Life Sentences, Day 139: Book Report

February 16th, 2011

During the post-PULPED hiatus and Everett’s long at-bat, I read.  And read.

Some of this is a fudge, because I didn’t read all these books in those 2-3 days.  Some of them are from the past month.

DOPE, by Sara Gran: Noir at its darkest, brilliantly written and extraordinarily persuasive, by a writer I’d never heard of before. Josephine “Joe” Flannigan is a recovering junkie in 1950s New York City who’s hired as a sort of private eye to find an upper-class college girl who’s vanished into the drug world. The pursuit leads Josephine into the very center of her own tormented being.  At the same time, we have the privilege of meeting a character who’s so stubbornly true to herself and so unquestioning when she gives love that it’s impossible for us not to love her. Remarkable, pitch-perfect writing, stripped to the bone, with an ending that’s as bleak as any I’ve ever read. If you can take it, try it. I’d love to meet Sara Gran, and I really resented that there was no author photo because I kept reading passages that made me want to look at her eyes.

THE MAN WITH THE BALTIC STARE by James Church: Inspector O returns for a fifth outing, with the balance of power in North Korea teetering among factions, including the South.  Very John LeCarre in that few lines of dialogue have only one meaning, and things sometimes seem needlessly complicated — immensely intricate plans, for example, to get info from Character A to Character B.   As always, Church gives us a great depiction of the ultimate Kafka state and, also as always, when I finished the book I wasn’t entirely sure what had gone down. Nevertheless, I read it in three sittings, and I was in mid-edit, so that says something.

LAND OF MOUNTAINS by Jinx Schwartz: A total delight, a Huck Finn tour of Haiti in the early 1950s except that Huck is an eleven-year-old Texas girl named Elizabeth Ann (or “Lizbuthann,” as she’s usually called). Transplanted to the beautiful and voodoo-filled island nation when her father goes to work building a dam there, Elizabeth Ann quickly turns pretty much everything upside down, meets an enormous zombie, almost sets off a revolution, and generally livens up an already pretty lively place.  I’ve been to Haiti (pre-earthquake) and seen its brilliant color and its sadness, and Schwartz gets it right from my perspective.  A great read, especially at the YA level, and Elizabeth Ann’s voice is marvelous.

FROM BLOOD by Edward Wright: One of the great injustices of the (relatively) new millennium is that Edward Wright doesn’t have an American publisher and therefore, you probably can’t buy this book. Shannon Fairchild is a brilliant slacker, an almost-Ph.D. in history and the daughter of academics, but she cleans houses for a living and has a boyfriend who is, to say the least, not worthy of her. Then her parents are murdered brutally, and in going through their things Shannon comes to realize that they were allied with the most radical political forces of the 1960s anti-Vietnam movement, including several people who have been underground ever since, on the run because of bombings they carried out. And that the roots of her parents’ murders are back there somewhere — that their killer is one of them. Terrific book, great characters, absolute riptide velocity. Wright has already turned out three astonishing private-eye novels set in the Los Angeles of the late 1940s/early 50s starring John Ray Horn, former star of Grade C western movie serials and now an ex-convict and a skip-tracer, CLEA’S MOON, THE SILVER FACE (also called WHILE I DISAPPEAR), and RED SKY LAMENT.  He also wrote a terrific standalone, DAMNATION FALLS, a couple of years back.  FROM BLOOD is right up there with his best.  Wish I could tell you where to get it.

DEATH OF THE MANTIS, by Michael Stanley (in ARC, for a blurb): Get this one the day it comes out (in about a year, apparently). These guys (Michael Stanley is — are? — actually Michael Sears and Stan Trollip) write an absolutely splendid series set in Botswana and featuring a police detective named “Kubu” Bengu, a hero I admire enormously for his intelligence, his sensitivity, and his trouble controlling his girth (“Kubu” means “hippopatomus”).  The upcoming book, DEATH OF THE MANTIS, is the best yet, even better than A CARRION DEATH and THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU.  It takes you not only into the complicated world of Botswana, but also into the lives and culture of the shrinking population of Bushmen. Not a sociological or anthropological screed, but a first-rate murder mystery that takes us someplace we’ve never been and returns us home with something new to think about. Like all good stories do.  (I’m proud to be blogmates with Stan and Michael over at MURDER IS EVERYWHERE.)

So this has been a thriller and mystery binge.  And they were all pretty good, and in some cases, much better than that.

7 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 139: Book Report”

  1. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Hi all,
    This is costing me money in addition to adding to my TBR bookcases. Edward Wright’s books are available with “free shipping” from The Book Depository in England. They are fairly quick and courteous in their service. I also downloaded “Land of Mountains” for my kindle. I may have said I was born in Haiti, as if by accident, and did a fair amount of research for my “memoir.” It is a fascinating country.

  2. Beth Says:

    The Inspector O series has a bit of a “through the looking glass” quality that fits since the story is set in North Korea.

    There is a section in which Church writes of the people as living a life in which what one sees is the opposite of what one gets. He writes that the people line the streets to watch the funeral of the leader and they are all laughing. So laughing is crying, up is down, and no one can trust anything because the senses are being tricked.

    It was really interesting that shortly after the book was published Dear Leader announced that the son who is barely out of his teens will be his successor. In the book, the future leader is the source of the tension in the story.

    Church seems prescient in his description of what the two Koreas may become after the death of Dear Leader.

    I reviewed BAMBOO AND BLOOD, a book with a few less convolutions than this newest one.

    Inspector O is a terrific character.

  3. micael hallinan Says:


  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Beth — I also love the books, primarily for O himself and the picture of a world in which truth has no meaning and everything comes down to expedience — and expedience in an environment in which no one knows which way the wind will be blowing in ten minutes. I never feel I get everything in the books, but this one left me feeling farther out on the ledge than usual.

    Micael — Where’s my brother Pat when I need him????

  5. EverettK Says:

    Micael: I’m taking a vacation. I have no need to heckle Tim when you’re doing such a fine job!

  6. Elizabeth Rose Says:

    Here’s a link to Sara Gran’s website – with picture: sells Edward Wright titles, including From Blood, but they charge $10 to ship to the US.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Li, sorry this is costing you, but I think Ed Wright is worth is. As to the TBR shelves, well, that’s the cost of being a reader. I posted a photo of mine a month or two back, and they look like the Library of Congress.

    Everett, absolutely, put your feet up and let my brother — my own flesh and blood — chip away at me. I’m moments away from going for pity.

    Hi, Elizabeth Rose, and thanks. That’s NOT so different from the way I pictured her. Marvelous writer. And thanks for the FROM BLOOD Amazon Canada info — I wonder if Ed Wright knows that.

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