Sunday, August 17, 2014

two reads on the existential plane: Savage Night, by Jim Thompson and The Panda Theory, by Pascal Garnier

I'm sort of inundated with family for the rest of the month so I don't have time for my usual chatty reviews, but I've finished a couple of good ones I'd like to pass along.  Actually, I don't really have time right now to even post a review, so here are the titles:

First up there's Savage Night, by Jim Thompson, one of the darker books I've read this year and really geared toward fans of said darkness and noir;

and then something a little less dark than Savage Night but still not light, The Panda Theory, by Pascal Garnier:

The cover blurb that says "A little jewel of black humour..." is not wrong, but I'd call it more on the bleak side. The Panda Theory is from Gallic Press, an imprint I've just discovered, and I liked it so much I now have four of their novels by Garnier.   Another one recommended for fans of literary darkness.

I have family here through the 30th so there's no time to read, much less update my reading journal, but I really want to talk about both of these novels so I'll table the discussions until later.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

now here's something refreshingly different: The Devil's Road to Kathmandu, by Tom Vater

kindle copy
Crime Wave Press
(also in paperback)

I'll be on this indie writer/indie press kick for a while since I have so many small-press books in my library, and some on my kindle (although I really don't prefer ebooks over real ones). First up is a book by author Tom Vater, who is not only a crime writer, but who also co-founded Crime Wave Press. As the little blurb at Crime Wave's website notes,
"Founded in 2012 by publisher Hans Kemp of Visionary World and writer Tom Vater, Crime Wave Press publishes a range of crime fiction - from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring our planet's dark underbelly." 
Can we say right up my alley? So having heard about this small press, I decided to give The Devil's Road to Kathmandu a read, and now I'm planning on reading my way through this publishing company. Not all at once for sure, but their books will be worked into my regular crime fiction reads.

The Devil's Road to Kathmandu is divided into two different time periods, but moves easily back and forth across both; not an easy task for some writers, but here the author does it most assuredly.  In 1976, three British hippie friends Fred, Tim and Dan, make a plan to drive across Asia  to India  to buy drugs and then sell them again once they reach Nepal.  They buy a Bedford bus specifically for the trip; as Dan says to his friends, "We've got the opportunity to do something different with our lives."  They are pretty much stoned all of the time, pot, acid, opium, you name it they did it, but it's a great adventure.  In Ishafan, Iran,  the trio adds another traveler to the mix, Thierry, from France, whom they met at a nightclub called the Blue Parrot. It seems that Thierry owes some money to the wrong people and needs to make an escape.  He  joins the adventure as they make their way into Pakistan, which  turns out to be a nightmare, but the group makes it into India and finally into Nepal, where they decide to bank the drug money they've made.  Dan and Tim fly on home, Thierry decides to stay and wait for the woman he loves, and Fred just  disappears. Flash forward to 2000, and now Dan's son Robbie has gone on his own journey in the same area.  He meets up with his dad, who has returned to Kathmandu after all this time, drawn there by an email from the long-lost Fred who reminds him that the money's still there and he & Tim should come and get it. Unfortunately for all, it seems that their pasts have come back to haunt them.

There are plenty of unique, crazy and offbeat characters that fill this novel, and the author has a keen eye for detail.  The part of this story that took place in the Blue Parrot is one of my favorites, and is an excellent example of how the author sets a scene that sucks the reader right into the action. Using impressive descriptions, dialogue that's totally believable and creating such a realistic atmosphere that you feel like you're actually there along with the boys from the bus drinking it all in, he's created a world out of this nightclub that I hated to leave. And that's only one instance ... he does the same where ever the action is -- in Pakistan, India, and most especially in Kathmandu.  This is definitely not your average crime novel, which is a very good thing. Definitely and most highly recommended.

betrayal abounds in The Accident, by Chris Pavone

Crown Publishing, 2014
385 pp

hardcover from publisher, thanks!

The main focus of this novel is a  manuscript titled The Accident, which  if published threatens to take down the wide-ranging, worldwide empire of media mogul Charlie Wolfe. The anonymous author  has written a tell-all book that exposes a lot of egregious secrets about the rich and powerful, and the manuscript also churns up an incident in Wolfe's past that the author now decides to reveal.  Isabel Reed, who receives the manuscript with only an e-mail address as a contact, has to make a pretty hefty decision herself: should she make sure that this book gets published?  Should she pretend that she'd never read it or even received it? Or should she go the authorities, the news media itself, or even call the White House? Figuring that she can't be killed "in front of the whole world," if she goes public, she decides to hand the book off to an acquiring editor she knows would be the right person to see it through.  Unknown to Isabel, along with Wolfe, there's a CIA agent in Copenhagen who also doesn't want the book to be published; in fact, he doesn't want the manuscript to exist at all.  But as it turns out, the manuscript is already making its way into hands other than those belonging to  Isabel and her editor friend, as others see it as a perfect medium for saving or making their careers.  

At the heart of this novel it's all about betrayal, and trust me, there is a lot of duplicity and double-dealing going on all through this book.  Well beyond the anonymous author's exposé of Wolfe, there are people who see the manuscript as a way to elevate or launch their respective careers, there is one who sees its potential as not only a blockbuster but also a way to save a failing business, and there are other, more personal types of betrayals going on among some of the characters as well. This theme was well expressed, and the look behind the scenes at the publishing industry is quite interesting, especially the fact that it sometimes takes only a look at the first page to decide whether a book is worthy of continuing on to the second or not.  The author's bio page at his website reveals that he knows what he's talking about, since he spent nearly two decades working at a number of different publishing houses. And I do have to say that  I particularly enjoyed the piece-by-piece unraveling of one particular secret that isn't made known until the very end.   But let's face it: the trope of the anonymous manuscript that if made known will cause empires to crumble and secrets of the rich and powerful to be released is just not that original any more. Not only that, but the big secret that the anonymous author refers to in the title of his manuscript would be along the same lines as if someone had revealed that Steve Jobs had done something heinous  in his college years -- yeah, it's shocking, but that act alone wouldn't have brought down either Apple or Jobs, especially nowadays. In my head, I'm thinking that all of the other stuff that Wolfe was up to would have been far worse and better to focus on as the meat of the anonymous manuscript.  Bottom line here: while there is some suspense that kept me reading this novel, I've read better.  

I'm looking at reader criticism on another screen right now, and most people are saying that The Accident is not nearly as good as Pavone's The Expats, so I'll probably try to rotate that one into my reading schedule to see what I may have missed.  All in all, this one was just okay. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

reorganizing the eurocrime room

My husband thought this was very funny -- it's me cleaning out the room where the Eurocrime lives. He posted the photo on his facebook page, and the caption reads "would you call this a book problem?" I guess he doesn't understand that I have to make a mess to get things organized.

Herbie's Game, by Timothy Hallinan

Soho Crime, 2014
400 pp

arc from the publisher - thank you!

Junior Bender is back in a fourth episode, following Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief but still going strong.  I've been binge watching every season of Game of Thrones lately trying to be ready for season five,  but I gave up several very late nights of watching to read this book -- and it was well worth it.  That actually says a lot, because Game of Thrones is deep in my blood right now.  

Moving right along, Herbie's Game begins as our burglar hero Junior Bender is asked by a "contractor" named Wattles to retrieve some property of his that had been stolen. Wattles, whose memory is "not what it used to be," would 
"arrange anything, from a cautionary faceful of knuckles or a modest supermarket fire all the way up to a whack, for the right fee." 
Someone hired Wattles to do a hit, and he'd written down the chain of "disconnects" that were to be involved.  He stashed the list of names in his safe and now it's been taken. Wattles wants it back. Signs point to Junior's old mentor and surrogate dad Herbie Mott as the thief, but when Junior goes to see him, Herbie is dead after being tortured in a not-so-very-nice way.  Junior is brought low by Herbie's death, and as he continues to track down the chain of disconnects, he not only reflects on Herbie's importance to him in his life, but finds out more about Herbie than he's ever known. He also runs up against someone who seems to be a step or two ahead of him each time, someone who leaves behind dead bodies but no clues.

If you've lived in Los Angeles for any length of time, then you're aware that Hallinan knows not only the area, but the people who live there.  I have seen pretty much all of his archetypes on the streets and on the beaches there, and his characters are spot on.  In Herbie's Game he's added a new one that just cracked me up -- Ting Ting the lovable Filipino houseboy who may have gotten the better of Junior, but who for some reason is very attractive to the criminal element of both sexes.  He also adds a couple of teenaged hacker girls who make much more than Junior ever will (one of whom is planning to use the money to go to MIT later),  an over-the-top attorney with mirrored shades, a killer who got religion and a clairvoyant who runs The All-Seeing Eye by the name of Handkerchief.    It is this ensemble of  characters, along with a host of others,  who make these books work and work well -- because despite the fact that they're all pretty much involved in some form of crime or another, they come off as realistic people you grow to care about. They all see their worlds through a very different perspective, and as all these lives unfold, with Junior at the center,  the result is that you might actually find yourselves rooting for their success.

Each and every one of these books has had their laugh-out-loud moments, and this one is no exception. At the same time, Herbie's Game has its somber moments as Junior works through his grief over the loss of Herbie, which brings his mind around once again to his feelings about his father, which makes him ponder the kind of father he is to his teenaged daughter Rina.  And in the midst of the comedy, Hallinan's characters will take a few moments to ponder social and economic injustices, a trait  which elevates this book, and indeed the entire series, to something well beyond being just  another "caper" novel.

I have to say that I get nothing but pure pleasure from reading  these books, and I highly recommend them. Do not, I repeat, do not start with Herbie's Game, but read them all from the start. Junior Bender is not your typical crook -- he's got a heart, a conscience, and frankly, he's a downright decent guy, but to get the most of his character and of Mr. Hallinan's  quirky, extremely cool writing style, you have to start from the very beginning.  I love this series and as long as the books continue to be written, I'll be reading them,  hot off the press.

and now, back to Game of Thrones. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Stone Boy, by Sophie Loubière

Grand Central Publishing, 2014
originally published as L'enfant aux cailloux, 2011
translated by Nora Mahony
254 pp

paperback - my copy from the publisher via LibraryThing, thanks!

"The touch of madness was irresistible." 

Early on in this book there came a point where I thought I'd had it all figured out, and so smug little me decided that now that I knew everything I'd just sail along with the rest of the story until it proved me right.   But I was wrong. Totally beyond wrong.   And that's a good thing.

The Stone Boy begins with a series of vignettes moving the story along between 1946 and 1997, introducing us to the story's main character Elsa Préau, starting in her childhood where sitting at dinner one day, out of nowhere she passes along a message from her dead mother to the rest of the family. In the 46-year interim, as she marries, has a son, divorces, gets a job as a teacher and then moves up to being a headmistress. All along, Elsa's idiosyncracies seem to grow stronger, culminating in a strange afternoon picnic with her little grandson Bastien.  Flashforward to the present, and Elsa, now in her 70s,  is moving back into the family home, very much changed from the last time she was there. Now much of the neighborhood is under construction, and in her  absence, much of the land around her home has been sold off. Her physician son, Martin, comes every so often to see her to make sure she's okay; otherwise her only company is her housekeeper, and Elsa has a lot of time on her hands. One Sunday afternoon, she is awakened from her nap by the sound of a swing squeaking and  the sounds of children at play.  Watching out her window, she notices a little girl and two boys outside playing in their back yard.  Watching the Desmoulins children becomes a pastime for Elsa, and she notices the same thing every week: the little girl playing with her younger brother, while the older boy sits still and quietly, "constructing totems with bundled twigs and flat stones" under a weeping birch tree. The more she watches, the more she notices that the older boy has very little interaction with the rest of the family:
"It no doubt stemmed from a solitary temperament and a tendency to be withdrawn on his part. Yet his unwillingness to speak to the point of submission was unique. He never held a toy in his hands; he was content with twigs and stones. And though Madame Préau did pass the younger brother and sister from time to time on the path as they were coming home from the bakery with their father, one on a bike, the other on a scooter, not once had the old woman seen the little boy behind them. And that was troubling."
After a while, she begins to try to get the boy's attention by playing piano pieces designed for children, leaving the windows open so the music can be heard over the wall.  She starts keeping a record of what she sees, along with other observations,  in a small moleskin notebook, writing about the dirty condition of the older boy's clothing, his grayish skin,  that he only went outside on Sundays, and that he never played with the other two.  She's drawn to him not only out of curiosity, but because he has an incredible resemblance to her grandson. In her notebook, she begins to refer to him as "the stone boy."

from garalalog
 Determined to get to the bottom of things, she starts asking around, only to find out that according to the local school, the social welfare office, and the little girl herself (who has started taking piano lessons from Elsa), that there are only two children living in the house behind Elsa's wall -- that the "stone boy" does not exist.  As Elsa's behavior grows more erratic and she becomes progressively more off kilter, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

I am of two minds about this book. First, I thought it was very well written, especially because the author has constructed a story that plays quite nicely on reader expectations and then proceeds to turn them all on their respective heads. Ms. Loubière also weaves some powerful contemporary issues into the story through Elsa's letters to the mayor and other officials as well as in her notebooks and in the last few pages where all is revealed.  I have to admit to being so wrapped up in this story that everything else just sort of fell by the wayside and I accomplished absolutely nothing at all during my day.  But after finishing it, I realized that this book could have had a much better ending.  So now comes the serious "spoiler ahead" alert - and I mean, if you read this without having already read The Stone Boy it will totally kill it for you, because I don't hold back. So think seriously before you click to highlight the rest of this paragraph. For me, the book would have had the ultimate spine-tingling, bone-chilling effect on the reader  if the story had ended right at the anonymous phone call from Auverre.  Think about it. All of this time we're so convinced that Elsa's just crazy and can't separate her dead grandson from her obsession with the boy next door, and everyone has proven to her that there is no third child there. Then the stuff at the Desmoulins home happens, and Elsa dies and as far as the police are concerned, case closed. Then you have this little girl calling Child Line (in chapter sixty)  about her father making her older brother go into the basement, then hanging up, an ending that would have been a lot more powerful than the unraveling of things that followed.   Perfect, finito, the end. In this case, I have to say, less could have been more.

A book that had me as wrapped up in it as this one did can't help but be good, and I'd definitely recommend it.  It's an amazing character study much more than it is a thriller, and the way the writer plays with our heads is simply topnotch, ultimately delivering a one-two punch that will hit you in the gut.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

from Austria by way of Melville House: Resurrection, by Wolf Haas

Melville House, 2014
180 pp
originally published as Auferstehung der Toten, 1996
translated by Annie Janusch


Wolf Haas has written seven novels in his Simon Brenner series; Resurrection is the first novel. Haas  has a different but cool, quirky sort of  writing style not often found in standard crime/mystery fare, with a story that has a number of  meandering but often humorous  digressions that hide a rather ingenious crime and the keys to its solution.  It is also the introduction to an ex-policeman turned PI who is  all too human but who sticks with his work until it's finished, despite his own personal shortcomings. And because it suits my need for trying to stay out of the mundane in my reading, I had a great time with this book.

Simon Brenner is a 44 year-old ex-detective inspector ("or whatever his rank was") who has recently left the police after a nineteen-year career.  He's on the same case he was working when he left, the strange affair of two elderly Americans found frozen to death in December on a chair lift in Zell am See, a popular ski area in the Austrian Alps. The Americans were factory owners in Detroit, and inlaws of Vergolder Antretter, the "richest man in Zell." As the reader learns in the first two chapters, Brenner solved the case only after three-quarters of the year had gone by, not for the police, but for Vienna's Meierling Detective Agency, contracted by the Americans' insurance company.  The police case had stalled in January; by March, as a PI for Meierling, Brenner was back.  Suffering from pounding migraines, he works his way through this case with no evidence or leads; all he has is a seemingly unshakable alibi of one of the suspects given by a man who's just been released from a mental hospital. Using the alibi as a first step, Brenner ends up being awed by a woman with thick bifocals who gives him a ride in a car despite the fact that she has no hands, is sent to and falls in lust with a gorgeous schoolteacher who may have some important information for him, butts heads with an ambitious but annoying local reporter,  and even comes up against his former boss again before the nine months go by and the case finally comes to a close.

Zell am See, courtesy of

So far, this may seem like a typical outing in the world of crime fiction, but it most definitely is not. If the author were to go straight from point A to point B with the case, the investigation and the solution,  a) there would certainly be less pages in this book and b) it wouldn't be nearly as interesting or fun.  The unique narration style strikes the reader immediately.  It's as if he/she is being addressed by a sardonic someone who's sitting around in a bar, looking back and telling the story, complete with comments to "you," and the normal digressions a storyteller might make in such a situation, complete with character observations.  As just one example of a meandering path in this book, in describing how Brenner took a taxi ride hoping for information from a talkative cabbie, the narrator turns that into a discourse on the sport of curling, rich tourists and poor tipping,  as well as the way Brenner eats a sausage on a bun.  Yet hidden among this often darkly humorous, tangential material are not only clues essential to solving the crime, but there is a lot of insight into Brenner's character, the issues faced by the permanent residents in this tourist mecca, and the ugly past of this otherwise outwardly postcard-perfect area.

Since I've already read the author's Brenner and God, it's pretty obvious that in this book he's just getting started on developing Brenner's character, but that's usually the case in a first series novel. The crime, once solved, proves to be cleverly plotted and I didn't guess the who or the why.  I also happened to enjoy the quirkiness of Haas' writing style, but I can see how it might not be everyone's cup of tea.  The story digresses and the meandering may be a little off-putting for a reader who's in this solely for the crime. However, for patient readers who are willing to take a chance on something very different in the crime-fiction zone, while it takes some initial bit of getting used to,  Resurrection turns out to be a very good and quite satisfying read, punctuated here and there with bits of dark humor keeping it lively.

crime fiction from Austria