Friday, August 31, 2012

Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder

Hanging Hill

I had never read anything by Mo Hayder before, though I had seen the name. I had always thought the author was a man. Hayder is a mystery writer who earns one-word endorsements from other mystery writers: “Stunning,” “Haunting,” “Disturbing,” “Terrifying.” All of these could apply to Hanging Hill. What struck me, however, was the size and complexity of the vision—she doesn’t implicate just one policeman, nor find just one psychopath—there are several. Evil swirls all around us, every day. And each of us has the capacity for the most heinous crimes.

This is not exactly reassuring, which is why her novels have earned description as “the most terrifying crime thrillers you will ever read.” If this latest novel represents her skills, I have to admit I found it terrifying that so many ordinary-seeming people (including government officials and law enforcement) were implicated by the end. There seems no end to the deceit and criminality.

Willing as I am to suspend disbelief when it comes to novels, however, there were many places I could point to that did not add up. But I am not going to do that here, since I believe Hayder’s books speak for themselves. People want to be scared when they open her big books. I can imagine someone buying a new book of hers along with a bottle of plonk and a bag of chips and sinking down alone on the couch for a weekend of blissful terror.

Usually I can summarize the main theme of a book in one line, but it is especially difficult with this book. Suffice it to say a beautiful young woman turns up strangled along a canal tow-path and this story seeks to find that killer but finds many others as well. We go ‘round and ‘round with suspects, and it turns out each of them is hiding something. I’d love to see what Stephen King says of Mo Hayder.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero

The Neruda Case: A Novel

Chile. The 1970s. The beloved but flawed Allende government falls to the infamously repressive Pinochet government. But just before this, Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet-in-residence, tasks Cayetano BrulĂ©, Cuban exile, to find an early lover…to see if the child she bears shortly after their Mexican love affair is indeed Neruda's own. This 2012 translation of a work published in 2008 gives us an intimate, if fictional, portrait of Pablo Neruda. Author Ampuero, in an afterword to the novel, speaks of his idolization of the artist in Santiago as a child, which grew into a fascination with Neruda’s life. Ampuero wanted to show Neruda as he was—a complicated man of great contradictions.

I favor a nuanced view of great artists and leaders. Ian McEwan wrote of a fictional Nobel Prize-winning scientist in Solar, and managed the nuance mixed with much ribaldry but did not base his work on just one man.

An interview with Ampuero in the online magazine The Daily Beast states that Neruda was in fact a serial monogamist, just as he is depicted in the novel. Neruda actually had, and left, three or four wives. I think it is safe to assume that a man who can write movingly about love has experienced it in spades. Great men often have great appetites. Ampuero wanted to show the man as he was, not just as he is imagined to be.

My interest in this novel is the South American-ness of it: the point of view, the seasons, the food, the language. The literature and music spoken of in the book, for whatever reason, is generally what Europeans and North Americans were reading or listening to at the time. Occasionally Ampuero speaks of bolero and carimba, but as now when we read of detectives based in Europe or Africa, oftentimes they are listening to something America or Europe has produced.

Towards the end of this novel, my mind began to wander. I wanted things to progress faster, but I think Ampuero was intent on placing Neruda’s life in its historical context. Perhaps it is my forward American womanhood contrasting with the slow seduction of Ampuero's Latin American maleness that was slightly out of sync--able to enjoy the dance, but not fully relax. Despite my impatience with the slow unfolding of the mystery, I appreciated the fullness of the story by the end. I read elsewhere that there are five books in the Detective Cayetano BrulĂ© series, of which this is not the first. Ampuero apparently now works out of the University of Iowa, where he attended the Iowa Workshop.

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3 to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Three to Kill

I so love this book. Originally published in 1976 and republished by City Light Books of San Francisco in 2002, it seems the blueprint for some of the best cinema of the past twenty years. It has the unmistakable tongue-in-cheek wildly casual violence of a Quentin Tarantino film like Get Shorty but does it with such savoir faire that one knows this author is a true original. I note the author died a young man in 1995, but he wrote for the cinema also and indeed many scenes in this delightfully concise crime novel seem to contain their own stage direction.

A successful, disdainful sales executive finds himself first to the scene of a car wreck, and having delivered the injured motorist to the hospital, finds himself pursued by hitmen.

It was such a relief to find myself in the hands of a master after a string of effortful new novels: slightly over 100 pages in length, it offers more delight than many do with three times the length. This is as much a classic as a Dashiell Hammett mystery and one hopes and expects Manchette is better known in France than he is abroad.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Probably by now readers have heard of Tana French, who writes crime mysteries based in Ireland. She has a couple of psychological dramas out there already, like In the Woods and The Likeness. This novel, it seemed to me, exceeds her previous books. She has given us several crimes this time, revolving around a triple murder. There is lots of crazy…crazy that seeps up around everyone’s ankles and slowly, slowly comes up around their noses, threatening to drown the whole lot…detectives and suspects alike.

I listened to this on audio, published by Recorded Books, read by Stephen Hogan. The novel is in the voice of “Scorcher” Kennedy, who gets this major case after a long period working on smaller things. At the beginning he sounds ready, but when his family situation and the case converge and threaten to sink him, he reaches out to save himself.

Broken Harbor has been renamed “Brianstown” when, before the financial downturn, a large new housing development is created out on a strip of land so remote that people feel unmoored, even before the crash forced the builder to pull out. The few sold houses sit amid a ghost community, with unfinished foundations, rusting heavy equipment, and empty, unsold homes. The chilling truth is that this is the largest crime, the theft of lives long before a knife leaves them bloody on the kitchen floor.

Great story.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras


This is not a book to read when one is in a hurry. If you have a stack of things to “get through” and want to check this off the list, I urge you to put it aside until you have time to savor the language, and remember the languorous time of childhood when small realities intrude upon days of fantasy and play.

The time is Argentina in the 1970’s, when political disappearances are common. A new government has taken over from the Peron government and suddenly opponents of the new government find themselves unemployed, ostracized, pursued. A family senses danger closing in and escapes to a borrowed quintas, or summer house, outside of Buenos Aires to wait out the repression. But time is not on their side.

The language is simple and beautiful, and the story is told in the voice a young boy who only occasionally glimpses the real world around him. The buildup of tension is almost imperceptible. The parents tried to act normal, and the boys, aged 5 and 10, felt but did not understand the undertow of tension and uncertainty.

This would be an excellent book for young adult readers, for much of the book is seen through the eyes of a child, and is immediately accessible to teens. The descriptions of the countryside and of the actions of the parents ring true and yet there is always some bigger mystery hidden in each of the short chapters. It would be an excellent addition to a history lesson on South America or Argentina.

Some may know of the book from the 2002 movie of the same title.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River

For years I’d wanted to have a go at reading this, and when Grenville was again nominated for an Australian Prime Minister’s Award for Sarah Thornhill, the third book in the trilogy of which The Secret River is the first, I finally decided to begin at the beginning. This novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and won numerous other awards when it came out, for good reason. It is old-time storytelling, whose characters who begin life poor and grubby on the streets of London early in the nineteenth century, get “sent down” to Australia in a convict ship, earn their freedom, and scratch out an existence in that unholy land.

Grenville’s descriptions give us the crammed, cold, crooked, cobbled streets of London grimy with cold dust. She contrasts this with the dry heat of Australia, blazing with sun, and the wide open, unsettled (and unsettling) bigness of it. The Australian Aborigine is caught to perfection in her words…the thinness, the looseness of limbs, the blackness, the brows, the teeth, the joy, the dignity and fierceness. Her language is Dickensian, her story that of Australia.

Parts of this book are difficult to read, they seem so cruel. That man is a fearful and fearsome creature, we know. It is just painful to see ourselves through that glass so darkly reflected. I can hardly recommend this title enough. I have loved the writing of Kate Grenville forever, it seems. She has the potential for greatness, and while some of her books may not quite reach that level, this one does. I listened to this book on Blackstone Audio, narrated by the excellent Simon Vance.

For those who come away from this book with that breathless sense of needing to know how she did that, she has written a memoir about writing the novel called Searching For The Secret River: A Writing Memoir. I believe it took her as long to come down from writing it as it will take us to absorb it. I look forward to enjoying her skills again.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

This very long, very dark, and highly imaginative work by Adam Johnson forces upon the reader a series of distasteful sensations, only a few of which are horror, fury, hatred, injustice, and revenge. But by the end, one also experiences hope, compassion, sincerity, integrity, and love. Thoughts surface, submerge, roil in the mind during the days spent reading this huge novel, leaving one as drained and unsettled after a session with it as if one had “eaten bitterness.” Welcome to North Korea. If you’ve ever wondered, this is one man’s take.

Much has been written of Johnson’s seven years constructing this story. He had done research, and in several interviews pointed to memoirs of escapees, like The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and one recently published by Penguin, called Escape from Camp 14. Johnson undoubtedly used news reports to reimagine the visits of western envoys as part of his story, but the blackness central to the society was difficult for me to believe. However, in one interview published in the Paris Review, Johnson denies he showed us the real blackness: “…I had to leave much of the darkness out of my book. The real darkness of the gulag there was so bleak that I had to cut it out. You couldn’t read it.” It is just as well, then, for this book was quite black enough to leave one feeling untethered.

The novel is broken into two parts. The first half tells of a young man growing up and finding his way in a society that seems confusing and dangerous: innocuous behaviors have consequences that are out of proportion to their intent. It is difficult to read this half of the novel. I am not enamored of character-as-victim when the consequences are so dire.

Relief comes immediately in the second half of the book, when we perceive a shift in the balance of power, from state authority to the citizenry. The young man of Part I, Jun Do (perhaps “John Doe”), decides to he will write his own obituary and becomes an actor rather than merely acted upon. We are told of this change in the power ratio in an ingenious series of flashbacks as he is being interrogated over a period of time. The interrogator is the voice in this section of the novel, and we see the power of Jun Do’s non-confession on his listeners.

I think, perhaps, only an American could have written this book. A novel of the same subject written by a European may be more philosophical, literary, and well…sad. This is literature, but it is brash, brazen, curious, and a little like America’s pop culture: the hero molds his own story and puts it right out there for everyone’s delectation. He doesn’t lie, but he spins the truth, and keeps on spinning to the end. The story is also a remake of that American classic film, Casablanca, in which the hero with a great love for a dame allows her to escape to freedom while he deals with the demons that would hold her captive.

I am not going to deny the first part of this book was difficult and agonizing for me to read, but I urge readers not to forsake the book before you reach the middle if you are at all interested in the subject. In Part Two we finally see a man rather than a victim and the character of the book changes completely after this break. It is fiction in the form of a prison diary. If you’ve ever read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, or Elie Wiesel’s Night, you will remember how riveting books of desperation and depravation can be.

And yes, I did order Escape from Camp 14 to read after this. I want to see how much parallels what Johnson created, and because one’s palate for ordinary fiction is rather spoiled after such a book as this. Sometimes great literature demands more of us. While I am not ready to place this in the “greats” file yet, it is big, brave, unblinking. Johnson has a unique voice that cannot be mistaken for another. He brings to us news of the condition of people in North Korea, an issue we need to examine.

An interview of Adam Johnson by Charlie Rose about this book can be viewed here.

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

As You Were: The Tragedy at Valcartier by Gerry Fostaty

The strange and haunting story of the tragedy at the summer cadet camp in Valcartier, Quebec continues to plague the families whose men and boys were involved, 38 years after the events there took place. Imagine the indolence of deep Canadian summer in 1974, when 13- to 15-year-old boys gather at cadet camp to learn to discipline, obedience, and the manly arts. On a routine rainy day, while the boys are learning the dangers of unexploded ordnance by viewing dummy ammunition in a barrack, a live grenade detonated, killing or injuring 60.

A mistake, a carelessness compounded again and again over a period of days, led the live grenade to be placed in a box of dummies. The instructor was not responsible for the disaster and indeed was himself injured in the explosion. A series of unfulfilled transfers from a live demonstration led a box of live ammunition and a box of dummies to be placed side-by-side in the back of the same truck.

The lives of hundreds of people were directly or indirectly altered by events that day, and one cannot help but look with scalded eye at the army handling of the moment and the aftermath. The leadership of armies the world over are slowly becoming aware that their ranks are people, too, who can be as great or as lax as the organization that feeds them. But they can also be injured deeply in psychological ways that do not appear to be wounds. While the Canadian Army is not perceptibly different from any other national service, they did their staff, cadets, and their families a disservice that summer of 1974 by ignoring if not suppressing news of that event. They can do better.

The Army leadership could start by making Fostaty’s recounting of the story required reading. It would be an excellent teaching tool for Army staff and a kernel for discussion. The errors of that day, whether of action, of inaction, or of judgment, do not need to be compounded now by ignoring attempts to come to terms with the event’s effects. Fostaty reconstructs events of that fateful summer in narrative form, using the army’s own investigation results and recounts in dispassionate tones recurrent nightmares over a period of nearly forty years. He was a good soldier then--good enough to teach cadets--and he is a good soldier now. He raises valid points that the Army organization might heed.

Errors of this magnitude can be only tragedies if they are ignored or repeated, but if they improve performance or change poor management, they can also be stepping stones to betterment. It is time now to look hard at events that summer, to celebrate the lives of staff and cadets killed or injured on duty in peacetime, and to move forward as better soldiers, in a better organization.

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