Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

I met my challenge of reading 50 books again this year, and for those interested wanted to take a second to list my top ten favorite reads of 2011.

Embassytown by China Mieville

The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason

Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill

The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Nobody's Angel by Jack Clark

Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace
Bossypants by Tina Fey

And five honorable mentions:

Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarre

This list is fairly heavy on crime, mystery, and thriller, and I admit to feeling a bit of ennui when making this out.  I'm getting an itching in my mind to read a little better, or at least smarter, for a while.  We shall see how it goes, but based on what I bought with my Amazon gift cards, I am going to try.

I have also now mastered this challenge for, unbelievably, four years in a row.  Here are my lists of favorite reads from 2010, 2009,  and the first go-round in 2008.  To maybe spice it up in 2012, I will be taking suggestions from readers.  Let me know what you think is good and I will try to mix a few new ideas.

Cracking IQ 84 by Haruki Murakami tonight!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

#50: The Drop by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch works two crimes at once in Michael Connelly's The Drop; first, a cold case about the long-ago murder of a young woman and second, a politically-charged case featuring the death of the son of one of Bosch's old foes.

The Drop refers to the possible murder or suicide of the young man, who went out the window of a hotel; but it also refers to a slang term about Bosch, Connelly's world-weary and only slightly tarnished L.A. cop, nearing retirement.

I was glad I reached my 50th book of the year with one of my favorite authors and his latest novel.  After a bit of a lull, I think Connelly's books have been consistently strong over the last few years.  He is a former reporter, evident in his clipped prose and hard-nosed style, which I enjoy. 

I think the Harry Bosch novels will stand as one of the great contemporary mystery series when Michael Connelly finally closes the last chapter.  Recommended for mystery fans.

I borrowed this from the Farmland Public Library in Farmland, Indiana, and consumed it quickly.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

#49: Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver

James Bond is back in action against a recycling magnate with a death fetish in Jeffrey Deaver's low-stakes initial outing with 007, Carte Blanche.

Despite some globe-trotting through Eastern Europe, England, and South Africa, overall this is a bit of a banal spy story, whether the name of James Bond is attached or not.  And yet it is hard to identify this retooled Bond, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who still likes fast cars but has more politely contemporary views on drinking and women.  The main character really could have been any protagonist of this type of story.

Although I have enjoyed Deaver's crime fiction from time to time, I was a bit put out by a mechanic in this story that kept cheating the reader by holding back key plot elements until later reveals, almost as one might see in a screenplay.  That being said, if Deaver does another Bond novel I will probably check it out to see where he goes with it next.

It might be unfair to critique Deaver's take on Bond so quickly on the heels of Sebastian Faulks' superior Bond novel Devil May Care, which fits directly into Fleming's original series where he left off in the 60s.  I would have loved to see Faulks do another one that fit directly into the canon.

I started reading this borrowed from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library, put it down, then picked it up on audio book and finished it on a long drive back and forth to Chicago.  Recommended for Bond completists.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

#48: Dead Money by Ray Banks

A pair of British salesmen spend their evenings drinking and gambling and get in trouble slowly, then quickly, in Ray Banks' noir Dead Money.

Banks gives his protagonist that Jim Thompson spin that I always appreciate, where his actions make sense to him even as the repercussions for those actions grown in intensity; a classic "unreliable narrator" story often favored in crime novels.

Banks writes in a clean style, looped with inky black humor, and the plot goes at a lightning pace, heaping dread upon dread.  My only complaint is that I felt that the novel probably needed one or two more chapters to fully realize all of the plotlines set forth.

I was pleasantly surprised when I was emailed a copy of this novel for my beloved Kindle from Blasted Heath.  I have become a fan of these U.K. crime writers, quietly supplanting their Scandinavian brethren who have gotten a toehold on U.S. shores in recent years.

I will definitely look for more from Ray Banks and would recommend this to fans of the genre.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

#47: I'm Down by Mishna Wolff

Mishna Wolff grows up one of the only white kids in a black neighborhood, and then becomes one of the only poor kids at an affluent school for gifted students.  The situation is compounded by the looming shadow of her white father, an underemployed, overpowering figure who identifies solely with black culture; yet Wolff brings a sense of humor to her life story in the autobiography I'm Down.

I listened to an audiobook version read by the author, which I think added to the enjoyment as Wolff did a good job telling her story.  The reader's enjoyment will probably rest in how much they identify with Wolff and her various problems, both major and minor.

Although at times a little uneven in tone, I was compelled to find out where her story was going, from her early childhood and parents' divorce to her tween years and her father's second marriage.  Wolff has apparently led a fairly interesting life since then which I would imagine will be the subject of future volumes.

I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

#46: Embassytown by China Mieville

A small human embassy on a remote alien planet welcomes a new ambassador; but a resulting faux pas almost destroys both human and alien civilizations in China Mieville's thought-provoking sci-fi novel Embassytown.

I labored long to come up with a short description of the novel and have had a hard time articulating its depth and breadth to others.  It is dense and fascinating and brimming with all kinds of original thinking, especially in terms of the nature of language and thought.

I am somewhat new to Mieville and have learned that he is part of the writing tradition called The New Weird, which is I think the hip contemporary descendant of what I called the "hippie-fi" writing of the 60s and 70s from authors like Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, and Samuel R. Delany.

Mieville has also stated he would like to write a novel in every genre from western to detective to so on; to me this one hews closest to horror, and even makes an oblique reference to George Romero's zombie films.  But perhaps more so I would say Mieville is trying to capture some of the baroque nature of Delany's Dahlgren or Dick's martian novels.  Either author would probably give Embassytown a nod of approval along with a scratch of the head.

I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana.

Embassytown has been one of my favorite reads of the year, and I would recommend it to fantasy or sci-fi fans who want a challenge.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#45: Baby Moll by John Farris

The strong arm of an aging crime boss gets out of the racket when he meets an innocent and beautiful girl (naturally), but gets pulled back in (naturally), when a vengeful killer stalks the gang in Baby Moll by John Farris.

Baby Moll is a tough-minded entry in the very readable Hard Case Crime collection, an admirable paperback series of lost noirs and contemporary stories in a similar vein.

This one was written by John Farris, who had a lengthy career writing in a variety of pulp traditions.  What was unbelievable to find out, after a little googling, was that this novel was written basically straight out of high school.  It is hard to fathom Farris had the sophistication to write some of the sequences in the story, despite however many Mickey Spillane novels he might have read beforehand.

I got this, with no small amount of surprise, from a Dollar General spinner rack of paperbacks. 

A very sturdy entry in the series and worth a look for fans of organized crime novels in general and Hard Case Crime in particular.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

#44: Official Book Club Selection by Kathy Griffin

Comedian Kathy Griffin tells all about her long, slow climb to stardom from working-class Chicago to second-tier Hollywood in Official Book Club Selection.

I understand that some may find Griffin to be an acquired taste, but I have always found her extremely funny.  I really enjoy her reality show Life on the D-List but cemented my fandom when I caught her live during the Gay Pride Festival in San Diego a few summers ago.

I think it helped tremendously that I listened to this in audiobook form on a recent long road trip to Georgia, and absorbed it in one fell swoop.  Griffin narrated the audiobook in her usual style, which I think enhanced some of the writing that might not have been as interesting on the page.

I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and liked it a lot; recommended for fans, especially in the audiobook format.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

#43: The Hunter by Richard Stark

Parker is a professional thief who is double-crossed and left for dead by his wife and best friend, then single-mindedly decides to get his cut of the big take no matter who he has to bring down--on up to the top gangsters in the country.

The Hunter is a very tough-minded crime novel from the early 60s, the first Parker novel by Donald Westlake under the pseudonym of Richard Stark.  It is a bleak noir with no likeable characters, but written in a terse, kinetic style.

I have been a long-time fan of Westlake (and once got a chance to meet him, when he appeared on a TV show I was directing) and have read a lot of his large body of work, but had not really dipped into his famous Parker series.

I got interested in reading The Hunter for two reasons; first was because I read a very cool graphic novel version done by one of my favorite artists, Darwyn Cooke, and the second was because I nabbed it for my beloved Kindle for free.

As soon as I finished it I grabbed a handful more Kindle Parker novels for pocket change, and dived right into The Man with the Getaway Face, the second novel in the series (and also a good graphic novel). 

Recommended for fans of inky-black noir.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

#42: Assignment The Cairo Dancers by Edward S. Aaarons

CIA operative Sam Durell goes into action against a Middle Eastern zealot kidnapping world scientists for nefarious means in Edward S. Aarons' Assignment The Cairo Dancers.

Aarons wrote a long, reputable series of novels about Durell over several decades; this entry, from 1965, may be one of the latest ones I have read to date. 

While his 50s novels have a Cold War sobriety, the farther I have read into the 60s the more I have seen the more outlandish trappings of the spy novels and movies of that era; this one features a sinister German dwarf, a pair of feral twin hitmen, a giant death laser and of course a secret base hidden in a mountain that Durell has to fight his way out of.  Naturally he also finds respite long enough to provide comfort and aid to several women in need.

This is a solid adventure in a really underrated series that I have yet to find makes a false step.  I found this one at a used bookstore in Muncie Indiana for 99 cents.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

#41: Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarre

A young British couple on vacation end up in a fateful tennis match against a Russian businessman that sends the pair spiraling into the shadowy world of espionage in John LeCarre's Our Kind of Traitor.

LeCarre's work in the 60s and 70s, especially his George Smiley novels, are almost without peer in the spy genre.  Admittedly I have picked up and put down a lot of his novels since, finding them a bit mixed as the years have gone on. Probably the last one I really enjoyed was Our Game, but admittedly I have avoided a few newer entries that--based on this novel--might be worth a look.

This one struck my fancy from the beginning, written with a good mix of dark humor, interesting characters, complex plotting, and bursts of sobering violence.  It was great to see LeCarre still has some in the tank well into his 80s, writing a contemporary and relevant spy thriller.  Recommended for long-time fans of LeCarre and/or the genre.

I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it at a steady pace.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

#40: Slammer by Allan Guthrie

A young prison guard is tormented by fellow guards and inmates alike, ending in an explosive breakout, in Allan Guthrie's relentless noir Slammer.

I am a fan of Guthrie's hard-boiled, sardonic Scottish crime fiction, those of which that I've read are a reverent throwback to an earlier era.  This one features a classic unreliable narrator--I'm not sure if that is a noir sub-category, but it should be--and a very Cornell Woolrich-style downbeat ending (one that maybe goes on a half step too long).  It is very tough-minded in the Jim Thompson tradition and is probably not for delicate tastes, especially in some harrowing and graphic prison scenes.

Guthrie himself sent this to me for my beloved Kindle, for which I was grateful (though I would have probably bought it anyway).  I was hooked right away and read it quickly.  Recommended for noir fans and those seeking a change from American crime writing.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

#39: Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell

A mostly honest cop and his mostly crooked brother, who owns a local bar, deal with murder and mayhem in Daniel Woodrell's Under the Bright Lights.

Woodrell later wrote Winter's Bone, which became a very worthwhile film and seems to have generated some interest in his older work, including this reissue of his first novel. 

Although he is frequently compared to Cormac McCarthy now, this early outing is more James Lee Burke, with colorful characters in a moody, corrupt small town in Louisiana  surrounded by foreboding swamps (which naturally play into the denouement).

I think one of the more interesting elements in the story, about the death of a prominent politician that then reveals secrets best buried, was that the cycle of crime and punishment played out through to the end with little influence from the protagonist.  It gave the story a larger noir feel, like some of Cornell Woolrich's better work.

I bought this at a goodbye price from a nearly empty Borders on the verge of closing as "The Bayou Trilogy," with two more novels featuring the main characters forthcoming. 

A good read and my first foray into Daniel Woodrell; I will definitely read the others.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

#38: Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill

An aging screenwriter, not exactly washed up because he was always an also-ran, tries to restart his foundering career by going to a remote English farmhouse; but instead almost instantly fall into a dangerous infatuation with a farmer's wife in Russell Hill's Robbie's Wife.

Robbie's Wife is a mature noir with a classic unreliable narrator.  It is part of the very notable Hard Case Crime series, which releases lost classics alongside contemporary counterparts.  This is a great addition to the series, a very strong modern entry that stands alongside some of my favorites, including Scott Smith's A Simple Plan and Robert Ward's Four Kinds of Rain, books that would bring a smile to Jim Thompson's face.

Hill's book also reads as a solid literary piece, with a lot of sharp writing and an interesting subplot about the Mad Cow Disease issue in England.  Recommended for any readers.

I nabbed this off of and read it steadily.

Friday, August 26, 2011

#37: Nobody's Angel by Jack Clark

A Chicago cab driver ends up in the middle of two horrible crimes, the maiming of a teen prostitute and the murder of a fellow cabbie; cruising the streets in the shadows of the city's worst housing projects, he almost subconsciously moves towards solving both in Jack Clark's superior contemporary noir Nobody's Angel.

This book came out as part of Hard Case Crime, a top-flight collection of lost noirs and modern authors writing in the same vein.  This novel has a very unusual history, as Clark is an actual Chicago cab driver who self-published the book originally and sold it out of the front seat of his cab. 

It is an astounding story when one finds out how good the writing is.  It is obvious that Clark knows the mean streets of the Windy City intimately, and the characters are well-rounded.

If Cornell Woolrich drove a cab, and Jim Thompson was a passenger in the back seat, they might put their heads together and come up with something like Nobody's Angel.  Recommended.

I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it quickly.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

#36: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

I was only tangentially aware of comedian Patton Oswalt (mostly from the movie Big Fan, which I learned about at the Traverse City Film Festival) but by the end of this collection of personal essays and humorous stories felt as if we were brothers under the skin.   

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is largely about a misspent youth of Dungeons and Dragons, comic books, b-movies, and the like, written in a darkly humorous vein.  I especially liked an essay about working in a movie theater in the 80s, one about working at the bottom of the comedian food chain, and an epic poem written to his last D&D character.  The title comes from an essay about how every young dude will write a story that either involves zombies, spaceships, or wastelands; I had all three in me as a teen.

I would recommend this book by and large to a narrow audience of nerds about the same age as me and Patton Oswalt, but I think it would have some general appeal.  I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library after the title caught my eye and read the slender tome at a good clip.

Friday, August 12, 2011

#35: Bossypants by Tina Fey

Pointedly funny autobiography from Tina Fey starts with her Pennsylvania childhood and runs helter skelter up to her tenure on 30 Rock in Bossypants.

I was a big fan of Fey on SNL and like her own oddball show and thus was predisposed to like this book (and I think it also helped that I listened to the audiobook version, where I could hear her own voice).  She glosses over a lot of things (and is much easier on Saturday Night Live then Jay Mohr or Sarah Silverman were in the books they wrote) but her funny stories, and messages of empowerment, are worthwhile.

I found it was incredibly dangerous to listen to the audiobook version of this as I was laughing so hard a few times I was almost crying, bad when driving.  Recommended.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

#34: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The final chapter in the Hunger Games trilogy finds our protagonist, Katniss, helping overthrow the government (personified by her enemy President Snow) while realizing that the rebellion isn't all it's cracked up to be in Suzanne Collins Mockingjay.

The first two books in this trilogy mainly center around Katniss participating in the Hunger Games, where the totalitarian central government keeps the districts in check by holding gladiator-style battles once a year in which only one living victor is allowed.  Astute readers will see pieces and parts borrowed from all sorts of places, including The Giver and Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale.  I have sometimes wondered if I enjoyed this series primarily because it reminded me of other things I liked.

This entry happens after the Hunger Games has ended, and to me seemed to show up the fact that the backstory of the world had been sketched in a bit slenderly in the first two volumes.  There were scenes here that seemed reminiscent of stories from Logan's Run to Beneath the Planet of the Apes which left me to wonder if Collins would leave any pop culture stone unturned.

Interesting for those who have read the first two and who would like to see the story to completion.  I got this for Christmas and finished it over time.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

#33: The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

A young mural artist takes up with a fragile man with a dark past in Banana Yoshimoto's The Lake.

I had never heard of Yoshimoto and picked this up on a whim from the Farmland Public Library.  She has apparently been big in Japan for some time. 

The Lake is a slight, and slightly creepy, novel that read a bit like Haruki Murakami lite.  The story ambles along as a blossoming romance between two troubled people until the pair visit a nearby lake cabin and two odd siblings who live there, one of who is an apparent psychic, where ties to a frightening past are revealed.

Without revealing too much of the backstory, I believe the novel would be pretty resonant to Japanese readers, and I enjoyed it well enough to look for more translations of Yoshimoto's work.

Friday, August 5, 2011

#32: The Ill Wind Contract by Philip Atlee

Joe Gall, the Nullifier, goes on a smuggling operation for the U.S. government but ends up in the middle of the Indonesian civil war with nothing but his quick wit and a swingin' Swedish stewardess in Philip Atlee's The Ill Wind Contract.

I generally enjoy this long-running, politically incorrect spy series, largely written in the 60s and 70s, although the entries are sometimes uneven.  This was one of my favorites, partially because it shows what seems to be a very accurate portrayal of the real-world civil war and has several real-life people.  Atlee's sardonic style is especially sharp here as well.

Atlee has to be recommended only for the discriminating modern eye; for instance, liberals, communists, and "women's libbers" are all considered equally evil in this story, and subtle portrayals of other races is never a strong suit.

I got this from a used bookstore in Muncie, Indiana for less than a single U.S. dollar.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

#31: The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

A lawyer working the foreclosure angle finds himself in the middle of a murder case when his client is accused of killing a banker in Michael Connelly's The Fifth Witness.

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite recent-era mystery writers and his series about police detective Harry Bosch is, despite a few low spots, a significant achievement in contemporary crime writing.  He has dabbled in a few other characters but seems to be really finding some traction with Mickey Haller, first introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer.

Like Bosch, Haller has a lot of baggage, including two ex-wives, and feels most comfortable working out of the back seat of his car.  He is also a fairly tarnished but ultimately likable character.

Connelly seems to have hit his stride with this entry, which has a neat story and compelling courtroom action.  It has been interesting to see how the characters have evolved over the last few novels as well.  I am beginning to look forward to the next Haller story almost as much as the next Bosch.

I checked this out from the Farmland Public Library in Farmland, Indiana and read it quickly.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

#30: The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

Murders and suicides rock a small town in Sweden, sending ripples through various families and back a generation, in Camilla Lackberg's debut mystery The Ice Princess.

Lackberg has arrived on a big wave of Scandinavian novels that made it to our shores in recent years post-Stieg Larsson, and I have enjoyed them as a change of pace from their American counterparts; typically more morose and thoughtful and tangled with family dysfunction.

But Lackberg takes something back in return from here; a glimmer of romance, as the main character--writing a book about her childhood friend's death--takes up with a handsome police detective, a departure from the usual gloomy ruminations of her Scandinavian counterparts.

The darker novels of some of her colleagues (authors I enjoy like Arnaldur Indridason and Asa Larsson among them) might not be to everyone's taste, so Lackberg's relatively lighter fare might be more palatable to the general reader.  I will still look for her next book even though I would not rate her as highly as some others (including current fave Jo Nesbo).

I picked this up in paperback and carried it around for a long while nibbling at it, from Europe to Chicago and finally home again.

Friday, July 29, 2011

#29: Assignment Sorrento Siren by Edward S. Aarons

An American secret agent goes on a torture and murder spree, putting straight-arrow spy Sam Durell hot on his trail in Assignment Sorrento Siren, a brawny novel in the long-running espionage series by Edward S. Aarons.

The secret agent goes rogue largely under the direction of a hardscrabble American woman turned Italian countess (the siren of the title), who ends up swaying multiple men into trying to obtain precious artwork for her.  This makes Durell a little bit more of a private eye than a spy in this entry, which seems to be the case from time to time, despite having an old Communist nemesis trying to kill him and kidnap his long-suffering girlfriend Dee at critical moments.

A top-flight novel in the series, this one from the early 60s and full of rousing action.  One of my favorites to date, despite having picked it up solely for its Italian setting (leading up to a trip to Italy earlier this summer).  I nabbed this one for less than a dollar at a used bookstore in Muncie, Indiana.

Monday, July 25, 2011

#28: The Innocent Man by John Grisham

A washed-up, mentally unstable former pro baseball player ends up framed for an Oklahoma woman's murder in John Grisham's hair-raising nonfiction work The Innocent Man.

I have always liked Grisham but hate to admit that a lot of his books were starting to run together in my mind.  But this non-fiction work you almost couldn't make up, populated with blind and drunk lawyers, bungling judges, treacherous jailhouse snitches, bullying cops, dream confessions, last-minute death-row reprieves, and more, in a  case that spans decades.

What's more, Grisham sets forth and least two other botched cases from the same time period and geographical area during the course of the story that are almost as chilling as the main story.

Long but absolutely compelling from start to finish, The Innocent Man actually made me rethink some of my beliefs about the death penalty.

I listened to the bulk of this on audio book during a long drive back and forth to Chicago, and the time passed quickly.

Monday, July 18, 2011

#27: Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom

A deep undercover police informant goes to prison to break up a Polish drug ring, only to get burned by his superiors and have to fight his way out, in Three Seconds, a tough-minded crime drama from Sweden.

Three Seconds is very hard-boiled and well-written and showcases a different voice in crime writing, which is one of the elements I have enjoyed from the recent spate of Scandinavian mysteries that have graced these shores in recent years.  Unlike others, the writing team of Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom is less melancholy than some of their counterparts and relies more on burly action.

The down side is that, after a long buildup, the finale relies too heavily on an intricate Rube Goldberg-like sequence of events, coincidences, and lucky breaks that allows the storyline to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

But I was with them most of the way and would recommend this meaty thriller to mystery fans.

I borrowed this from Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana.

Monday, July 11, 2011

#26: The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

After a mission turns tragic, a spy in a top-secret branch called "The Department of Tourism" goes into semi-retirement with his new family; but soon various tightly-woven plots bring him back into the fold in Olen Steinhauer's highly enjoyable espionage thriller The Tourist.

In turns darkly funny but eminently credible, The Tourist harkens back to the best of the genre (most especially one of my favorites, Len Deighton) but the storyline is up to the minute in terms of contemporary threats and political scenarios. 

Steinhauer writes in a very readable, engaging style while remaining suitably complex for the steady reader of thrillers.  Worthwhile right through the final twist.

I would have to say this is one of my favorite novels of the year to date and would recommend it to any general reader.  I checked this out on a whim from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it at a breakneck pace.

Monday, June 20, 2011

#25: Assignment Lili Lamaris by Edward S. Aarons

Superspy Sam Durrell relies on a world-famous ballerina, in deep with gangsters and drugs, to help him smash a spy ring in Edward S. Aarons' Assignment Lili Lamaris, another stalwart entry in the lengthy spy series.

This adventure from the early 60s reads more Mickey Spillane than Ian Fleming as Durrell acts a bit more as a bodyguard/gumshoe figure, getting and giving out beatings at a steady pace and dealing with all sorts of lowlifes, including a crime boss and a sinister, legless doctor.

But the backdrop is largely Rome, which is why I picked this one up after a recent visit there (and, curiously, some of the action takes place in Ostia, where I also had a chance to spend a day).  Aarons always has a good sense of place to give interest to his hard-nosed storytelling.

I believe this series is entirely agreeable, and I would rate this outing in the upper half of a steady collection of these I have worked through since rediscovering Aarons a few short years ago.

I nabbed this one for pocket change at a used bookstore in Muncie, Indiana.

Monday, June 13, 2011

#24: Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith

Moscow police investigator Arkady Renko, an outsider in his own department, still puts his skills to work trying to solve a young woman's murder and a baby's disappearance in Martin Cruz Smith's Three Stations.

Smith's series has chronicled life in Russia for several decades now, oftentimes with long intervals between novels (though they are starting to come out considerably faster lately).  This is a credible, admirable crime series that started with the well-known Gorky Park but has produced many notable entries since then (my favorite is probably Polar Star) that are as much socio-political treatises as they are mysteries.

Wolves Eat Dogs and Stalin's Ghost, the most recent novels in the series, represent Putin-era Russia and might be a jumping-off point for new readers.

I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it quickly.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

#23: He Walked In Her Sleep by Peter Cheyney

A genial London safecracker confounds rival criminals and the police in equal measure in Peter Cheyney's He Walked In Her Sleep.

My one regret when visiting the book stalls on the South Bank in London was not buying more British pulp paperbacks when I had the chance the first time I walked through the area.  But when I went back I was able to snag this lone book before they closed up, from British pulp writer Peter Cheyney (perhaps best known for creating private eye Lemmy Caution). 

Despite the lurid cover and noirish title this turned out to be a collection of short stories more in the vein of Leslie Charteris' The Saint.  Though expecting something more hard-boiled, it turned out to be a breezy collection of adventures whereas our somewhat tarnished protagonist Alonzo MacTavish and his sidekicks generally do more good than harm in double-crossing bad guys and generally outwitting the police.

This was an easy read over a few days and I hope to find more of Peter Cheyney's writing somewhere.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

#22: Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace

Set in an early 70s northern England, a crime reporter tries to unravel some grisly murders that end up taking a psychic and physical toll on him in David Peace's blistering noir Nineteen Seventy-Four.

Peace writes in a raw but realistic voice and the storytelling is dense and electric.  Although I enjoyed this immensely, I would only recommend it with reservations as it is very, very mature in situations and content.  Peace's novel makes the bleak noir of Jim Thompson and James Ellroy seem like a Hardy Boys mystery.

This is the first of four novels that Peace wrote in this setting, to great acclaim.  I have also seen the first movie based on the series, Red Riding 1974, shot for British television and worthwhile in its own right.

I bought this from a neat bookstore in Hampstead while visiting England and consumed it in a single day waiting at the airport. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

#21: Tehanu by Ursula K. LeGuin

A former adventurer, who eventually chose life as a farm wife, finds herself thrust back into the spotlight when she helps a dying wizard and an abused child in Ursula LeGuin's Tehanu.

I recommend Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy to anyone (and just recently hooked my brother up with the first one) not only a great young adult fantasy trilogy but just a great fantasy trilogy in general.  This entry was written long after the original series of novels and features older and more reflective versions of the main characters from the earlier works.

Light on action, this book--billed as the last Earthsea novel--is more meditative, focusing a lot on the roles of women in the world.  It is a worthwhile adult conclusion to a series mostly read by younger eyes.

I picked this up at a library book sale for a quarter and read it over a few days on a trip to Europe.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

#20: City of Illusions by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Shing have destroyed the League of Worlds, keeping the planets apart and in a semi-barbaric state; until an alien-eyed man with no memory appears on Earth ready to challenge the status quo in Ursula LeGuin's City of Illusions.

This novel is an early entry in what became known as LeGuin's Hainish Cycle, which features some of her best-known works, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.  Nonetheless it really stands on its own, though the main character hails from the planet featured in Planet of Exile

This is a trippy sci-fi adventure from the 60s with a lot of neat ideas in a straightforward quest-style plot framework.  I got this from in a bound edition with two earlier works in this series, Rocannon's World and Planet of Exile, good reads all.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

#19: Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor

In ancient Rome, a detective called The Finder tries to prove the innocence of a runaway slave in Steven Saylor's Arms of Nemesis.

This was given to me by a friend to read on a flight to Rome, and I took it with some reservations, thinking the premise sounded a little cute, a mix of Raymond Chandler and PBS; but I ended up reading it in a single day.  It is penned in a tough, credible style, and seems to me to be written with a great attention to detail.

The larger backdrop is the Spartacus slave revolt, and there is also gladiator combat, a tumultuous ride on a slave galley, and a visit to an Oracle, as well as more subtly dramatic and domestic scenes centered around the crime. 

Overall I found this quite satisfying and was happy to hear it is part of a larger series of novels about The Finder.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

#18: Dexter is Delicious by Jeff Lindsay

Crime scene analyst by day, serial killer by night, Miami's own Dexter Morgan goes up against a thrill-seeking cannibalistic cult in Jeff Lindsay's latest series entry, Dexter is Delicious.

The first two books in this series were great, the third a strange misfire (with a wrong turn into the supernatural) and the fourth only a slight improvement, so I was really not that eager to pick this one up.  However, I can say this is the first I would recommend in a while. 

The story is dark and tight, and returns to some of the sharp humor that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels.  This one also marks the return of Dexter's brother, who figured into a memorable finale at the end of the first book.

Fans of the TV series will find that some people who are alive are dead in the books, and vice versa (with a few only slightly deadish); but both the book series and the television series have their relative merits.  Until this entry I would have given the edge to TV, and now I might consider it a draw.

I picked this up on audiobook from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana, read credibly by the author.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

#17: Assignment Palermo by Edward S. Aarons

A secret Italian brotherhood gets into the espionage business, sending hard-nosed secret agent Sam Durrell to Italy and into danger with a motley crew of compatriots (including a circus performer and a crooked jockey) in Edward S. Aarons' Assignment Palermo.

I am becoming an avowed convert to Aarons' long running Sam Durrell spy series since rediscovering the books with adult eyes.  This is probably the latest one I have read to date, from 1966.  But except for one character calling  Durrell "dad" the storytelling is pretty much as square as ever as Durrell arrows his way towards a sinister Commie counterpart he finds lurking behind the scenes.

I found this to be a surprisingly rousing entry in the usually brooding series, heavier on action and gunplay than some others (in the last one I read, for instance, Durrell only polished off one enemy, and that was by pushing a heavy planter over on him).

I really haven't found an entry in this pulp-heavy spy series I didn't like, but I would rate this one near the top of the list to date.

I found this at a used bookstore and chose it to follow the last Assignment because I am making a trip to Italy this summer.  I am checking out another of Durrell's adventures in Italy next; apparently a favorite hotspot as I have at least one more that take place in this locale.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#16: Star Wars: Red Harvest by Joe Schreiber

Zombies get loose at a Sith Academy on an icy planet and need to be beaten back by a mixed bag of Jedi, mercenaries, and droids in Joe Schreiber's horror/sci-fi hybrid Star Wars: Red Harvest.

I had heard good things about Schreiber's first go-round, Star Wars: Death Troopers, and was excited to find this prequel at the public library.  This one is a broad, shallow entertainment for adult fans of the Star Wars universe.

On the plus side, it is a fun, energetic read that expands the Star Wars universe into darker corners for fans.  On the negative side, it is populated almost exclusively by unpleasant characters, and has many pop culture references that takes the reader out of a galaxy far, far away.  Bonus points for zombie tauntaun, minus points for Liam Neeson riff on, off all things, the movie Taken.

I admittedly have not read many of the newer Star Wars books, but in general I found this entry fast-paced and undemanding for fans of science fiction and horror.  I borrowed it from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library and knocked it out quickly.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

#15: Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

A documentary film crew get involved with Somalian pirates and, by association, an emerging terrorist plot in Elmore Leonard's Djibouti.

In the 50s and 60s Elmore Leonard solid but today underrated Westerns, then was best known for a very admirable string of crime novels up through the 90s, many with a strong Detroit Rock City flavor.  In the 21st Century he has sampled all over the place with various genres and time periods, with some pretty good novels (Tishomingo Blues, The Hot Kid) and some okay ones (Pagan Babies, Road Dogs). 

This one has an interesting premise, and Leonard also does some neat things with nonlinear storytelling to change it up a bit.  As usual, the novel is populated by Leonard's trademark quirky characters. 

But unfortunately it's all talk, talk, talk until a (literally) explosive conclusion.  And some of the dialogue clanks a bit (including the young lead character calling movies "pictures," which seems dated).

Although this one is a bit of a mixed bag, Elmore Leonard is still worth reading, well into his 80s.

I listened to a good audiobook version of this, read by Tim Cain, on loan from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana, most of it on a drive back and forth from Chicago.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

#14: Up In The Air by Walter Kirn

A man who fires people for a living is trying to hang on to his unhappy job long enough to pass one million frequent flier miles in Walter Kirn's Up in the Air.

I have always claimed to be an early adopter of Walter Kirn--and find his early work She Needed Me to be especially strong--but I somehow missed this one, along with a lot of other people.  It came out around the time of 9/11 and because of its subject matter, centered around airlines and airports and planes, seems to have slipped through the cracks.

Thanks to George Clooney and a film version the novel seems to be returning to its rightful place.  But the novel is a totally different animal than the film; less warm-hearted, and with a surprisingly unreliable narrator.

Most of the novel takes place in what Kirn calls Air World, the insulated world of the frequent flier that has its own rules and regulations.  And our flawed protagonist is constantly derailed in his attempts to cross that million-mile plateau by family issues, complicated lovers, work problems and the shadow of head-hunting firm that seems to be dogging his steps.

I found Up in the Air to by a great read, enhanced by a solid audiobook presentation by. Sean Runnette.  The book and movie are quite different beasts, but both are rewarding in their own ways.  Recommended.

I checked this out from Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana, and consumed it quickly.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

#13: Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

A supermodel has a life-altering car wreck that ends up with her face being rebuilt, though unrecognizable; the results impact not only her but a teenage girl from her hometown, the supermodel's childhood friend, a downtrodden private eye, a mysterious figure known as Z and others in Jennifer Egan's genre pretzel of a novel, Look At Me.

Egan's novel The Keep was one of my favorite reads of recent years.  I didn't like this one quite as much, but it is very interesting throughout, with plenty of surprises and no linear paths to follow.  There are also lots of unique characters and very complicated characterizations. As in the last one I read, I thought the ending sort of ran out of steam, but I genuinely could not guess what was coming next; and as I read a lot of books, that means something.

Despite some flaws, I am beginning to think that Jennifer Egan is becoming one of my favorite new writers, almost entirely based on her unique storytelling alone.

I bought this for my beloved Kindle and read it at a steady pace.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

#12: Frankenstein Lives Again! by Donald F. Glut

Once again a scientist decides to, rather unwisely, resurrect the Frankenstein Monster (with expected results) in Donald F. Glut's Frankenstein Lives Again!, the first in a series of new adventures originally released in the late 60s and 70s.

Glut definitely knows his Frankenstein mythos, but also shows a fondness for Hammer horror films and Marvel comics of that era (most notably Tomb of Dracula).  Naturally there's a lantern-jawed hero, a pretty and capable but overlooked assistant, and a bunch of villagers quick to pick up the torches and storm up to the castle. 

On the other hand, the Monster spends at least half of the novel frozen in a block of ice (and tended to by a band of Eskimos who make the Lone Ranger's Tonto seem like a finely nuanced portrayal of Native American life) and pretty much follows the path you would expect, comfortable but familiar ground for fans of the genre. There's also a rather thin storyline featuring a lecherous, psychic circus master of some sort with a hulking assistant (of course) that get dispatched rather quickly in the latter part of the book.

But if you liked hearing Gene Colan and Peter Cushing name-checked in this review, this is a good read for you.  For my part I liked it well enough to look for the second in the series.

My pal Bill Cunningham sent this to me for my beloved Kindle and I read it at a good clip.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

#11: Assignment Girl in the Gondola by Edward S. Aarons

Agent Sam Durell fights enemies on all fronts as China stands ready to launch a nuclear holocaust in Edward S. Aaron's Assignment Girl in the Gondola, a solid entry in the lengthy and underrated spy series.

This one from the early 60s has the Red Chinese sneaking nuclear missiles into Albania, triggering the involvement of various spy agencies including Durell's hated Soviet counterpart (who has a trademark knife blow that is quickly felling those around Durell).  Although many of the early Aarons novels seem claustrophobic to me, this one takes place on a bigger stage, with Durell jetting between Greece and Italy and involving all kinds of international politics and intrigue.

Although that plot element strays away from Aarons' norm, Durell still has the curious ability to find women who want to erase a recent trauma with a strenuous night of lovemaking; in this novel, not one but two like-minded partners.

I found this at a used bookstore and chose it to read next because I will be visiting Italy in a few months.  However, this one mostly takes place in Greece; but I wasn't too put out as I found it to be a really good novel in the series. 

I have discovered Aarons in just the last year or two and can't recommend the series highly enough to pulp fans, having yet to stumble on a lemon.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

#10: Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

A doctor in a chaotic hospital ends up with even more stress than usual when he is outed as a former hitman hiding in the Witness Protection Program in Josh Bazell's darkly comic debut Beat the Reaper.

Beat the Reaper is fairly outlandish, penned in a cinematic style, and is quite funny throughout (and rather oddly provides footnotes for the medical terminology and other asides). It does suffer a bit from a somewhat rushed, slam-bang ending which seems to segue into a sequel.  It is written in a pretty unique voice (with undertones of other mafia and hospital stories) with lots of temporal distortion (and roller-coaster reveals) and is a fast, fun read.

I have a doctor friend who I immediately thought would like to read it next, though three or four other friends come to mind as well.  I guess that means I am recommending this for those who would like a light, entertaining read. 

This novel had a lot of buzz so I nabbed it in paperback when Amazon had it on sale, read it quickly, and am eager to pass it on.  

Monday, February 28, 2011

#9: Gasping for Airtime by Jay Mohr

Comedian Jay Mohr spent two tumultuous years on "Saturday Night Live" and lets it all hang out in Gasping for Airtime.

Like a lot of people, I suspect, I don't remember Mohr being on the program, but part of that might have been that it was one of those up-and-down periods when I wasn't watching SNL regularly.  But you don't have to have been a regular viewer during this time period to appreciate his vivid depictions of cutthroat backstage politics and "kill or be killed" colleagues, as well as his unexpurgated views on various celebrities that passed through the doors.

Mohr doesn't let himself off the hook much either and displays his own shortcomings, warts and all.

Curiously, I came across this book shortly after reading The Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman, which covers a lot of the same period in SNL history with equally hair-raising frankness.  Both books are also pretty funny and fairly slight.

I borrowed this from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond Indiana and found it very readable.  Enjoyable for fans of "Saturday Night Live" especially.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

#8: The Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

In a post-apocalyptic future, the world has come under the rule of a rigid, moralistic system of rules and regulations; but a man who produces morality plays for television begins to act out in interesting ways in Philip K. Dick's The Man Who Japed.

This is an early, minor work of Dick's from the late 1950s, but features most of his long-running themes, including flailing marriages, dead-end jobs, and a young woman who galvanizes the main character into action.  But although it is far more straightforward (and thus less psychedelic) than his later works, I still found it enjoyable.

I am a huge fan of Philip K. Dick and, knowing that his output is finite, have been doling out reading his books a little at a time even as I am compelled to finish them all at one go.  I enjoyed this one and believe fans would as well.

I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Public Library in Richmond Indiana and read it at a good clip.

Monday, February 21, 2011

#7: The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte

A former war photographer has isolated himself in a lighthouse on the Spanish coast, painting a giant mural; soon he is joined by a former soldier who was the subject of one of his most famous photographs and now wants to kill him.  Their conversations about life, death, war, art and love make up the center of Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles.

Although the description makes it sound as if the novel has the barest wisp of a plot, it is a dense, cerebral novel with rewards for the patient (including a surprising, chilling ending).  I am more familiar with Perez-Reverte as the author of the swashbuckling Captain Alatriste series and the memorable, whacked-out The Club Dumas (filmed as The Ninth Gate).  This book is a departure from what I have read into a more literary bent but is quite a good read.

I borrowed this from my wife to read along with a class she is teaching and enjoyed it tremendously.  Recommended. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

#6: The Skeleton Coast Contract by Philip Atlee

Joe Gall, The Nullifier, heads off to Africa to keep a priceless stash of diamonds from Commie hands in Philip Atlee's The Skeleton Coast Contract.

I have read a handful of Atlee's Joe Gall books, featuring a swinging, politically incorrect spy protecting America's interests from the Red Menace.  Like Edward Aarons, Atlee was a prolific paperback writer who should probably receive more attention by contemporary readers.  Unlike Aarons, Atlee's Joe Gall is a little funnier and full of opinions that politely can be called a product of their time.

The Skeleton Coast Contract reads a bit more like a Men's Adventure style book than some of the other entries, with Gall left for dead in the desert and later buried up to his neck and set upon by flesh-eating ants  (though he doesn't wander so far afield that he forgets to leave time for bedding and boozing).

I had about tapped out my Joe Gall collection when I found a surprising handful at a used bookstore.  This entry is from the early 60s, from where I have mined some fresher Atlee novels, and I enjoyed this one quite a bit and read it quickly.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

#5: The Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman

Comedian Sarah Silverman pens The Bedwetter, a slight, scattershot autobiography full of her expected gross-out humor.

I have enjoyed Sarah Silverman's television show and was curious what she would have to say in an autobiography penned not halfway through her expected life.  I liked the sections about her career, including a very brief stint on Saturday Night Live and the "behind the scenes" of her show, as well as a long piece on her upbringing as a lone Jew among the blondes of New Hampshire.

I could have done without all of the attempts to shock and felt that, in curious contrast, despite appearances to the contrary the book was not nearly as frank as I expected (as an example, her parents divorce abruptly with no commentary, and her love life is skimmed over).  She spends a lot of time defending the various controversies she has been a part of, seeming at times remarkably thin-skinned considering her material.

I think I enjoyed the book more because I listened to the audiobook version, read by Silverman herself, which I felt lended more interest.  The Bedwetter was an enjoyable enough read but will undoubtedly be more warmly welcomed by fans.

I checked this out from the Morrison-Reeves Library in Richmond Indiana and consumed it quickly.

Friday, February 4, 2011

#4: The Devil's Star by Joe Nesbo

Harry Hole is a brilliant cop who fights alcoholism and other personal demons; Tom Waaler is his partner, the ace detective in the Oslo police force.  But Hole also believes Waaler is the murderous crime lord Prince, although nobody else believes him.  In a blazing Norwegian summer, these two cops must team up to find a serial killer in Jo Nesbo's The Devil's Star.

Nesbo's first Harry Hole novel translated into English, The Redbreast, is one of my favorites from the large spate of Scandinavian mysteries that have landed on these shores in recent years.  I thought the second in the series, Nemesis, was good but not up to the first one; but The Devil's Star is close, a dark, delirious crime drama chock full of odd characters and colorful writing.  I think Nesbo compares favorably to one of my other must-read crime novelists, Michael Connelly, although Nesbo does not have the body of work yet. 

For better or worse, Nesbo writes in a more American style with plenty of action, and doesn't often dwell in the gloom and doom of his Scandinavian brethren.  Nesbo also injects a lot of quirky humor, a welcome respite from these frequently wintry novels.

I was pleased to find Nesbo's latest at the Morrison-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it at a good clip over several snowed-in days.  Recommended.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

#3: Assignment Sulu Sea by Edward S. Aarons

Sam Durrell goes hunting for a missing American sub in Assignment Sulu Sea, a 1964 entry in Edward S. Aaron's stalwart "Assignment" spy series.

Sulu Sea is a sober adventure set against a colorful background as Durrell hops islands throughout the Pacific, facing off against a Chinese warlord and getting involved in regional political intrigue along the way.  Durrell is so focused on making sure the nuclear sub doesn't fall into Red Chinese hands that he doesn't even bed the several beauties that cross his path, a change from his usual method of operation.  Durrell also has a crisis of conscience at the end that speaks to the Cold War fears of the time.

Otherwise it's business as usual for Durrell, and although this wasn't my favorite of the batch of these I have read, it is still a solid outing and comparable to many better-known authors and titles of the era.

I snagged a bunch of these off of ebay some time ago and have worked through them steadily.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

#2: Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason

Morose Reykjavik cop Erlendur becomes fascinated with a depressed woman's suicide as tragedies in his own past resonate, ending with him taking up an unofficial investigation that uncovers more family trauma in Arnaldur Indridason's Hypothermia, part of his long-running police procedural series set in Iceland.

This is one of my favorite authors in the spate of gloomy Scandinavian imports that have reached these shores in recent years.  Each novel features great characters that grow and change along with complex crime drama.  The philosophical underpinnings of most of the mystery novels from Scandinavia offer a welcome change of pace from American crime fare.  And it's not often you see a U.S. detective/protagonist tuck into a boiled sheep's head in jam.

The dead of winter probably wasn't the ideal time to pick up Indridason's latest, but when I see the newest one on the shelf I can't resist.  This series starts with Jar City, recently made into a movie, and all entries so far come recommended.  I thought this one was perhaps the best yet.

I borrowed this book from the Morrison-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana, and read it at a good clip.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

#1: Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan

I started 2011 with a book I wasn't quite finished with in 2010, and though I wanted to end with a bang I will start with one instead.

Prince of Thieves is a tough crime novel featuring a recovering alcoholic trying to give up his working-class Boston neighborhood and all its dangerous attractions, including a lucrative side job leading a bank robbery gang.  When he is lovestruck by a bank teller during a heist, all the threads start to come unraveled as the novel rockets to a noirish finale.

I picked this one up from when I heard about The Town, the Ben Affleck film based on the book, and had an eagerness to consume both.  I could quickly see why Affleck wanted to adapt the book as it features a lot of his sensibilities (as seen in Good Will Hunting and other places).  The movie is decent, but the novel is far richer as is often the case (and diverges significantly from the movie in critical places).

I had been looking for more Chuck Hogan since reading The Strain, his collaboration with Guillermo Del Toro, and enjoyed this quite a bit, recommending it to several other readers.