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My FLBSO, Dave, mentioned that if I hadn't tried Reed Farrel Coleman, I oughta. Boy, was he right.

Walking the Perfect Square. Moe Prager quits his job as an NYPD cop short of making Detective, thanks to an embarrassing office encounter with a sheet of a paper on the floor that ended in severe knee torture. This may seem a bit far-fetched, until you realize that this moment in Moe's past occurs in the late seventies, a time relatively out of reach of modern joint surgery and physiotherapy. In this forced retirement, Moe is trying to scare up the scratch to open a wine shop with his brother. Then, a cop-friend of his comes along as the proxy of a Mr ConnectionsWithMoney, and an offer Moe will find it very hard to refuse: help us out and you'll have enough cash to open your wine shop and a smooth road past the city business regulators. Refuse to help us out, and, well, no money and a harder road. Why Moe? Despite his forced retirement, Moe has that one shining moment in his career when he found the young girl that nobody else could fine (largely by chance, he continually tries to convince).

What can he do, but proceed? Coleman's love of the city as she lived is evident: this is a hell of a time to be wandering around the streets of the Big Apple, and famous spots of the punk underground figure prominently, either named directly, or barely concealed (anyone with a reasonable memory of music history of the time might enjoy playing spot-the-scene).

Coleman brackets the narrative in the with a modern-day framing story that works perfectly. Walking the Perfect Square sets up the best and worst moments of Prager's adult life: it sets the foundation for who he will be in all the forthcoming novels -- a loving, family man forced into hard choices as a result of his past, and his remarkably stubborn and dogged character. By the end of this first book, you can see the overall arc of Prager's life stretching forward into the books to come: and we expect that future tales using the same frame will be loaded with irony. We expect that each book will show him moving forward through the past towards a crisis we know is coming, and towards a resolution of that crisis we can be reasonably sure will occur.

Coleman's prose is smooth, tight, and eminently readable without being simplistic. Prager is drawn in confident, spare strokes. The dialog is not showy, but it rings pretty true. The narrative is hard-boiled, without descending into cliché: Prager both is, and is not, the typical detective. He is not a super-cop, or a super detective. He is not an isolated loner. He is not mindlessly tough, nor overly forgiving. Prager seems like a real guy, with real abilities and gifts, real limitations, and real points that the reader can like, and fault him for.

Redemption Street. Apparently, Redemption Street was a classic sophomore slump book for Coleman. He thought it was really good, but the buying public, for whatever reason, did not. I think the answer probably lies somewhere in between. The pacing in Redemption Street is not quite as smooth as in Walking the Perfect Square; it's also possible that the historical background in the first Prager novel that might have appealed to a wider (more secular?) audience is exchanged for a historical background that's more rooted in the Jewish culture of the American north east (specifically the era of the "Borscht Belt" summering hotel resorts). A tragic incident we learned about tangentially in the first Prager book is the centrepiece of this one -- Prager is drawn into an investigation into the death of a boyhood crush. Coleman does a very good job of building Redemption Street upon the character foundation he established in Walking the Perfect Square, without really demanding that you've read the first, or wasting time in useless as-you-know-Bob rehashing of material already known from the first book.

That said, the framing narrative of the first book lays irony on with a trowel in this one. The activities of this book are set after the "past" events in book one, but before the time of book one's frame, and thus we know where Prager is headed, and the character studies in Redemption Street help paint out the sketches of that journey.

The details of the plotting do have twists and turns in them, some surprises await, but are foreseeable to a certain extent. Coleman's mystery does a bit of a double-twist in the end, showing you the right and then hitting you a bit with the left, but overall the real story here is not entirely surprising. That said, I'd urge you not to read Coleman's afterwords before you read the story, unless you like to have the plot spoilered a bit for you.

Everything that's there to like in the first book is provided here, and improved upon. The pacing is a wee bit slower, but the characters are drawn out a bit more. We get a fuller picture of Prager and his nobility and his flaws.

The Prager book that Coleman apparently hit his strong stride with was the next one in the series, The James Deans (winner of Barry, Shamus, Anthony awards; nom'd for Edgar, Gumshoe, Macavity). But I'm not at all sad that my neuroses compel me to read books "in order". Redemption Street is a good book (not perhaps as strong as the opener, but still, pretty darned good). Good enough to have me fairly eagerly looking forward to getting into the next.


If you like hardboiled crime fiction, or detective stories with protagonists that are interestingly off-centre, you really ought to try Coleman's Prager books. The entire series seems readily available in reprint editions from Busted Flush Press, and I'd strongly encourage you to support Busted Flush -- they're reprinting Daniel Woodrell as well, and he's just as worth reading as Coleman evidently is.

Highly recommended.
viktor_haag: (Default)
My FLBSO, Dave, mentioned that if I hadn't tried Reed Farrel Coleman, I oughta. Boy, was he right.

Walking the Perfect Square. Moe Prager quits his job as an NYPD cop short of making Detective, thanks to an embarrassing office encounter with a sheet of a paper on the floor that ended in severe knee torture. This may seem a bit far-fetched, until you realize that this moment in Moe's past occurs in the late seventies, a time relatively out of reach of modern joint surgery and physiotherapy. In this forced retirement, Moe is trying to scare up the scratch to open a wine shop with his brother. Then, a cop-friend of his comes along as the proxy of a Mr ConnectionsWithMoney, and an offer Moe will find it very hard to refuse: help us out and you'll have enough cash to open your wine shop and a smooth road past the city business regulators. Refuse to help us out, and, well, no money and a harder road. Why Moe? Despite his forced retirement, Moe has that one shining moment in his career when he found the young girl that nobody else could fine (largely by chance, he continually tries to convince).

What can he do, but proceed? Coleman's love of the city as she lived is evident: this is a hell of a time to be wandering around the streets of the Big Apple, and famous spots of the punk underground figure prominently, either named directly, or barely concealed (anyone with a reasonable memory of music history of the time might enjoy playing spot-the-scene).

Coleman brackets the narrative in the with a modern-day framing story that works perfectly. Walking the Perfect Square sets up the best and worst moments of Prager's adult life: it sets the foundation for who he will be in all the forthcoming novels -- a loving, family man forced into hard choices as a result of his past, and his remarkably stubborn and dogged character. By the end of this first book, you can see the overall arc of Prager's life stretching forward into the books to come: and we expect that future tales using the same frame will be loaded with irony. We expect that each book will show him moving forward through the past towards a crisis we know is coming, and towards a resolution of that crisis we can be reasonably sure will occur.

Coleman's prose is smooth, tight, and eminently readable without being simplistic. Prager is drawn in confident, spare strokes. The dialog is not showy, but it rings pretty true. The narrative is hard-boiled, without descending into cliché: Prager both is, and is not, the typical detective. He is not a super-cop, or a super detective. He is not an isolated loner. He is not mindlessly tough, nor overly forgiving. Prager seems like a real guy, with real abilities and gifts, real limitations, and real points that the reader can like, and fault him for.

Redemption Street. Apparently, Redemption Street was a classic sophomore slump book for Coleman. He thought it was really good, but the buying public, for whatever reason, did not. I think the answer probably lies somewhere in between. The pacing in Redemption Street is not quite as smooth as in Walking the Perfect Square; it's also possible that the historical background in the first Prager novel that might have appealed to a wider (more secular?) audience is exchanged for a historical background that's more rooted in the Jewish culture of the American north east (specifically the era of the "Borscht Belt" summering hotel resorts). A tragic incident we learned about tangentially in the first Prager book is the centrepiece of this one -- Prager is drawn into an investigation into the death of a boyhood crush. Coleman does a very good job of building Redemption Street upon the character foundation he established in Walking the Perfect Square, without really demanding that you've read the first, or wasting time in useless as-you-know-Bob rehashing of material already known from the first book.

That said, the framing narrative of the first book lays irony on with a trowel in this one. The activities of this book are set after the "past" events in book one, but before the time of book one's frame, and thus we know where Prager is headed, and the character studies in Redemption Street help paint out the sketches of that journey.

The details of the plotting do have twists and turns in them, some surprises await, but are foreseeable to a certain extent. Coleman's mystery does a bit of a double-twist in the end, showing you the right and then hitting you a bit with the left, but overall the real story here is not entirely surprising. That said, I'd urge you not to read Coleman's afterwords before you read the story, unless you like to have the plot spoilered a bit for you.

Everything that's there to like in the first book is provided here, and improved upon. The pacing is a wee bit slower, but the characters are drawn out a bit more. We get a fuller picture of Prager and his nobility and his flaws.

The Prager book that Coleman apparently hit his strong stride with was the next one in the series, The James Deans (winner of Barry, Shamus, Anthony awards; nom'd for Edgar, Gumshoe, Macavity). But I'm not at all sad that my neuroses compel me to read books "in order". Redemption Street is a good book (not perhaps as strong as the opener, but still, pretty darned good). Good enough to have me fairly eagerly looking forward to getting into the next.


If you like hardboiled crime fiction, or detective stories with protagonists that are interestingly off-centre, you really ought to try Coleman's Prager books. The entire series seems readily available in reprint editions from Busted Flush Press, and I'd strongly encourage you to support Busted Flush -- they're reprinting Daniel Woodrell as well, and he's just as worth reading as Coleman evidently is.

Highly recommended.
viktor_haag: (Default)
Apparently, HB Fenn has gone bankrupt. I'm not sure how bad this news is for the general book scene in Canada, but I'm sure it's not exactly good (well, reasonably sure, anyway).
viktor_haag: (Default)
Apparently, HB Fenn has gone bankrupt. I'm not sure how bad this news is for the general book scene in Canada, but I'm sure it's not exactly good (well, reasonably sure, anyway).
viktor_haag: (Default)
I don't rightly remember how it exactly happened I discovered the writing of Cathrynne M Valente, otherwise known here as [livejournal.com profile] yuki_onna. But I do know these things:

• She was immediately identified as a good egg, and a good writer (in ways that I, as a reader, appreciate and enjoy), by several friends and acquaintances I trust (some of whom are writers themselves, or reviewers, or fans, or just plain old folk, like me, not particularly connected to the genre writing or fandom community).

• I picked up one of her "The Orphans Tales" volumes from the local library, read 50 pages in, and immediately ordered it, its companion volume, and her novel Palimpsest. I find her writing lyrical, rich, approachable but deep and mythical: it's writing that (so far) seems to resonate with what I like from the SF&F-end of the genre stuff I read.

• Her educational background is as a classicist, and I find accord with what this has done for the way that she writes. She names things well. She doesn't just sprinkle around world-building and cultural elements as if they were doritos or knick-knacks -- they have weight and seem real and substantial, even when her tone is light and flippant.

• She has a new book that's just come out, the first volume of what (as far as I know) promises to be a major new project for her. To call it the culmination of a hell of a lot of work would, I gather, not be quite accurate. Rather, it might be the first public return on declarations of a hell of a lot of work, with more to come. This new book is called "The Habitation of the Blessed", and it bills itself as a "dirge for Prester John". (Who is Prester John, you ask? Well, she is only too happy to explain.)

• I will be buying her book. I hope to be buying this book directly from her, at her book reading at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine. I may even buy other books of hers that I don't already own, if they have 'em. As you may know, such a trip will be a bit far afield for me, and thus An Adventure™.

• Because I don't have the book yet, I cannot yet have read it. I thus have no idea what it is like, and it would be irresponsible of me to say anything more about my response to it. But I will promise to write a comment about it, after I have secured and read my copy. Whether this will motivate you to seek it out yourself... well... I don't know whether your taste is in accord with my own. Plus I do not have millionz of intarwebz followers, so my reach is rather small.

• She offers kewl prizes for the spreading of word about her work. It is partly in this endeavour that I make this post (see previous point about book unseen, unsecured, unread). I would like kewl stuff. I promise to share any kewl stuff, should it come my way by happenstance, with friends and family.

• The SF&F genre seems to me to be in an interesting place. There are really good writers in it. There are also scads and scads of formulaic and relatively mould-standard books as well. From what I've read so far, I think Valente falls into the former category: her writing reminds me of other folks I really like to read, like John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin -- mostly because she seems really good at naming things, and because her worlds seem simple, human, but still, deeply deeply real. But, it also seems to me that the really good writers (or at least the writers I like) often don't get supported and continually published (in the same way that, often, really good TV shows that I like get cancelled).

So, if you're of a mind, try out one of her books. You might then want to buy some. I did.
viktor_haag: (Default)
I don't rightly remember how it exactly happened I discovered the writing of Cathrynne M Valente, otherwise known here as [livejournal.com profile] yuki_onna. But I do know these things:

• She was immediately identified as a good egg, and a good writer (in ways that I, as a reader, appreciate and enjoy), by several friends and acquaintances I trust (some of whom are writers themselves, or reviewers, or fans, or just plain old folk, like me, not particularly connected to the genre writing or fandom community).

• I picked up one of her "The Orphans Tales" volumes from the local library, read 50 pages in, and immediately ordered it, its companion volume, and her novel Palimpsest. I find her writing lyrical, rich, approachable but deep and mythical: it's writing that (so far) seems to resonate with what I like from the SF&F-end of the genre stuff I read.

• Her educational background is as a classicist, and I find accord with what this has done for the way that she writes. She names things well. She doesn't just sprinkle around world-building and cultural elements as if they were doritos or knick-knacks -- they have weight and seem real and substantial, even when her tone is light and flippant.

• She has a new book that's just come out, the first volume of what (as far as I know) promises to be a major new project for her. To call it the culmination of a hell of a lot of work would, I gather, not be quite accurate. Rather, it might be the first public return on declarations of a hell of a lot of work, with more to come. This new book is called "The Habitation of the Blessed", and it bills itself as a "dirge for Prester John". (Who is Prester John, you ask? Well, she is only too happy to explain.)

• I will be buying her book. I hope to be buying this book directly from her, at her book reading at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine. I may even buy other books of hers that I don't already own, if they have 'em. As you may know, such a trip will be a bit far afield for me, and thus An Adventure™.

• Because I don't have the book yet, I cannot yet have read it. I thus have no idea what it is like, and it would be irresponsible of me to say anything more about my response to it. But I will promise to write a comment about it, after I have secured and read my copy. Whether this will motivate you to seek it out yourself... well... I don't know whether your taste is in accord with my own. Plus I do not have millionz of intarwebz followers, so my reach is rather small.

• She offers kewl prizes for the spreading of word about her work. It is partly in this endeavour that I make this post (see previous point about book unseen, unsecured, unread). I would like kewl stuff. I promise to share any kewl stuff, should it come my way by happenstance, with friends and family.

• The SF&F genre seems to me to be in an interesting place. There are really good writers in it. There are also scads and scads of formulaic and relatively mould-standard books as well. From what I've read so far, I think Valente falls into the former category: her writing reminds me of other folks I really like to read, like John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin -- mostly because she seems really good at naming things, and because her worlds seem simple, human, but still, deeply deeply real. But, it also seems to me that the really good writers (or at least the writers I like) often don't get supported and continually published (in the same way that, often, really good TV shows that I like get cancelled).

So, if you're of a mind, try out one of her books. You might then want to buy some. I did.
viktor_haag: (Default)
Very different to the movie, a quick read, and pretty unrelentingly bleak, "The Grifters" is perhaps one of Jim Thompson's best known books (because of the Frears' film from Westlake's adaptation script). This is the first of Thompson's books that I've read through (currently working on "The Killer Inside Me" as well), but it's strong and I recommend it, especially if you like the dark noir crime genre.

One of the really interesting differences between the film and the book is Westlake's excision of the Carol Roberg character. It seems to me that the book provides Roberg as a means to show the reader that people can and do rise above their circumstances, are capable of making ethical and moral choices even in the face of hideous emotional difficulty. I'm not sure that Roberg's role is needed in the film: it's certainly not central at all to the triangular struggle between Roy, Lilly, and Moira/Myra. But it lends the book a balance that the film must depend upon the viewers to supply on their own.

I very much enjoyed Thompson's book, and recommend it without reservation, but only if that sort of thing is to your taste. None of the principal characters are sympathetic, although Roy teeters on the brink of sympathy as Thompson does make some effort to portray his internal conflict. In the end, though, Roy's nature is so far gone that his glimpses of movements towards decency were pretty much groping around in the dark: knowing that he was broken, knowing that there was supposed to be something he might be able to do to fix himself, but just not having the emotional equipment to form an adequate articulation toward that regard. Whether or not Dillon is, in the end, redeemable and worthy of our sympathy is a crux of the narrative: to a certain extent I rather feel that Dillon deserves sympathy only in the way that any person deserves sympathy, and the very fact that Roy, Lily, Moira, and others like them, live in the world without this basic connection to other human beings points at the thing that distinguishes us from the single-minded predators that the Dillons and Langtrys of the world typify.
viktor_haag: (Default)
Very different to the movie, a quick read, and pretty unrelentingly bleak, "The Grifters" is perhaps one of Jim Thompson's best known books (because of the Frears' film from Westlake's adaptation script). This is the first of Thompson's books that I've read through (currently working on "The Killer Inside Me" as well), but it's strong and I recommend it, especially if you like the dark noir crime genre.

One of the really interesting differences between the film and the book is Westlake's excision of the Carol Roberg character. It seems to me that the book provides Roberg as a means to show the reader that people can and do rise above their circumstances, are capable of making ethical and moral choices even in the face of hideous emotional difficulty. I'm not sure that Roberg's role is needed in the film: it's certainly not central at all to the triangular struggle between Roy, Lilly, and Moira/Myra. But it lends the book a balance that the film must depend upon the viewers to supply on their own.

I very much enjoyed Thompson's book, and recommend it without reservation, but only if that sort of thing is to your taste. None of the principal characters are sympathetic, although Roy teeters on the brink of sympathy as Thompson does make some effort to portray his internal conflict. In the end, though, Roy's nature is so far gone that his glimpses of movements towards decency were pretty much groping around in the dark: knowing that he was broken, knowing that there was supposed to be something he might be able to do to fix himself, but just not having the emotional equipment to form an adequate articulation toward that regard. Whether or not Dillon is, in the end, redeemable and worthy of our sympathy is a crux of the narrative: to a certain extent I rather feel that Dillon deserves sympathy only in the way that any person deserves sympathy, and the very fact that Roy, Lily, Moira, and others like them, live in the world without this basic connection to other human beings points at the thing that distinguishes us from the single-minded predators that the Dillons and Langtrys of the world typify.
viktor_haag: (Default)
One of my favourite authors reports that his agent (also the agent of another of my favourite authors), Ralph Vicinanza, has recently (and suddenly) died in his sleep from a burst aneurysm. This is sad news, but I also find myself envious in this regard: I quite hope that I die in this kind of manner--sudden, quiet, quick, and also a bit unexpectedly.
viktor_haag: (Default)
One of my favourite authors reports that his agent (also the agent of another of my favourite authors), Ralph Vicinanza, has recently (and suddenly) died in his sleep from a burst aneurysm. This is sad news, but I also find myself envious in this regard: I quite hope that I die in this kind of manner--sudden, quiet, quick, and also a bit unexpectedly.
viktor_haag: (Default)
On the weekend, I finished off Mankell's "The Pyramid" a book of shorts and a novella that chronicle the career of Wallander up to (the very beginning of) "Faceless Killers". "The Pyramid" makes a clever change of pace to Mankell's previous depictions of Wallander: structurally and narratively.

Structurally, because to this point, all the Wallander tales had been novel length; narratively, because the stories in Pyramid have a strong anti-mystery component to them. We already know how the lives of many of these characters develop through the years: who lives, who dies, who remains faithful, who betrays, who leaves. The mysteries themselves are even more strongly in this direction than most of Mankell's Wallander stories: the conclusions seem to leap upon Wallander as if by chance, good or bad. Many of them seem to be united thematically by severe injury.

The stories in "The Pyramid" are strongly written, and serve as a nice counterpoint to the rest of Mankell's Wallander novels -- they are not the best or most compelling stories in the series about the dogged provincial policeman, but because of their differences from the established pattern they reward the reader, like seeing a sculpture from a different angle.

Well recommended for Mankell fans: don't start with this one, but if you've become attached to Kurt Wallander, then you should not miss it.
viktor_haag: (Default)
On the weekend, I finished off Mankell's "The Pyramid" a book of shorts and a novella that chronicle the career of Wallander up to (the very beginning of) "Faceless Killers". "The Pyramid" makes a clever change of pace to Mankell's previous depictions of Wallander: structurally and narratively.

Structurally, because to this point, all the Wallander tales had been novel length; narratively, because the stories in Pyramid have a strong anti-mystery component to them. We already know how the lives of many of these characters develop through the years: who lives, who dies, who remains faithful, who betrays, who leaves. The mysteries themselves are even more strongly in this direction than most of Mankell's Wallander stories: the conclusions seem to leap upon Wallander as if by chance, good or bad. Many of them seem to be united thematically by severe injury.

The stories in "The Pyramid" are strongly written, and serve as a nice counterpoint to the rest of Mankell's Wallander novels -- they are not the best or most compelling stories in the series about the dogged provincial policeman, but because of their differences from the established pattern they reward the reader, like seeing a sculpture from a different angle.

Well recommended for Mankell fans: don't start with this one, but if you've become attached to Kurt Wallander, then you should not miss it.
viktor_haag: (Default)
Busted Flush Press, a small independent imprint focussed on "fine thrillers and hard-boiled crime fiction reprints", has reprinted Daniel Woodrell's "Tomato Red", a short crime thriller from '98, published eight years before "Winter's Bone". I so liked the latter that I immediately yanked the former off the shelf when I saw it at my FLBS.

Is it as good as "Winter's Bone"? No. But it's still very good.

"Tomato Red" is, structurally, a formulaic noir narrative. Marginal, well-spoken loser gets mixed up in circumstances that he can't resist: he's led by his pants, the emptiness in his wallet, a sad over-valuation of his abilities, and some ambiguous sense that something better might lie out there that he can grasp. And the reader can fully see that things will not end well: how could they possible do so? It's awfully hard to enlist the reader's sympathy in any of these characters: there's not much nobility in poverty-stricken loserhood. These folks have not much at all to recommend them, barely a chipped cookie jar of crumbs.

The femme fatale for whom the book is named is Lomanesque in her mistaken conviction of entitlement. She's so certain that she deserves more that she binds herself into completely unsustainable choices in the present, choices that ensnare the narrator, and her family, leading to misadventure, homicide, and a bad deal all around.

As with "Winter's Bone", Woodrell's craft is on display: his portrayal of events is graphic, but not necessarily exploitative, frank but not fetishistic. His writing draws you forward smoothly, but has enough texture, depth, and power to convince you that there's something beyond just the events on the page: the book borders on fine bourbon and not just a pedestrian corn mashy slop.

I'm glad I read the two books in this order, because if I'd started with "Tomato Red", I'm not sure I'd feel I needed to move on to "Winter's Bone". But given the strength of the latter, I'm glad to have expanded a bit into Woodrell's earlier work. The two books together lead me to expectation of Woodrell's next book, and not necessarily the rest of his back catalog. I'd give "Tomato Red" a solid B, and if you like well written hard-boiled thrillers, then you'll probably be pleased to read it. It doesn't quite bring to the table what "Winter's Bone" does, but it's quite good all on its own, thanks.
viktor_haag: (Default)
Busted Flush Press, a small independent imprint focussed on "fine thrillers and hard-boiled crime fiction reprints", has reprinted Daniel Woodrell's "Tomato Red", a short crime thriller from '98, published eight years before "Winter's Bone". I so liked the latter that I immediately yanked the former off the shelf when I saw it at my FLBS.

Is it as good as "Winter's Bone"? No. But it's still very good.

"Tomato Red" is, structurally, a formulaic noir narrative. Marginal, well-spoken loser gets mixed up in circumstances that he can't resist: he's led by his pants, the emptiness in his wallet, a sad over-valuation of his abilities, and some ambiguous sense that something better might lie out there that he can grasp. And the reader can fully see that things will not end well: how could they possible do so? It's awfully hard to enlist the reader's sympathy in any of these characters: there's not much nobility in poverty-stricken loserhood. These folks have not much at all to recommend them, barely a chipped cookie jar of crumbs.

The femme fatale for whom the book is named is Lomanesque in her mistaken conviction of entitlement. She's so certain that she deserves more that she binds herself into completely unsustainable choices in the present, choices that ensnare the narrator, and her family, leading to misadventure, homicide, and a bad deal all around.

As with "Winter's Bone", Woodrell's craft is on display: his portrayal of events is graphic, but not necessarily exploitative, frank but not fetishistic. His writing draws you forward smoothly, but has enough texture, depth, and power to convince you that there's something beyond just the events on the page: the book borders on fine bourbon and not just a pedestrian corn mashy slop.

I'm glad I read the two books in this order, because if I'd started with "Tomato Red", I'm not sure I'd feel I needed to move on to "Winter's Bone". But given the strength of the latter, I'm glad to have expanded a bit into Woodrell's earlier work. The two books together lead me to expectation of Woodrell's next book, and not necessarily the rest of his back catalog. I'd give "Tomato Red" a solid B, and if you like well written hard-boiled thrillers, then you'll probably be pleased to read it. It doesn't quite bring to the table what "Winter's Bone" does, but it's quite good all on its own, thanks.
viktor_haag: (Default)
Something lead me to run across Marcia Muller and her fictional detective, Sharon McCone. Might have been someone asking about female PI characters and McCone being one of the examples I'd never heard of. Accordingly, I dusted off the library card and borrowed a copy of Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first in her series.

The result was a bit mixed. The book was a quick and smooth read, more or less: 170 or so pages of not very dense type and not a few blank chapter-facing pages. In modern terms, the book seems more like a novella than a novel, for length. Originally published in 1977, the book also feels very much like a product of its time. The narrative is pretty well seasoned with some earnest social commentary project through the plucky young detective and her interactions with other characters. Looking at wikipedia's list of the McCone's series, I find it interesting that the first book was published in '77, and then a five year gap to the second, and then pretty much a book every year or two up to the present day.

For some reason, the setting, character, and even plot, seemed to remind me a lot of The Rockford Files: a slight rotation of the characters involved, and the book might well have been adapted into a Rockford episode. The plot involves a murdered antiquarian in a neighbourhood in transition to which the investigator has a previous connection thanks to having looked into previous incidents of vandalism and arson in the area. The book introduces three characters who might well show up later as "series regulars": her boss, a possible love-interest cop, and a friend who provides her with some expert advice around physical evidence involved in the case.

Mechanically, the plot works reasonably well: there are several plausible candidates for the killer, and they logically get hewn away as time passes. The (seemingly) best candidate, stereotypically, gets taken off the list in the fourth act, and then replaced through a bit of a twist. However, the book suffers a bit from an unplausibly tight arrangement of characters: some of the characters have unreasonable connections to one another, and this is perhaps one reason why it comes across as a TV script -- it's all very well not to alarm the reader by yanking the killer from off sage in act five, but it does stretch credulity a wee bit by tying the killer into the dramatis personae in surprising ways that make it all fit into a neat little box. It seems to me that this might be a symptom of the times, and the scope, of the book: modern procedurals that have more pages to stretch across seem to reject this level of structural tidyness: not everyone in the city knows everyone else, nor should anyone reasonably expect them to.

Still and all, the book was not a disappointing read, and I'm interested enough to read the second in the series, Ask the Cards a Question, to see how it compares to the first. Not sure how much farther than that I'll venture, though. I think the book is probably a solid B tending to B-, and not worth your time except perhaps as a matter of curiosity or completism to get to the later books, or a quick read if you read quickly, and are pre-disposed to consume mysteries in volume. Muller seems roughly contemporary with Sue Grafton and Sarah Paretsky: Milhone first appears in '82 with A is for Alibi and Warshawski in '82 with Indemnity Only. In wonder how much Muller's McCone appearance in '77 influenced Grafton and Paretsky (if at all)?
viktor_haag: (Default)
Something lead me to run across Marcia Muller and her fictional detective, Sharon McCone. Might have been someone asking about female PI characters and McCone being one of the examples I'd never heard of. Accordingly, I dusted off the library card and borrowed a copy of Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first in her series.

The result was a bit mixed. The book was a quick and smooth read, more or less: 170 or so pages of not very dense type and not a few blank chapter-facing pages. In modern terms, the book seems more like a novella than a novel, for length. Originally published in 1977, the book also feels very much like a product of its time. The narrative is pretty well seasoned with some earnest social commentary project through the plucky young detective and her interactions with other characters. Looking at wikipedia's list of the McCone's series, I find it interesting that the first book was published in '77, and then a five year gap to the second, and then pretty much a book every year or two up to the present day.

For some reason, the setting, character, and even plot, seemed to remind me a lot of The Rockford Files: a slight rotation of the characters involved, and the book might well have been adapted into a Rockford episode. The plot involves a murdered antiquarian in a neighbourhood in transition to which the investigator has a previous connection thanks to having looked into previous incidents of vandalism and arson in the area. The book introduces three characters who might well show up later as "series regulars": her boss, a possible love-interest cop, and a friend who provides her with some expert advice around physical evidence involved in the case.

Mechanically, the plot works reasonably well: there are several plausible candidates for the killer, and they logically get hewn away as time passes. The (seemingly) best candidate, stereotypically, gets taken off the list in the fourth act, and then replaced through a bit of a twist. However, the book suffers a bit from an unplausibly tight arrangement of characters: some of the characters have unreasonable connections to one another, and this is perhaps one reason why it comes across as a TV script -- it's all very well not to alarm the reader by yanking the killer from off sage in act five, but it does stretch credulity a wee bit by tying the killer into the dramatis personae in surprising ways that make it all fit into a neat little box. It seems to me that this might be a symptom of the times, and the scope, of the book: modern procedurals that have more pages to stretch across seem to reject this level of structural tidyness: not everyone in the city knows everyone else, nor should anyone reasonably expect them to.

Still and all, the book was not a disappointing read, and I'm interested enough to read the second in the series, Ask the Cards a Question, to see how it compares to the first. Not sure how much farther than that I'll venture, though. I think the book is probably a solid B tending to B-, and not worth your time except perhaps as a matter of curiosity or completism to get to the later books, or a quick read if you read quickly, and are pre-disposed to consume mysteries in volume. Muller seems roughly contemporary with Sue Grafton and Sarah Paretsky: Milhone first appears in '82 with A is for Alibi and Warshawski in '82 with Indemnity Only. In wonder how much Muller's McCone appearance in '77 influenced Grafton and Paretsky (if at all)?
viktor_haag: (Default)
Two books just finished this weekend, and the contrast is interesting: Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and Daniel Woodrell's "Winter's Bone". Both are thrillers, at least in part, and both set their tales in a strange other-world to mainstream North American life.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Typical of Chabon, it's very hard to nail down exactly what this novel encompasses: is it a police procedural? a Jewish tale of humour? a science fiction store? alternate history? urban fantasy? The easy answer is that it mashes together all of these things, in pretty liberal doses, to end up with something that's reasonably interesting, but dense. It took me a long time to get through this book, unlike the previous work by Chabon I consumed ("Gentlemen of the Road"). In the end what got me through was Chabon's skill as a writer, and not really any of the individual thematic aspects of the work.

There's much to like in this work, but also a lot to carp about: there's wit and humour here, but also so much of it that nearly every character seems unnaturally equipped with above average skill in wisecrackery; there's murder, some mayhem, and some unfolding and uncovering, but in then end the details of the secrets are somewhat messily presented as Chabon fattens the book with all the other things he wants to present; there's a whimsical and interesting choice for a diversion point, which Chabon layers with thematic weight, but at times it seems like the author works a bit too hard to throw in detail and it becomes a game of "spot the historical difference". Chabon's tale folds in enough of the fantastic that adding "urban fantasy" to the list of things going on here seems undeniable, but pinning up the strange gifts of the corpse found in Chapter One next to the meticulously detailed otherwhen that Chabon constructs seems in some sense to undermine its plausibility, to unseat it from a foundation that the reader can fully engage in. At this point, the book becomes a bit of a confection, and loses its ability to engage serious thought on the part of the reader: what's going on here? why should I think this is anything more than a light diversion? I suppose that "the point" of alternate histories relies pretty solidly on the feeling of "this could have happened", to serve the end of holding a mirror up to our present circumstances. It's not clear to me how effective this work is at doing this.

All that said, Chabon's skill, humour, and whimsy come soaring through solidly in this work, and this seems (oddly) an excellently drawn companion piece to "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay". If nothing else, Chabon is idiosyncratic: what's the book like? Well, it's like Chabon.

Rather like the cinema of Tarantino, if you're predisposed to like Chabon, then it's almost certain that you'll like "The Yiddish Policeman's Union". If what you're looking to connect with is a strangely set mystery, or a gripping, detailed alternate history, you'll find aspects of those, but only as flavours within the wider stew.

It took me months to finally get through this book, picking it up and putting it down a dozen times. I'm fully glad I read it, and I'm happy to seek out another of his books, but I rather suspect that my palate prefers to sample Chabon in smaller doses (or at least, smaller doses at a time).

Winter's Bone. By contrast, while there's some humour in Woodrell's "Winter's Bone", it's spare and far between. I read this dark tale of the modern Ozarks in a weekend. It's sparse, tight, well-contained. There's not much of anything here that could get pared away: the detail is precise, evocative, but there's little room for expanse. The premise is simple, gripping, and relentless: Ree is a young teenager who's family circumstances have pushed here into caring for her younger brothers and ailing mother; their lives are stretched thin enough that's there's no room for slack, no way to absorb a big crisis; so, of course, one arrives: her father has been released on bail, has disappeared, and has put the family homestead up as his security bond. Unless Ree's father is found, Ree's home will be taken from her, and (as she puts it) they will end up living in the fields like dogs. It takes Woodrell no time at all to make the reader realize that Ree's explanation is not metaphor or adolescent exaggeration.

As the tale spins out, Ree's struggles are carefully and starkly drawn as she's pushed from one stage in her dilemma to the next. Ree doesn't so much as solve a mystery, or uncover secrets, as she staggers stubbornly through in a manner that, of its own accord, lets her arrive at a resolution. Is she lucky? Some. Is she smart and clever? Some. Is she capable and independent? Some. Woodrell seems to suggest that any success Ree pulls out of her horrid situation might parallel her wider life: Ree does not so much triumph as persevere.

Winter's Bone is a short, gripping novel. It has a stark poetry despite the desperation and ugliness of (parts of) the setting. There's nothing cute or coy about its presentation; there's not much in the way of hope or beauty or happiness portrayed in the book, and in some way that spareness helps throw the brief moments of bravery and tenderness into higher relief.

To make any comment about how the story ends, or how Ree's life changes (if it does at all), would rather spoil not only the story told in the book, but also pull an end-run, a bit, around the way that it gets there. "Winter's Bone" isn't as fanciful, cozy, funny, deep, or affirming as Chabon's book: it's meaner, in just about every sense of the word. But it's hardly arguable that Ree Dolly isn't a memorable protagonist and one that the reader can get pretty solidly behind.

I'd say strongly that both these books are a very good read, and heavily recommended. My taste these days seems to be move slightly in the direction of Woodrell's book and others like it, but it was a pleasure to have read both, and I wouldn't hesitate to suggest either as fine, interesting, well-crafted works.
viktor_haag: (Default)
Two books just finished this weekend, and the contrast is interesting: Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and Daniel Woodrell's "Winter's Bone". Both are thrillers, at least in part, and both set their tales in a strange other-world to mainstream North American life.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Typical of Chabon, it's very hard to nail down exactly what this novel encompasses: is it a police procedural? a Jewish tale of humour? a science fiction store? alternate history? urban fantasy? The easy answer is that it mashes together all of these things, in pretty liberal doses, to end up with something that's reasonably interesting, but dense. It took me a long time to get through this book, unlike the previous work by Chabon I consumed ("Gentlemen of the Road"). In the end what got me through was Chabon's skill as a writer, and not really any of the individual thematic aspects of the work.

There's much to like in this work, but also a lot to carp about: there's wit and humour here, but also so much of it that nearly every character seems unnaturally equipped with above average skill in wisecrackery; there's murder, some mayhem, and some unfolding and uncovering, but in then end the details of the secrets are somewhat messily presented as Chabon fattens the book with all the other things he wants to present; there's a whimsical and interesting choice for a diversion point, which Chabon layers with thematic weight, but at times it seems like the author works a bit too hard to throw in detail and it becomes a game of "spot the historical difference". Chabon's tale folds in enough of the fantastic that adding "urban fantasy" to the list of things going on here seems undeniable, but pinning up the strange gifts of the corpse found in Chapter One next to the meticulously detailed otherwhen that Chabon constructs seems in some sense to undermine its plausibility, to unseat it from a foundation that the reader can fully engage in. At this point, the book becomes a bit of a confection, and loses its ability to engage serious thought on the part of the reader: what's going on here? why should I think this is anything more than a light diversion? I suppose that "the point" of alternate histories relies pretty solidly on the feeling of "this could have happened", to serve the end of holding a mirror up to our present circumstances. It's not clear to me how effective this work is at doing this.

All that said, Chabon's skill, humour, and whimsy come soaring through solidly in this work, and this seems (oddly) an excellently drawn companion piece to "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay". If nothing else, Chabon is idiosyncratic: what's the book like? Well, it's like Chabon.

Rather like the cinema of Tarantino, if you're predisposed to like Chabon, then it's almost certain that you'll like "The Yiddish Policeman's Union". If what you're looking to connect with is a strangely set mystery, or a gripping, detailed alternate history, you'll find aspects of those, but only as flavours within the wider stew.

It took me months to finally get through this book, picking it up and putting it down a dozen times. I'm fully glad I read it, and I'm happy to seek out another of his books, but I rather suspect that my palate prefers to sample Chabon in smaller doses (or at least, smaller doses at a time).

Winter's Bone. By contrast, while there's some humour in Woodrell's "Winter's Bone", it's spare and far between. I read this dark tale of the modern Ozarks in a weekend. It's sparse, tight, well-contained. There's not much of anything here that could get pared away: the detail is precise, evocative, but there's little room for expanse. The premise is simple, gripping, and relentless: Ree is a young teenager who's family circumstances have pushed here into caring for her younger brothers and ailing mother; their lives are stretched thin enough that's there's no room for slack, no way to absorb a big crisis; so, of course, one arrives: her father has been released on bail, has disappeared, and has put the family homestead up as his security bond. Unless Ree's father is found, Ree's home will be taken from her, and (as she puts it) they will end up living in the fields like dogs. It takes Woodrell no time at all to make the reader realize that Ree's explanation is not metaphor or adolescent exaggeration.

As the tale spins out, Ree's struggles are carefully and starkly drawn as she's pushed from one stage in her dilemma to the next. Ree doesn't so much as solve a mystery, or uncover secrets, as she staggers stubbornly through in a manner that, of its own accord, lets her arrive at a resolution. Is she lucky? Some. Is she smart and clever? Some. Is she capable and independent? Some. Woodrell seems to suggest that any success Ree pulls out of her horrid situation might parallel her wider life: Ree does not so much triumph as persevere.

Winter's Bone is a short, gripping novel. It has a stark poetry despite the desperation and ugliness of (parts of) the setting. There's nothing cute or coy about its presentation; there's not much in the way of hope or beauty or happiness portrayed in the book, and in some way that spareness helps throw the brief moments of bravery and tenderness into higher relief.

To make any comment about how the story ends, or how Ree's life changes (if it does at all), would rather spoil not only the story told in the book, but also pull an end-run, a bit, around the way that it gets there. "Winter's Bone" isn't as fanciful, cozy, funny, deep, or affirming as Chabon's book: it's meaner, in just about every sense of the word. But it's hardly arguable that Ree Dolly isn't a memorable protagonist and one that the reader can get pretty solidly behind.

I'd say strongly that both these books are a very good read, and heavily recommended. My taste these days seems to be move slightly in the direction of Woodrell's book and others like it, but it was a pleasure to have read both, and I wouldn't hesitate to suggest either as fine, interesting, well-crafted works.
viktor_haag: (Default)
FInished two SF books on the weekend, both on the rather popular (populist) end of SF: Sawyer's "Wake" and Scalzi's "The Ghost Brigades". They were both reasonably quick reads, and reasonably decent stories, but not really remarkable much.

Wake: A young blind girl with a specific sort of blindness submits herself to an experimental procedure to restore her sight. It works, in a way. It also has unintended consequences -- it contributes to the birth of something new. Sawyer's book is colloquial, friendly, and easy to read, but it is not without it's flaws. The dialog seems flat in spots, not quite ringing true. Much of the setting seems also in the same mode: there's little reason to be able to spot flaws with the setting if you don't live in Waterloo, Ontario (home of the Perimeter Institute), except by implication in the technique that Sawyer employs to achieve verisimilitude. He throws around brands and proper nouns like rice at a wedding.

Sometimes this rings false for those who know. Slightly more often than sometimes, it can be a bit annoying, in the same way that nobody in the Star Trek universe eats chocolate pudding: they always eat Rigelian Chocolate Pudding™. Does the name-dropping help to seat the narrative firmly in a time and a place? Maybe -- but it extends the same kind of feeling that you get when you see product placement in movies: it has an odd unexpected wrenching effect on the viewer. The narrative is not the real world, nor does the observer, want it to be, fundamentally. In the long run, the product placement intrudes on the narrative: it doesn't belong there, because the story told is not happening in the observer's frame of reference. With speculative fiction that pretends to take place fifteen minutes from tomorrow this is a tricky thing to negotiate, but Sawyer doesn't do it effectively.

The other thing that "Wake" suffers from is first-book-ness. In the end it rather feels like it's all setup and no payoff. It feels like it ought to be the first part in a single volume. Is there conflict of some sort going on? Not really: there's a problem to be solved (the girl's sight and figuring out how it works and what it's implications are); there's a mystery to be plumbed (what exactly is to be made of the frequent interjections in the narrative that document the becoming of something), but there's not really much of import that comes away from this book that's self contained. The protagonist is changed, profoundly. But it still feels a bit like a canon episode of a prime-time thriller series: at the end there's more questioning expectation on the table than resolution.

"Wake" is a pleasant enough read: it's about a B. Don't expect fireworks and you won't be disappointed. Sawyer is not, in my opinion, Canada's strongest SF author (and, really, I don't read all that much Canadian SF, but I feel if you want stronger books with stronger writing and stronger themes, you be better advised to turn to Robert Charles Wilson), but "Wake" is a lot better than an example of his earlier work that I had read, and is a pretty solid beach book, I guess.

The Ghost Brigades: Another quick read after John Scalzi's "Old Man's War", set in the same setting, with some familiar characters. This book answers some of the questions about what are, exactly, the Special Forces soldiers in Scalzi's CDF universe. It reveals a bit more of the real-politik of the setting. It has just as many smoothly written moments as "Old Man's War": humorous training scenes that don't quite over-stay their welcome; interesting and reasonably clever solutions to puzzles; clues dropped for the reader that retain their irony; competently depicted action (brutal and otherwise).

On the other hand, it's somehow not nearly as connectable as "Old Man's War". I put down this one and had to go back to it and pick it up several times in order to finish it. I suspect that the reason why is that, unlike "Old Man's War", most of the characters in "Ghost Brigades" are pretty alien and thus hard to empathize with. John Perry and his friends in "Old Man's War" are, quintessentially, us: we learn about the CDF setting pretty much at their pace, and this revelation has interest in and of itself.

"Ghost Brigades" is not a weak retread sequel: Scalzi at least (reasonably skilfully) spares us from that. But neither does it have the impact or empathy of the former. It stands well on its own two feet, and it works well enough that it does lead me to think I'll probably buy and read the next one from this setting ("The Last Colony"), but mostly because it feels like easy-to-consume meat-and-potatoes SF. It's a solid B+, and if you like early-Imperial mil-tinged SF in the mode of Heinlein, Haldeman, and at a stretch, Asimov, then you might like these books by Scalzi. As with the Sawyer, it presents a pleasant beach read that passes quickly, inoffensively, somewhat heartily.

Don't approach it with out-sized expectations, and you won't be disappointed: sometimes a good corned-beef on rye with a frosty pilsner on the side is in fact what you really want.
viktor_haag: (Default)
FInished two SF books on the weekend, both on the rather popular (populist) end of SF: Sawyer's "Wake" and Scalzi's "The Ghost Brigades". They were both reasonably quick reads, and reasonably decent stories, but not really remarkable much.

Wake: A young blind girl with a specific sort of blindness submits herself to an experimental procedure to restore her sight. It works, in a way. It also has unintended consequences -- it contributes to the birth of something new. Sawyer's book is colloquial, friendly, and easy to read, but it is not without it's flaws. The dialog seems flat in spots, not quite ringing true. Much of the setting seems also in the same mode: there's little reason to be able to spot flaws with the setting if you don't live in Waterloo, Ontario (home of the Perimeter Institute), except by implication in the technique that Sawyer employs to achieve verisimilitude. He throws around brands and proper nouns like rice at a wedding.

Sometimes this rings false for those who know. Slightly more often than sometimes, it can be a bit annoying, in the same way that nobody in the Star Trek universe eats chocolate pudding: they always eat Rigelian Chocolate Pudding™. Does the name-dropping help to seat the narrative firmly in a time and a place? Maybe -- but it extends the same kind of feeling that you get when you see product placement in movies: it has an odd unexpected wrenching effect on the viewer. The narrative is not the real world, nor does the observer, want it to be, fundamentally. In the long run, the product placement intrudes on the narrative: it doesn't belong there, because the story told is not happening in the observer's frame of reference. With speculative fiction that pretends to take place fifteen minutes from tomorrow this is a tricky thing to negotiate, but Sawyer doesn't do it effectively.

The other thing that "Wake" suffers from is first-book-ness. In the end it rather feels like it's all setup and no payoff. It feels like it ought to be the first part in a single volume. Is there conflict of some sort going on? Not really: there's a problem to be solved (the girl's sight and figuring out how it works and what it's implications are); there's a mystery to be plumbed (what exactly is to be made of the frequent interjections in the narrative that document the becoming of something), but there's not really much of import that comes away from this book that's self contained. The protagonist is changed, profoundly. But it still feels a bit like a canon episode of a prime-time thriller series: at the end there's more questioning expectation on the table than resolution.

"Wake" is a pleasant enough read: it's about a B. Don't expect fireworks and you won't be disappointed. Sawyer is not, in my opinion, Canada's strongest SF author (and, really, I don't read all that much Canadian SF, but I feel if you want stronger books with stronger writing and stronger themes, you be better advised to turn to Robert Charles Wilson), but "Wake" is a lot better than an example of his earlier work that I had read, and is a pretty solid beach book, I guess.

The Ghost Brigades: Another quick read after John Scalzi's "Old Man's War", set in the same setting, with some familiar characters. This book answers some of the questions about what are, exactly, the Special Forces soldiers in Scalzi's CDF universe. It reveals a bit more of the real-politik of the setting. It has just as many smoothly written moments as "Old Man's War": humorous training scenes that don't quite over-stay their welcome; interesting and reasonably clever solutions to puzzles; clues dropped for the reader that retain their irony; competently depicted action (brutal and otherwise).

On the other hand, it's somehow not nearly as connectable as "Old Man's War". I put down this one and had to go back to it and pick it up several times in order to finish it. I suspect that the reason why is that, unlike "Old Man's War", most of the characters in "Ghost Brigades" are pretty alien and thus hard to empathize with. John Perry and his friends in "Old Man's War" are, quintessentially, us: we learn about the CDF setting pretty much at their pace, and this revelation has interest in and of itself.

"Ghost Brigades" is not a weak retread sequel: Scalzi at least (reasonably skilfully) spares us from that. But neither does it have the impact or empathy of the former. It stands well on its own two feet, and it works well enough that it does lead me to think I'll probably buy and read the next one from this setting ("The Last Colony"), but mostly because it feels like easy-to-consume meat-and-potatoes SF. It's a solid B+, and if you like early-Imperial mil-tinged SF in the mode of Heinlein, Haldeman, and at a stretch, Asimov, then you might like these books by Scalzi. As with the Sawyer, it presents a pleasant beach read that passes quickly, inoffensively, somewhat heartily.

Don't approach it with out-sized expectations, and you won't be disappointed: sometimes a good corned-beef on rye with a frosty pilsner on the side is in fact what you really want.

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