Reading In Self-Defense

November 1st, 2009

This has been an interesting month, especially since I was having such a hard time throughout with the book I’m writing, “The Rocks.”  (If my editor reads this — Peggy, it’s coming along great.) I was reading to retreat from the writing wars, mainly in self-defense.  Anyway, here’s what I pulled off the shelves:

VANILLA RIDE, Joe R. Lansdale — I always forget how much I love Lansdale until I read him again, whether it’s the darker books, such as THE BOTTOMS, or the hilariously violent and violently hilarious Hap and Leonard books, such as this one.  I slid through this like I was greased and laughed out loud at least fifty times.  Also found this gem on, ahem, non-genre writing: “. . . read a little from a book by an author who didn’t use quotation marks and was scared to death his work might be entertaining.”  You go, Joe.  Anyone out there who hasn’t read Joe Lansdale, should.

BLOODBORN, Kathryn Fox — A female forensic scientist with a twist (she’s likable) and a twisty story with some good writing, excellent pacing, and persuasive atmosphere.  Somewhat tarnished for me by an extra twist at the end, a surprise that’s preserved only by a character behaving very uncharacteristically for about 40 pages, when in fact, given his relationship with the protagonist, there was no reason he wouldn’t have spared her all the anxiety by leveling with her.  This kind of thing drives me a little crazy.

CHINA TRADE, S.J. Rozan — What a treat, accidentally starting an absolutely terrific (and new to me) series with the first book.  The hero is a Chinese-American private eye named Lydia Chin who has an incipient, but thus far only incipient, romantic relationship with her sometimes partner, a male private eye named Bill Smith. I’ve been resistant to this series for some reason, which just goes to show you how wrong I can be, because it’s a model of good detective writing, strong on relationships and frequently quite funny.  I have a teensy amount of trouble with Bill — I’m a guy, and there just aren’t many of us as patient, high-principled, and long-suffering as he is.  But maybe that’s just me.  I loved the book and will get to the rest of the series as soon as I cross the finish line on “The Rocks.”

THE PERFUMED SLEEVE, Laura Joh Rowland — Number God only knows in the Sano Ichiro series.  I’m a complete and total sucker for Rowland, and I have been spacing out the books in the series very deliberately to make them last as long as I can.  Fortunately for me, there are a lot of them, with more on the way.  She’s essentially telling one gigantic story about treachery and duty in medieval Japan, with characters who have massive five- and six-book arcs, and I just eat it up. One of the best things about this book is that it marks the departure, although perhaps temporary, of the character I have the most trouble swallowing, the extravagantly crazy Lady Yanagisawa.

IN A TEAPOT, Terence Flaherty — A very tidy PI story set in 1948 — extremely economical (118 pages), full of rounded characters, and with a pitch-perfect sense of period.  Nifty mystery, too, set around an abortive attempt to film Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  This was generously given to me by Jim Huang of The Mystery Company in Indianapolis when I met his daughter, Miranda, and mentioned that Shakespeare created the name for “The Tempest” and that the play was woven through “The Rocks.”  Thanks a lot, Jim — I really liked it and will call you for Flaherty’s other titles.

SECOND VIOLIN, John Lawton– The newest of Lawton’s Freddy Troy mysteries, in which the mystery story proper is often off toward the margins, since the books usually present a much broader picture — in this case, the first days of World War II and the detention in Britain of practically everyone who’s not properly British.  I admire Lawson immensely for the ambitious approach he takes: a huge hunk of top-quality historical fiction with a mystery tucked into it.  Great stuff.  And he’s enormously dependable, something I’m struggling to be at the moment.

WICKED CITYAce AtkinsAce Atkins is my thriller discovery of the year, so far.  I did a radio interview in Memphis with a wonderful guy named Stephen Usery, and at the end of it I asked him for the name of one writer I had to read, and he immediately named Ace Atkins, who lives in Oxford, Mississippi.  WICKED CITY is just an amazing book, a complex thriller about the 1950s cleanup of a moral sewer called Phenix City, in Alabama, with a huge cast of heroes, villains, sad sacks, standbys, has-beens, wanna-bes, and never-wases, and every one of them is a complete human being.  I even found most of the villains sympathetic, with the single exception of someone Atkins obviously means for us to hate and whom he makes inescapably hateful.  I’ve ordered all of Atkins’ books and am currently reading DEVIL’S GARDEN, a great take on the Fatty Arbuckle case with Dashiell Hammett as a primary character, and no, it’s not gimmicky at all.  Read this guy.  He’s terrific.

THE RESURRECTIONIST, Jack O’Connell — Did not finish and will not try again.  A maybe-thriller about a boy in a coma, his father, and a really repellent comic book about a vastly unappealing group of circus freaks (that’s the word in the book) who make the cast of Tod Browning’s infamous film “Freaks” look like Brad and Angelina.  O’Connell may have written some terrific books, but this one is not for me.

Then there were some non-thrillers/mysteries:

THE CHINA LOVER, Ian Buruma — Fascinating novel based on the improbable (but real) life of Yoshiko Yamaguchi, a Manchurian-born Japanese woman who became a Chinese movie star called Li Xianglan, then a star in Japan under her own name, then a somewhat successful actress in Hollywood and New York as Shirley Yamaguchi, and finally a well-known journalist on Japanese television who morphed into a politician.  But that’s not what the book is actually about.  In telling Yamaguchi’s story, Buruma looks at several tumultuous periods of history — the Japanese state of Manchukuo in Manchuria, overthrown by the Chinese revolution; the bitter world of postwar Japan, rebuilding from the ashes; the violent youth revolutions of the 1970s, exemplified by crazies like the Japanese Red Army, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and others; and the early struggles between Israel and the Palestinians.  These are all seen from perspectives very different from the conventional Western ones.  A great read.

THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE, Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi — Did not finish.  This true-crime account of an Italian serial killer has way, way too many suspects, no real resolution in sight, and the connection between the narrator and the crimes was too tenuous to hold my interest.  Preston is usually someone I enjoy, but not this time out.

MILES FROM NOWHERE, Nami MunMy favorite novel of 2009, as of October 31.  I’ve already bought and given away several copies.  The story, almost undoubtedly autobiographical, of a runaway Korean-American girl, thrown in her teens from a nightmare household onto the roughest streets of New York and coping any way she can, up to and including heroin and hooking.  Heartbreaking, terrifying, hilariously funny (in the way Christopher Walken‘s horrific speech about Dad’s watch was so funny in “Pulp Fiction“), and miraculously uplifting — frequently all at the same time.  MILES FROM NOWHERE joins a relatively small group of books that I’ll read repeatedly over however many years I might continue to be able to read.  And the writing is fine enough to drive me to despair.

Nami Mun is my new hero.  And she just won the Whiting Award, so good for her.

4 Responses to “Reading In Self-Defense”

  1. Phil Hanson Says:

    None of the books you cited–nor their authors–are familiar to me, but you can be sure I’ll be looking for them at my local library.

    Just finished reading The Bone Polisher last night. It’s a great story, humor abounds, and Lansdale can eat his heart out. And yes, I will read Lansdale on the basis of your recommendation.

    Another author worth reading is Bill Cameron, whom we both met at Murder By the Book, in Portland, the night of your Breathing Water book signing. Lost Dog and Chasing Smoke are excellent stories, and Cameron has a knack for bringing his characters to life. Highly recommended.

    So, Tim, when is The Rocks due out? I’m looking forward to reading it. And there it is, the reason why I read so much. It provides a handy excuse for not having time to write a book of my own.

  2. karen from mentor Says:

    Tim have you ever read Tim Dorsey? He can make you laugh and cringe in the same sentence. I read Terry Pratchett when I just want my brain to be happy.
    [Like during NaNo…day two…still happy]
    I’ve made a note of your must reads.
    Thanks for the shopping list.
    Karen :0)

  3. Larissa Says:

    Hey there (c:

    glad to see you’re still alive over there. I hope it’s fits of your usual amazing writing that is keeping you away from the blogosphere.

    I’m going to go find a copy of Miles from Nowhere for sure now. I saw it the other day and didn’t get it and now I know that I must.

    Not much here in good ol’ Kansas. I did swing by The Raven in Lawrence the other day when i was out that way-it’s a neat little place.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Everyone — I am so sorry to have been so rude and not replied. I’ve been in a flophouse sweat about the new book ever since I got home from the tour and realized I had about seven weeks left, a runaway story, and no ending. I’ve literally been writing 10-11 hours a day and read all the books above in bed, trying to get to sleep when I was waaaayyyyy too anxious to keep my eyes closed.

    So last night aroud 4AM I woke up realizing that the ending I’d been working toward was a crock of, um offal, and awful to boot, and I lay there literally sweating for about 90 minutes. Just as the windows started to pale I realized I had worked my way all the way through to the end, and I rechecked the whole thing a couple of times and then rolled over and went back to sleep until about 9. Worked all day today and it’s just getting better.

    Phil — Thanks for liking THE BONE POLISHER. That’s one of the books in the Simeon series I’m a little ambivalent about. (My favorites are THE FOUR LAST THINGS, EVERYTHING BUT THE SQUEAL, and THE MAN WITH NO TIME.) But what do I know? And I just finished Bill Cameron’s CHASING SMOKE and absolutely loved it. I wrote him a couple of days ago to say so. And I think you’ll love Lansdale.

    Karen — I’ve read a lot of Tim Dorsey, and I really admire him. I think he’s funny as hell and he knows how to structure a story. Also love his cover designs. I’ve never read Patchett, but once I finish THE ROCKS, I have acres of time stretching in front of me.

    And Riss, hope you like MILES FROM NOWHERE. I obviously loved it. Wish I could swing by The Raven with you.

    Best to all, and sorry again.

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