Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ordinary Grace

William Kent Krueger
Ordinary Grace

Atria, 2013

New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The narrator of the story recalls the events of that summer that forever changed him and his family. Frank Drum was then a 13-year-old teenager, a future hooligan. Frank’s parents are a minister of the Methodist Church Nathan, a veteran of World War II, and his wife, Ruth, not supporting her husband in his faith - she was once married to a lawyer, and after the war he decided to become a priest. Frank has a younger brother, Jake, who suffers from stuttering in public, and an older sister, Ariel, who graduated from high school and is now going to go to college.

Frank recalls that that summer was full of death. It all started with the death of the boy Bobby Cole, slightly retarded, who loved to play on the train tracks. There he died when he was hit by a passing train. The police ruled that it was an accident, the boy most likely went in a state and did not hear the train coming.

The second death in the town is not so shocking to people. While playing in the woods, Frank and his brother notice two men, one of them is as if asleep. Awake stranger beckons to the boys and says that other man is not asleep, he is dead.

The town has a few strange outsiders, which society does not accept. This is brother and sister Lise and Emil Brandt. Emil is a blind music teacher, a war veteran with a burnt face. He writes his memoirs with the help of Ariel Drum and also teaches her piano lessons. Lise Brandt suffers from mental health problems, she is unsociable, doesn’t allow to touch her. Nathan Drum often plays chess with Emil, and Jake in the garden helps Lise, he's the only person she trusts and allows him to touch her.

William Kent Krueger has taken a break from his regular series writing this stand-alone. Ordinary Grace virtually is a murder mystery, but in fact it’s a deep novel about growing up and life in a small town.

Death at the beginning of the novel is not woven in central intrigue, but plays on the atmosphere. In a small New Bremen the most serious crime is a drunken brawl in a bar (which we see as the beginning of the novel when Nathan Drum goes to jail to take his friend Gus). And when something more serious than a drunken brawl happens the clouds over the city start gathering. Nathan Drum only manages to read the service for the dead, and his speeches really grab the soul, making you think about life and death, not just a formulaic prayer.

The narrator Frank also has death on his mind. In his narrative there is a lot of wisdom and thoughtful observations about the state of things. Frank’s father profession appeals to the topic of religion, and disbelief of Frank himself becomes a counterweight to this religiosity. Religion is woven into the novel matter, but does not become the cornerstone of the book. This is just one of the topics, but not the main one.

An important topic becomes a social structure of a small town, its population’s suspicion towards those who stick out of crowd. Lise and Emil Brandts obvious are outcasts due to their physical and mental deformities. Except tolerant Drums, they have no one who had for them help and sympathy. People of Indian origin are also considered strangers in town, which was formed by the descendants of German colonists. Only because of their race Indian Redstone automatically falls under suspicion.

Krueger reproduces the sixties in detail, but these details are more convincing than some of the characters. So, rowdy component of Frank is doubtful. He spies on a neighbor who is walking around in the underwear, sometimes swears, makes his brother beat someone else's car with a bat, but it is rather an exception to the rule. Frank is still honest and fair boy, sympathetic and vulnerable.
Beautiful prose and the atmosphere of tragedy would not have saved the book, if it failed like a mystery. Krueger successfully solves the puzzle, playing by the rules: all the evidence is in plain sight, you only need to think hard. Krueger does not overcomplicate the mystery plot, but it’s not too simple either.

The novel deservedly won the Edgar for Best Novel (although the award seriously tainted its reputation in recent years, nominating such works that were not supposed to see the light of day at all). There is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Grace. Brilliant.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See

Scribner, 2014

The structure of the novel is that the main events take place in August 1944 in France, and the background of major events begins in 1934. The author alternates between the two characters and the two countries, Germany and France.

In 1934, Marie-Laure, six-year-old girl, lives with her father in Paris. He works as a locksmith and in a museum in Paris. By the beginning of the novel the girl has completely lost her eyesight and now relies entirely on sound, smell and touch. Growing up at the museum, Marie-Laure knows almost all exhibits, guide’s stories, as well as the legend associated with the most valuable item in the museum - hidden in the vault the diamond size of an egg with, which, according to legend, has a curse. The father of the little girl masters castles and houses in miniature. On these models the girl learns to distinguish objects by touch, and later to walk unaided. Using a cane, Marie-Laure can safely move into a familiar space. The girl does not go to school (at that time, apparently, there was no school for children with disabilities), but her father every year gives her books for the blind. Marie-Laure learns to read and absorb with gusto "Around the World in 80 Days", " 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", and later a volume of Darwin.

In 1934 the second book hero Werner Pfennig was seven. He and his sister Jutta are orphans living in the child's home in the small German town. Werner since childhood manifested a talent for fixing mechanical objects, especially radios. Being eight-years-old he could with his eyes closed assemble and disassemble the radio. Gradually, word of his talent spread around, and the neighbors began to bring their receivers to Werner for repaire. With his sister in the evenings he listened to a French wave, where a man read fairy tales. Thanks to their teacher Frau Elena, the brother and sister learned French and could listen to the radio.

All the boys from the orphanage are expected to become miners, once they reach 15. But Werner shows his talent, receives a letter of recommendation from the local man, passes the entrance exams to elite school, where young talented men are trained for the Third Reich. Werner successfully passes the exams and goes to an elite school, promising to write to his sister. Jutta is worried about her brother, realizing the danger of the Nazis that came to power. But Werner does not care about the war, he just wants to go to university in Berlin and study Physics.

Anthony Doerr has written what seems to be quite realistic book, but it reads as something fantastic, something out of Jules Verne, whose books coincidentally the heroine of the novel reads. The story itself is full of adventures, mysterious artifacts, references to fairy tales, incredible coincidences and bright and pure love. War according to Doerr has nothing to do with the reality of war, this is romantic world, fantasy of sorts. But if the writer is a romantic, it does not make him worse than others. The war has given a premise to thousands of stories, and romantic ones have the same right to exist as a purely realistic.

Two heroes of Doerr’s book are on opposite sides, one potentially on the side of evil, the other on the side of good. It is hard, however, not to sympathize them both, if the author is equally fond of his characters. Werner is not guilty, that he was born in Germany and grew up without parents. It's not his fault that he was born with the talent and wanted to develop his talent. He just wanted to go to university, wanted to do things he loveв to do, wanted his sister to be proud of him. He was not a soldier (Marie-Laure later remember that Werner’s hands were even smaller than her hands), he was a young talented boy. “What the war did to dreamers” – Jutta’s words in the finale of the novel, meaming war killed people like him, are in many ways a reflection of the whole work.

Doerr runs slightly ahead with the chapters of August 1944, but the intrigue definitely is saved until the very end. The finale can break any heart made of stone, and even epilogue’s chapters does not seem superfluous.

This charming story is lightly smeared by stylistic flaws. Doerr uses abrupt, short sentences, especially in the beginning of the book, which are contrary to the atmosphere of the novel. These sentences express banalities devoid of individuality and often present only stylistic beauty. Once the author extends a sentence, the novel begins to move faster. Doerr has a vivid style and the use of obvious epithets only hurts the style.

All the Light We Cannot See is an undoubted success, and only the blind won’t see the author’s talent.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

My Real Children

Jo Walton
My Real Children

Tor, 2014

2015. Patricia Cowan is an old woman suffering from dementia and is in a nursing home. She almost does not respond to surrounding reality, but she remembers the events of the past. But is how much of these memories are truth, and what is fiction? Patricia remembers that she once lived two lives very differently. So, in alternating chapters, we will be reading about the two lives of the protagonist.
Two alternative lives in two worlds will have one turning point, and prior to that Patricia’s past is monolithic. She was born in 1926, in a small English town, and was the youngest of two children. Her brother Oswald was her senior by three years, he was also a favorite of his father. When she was 13, Patricia was sent to school in Carlisle: because of the war the population of Britain began to move in a more secluded area. In 1943, Oswald was killed in the skies over Germany. Due to the large number of men killed in the war, universities increase the quota for girls and women. Because of this, Patricia arrives in Oxford, where he studies to be a teacher.

On the third year Patricia tries to overcome his shyness, begins to attend parties, until she meets a freshman Mark, clever but shy young man as well. After the first conversation, Mark asks her for engagement, and stunned Pat agrees. By that time Patricia completes his studies, moves to Cornwell, where she begins to teach at the school. She rarely sees Mark, but he regularly writes her passionate letters that Pat carefully preserves. In 1949 Mark does not receive a grant for further study of philosophy. He has no money for the wedding and means to support his wife. But on the phone he asks Patricia to marry him. Here's the turning point.

In one universe, Pat answers yes and they immediately play a modest wedding, in another she says no, and they are breaking off the engagement.

My Real Children is nominally science fiction. The author indicates the year of the near future, which automatically places the novel to near future SF genre. But if you look closely the fantastic element is almost absent here. When we read in the beginning of the book that the main character is a very old woman suffering from dementia, we can assume that everything she tells us could not have happened at all. The woman is obviously confused - and unwittingly misleads the reader. Her dual memory can be attributed not to the existence of alternative universes, but to a banal disease, damage to the brain.

If we accept the fact that the main character Patricia really lived two lives in different universes, then we do not find in the novel explanations for the turning point. Walton only indicates the time in which the path diverges. In her book Walton will use an interesting technique: for each change within the family of Patricia there will be a change in the world. Patricia’s child is born, there is an explosion of a nuclear bomb. Son went to college, marijuana was legalized, etc. This technique, which may have unintended, suggests about the causes of the turning point. It’s not external events change the life of one family, but internal events in the family change the world. If there was a turning point from one Pat’s verbal choice (now or never), then everything else can vary depending on our choice.

The first half of the novel is an interesting portrait of a young woman in post-war society in Britain. Wartime atmosphere conveys the one scene where, due to train delays, Pat is forced to stay at the transfer station, and the sympathetic people who have just met with Pat, invite her to spend the night with them until the next morning.

Further parallel stories attract not only by the detailed psychology, but also by the analysis of our life decisions. One word can make our lives miserable, and one word can lead to happiness, but not immediately. That universe where Trisha married Mark is filled with the spirit of hopelessness. Portrait of family tyranny turned out extremely realistic. That's why the other storyline, where Pat and Bee became lovers, is not as good, lacking the psychological subtlety. Walton almost avoids theme of children in same-sex marriage. When Pat and Bee’s children grow, we do not see them in the relationship with their parents. Walton does not allow analysis of the division of responsibilities between partners, does not put the problem of equality between children, and a rare presence of Michael, the biological father, in the family is reduced to the fact that Pat and Bee call him uncle to their children.

The final part of the novel suffers from the syndrome of family album. Walton said almost all in the first part, and the remaining 100 pages is needed only to push the plot to its logical end.

Walton ceases to dig deep, limiting herself with monotonous and tiresome narration: this son married, this daughter gave birth, that boy was admitted to Oxford, wrote this hit. From the abundance of events and names you start feel dizzy. Children in the novel still haven’t become real – complex characters. They remain types with labels, erased persons, which the main character would try to remember.

This novel is well worth reading. It's a smart, lively, inspiring, although suffering from undevelopement of the characters.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Black Eyed Blonde

Benjamin Black
The Black Eyed Blonde

Mantle, 2014

Philip Marlowe still rents a small office in Los Angeles, plays chess with himself and charges twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses. The novel begins roughly where the final Chandler’s novel left off (finished novel, that is). In the office of a private detective comes a leggy lady, black eyed blonde from the title, and asks to find her lover, who disappeared two months ago. Blonde, Clare Cavendish, is a heiress of perfume empire, which her Irish mother owns, is married to a loafer, with whom she has an arrangement: he entertains with his girls, and she has her men, and they do not pry into each other's affairs. Lover, Nico Peterson, was a weasel, always running somewhere, working like an agent or at least trying to pretend that he is an agent. Peterson disappeared two months ago, Cavendish waited for him to show up or call her, but he never showed up.

Marlow, charmed by his new client, takes on the case. Detective finds the address of Peterson and his neighbor, an old man, says he has not seen Nico for several weeks. In the past Nico hosted parties every day, always with the ladies of different appearance, and then suddenly everything has quieted down. The neighbor mentions that two harsh looking Mexicans Peterson also looked for Nico. From his acquaintance from Homicide Bureau Joe Green Marlow suddenly discovers that Nico has been dead for two months, his body has long been cremated. Peterson was hit by a car near the restaurant where he drank all night. Driver was not found, a hat girl identified the body, and the next day in the morgue Nico has been identified by his sister.

Fans of John Banville can ignore this novel as belonging to the lightweight mystery genre (although Chandler is recognized not only as master of the genre, but also as just a master period), but fans of mystery genre may be in the dark about who John Banville is. Banville’s pseudonym Benjamin Black is known on both sides of the ocean, although Black hasn’t earned a special fame among mystery fans.
Banville here has tried to write not just another book about Marlowe, but to link it to the previous ones. The entire novel Banville actively reminds us that the main character is not just some nameless gumshoe, but the legendary Marlowe. Beacons-pointers are scattered around the novel limning it to Chandler novels: Banville mentions all the secondary characters with whom Marlowe crossed paths, from Linda Loring to Terry Lennox. This name-dropping only causes a feeling as if you read fanfic, not a book from master of fiction. Fans of Marlowe without unnecessary reminders will know the contents of the previous adventures of the private detective, but to newcomers these names will not say anything, no matter how many times you repeat them.

Banville mostly writes on his usual high standard, but after all, Chandler himself was always appreciated for his style. On a plot level The Black Eyed Blonde is a solid mystery with elements that Chandler’d use. The problem is that the plot is quite ordinary; not lower but not higher. Chandler himself was criticized for plot holes in his books, but he was good at other elements. Here, the most you will do is shrug, not cry with delight. And it's unfortunate because the plots of Banville’s books are complex and confusing in a good way, much better than the plot of this novel.

I can not say how good Banville imitated the style of the late author, because I read Chandler only in translation. I can see that there is less of humour than it usually was in Chandler’s books. Marlow’s wisecracks are fewer and less successful.

Banville’s Marlowe is more aggressive than Chandler, rougher even, he has something from the modern heroes of mysteries and thrillers. At the same time Marlow here is more literate, he allows himself elegant words and phrases, casually mentioning the works of literature. Chandler's Marlowe could hardly afford it, if only because he seems to be not so educated.

The Black Eyed Blonde delivers in patches, and the finale is frankly disappointing. Banville does not play by the rules: yes, the ending is unexpected, yes, the finale is tied to the previous work of Chandler, but the reader has not a single opportunity to guess the final twist. Chandler would not let himself to cheat.

Banville writes best under his own name. He'd better leave Chandler alone.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Paradise

Peter Matthiessen
In Paradise

Riverhead, 2014

The novel tells the story of a weekly pilgrimage, when in 1996, at Auschwitz 140 people gathered to meditate, pray and remember the victims of the concentration camp. Among those who are stationed in the barracks where they SS officers once lived are priests and children of Nazis, relatives of dead Jews and elderly camp survivors, researchers and scientists. One of the pilgrims is the protagonist, 55-year-old academician, American scientist Clements Olin studying poetry of victims of concentration camps and composing poetry collections. Although Olin has devoted much of his life to studying the Holocaust, he can not say he has any special knowledge. You can not be an expert on the subject, if you personally weren’t at a concentration camp as an inmate.

Olin convinces himself that he came to Auschwitz to gather material for a book, but this is only a formal reason. The protagonist himself is not sure who he is and what he wants from his pilgrimage. Not sure and the rest of group. Every day they are gathering to pray, inspect dilapidated buildings, railroad tracks, ovens and gas chambers, talk about themselves and their stories, which led to the retreat.

The participants discuss a variety of topics, from religion and patriotism to Jews and Nazism. Every day some new topic is raised that leads to bitter disputes and discussions, considering how different the audience gathered at the camp site is.

In Paradise is an uncomfortable novel. It’s uncomfortable for everyone, the reader, and the heroes of the novel. Holocaust requires sensitivity. Holocaust does not recognize the hypocrisy, but tearful and compassionate feelings are also irrelevant. When faced with such a monstrous crime against humanity, you are inevitably lost, so literally you can not understand who you are.

Olin’s personality is revealed in the novel not immediately: the first few chapters Matthiessen presents us the main character as an outsider, a stranger. The mystery of personality is one of the main themes of the book. Every pilgrim in the novel reveals oneself thus as he wants. Everyone has prepared beforehand the reason for his pilgrimage, but the reason is most often contrived. The pilgrims either do not know or do not want to know the true reason.

Discomfort is a basic feeling the book causes in the first half. Minor characters one after another raise important issues related to the war and the Holocaust, and these themes in any other society or any other place would never have been touched, they are so painful and uncomfortable. But at the ruins of Auschwitz pilgrims have nowhere to go, and they came to pay tribute to the victims, and to understand something that worries and haunts them. Reading a novel, you feel yourself like one of the pilgrims who hear other people's speeches, noting courage of ones and hypocrisy of others. And along with Olin you can only agree that without being a direct participant in the tragedy, you do not have the right to an opinion and can’t add anything new.

The first half is full of suspense and verbal sparring but as the second half of the novel begins, it is like a completely separate thing, much weaker than the first. Matthiessen is as if exhausted by the main theme and went on less significant ones. The protagonist suddenly switches from a concentration camp to love affairs, which puts reader in another awkward position. Matthiessen sort of moves the place of the death of millions of innocent people in the area of the love affairs. The hero rational core ( and author’s) is gone somewhere, rationality giving way to feelings.
But it is still possible to forgive the author: lone hero could still feel a craving to another person in such tragic place. Difficult to explain the change of course in the final third of the novel. The author reserves the Holocaust behind, switching on the theme of the Catholic Church. Suddenly priests, insider’s intrigies and topic of pedophilia come to the first row. This turn of events is at least strange.

The final Olin speech before pilgrims also could be questioned. The speech is too staged and puzzling. Olin again loses his rationality, muttering something about "Polish Jews." And though his origins Olin found only here in Poland, this can not be that in 50 years he never thought of his mother. Hard to imagine that such a reasonable man had no idea about his Jewishness, when everything pointed to this.

I’m again feeling uncomfortable: how good first half of the novel was, you’re at discomort to critisize it, but otherwise it is impossible. Verdict: read the first half, skip the second.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Hanns and Rudolf

Thomas Harding
Hanns and Rudolf

William Heinemann, 2013

Thomas Harding, grandnephew of Hanns from the book's title, at the funeral of his uncle first finds out that Hanns Alexander was an investigator in the postwar years and hunted fugitive Nazi war criminals. This information became a reason to find out more about the life of his uncle, along with the most famous criminal who Alexander caught - Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz. Harding spent six years gathering information for this book, in which he tells the story of two different people who were born in one country, but fought for different ones.

Hoss was born in the early XX century, was a lonely child, despite the fact that he was not the only vhild in the family. His father planned that Rudolph will become a priest, but the early death of his father violated these plans. Hoss 's widow was left alone on the edge of poverty, and 14-year-old Rudolph, concealing his age, with the help of a friend 's father went off to war. Hoss fought in the First World War, steeled in battle, turned from a modest boy to a man. Hoss was engaged in agriculture, but the spirit of the war was still in him after the war, and soon he enrolled in Freikorps, a volunteer army to suppress uprisings in Latvia. There Hoss restore order in the Baltics region, but soon Latvians themselves turned against the German troops, and Hoss returned home.

Future investigator Hanns Alexander was born in 1917 into a family of Jewish family doctor. The family was rich and could afford a spacious house and a few servants. But the closer the Nazis were to power in the country, the worse life for the family became. The elder sister of Hans went to London where she married, but Dr. Alexander was in no hurry to leave the country. He hoped that the wave of anti-Semitism would die down and all would go back to how it was. But things are not getting any better: the attacks on the synagogue begins, the children had to be transferred to a private Jewish school, but Hanns soon dropped out, working as a clerk in a bank. Being in London with her daughter, the doctor learned about the pogroms in Berlin and only then realized that to stay in Germany is dangerous. With the start of the Olympics repression towards jews somewhat toned down, and at this opportune moment Hanns straightened a visa to travel to England.

Harding writes early in the book that he will call the two heroes by the names, because they both are still human beings (despite that one of them was a cruel killer). Philanthropy and even mercy - traits that Harding has. His story if Hoss’s life lacks moralizing and hatred. Moreover, Harding might even be accuseв by someone of being too soft in relation to the commandant of Auschwitz. Hoss’s memoirs may have influenced Harding’s perception of Hoss. In his memoirs, Hoss shifts the blame on others, indulges in sentimentality, repents, but partially recognizing that he hates Jews not as individuals, but as a race, curses the war and Hitler's ambitions plans.

Such final testimony should never be regarded as upright. Killer always carries with him part, if not the whole, truth. Hoss could be treated as the executive bureaucrat, if only he didn’t before the war brutally killed a man.

More intriguing is another aspect: Harding still managed to show Hoss from the positive side, specifically - as talented manager. Hoss started organization of concentration camps as if he create something absolutely ordinary, as a shoe factory, for example. Hoss treated killing like the planting of fruits, to be effective and yield. This side of Hoss, however, makes it more creepy: he did not kill anybody, did not beat the prisoners, but his rationalism and the desire to be effective for sure resulted in that more people were killed than, as we would say now, with inefficient management.

Hanns is an intriguing person even without the additional angles. Jews usually perceived as a nation of sufferers, whose role is to suffer and die. Hanns turns this theory on its head. As a youngster, he ruined the Nazi meeting, later with persistence was eager to fight against his native country, and after the war did not come back to Germany, betrayal of his country still fresh. Hanns as an investigator, too, was an extraordinary personality. Not having any skills of an investigator he got his way, ensuring the capture of fugitive Nazis. In the post-war chaos reigning Hanns was able to track down the people in hiding.

Hanns and Rudolf is primarily a double portrait, but not a mystery, based on historical events. Specifically investigation process takes not much space. Harding is a good biographer feeling zeitgeist. Though historians have found a few factual errors in the book, they do not spoil the overall impression of the book. Historical non-fiction books like this opens up new, not hackneyed fragments of history. Fresh and accessible.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Little Girl Lost

Richard Aleas
Little Girl Lost

Hard Case Crime, 2004

John Blake, a private investigator in a small two man detective agency, accidentally learns about the death of a stripper Miranda Sugarman from the newspaper. Miranda died as a stripper, but when John saw her the last time 10 years ago, she was going to become a doctor studying in one of the colleges in the Midwest. Miranda was Blake’s first love, and he just can not leave her death to the police, which, in turn, unlikely to thoroughly investigate the murder of a stripper in a third-rate bar, given that there are zero clues.

Blake's most interested in how a future doctor could do such a striking way to the bottom of society. Blake begins to delve into the suspicious circumstances of the murder, gradually learning of the lives of the visitors and employees of seediest places in New York.

Aleas’s debut novel was written by the old paperbacks rules, adjusted for the fact that everything is taken serious. Every death is horrible and there is no feeling when you know well: the protagonist somehow will wriggle out of all his problems. A familiar background is here updated with modern technology: Blake uses the Internet and mobile phone.

The second and final novel about Blake a few years ago was rated by me so high that I named it one of the best recent mysteries in the field. Aleas knows how to stun the reader, and the novel’s final twist was so bold so for several days I wasn’t myself, turning the end in my head over and over. Little Girl Lost also offers a powerful finale, which strength is spoiled by some predictability.

The main Aleas’s achievement is the moral growth of his characters, which is very rare in serial books. Even Marlow, from novel to novel, remained unchanged. Blake by the finale is wiser and changes his way of life. And little gitl is lost forever.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Worst. Person. Ever.

Douglas Coupland
Worst. Person. Ever.

William Heinemann, 2013

In the center of this story is Raymond Gunt, a middle-aged unemployed camera man, scoundrel, cad, vulgar, raunchy single Londoner. Gunt is loser, but compares himself to Jason Bourne. Well, he only is good at swearing and seeking adventures on his ass.

At the beginning of the novel he is begging his ex-wife Fiona, which he passionately hates, to find him some work. On the way to see her, Ray stumbles upon a smelly bum named Neal, whom Ray insults and kicks him in the shin. Exchanging mucks with Fiona, Ray nevertheless gets the job - to become a B-unit camera man for reality show "Survivor"-like. Casting agency will pay air fare for Ray and his assistant to a small island in the Pacific Ocean, where she show will be made. Gunt just needs to gather his things and find an assistant in one day. Ray is already anticipating how he will seduce attractive show participants on the island.

Our hero has a problem with finding an assistent: Gunt is so disgusting that he has no friends. Nobody wants to communicate with him, and then Ray has an idea to make his slave, as he puts it, a homeless Neal. Ray finds Neal in a cardboard box and offers him a job. Neal coincidentally has a passport and does not mind to spend on the island a few weeks. Ray cleans and washes Neal, and the next morning they leave for the airport.

If Worst. Person. Ever. was planned as a satire, then the idea failed. Attempts to stabs at the reality shows, Americans, British and others find themselves in the shadow of the novel’s hero, who is also antihero, Raymond Gunt. If this is satire, it is not on someone in particular, but on people in general.

But the novel has a life as a kind of idiotic version of The Bourne Ultimatum, since Gunt compares himself to Jason Bourne. Worst. Person. Ever. is nonstop action, and everything that happens defies explanation, so that any spy thriller pales in comparison. Copeland's imagination is sound: by the time the novel gets to the equator, the protagonist hasn’t even made it to the promised island. This is how Copeland hones his plot skills on the scenes in London, in the air and at airports.

What the author shows as well it's his fearlessness and shamelessness. Gunt is not afraid of anyone or anything, with his foul mouth he curses all his eyes see. Children with disabilities, 9/11, homeless, overweight - for Gunt (and Copeland) the are no taboo subjects. Making his protagonist foul-mouthed, it would be foolish not to give free rein to Gunt’s rudeness. He swears at children and parents, does not know elementary decency, does not miss a chance to curse at anything. In a continuous flow of cursing one can even find some charm.

The central character is surrounded also by people far from ideal, among them many lusty as Raymond, and foul-mouthed, as Raymond, but compared to Gunt any of the minor characters will look like an angel.

For such a shaggy story the book has too sudden ending, such as if suddenly Coupland has become tired of finishing the novel, and he put an end to the middle of a paragraph. But novel’s adventures atone for this deficiency.

For all the vulgarity and coarseness the novel has its own charm, and not small, but it lacks, that's really strange to admit, morality. Though it may be strange to expect morality from the novel, where the protagonist washes from his own shit from time to time.

This book is unlikely to teach you something bad, maybe it even makes you feel better. Still, the worst person ever is not you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Gutter and The Grave

Ed McBain
The Gutter and The Grave

Hard Case Crime, 2005

Matt Cordell was a private investigator once. Now he drinks all day, panhandling and sleeping in flophouses. All because of a woman: Cordell found his beautiful wife in bed with his partner, beat his face to a pulp, almost ended up in prison, escaped a conviction with the loss of a private detective license.

An old acquaintance finds swollen and smelly Cordell in one of the parks of New York. Ex-P.I. has not seen his pal for more than five years. Friend, Johnny, asks for help with a small problem at work: in his tailor shop there were thefts from cash register for six months, and Johnny suspects a business partner, Dom Archese. After long persuading, Cordell agrees to help Johnny look into the thefts at the shop, where they find Archese shot to death, and written on the wall with chalk Johnny’s initials “J.B.”. Cordell offers Johnny to surrender to police and become a police chief suspect, and Cordell promises to find the killer and clear Johnny’s name.

I think this is the first novel by McBain, which I read, and I think it will not be the last. McBain, mostly familiar to readers as the author of police procedurals, keeps steadily on private detectives field. How often have you read detective stories where the detective would have been drunk and a bum? Cordell during the investigation partially stays on the wagon, and it is to his own advantage: the detective will find the murderer by the end.

McBain plays by the rules, gradually introducing all the suspects, throwing tips and clues and allowing the reader to figure out the killer. Even though the novel inhabits some cliches and banalities, The Gutter and The Grave reads with gusto. McBain here even parodies the famous trick when beaten detective escapes from the hospital to continue the investigation. It is not clear who every time then pays for the medical bills for these fugitives?

Cordell is a tragic figure himself, and the world of the novel is not particularly bright, nevertheless, McBain adds a few jokes in his novel. In 1958, jokes about Hitler had not yet gone out of fashion.

It’s a great novel from the master of the genre.

Friday, May 9, 2014

book collecting and the use of Amazon MarketPlace

Let's be honest: Amazon MarketPlace is one of the worst places to buy books on the Net. It's virtually a dump of information without honest and detailed descriptions of the books. In most cases best you will get from reading a description is "used book". How about that, huh? Oh, I didn't know it was used. You take me for an idiot?
Unique and honest sellers on AMP is a rare thing. Therefore the most detailed descriptions of the books come from experienced sellers who love and know their books, and by know I mean they know the prices. If a book is well described it usually means it won't be sold for cents or pennies.

To buy something scarce, for cheap and with good description, you should browse for hours and hours on Amazon MarketPlace, and you never can be sure you will find something valuable. Or you can just get lucky, and after a couple of clicks you can find a rare book with good description almost for nothing (shipping price will be way more than the price of the book). I got lucky once - though I browse AMP not so often.

The book I found is Act of Fear by Michael Collins. I already had by the moment one copy of this book, but it was a jacketless one, just yeallow borads. I bought it a year ago, for a couple of bucks from ABE seller who promised DJ. I got my money back but promised to myself I'd never return to that seller. He (they) just doesn't know his business.
But even without DJ it is a scarce book: you will find a couple three-in-one book club edition, maybe even find moderately unexpensive UK firsts, but US first is rare and expensive. As far as I remember the price would be closer to $100.
I was happy when the seller of the book supplied me with the details, I googled the attributes of first editions of Dodd, Mead publisher who issues the book, and I knew then that it was US first edition. My copy cost me around $3. I paid five times more for shipping.

It is an ex-library copy, but I have nothing against ex-lib books. Act of Fear is considered one of the rarest titles which won Edgar awards. It's won an Edgar for the first novel, though for Collins, or Dennis Lynds, as Collins is merely a pseudonym, wrote a few books before Act of Fear (that was also the case for Donald Westlake). It was The Shadow novels mostly, you don't win Edgar for them. Later Lynds used more that half a dozen pen names, he also ghost wrote Mike Shayne novellettes for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. Lynds has his readers, critics liked him, though I doubt he had a cult following. I can't explain scarcity of his first books, perhaps, printing runs were small.

Below you can find images of my copy of the book. Act of Fear is, for me, one of the best P.I. novels ever.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Gretel and The Dark

Eliza Granville
Gretel and The Dark

Hamish Hamilton, 2014

The novel is set in two time layers. Two girls are the main characters of the two parallel stories. The events of one storyline take place in Vienna, in the late XIX century. Doctor, part therapist, part psychoanalyst, Joseph Breuer admits in his home a new patient, an unknown girl, Lillie, found on the roadside, without clothes on, with wounds and bruises and with a shaved head. The doctor examines the girl, describes her condition and handles her many wounds, among them also two cuts on the throat. Patient survives, but doctor’s worried about who she is and what happened to her. Breuer considers several theories, from a runaway servant to woman of low moral who escaped from the brothel.

In another storyline action takes place at the end of World War II, but we will find out about it only in the finale, there are no precise indications for 1945 in the novel. The place is also unknown. It's some small town where there is a zoo with the animal people. The main heroine of this story line is a little girl Krysta, whose mother died almost immediately after the birth. The girl grew up under the influence of an old maid Greet always telling tales and stories to the girl. For any occasion Greet had a fairy tale, often converted from the famous canon. Krysta always listened to maid’s tales, gradually replacing the reality with fiction.

After moving to another city with her father, but without Greet, Krysta herself becomes a storyteller, telling tales to her doll and her maids. The girl's father is a scientist conducting experiments at the zoo, tired and lonely man. Krysta is constantly naughty, asks for sweet, wants Greet’s tales and disobeys her father and the servants. Sometimes in the backyard Krysta meets a boy Daniel, brings him food, but the existence of any boy here Krysta’s father denies - there are no people, only animals.

Eliza Granville disguised her realistic story under a sinister fairy tale. By lavishly scattered clues you can say that the author has no plans for absolute disguise. The events of both storylines is happening as if supposedly extraterrestrial areas, but some elements still indicate a specific time and place. And if in that part of the novel about Lillie, the main pointer is a very specific city of Vienna, then in another storyline there are more subtle clues. Separate Polish words and the presence of the animal people in the experimental zoo are pointers to that the action may occur during the Second World War.

But even if the reader in the middle of the novel already guessed where the action is placed, this in any case will not spoil the charm of Granville’s prose. This is a completely otherworldly prose, simultaneously simulating fairy tale and at the same time maintaining contact with reality. In Gretel and The Dark there are not even absolutely positive characters. Krysta is needy, capricious and disobedient, Dr. Breuer is an old lecher, maid Greet tells the girl scary stories, Lillie is too strange. The novel’s world is too gloomy and black, for there appeared a perfect character. But this does not mean that the book has no one to sympathize. Here, everyone deserves at least mercy, even an old pedophile or Nazi accomplice.

The title not in vain has the word dark, the novel is really dark. Kids say nasty things to adults, adults raise children for their pleasures, kids hate adults, adult let children starve to death. Old nurse Greet tells Krysta tales of blood, guts and put out eyes, but this does not shock Krysta.

This transcendent level of violence combines old fairy tales and reality of the Holocaust. Fairy tales are usually perceived lightly, even if something really ill happens in them, you always know it's just a tale. And at the same time, children's tales are focused on violence. We are used to this unseriousness and forget about the reality of violence. In fairy tales adults fry children in ovens - and this happened in reality as well. In the novel, the boundary between fairy tale and reality is erased, and the horror of what is happening is doubled.

Partly a postmodern novel, with its intertwined narrative, it is gratifying that the novel was written not for the writer's final twist or winks to the reader. Granville says in her book that stories save us from death, but stories also can kill us.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Sudden Arrival of Violence

Malcolm Mackay
The Sudden Arrival of Violence

Mantle, 2014

The final part of The Glasgow Trilogy. Former freelance hitman Calum MacLean is now forced to leave his independence. He becomes the main gunman for the criminal organization headed by Peter Jamieson. Calum is not satisfied with the situation, but he can not just stand and get away from his employer. In the criminal business there are special rules and fot hitmen it sounds something like this - death in, death out. Calum can leave the organization only in the casket, though it will not exactly be true: the body of former hitman likely will never be found.

However, MacLean invents his plan of runaway from the organization. After the final hit and killing two persons, the driver for the organization boss and a crooked accountant for a rival gang boss, Calum lays low, knowing that within a week after the job he will not be looked. Calum in minimum time must collect his things, sell his car, and most importantly, buy a fake passport to flee abroad. But Calum’s plan fails.

The Sudden Arrival of Violence’s story has parallels with other hitman novel, The Butcher's Boy. Only Mackay’s gunman is trying to get away from the organization by his own will, Thomas Perry’s unnamed hitman is forced into hiding after the attacks on him by the mafia bosses. Mackay does not stands with one character for long, alternating points of view. Here the widow of the killed driver tries to solve her husband 's disappearance, and persistent detective is entangled in suspects and motives, and Calum’s brother worries for the successful realization of a plan of escape. The novel offers a considerable amount of twists, not letting you feel bored in nearly 400 pages.

This novel closes the trilogy, it is the longest of the three, here the storylines weave most. For all the complexity of the whole picture Mackay offers not so much action. The novel offers Calum’s story how he actually became a gun for sale. And I can not say that McKay gives us a compelling biography.

I can not avoid SPOILERS when discussing another plot turn, used by the author. Mackay seems to violate an unwritten rule, bringing together Calum and Detective Fisher. Calum in a private conversation with Detective confesses to all their murders and talks about the internal works of the criminal organization. It is no secret that the hitmen have cooperated with the police and will be cooperating exchanging their testimony to freedom. There is another type of criminals who flirted with investigators, but never directly admitted to their own crimes. Nevertheless Calum gives his confession, but remains at large. This episode of the meeting of Calum and Fisher rings false. Fisher would hardly leave Calum free. And all Calum’s confessions are not worth a damn.

Mackay in the finale gives his (anti)hero a chance at rehabilitation. Calum plans to live a life on this side of the law, quitinng the contract murders. But this kind of happy ending can be considered as pessimistic ending. Calum, a man without education and no skills, is unlikely to find himself in a free life. Where he will yield and what benefits he can bring to society? Become a seller in the supermarket? Become a sales manager of plastic windows or vacuum cleaners? I think a law-abiding life will be worst punishment for the former killer.

A particular problem of this novel - and in general of the whole trilogy - became the style chosen by the author. In its best moments it is a chopped-up prose, partly energetic, partly melodic. In their worst moments (which there are plenty) it is a set of truisms, half-baked sentences, uttering platitudes.

«Life moved on, but it left a scar. Takes real strength to shrug it off and move straight along.»

«Gumen, for example. For them it could be a matter of life or death. Capture or escape.»

«Tough, surly, but definetely honest. Everyone said so. Got a hard-on for gangland stuff. Just because people think he's honest, doesn't mean he is.»

Sometimes it seems that the author passed the rough drafts of novels to the publisher, not the novels themselves.

The whole trilogy is pretty good read, where the best of the three is perhaps the second novel. The Glasgow Trilogy is worth reading, but you wouldn’t kill for it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Dead Beat

Doug Johnstone
The Dead Beat

Faber, 2014

Martha Fluke begins to work in Edinburgh newspaper The Standard as intern, where, until recentl, her father Ian worked. Martha barely knew her dad and now no longer will get a chance to know him better: a few weeks before the events of the novel Ian committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. In the opening scene of the novel Martha visits her father's grave, and then hurry to the newspaper’s office. There she takes place of an obituaries writer, writing about old people mostly, and it is desirable to ask the relatives to write about their late loved ones.

Martha barely has time to meet with the paper team (among staff is Billy, the hero of one of the author's previous books Hit and Run), as answers the call where at the other end of the phone man reads his own obituary. In the phone, a shot rings out, and Martha, horrified, reportes to colleagues what had happened. The case is even more puzzling when it turns out that the caller is staff obituaries writer. Martha and her colleagues hurry to suicide victim’s home and even manage to save him, calling an ambulance, but not for long. Everyone agrees that Gordon who shot himself suffered from depression and the reason for his departure from life understandable. Only Martha is not so sure about the death of Gordon: where did Gordon get a gun? And what a noise she’s heard on the phone after the shot?

Doug Johnstone grows with each book as a writer. He is an accurate observer, a good stylist, he has the ear for dialogue. The first chapter of the novel is a showcase of the whole novel, and it shows what Johnstone is capable of as a stylist:

«She read the inscriptions as she went past, and worked out the age that each person had been when they died. Eighty-seven, sixty-two, thirty-nine. Dead person bingo. The old-timers, fine. Twenties and thrities, ah well. One teenager, that made her think. She was older than a corpse.»

Generally the first half of the novel is a strong literary novel about the life of young journalists in the world of surviving newspapers. Mysterious call and newspaper journalist’s suicide in the context of the first half of the novel look like side effects of the profession, and not as an element of domestic thriller. Johnstone is in his natural sphere, when he writes about the youth. His protagonists are in their 20s, they enter adulthood, but still have not lost enthusiasm and courage of the youth. Alcohol and drugs accompany the book's characters in almost every chapter.

Johnstone is interested in the topic of fathers and children, or even, parents and children. Martha learns about her father’s past through his music recorded on tape (she even walks the streets with the old "walkman" on) and vinyl, but also has a difficult relationship with her mother. Together with her brother Martha tries to call her mother by name, which greatly irritates the parent («You called me Mum by accident, isn't that sweet.»).

But if Johnstone’s book themes matured, the level of plotting remained on the same, not the highest, level. The author methodically builds world of the novel, making it as close as possible to the reality, and then suddenly pumping in there gallons of pulpish atmosphere. The plot tilts to the side as far away from the credibility, the characters begin to run erratically, logic disappears. Two author’s previous novels suffered from the same problems. Absurd plot in them completely subdued quite realistic drawn characters.

In order not to pervade this review with spoilers, I only say that the final third of the novel like is from not really good pulp story. When one character-villain is told that suicide victime didn’t die this villain replies:

«Fuck, that's annoying.»

That's really how the villain from the pulp could answer (except for the word «fuck»), but not in real life.

The Dead Beat seems to indicate that the author should either properly next time work on a plot, or even leave thrillers and write "serious" prose. This is what he does much better.