Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Brief Mention: Denise Mina, BLOOD SALT WATER

Dave and I mourned the death, earlier this month, of William McIlvanney, a Scottish crime writer whose work forms the classic bedrock of "tartan noir." McIlvanney's grim and gritty police procedurals laid out the conflicts of Scottish urban life and criminal investigation, including the perilous thread that complicates each investigation: that the criminal and the investigator may know each other already .... and may even be family.

This danger of "life in a small nation" provides a dark and disturbing undercurrent for investigator Alex Morrow in Denise Mina's newest Glasgow crime novel, BLOOD SALT WATER. The four earlier books in the series, most poignantly The Red Road, establish Morrow as a feisty and smart Detective Inspector in the Scottish police, with a half-brother who's a vicious career criminal. Morrow's already had to defend her family and her own career from the backwash of Danny's crimes and colleagues. Did you ever wish a family member would just, umm, die? Hard to blame Alex for the occasional thought.

That terrible sense of family shattered into unmatching pieces -- by lifestyle, religion, and money -- caroms among the criminals in BLOOD SALT WATER. Moreoever, Mina's insight deftly portrays the struggles of small-time crooks trying to avoid becoming hard cases -- as well as the manipulation and power of those who run the show.

Powerful, well paced, engaging, and dark (although not especially gory) -- the book's already been on many "best of the year" lists, and deserves it. Best option: Read the other four books first, for added depth. But if you don't have time just now, go right ahead into this newest. Mina's such a pro that you won't feel you've missed out. Let me know what you think, once you've reached the end.

Political Thriller, FATE OF THE UNION, Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens

What a delight to receive a copy of this book from Matt Clemens, one of the top collaborators among today's thriller authors. In FATE OF THE UNION, second in a series that Clemens and Max Allan Collins began last year with Supreme Justice, former Secret Service agent Joe Reeder responds to the apparent suicide of a retired colleague. The opening chapter makes it clear that Chris Bryson was murdered by a very professional team, probably also based in Washington, DC, where the action unfolds. But Reeder and his quickly adopted investigation partner Patti Rogers, an FBI Special Agent, need to prove more than murder here; they need to show there's some point in opening up the case, when it would be so much more convenient, for a lot of powerful people, to leave it alone.

This series is set in the "2020s," when the authors picture an even more polarized national politics than today's. Embedding speculative politics into a DC thriller adds a fresh and provocative aspect to the writing of this team. Collins is the lead of the pair, and is best known for the Tom Hanks film based on Collins's graphic novel Road to Perdition. Clemens, in turn, is both a collaborator with Collins, and a steady support for emerging mystery authors. Their writing teamwork is well established, and develops great plot twists, clever red herrings, and strong characters that make the fast-paced ride well worth it.

The book's published by Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon imprint, so you may need to order it online rather than at your local shop. No need to read the earlier book first, but it does add some character depth to take this pair in order. Great entertainment, with a constant sense of how the book could easily become a film -- explosions, car chases, and conflict. And, oh yes, conspiracy. LOTS of it. A good fast-paced read for winter relaxing!

[Note: The book was released in early November, but I had to wait for Dave to finish reading it, as he called first dibs. Married life demands compromises! For extra credit, check out the author websites: Collins here, and Clemens here.]

Diversion, Poetry, FELICITY by Mary Oliver

[Did you notice that the New York Times filled most of its book review section yesterday with poetry??]

Life in New England collides with Robert Frost's poems so often. Stone walls, woods roads that fork, apple picking, running errands while talking to one's horse -- well, okay, not that last one so much. But almost. At any rate, it's intriguing to see which poets pin down the threads of life here in Vermont in ways that can't be forgotten. And I'm glad to extend that investigation to other parts of New England. (Beyond those borders, I'm no expert on the quality of match between terrain and poem.)

So I keep an eye on the works of Mary Oliver, Cape Cod poet par excellence (in recent years residing in Florida) and also poet of the heart, and of dog lovers everywhere. Turtle and frog lovers may also indulge.

Oliver's 2015 collection FELICITY -- oddly marked 2016 on the front of the title page -- is a sparse and thin volume with 81 numbered pages, many of which are blank or only bear a few lines. This may be helpful in absorbing the more philosophical poems, which tend to be also very short, verging on koan. One I enjoyed, called "Don't Worry," is four lines long, so this is half of the poem: "How many roads did St. Augustine follow / before he became St. Augustine?"

The first half of the collection has some of the nature/spirit conjunctions that make Oliver's work enthralling -- trees, swans, a storm --  but also rambles through light mystical observations, and I thought, "I've found more substance than this in her earlier collections."

But when I reached the last two sections of the collection, "Love" and "Felicity," I could hear the teasing and passion of this poet's voice much more clearly. And it was well worth the reading.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

India, Tibet, Terrorism, in THE RATABAN BETRAYAL, Stephen Alter

It took almost three years for this Himalayan thriller to cross the Atlantic -- and it didn't even require translation. I'm not asking what happened. I'm just glad THE RATABAN BETRAYAL is finally releasing on January 5, 2016, in the United States. It erupted in Europe and even India in 2013, and probably stirred up reaction especially in author Stephen Alter's hometown, Mussoorie, India, where the thriller's action mostly takes place.

I particularly wanted to read THE RATABAN BETRAYAL because it has a blurb from Eliot Pattison, whose Chinese-occupied Tibet fiction (Inspector Shan series) is always high on my must-read list. But where Pattison's series is thoughtful and often mystical in its probing of Tibet "then and now," Alter's thriller rides with special ops teams and multinational espionage along one of the most dangerous border zones of the world: the region where India and China clash.

Action coalesces around one oldtime espionage master, Colonel Afridi, whose center of operations is in Mussorie, a "hill town" created during British rule of India and now a tourist location where agents of both the CIA and India's Research and Analysis Wing, RAW, cross paths and compete for information and survival. Alter propels two couples into the maelstrom of crisis around Afridi, although takes a while to sort out who's working for whom, and why.

Here's a sample from mid book:
Afridi was staring at her intently.

"That's a beautiful necklance you're wearing," he added, almost as an afterthought.

She fingered the amber beads self-consciously.

"Than you. I bought it in the market yesterday," Anna replied.

Afridi gave her a knowing smile, then reached across the table beside him and handed her a packet, wrapped in brown paper.

"You've got good taste, Miss Tagore," he said. "Now tell me what you make of this."
Oddly, this passage captures what frustrated me in THE RATABAN BETRAYAL: The contents of the package sound vital but never come back into the plot after this moment; Anna is supposed to be very tough but gets self-conscious; and Afridi's "knowing smile" over a piece of bazaar jewelry makes him a bit creepy. Overall, I found the action unevenly paced, the character decisions often abrupt, and Afridi himself -- who ought to be appealing, but really isn't -- not living up to what I'd hoped. Alter's an experienced author (15 books), and the terrain for this thriller is irresistible to me, but the only person I really wanted to connect with, a local named Jigme with significant ties to Afridi's past (and the action that took the Colonel's legs), kept vanishing; instead, rather unpleasant agents seemed unable to create any real teamwork, and in the end, I felt like everyone became tainted with betrayal. (Which may be the author's point, I know. But still.)

Yes, I'd pick up another from this author, set in the same region, but more cautiously and with more relaxed expectations. If you're collecting India, Tibet, and even China espionage, this belongs on your shelf. If you want to be moved in some way, though, there are better prospects elsewhere.

Brief Mention: John Gilstrap, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES (Jonathan Grave Thriller #7)

The "high stakes" holidays of the year have rolled past, and we're ready to get a little giddy at New Year's. It's all good.

Still, there's nothing like a fast-paced thriller for distraction during the intense and sometimes emotional holiday season. My choice this December was the paperback original of AGAINST ALL ENEMIES by DC-area author John Gilstrap. This seventh in the Jonathan Grave series is full of the quickly planned, gun-toting interventions "on the side of the angels" that make it such fun to follow along with wealthy independent operative Jonathan Grave and his ever-present sidekick Boxers, aka the Big Guy.

This time Grave and Boxers accept a paramilitary op assignment that can't be official, since it's on American soil. (Usually their rescues of "precious cargo" -- kidnap victims -- have taken them elsewhere, at least for the bloody parts.) They're intervening to stop some very dirty politics, maybe even treason.

But what makes a Gilstrap thriller stand out is the interactions of the team -- Jonathan's mingled determination and regrets, the unpredictable soft side of the Big Guy, and a handful of women, this time particularly their new associate Jolaine, with flashes of others who'll be familiar to readers of the series: Wolverine and, of course, Venice (pronounced Ven-EE-chay), whose hi-tech espionage powers the team's adaptability.

In AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, Gilstrap also probes the mixed motivations of people jumping into terrorist-type group actions. If he's on target, we need to be working a lot harder at making the lives of pre-kindergarteners work out better. Oops, sorry, didn't mean to distract from the Special Ops mood, but even Jonathan Graves spends a big chunk of money and time on taking care of vulnerable kids. Did I mention guilt and remorse? Yeah.

It's a rattling good read. If you like action thrillers, and haven't yet tapped into Gilstrap, now's a good time. You don't need to read the other six first, although some go deeper into the emotions than this one, and the whole set is a pleasure. Glad to see Pinnacle Books backing this series (and congrats to the author, who announced at the start of the year that he was leaving his Day Job at last).

Vermont Diversion: Everyone's Mortal in WHAT'S THE STORY, Sydney Lea

Vermont sprouts poets even in the winter -- there is no closed season for their interactions with the landscape. But Sydney Lea, with a Pulitzer finalist among his list of collected poetry and essays, turns instead to interaction with neighbors and community, and WHAT'S THE STORY, his release this month via Green Writers Press, elevates the poetic reflection to astounding levels of love and awareness.

It's a risky direction: Sometimes the friends and relatives of writers aren't wild about being brought onto public pages. Lea dodges a bit of that risk by writing mostly here about people who've already died. This choice allows him to reflect and grieve, as he confronts his own aging -- not just a waning physical ability to climb mountains and loosen boulders, but the near-daily loss of friends and neighbors his age and older. Reflecting on the passing of a chair-building craftsman, Irv, dead at 82 while tilling the vegetable garden, Lea writes, "Irv's gone, and the earth keeps healing, not to be healed for now, maybe never. Probably never."

But he presses beyond the wound of loss to say, "How fine, that almost shy way the man would greet anyone he cared for, his smile barely perceptible, his ice-blue eyes cast down, his words hard to discern at first. Not that Irv was cold, only modest. He was what he was, irreplaceable among other things."

In WHAT'S THE STORY, Lea grapples to portray why each friend matters so much; he does it with precise yet rich descriptions of people and even of hunting dogs, as well as shared terrain. And that terrain is not just the ridges of Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire; it's also the passionate country of jazz, so that these "reflections on a life grown long" involve Charlie Mingus, Muddy Waters, and more. When he writes in memory of Jack Myers, a poet friend, by first replaying his own college experience of Mingus's music, he then tastes the state of "Jack's not with us" like this:
His absence may account for the sound, which has nothing, really, to do with the intricate magic of that Mingus sextet I listened to, nor with any line or stanza from Jack's mournful, witty, brilliant poems, nor is it the cry of sea birds. If Wagner didn't drive me almost mad, or maybe because he does, I'd say that the chord was a dark Wagnerian one. It washes over me the way the surf does a rocky shore.
After nearly seventy of these short reflections -- most just two or three pages long, and each one threaded so precisely that it's half memoir, half prose poem, and three-quarters jazz improv in words -- I wanted to shout at the author: Stop worrying! We are all getting older! Enjoying your grandchildren, your remembered childhood, picking a cemetery plot -- what's so terrible about all that?

But that's exactly the point in what Syd Lea's done with these short, bladed, budding items: taken the terror of aging and proved its tender beauty. So I return to the first page, in the reflection titled "Whatever I May Say," and re-read: "Though to touch its flame would surely be as painful as when it burned brighter, the candle's low now. On the table, just prior to guttering after dinner, it vaguely illuminates friends."

Read this one to savor the way friends matter, and love abides. Thanks, Syd, and Green Writers Pres.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Other Kind of Scandinavian Crime Fiction, from Helene Tursten (Swedish)

The eighth in Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Irene Huss series releases December 15 in the United States, thanks to Soho Crime and translator Marlaine Delargy. THE TREACHEROUS NET (a 2008 title in Sweden) picks up with DI Huss as she's adapting to an empty nest. She and her chef husband Krister mark time at home by looking forward to the next visit from their 22-year-old twin daughters, while Irene's career life has turned stagnant. That's in large part due to her new superior, Superintendent Efva Thylqvist, who values the men on the Violent Crimes Squad, but not Irene. Isolated, nearly silenced, it's a bad time for her.

So when two murdered teens are found in the same week, Irene's determined not to let her superintendent steer the cases into the hands of only the men -- and her actions to hold a major role in the investigations mean she's confronting Thylqvist in risky ways, daily.

Add to this the overload on the squad, during a gang war, and the sudden appearance of a body walled up in a cellar, with indications that the death happened decades ago, and Irene's in the midst of the chaos that's become familiar in the preceding seven books: In Göteborg, Sweden, as in most other modern cities, crime races ahead of the available police force.

For Irene Huss, the overload and the simultaneous need to fight for her role in the squad mean she's not the cheerful, appreciative spouse that Krister expects for his spaghetti Bolognese dinner. In the face of his mild sympathy, Irene's ready to sound off, and dump, and admit she's upset by the violent deaths of the young women she's just witnessed.
"It's strange; I don't usually let things get to me, but these cases are just so tragic," she said.

Krister nodded sympathetically. "The two girls were so young, and then you find the mother of one of them dead. Perhaps this case is getting to you because you're a mother yourself. Our girls might be twenty-two, but you never stop worrying," he said.

"This killer worries me. I don't want another teenage girls to go the same way, but we're not sure how he gets in touch with them. We suspect it might be through the Internet, some youth site maybe."
And that, of course, is one of the aspects the book's title refers to -- the "treacherous" 'Net, where lonely and naive young women can be lured into "dates" that turn out to be a kidnapper's dream. For these two girls, at least, the process is already fatal -- and Irene soon realizes that the killer must be grooming multiple potential victims, as she sorts out the names he's using online. At least one of the girls has left a trail that Irene can soon see, as the teen had "walked straight into a trap. She had allowed herself to be drawn into the treacherous net. Easy prey."

Readers of earlier books in this series will be familiar with Irene's irascible and sexist but unquestionably effective former superintendent, Sven Andersson, whose health issues have sidelined him to the Cold Cases Unit and a short road toward retirement. While Irene struggles for traction on the predator and the cases, past and future, Andersson himself is caught in a net tossed by Superintendent Thylqvist, dragooned into tackling the case of the walled-up body. He too is facing a back story that involves a net -- this time possibly short for network, as in espionage, and perhaps taking the newly discovered corpse all the way back to the Second World War and related resistance.

Delargy's translation is straightforward and workable, as she lets the crime-solving unfold from its two major directions. It's hard to tell whether the slight stiffness to the text is a result of losing the rhythm of the original words, or actually part of a somewhat more formal, less time-pressed sort of mystery that Tursten's developed. Swedish cultural specialties, from the treat called a Princess Cake, to the joint vacation season for all the investigators, to the national unease around wartime history, stand out clearly here. Unlike the classics that Americans have often read in the Scandinavian field (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; the Wallander series from Henning Mankell), Tursten's investigator isn't drowning in depression, or seasonal affective disorder, or family dysfunction. Huss is easy to identify with, if also a bit frustrating in terms of her slow realization of the politics around her. Then again, aren't we all a bit slow to see the larger pattern?

Once Irene is on the right track, though, her pursuit is relentless, and eventually effective. Andersson's parallel investigation isn't as direct, and I thought it was unfortunate that it "bookends" the book itself, so we lose Irene completely as the narrative wraps up -- an odd choice of pacing. However, now that I've savored this series for so long, I suspect the move is to set up another Tursten book -- there are at least two more that haven't yet crossed from Sweden to America. That's good news: There's plenty of this series ahead.

There's no need to read the earlier books in the series before tackling THE TREACHEROUS NET. The crimes in those titles don't feed into this book, and while Irene Huss's home situation changes from book to book as her daughters grow up and her marriage shifts its ground, there's no particular arc of complication based in her personal life. So go right ahead and dig into this traditional police crime novel -- the other Tursten titles are available via Soho Crime, and have moved into paperback. Check out their reviews here. Thanks, Soho Crime.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Diversion: Poetry from Donald Revell, Tom Thompson

In the days of old, when I was in college, there was a profession called Computer Programmer -- which now is most commonly called Coder. At that same time, there was a mantra of how programming works, with the acronym GIGO: "garbage in, garbage out." The idea was, apply this in reverse and discover that if you want to have good output, you must write good code for it, and so on.

The same may apply to writing well: Read good work before trying to write good work. The rhythms and complexity build up in the ear and the soul. (Thinking about what I'm reading, of course, makes it work even better when I then think about what I'm writing.)

So I appreciated a diversion today into two engaging collections of poetry from Alice James Books. The first, the 2015 title from master poet Donald Revell, is DROUGHT-ADAPTED VINE. The old-fashioned blossom on the lovely cover misleads -- this is a collection that faces the power and terror of both life and death, in wonderfully tuned lines rich with imagery and narrative. Revell proves yet again that the heart of a good poem is the story it's telling ... framed in a well-chosen form and made vivid with haunted phrases that linger in the mind's ear. Revell even invites the reader to indulge:
 ... If I could turn
My head, I would see the heavy mourners
Holding coffee, stranded on the median,
In traffic. Lost to me now. Care to try?
One Chinese daughter. One imaginary boyfriend.
In the unfinished story, they live
Above a toy shop, one consummate lovely smile.
Tom Thompson's 2001 collection LIVE FEED, blurbed by Revell, catches some of Revell's forms, whether as a scaffold toward potency or as an homage to the leader. Thomson's storytelling also excels, with fresh new ground in a vibrant cityscape.
I will take the infant down
past the park to the sea -- where wakes dissolve
into moon's lead cage. That's our face,
love, buried in night's thighs.
Glad I picked these up today. Glad to share such good news, too.

Brief Mention, Charles Todd, A FINE SUMMER'S DAY

The title may be a bit out of season, but this 2015 title from Charles Todd is ideal for relaxing winter reading! A FINE SUMMER'S DAY is actually the prequel to the 16 other Inspector Ian Rutledge books. Instead of being set after World War I, it tackles the run-up to the war, including Rutledge's engagement to marry Jean Gordon. At the same time, it unfurls a mystery and a series of killings that reshape Rutledge's life, as well as testing his commitment to a police career. And it's available in paperback, to tote with you during holiday tasks and travels.

If you're a fan of this fiercely haunted mystery series, with its powerful insights into British life and class structure, this book is a must. I enjoyed all of it. On the other hand, if you're not yet a Charles Todd reader, I recommend that you wait on this one until you've read a few others -- here's the list in order, on the author's website: http://www.charlestodd.com/the-history-of-inspector-ian-rutledge. A FINE SUMMER'S DAY is all the better for having bonded first with Rutledge through his work, as the authors themselves did -- and the suspense will do you good.