Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Reading Roundup

August is so hot in South Florida it's unreal.  In our neighborhood, Larry and I are one of the few people who are year-round residents -- everyone else trots back up north so as not to suffer through the heat. Well, I suppose that sort of backfired on them this year, since it was just as hot up north and then they had Hurricane Irene to contend with.  It was scheduled to make landfall here where I live, as a Cat 2, but it moved along, sending us only two full days of much-needed rain and some wind gusts that at one point picked up my kickboard and sent it sailing around my patio. I really hate saying I dodged that bullet, because many people up north weren't that fortunate, but to be truthful, I'm glad it didn't hit here. Not that I am not ready for a hurricane, but the thought of no air conditioning because of the power outages is not a pleasant one. Anyway, my original point was going to be that August is so hot here that it's very conducive to either sitting in my big comfy chair inside or dangling my feet in the pool outside and reading.  And read I did.  This month my main project was to start with books longlisted for the Booker Prize, which continues on into my September reading plan.  I don't know if I want to do this again next year, but then again, I say that every year. So -- here's the summary:

Canadian Fiction
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt  (booker prize longlist)
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan   (booker prize longlist)
Far to Go, by Alison Pick  (booker prize longlist)

Fiction from the UK
Derby Day, by D.J. Taylor  (booker prize longlist)
A Cupboard Full of Coats, by Yvvette Edwards  (booker prize longlist; just finished, so I'll stick the review  into September)
Hangover Square, by Patrick Hamilton

translated general fiction
Once again, English-language books were the star of my reading show, but I've been stockpiling more translated works to squeeze in between the others. So there is nothing in this category this month.


  • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and An American Family in Hitler's Berlin (not reviewed yet; will also being going into September reviews)
  • A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception and Survival at Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres (not yet reviewed because of later release date, but watch for it).  My thanks to the good people at Simon and Schuster for the ARC 


scandinavian crime fiction
Misterioso, by Arne Dahl  
Outrage, by Arnaldur Indridason
Anger Mode, by Stefan Tegenfalk
Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen (read, not yet reviewed)

spanish crime fiction
Tattoo, by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

italian crime fiction
To Each His Own, by Leonard Sciascia
The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, by Antonio Tabucchi

.....totaling 14  books for August.  I'm currently reading The Pledge, by Friedrich Durrenmatt (crime fiction), and next up in the longlist is Jamrach's Menagerie.  In nonfiction, I'll be starting Death in the City of Light, by David King -- this book comes out in September, and I have my copy courtesy of the publisher.

other book-related stuff:
1) my book group is on hiatus until the end of September, and I've got the rest of today to figure out what the hell we're going to read before sending the group email around tomorrow a.m.  Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!! The sooner the better -- and none of us read chick lit.

2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month

Farewell Song, by by Rabindranath Tagore 
The Hangman's Game, by Karen King-Aribisala
The Vices, by Laurence Douglas
The Dead Women of Juarez, by Sam Hawken
Skylark, by Dezso Kosztolanyi
Five Spice Street, by Canxue
Season of Ash, by Jorge Vulpi Escalante

3) Books bought this month:

  • Cain, by Jose Saramago (October) 
  • Shards, by Ismet Prcic (October) 
  • The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco (November)
  • The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbol (November)

The Devil's Disciple, by Shiro Hamao

The Name of a Bullfighter, by Luis Sepulveda
 Bunny Lake is Missing, by Evelyn Piper
The Nanny, by Evelyn Piper
Cyclops, by Ranko Marinkovic

The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins
A Summer of Drowning, by John Burnside
Last Man in Tower, by Aravind Adiga
Day is Dark, by Yrsa Sigurdadottir
All Yours, by Claudia Pineiro

4) Indiespensable (from Powells Books) and the First Editions book club at BookPassage ended up once again sending me the same book -- this time Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus.  A) I see another giveaway in my future and B) these guys need to coordinate their act. Seriously!

5) Melville House sent me a download of Conrad's The Duel which is now ready to read on my Kindle, so I'll be writing about that shortly. Last month they offered a free download of Death and the Penguin, but I already own a paperback copy. That's coming in September as well.

That's it for August.  Over at the other blog, The Crime Segments, I'm currently finishing up my little mini-series I call "What would Montalbano Read," based on authors and book titles found in the Salvo Montalbano series by Camilleri.  The last two are both from Durrenmatt -- as mentioned earlier, there's The Pledge, and then The Inspector Barlach Mysteries. 

Even I think I read off-the-wall stuff sometimes! Looking at my list of books both on the wishlist and bought, I'm convinced of it.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hangover Square, by Patrick Hamilton


Europa Editions, 2009
334 pp
originally published 1941

Hangover Square is only one of a long list of novels by Patrick Hamilton.  Hamilton also wrote three plays, two of which were turned into movies and may be a bit familiar:  Rope, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948, and Gas Light, brought to the screen by George Cukor in 1944.  I've never read anything by Hamilton in the past, but after reading Hangover Square, that will not be the case in the future.  It was, in a word, amazing, and I can't remember reading anything even remotely similar.   The book examines one man's  tenuous hold on reality that is threatened by obsession, alcohol and illness.  It reads a bit on the noir side and would be equally good for readers who like that genre and  readers of literary fiction.

Opening Christmas of 1938, continuing on through 1939, the scene is Earl's Court, a small neighborhood on the seamier side of London. A small hotel room in Earl's Court is home to George Harvey Bone, the main character is this story.  Since his schooldays, George has had what he calls his "dead moods," where all of a sudden everything changes from normal to where "there was only himself -- his dreary, numbed, dead self."  George suffers from schizophrenia, and lately gets a "click" in his head when he's about to change. He goes into a state where it's like being at a movie where the soundtrack is missing, where people move about and do their thing but he's unaware of them. In this mode that he is surprisingly the most rational, a different George Harvey Bone, whose thoughts are clear as day.  He has trouble remembering what he was doing beforehand,  and he doesn't remember his actions or thoughts during these  dead moods when he comes out of them.  However, his main focus while in this state is trying to remember that there's something to be done -- and that is to kill Netta. 

George has an overpowering yet unrequited sexual obsession with the beautiful Netta --  she gets him to the point where "he could hardly breathe or think, in which he was choked by the mist of his sensous anguish."  She, on the other hand, uses him shamelessly when she needs money, or for other self-serving purposes.  For her, George is repellent; he's a pest, the butt of her set's cruel jokes, but he buys the booze and buys her dinner.   Time after time George tries to stay away from her, but he always comes back, even after realizing the truth about Netta, and even after a low and devastating blow during a trip to Brighton that would have sent a normal man packing.  He literally cannot help himself, even though his infatuation brings him only pain, loneliness and severe depression.

When he's not in a dead mood, George is  quiet, polite and sensitive, finds solace in a white cat and David Copperfield.  Netta and her friends  out  in the bars and pubs of  Earl's Court, where life is generally based on daily rounds of excessive drinking:

"When you met in the morning, all you talked about was last night -- how "blind"' you were, how "blind" Mickey was, my God you bet he had a hangover. ("Taking a little stroll round Hangover Square" -- that was Mickey's crack.)...And when you had a lot more to drink you felt fine again, and went crashing round to lunch upstairs at the Black Hart (the table by the fire) where you ragged the pale waiter and called attention to yourselves."

 George also drinks  heavily, although he's not pleased with himself and even notes that it's likely at the bottom of much of his unhappiness.  He  does the rounds of the pubs to be with Netta and drinks to mask his loneliness and pain of the hopelessness of the situation.   It's during these bouts of drinking when Netta and her friend Peter discuss their admiration of Hitler and Facism and their view of Chamberlain as a hero, views shared by many during this time period.    While wasting their days drinking,  rambling on about politics and denying the possibility of another war, George in his dead-mood time disagrees -- realizing that they had "turned their ignominious desires into beliefs."

But it's only during these dead moods  that he can cope with his obsession and make plans to escape it.  He picks up the thread of killing Netta each time, and imagines himself doing the deed and going off to Maidenhead, site of an earlier, happier time in his life.  George is not normally prone to violence, and his dead-mood episodes allows him to imagine things he would never otherwise consider.   There is no question that at some point George's divided self is going to overcome him, and  as the blurb on the cover notes, "one part of George must win out over the other, but which will it be?"  Sadly, this is but a  bare-bones outline; to give away any more would be to wreck it for others.

Hangover Square
is an amazing book. While an easy book to read, it was a bit personally disquieting, not so much because of the ending but because I was so divided in my sympathies at the end.  It's one of those stories that makes you question your thinking, and I believe that the author had to have done this on purpose.  Once in a while you read one of those rare books where you're emotionally floored at the end; this is one of those.  There is absolutely nothing feel good or happy between the covers of this book, yet I was totally compelled to read it in one sitting -- it's that good.   George Harvey Bone and Netta will keep you turning pages, but in and among that story there is also a look at  social class, the interwar generation and their misguided ideologies, and the utter waste of productive, good lives as a period of peace is about to explode into a dark time of war.   I highly recommend this novel -- but don't read it while you're depressed.  It's one of my favorite reads for 2011.

posted also at the Europa Challenge Blog. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

*Derby Day, by DJ Taylor

Chatto and Windus, 2011
405 pp

Derby Day " all London an airing , an 'outing,' makes a break in our overworked lives and effects a beneficial commingling of the classes."
 -- Gustave DorĂ© and Blanchard Jerrold ("The Derby", in London: A Pilgrimage, 1872)

DorĂ© and Jerrold made their observations about the annual Derby happening at Epsom, but they are also describing DJ Taylor's newest novel.  Like his book Kept (which I read some time ago and really enjoyed), Derby Day is subtitled "A Victorian Mystery," and there is enough intrigue and foul play scattered throughout the novel's 400+ pages to keep a mystery reader happy. At the same time, it's a novel that brings together several characters from different walks of life in Victorian England, many of whose fortunes hang in the balance based on the performance of a race horse named Tiberius.  Derby Day does indeed offer its readers a "break" in their "overworked lives": although his Victorian narrative style may not be everyone's cup of tea, the story is a great deal of fun. And I would have bought this book even if it had not appeared on this year's longlist, because of my previous enjoyment of Taylor's Kept.

In Lincolnshire, Samuel Davenant is the owner of a horse named Tiberius, who had
"won the Epsom's Two Year's Old Plate, altogether ran away with the Trial Stakes at Abingdon and absolutely tied with the Duke of Grafton's Creditor for the Middle Park Plate."
Although the horse has great potential in the upcoming Derby, Davenant is deeply in debt, scarcely able to feed it. After the disappointing purchase of two other horses on the back of Tiberius' reputation ("thinking that where one animal had gone others might follow"), and an unsuccessful  lawsuit against a neighbor, Davenant has mounting bills that he cannot pay. He's a quiet man, preferring the solitude of his home, Scroop Hall, where he lives with his daughter Evie. At the same time, in London, Mr. Happerton is a rakish young man who is fascinated with Tiberius, noting that "There are men who would pay five thousand to have him running under their name." Happerton knows Davenant's financial situation and has been quietly buying up his debts, secretly planning to take Tiberius when the bills come due and Davenant is forcibly pushed into bankruptcy.  The problem is that his scheme requires an outlay of capital which Happerton doesn't have.  To remedy that situation, Happerton marries Rebecca Gresham, daughter of a well-to-do lawyer.  But while his father-in-law's money isn't enough to fully finance his plans, Happerton's not too worried: he is a man ready with a few more tricks up his sleeve.

The action is not as cut and dried as one would think and there are a number of surprises that unfold as the novel progresses, keeping things moving with rarely a dull moment in the story. The sense of place is vividly evoked as the reader travels through the fens and wild landscape of Lincolnshire (where it "would not have been strange to peep between the fence posts and see Lady Dedlock out a-wandering"), as well as through the upper-class London neighborhoods and their counterparts in the seamier sides of the city. And Epsom, just before and during the Derby, comes alive with its sights, smells, noise and carnival-like atmosphere, all beautifully imagined by the author.  Subplots abound as in any good Victorian drama, and the ever-expanding cast of characters presents a range of personalities: the cream of London society, a young governess in the bleak Lincolnshire countryside, an enigmatic jewel thief whose past is his major preoccupation, a disgraced army officer who frequents the billiard halls (a nod to Thackeray's "English Raff," from his Book of Snobs,) an older jockey on the portly side and the crowds who attend the Derby, to name a few.  Twists of fate and "odd conjunctions" bring these people together from time to time, making for great dynamic among the characters, but most especially between Happerton and his wife.  While Mrs. Carmody's Book of Genteel Behavior of 1861 offers the Victorian woman tips about married life and one's place in society, Mrs. Happerton turns Mrs. Carmody's advice on its head, to the point where the reader begins to doubt who really has the upper hand in that relationship.

Derby Day is one of those books that will appeal to a wide variety of readers -- it is filled with plotting and machinations that will satisfy readers of melodrama and mystery, it offers an intriguing portrait of a slice of time for historical fiction readers, and its constant nod to Thackeray throughout the novel will make Victorian fiction readers happy as well. If I have any complaints, they are minor -- the amount of subplots is a bit dizzying at times, as are the number of new characters that appear here and there that tended to distract my reading flow.  Otherwise, Derby Day is highly entertaining, and I can definitely recommend it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

*Far to Go, by Alison Pick

Harper Perennial, 2011
originally published by House of Anansi Press, 2010
336 pp.

"...there is healing in the telling, but there is also something that gets lost. The past is gone, and we cannot get it back."

Novels about the Holocaust are nothing new, and I got to a point some time ago where I just quit reading them. Although  it is an essential time that should remain as a period to never forget,  at some point I got to where a) I felt saturated, having seen many of the same content and literary conventions reappearing again and again and b) I just had to turn away from the emotional toll some of these books brought on.  I do have a few on my tbr shelf yet to read (Austerlitz and Panorama to name a couple),  but in general I don't make this type of literature my first choice of reading material. Truthfully, had this book not been on the Booker Prize longlist this year I probably would never have picked it up, and as it turns out, that would have been a crying shame.  Although it has many of the same elements from other Holocaust literature, there are some  fundamental differences I didn't expect in Far to Go that set it apart.

Far to Go alternates between two times and two places: Czechoslovakia on the eve of and during the Nazi invasion and occupation, and modern  Montreal.  In Czechoslovakia, we meet the Bauer family, an ordinary upper middle-class family, living a normal life:  Pavel, Annaliese and their young son Pepik, who is watched over by his nanny Marta.  Pavel owns a textiles factory that allows his family to live well.  Annaliese, who grew up in Prague,  wears the most current fashions, sports "large Greta Garbo sunglasses and fresh red lipstick," and falls well into her social role as wife of a wealthy industrialist.   Annaliese has had some tragedy in her life: she lost her baby daughter when she was only three weeks old. It was Marta who took care of her afterwards, and who takes on most of Pepik's upbringing as well.  The fact that the family is Jewish isn't a major factor in their lives -- Pavel's self identity is more tied up in his love for his country and pride in his forbears.

But the Nazis begin to roll into Czechoslovakia. As they hear about and witness events by Nazi soldiers and ordinary people being caught up in the anti-Jewish rhetoric, and as the factory is taken over, Annaliese realizes that her family may not be so safe, and begins to try to convince Pavel that it's time to leave.  Marta, who is not Jewish, is involved in a secret affair with Ernst, a married man, Pavel's foreman, and good friend to the Bauers. As the Nazis begin to get closer to home, she begins to sense a strange shift in him, one that runs contrary to the Ernst she thinks she knows.

While up to this point the novel employs several familiar components of other Holocaust literature, Pick intersperses a modern-day character in between the ongoing story of the Bauers that keeps this book from becoming like so many others.  In Montreal, a woman named Lisa is busy pursuing her life's work, the collection and documentation of stories told by those who escaped the Holocaust as young children thanks to the Kindertransport program. As the Kindertransport Association website notes, this effort began after
"... the atrocities in Germany and Austria, the untiring persistence of the refuge advocates, and philosemitic sympathy in some high places – in the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extend the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends” – swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom. It was agreed to admit the children on temporary travel documents, with the idea that they would rejoin their parents when the crisis was over. A fifty Pound Sterling bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.” The children were to travel in sealed trains. The first transport left on December 1, 1938, less than one month after Kristallnacht; the last left on September 1, 1939—just two days before Great Britain's entry into the war, which marked the end of the program. By that time, approximately 10,000 children had made the trip."

Part of Lisa's work involves letters sent to these children and to those who took them in by the parents left behind;  the book actually opens with one of these that will immediately draw in the reader to find out more, and more letters and stories are scattered throughout the novel that could tell the story in their own right.

Lisa explains that the Kindertransport story is filled with ambiguities: while she's found many examples of things having worked out for these relocated children, the bulk of the stories are "cases of trauma and upset." Many of the children arrived speaking no English, to poor families, and have had "everything solid ... pulled out from under them." The addition of this researcher, who admittedly can't always "frame the world in objective terms," as academics are supposed to, and the Kindertransport at the heart of this novel,  provides the novel with an added dimension. These elements set it apart from the more conventional aspects of the Bauer family story, as does the novel's end.

Far to Go is a wonderful book.  What I appreciated most about this novel was not so much the story itself, but something else that may not seem so obvious as you're reading through it. I came away with this feeling that the book works so well because Alison Pick chose a subject that is important to her, and that although she's going to make some money on this book, in many ways it rises above the simply commercial. While she wants her readers to connect with the period of the Holocaust, there's so much more here than just riding the wave of emotions you feel about that time period to get you through the novel.  I may get torched for saying this (and flame away), but sometimes I've spotted this approach in a few books set during the Holocaust. There is a real story at work  here -- how the Kindertransport affected those who made it out, those who were left behind, and those who made room for these children in their homes. There are, of course, also the events leading up to the need for its creation.  I don't mean to imply that Far to Go is at all clinical in the telling, because the opposite is true -- unless you're cold and unfeeling, the novel will unavoidably tug at your emotional heartstrings. I've often noticed that sometimes the best writing happens when an author is passionate about what he/she writes, and that is definitely the case here.

So go get a box of tissues and have nothing else planned while you're reading this book.  You will not want to put it down.

Monday, August 15, 2011

*Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Serpent's Tail, 2011
343 pp

Half Blood Blues is Esi Edugyan's second novel after The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, written in 2004.  The action in Half Blood Blues takes place in Berlin (1939-40 and again in 1992) and Paris between 1939 and 1940, just after the second world war has begun and the Nazis are set to occupy Paris, placing it firmly in the Holocaust period.  In reading about this novel prior to starting it, I thought it would probably be one of my favorites on the Booker Prize longlist because of its subject matter: jazz (to which I am wholly addicted) and more importantly, the treatment of non-Jewish minorities in the Third Reich. I was more than surprised, and to be honest, a little disappointed after finishing Half Blood Blues, because what I expected and what was actually there were two different things.

There are three storylines here, all of which blend together very well. First, In Berlin in 1939, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones are members of a jazz group  the Hot Time Swingers. Like many African-American jazz musicians of the time, Griffiths and Jones had come to Europe to get out from under the severity of Jim Crow in the U.S., and had done well for themselves.  The jazz group had a large following there in the steamy, smoky cabaret life, largely due to a highly-talented young jazz trumpeter named Hieronymous (Hiero) Falk.  Hiero was a "Mischling," son of a white woman from the Rhineland who had been raped by an African soldier.  When Hitler retook the Rhineland, children like Hiero were labeled as "stateless," and a "cultural stain," even though they were German citizens. The Hot Time Swingers soon discovered that after the Nazis came down on jazz as "degenerate" music, it became very dangerous to play this kind of music in public:

Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex.  It wasn't a music, it wasn't a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame -- we just can't help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodstreams.

Going underground, the group took refuge in the Hound Club, which had been shut down by the Nazis for its "degenerate sympathies." The situation is pretty bad by the time Delilah Brown, friend of Louis Armstrong, arrives from Paris and convinces the group that they need to get out of Germany and go to France, where Armstrong was looking forward to meeting them. This begins the second storyline, when eventually Chip, Sid and Hiero make their way to Paris,  just ahead of the Nazis, "the boots," who will soon be invading France.  There they meet Louis Armstrong, who is quite taken with Hiero's amazing talent. After it becomes clear that the Nazis will soon be entering Paris,  the US government tells all non-essential Americans to get out of France and Armstrong leaves. Chip, Sid and Hiero once again go into hiding, and begin  a series of recordings, with Hiero in the lead, cutting disc after disc, constantly interrupted by Hiero's frustration over their imperfections. Sid steals one of these discs, hiding it away, and he and the others are left waiting for their exit visas.  It is at this time that tragedy befalls Hiero, and he is arrested. Flash forward to 1992, the third segment of this novel.  A documentary about the life of the hitherto unknown life and talent of Hiero, whose work has recently been rediscovered, is about to be premiered in Berlin, and Sid and Chip are about to go back after all of this time. 

There are some good moments in the novel -- the author's  descriptions of the jazz life in Berlin before the Nazis are well done, the atmosphere while the group is in hiding is believable, and the story of the escape from Germany is a bit on the exciting side.  And she is quite good at seaming the three strands of the story together to make one cohesive whole. But considering the material listed at the back of the book from which she had ample opportunity to draw together a story of black people during the Nazi period, there's really no depth in this area in the novel, nor are their stories well illustrated here or made representative of through the character of Hiero, much to my great disappointment.  A scholar alludes to the fate of both African-Americans caught in Paris and to these "stateless" people as part of the documentary, but as an historian, not as a "Mischling" himself. I thought once things got rolling I'd be seeing more of  Hiero's story both pre- and post-arrest, a more personally-driven account.  I think the author missed a great and unique opportunity here by not making Hiero more of the centerpiece of her story rather than Sid, whose story focuses more on his on-again/off-again relationship with Chip, his infatuation with Delilah, his own selfish desires, and his petty jealousies.  I'd categorize this book as a novel of missed opportunity.  Maybe one day, someone will write the book I thought this was going to be.  I'll guess I'll just have to keep waiting.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Turn of Mind giveaway winner is:

Eight people signed up, and tells me it's #1, and that's Trish!

 So if you'll please email with an address I'll get that out this week. Thanks to everyone! I wish I could send each one of you a book.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

*The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

ecco/Harper Collins
328 pp.

"It turns out, and I don't know why this is, and have at times wished it were not so, but yes -- we had or have an aptitude for killing."

Let's face it, Westerns just aren't my thing, and that includes both books and movies.  The most "Western" novel I've read is McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses (and The Crossing, which I'm reading now on Kindle).  So after I read the blurb on the dustjacket of The Sisters Brothers which called it "an homage to the classic Western," I was a bit afraid to continue on into the novel.  But read it I did, and overall it was a well-written story with some funny moments.  I have mixed feelings about this book:  it was highly entertaining yet not overly spellbinding , and what I'd picture as a  Western turned on its head.

The book in nutshell is this: Charles and Eli Sisters are renowned gunslingers, feared far and wide for their viciousness.   They both grew up around violence -- their father was a "bad man," and when Charlie would get into a fight, he was in it to the death, unable to "engage in your average fight with fists or even knives."  With family members hot for revenge, Charlie soon became outnumbered, and Eli, whose "temper had always been high," eventually began jumping in to help.  Soon enough, a fight with Charlie was a fight with both of the brothers, and their reputation was born.   They are currently working for a shady figure known as The Commodore, and their job, which Eli swears will be his last, is to find and kill one of the Commodore's sworn enemies, a certain Hermann Kermit Warm.  The journey to find Warm  takes them from Oregon City to San Francisco not long after gold has been discovered in California, but when they finally arrive at their destination, things take a very different turn than the one they were expecting. 

The characters are all drawn quite well. Eli, who narrates the story, declares that he's had  enough of this itinerant life ...he says that he just wants to settle down and be a shopkeeper, marry and live a normal, quiet life.   He's a nasty killer with a humane streak,  childishly enjoying the taste of mint tooth powder and a newly-found appreciation for dental health at one moment or offering sincere pity at appropriate times, but the question here is how this penchant for caring and yearning for a civilized life will play out -- is it real or just wishful thinking? Eli has to be one of the most neurotic characters in this book; actually, Charlie is a close runner up. Now that I think about it,  most of the characters the brothers meet have some sort of mental maladjustments in their respective makeups.    Charlie is a hard drinker, takes laudanum and morphine, and shoots to make his point; he feels superior to Eli and he has no compunction about stealing, but doesn't like being unfairly accused when he is innocent.   At the same time, he and Eli are capable of entering into "clinical" discussions over certain points of morality, which often eases the tension they feel when together and allows them to come to their "truces."  But the good characterizations are not simply limited to those of the two brothers --there are a few other people whose hapless backstories can't help but the make the reader laugh.   The humor embedded into this novel is one of its best features -- at times it's rather deadpan but sometimes is capable of producing an honest-to-goodness laugh. But there are also times that the reader is taken by surprise when the author gets serious on a sympathy-evoking level; for example, he throws in a luckless prospector who is so far gone that he brews and drinks dirt, believing that it's really coffee. 

The story is related in an almost-Victorian style of narrative, complete with some very somber and reflective musings from the characters that afford the story a bit more depth just past the halfway point.  The author provides an excellent description of San Francisco during the heyday of California's goldrush, when prices were inflated and some people lived off their hopes and others off of their greed.  I only have one real issue with this book:  as the brothers enter  into various adventures, sometimes  the reader can pretty much foresee what's going to happen, taking some anticipation  away from a few scenes in the story.  I don't really care for predictibility in a story; it's up there with the dreaded miraculous coincidence as far as I'm concerned. 

 I have to admit that I rather liked The Sisters Brothers.  It doesn't  have the depth of some novels I've read that kept me thinking for a long time after I'd finished them, but it was very entertaining. Sometimes that's what I look for in a novel, and in that sense, this book did not disappoint. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

It's my birthday -- and I'm giving away a copy of Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante

For the first time ever, both Indiespensable at Powell's Books and the Signed First Editions Club at Book Passage have sent me the same book -- Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante.  I definitely don't need two copies, so I'm giving one away.  It's never been read and is a signed copy. International is okay.

Here's what you need to do:

Leave a comment on this post (only one time, please) by August 12th, expressing an interest in claiming the book.  You do NOT have to become a follower -- as I've noted many times in the past, I love when people comment on my posts but I  started this blog for myself, not to gain followers.

I will use a random number generator to select the winner on August 13th, and will announce the lucky person's name the same day. 

That's it! 
good luck!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

August: It's that time again...the Booker Prize Longlist

 For the next two months my primary reading will be from the list below, the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2011.  I have to admit that I was a bit surprised, after following the at-times rousing discussion over at the general debate page for the Booker Prize, to have found books that weren't ever mentioned.  Luckily, I hadn't ordered many of the books being speculated upon in that forum.

Of these, I've already read Snowdrops, which actually, I thought was just okay, not great, although I did like the wild-west like atmosphere of Moscow.  So that brings the list down by one, at least, and believe it or don't, I actually had purchased a few that showed up on the list.  How good is that? No rush to buy every stinking book on  the list!

In other parts of the reading world, I have two or three more books for the Europa Editions Challenge I want to read, and as far as the Crime Segments goes, I'm starting a fun reading month of books read by Inspector Salvo Montalbano in Camilleri's awesome series. And if time permits, I have a LOT of books stacked on the floor that are crying to be read, like Ann Patchett's new one, State of Wonder. I will be offering this book as a giveaway (not a huge Patchett fan, so someone else should enjoy it) after I've finished. So stay tuned.

that's it: the Booker Prize longlist is below.  Wish me luck. I'm always so drained after August and September each year.

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House)
Sebastian Barry On Canaan's Side (Faber)
Carol Birch Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail)
Yvvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger's Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Stephen Kelman Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
A.D. Miller Snowdrops (Atlantic)
Alison Pick Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

July Reading Roundup

I ask you, where did the month of July go? One day I'm in Seattle, enjoying the cool mountain air; then I'm in Savannah dying from heat stroke.  Not really, but it felt that way.  This past Sunday the heat index made the temperature feel like 127 degrees, and there we were, walking along the riverfront like idiots.  Needless to say, after we finished shopping, we beelined it back to the hotel, which was luckily in the middle of Savannah's historic district, only about a half mile away from the river.  Anyway, July sort of flew by without me noticing it.

Once again, the bulk of my reading focus was on crime fiction, trying to finish up the books that were on the CWA International Dagger shortlist.  This year's winner, by the way, was the team of Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom, for their Three Seconds,  which was not so much a mystery novel, but rather a suspense/thriller sort of thing; it's still worth reading just for the knots it produced in my stomach.  My plan to get some more of my literature tbr pile out of the way just sort of fell by the wayside in July since I was so busy absorbing the best of international crime fiction.

Here's the shakedown:

translated fiction:
not counting the crime fiction (which is separately listed), I read absolutely zero translated fiction this month.  A first.

general fiction:
 On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy (read, not reviewed for lack of time)

australian fiction:
Voss, by Patrick White (counting toward the 2011 Aussie Author challenge)

Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, by John Gimlette

french crime fiction
Seeking Whom He May Devour, by Fred Vargas 
Have Mercy on us All, by Fred Vargas
Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands, by Fred Vargas
This Night's Foul Work, by Fred Vargas
An Uncertain Place, by Fred Vargas
Total Chaos, by Jean-Claude Izzo (for the Europa Editions challenge)
scandinavian crime fiction
The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler
Three Seconds, by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom
The Quarry, by Johan Theorin

spanish crime fiction
Death on a Galician Shore, by Domingo Villar 

turkish crime fiction
The Hotel Bosphorus, by Esmahan Aykol  

.....totaling 15 books for July.  Easy to do...I had a lot of long lazy vacation days with books at my side. 

other book-related stuff:
1) my book group is on hiatus until the end of September; however, I did participate in the discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month:

Solace, by Belinda McKeon
To Each His Own, by Leonard  Sciascia

3) Books bought this month:
Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan 
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt
A Cupboard Full of Coats, by Yvvette Edwards
Far to Go, by Alison Pick
The American Girl, by Monika Fagerholm
The Treatment and the Cure, by Peter Kocan
4) several ARCs through the door, with more on the way (eek!) and

5) I found another freecycler who is putting together a library for the condo development she lives in, and she is gladly taking several boxes of books from my garage. My husband is eternally grateful.

so that's it for July.  If anyone's interested, over at the other blog, The Crime Segments, I'm currently finishing  Misterioso, a Swedish crime fiction novel by Arne Dahl, and starting a month of books mentioned in Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano novels.