The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

February 28, 2009

February: Hearts and Darts

Time to look back at what I read this past month. Thomas Perry's Runner, Joe Barone's The Body In the Record Room, and Ken Bruen's Sanctuary were all good enough for me to rise above my blogging apathy and write reviews for. Hearts to them. A big heart to Earl Emerson's Cape Disappointment. I plan to write a review for it as soon as I catch up on my sleep. I was up nearly all night finishing that one, which I think is Emerson's best book yet, even better than Into the Inferno.

Books I should have written reviews for because they deserve that good things be said and written about them:
Rogues Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life by Craig McDonald. His interviews with the likes of James Crumley, Daniel Woodrell, Kinky Friedman, et al, are remarkably candid and conversational in tone, rather than interrogatory. If you are a writer, there's something to learn from these men. If you are a reader, you'll find them entertaining, particularly if you are familiar with their work. One of my favorite quotes (and there are too many to post) is from Kinky Friedman: "When you publish as many books as I do, Craig, well, that's an index of an empty life. That's all it can mean." What do you think, is Kinky right or wrong or -- as I think -- both?

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson. When Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire visits his daughter in Philadelphia he ends up spending his time trying to find who bashed his only child's head in. Johnson has such a good internal knowledge of his characters and is so comfortable with them that he doesn't hesitate to take them out of their milieu or to put them in awkward social situations. Johnson is so good at his job that he makes it look effortless. But if it were really that easy we could all do it. Truth is, few can.

Books I enjoyed but for one reason or another I didn't fall in love with them:
Spade & Archer by Joe Gores, a prequel (to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon) that explains how Spade and the doomed Archer became partners, how Effie Perine became Sam's gal Friday, as well as provides three interrelated mysteries for Sam to solve. Kudos to Gores, the guy has major cojones, because anyone who tackles the icon that is Sam Spade is setting himself up as a human pincushion. That Gores mostly succeeds is due to his own talent and skills. For me, oddly enough, it is the third mystery of the book that doesn't work as well for me as the previous sections. Odd, because that's the section of the book where I understand Gores worked from some original Dash Hammett material or ideas. And while Gores is a fine writer -- not that he needs me or anyone else to tell him that -- I still missed that cold camera's-eye view that Hammett brought to his writing. Gores sometimes captured that detachment, sometimes not. And I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book enough that I hope he gives us another Sam Spade story, maybe post-Falcon.

Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? The author writes elegant prose and creates fascinating characters and interesting situations. As a thriller the story gets a bit top-heavy with coincidence, but really, the writing is so fine that that wasn't a real problem for me. My problem, and I confess it's probably mine alone, was that I couldn't buy into the complex structure of the story. The story follows several characters but never the most intriguing one, the one at the heart of the story. I'm sure that was a deliberate decision by the author and that she had very good reasons for doing so, but for me it didn't work. It masked the attributes of that character so that it became hard for me to empathize or to buy into some of that character's actions late in the book.

Down In the Flood by Kenneth Abel. Even though Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on New Orleans, lawyer and former bag man Danny Chaisson can't leave the city until he finds the grand jury witness who's been abducted by a pair of ex-NOPD officers. As a thriller the pace is a little slow for my taste. Abel doesn't create as many subplots or twists as in his previous Danny Chaisson books. But as a day by day account of how difficult survival was in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina the book is unflinching. The prose is vivid and Danny's unwillingness to let himself off the hook of responsibility makes him one of my favorite NOLA characters. And the climactic scene is a doozy, one worthy of Hollywood.

The Sky Took Him by Donis Casey. In this outing, Alafair Tucker, with oldest and youngest children in tow, ventures to the big town (in 1915) of Enid, Oklahoma, to be a help to her sister as her brother-in-law is dying. Alafair involves herself in the disappearance of a relative. I always enjoy Alafair's perceptions of her world and there are some interesting characters but I thought the revelation of the killer was both predictable and a little contrived. I blame the big city for being a bad influence on Alafair, and I'm sure that as soon as she gets back to the farm she'll be right as rain.

Books that I regret to report I did not enjoy; not to say they were bad books, they have their strong points. Fortunately they all have their fans and do not need my approbation:
Marcus Sakey's Good People was a disappointment to me. The prose and the mechanics of the book are fine, but I never warmed to his main characters, a couple deep in debt, desperate for a baby, who stumble on enough dirty money to fund more attempts at in vitro fertilization (failed IVFs come at $15K a pop). Maybe it's just me, because I've never had a strong compulsion to recreate, but I was rooting against them all the way.

O' Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor includes some fascinating information on funerary art but I had trouble staying awake for the rest of it. At some point the various relationships between characters who did not interest me overwhelmed the mystery.

Super In the City by Daphne Uviller. My mistake, I thought the book was supposed to be a mystery. An honest mistake on my part. It's really chick lit, and as such may be pretty darned good, I haven't read that much in the genre, but this book wasn't to my taste. But if you do like chick lit, this one zips right along and works hard at being clever. It's about one Zephyr Zuckerman who becomes the super in her parents apartment building and starts to discover all the tenants' nasty little secrets. Except most of the story is about crashing parties and dates and relationships and how to get one and, well, what I presume is the usual chick lit fare.


  1. I've put Cape Disappointment on my list to read. I've also got Bruen's first book on the list so that I can read them in order.

    Thanks for columns like this. I've come on some good books through blog suggestions.

  2. Quite a month, Corey. Nice recap.

  3. I'm disappointed to hear that Joe Gores didn't quite click.

  4. Cormac, I thought it was a good book and I'd read another like it by Gores. I just didn't find it as Hammett-like as I had expected.