Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Love Now

SOLDI sing...Ten thousandsweet nothingsnever whispered in your ear....And time has wings...Say it now....In sidewalk chalk colors....LOVE.....Over and Over Again...LOVE...Love may last forever, but these moments do notThey keep coming and going, each one faster than the one beforeten til two in the morning, two past ten at nightI Love Youso while the world around me lays asleepI creep out into

Read 'Hit and Run' for Fun--Just Don't Think Too Much

Review of HIT AND RUN (William Morrow 2008)
Lawrence Block

HIT AND RUN is one of those books where it's best not to know too much about the story before you start. So I'll limit the description to what was on the book jacket and just enough more so that, hopefully, my comments will make some kind of sense.

John Paul Keller, the "hero" of our story, is a professional hit man. Keller is right on the verge of retiring when he's called upon to perform one last job--whacking some guy in Des Moines, Iowa. Keller reports for duty in Des Moines only to be repeatedly put on hold. While Keller indulges himself in buying some stamps for his collection (a long-time hobby), someone puts the hit on the governor of Ohio--the first black governor of Ohio, at that, who happens to be
visiting Des Moines. He's also a likely presidential contender and the media are treating the incident as something akin to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Keller had nothing to do with it--he was busy buying stamps at the time. Yet, later, when he turns on the news, guess who's been fingered by parties unknown as the suspected gunman? Yes, it's Keller. And the ostensible last job? Nothing but a way to lure Keller to Des Moines, part of an elaborate ruse to set him up. Now his face is being splashed across TV sets and front pages everywhere. And Keller can't seem to reach his trusty assistant, Dot (the woman who acts as both his business manager and sole confidant). What's a hired gun to do? Where can he go? How did this happen to him?

All good questions that really hook you into the story, after what seems like a leisurely start. As to the first and second questions, when Keller did run, I found myself asking "Why are you going there?" at least 50 pages before he realized the folly of it, which for all his thoughtfulness (and Keller is constantly thinking, reasoning things out) seemed odd. Even so, Lawrence Block is a master storyteller and manages to keep things highly suspenseful and occasionally amusing, even as Keller is doing something that doesn't make much sense.

Essentially, Keller races to a place he thinks will be safe, only to have the rug of his life pulled out from under him. From that point, he lives in constant motion and fear of being identified, with little to sustain him other than his wits--and a few unfortunate (and somewhat convenient) souls from whom he's able to steal various handy things--a credit card here, a license plate there and so on.

Keller winds up in a situation that gives the story a dramatic turn (to say the least)--a "safe" situation with a person who apparently can accept his former hit man ways with little problem. (Keller does this person an amazing kindness, but his past seems to be accepted a bit too easily and I found it kind of a stretch to believe.) At that point, the story goes from "Keller, Run" to "Keller at Rest" (to invoke a bit of John Updike). And things get a bit leisurely again, so I'm figuring something has to happen to shake them up. And
eventually something does. According to the story, it doesn't happen for three and a half years (though the narrative doesn't really capture the feeling of this much time passing), and when it does, things take yet another turn. And the story--well, read it and you'll see.

With respect to the third question--"How did this happen to him?" or "Why was Keller set up?"--the explanation seemed thin and unconvincing to me. Surely, I thought, someone must have it in for Keller, to go to all this trouble to implicate him in a killing he didn't commit. But the reasons for setting Keller up appear to be only that he was a handy hit man, and the reasons why the person behind it all would wish to assassinate the governor of Ohio (let alone go to such lengths to pin it on Keller) are never explained at all.

The book could also have benefited from a closer edit. At one point, Keller is dropped at an airport, presumably to head back to Des Moines. In the next chapter, he's in some unidentified city, but not Des Moines, because in the chapter after that he finally flies to Des Moines. What's up with that?

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed HIT AND RUN. I love Block's fast-paced style and his humor. The only other Keller story I've read was a novella from the collection TRANSGRESSIONS. And, even though enough of Keller's history was explained to make sense of this story without reading the ones before it, something tells me it would have been more satisfying if I'd read the others first.

I noticed in the editorial blurbs on Amazon that the Charlotte Observer called HIT AND RUN
"[a] great beach read." Which sounds like a nice way of saying, enjoy the ride--just don't think about it too much.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boy, Girl, Immigrant, American, Who Knew, is Theme in 'Middlesex'

Review of MIDDLESEX (Macmillan Audio 2004)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

Author, Jeffrey Eugenides; read by Kristoffer Tabori

Even though Oprah recommended this book and it won a Pulitzer Prize, I liked it.

Turns out, the narrator of this gender bender family epic, Calliope Stephanides, later to become Cal, knew a lot about his family. This even led me to ask my sister if she remembers much anyone told us about our grandparents—we only had snatches, not an epic journey that carried them from Greece, to Turkey, to Detroit, to destiny itself, like Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides.

But they carry a secret under the surface and one that was to wrench Calliope/Cal’s life in a new direction at age 16.

This book is sometimes in the third person, sometimes the first person, but Jeffrey Eugenides does it seamlessly. It rollicks along, by turns fascinating, funny, and horrifying, as read by Kristoffer Tabori, a grumbly, dignified sort who does not overact the accents.

I confess I liked the first half better than the second. The story of Desdemona and Lefty’s escape from Greece prior to World War I was glorious and weirdly romantic and touching (there’s that “secret” again).

The one thing hanging fire was why Cal’s brother is named Chapter Eleven, apparently not a nickname and never explained. People were plunging up and down in the Depression melting pot, but no businesses went under around the time of the tot’s birth. Just quirky to be quirky, I concluded. The title, too, Middlesex, is an arch pun—their house is named that, but it could also refer to . . . the not-so-secret secret.

Do you ever stop to think what chromosomes lurk in your innards and link you down the ages to those who came before? And which—don’t forget—you are blithely squirting into your own kids? I never gave it much thought, either, not that we can do much about it. But this book made me think . . . opa . . . and feel like dancing.

Star Lawrence owns the health humor site Health’s Ass at http://healthsass.blogspot.com. She can be reached at jkellaw@aol.com.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays!

What a great time to relax, sit by the fire and read a book. And if you're not lucky enough to have a real fireplace, here's a virtual one.

Did anyone get any interesting books for Christmas (or any other holiday of choice)? I got two: HOSTILE WITNESS by Douglas Anne Munson (aka Mercedes Lambert) and THREE CUPS OF TEA by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. I'm looking forward to reading both.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Non-Fiction Recommendations from Zen Habits

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I do like to mix it in with my fiction reading from time to time. This list of "20 amazing and essential non-fiction books" from one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits, includes some intriguing picks.

I've been told THE ART OF HAPPINESS is a good one and have been wanting to read it for some time. The first three books on the list all have catchy titles (and I could stand to learn more about handling my money, living in the moment and simplifying my life).

A book called THE 4-HOUR WORKWEEK sounds too good to be true--but, again, I've heard good things about it. And then you have classics, like THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE, TAO TE CHING, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE and, of course, Strunk and White's ELEMENTS OF STYLE (which I read so many years ago, I could really stand to read it again).

As one who enjoys history (and alternative views), I think I could get into A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. And DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF sounds like wonderful advice--perhaps it is an equally wonderful book.

On the whole, an interesting list of non-fiction reads.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Random Reading

If the economic crisis is good for one thing, it's to get more people back to the library. I feel good about this as a librarian (by training) and a lover of libraries. I feel bad for the booksellers, who must compete for precious dollars from book sales. I have mixed feelings as an author, who can promote myself and my books through the library, but who may suffer in the sales department as a result.

I think too much.

Regarding this item, I will only say, "How pathetic."

Finally, I've never been in a book club and maybe this is why.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Accidental Peace, Singleton Hippie Art

Accidental Peace(c) Singleton 2008And thereat the river house,barefeet danglingthrough white washed railings,watching theno~traffic morning go by....I found peace...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ancient Rome's Answer to Columbo Takes a Road Trip to Greece in 'See Delphi and Die'

Review of SEE DELPHI AND DIE (BBC Audiobooks 2006)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

Author, Lindsey Davis; read by Christian Rodska

Sure, you would like to swan over to Greece and ruminate among the ruins, but did you know Romans a la 76 AD also joined organized tours and traipsed about ogling the sights that had already been created up to that date?

In this tongue-in-cheek detective yarn, one of a popular franchise, the snark-in-charge is Marcus Didius Falco, an emissary of the Emperor Vespasian. Falco gets involved in solving the murders of two young women who had taken Seven Sights Tour Company trips to Greece. He speaks a wry Cockney-tinged English, not Latin. He wears a cloak not a raincoat and is no loner, dragging along an entourage consisting of his diplomatic wife Helene and some nephews, a freed slave woman, and even his dog, who though of the nondiscriminating tastes typical of canines, does disdain some of the disgusting pits the tour company books them into. At the better places, Falco quips, the bedbugs went to charm school.

Falco is, by turns, very droll and then agog at the fabulous sights our ancients—his contemporaries—had already created. Man, the temples and oracles were lousy on the ground in those days! Playing good Roman/bad Roman with his wife, Falco tries to get the impressions of others on the tour with one of the young women. Instead, the tour participants give him an earful about the tour company's arrangements, at one point the women outraged that they had to go to some poetry event. The poets "were thick as midges" and spouted bad odes, they grumped.

SEE DELPHI AND DIE is funny. Humans are humans, I guess, no matter which millennium. There is one "tourist trap" where sick people can sleep in a town near some sacred site, while dogs and snakes circulate among the cots. If you dream of a dog or snake licking you, you get better. The man relating this tale said he went it one better and got bitten by one of the dogs—but a snake must have licked it, he notes, because it cleared up. They all laugh sheepishly. Won’t be seeing those drachmas again.

In the course of these travels and travails, of course, more people die, one falling off a cliff. The malefactor kicked Falco's dog first, which caused me great consternation. Any book with a dog—I am in!

The narrator Christian Rodska does not pretend to be Italian or speak Latin, but his little mumbled asides are choice, along the lines of early versions of “Yeah, sure, I bet” or one I particularly liked: “Irony is so useful.”

Anyhow—listen to SEE DELPHI AND DIE and if a snake licks you, you are going to "have a nice day." Assuming you live to see it.

Star Lawrence owns the health humor site Health’s Ass at http://healthsass.blogspot.com. She can be reached at jkellaw@aol.com.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

'An Accidental American' is an Awesome Spy Thriller

Review of AN ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN (Random House Trade Paperbacks 2007)
Author, Alex Carr

Some genres are automatically associated with certain authors. If I say "tough private eye novel," several names might come to mind--Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker, Dashiell Hammett or Sara Paretsky, to name a few. If I say "Western," you might think of Zane Grey or Louis L'Amour. But if I say "spy novel," most people are bound to think of one author in particular--John LeCarre. (Ian Fleming doesn't count--he wrote adventure/fantasy novels with a spy protagonist, not the complex works infused with moral ambiguity that are modern spy novels.)

From now on, when I hear "spy novel," I'll also think of Alex Carr.

AN ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN is about Nicole Blake, who's trying to live a quiet life on a mountain farm in France after doing time for counterfeiting in a women's prison in Marseille. Her contented existence is disrupted by the appearance of John Valsamis, a U.S. intelligence operative who wants Nicole to find her former lover, Rahim Ali, because he's believed to be a terrorist. With a few photos of terrorist bombing victims (and one of Ali meeting with a known terrorist), Valsamis persuades Nicole to help him. But, of course, Valsamis is not telling her everything--and Nicole is going to find that out the hard way.

I've never been one for highly-descriptive prose, but this book gave me a new appreciation for good description and how it can be used to set a book's tone and create almost unbearable suspense at times.
I also particularly liked the non-linear narrative, which shifted perspectives in a kaleidoscopic manner and moved back and forth in time (once or twice, I got confused--for the most part, it was smoothly executed). Carr's storytelling skills are exemplary--the various pieces of the narrative are layered on like brush strokes until the whole picture finally emerges. The story manages to provide fascinating character studies and be an engrossing page-turner--packed with the kind of double- and triple-crosses we've come to expect from the spy genre (not to mention the unearthing of long-buried family secrets).

Most of the story is told in third person--with the exception of Nicole's part, told in first person (a device that makes us identify with her all the more). And, though the "bad guys" are anything but lovable, they aren't caricatures--in fact, they're all too human.

Apart from flashbacks, the action takes place shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq following 9/11 (mention is made of Colin Powell's speech to the U.N. Security Council, WMDs, etc.) and the story skillfully combines history (both recent and not-so-recent) with fiction--a process Carr discusses in a postscript.

So, when you think "spy novel," think of Alex Carr. I hope this book will be
only one of many to make her an icon of the genre.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Guide to Buying Gift Books and More

Books make a great gift--but what books do you buy as gifts? Sometimes it's hard to gauge exactly what book to get for whom on your gift list. Well, don't sweat it--Michael Dirda has written a handy guide to buying gift books that I thought I'd share. (I especially like his advice about supporting midlist authors--so many midlist authors are super-talented and under-appreciated.)

And, under the heading of "more," I have a most interesting article about the odd goings-on at Jane Austen's House Museum. (Hat tip to The Reader's Advisor Online.)

Plus (under the heading of "even more"?) it looks like Amazon's Kindle is a big hit. Does this mean e-books are (at last) for real? Are people using their Kindles to read fiction? This last point is one I'm particularly curious about.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Leap of Faith or Two Will Get You Through 'The Fifth Floor'

Review of THE FIFTH FLOOR (Knopf 2008)
Author, Michael Harvey

No question about it Michael Harvey writes with edgy, wry style. THE FIFTH FLOOR is a well-paced story, delivered in clipped, yet highly evocative, prose. And the protagonist, private eye Michael Kelly, has a troubled past (something about a dead woman and getting kicked off the Chicago police force that Harvey may have covered in his first book, THE CHICAGO WAY) and makes all the pithy wisecracks we've come to expect from a guy of his ilk--coming on all tough on the outside, while retaining his essential humanity within.

Harvey also gives you a real feel for Chicago--the place, the people, the politics. (He even mentions The Billy Goat--the greasy spoon lampooned on Saturday Night Live in the "chee-burger, chee-burger" sketch.) The writing is so stylish and goes down so easy that you tend to forgive and forget if the plot gets a little, well, difficult to follow (or, frankly, to swallow).

Kelly is hired by Janet Woods, a woman from his past--they were once romantically involved, but that was long ago and she's married now to Johnny Woods, who's abusing her. Exactly what Janet is hiring Kelly to do is never really spelled out, but he gets her permission to approach Johnny and "talk some sense" into him (whatever that may mean).

So Kelly gets some preliminary intell--finds out Johnny works for the Fifth Floor (of the municipal building, where the mayor has his office) as a "fixer" (and we all know what shady characters those guys are). Kelly follows him to a house and makes a shocking discovery, which leads him to investigate whether the mayor's great grandfather (or maybe it was his great-great grandfather--someone way back there in the family tree) was involved in a conspiracy to start the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

What does this have to do with his client, Janet? Nothing that I could discern. She continues to live with Johnny and take his abuse. Worries that her daughter will end up being his next target. But Kelly is off and running anyway, investigating in land records and historical museums to get to the bottom of a murder that seems to be as much of a shock to Johnny as it is to Kelly . . . and this all helps Janet how? I just don't know.

Kelly's snooping gets the mayor's attention (because he is The Mayor of Chicago and knows all, sort of like Oz the Great and Powerful), and Kelly wonders if the mayor is running scared over word getting out that his ancestor may have caused the historic blaze. (A bit of a stretch, I thought--would the mayor really care? Given his obvious lack of personal involvement, would it really create such a huge scandal? But then, I'm from New York, not Chicago--you ask me, if it came out that the current mayor of The Big Apple's great-great-etc.-grandfather had been personally involved in setting up Tammany Hall, I doubt anyone in the city would blink an eye over it.)

Harvey's style has been compared to Raymond Chandler and rightly so. Like Chandler's work, the book's plot doesn't have to make perfect sense because, through the sheer power of excellent writing, Harvey takes you on such great ride.

One review has described the book's ending as "satisfying and out-of-left-field." I saw it coming a mile away. Some of it involves devices that are a bit too convenient (for instance, during his research, Kelly conveniently meets a young computer hacker who conveniently helps him get some convenient information for solving part of the mystery). What can I say? I still liked the book. Even if it did leave me asking, "Now, why is Kelly doing all this investigating? And how is it helping Janet?"

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

He loves me, He loves me not, Singleton Hippie Art

He loves me...He loves me not...(c) Singleton 2008 SOLDThere in the sunshine,knee high in grassandthe accidental breezeof everythingthat was...I found the flowers...He loves me,He loves me not....And began to weave tomorrows from allthe broken pieces...Watercolors, markers, Ink, melted crayons, and memories on cardboard

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Most Unusual Bookmark

An 18-carat gold bookmark sounds like something you'd get at Tiffany's. But if it really belonged to the person authorities are saying owned it, I doubt that it came from there.

(Hat tip to Hey, There's A Dead Guy in the Living Room.)

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