Reading List — December

January 5th, 2008

This was a relatively light month. Too much writing, too many holidays, and not enough reading. Here are the titles I took off my TBR shelves and either put in the “keep” pile or passed on to the Salvation Army.

Flesh & Blood, John Harvey, 4.5 stars: Harvey is just one of the world’s best mystery writers, as at home with the mysteries of the human heart as he is with the more conventional puzzles that we mystery fans find so compelling. This book brings former cop Frank Elder out of retirement again, haunted by an unsolved case that suddenly becomes horrifyingly personal. The world’s real villains, lethal though they may be, are often hapless in ordinary life, and no one catches this as Harvey does.

Dexter in the Dark, Jeff Lindsay, 4 stars: Lindsay’s best so far, for me at least. Old Dex finds himself up against something so evil that his own Dark Passenger packs a quick valise and runs, leaving a suddenly undemonic Dexter to deal with things. There has always been an undercurrent of the supernatural in these books, unless you think of the Dark Passenger as a delusion, but there’s no question about it in this novel, so if you have little patience for ancient evil, etc., this one may not be for you. But if you want to read one of the best tones in current fun fiction, vivid, unique, and often hilarious, here it is.

The King Never Smiles, Paul Handley, 5 stars: Just an indispensable book for anyone who wants to understand Thailand, Handley’s look at King Bhumibol Alyaduyej, which is banned in Thailand, tells the astonishing story of a boy who was never meant to be king and is now the world’s longest-reigning monarch; of a theoretically powerless constitutional monarch who has actually run the country through sixty of its most turbulent years; and of a brilliant and genuinely good man who has been elevated into living sainthood by the adroit public relations mechanics of the royal palace. Just riveting. I read its 450 pages (some of them dense indeed) in four sittings.

Orson Welles: Hello, America, Simon Callow, 5 stars: This is the second volume of Callow’s epic biography of Welles. (The first, The Road To Xanadu, took him through Citizen Kane and the immediate aftermath.) Well, it’s a triumph. Callow, himself one of England’s finest actors (and the author of a magnificent book on Charles Laughton), follows Welles through the somewhat dispiriting transition from boy genius to brand name, doing some of the greatest work of his career, but under a malign star whose effect was magnified by shortcomings in Welles’ own character. Just a great book.

Second Sight, Charles McCarry, 4 stars: America’s best spy novelist, long mostly out of print, is being reissued in very well-designed hardcover editions, and it’s about time. This is McCarry at his best, which is to say it’s beautifully written and meticulously plotted, and the characters are vivid and very different from each other. There’s hardly a line of dialogue in this book that could have been spoken by a character other than the one to whom it was given. Most of McCarry’s books focus on the long life and espionage career of Paul Christopher, picking up his story at various key moments. It wouldn’t hurt to have read some of the earlier books, but it’s not really necessary.

The Face of Death, Cory McFadyen, 2.5 stars: McFadyen is a good writer and an industrious plotter, a man who takes chances with his characters (especially his female characters) and he sells a zillion copies, but for me, it’s just not enough. It’s a purely personal bias, but I am just completely finished with serial killer novels. (Except for Dexter, because Lindsay has turned the genre on its ear.) All this frenzied, vicious energy, coupled with genius-level IQs –it’s just too exhausting. Most real-life serial killers have the intelligence of invertebrates.

8 Responses to “Reading List — December”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    So much for a light reading month! Out of curiosity, how many hours per day do you spend reading? I think Stephen King said in On Writing that he spends about the same number of hours per day reading that he does writing. Oh, and now I’m bent on reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter (you’re the second person recently who has recommended it). This pesky day job…

  2. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I just picked up Flesh and Blood at the store yesterday. I’m in the middle of The Shapeshifters by Tony Hillerman, and I’ve got a couple more in progress (in the bathroom, purse, truck, car, office desk drawer, patio table, each sofa, etc.) I just pick up and go wherever I happen to be.

    Sometimes when my husband has one of those annoying really long speech pauses, and I can see one of my “hot” books within arms’ reach, it’s all I can do, not to grab a book for a few lines — just a few — I swear!

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Lisa; hi, Cynthia —

    In general, I read a couple of hours a day, but I’m very fast. I slow down for some kinds of reading — the biography of Thailand’s king, for example — and push the accelerator through the floor for stuff like the serial killer book, which I kept reading primarily because I can learn something from the way McFadyen plots. (He’s really tight — it’s the genre I’ve come to dislike.)

    And, like Cynthia, I typically read a couple at a time, generally books that are very unlike each other, often a fiction and a nonfiction. But I have to confess that as I grow older, my patience with books that don’t really grip me has gotten shorter. I actually tossed three books in December after getting a third of the way through (halfway, in one case) not so much because the writers weren’t good as because I just didn’t tie into any particular character. Few things frustrate me more than a well-written, well-structured, very intelligent novel without a single likable character in it.

    I just yesterday wrote the following sentence in my burglar novel: “The computer had to be the one in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a movie I’d never liked, because if human beings were that cold, who cared what they got transformed into?” And more and more, I just instinctively reject cold writing.

  4. Wendy Ledger Says:

    thanks, Tim. This list is great. Some really wonderful suggestions. I’ve been watching Dexter on DVD, and wondered about the book it came from.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks for this blog, Tim. It’s nice to know where you’ve been spending you’re reading time. I’d like to borrow the one by Simon Callow and about the Thai king before you go to Asia. muns

  6. Usman Says:

    Hi Tim,
    That is a lot of reading.
    Varied too.
    I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’. Great literary mystery; he might just have taken over Eco Umberto in that category.

    PS: Thanks for the msg regarding events in Pakistan. All is well, my end.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    By the way, the comment from me to me telling me it was nice to know where I’ve been spending my reading time and asking me whether I’d lend myself some books was actually written by my wife.

    I might not be above trying to get the comment count up, but not by asking myself what I’ve been reading.

    Tim (for real this time)

  8. Lisa Kenney Says:


    I kind of figured it was Mrs. Hallinan. It made me laugh a little because now and then Scott and I end up “talking” via emails and blog posts — even though we’re sitting in different parts of the same house 😉

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