Reading List – June (Part 1)

June 10th, 2008

This month I’m suffering my first case of writer’s dread ever. It’s not writer’s block because I can write well enough, but I have no way of knowing whether what I’m writing is anything my book actually needs. So I quit, for the first time in my writing career, and staved off a nervous breakdown by reading. Poor you. That means more titles this month. In fact, so many that I’m posting this now and will do another closer to the end of the month.

Since I was essentially reading in self-defense, most of the books I chose were relatively light. If there is someone out there sufficiently misguided to want to know my opinion of an Important Book, all I can say is that life is full of disappointments.

Pale Gray for Guilt and Dress Her In Indigo, John D. McDonald, 4 stars: These were bundled in the single volume Shades of Travis McGee, in which I read The Quick Red Fox, to which I was marginally unkind last month. Someone once said that the most important questions about a civilization are the ones they didn’t ask. Mysteries are particularly interesting historical artifacts because they exist, basically, to answer a single question, Whodunnit?, and many of them pursue that question through a landscape at which the author barely glances, but which, to us — say, forty years later — looks as exotic as Barbie’s Future World. McDonald did question the landscape. He was broadly and critically interested in what he saw as the cheapening and mechanization of American life, the reduction of individuals to bar codes, the domination of corporations for whom consumers were an inconvenience that had to be dealt with only in an emergency. Nobody in the mystery field other than McDonald would have written, in 1965, this prescient sentence: Detroit: we hate our cars. And it’s unfair to suggest, as I think I did last month, that he didn’t question the assumptions surrounding the male/female roles of the time. He loathed promiscuity and meaningless sex, which the hippies were enjoying in prime time right about then, and he was pained by the breakdown of marriage as a lifetime commitment, even if old Travis would no more have married than he would have played Juliet off-Broadway. But let’s face it: Trav’s world is a man’s world. Women are fascinating and complex, but they exist in terms of men. You know how, when the hero and the heroine of a bad horror movie are fleeing from the Formless Gnorf of Evil, you KNOW she’s going to twist her ankle and trip? Well, she might do that in a T. McGee novel, too. And to expect anything else is just plain unfair, just as it’s unfair to accuse Shakespeare of anti-Semitism. We are all, even the most talented of us, creatures of our times. These are crackerjack mysteries, models of construction, with one of American mystery fiction’s most compelling continuing heroes. Okay, he’s hipper than the hippies in Dress Her in Indigo, tougher than grit, and more sensitive than Dr. Phil. He’s a hero, for Christ’s sake. McDonald is one of the great masters, and people will be reading him for as long as they open a book or turn on a Kindle to find out whodunnit. The book in which I read these three novels was used. In fact, it was so used the pages were falling out. I can’t think of a higher compliment.

Amazonia, James Marcus, 4 stars: James Marcus was Employee Number 55 at Amazon.com. A freelance writer, he was hired to fill out the then-fledgling online bookstore’s editorial staff. That’s right, Junior: once Amazon sold nothing but books, and they actually hired people with qualifications to write about them. So Marcus had a ringside seat for the Great Internet Bubble and the Great Internet Splat, and was right down the hall from the first great Internet merchant, Jeff Bezos. He also survived some of Bezos’ less inspired ideas, such as shipping an 800-pound table saw for $4.95 in order to head off an online challenge from Home Depot. The real story here is one of inventing the wheel on a daily basis — Bezos’ slogan was, “Every Day is Day One” — and what happened to that creative imperative as the editors moved out and the MBAs moved in, and the business grew into a much less personal and much more automated entity. For a year or so, Marcus had charge of the Amazon home page, and it gave him a playground where he could sell thousands of copies of fine but obscure books while also helping people who were interested only in paperback romances with Fabio on the cover to find their drug of choice. By and large, this is a cheerful memoir. It describes a world in which the person at the next desk, who had received options for thousands of shares at a dollar a share, might ask you to leave the room for a minute as she placed the call to her broker that would make her a millionaire. And a world in which, even as Amazon took in hundreds of millions a year, Jeff Bezos would sit on the platform in the dunk tank at the company picnic, laughing maniacally as his employees threw balls at the target that would drop him into the water. A really enjoyable read, well-written and generous in spirit. (By the way, the book spends some time on the emergence of Harriet Klausner as Amazon’s Number One Reviewer. Ms. Klausner just gave THE FOURTH WATCHER a really generous review and rated it EXCELLENT, which is her version of “Eleven” on Spinal Tap’s amplifiers.)

Tilt-A-Whirl, Chris Grabenstein, 4 stars: This is the first of Grabenstein’s series featuring tight-lipped, tight-assed Iraq veteran John Ceepak and his quasi-slacker sidekick, Danny Boyle. The two of them are on the police force of Sea Haven, New Jersey, one of the many small oceanside towns that sit somnolently beside the Atlantic nine months a year, waiting for summer, when the population quintuples. In this one, a disagreeable billionaire is murdered in one of the turtle-shaped carriages on the Tilt-a-Whirl ride before the local amusement park opens — shot to death in front of his 12- or 13-year-old daughter. Both Ceepak and Boyle are new to the force — Ceepak’s been offered a job upon his return from Iraq by the police chief, whom he knew in the Army, and Boyle is an unarmed junior cop whose job is to drive Ceepak around, since Ceepak won’t drive, thanks to some incident in Iraq. They catch the killing and run with it, holding onto the reins of the investigation even when the FBI becomes involved. When the dust clears, the story proves to be remarkably (even improbably) complex, and Grabenstein has a whole new landscape for Book Two, which I’m going to start reading tomorrow if I’m not writing by then. This has the earmarks of a terrifically interesting new series, especially if Grabenstein focuses more on his characters, who are fascinating, and less on plot convolutions and reversals. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I run out of steam when a book ends with half a dozen revelations, each of which contradicts the one that went before. I tend to think, Gee, the last one was fine, and how are people feeling? It’s like having an elegant watch that keeps really good time and then one day turning it over and discovering that the back is transparent, and here are all these wheels and cogs that have been moving the pretty little hands around all the time. I’m happier not seeing the wheels and cogs. But this is Grabenstein’s first novel, and it’s a very auspicious beginning to what I think will be a career that gives a lot of people a lot of pleasure.

Empress Orchid, Anchee Min, 4.5 stars: Having done her bit to redeem the infamous Madame Mao (Becoming Madame Mao), Anchee Min turns her sights on one of history’s great female villains, China’s Empress Dowager. The last person to occupy the Dragon Throne in any real sense (her son, Pu Yi, was a puppet of the Japanese), she held together for four decades a much-diminished empire that was being nibbled to death by the European powers and challenged militarily by the long-despised Japanese. Having watched her husband, the Emperor Hsien Feng, dither helplessly while one bite after another was taken out of his country, while the Europeans traded in opium and seized the nation’s ports as trade zones, and the Taiping rebellion raged, the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi turned her back on straightforward dealing and learned to excel at subterfuge. She mastered a Machiavellian mix of false promises, betrayal, and murder to hold the throne, theoretically in the name of her son, although she had no intention of ever stepping aside. Admittedly, this picture of Tzu Hsi was drawn by her enemies, the Europeans and the Communists who eventually took control of the world’s oldest continuous civilization, but it seems safe to say that she was a piece of work. None of this is the story Min chooses to tell. Instead, she focuses on her character’s girlhood, her entrance into the Forbidden City, and her climb through the concubines and the obstacle course created by the eunuchs, into her majesty’s bed. Once there, she becomes not only the mother of his son, the presumptive emperor-to-be, but also a sort of co-ruler; as Hsien Feng’s concentration wanes and his depression increases, she serves less as a wife and secretary, and more as an unappointed imperial minister, authoring and signing decrees. With the emperor’s death, she is thrown into a new maze of intrigue. Although the emperor designated her son to follow him on the throne, there are several power factions wrangling over control of the child and the nation, and every one of them would like to see her dead. Min ends her story when Orchid – the Empress Dowager’s childhood name – has consolidated her power. I have no idea how historically accurate all this is or isn’t, but it’s a compelling novel, beautifully written and paced. Especially impressive is Min’s picture of the world of the Forbidden City, a place of unimaginable luxury and refinement on one hand and, on the other, a place where a former imperial concubine is kept alive in a jar with her arms and legs cut off as an object lesson to the new girls (so to speak), where the most innocuous shared secret can become a death sentence, and where absolute power can be exercised without a moment’s thought or a twinge of mercy. I personally ate it up.

Talking With Serial Killers, Christopher Berry-Dee, Minus 3 stars: A reprehensible book, soft porn for necrophiles. If I were a member of one of the families victimized by the murderers in this book, I’d sue its author for turning the death of my loved one into one of the most cynical bids for cold cash I’ve ever read. I bought the book, which suggests strongly on the cover that some of the century’s most famous sociopaths “tell their own stories” in the expectation that they would do just that, and that somewhere, in one of those conversations, I’d find something I could use — just some snippet of world view or self-justification, something that I could tease into a small part of a character in one of my books. Instead, what I got was a breathless narrative by a man described as “a broadcaster” whose two primary objectives seem to be to claim personal credit for getting someone to admit a killing for which he may not have been tried, and to detail lovingly (behind an attitude of righteous outrage) the horrific crimes these men committed. And who also shares with us such bulletins from the psychological front as this one: an FBI study of serial sexual murderers reveal that “53% of the subjects’ families had a history of psychiatric problems.” No shit, Sherlock. Rather than taking advantage of his interviews with these monsters to get out of the way while they talk, Christopher Berry-Dee can’t wait for his subjects to shut up so he can wade in with the latest tidbit of conventional wisdom, quack science, or Freud-Flam to show us how smart he isn’t. It’s all so hypocritical and insight-free, it’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the interviewees. If I were ever to advocate book burning, I’d use this for kindling.

The Woods, Harlan Coben, 4 stars: No writer I know is better than Harlan Coben at creating a sympathetic, believable character and putting him or her into a situation that seems, on its face, to be impossible. Explaining that situation, complicating it further, and eventually extricating the central character from it, comprises the rest of the book. Of course, that simple description presupposes three things: that the writer can create sympathetic, believable characters; that he (in this case) can come up with a mind-bogglingly impossible situation; and that he can work it out in a way that makes the book feel epoxied to your fingertips. Coben can do all these things with a skill that makes most of the rest of us look like duffers. In The Woods, we meet Paul Copeland, whose sister was one of four kids killed in the woods surrounding their summer camp twenty years before the book begins. Her death, which changed Paul’s life forever, was the work of a killer who went on to kill again and again before he was caught. In the second chapter of the book, Paul is taken to a morgue to identify a body, which he recognizes from a distinctive scar as being the adult version of one of the boys who “died” with his sister that night. From that point on, the landscape Paul thinks he knows best, the landscape of his own life, begins to ripple and shift until it’s unrecognizable. My only quibble with the book is a purely personal preference — as with Tilt-A-Whirl, there are one or two (or three) too many last-minute reversals for me. I’m sure these things are hard as hell to write, and I’m equally sure that there are readers who live for them, but I’m not among them. It’s as though the hand that shoots up from Carrie’s grave at the end of that amazing film turned out to have the fingerprints of John Wilkes Booth, which tells us that the actual murderer was Civil War historian Stephen Ambrose, who was having an affair with Carrie’s mother all along. Or something. But then I’m not particularly fond of fireworks, either, and I think these endings are a kind of literary fireworks, viscerally surprising but low on human interest. Somebody please disagree with me.

Pitching Around Fidel, S.L. Price, 3.5 stars: Since I lack the sports gene, I bought this book against my better judgment, and it turned out to be pretty interesting, if a trifle infuriating. S.L. Price is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and is (or was) an old lefty of the kind I find particularly disconcerting: a knee-jerk lefty. (I find knee-jerk righties disconcerting, too, which is why I’m founding the IXNAYCRAT anti-political party.) This is, as far as I know, the first in-depth look at the Cuban sports machine, which has turned out a statistically improbable number of gold-medal winners in track & field and, of course, baseball. Like many American sports fans, Price is fed up with the American system with its overpaid prima-donna athletes, changing teams at the sound of a quarter hitting the floor, and ruled by bloated bigwallets like New York Yankees obnoxio extemis George Steinbrenner. Much better, Price thought, was the pure amateurism of Cuban sports, where star pitchers lived in the slums like everybody else and walked to the stadium on game day. Worst of all — the demons of the pantheon — were the Cuban athletes such as El Duque, Livan Hernandez, and Rey Ordonez, who defected to pick up the big bucks, leaving behind the workers’ paradise to hang bling around their necks and date supermodels. To Price’s eternal credit, his infatuation with the Cuban system didn’t survive close scrutiny. He discovered a dictatorial bureaucracy where talented athletes were banned for life for knowing or being related to defectors, where players were loaned out to countries such as Nicaragua and Japan to play for money, with all the money going to the state, where top players retired early in order to be allowed to play elsewhere in the hope that they could snag a few of the pesos or yen bring thrown in their direction. He watched athletes become embittered as their best years sped by uncompensated and sometimes unrecognized. He attended the sports schools where most of the kids aren’t even allowed to choose the sport they will play. He made friends and saw them fall from favor. It took Price a while, but he finally figured out that there’s probably something wrong with any country that’s had the same leader for forty-nine years. Let’s hope that things change in the coming decade.

Nathan’s Run, John Gilstrap, 3.5 stars: A great premise — a 12-year-old kid on the run from a murder charge when he’s actually the target of professional killers — plus some taut writing and tremendous pacing are sabotaged for me by a single problem that I can NOT believe survived the editing process. Here’s the setup: A guard is stabbed to death with a butcher knife in the solitary lock-down cell of a juvenile detention center. The missing prisoner is 12-year-old Nathan Bailey, who apparently left the butcher knife lodged in the guard’s chest. The video surveillance cameras have been turned off, but only at the murder scene, which does not cause a single cop to scratch his head. Nor does any cop, including the one who’s the book’s putative hero, ever ask how a butcher knife found its way from the kitchen into the solitary cell. The only obvious answer, that the guard brought it in, would have changed the nature of the investigation drastically. Similarly, when Nathan’s would-be assassin breaks into a small-town jail to kill him, first killing the cop in front and then taking down the one in the cell with the boy, only one cop thinks to ask why the cop at the desk had a holstered gun if Nathan had shot the cop in the cell and then come out, gun in hand, to finish the job. I’m sorry, but there are no cops this dumb. And it all could have been fixed if Gilstrap had been challenged by his editor at, um, HarperCollins, who also publish me. My editor would never have let these things by. Gilstrap deserves stricter supervision because he’s got a lot of talent and could probably write the big bestseller/slash/movie we all dream about.

Daughter of the River, Hong Ying, 4.5 stars: Heartbreaker alert: this one will drag you over the thorns. Hong Ying’s story — the unwanted daughter of a poor and deeply fractured family, trying to find a path in life — would wring a tear from Donald Trump, if he could read. Hong Ying grows up with no apparent affection from her mother or her siblings and a kind of remote benevolence from her almost blind father. The family lives in unbelievable poverty by American standards, all crammed into a rat-infested one-room apartment with a loft that serves as sleeping quarters for two of the children — and the husband of one of them, after they marry. The once-gracious house in which they have staked out a room is inhabited by as many as a hundred people, squabbling, eavesdropping, reporting suspected infractions to the Party. And there are secrets everywhere, but the deepest ones are in Hong Ying’s own family. At eighteen, she enters into a brief affair with her married history teacher that leaves her even more aware of how unfulfilled her life is. All her life she has had the sense that someone is watching her — a man who always scurries out of sight when she feels his gaze and turns to look. Ultimately, she finds out who her watcher is, and that revelation, coupled with some other near-cataclysmic personal events, make it clear to her that the time has come to leave. Hong Ying went on to write several best-selling novels, and some critics have suggested that this memoir is fictionalized as well, but I say, who cares? It’s powerful writing, and emphatically not for the faint of heart.

9 Responses to “Reading List – June (Part 1)”

  1. Dana King Says:

    I agree about the surprise after surprise after surprise ad infinitum endings. One extra twist is okay, such as solving the crime, THEN finding out someone previously kindly thought of was an enabler or instigator. Maybe even one completely false alarm, where we find out the ending isn’t really the ending. One. Not two, or three, or, God forbid, four. Five is right out.

    I’m catching up on my John Connolly for a review I have to write, but after that I’m heading back to MacDonald-land. Thanks for reminding me of him.

  2. Greg Says:

    The Tim:

    Not only did you provide me with some nifty writing tips in this week’s book review, you made me whoop out loud with your Donald Trump comment in the Daughter of the River piece.
    If memory serves, this isn’t the first time you’ve layed into The Donald and I hope it’s not the last.
    If that guy toned it down a whole bunch he might descend into megalomania.

    The Greg

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, youse guys —

    I still have difficulty believing that anyone reads all the way to the bottom of these things, but I’m gratified that you do.

    Dana, it’s especially infuriating for me to find one of those series of wild-card reversals tacked onto the end of a book that’s been character-driven up till then. I read plot-driven books differently (with less of myself invested in them) than I do character-driven books, and I don’t like having to change gears for the last 25 pages. (Why don’t you write a review of THE FOURTH WATCHER? Or am I overstepping the line?)

    Greg — The Donald has generously made himself available to any writer who wants to get snarky. I think I used him in a proposal for the world’s dullest reality television show, where we watch someone write a book (or something — I don’t actually remember, but it’s on this site somewhere.) Thanks for the laugh.

    Um, what writing tips?

  4. Greg Says:

    The writing tips I was talking about were your cautionary notes about ending stories with multiple last minute reversals (Tilt a Whirl and The Woods) that might pull the reader off his connection to the characters for the sake of another surprise.
    I can see how that can really be overdone. What if, in last scene of The Usual Suspects, Keyser Sose had lost the limp, jumped in the limo and then (drumroll) pulled off his plasticine face to reveal his true identity- Tom Cruise? Your Carrie ending was better and, I thought, very instructive. So thanks

  5. Dana King Says:

    Tim,
    Based on my last correspondence with the editor of New Mystery Reader, I believe THE FOURTH WATCHER is the next book I’ll receive. Assuming that’s correct, I’ll send word as soon as I have it written.

  6. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Just checking in to let you know I am enjoying all of these reviews and your entertaining observations. And yes, I do read all of them all the way to the end 🙂

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Greg — Awww, come on — you wouldn’t do one of those triple backflip endings. Actually the SURPRISE ending that probably worked best for me: Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent.” Caught me with one foot on the pier and the other in the boat. But it wasn’t one of a series — flipflop, flipflop, who cares. And Keyser Soze worked for me, too, although I have to remember that it was Kevin Spacey, who at that point in his career couldn’t do anything wrong, even if he’d tried.

    Dana, that’s great news. (I hope.) So far, only trade reviews, but then the thing doesn’t officially come out until the end of the month. But I’ll be very eager to hear what you have to say about it.

    And, Lisa, thanks. I have a lot of fun writing these, although it’s also hard work, and it’s great to know someone likes them.

  8. Suzanna Says:

    Tim,

    I think reading is a wonderful way for you, especially you, to counteract your sense of dread because you love it so much, and Bro-ham, you deserve it! There simply isn’t anyone I know who works as hard as you do, or reads as much for that matter.

    S

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Sooozie —

    Without reading to get me through this I would have shivered myself into tiny pieces, just a little pile of jagged ectoplasm in the middle of the living room floor.

    What I didn’t review this months were the two books that helped me most, just total shining stinkers that got published nevertheless and gave me a point of comparison. If these two writers (one male, one female) flubbed such simple books so extravagantly, why shouldn’t I be having a hard time with a more ambitious one?

    Anyway, at the moment, the book is coming in bolts, so something has obviously gotten itself on track.

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