Reading List — November

December 7th, 2007

If you thought October was boring, I read a lot more in November. Here’s the list, with my usual stabs at ratings and comments.

Girls, Bill James, 4 stars: The master of the surreal police procedural, note-perfect as always. This one tracks the response of well-entrenched criminal kingpins, most memorably Panicking Ralph Ember, who is one of my favorite characters in contemporary fiction, to an invasion by drug-runners and pimps from Eastern Europe. A wonderful book, but it loses half a star because there’s just not enough of Desmond Iles, the brilliantly dressed, brilliantly vituperative superintendent who pairs with detective Colin Harpur in this remarkable series. Iles’ astonishing malice and whipcrack intelligence are among the chief reasons I love James’s books, and he’s just not on the page enough in this installment.

A Family Trust, Ward Just, 4 stars: Ward Just has been writing serious and seriously interesting novels on American themes for a long time, and this is a great place to start. In this novel he investigates the power of journalism and the journalism of power, played out over three generations in a small midwestern town. Finely written and engrossing.

Now and Then, Robert B. Parker, 3.5 stars: Spenser takes a case that reopens the wounds from the time, long ago, that longtime lover Susan Silverman left him for another man. Parker keeps setting this up, but for me it never really plays out, other than as an explanation for Spenser’s obsession with solving the case, and since when has Spenser needed an explanation? Still it’s more deeply felt than many of Parker’s remarkably consistent novels and not as funny as some.

The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox, 4.5 stars: Terrifically atmospheric, beautifully paced, intricately plotted, a bit too long, this doppelganger tale is one of the best “Victorian” novels of the last 20 years. A young man pursues his enemy from university days, living in obscurity as his rival cuts a glittering arc through society and literary life — and then discovers that he — the narrator — is actually the legal heir to the title and fortune his enemy is about to inherit. If Wilkie Collins were alive today, he’d wish he had written this book.

Shoes Outside the Door, Michael Downing, 5 stars: For me, a perfect book. Downing, a novelist, traces the rise of San Francisco’s Zen Buddhist Center, the first permanent Buddhist temple ever founded outside Asia, and its eventual implosion and near-destruction. How Downing got everyone (including the book’s putative villain) to talk to him is beyond me, but what’s most dazzling is the way he organizes this morass of material as a clear, morally compelling story about ego, disillusionment, and the survival of faith. Riveting.

J-Horror, David Kalat, 3.5 stars: Thank God for obsessives. David Kalat has seen every foot of every Japanese horror film produced in the last twenty years. Several times. And he tells us where they came from, how the aesthetic evolved, who influenced whom, and what’s up with all those dead wet girls. I’ve seen a bunch of these movies because they’re ubiquitous in Asia, and they have quite frequently scared the pants off me, so I very much enjoyed this book. BUT it loses a full star for not having an index. If ever a book needed an index, it’s this one.

The Chinese Nail Murders, Robert Van Gulik, 2.5 stars: This series, written in the 30s and 40s (I think) captivated me years ago, but they haven’t held up. (By which I may simply mean that my tastes have changed.) For me, I.J. Parker is doing something marginally similar but much, much better in her Akitada mysteries set in medieval Japan. If you haven’t read any, I recommend that you try one. Or, better still, all of them. She’s terrific.

Show Control, Keith Snyder, 4 stars: I love this guy. If there were any justice, he’d be a best-seller. The mystery, while tidy and nicely structured, is (as usual) primarily an excuse for some really brilliant verbal riffing by the brightest, most underemployed bunch of slackers in all of American mystery literature. I don’t think Snyder is in print now, but I hope that’s rectified soon.

Once Upon a Distant War, William Prochnau, 5 stars: Why hasn’t somebody made a movie out of this? A bunch of young reporters, practically cubs, are assigned to cover the war no one else is interested in, and they hit on one of the biggest stories of the 20th century: the government whose side we’re taking are thugs, the American military spokepersons routinely tell lies, and — the real scoop — we’re losing. Of course these cub reporters are David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and others of similar distinction, and the war is Vietnam. This is a must-read book if you have any interest at all in that era.

December should be lighter because I’m writing all the time. We’ll see.

5 Responses to “Reading List — November”

  1. greg Says:

    Tim, you’re amazing! You must have done graduate work with Evelyn Woods to get through as much material as you do.
    I’ve just finished Parker’s Hundred Dollar Baby. A neighbor turned me on to him about a year ago and I’ve read most of the Spencer novels and a couple of the others: Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone.
    Since I’m still working on my mystery, I’ve been concentrating on that genre; I even found an old copy of an early Rex Stout (Some Buried Caesar) and a Spenser on Cd (School Days) to get me through my commute.
    I didnt know about Keith Snyder. He sounds like someone else I’d enjoy. You say he’s out of print? I’ll look around in the library.



  2. I.J.Parker Says:

    Thanks, Tim. I’m very grateful for such comments from fellow writers who understand the craft. I still admire Van Gulik a good deal but I knew from the start that I wanted to work with the protagonist’s character rather than just dealing with the mystery. Even so, the man had such enormous skill at bringing the time alive and was so thoroughly aware of the culture that it’s pretty intimidating.

  3. Keith Says:

    Out of print, but not out of mind, apparently.

    Glad you liked it.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everybody —

    Greg, glad you’re still working on the novel, and I hope that editor I recommended to you has been helpful. She’s working with another writer I know and he seems happy.

    I’m delighted that two of my favorite writers, I.J Parker and Keith Snyder, weighed in. My recommendation is to buy or borrow anything of theirs you can find. And I don’t know whether Keith still wants to write books (he seems to be focusing on film now), but I’d love to see not only his earlier books in print, but a contract for a bunch of new ones. I just love his writing. For I.J. — buy them, rather than borrowing them, since that keeps our publishers interested in us, and start with “The Dragon Scroll” or “Rashomon Gate” or “The Hell Screen” or “Black Arrow” and then get the new one, “Island of Exiles.” They’re all great.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Oh, and Greg — if you like Rex Stout (as I do) try Will Thomas. He essentially reinvents Wolfe and Archie completely, while keeping the main dynamics of the relationship, and plunks them down in Victorian England. “Some Danger Involved” is, I think, the first, and if you like it, they’re all good.

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