time because of the banking collapse, and John has enough problems of his own. He does not stay long at any work, his wife left him, taking with her their son. Since money is always tight, and free meat is good.

John shoots a deer from a distance, and then long pursues a wounded animal. When he hears the bushes rustle, he shoots. The deer appears from the other side, Moon shoots it, too. Going to the bushes, where he first heard a rustle, John finds the body of a young girl he accidentally killed. Exploring the place of illegally camp, he also finds a bag of money and a lot of drugs. After searching the body, John reads the note written by the killed girl, in which she writes about her boyfriend, with whom she head over heels in love. John hides the body in a cave, takes the money and the carcass of a deer and drags all of it to the trailer. Moon wants to use the money to bring back his wife and a child. Later, John realizes that the money belongs to a couple of farmers, whose house a few years ago was robbed, and they were both brutally murdered. Conscience and the people who owned the bag with money begin to pursue John Moon.

«A Single Shot» is what is now called the rural noir. The novel story is indeed close to noir, first of all because it is about good people doing bad things. John Moon is an honest, but a broken hero. He is «a good-looking guy ..., gentle and with a good sense of humor». Life was not fair to him, but he has no inner core, to resist to the end and did not succumb to temptations. He takes the stolen money (stealing already stolen), but for the benefit of the family. He kills the girl, but it was an accident. Moon is visited by the idea to go to the police and confess, to explain the situation, but here healso lacks confidence. He has several prior convictions, and who would believe him? Who would believe a poacher, an unemployed, who took the stolen money? John is not the only one in the novel, who came under the influence of money or a bad company.

«A Single Shot» is a greater story, where all are the details. And Matthew F. Jones catches in his style the importance of detailes. But what distinguishes this book and makes it extraordinary, it's attitude towards death. Deprivation of human life is not just another everyday event, it can break a man (which is why this novel was compared to "Crime and Punishment"). Murder deprives sleep, exhausts, causes burning with fever. Conscience like a tumor eats away the brain, the heart is accelerated, then almost stops, and lungs are filled with molten lead. The dead girl even after death will not leave John alone, not only her soul but the body will haunt the accident killer. And the payback is not such that you will expect.

"A Single Shot" hits the bull's-eye.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Captain Must Die

Robert Colby
The Captain Must Die

Prologue Books, 2012 (eBook)
(originally published by Gold Medal, in 1959)

Three former soldiers, 12 years after the war, return to town in Louisiana, where their former captain lives with his wife. The soldiers are looking forward to the meeting with Captain Driscoll, but not because they want to thank him for his good command. All three, on the contrary, are covered by hate and want to brutally kill the captain. Now Driscoll is a successful businessman, a father, a respectable and prosperous man, with still an attractive wife. Three soldiers do not just want to kill Driscoll, it would be too easy, but first, to scare him, knocking him from a measured pace of life, then take his woman, and then take all the money the captain, managed to save over 12 years of life and now he keeps them in a safe with the code. Brick, an organizer of a plan of revenge, is most eager to send a captain to hell - as retribution for a case during the war, for one incident, which nearly put an end to the lives of three ex-GIs.

Colby immediately initiates us into the plans of three, but not immediately lays out the truth about what happened 12 years ago. On the other hand Colby gives each character to speak. Everyone has their secrets, everyone has their attitude to the incident from the past, and each has its own plans for the future. Brick, fierce and angry man, suffered the loss of the family. Playboy Cal lost revenue work. Stupid Barney missed waiting with his bride.

I will not reveal a big secret when I say that all these 12 years, Brick, Barney and Cal spent in prison. But it is strange that Colby does not mention how prison term affected the three companions. Colby wrote that they were waiting for retribution and hoarded malice and hatred all the time, but the prison experience and the impact of prison on them - not a word about it, as if all these 12 years former soldiers were just waiting on the bench and not behind bars.

Colby is a little too simple, but he very skillfully creates an atmosphere of growing tension. Moreover, the author succeeds in achieving the effect where we stand on the side of the soldiers at the beginning of the novel. The positive hero is to be captain, but Colby uses in describing him such words and phrases that show the captain in an unfavorable light, as if he were the last bastard, making money on the failure of others. Three real bastards that are greedy for money and the flesh of women are the obvious anti-heroes, but before Colby reveals the secrets of the past, we are on the side of the inmates and ex-soldiers.

«The Captain Must Die» is written by all the canons of the genre, but it delivers the goods on all fronts.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Donald Westlake

Hard Case Crime, 2005

23-year-old Ray Kelly discharges from the army in Germany and returnes home. In New York, he is be met by his father, Willard Kelly. Kelly Sr. behaves strange, not wanting to leave the hotel room, and Ray himself goes to his father. In the father’s car they are going to a small town where Willard and Ray’s brother Bill live. But on their way they are shot at by unknown people, and Ray wakes up in hospital two months later. His father is dead, and he lost an eye. Later, Ray learns that Bill's wife was hit by a car. Ray suspects that someone is trying to erase from the Earth the whole Kelly family.

When a messenger tells Ray and his brother that their father was not supposed to come to New York, Ray kicks out from a messenger some useful information. It turns out that Kelly Sr., who worked as a lawyer, even before the war had a connection with New York-based organization (read: mob). Ray, a young man with a glass eye, is left with two suitcases of his things and lost everything, which he returned home to, steps on the trail of revenge.

The third Westlake’s novel, written under his own name, is perhaps even darker than his debut "The Cutie". Some may find the story quite unoriginal, with a bunch of beaten twists and techniques, but how Westlake controles these twists and techniques! Yes, this is not the first novel about a man who, after returning from service, is faced with the fact that all his dreams were dashed in an instant. And it is not the first novel of revenge, where a single man is opposed to mob. The main Westlake’s finding is the voice of the protagonist Ray Kelly. Muted, flat, dry, unemotional voice of the narrator can make to think that Ray himself doesn’t care what would be with him and his offenders, but through the cracks in the dry narrative seep anger and rage. Kelly is generally faced with the problem (after a few turns of the plot): to avenge or not avenge? And by choosing revenge, he puts himself in the category of those who do not believe that revenge is a dish served cold.

Very good. 361 times good.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Eighth Black Book of Horror

The Eighth Black Book of Horror
Selected by Charles Black

Mortbury Press, 2011

I highly praised the two previous "Black Books" and even became a fan of the series. Charles Black who compiled and edited these books was doing a great job, managing to select for the series from this small press high-quality stories, written by the famous writers and by very little known outside the genre and the UK. Top short stories from previous books were, first of all, well-told stories, but at the same time, they still scared readers (although the horror genre is such a thing that you never know what can really scare, because one is scared of one thing and the other by another thing).

No matter how good the two previous anthologies of the series were, we have to admit that this book, the eighth, bears no comparison with the previous ones. Moreover, “The Eighth Black Book” is a complete failure. Usually, if the anthology contains at least one outstanding story, the book can not be named a failure. In this anthology, there are no outstanding stories, and just a handful of good ones. A good part of the stories I could not even finish reading to the end, they were so formulaic and ineptly written.

The main problem of almost all the stories in this collection (and even the stories by professionals suffer from this problem) is a lack of a coherent story. As a rule, the author has an idea how to "scare" (in quotes because in 95% of cases it is not scary) the reader, but this simply is not enough. Before we get to the scary and shocking, according to the authors, end, we have to wade through a mountain of cliches, or through a sluggish backstory, or even through the stiffness and awkwardness of style.

The best (although they are still pretty average in quality) stories of the collection are «Home By the Sea» by Stephen Bacon, «The Other Tenant» by Mark Samuels and «How The Other Half Dies» by John Llewellyn Probert. They are all moderately scary, with the "shocking" endings, to the extent clichéd, but pleasurable.

Let's hope the next book in the series will be on the level with the sixth and seventh volumes, not this one.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Cutie

Donald Westlake
The Cutie
(originally published as The Mercenaries)

Hard Case Crime, 2009

Clay’s night sleep is disturbed by the familiar heroin addict named Billy-Billy Cantell asking Clay for help. Clay works for the organization (read: mafia) as an “accident man”: he arranges accidents on the orders of his boss Ed Ganolese. Cantell is scared to death: he woke up in a strange apartment with a dead girl lying behind him. Hardly having time to escape before the arrival of the police, Billy-Billy leaves in a flat hat with his name and fingerprints all over the apartment. Small-time dealer and user sure did not kill the girl, and Clay believes him: someone framed Billy. In another situation, Clay would simply arranged an "accident" for the addict, so Billy during the police interrogation wouldn’t betray the secrets of the organization (Cantell is not just user, but also a heroin dealer and also works for the organization), but Billy during the war met impotrant people from the European organization, and you can not just kill him now.

The police immediately visit Clay’s apartment, where he hid Billy, but when the cops leave, Billy escapes through the window already. Now, half of New York City Police is looking for a two-bit user who, they believe, killed the girl, Mavis St. Paul, who was the mistress of an influential old man with big connections. And Ed Ganolese tells Clay to find Billy before he will make great wrongs. And in addition to Billy, Clay must find that cutie, who framed Billy and brought so much trouble for the organization.

The beginning of the novel may seem a bit familiar, but, believe me, this is only the beginning, further in the novel there will be a lot of surprises, so that everything will turn upside down. «The Cutie» is Westlake's debut novel under his own name (he wrote several softcore novels before that one), and what a debut it is! Westlake writes sparingly, with humor, but let humore not to fool you: the book is very grim, and the finale is starless night.

Cutie from the title of the novel is by no means the girl from the cover, but the man, who framed the unfortunate Cantell, and later gave more than one trouble to organization. Westlake, which tells the story from Clay’s point of view, strikingly demonstrates, step by step, cutie’s tricks, so we are on one side with Clay and his boss, Ed, and also want to capture the villain immedietly.

Here is a quote from the dialogue, when Clay and Ed discuss the cutie:

«"Okay, "said Ed. "Okay, okay. He asked for it. He went a little too far this time, Clay, he got a little too cute for his own good. The cops have Billy-Billy now, and that means they'll close the goddam case . That means he's ours, Clay. That son of a bitch is ours, we don't have to turn him over to the law at all. "

"That's right," I said. "I hadn't thought about that."

"Neither did he, the bastard. But I'm thinking about it. Clay, I want that son of a bitch more than ever now. I want him right in front of me. He's mine, Clay. You get him and you deliver him to me. That little cutie has got just a bit too goddam cute for his own good."»

Westlake in his novel finds a balance between the classic detective story and a thriller about the mafia. Clay in the middle of the novel tells to his beloved Ella how he got into the organization and how he, a pretty and educated man, became a mercenary and hitman for a criminal boss. Clay is not deluded about himself: he is who does what he is asked, he is a murderer, but only when it is necessary for bussiness. The heaviest choice Clay will need to be done is choosing between personal life and work.

«The Cutie» is a novel of immense power, coldly written, a poem in prose about that there are no good people at all. But good books there are, and this is one of them.