Saturday, April 30, 2011

Be Thankful This Isn't Your Last Zombie Apocalypse [Guest Post from Bethany Maines]

For those of you not yet acquainted -- Bethany Maines just released her second book, COMPACT WITH THE DEVIL, the sequel to the hilarious escapades of Carrie Mae agent Nikki Lanier described in Bulletproof Mascara. Welcome to the Kingdom Books blog, Bethany! 

There’s a question I get asked about my books somewhat frequently. “Where do you get your ideas?” And sometimes there’s a subtle tone that implies that the idea of an at home make-up sales corporation running an international, all female, espionage ring is not something that occurs to normal people.  And I just end up thinking, “Well, thank goodness I didn’t write about my plan for the zombie apocalypse.”

Now, I’m not saying that a zombie apocalypse is imminent; I’m just saying that I have a plan in place. A lack of preparedness is the same as handing a zombie a spoon and marking an X on your skull, I always say.  It’s a relatively simple plan; I would gather with the other students at my karate school and together we would go take over a small island a short distance off the coast from my house (I live in the Puget Sound where coastline and islands abound). I figure within ten years we could have founded karate dynasty and reclaimed most of the Puget Sound area from zombie infestation. Of course, there is some debate about the safety status of the island based on whether or not zombie’s float or can walk under water, but I figure a few brown belt teenagers with katana swords would take care of that problem regardless of zombie floatation status.  The teenage students at the dojo, when I told them the plan, were more than happy to go along with it (promise a teenager sword and you can get them to go almost anywhere – how else do you think Merlin managed it?), but the adults seemed surprised.  Apparently, most of them had not bothered to plan for the zombie apocalypse.  One person rolled their eyes and said “Well, now we know why you’re a writer.”

Is planning for the zombie apocalypse a sign of an overly feverish imagination? Maybe it was the fact that I had my zombie apocalypse thought-out well into the next decade? OK,  so maybe plotting the next generation of zombie fighters was perhaps a little over the top.  But what a great story!  Can’t you just see the passion, the romance, (not to mention the action sequences) of two zombie fighters in a world gone mad, torn apart by rival kung fu/karate families?  (No?  In fact, that never occurred to you?  Huh.)

Bethany Maines, planning ...
But I know what people are saying.  Ideas like that aren’t sensible.  A zombie apocalypse isn’t likely (or so you think), so why waste time on such an idea?  A simple question with a simple answer.  Because art isn’t sensible.  In an age when everyone with a keyboard or cell phone can “write,” we occasionally lose sight of the fact that writing is an art.  And attempting to justify art in “sensible” terms will never work because art does not appeal to us on a sensible level.   It’s my firm belief that we should treasure those who go through the effort of inventing a zombie apocalypse for our reading pleasure.  Without the zombie apocalypse or a few secret organizations, whose main goal is helping women everywhere, but is being run by a cosmetics company, wouldn’t this world be a poorer place?  So don’t ask why, ask why not, and hug your nearest author today.

"Fight Like a Girl" -- Bethany Maines, COMPACT WITH THE DEVIL

[Come to think of it, why SHOULDN'T kickboxing gloves come in stylish colors?]
Let's imagine this direction first: Mysterious handsome boyfriend saves the life of a local merchant by leaping across the check-out counter to deliver a well-placed kick to an armed robber. Can you imagine his girlfriend telling him afterward, "You need to just call the police when these things happen, because you're no expert and you might get hurt" -- No? No such scene?

Then why on earth should it keep happening to Nikki Lanier, highly trained secret agent for the Carrie Mae Foundation, the part of the marvelous cosmetics corporation that buckles down to doing anything, anything, to help women around the world?

But it does. Not only that, Nikki's got issues with her mom (if she's out too long on a mission, her mother is likely to call the cops), her co-workers (who'd have guessed Camille would ignore the mission plan!), and, of course, the bad guys. What's a woman to do? Well, in Nikki's case, it's a good idea to listen to your teammates and never ever wear pencil-style eyeliner if you're going to get all sweaty while fighting.

Listen, I wish I could drag you into even the scene in the kitchen making tacos -- or the one with the rock star? the motorcycles? the secret weapons disguised as makeup and jewelry?

But then I'd have to ... no, Nikki would have to ... well, not exactly kill you. But maybe recruit you.

COMPACT WITH THE DEVIL is the second too-true-to-life and side-splittingly funny action spoof from West Coast author Bethany Maines. I giggled and snorted while reading the first one, Bulletproof Mascara. And this one kept me cracking up, while at the same time marveling at how tightly written it is. Only a real expert in this violent spy material could pull it off. So, is Bethany Maines a secret agent herself, fooling us all?

Oh, yes, the book. The plot. Well, Nikki's in Colombia, on a rescue mission of a very important woman. And when things go wrong, it is SO clearly not her fault. And that, of course, must be why Mrs. M immediately shakes up the team by sending geeky Jane on vacation, and Nikki across to Europe, on Christmas Eve, un-boyfriended, and without a team. Of course, there are smart, agile, Carrie Mae-trained women to liaise with in Germany and even in Paris -- Paris? Wait a minute, how could a true Carrie Mae agent spend time in Paris without romance? Well, yes, the gunfire is a bit distracting.

You want it all to make sense? Read it yourself! Of course, then you'll be caught the way I always am with a Bethany Maines action espionage Carrie Mae delight: clutching the copy you've been laughing with all evening, while making a mental list of all the friends you've got to give a copy to. No, not your copy. Better buy two more ...

Oh, some QUICK NEWS: Bethany Maines will be on the blog here Saturday evening, in case you've forgotten to book something more rational for your own entertainment. (Of course, you can always read her piece on Sunday afternoon, can't you?) We're here for the fun of it -- and of course, as the founder Carrie Mae Robarts herself might have said, for the sake of well-groomed and free-spirited women everywhere.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sequel to BULLETPROOF MASCARA: Bethany Maines and COMPACT ...

Some of my favorite people provide cosmetics through the woman-oriented company whose name is not quite Carrie Mae -- which is the fictional company for which Nikki Lanier works, in the adept hands of author Bethany Maines. I laughed and giggled and guffawed my way through the first book of Nikki's adventures, Bulletproof Mascara, and I'll fill you in on the second volume, Compact with the Devil, tomorrow.

Here's an extra special alert: On Saturday April 30, we're expecting the author herself to visit this blog. I wonder whether she'll be armed and dangerous?? I can hardly wait! Mark your calendar -- I've marked mine.

The Complexities of Being a Good Person -- and a Police Investigator: Donna Leon, DRAWING CONCLUSIONS

In her 20th book in the Venetian mystery series featuring Guido Brunetti, Commisario di Polizia, Donna Leon presents this mature husband, father, and negotiator of police business at his most complicated form yet. Gently probing a death that "feels wrong" to him -- but can't be clearly named a murder -- Brunetti clings to a need to find some kind of justice for an elderly woman who'd been a good listener and perhaps too good at telling awkward, even painful, truths.

And in the pursuit of truth and justice for "Mamma Costanza" -- called a "good woman" by her neighbors and family -- Brunetti finds himself smoothly telling lie after lie. It's not new for him to lie to his boss, of course; Vice-Questore Patta is such a political creature that the only way Brunetti and his colleagues Vianello and Signora Elletra can do their jobs is to constantly distract and manage Patta and the slithery Lieutenant Scarpa. But to the son of the dead woman? To the nuns at a nursing home where she'd been a volunteer? And to knowingly assist Signora Elletra in her clever manipulation of the Venetian databanks and not-very-just court system? This is a new Brunetti.

Or is it? He's always been passionate about working the system on behalf of the victims of crime -- and victims of the system, come to that. Maybe it's simply a Brunetti with his doubts exposed, his sense of "wrong" elevated, as if he were able to carry with him the smart, caring insights of his wife Paola as he walks the alleys and rides the canals of the ancient city. Here he is, waiting for some revelation from another elderly woman who seems somehow linked to the crime, but who has taken shelter among the nuns:
He sat quietly, trying to sense how aware, or unaware, she was of his presence, and as time passed he began to suspect that she was as sensitive to his presence as he was to hers. He let more time pass. Occasionally people walked past the door, but because Brunetti was sitting to the side of it, no one noticed that he was there. No one stopped to look in, nor did anyone come in to speak to Signora Sartori. After ten minutes or so Brunetti began to suspect that the noveices had forgotten about him or perhaps assumed that he had left. ... The silence and the passing of time began to weigh on him, but he forced himself to remain both silent and still.
And at last, the woman who holds the key to the mystery breaks the silence, and gives him the small clue he needs to press forward.

This is a quiet book, reflective, moody, as though both author and characters have paused to ponder the weight of 20 volumes of narrative. And it's a tender one. In the long run, almost everything wrong in the lives the inspector is viewing turns out to have come from love -- as does his own career.

Don't let this be your "first ever" Donna Leon book. Read a couple of her other titles first -- here's a website from her publisher to give you the list. Then when you enter the gentle pace of DRAWING CONCLUSIONS, you'll have a sense of the view that Brunetti has climbed to reach.

There's also a good Public Radio interview with Leon about this book; I'm glad it can easily be replayed at the radio website, here, along with an excerpt from the first chapter.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A LESSON IN SECRETS, Jacqueline Winspear: The 8th Maisie Dobbs Mystery

Maisie Dobbs is an expert at re-creating her life: From the role of a servant, she educated herself and advanced to being a nurse at the painful edges of the Great War. With war's end and peace, she opened a detective agency in London. She studied with her mentor, Maurice Blanche, learning to think clearly, ask wise questions, and seek wisdom -- including through meditation, as well as action. And she began a careful working relationship with investigators of other British bodies, like Scotland Yard.

The eighth Maisie Dobbs mystery (after Maisie Dobbs; Birds of a Feather; Pardonable Lies; Messenger of Truth; An Incomplete Revenge; Among the Mad; and ) opens in 1932, the year before Adolf Hitler would assume enormous power in Germany. It's hard to write a series fitted into years when "we readers" know a lot about what's destined to happen: the rise of the Third Reich, the twisting rationales for persecution of ethnic and religious groups, the inexorable movement toward eruption of war for the second time in half a century, involving Europe and eventually the United States. Jacqueline Winspear weaves a cautious route of foreshadowing and limitation -- as does Dobbs herself, recruited to work for both Scotland Yard's Special Branch and the Secret Service, and soon hot on the trail of a murderer at a small Cambridge college.

In classic modern detective format, Dobbs finds her life complicated by other strands that need attention at the same time as her case: her new and as yet untested romantic relationship with the often mysterious James Campton; the disappearance of her newly hired file clerk; the tension of a new baby arriving in her assistant's family, where an earlier baby had dies. In Winspear's hands, Dobbs confesses that the multiple strands and pressures have knitted into a circle of constant demands.

But where many another mystery -- including the earlier Maisie Dobbs ones -- would ride an increasing tension of threat and risk, A LESSON IN SECRETS quietly dodges each crisis. A threatening crime lord is arrested off scene, without repercussions. A killing is so mildly executed that it's accepted as a heart attack. Maisie's concerns about whether James is cheating on her rise to one session of weepy concern, then are put to rest before they have cost her anything of value.

At times, the quiet movement of scenes and characters even becomes a little silly, as in this passage in which "facts" that should have been part of earlier structure are hastily introduced:
Upon reaching the railway station in Cambridge, Maisie went straight to a telephone kiosk and placed a call to The Old Fenland Mill, the inn where she knew MacFarlane and Stratton had taken rooms. She left a message for MacFarlane, and said that she would meet them at seven o'clock in the private bar.

Now she was on her way to see Professor Arthur Henderson. Although he was retired, she had managed to find out his address from a porter at Trinity College -- again, lies came easily when she was in search of more color to add to her picture of Greville Liddicote.
In this instance, the inn gets offhandedly introduced, as well as a new professor's name and retirement. And the issue of lying in order to get information gets tossed out, as it will be repeatedly through the book. But there is no cost, no pain, from all the lies Maisie keeps utilizing to solve her case.

I ended up frustrated by what could have been a much better book -- and feeling that it's filling a timeline that Winspear must already envision, carrying Maisie Dobbs toward warlike Germany and the Resistance movements about to emerge.

If you're a series reader, this book is necessary to connect the earlier books and the ones yet to come. But oh, how I wished it had serious consequences and events that mattered. Even the silvery shadow of the late Maurice Blanche wavers in too much ordinary sunlight in this volume. Yes, it happens. And in the best of worlds, the "next book" comes through incisively, justifying the time spent waiting in the hallway for something significant to happen.

In which case -- consider me waiting for the next Jacqueline Winspear work.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

OUTSOURCED: All Too Real! Gritty and Funny, from Dave Zeltserman

It's tempting, isn't it -- to contemplate solving a family problem via murder, or replacing lost income through a bank robbery. But you wouldn't really do it, right?

In Dave Zeltserman's hands, the slide into actually planning a bank robbery seems like the only solution for a handful of aging computer whizzes whose jobs have been "outsourced" to India, or simply reserved for younger, quicker minds trained in the newest programming languages and platforms. And in Dan Wilson, Boston-area software pro, Dave Zeltserman has written a classic character whose woes multiply with every further step into crime-as-solution.

Dan's desperation matches those of several friends, whose resum├ęs look "too old," too dated, for the current marketplace. And he knows something about a local bank's security that leaves it vulnerable to a well-timed, neatly executed robbery. Why not his?

If you're a Westlake fan, you know some of what comes next: The perfect foursome Dan envisions for the task expands to five, then six; the loot taken from the bank turns out to involve a vicious mob personality; people who aren't supposed to shoot, do it anyway. And Dan's "intuitive" wife Carol, for whom he'd do anything -- even rob a bank -- gets suspicious. Very suspicious. Uh-oh.

In addition to Zeltserman's lively pace and immaculately timed dark comic twists, the prolific Boston writer -- a former software pro himself -- continues to craft both vivid scenes and unique turns of phrase. I love the opening of chapter 2, when over-aged-and-out-of-work Gordon Carmichael struggles to suck in his gut, and to stand so his jowls don't sag, while imagining how he could conquer the job market if he could just afford plastic surgery. And when the very disturbed Eric Hoffer becomes part of the gang, Dan's take on his appearance is a warning in graphic red flags: "He looked pretty much how Dan remembered him. Small eyes that seemed almost buried in a pig-like face and skin the color of boiled ham." Oh yeah, got it!

This book is a must for any collection of caper crime fiction, that time-honored genre that inspires snorts of laughter tucked between groans of disgust and the urge to call out, "No, don't do it!" Dan Wilson and his ill-timed venture into crime are totally engrossing, totally memorable, and oh, so very unfortunate ... even when Dan gets what he thinks he wants, he's headed for more losses. Gotta love it.

OUTSOURCED is a paperback original issued by Serpent's Talk, Zeltserman's long-time British publisher. With his brilliance in dark crime and satire, Zeltserman continues to turn out more books than any one publisher can handle, though, and is now offering e-books of new titles like the Julius Katz Mysteries (a grand new take on Nero Wolfe) and one that I'm eager to read soon, Blood Crimes. See his blog for more details:

Food and Murder: Chris Cavendish Cooks up A PIZZA TO DIE FOR

I've never had a Chicago-style "deep dish pizza." In fact, I had to look it up on Wikipedia to be sure there was such a thing ( Married to a guy raised in New Haven, Connecticut, I know I'd be chased from the kitchen if I even suggested one (New Haven pizzas have thin, crisp crusts and a delicate balance of toppings, never ever thick or deep!).

But oh boy, it sounds good, as pizzeria owner Eleanor Swift grapples with how to make one for a special customer order, and keeps refining it over the course of A PIZZA TO DIE FOR. Author Chris Cavender, a kitchen maven himself, even provides recipes at the back of the book.

Deep-dish pizza
The steady progress toward a good and reliable deep-dish pizza recipe is the only reliable thread of this multiple-murder, delicious detective story whose surprises bubble up every couple of pages. The first one, and a major blow to Eleanor and her staff (which includes her sister Maddy), is the announcement that the little town of Timber Ridge, North Carolina, is about to have a second pizzeria -- literally just down the block from A Slice of Delight. Moreover, the new owner -- a stranger to town -- announces that it will boast "a wood-fired oven and a professional pizza maker who will spin your crust into the air as you watch amazed!" Even Eleanor's most loyal long-time customers will want to sample that, won't they? And the narrow profit margin of the Slice seems about to get scorched.

It's not giving away much to say that one of early disasters (or mixed blessings) here is the murder of the new pizzeria owner ... and Eleanor is quickly tagged as having a motive to kill off the competition.

Cavender's plot is tight and entertaining. As in earlier books in this series -- A Slice of Murder and Pepperoni Pizza Can Be Murder -- Eleanor's detection is accompanied by gentle wrestling with her sister Maddy, and confusion on how to handle romantic possibilities when her husband's recent death is still very much part of her daily awareness; after all, the Slice was their joint business dream.

But life goes on, and around Eleanor, unfortunately, so does death. At least there's something good in the kitchen to nibble, between scenes! Things do get a bit complicated when Maddy catches the "create a pizza" bug, though ... as Eleanor discovers:
I got up my nerve and took the first bite.
"It's interesting," I said. "I've had pineapple and ham on a pizza before, but never combined with spicy sausage, mushrooms, jalapeno peppers, and Tabasco sauce. If you had to give it a name, what would you call it?"
She grinned at me as she said proudly, "I don't know about you, but I kind of like 'the Volcano.' Should we add it to the menu?"
Deep-dish, Volcano, and death on a slice. Now that's a menu for a lot of fun reading!

A PIZZA TO DIE FOR comes out through Kensington Books on April 26.

A Mystery to Share With the Kids: THE ROMEO AND JULIET CODE, Phoebe Stone

I'm a Nancy Drew fan -- always was, always will be -- but I have to admit that Phoebe Stone surges well past my idol of teen mystery in her new book THE ROMEO AND JULIET CODE. If the "goodness" of a book can be measured by how many people you want to give or loan copies to right away, this one is a 10+. And omigosh, it is not a coming-of-age novel (whew! had enough of those lately). But it's jammed with mystery, suspense, and love.

Eleven-year-old Felicity Bathburn Budwig arrives at her grandmother's home in Maine, totally bewildered by what her parents are doing. They've brought her from England, where bombs have been falling in the German attacks, and the Americans haven't yet jumped in to help. Felicity travels with her old stuffed bear, Wink; she calls her parents Winnie and Danny; and she only knows that they intend her safety as they abandon her to the relatives she's never before met.

Almost immediately, she loses even the familiarity of her name, as the Yankee relations give her a family nickname to go with her new life: Flissy. The don't do it to be mean, and it's her grandmother who provides the name, as Felicity samples the incredible secret almond and honey muffins, closing her eyes to keep her "British balance" and reserve.
"What did I tell you?" said Uncle Gideon.
"See what we meant?" said Aunt Miami.
"Well, that settles it," said The Gram. "She must have a nickname. Everybody gets a nickname here if they like my muffins. What about Flissy?"
It's a pet name, and although it would be better to check with her parents first, Flissy has no option to do that -- they've returned to their mysterious activities in Europe, without a promise of coming back to her, and nobody explains anything. What's worse, Flissy soon discovers her father is sending letters to Uncle Gideon. But not to her. And ... the letters are in a code she can't read.

Between locked doors, a visitor from Washington, the problems of Aunt Miami, and the grim rulings by The Gram, Flissy is half bewildered and half determined. She's going to decode what's happening to her, and she's going to stick up for her parents, no matter what secrets seem to lie in their past -- and her present.

Written from Phoebe Stone's own childhood experience of a year in Britain and the delicious accent and new words that she brought home to America, this is a tale of intrigue and detection. Flissy's forms of courage are called for in so many ways that half the time you wish you could put your arms around her and let her have a good cry. The other half the time, you're saying, "Yes, open that door!"

No matter what ages your best friends and relatives are, from eight to eighty, this is a dandy book to share with them. But don't tell them what's going to happen! And I won't tell you, either. Except ... wow, you're going to love it. So would Nancy Drew.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

When Spring Is Worth Enjoying, So Is Syd Lea's New Poetry

We invited Sydney Lea to talk about his new collection from Four Way Books, available this month -- a collection that reminds me of why spring is a good time for National Poetry Month: I notice what's new and how hope refreshes itself as we leave the winter house and re-enter a season of obvious growth, color, and fragrance. I've always been drawn to Syd's poems because the narrative in them allows me easy access into the New England landscape (human and otherwise), then bumps me into fresh questions and recognitions. It's great to have his newest collection, and I recommend purchasing it directly from Four Way Books, as a salute to what this poetry press does for us all.

What's the title of your new book and why did you choose it?

My new book is entitled Young of the Year.  As so often happens, there was a circumstance in which I said a phrase in response to something I beheld – in this case, a young snowshoe hare in early winter – and then intuited that something in that phrase was asking to be explored poetically.  As it turned out, the poem took me to contemplation of my then brand new grandfatherhood, my son and his wife having presented Cora, their own young of the year, with whom I was and am infatuated – as I am by the three grandchildren, who are Cora’s little brother and her twin cousins, a boy and a girl, who have arrived since the composition of that title poem.

John is my least favorite of the evangelists, and yet his assertion of “In the beginning was the word” has a certain, probably heretical, resonance for me.  I believe that if I abandon myself to my materials – which for a writer are, precisely, words – they will perform that divine function of creation.

That poem was determinative of the rest of the collection, which ended up being dedicated to those four grandkids.  I expected to love being a grandfather, but never as much as I do.  Their arrival, combined with my recent retirement from college teaching and certain exigencies of age (though I’m blessed with good health and a surprising absence of aches and pains in my body), led me to contemplate what a lifetime might look like in retrospect.  In fact it looks okay, after all, despite some ups and downs, some of them pretty catastrophic, in younger days.

I didn’t think, and still don’t, that I could judge my success as a parent until I saw how my kids raised their kids.  They do better than I did at their ages, no doubt; but it feels as though I must have done some modicum anyhow of “modeling” parenthood.  And of course the arrival of yet another generation of blood kin fills me with a sense of life’s symmetries, unobvious as they can be sometimes.

Poetry has always been some way for me to make a bit of coherence in my life, and this book feels more coherent to me than the others, merely because it reflects the symmetries I just mentioned.

How does poetry help you (or not help you!) to continue enjoying the choices you've made for where to live, what to put first in each day, who to share things with?

I flat love the natural world, and being in it absolutely every day in all seasons; I flat love the fact that I can open my study door and walk right up a ridge that no one else will have walked up that day – or any other, except during deer season.  That sort of daily hiking is my meditation; if I try hard NOT to think of “ideas,” then material will simply present itself to me. 

I’m a tree-hugger, sure, but not only that. I live, quite deliberately, among people for whom poetry is scarcely a high priority. I think that enriches both my writing and my life.

It seems to me that too many of us, having affiliated ourselves with the academy, can start to believe that what the people around us daily are concerned about is what everyone is concerned about. We now have poets who are using various critical or philosophical theories as grounds for their poetry.  I’m not buying, though I suppose it’s possible I would if I didn’t encounter people every day who could not imaginably care less about theory or any of that other schoolroom stuff.

In fact, when I set about finishing a poem, I like to imagine that these neighbors will read it.  I want to address them, and more often than not pay tribute to them.  Of course they won’t read it, so this surmise of mine is utterly ridiculous.  And yet it is for me an enabling device, and it keeps me honest … or at least I hope it does.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Henning Mankell, THE TROUBLED MAN: Exquisite End to the Kurt Wallander Series

US cover
Compassion: The term keeps coming up as I think about what Henning Mankell has done in his 2011 release in the Kurt Wallander detective series, set in Sweden. The book's title, THE TROUBLED MAN, refers to a vanished naval commander, Hakan von Enke, the wealthy and dignified father of the man that Wallander's daughter has chosen for her partner -- at least, for the father of her baby, and perhaps someday for her husband. A surprisingly deep and revelatory conversation with Wallander, with the naval commander revealing the most frustrating puzzle of his own Cold War past, is followed almost immediately by the reserved and elegant man's disappearance. There is no suggestion of violence -- but also no sign of continued life, for von Enke left behind everything, from wallet to passport to cell phone to photos of his family.

The investigation isn't properly Wallander's -- it's in the city, out of his jurisdiction -- but how can he not attempt to discover what has happened? His daughter's happiness is at risk. His new granddaughter's second grandfather is missing, and soon presumed dead. And there are suggestions that the espionage puzzles of the 1960s, 1970s, and most importantly 1980s have caught up with von Enke and forced him to pay the ultimate price.

While Wallander experiences a growing sense of understanding of and compassion for this naval commander who has dedicated his life to solving a mystery that involves at least Sweden and Russia, and perhaps the United States, Wallander himself is falling victim: to the depression, anger, and perhaps Alzheimer's disease that must have afflicted his own father, a painter who featured in some of the earlier volumes of this series but who passed away well before this one's opening. Wallander's incessant questioning and testing of himself -- what has he forgotten? is he displaced? -- becomes as tragic as von Enke's disappearance, and threatens his daughter's happiness and security from another direction. This daughter is Linda, who abruptly chose a police career herself, perhaps the only tangible proof that Wallander has to suggest his parenting of his daughter had positive sides to it. And he's desperate to hide his frailty from Linda, but the situation is worsening.
His father was an unsolved riddle as far as he was concerned. Was he himself just as much of a riddle to Linda? What would Wallander's granddaughter say about her grandfather? Would he be no more than a shadowy and silent old police officer who sat alone in his house, visited less and less often by fewer and fewer people? That's what I'm afraid of, Wallander thought. And I have every reason in the world to be afraid. I certainly haven't cherished and taken care of my friendships.
In the long, slow process of investigating the shadows of the missing man -- the "troubled man" who had almost revealed his quandary to Wallander, just barely pulling back -- the aging police office confronts the losses and griefs of his life: his divorce, his drinking, his deteriorating physical condition, the one deep love he had after the divorce, his shadowed mind. He too is a "troubled man." His pursuit of a solution to von Enke's disappearance (during his midsummer vacation, when he ought to be resting) is costing him what little peace of mind he has retained.

In an interview with crime author Declan Burke, Mankell described the finality of this volume as being linked closely to how revelatory the book is of Wallander himself. "When you finish reading the novel, that there’s really nothing more to be said about him, that he has nothing more to say about himself. So this is why it must be the last Wallander story.”

Although the closing of the series, the walling off of the character, has been compared to the end of A. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, this sense of completion makes it as different as possible from the Holmes finale. The careful pacing of the book, rambling between external threats and internal fears, is a marvel of what's best in today's detective fiction: pairing the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of some form of salvation for the detective.

UK cover
But if your mind is truly going, if your memories are failing, even the ones -- especially the ones -- of the past few minutes, what kind of salvation can there be?

Do take time to read the Mankell/Burke interview; it's quietly insightful and may help many a reader accept the choice of this author. I can say, though, that from my point of view, little consolation was needed at the end of the volume: The long quiet stitching of a compassionate blanket of farewell throughout THE TROUBLED MAN provides for a ending that is as exquisite as the ten-book series itself.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Poetry: Why It Matters, and Who's Reading Next

It's National Poetry Month. Thank goodness, there's something to carry us through the uncertain weather of snow-rain-wind-sun ... wow, sun! Well, we're hoping for a few days of it. But while we're hoping, poetry carries that hope in a lidded basket, close enough to open and savor.

Here are some quick notes from today's immersion in the world of poets and poetry. Why immerse there, when mysteries are the focus of Kingdom Books? Well, as Gwendolyn Brooks said, "Poetry is life distilled." When grappling for the intense core of a book -- whether reading it or writing it -- poetry can be the flashlight, the pry bar, the watering spout.

A collection of poems that's been waiting for attention on my desk has been Laure Anne Bosselaar's 2007 offering, A NEW HUNGER (Ausable Press). It's so powerful that I've literally picked it up and set it down again over and over, and this evening I pushed to work my way once and for all through the entire book: its 12+ pages of opening poem "Against Again" that wrings my heart for the abandoned and abused child that Bosselaar suggests she once was, a child brought back into clear focus upon seeing a small girl on a train being ignored by a mother: "and look at her face: already courageous, defeated, / and old with it." Bosselaar writes of being delivered to a de facto orphanage by her beautiful and very much alive mother, who had no use for anything that didn't gratify and fawn over that angry, insistent, socially prominent woman. In the nunnery, the poet-child learns of her own ugliness and evil, of how unwanted she is ... so that every subsequent poem erupting in adulthood confronts the cruelty of that time. in "Man at the Museum of Modern Art" she marvels at the revelation that a stranger's presence can bring:
How horror stalks us -- as desire does,
or love. Or hunger.
In Bosselaar's presence among poets, in cities, in adulthood, there is a new answer forming, though. In the poem "Awe" she savors New York City and its mighty Hudson River, and concludes,
this ten-bucks-wave-rocker of a ride

is mine, and so is this million-windowed city,
trashed, ashed and gleaming, too busy

destroying then rebuilding herself to watch
the Hudson and me at the end of our journeys --

resilient and willing.
So it is that we rebuild out of ash, out of pain, out of torment, into life.

Hungry for more poetry, more powerful language? If you're in New England, consider visiting Dartmouth College tomorrow, April 7, for a Poetry and Prose reading presented by the English Department:
April 7, 4pm in Sanborn Library

There will be a reading by Todd Hearon and Michelle Hoover.  Reception to follow.

Todd Hearon is the author of STRANGE LAND, and is a poet, playwright, and fiction

Michelle Hoover is author of QUICKENING and teaches writing and Boston University
and Grub Street.
And if you can't get there, take a look at Hearon's surrealistic feast through his Poetry Foundation web page, and at this intriguing interview today with Hoover on the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene blog.

Back to mysteries tomorrow ... but watch for more poetry this month. It's a good spring tonic.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Kevin O'Brien, DISTURBED: A Powerful Thriller

The book business is changing.

That's the only explanation for why a powerful thriller like Kevin O'Brien's book DISTURBED is coming out as a "paperback original" from Pinnacle (Kensington Books). Even a year ago, a book like this from an author who's hit the top lists so often would inevitably come out in hardcover first.

But not today.

The plus is, readers can pick this up for a "paperback price" and still get nearly 500 pages of intense, emotional, and meticulously plotted suspense, focused on a small and slightly dysfunctional family living on Willow Tree Court, in a suburb not far from Seattle (where the author lives). Molly Dennehy left her Midwestern past to marry Jeff, accepting his children and the aggressive -- even mean and cruel -- presence of Jeff's ex-wife not far away. But the kids are far from accepting Molly. For one thing, their mother teaches them firmly not to do so, and to spy on the "new wife." For another, unacknowledged tensions run through the household -- about teenage son Chris's school counselor, now a suicide; about accusations from the ex-wife that Jeff's a philanderer who'll never change his ways; about Molly's struggle to maintain her career as a significant artist.

And when murders begin to accumulate in the community, it's easy for some people to point to Molly and say, "Bad luck arrived when she came here."

O'Brien is a Hitchcock devotee, and it shows in the spooky setups he provides: nasty housewives pecking each other, creepy psychopaths taking aim at self-satisfied families, kids tormenting each other for showing their vulnerabilities. But DISTURBED varies from the standard thriller with the powerful guy who shows his stuff by tackling the criminal physically after tracking him down. Instead, this one is driven by Molly's determination to protect her new family in ways that she couldn't for her old one. With no martial arts, no firearms, no police training, no military past, she's out there being a persistent and outspoken mom -- well, stepmom -- doing what she has to, at enormous cost.

And who's to say the kids will even appreciate it? And what's the scratchy voice on the phone trying to do to her by puncturing her husband's nicely crafted double life?

Last but not least, could it all have something to do with the serial killer haunting the region -- the Cul-De-Sac killer?

Make sure to leave some extra lights on, and double-lock the door, so you won't have to keep getting up to check on them. DISTURBED is a haunting, psychologically intense thriller that deserves plenty of readers. Originally announced for May, it's now scheduled to release around April 26.

While I'm waiting, I'll be looking for Kevin O'Brien's other books. He's touring on the West Coast; watch his website to see whether the "new" book business grabs this one and pulls him out to visit the rest of us.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Lea Wait, SHADOWS OF A DOWN EAST SUMMER: Traditional Mystery, Well Crafted

The fifth in Lea Wait's "Shadows" series featuring antique print dealer Maggie Summer has arrived -- and SHADOWS OF A DOWN EAST SUMMER is a perfect read for vacation. But why wait until June? Don't we deserve a spring reading break? You bet!

Maggie and her increasingly serious "beau" Will Brewer arrive at the charming town of Waymouth, Maine, for their own working vacation, staying (in separate rooms!) at the home of Will's Aunt Nettie. Will intends to catch up on some house maintenance for his aging aunt; Maggie needs a break from the tensions of her life in New Jersey and hopes that she and Will can both make some money at an upcoming regional antiques show.

But Aunt Nettie has other ideas. Setting Maggie up to meet Carolyn Chase right away, Aunt Nettie expects her guest to dig into local history, for the sake of fresh insight into an woman artist related to Carolyn. The new connection clicks, and Maggie finds herself custodian to a journal from Waymouth's earliest days as an arts colony on the coast. What nobody planned on, though, is that the journal may include valuable information on a possible long-ago child of noted artist Homer Winslow. And if such heritage could be proved, it might be worth a fortune to Winslow's current descendants, if they exist.

But there are other possible secrets in the journal, and almost immediately, risk, danger, and death scatter around Maggie. Most terribly, Aunt Nettie herself is hurt badly by some searcher, and while Maggie struggles to identify the crucial information in her possession, she also struggles with what will become of her relationship with Will if he decides to move in with his frail aunt. And even if she wanted to stand back, events won't let her, as a phone call from an attorney demonstrates:
"Dr. Summer, just because we're from Maine doesn't mean we're uneducated. Everyone involved with Susan Newell's estate and Carolyn Chase's unfortunate demise is quite aware of the value any paintings connected to Helen Chase could have. Frankly, your coming into our peaceful community and accusing local people of crimes is not very smart."

"Are you threatening me?" asked Maggie. Her voice stayed even, but she felt the muscles in her shoulders tightening.

"I'm telling you the truth. A murder has been committed. The police have a lot of questions to answer. I'm asking you to stay out of this investigation, Maggie Summer. Just stay out."

The connection clicked off.
This double mystery -- crimes in the present, secrets in the past -- is also full of details about artwork, prints, and values. A charming side note comes from descriptions of interesting "real" prints, in colorful detail with explanations of why they have value, at the start of each chapter. And although there's plenty of suspense, there's very little gore -- Maggie's strength of character keeps her from acting any victim role herself, and her curiosity and determination see her through to unraveling the threads of art and time.

This will be a great book to pack for a day at the beach -- or on the back porch, or even with your feet up in the living room. Exploring Maine village life with Maggie Summer provides an old-fashioned escape into a world where neighbors matter, justice can be earned, and truth eventually is revealed. Don't we all need some of that? Thanks, Lea, for continuing this series of good reads! See the full list of books at the author's website.

The Fun of a Good "Caper" Mystery: OCTOBER FEST by Jess Lourey

Sure, I know, it seems half a year off season. But don't let it worry you -- the arrival of Jess Lourey's sixth "Murder-by-the-Month" mystery is timed perfectly for chuckles and groans of appreciation.

Mira James, fill-in librarian in the small Minnesota town where she's house-sitting, is also a very part-time reporter for the local paper, the Battle Lake Recall. And that's what takes her to check out political candidates at the local Octoberfest, where beer and polka music and the fragrance of sweaty bodies mingle in an inimitable statement of place and season. Conservative incumbent Sarah Glokkman, famous for her foot-in-mouth maneuvers, is on hand, along with her challenger, Arnold Swydecker (why isn't he wearing his wedding ring?). With Mira's fatal attraction for corpses, it's nearly inevitable that the air of slippery maneuvers around the campaign results in a body ... what a shame that it's on the floor in the hotel room next door to where Mira was supposed to be getting romanced.

Actually, Mira wouldn't get in nearly as much trouble if her local friends didn't keep pushing her into it. There's tiny and feisty Mrs. Berns, whose son is trying to commit her to a maximum-security nursing home; Kennie Rogers, with her new plan for speed dating combined with spray tanning; and of course a few unfortunate former boyfriends, including a statue that's been Mira's ideal companion, hunky and silent and without needs. That's a lot easier than the reality of Johnny Leeson, whose efforts to help Mira solve crimes always seem to end up melting her into a puddle of desire.

Here's a classic moment in Mira's life, moments after she's found a corpse (and ruined the betting pool on when she'll stumble over the next one -- this is, remember, the sixth book in the series):
The familiar voice at the door yanked me sharply from the frozen horror on Mr. Webber's chalk-white face. One edge of his forehead appeared darker than the rest and soft, like he'd hit the ground hard. He was still dressed in his sad, shabby coat. "Mrs. Berns?" I asked. She looked tiny in the doorway, tiny and crazy-sexy in thigh-high stockings and a black teddy under a translucent, feather-lined robe. "What are you doing here?"
For pure fun and snorts of "I knew it!," and corpses that arrive at the most inconvenient moments, Lourey's mysteries are at the top of the pile. I enjoyed number five, September Fair, and it was worth the wait for this one. For the full list, check out Lourey's website. She also is one of the authors at the InkSpot blog, another good spot to visit.

If you're piling up Janet Evanovich or Donald Westlake or Lawrence Block, Lourey's mysteries will feel right at home on your shelves. Just don't be too surprised if occasionally they give an almost inebriated giggle and fall off the shelf again.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Donald Westlake and Elizabeth Taylor: A Note from Dave

Front of book
Back of book
Dave says he's been thinking about John B. Allan, Donald E. Westlake, and Elizabeth Taylor:
Elizabeth Taylor passed away a couple of weeks ago and I was reminded of a paperback original in my collection of Donald E, Westlake books. The paperback was titled Elizabeth Taylor: The Fascinating Story of America's Most Talented Actress and the World's Most Beautiful Woman and was printed in April 1961,  by Monarch Books from Derby, CT. The cover price at the time was 35 cents for 139 pages. John B. Allan was a pseudonym used by Donald E. Westlake [one of more than 20!] and copies of this paperback are difficult to obtain in fine or near fine condition.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Urgent: ASHES OF THE EARTH by Eliot Pattison

International attorney Eliot Pattison already has two powerful detection (and spiritual search) series underway: one sent in Chinese-occupied Tibet, more or less "now," and the other set in Colonial America, tying together the despair and strength of a Scottish exile and a Native American shaman.

In ASHES OF THE EARTH, Pattison dares to stare forward into a ravaged world, one torn and decimated by the horror of a nuclear holocaust. Although survivor Hadrian Boone is dealing with a fragile remnant of population -- so fragile that the very idea of abortion, for instance, is more than heresy, since the need for repopulating the earth is so extreme -- and although cities have shattered and fallen, still, evil in its most common forms of lust, covetousness, and cruelty looks likely to prevail.

How could the author have guessed that the week of the book's release would see a real world still uncertain about radiation and fallout from a catastrophic collapse of four nuclear plants poised in an earthquake zone in Japan? "Hardened" robots, enormous machines capable of burying sites in water or cement, experts in the mass health crisis formed by radiation in a massive urban area's water supply: all these are headed to the Pacific Rim at this moment.

Hadrian Boone's world is far simpler, mechanically, because so many of the urban structures failed and collapsed in the global holocaust of his time. But emotionally, it's at least as complex. Local children are feeding each other myths of a "better world" reached through suicide, where what they suspect are unreal, never-seen luxuries -- toys, cars, abundant food -- will greet them. Moreover, murders of colony leaders keep occurring, and Hadrian begins to see a plan behind the deaths. Criminal elements, blessed by the protective concrete walls of prisons, have survived the holocaust, along with the dogged pioneers with whom Hadrian identifies. Stronger and with few qualms of conscience, the criminals are close to their goal of overrunning the colony and forcing it into submission.

Readers of Pattison's other two series will recognize in Hadrian Boone's fragile psyche the damaged mid-life souls of protagonists Shan Tao Yun (survivor of the Chinese Tibetan gulag) and Duncan McCallum, unwilling outcast. These are men who have lost "everything": family, home, safety. But they are enriched by friendships with older men who have learned how to love the earth and its creatures in ways that make a difference in who we can become. In Hadrian's case, the losses are made more poignant by the absence of that "teacher" figure: Boone's friend Jonah, a leader who had understood how to empower and embrace the struggling colony, has died. And although a woman police officer, Sergeant Waller, appears to offer Boone support, she's a frail reed -- so ignorant of her own past and present that she betrays Boone and his cause repeatedly, mostly unintentionally but sometimes out of a childlike vindictiveness and refusal to mature.

Some of Boone's struggles have an inevitable "MacGyver" quality as he fights to make his way around and through the tangle of loyalties and collapses that make up his Carthage. But if you stop to consider how we'll manage if the Japanese power plants go into complete meltdown, or how your friends in Tokyo are getting through brownouts, food shortages, and transportation snags, Boone's Carthage begins to make ominous sense.

The question is, can Boone -- and can we -- summon the inner resources needed to make survival into a life worth pursuing? Or are the suicidal children the smart ones after all? "Hadrian wearily rose, searching for something on the young faces, on the magazine pages, that might explain the mystery these children guarded. He should have been angry, yet all he could feel was a deep sorrow."

Pattison dares to turn us toward confronting the mysteries of more than our past: We are building our future in every step. While Hadrian solves the workings of a criminal enterprise and tries to stop it, we as readers listen to his friend Emily, the group's most skilled doctor:
Emily frowned. "Lost world. Lost technologies." She paused and tilted his head, holding the bottle to his mouth.

Hadrian watched the doctor in silence, seeing not just exhaustion and anger there now, but an edge of something that could be fear. "There were a lot of types, a lot of names -- speed, ecstasy, acid, meth, fly powder."

"This is Carthage, Hadrian. This is the other twenty-first century." ...

He was finding no answers, only more questions. Smugglers. Drugs. Murder by jackal. Munitions. 
It's not a "brave new world," but a dire one. Only courage, loyalty, love, and laying one's life on the line -- in collaboration with willing friends -- may take Hadrian Boone and his community out of the ashes that remain.

Read it first as a taut, tightly plotted detective novel, human and agonized. Then let it rest in your thoughts. What Pattison offers us is a dose of courage for ourselves, disguised as a rattling good story.

Turning the Pet Mystery from Cozy to Cool -- and Dark! : Clea Simon, DOGS DON'T LIE

Sure, watching groomed show dogs on TV can be sweet, maybe even inspiring. But for raw emotion, show me a recovering race dog, or an animal that's been trained to fight, or even a guard dog, bristling with awareness and barely contained aggression.

There -- that should be a good reminder that writing about animals and crime can get gritty. And as Pru Marlowe, animal behaviorist and protagonist of Clea Simon's ripping good mystery DOGS DON'T LIE discovers, depending on people's pets for clues on how they've been murdered is a tough business. And even when Pru begins to pick up communication from cats, dogs, and a ferret in something close to words, she's only getting the animal end of things -- sniffy arrogance from her cat Wallis, who twitches an ear in a derogatory comment and pronounces, "Dogs have fleas." And pathetic terror from the brutalized pitbull Lily, whose "person," Charles, is lying on the refinished oak floor of his living room with his throat torn out. Pru knows Lily can't have done this -- the poor dog is distraught, terrified, grieving -- but how can she convince the all-too-typical police investigator, who hears what Pru does for a living and immediately asks, "And do you train dogs to attack?"

Simon's other pet series are softer than this one, but you can see her progress toward "pet noir" as she's confronted the reality of death through her two other series, featuring Theda Krakow and Dulcie Schwartz. Better yet, Simon's a seasoned, professional author who knows how to hold the tension in a plot and keep the clues reasonable but still surprising and challenging. I shared my advance copy of DOGS DON'T LIE with a legally trained and highly critical friend, who came back a few days later and said with lifted eyebrow, "This is really good!" And it is.

There's a toothsome interview with Simon on The Conscious Cat blog site, well worth reading; Simon has a second book being released this week, Grey Zone, and the interview touches on how she's handled bringing both books to publication at the same time. She'll be touring widely, and we hope to see her at Kingdom Books, after the snow vanishes!

RIP: Peter B. Howard, Bookseller Extraordinaire

Peter B. Howard, owner of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, died yesterday, March 31, 2011. We hadn't seen him for a couple of years, couldn't get out to the West Coast lately, but our string of annual visits there shaped our thinking, our business, and most of all, what we learned to reach for as we built the collections of Kingdom Books.

I wish I'd taken his photo, but you can see some good ones, along with great tributes, on the Web. Dave especially recommends the video interview done in February with Peter, easily found at the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers website, which also provides this set of text tributes.

At Fine Books & Collections, you can read another good piece on Peter, written by Nicholas Basbanes.

We offer our sympathy to Peter's family, friends, and most of all colleagues, at Serendipity and beyond. This absence is enormous, poignant, and never to be filled. But let's keep honoring and celebrating who he was, and what he has done for those to seek and treasure books.