19 September 2014

Books: Alive in Necropolis By Doug Dorst (2008)

Long time ago, when I spent 18 months living in the Bay Area, one of the joys of that era was making fun of California cities; Berkeley became Bizerkeley because of all the riots is seemed to have at the drop of hat and Colma, a small incorporated town near Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco became Coma. The funny part is that Colma was founded as a necropolis in 1924. With most of Colma's land dedicated to cemeteries, the population of the dead outnumbers the living by over a thousand to one. This has led to it being called, "the city of the silent," and also has given rise to a humorous motto, now recorded on the city's website: "It's great to be alive in Colma."

When I came across the book Alive In Necropolis by Doug Dorst and discovered it was set in Colma and that it’s plot revolved around the dead and the living of that city, I was intrigued. 

But the air was quickly let out my balloon when, as I read, Dorst sort of created a novel where none of the subplots seem to work and never, ever, merge into any cohesive narrative.

The plot revolves around these longtime cemetery for San Francisco, where they’re the resting place of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and aviation pioneer Lincoln Beachey. It is also the home of Michael Mercer, a rookie cop trying to go by the book as he struggles to navigate a new realm of grownup relationships—including a shaky romance with an older woman; a growing alliance with his cocky, charismatic partner, Nick Toronto; fading college friendships; and an aching sense of responsibility for a local rich kid who Mercer rescues from a dangerous prank in the cemetery. But instead of settling comfortably into adult life, Mercer becomes obsessed with the mysterious fate of his predecessor in the police unit, Sergeant Featherstone, who seems to have become confused about whether he was policing the living or the dead. And as Mercer delves deeper into Featherstone’s story, it appears that Mercer’s own sanity is beginning to slip—either that, or Colma’s more famous residents are not resting in peace as they should be.

While Dorst gives us an imaginative premise, he does little with it. While he writes extraordinarily well, he seems to build no tension between the living and the dead. As a matter of fact, the dead leave living alone, which sort of disappointed me. Why build a foundation were the dead and living can mingle, but never have the dead play any sort of perceptible role in the lives of the living and vice versa? Why does Mercer even care then what goes on in this world of the dead where these ghosts can be “killed” even more? 

Why should we? 

Dorst does a great job of writing a noir type comedy, but ultimately by trying to shoehorn a detective novel, a supernatural ghost story, a comedy and the many personal issues of all the characters, the book becomes nothing but a collection of interesting ideas that never amounts to much.

11 September 2014

Books: The Bat By Jo Nesbø (2012 US Edition)

Long before American publishers found a huge success with translating Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy into English, Random House (who seemed to be trying to build on the success of Henning Mankell, another Swedish author who was finding success in the states) began to release Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole (the word is pronounced as two syllables, with stress on the first hoh-leh) detective series into English. Hole, of course, is a brilliant and driven detective with unorthodox methods –the classic loose cannon in the police force. He also has many demons, including being an alcoholic.
But for reasons that seem silly, instead of starting at the beginning, with 1997’s Flaggermusmannen (The Bat), Random House (in 2005) began with Nesbø’s fifth book in his series, 2003’s Marekors (English: The Devil's Star). Then they would bounce back to the third book, 2000’s Rødstrupe (English: The Redbreast, 2006), the fourth book, Sorgenfri published in 2002 with the English translation –Nemesis- in 2008 before releasing the rest of books past the fifth one in order:

Frelseren (2005) (English: The Redeemer, 2009)
Snømannen (2007) (English: The Snowman, 2010)
Panserhjerte (2009) (English: The Leopard, 2011)
Gjenferd (2011) (English: Phantom, 2012)
Politi (2013) (English: Police, 2013)

With each new release, the Nesbø fan base grew.

With his success all but assured here now, in 2012 and 2013, Random House finally got around to releasing the first two books in the Harry Hole series, the after mentioned Flaggermusmannen (The Bat) and Kakerlakkene - released in Norway in 1998- English Cockroaches

As a rule –though I’m unsure why- if I’m going to read a series of books, I have to start with the first one. But I’ll admit it was not until 2012 that I discovered RH had started in the middle of this series. And like a lot of my reading, I also knew it was going to be some time before I got to these books, so I was not worried that I would start reading some later work where he might reference back to a previous case (not yet released here) and be confused. 

So the time has come, and I finally read The Bat

Norwegian police officer Harry Hole is sent to Sydney by the Royal Norwegian Police Directorate to serve as the Norwegian attaché for the Australian police's investigation into the murder of a young female Norwegian B-celebrity, Inger Holter, who was residing in Australia. Harry is introduced to Andrew Kensington, an Australian Aborigine and homicide detective for the Sydney police, his nominal partner in the investigation. Hole is informed that Holter's body was found dashed on coastal rocks just under some cliffs north of the city, and that the police believe that she was raped before her death. However, her body was severely cut during her fall from the cliffs, and any DNA remains from the assailant that would previously have been present are now washed away.

When the team unearths a string of unsolved murders and disappearances, nothing will stop Harry from finding out the truth. The hunt for a serial killer is on, but the murderer will talk only to Harry. 

Harry Hole is a wonderfully crafted character, whom like most detectives of this genre, is a tortured soul. And while we’ve seen the “fish out of water” and “flawed man” motif's many times before, Nesbø seems to have created a highly likeable, very realistic character in Harry. Plus his interaction with other characters, especially the Australian police force, comes off well. 

My only complaint –as with the genre as a whole of the last three decades- is that we don’t see how all the clues add up. In the end, it’s the killer that makes a dumb mistake. And I think Nesbø also stretched credibility a bit by having Kensington know more about the killing than anyone knew, but because of honor (and heritage), could not fully tell Harry what he knew all along. While obviously we would had no book if Kensington told Harry (and his superiors) from the start, I’m unsure if a cop would do such a thing in real life.

I will probably get to Nesbø’s other books eventually –there are ten Harry Hole books out now- but they’ll probably be spanned out in the coming months and –potentially- years.

01 September 2014

Books: The Silkworm By J.K. Rowling Writing As Robert Galbraith (2014)

In The Silkworm, J.K. Rowling’s (writing as Robert Galbraith) follow up to The Cuckoo’s Calling, prickly detective Cormoran Strike is called into investigate the disappearance of an author who was rumored to have written a scathing novel that uses real publishing world folks as characters and revealing secrets most would not like the general public to read about. 

Leonora Quine, the dowdy wife of the novelist Owen Quine, hires Strike find Quine. And at first, no one suspects anything is amiss, as the author has vanished for days before. But Leonora, taking care of her developmentally handicapped child Orlando, realizes that nearly 2 weeks have passed since her husband vanished, but instead of filing a missing persons report, she hires Strike. 

But this is a mystery novel and it’s no surprise to the reader when Quine is discovered dead –by Strike- who has also been gruesomely slaughtered in the exact way a character is killed in the mysterious novel the author was penning, Bombyx Mori.

Now Strike (and his Girl Friday, Robin) must navigate the apparent under belly of the publishing industry, and Rowling seems to take great pleasure in taking pot shots at it. The book comes across as a mystery, of course, and her prose style is brutal and modern as most crime thrillers have become, but it can be seen as a satire of the celebrity tell-all and of the genre itself. 

To me, had the world not discovered that Galbraith was Rowling, this second book might’ve been seen as one authors attempt at showing how difficult it can be to get anything published (although two characters echo one problem that exist today in the book publishing industry –a lot of authors releasing books, but not a lot of people reading them), especially in this time where ebooks and self-publishing are becoming more common than ever before.

Still, as modern a thriller as this is, The Silkworm also comes off as a classic whodunit from the 1950s, which would appeal to more traditional readers of the genre, as we get a gaggle of odd and eccentric characters who all have reason to want Quine dead. Strike even has a friend in the police department who is willing to pass on information (the officer is in debt to Strike for saving him in the Afghanistan war). And yet Robin, his once temporary secretary, is given a bit more to do here, even while she still comes off as little underdeveloped. But while they seem “meant” for each other, their relationship seems to be built on mutual appreciation for each other’s talents they bring to the table.  

It’s well paced and plotted and as brutally honest as Strike can be, it’s also refreshing to read a story where the reader has to question whether they like the main lead or not. And it’s that balancing act that makes Rowling an intriguing writer and Strike an original hero.

25 August 2014

Books: The Likeness By Tana French (2009)

The Likeness is Irish author Tana French’s follow-up to her debut bestseller, In the Woods. While I actually think this is a better novel, it still seems a bit overlong and slow. 

It’s been six months since the events of the previous book and Detective Cassie Maddox is still trying to recover and to put her life right. She has moved out of Murder Squad into the Domestic Violence, and is hoping that this switch will make her life quieter and make her burgeoning relationship with Detective Sam O'Neill go a bit smoother –even if she can’t fully make a commitment to him or her new career.

But in the end, it’s Sam who gets her back involved in a murder case, one involving the stabbing death of a female college student. And while she’s puzzled at first why Sam called her, it becomes clear to Cassie when she sees the girl, her past is about to return in a most unwelcome sort of way. The young dead women’s name is Lexie Madison, which turns out to be a name Cassie used when she was an undercover cop years before joining the Murder Squad. Plus she also bears a striking resemblance to Maddox.

With no leads, no suspects, and no clue to Lexie's real identity, Cassie's old undercover boss, Frank Mackey, spots the opportunity of a lifetime. They can say that the stab wound wasn't fatal and send Cassie undercover in her place to find out information that the police never would and to tempt the killer out of hiding. At first Cassie thinks the idea is crazy, but she is seduced by the prospect of working on a murder investigation again and by the idea of assuming the victim's identity as a graduate student with a cozy group of friends.

As she is drawn into Lexie's world, Cassie realizes that the girl's secrets run deeper than anyone imagined. Her friends are becoming suspicious, Sam has discovered a generations-old feud involving the old house the students live in, and Frank is starting to suspect that Cassie's growing emotional involvement could put the whole investigation at risk.

The first part of the book, and arguably the slowest chunk, details Cassie preparing to go undercover at Whitethorn House, a manor outside Dublin and close to town called Glenskehy (and in most procedural shows these days would be quickly taken care of in a montage scene). The folks who live around the manor and the town don’t like the five people who’ve taken up residence there:  paternal Daniel (who inherited the house from his uncle, who equally was not liked by the folks), handsome Rafe, the oddball Abby, and easily rattled Justin. 

While the books plays out like an elongated episode of the Sarah Michelle Geller series The Ringer married with today’s TV procedural with a dash of Agatha Christie (every one of the four have stereotypical quirks and dark past, they’re also generally unlikeable as well, which is a Christie cliché) added for good measure, it’s dull pace undermines the plot –which while hyper-realistic, still stretches the credibility factor. While French appears to focus more on character development over plot manipulation (there is certainly no surprises here), it could’ve been more successful if The Likeness was a tighter ship –mostly the first hundred pages could’ve been trimmed to a few chapters. 

Still, her prose is strong and you end up liking Cassie more than In the Woods. Her dialogue is strong, and very realistic (I like characters who act like everyday folks instead speaking and doing things like they are characters in a book) and that really saves this book.

11 August 2014

Books: Earthquake Weather By Tim Powers (1997)

Since this is a double sequel to Last Call (1992) and Expiration Date (1996), Earthquake Weather further enmeshes the reader into the multiple genres that make up the unique universe that Tim Powers has superimposed on the real world –many different ethnic folklores, Egyptian mythology, ghost stories,  a bit of nior detective here and there- and mix them up with a bunch of different story threads that somehow get connected towards the end.
Scott Crane (from Last Call) is the Fisher King and has somehow failed his land, allowing a new outbreak of the dreaded phylloxera louse to ravage the vineyards of California. There is not a lot that Crane can do about this, owing to his having been murdered. Worse, he was killed in the wrong way -- that is, not by a potential successor. The possible heir is young Kootie (from Expiration Date) who actually has the requisite unhealing wound in his side. Crane's chief acolyte brings the late King's family and decay-proof corpse in a partly miraculous pick-up truck to the magic consultancy run by Kootie's adoptive parents: Pete, who has Houdini's hands, and Angelica, formerly a psychiatrist and now an initiate into brujeria.

Also along for the ride is Janis Plumtree, who has a cadre of personalities that shifts like the sand in the desert when dealing with the unpleasant knowledge that one of her “voices” actually killed Crane. There’s the c on artist Cody, the nymphomaniac Tiffany, and several more and a ghostly outsider that was the cause of her problems to begin with, her own murderous father. Accompanying Janis is Ed Cochran, whom ever since a strange boyhood epiphany has had a special empathy with viniculture, which will prove to be of immense importance in this story. And then there is Dr Armentrout, a comic, albeit, sinister psychiatrist who has a nasty fondness for ECT or Edison Medicine prior to splitting off and consuming, like those sniffers of ghosts, the disordered parts of his patients' or victims' souls.

While Powers is never boring, the whole effort to resurrect Crane or transfer his rule to Kootie drags and slows the book down (plus, based on the pages left to read, you knew their first attempt was to fail). But even the plot is thin and the characters remain unlikeable as ever. And he spends, from my point of view, investing time in supporting characters and ideas that while creative and interesting, are sort of dropped in with little or no reason. In the end, I found the book plodding and unengaging, which may explain why it took so long for me to get through it.