RSS

Category Archives: Crime and/or crime fiction

Meanwhile, there is a bit of fiction to account for…

Yes, I have read quite a few things this past few weeks.

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 1. The Hours – Michael Cunningham’s 1998 take on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is just a delight. I love the little bit of trivia in the Wikipedia entry:

On her way to Richard’s apartment, Clarissa Vaughan thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa Vaughan in Stephen Daldry’s movie adaptation of "The Hours". In the book, Clarissa Vaughan considers it might also have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw. Curiously, Redgrave plays the part of Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs Dalloway.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 2. The Chameleon’s Shadow, Minette Walters (2007). The Iraq War is background to this psychological thriller.

This novel is a compelling page turner from the first page.  Acland may be frightening in his unpredictability, but the reader’s sympathy is caught and you want to know what will happen to him.  The story is another classic example of smoke and mirrors from Walters, where she tests perception and reality during the unraveling of fact.  It’s another of those "once started, must finish" psychological thriller novels that demands complete absorption. – It’s a Crime!

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 3. Past Mortem, Ben Elton (2004). The weirdest – and most unlikely — serial killer ever, and yes it does have a very heavy sex scene or two. At the same time the book is very funny, in a black kind of way, yet does have much to offer on the subject of bullying.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 4. Southern Cross (1998) has Patricia Cornwell in lighter vein than in her Kate Scarpetta novels.

The book’s pivotal event, and its most pleasing tilt at Southern pieties, takes place when Smoke brings Weed, the budding artist, to the South’s premier cemetery for the climax of his gang initiation ceremony. Weed, equipped with paint, is to “ruin” the statue of Jefferson Davis that dominates the cemetery. With no idea who Jeff Davis was, Weed is inspired to re-paint Davis as a tribute to Weed’s late, beloved brother, a budding basketball great recently killed by a hit-and-run driver.

By the following morning, the towering statue that greets mourners and early visitors to the cemetery is no longer of Jeff Davis, but that of a lanky black basketball player in the uniform of the University of Richmond Spiders. Meanwhile, Smoke has robbed another ATM and, this time, killed his robbery victim. Chief Hammer and her team are on the wrong trail, since a chance radio intercept has alerted them to what sound like evil designs on the part of the book’s most catastrophically inept character, the perilously named Butner Fluck IV.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 star_icons25 Damnation Falls (2007) by Edward Wright.

Randall Wilkes, his big-city journalism career in ruins, has returned after twenty years to Pilgrim’s Rest, the Tennessee hill town where he grew up. He has taken on a lucrative but low-prestige writing job for Sonny McMahan, a former governor and Randall’s boyhood friend, whose own career is under a shadow and who needs a ghost-written autobiography to ease his way back into politics. Faye McMahan, Sonny’s mother, is addled with age, imagining that her dead husband is alive and worrying that her son might be in danger. Amid a violent autumn storm, Randall finds Faye hideously murdered, hanged by the neck from a bridge over the town landmark called Damnation Falls. Within days, another person connected to the McMahan clan is murdered in an even more grisly fashion. And the bones of a third, long-buried murder victim — a young woman — have emerged from the earth. Randall’s ties to the victims force him to acknowledge debts that go back decades. Drawing on his investigative skills and his roots in the region, he sets out to discover who is behind the killings. His search takes him the length of the state – a land once split by civil war, where history lies close to the surface and tales of murder and betrayal weigh heavily on the town of Pilgrim’s Rest. Before all the answers are in, more people will die, an old score will be settled, and the dead will finally tell their stories.

“Complex, layered but never laboured, Damnation Falls weaves between fact and fiction, the past and the present, truth and lies, without ever missing a beat. Nice work.”  — Sydney Morning Herald. That review notes something I missed:

Wright was born in the same Arkansas town of Hot Springs as erstwhile American president Bill Clinton. Comparisons may be odorous (as Mrs Malaprop once said) but Sonny McMahan, the fictional former governor of Tennessee, is a man so charismatic that when he walks into a Nashville restaurant all the diners turn to watch his progress, "lifting their faces as if towards the sun". Further allusions to Clinton’s Arkansas days and the Whitewater property scandal are never spelled out but lurk suggestively in the background as McMahan is revealed to be up to his clean-cut jaw in something not entirely kosher.

 

Revisiting “The Maltese Falcon”

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 They really do not make movies like this any more!  I watched it again on Saturday night.

the-maltese-falcon12

— You aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are you?

— Why, I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.

— The schoolgirl manner. You know, blushing, stammering and all that.

— I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad. Worse than you could know.

— Good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be…we’d never get anywhere.

— I won’t be innocent.

— Good. By the way, I saw Joel Cairo tonight. Do you know him?

— Only slightly.

— You’re good. You’re very good.

Cracker of a script. Great direction. Great acting.

 

Two worth watching on ABC1

I have been enjoying Sunday nights on ABC with Stephen Fry in America at 7.30.

I have often felt a hot flare of shame inside me when I listen to my fellow Britons casually jeering at the perceived depth of American ignorance, American crassness, American isolationism, American materialism, American lack of irony and American vulgarity. Aside from the sheer rudeness of such open and unapologetic mockery, it seems to me to reveal very little about America and a great deal about the rather feeble need of some Britons to feel superior. All right, they seem to be saying, we no longer have an Empire, power, prestige or respect in the world, but we do have ‘taste’ and ’subtlety’ and ‘broad general knowledge’, unlike those poor Yanks.

What silly, self-deluding rubbish! What dreadfully small-minded stupidity! Such Britons hug themselves with the thought that they are more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than Americans because they think they know more about geography and world culture, as if firstly being cosmopolitan and sophisticated can be scored in a quiz and as if secondly (and much more importantly) being cosmopolitan and sophisticated is in any way desirable or admirable to begin with. Sophistication is not a moral quality, nor is it a criterion by which one would choose one’s friends. Why do we like people? Because they are knowledgeable, cosmopolitan and sophisticated? No, because they are charming, kind, considerate, exciting to be with, amusing … there is a long list, but knowing what the capital of Kazakhstan is will not be on it.

The truth is, we are offended by the clear fact that so many Americans know and care so very little about us. How dare they not know who our Prime Minister is, or be so indifferent as to believe that Wales is an island off the coast of Scotland? We are quite literally not on the map as far as they are concerned and that hurts. They can get along without us, it seems, a lot better than we can get along without them and how can that not be galling to our pride? Thus we (or some of us) react with the superiority and conceit characteristic of people who have been made to feel deeply inferior.

So I wanted to make an American series which was not about how amusingly unironic and ignorant Americans are, nor about religious nuts and gun-toting militiamen, but one which tried to penetrate everyday American life at many levels and across the whole United States. What sort of a design should such a series have? What sort of a structure and itinerary? It is a big country the United States…

Very informative and entertaining.

Then on Friday nights is a new (to us) crime series: George Gently. Set in 1964 – a time that to me seems not all that long ago! – the first episode features great acting, well-delineated characters and a good plot line. I look forward to making this a regular date.

I have added video on both to the Vodpod – see the end of the side-bar.

 
 

Two works of fiction from my August reading

star304 star304star304 star30a1 1. Tom Coffey, Blood Alley (The Toby Press 2008)

Blood Alley seeks to recreate post-war New York. It does so very successfully, the plot ultimately concerned with underworld and high capitalist shenanigans around the creation of the New York UN headquarters. The political incorrectnesses of the time on race and other matters are faithfully recreated, but there is a fairly subtle moral compass for the 21st century at work in the tone too, without losing the authenticity and, um, colour.

I really enjoyed this one.

Chapter One

The dead girl lay beneath me.  The pale yellow streetlamps shed just enough light to let me see her feet and legs clearly.  Black heels and flesh-colored stockings faded into a dark form that curled into a fetal position.  I wanted to look away, but I was here to observe.  I blew on my fingers to warm them and began to take notes.

Finkel turned on his flashlight.

“This is aces,” he said.

She had sustained two bullet wounds, one in her forehead and the other in her midsection.  Purplish bruises circled her neck.  She wore a dark blue dress and a sleek, unbuttoned overcoat that I guessed was cashmere.

An open handbag lay a few feet from her body.  Almost comically, her hat had remained on her head.

It was the middle of November in 1946.  The war had been over for more than a year.  With rationing at an end, people were buying whatever they could afford, although I suspected I was looking at a Manhattan society girl who was never denied anything.

She appeared to be in her twenties.  The hair I could see was red, with permed curls that fell to her shoulders.  Her features were pretty but too thin, as if she ate only half a meal a day.  Her eyes were hazel and had the troubled glaze of a tortured soul who was, at last, at peace.

A smooth line of blood tracked down the alley toward the street.  I wondered if I had stepped in it.

Finkel said he needed stuff from his car.  This was gonna make a swell pitcher.  He gave me his flashlight and told me not to move anything until he came back.  Then he hurried away, threading through stacks of wooden crates stacked ten feet over his head…

See also the author’s blog.

star304star304star304star304 2. Iain Banks, Dead Air (Little, Brown 2002)

As Callum Graham says in the review linked at the title:

…The plot seems to move, not because of, but in spite of global terrorism. Iain Banks looks more at the effects, such as the media’s caginess to deal with the issues of reporting the events on radio, the effects on the public and the general climate of Britain after the events, without getting wrapped up in the hysteria of it. Perhaps this is because, like many of Iain Banks previous characters, Ken is originally from Scotland and sees himself more as an outsider looking in.

By noting these little changes which appear to have happened to England over night Iain Banks captures perfectly a snap shot of every day Britain. He also creates a picture of the British relationship with America. If the planes had been flown into the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia would we have given it as much media coverage?

However, it is not just the above which makes Dead Air irrevocably the here and now of the 21st century. It is the way that Ken as a broadcaster lives and works. Iain Banks successfully contextualises our time period through the voice of Ken on his radio shows. This is done with mentions of the IRA threat from the 70’s to the 90’s, commenting on the now familiar removal of bins from train stations. Ken’s radio tirades also cover the Israeli/Palestine conflict which although has been going on for centuries is just as relevant now as it has ever been. He even comments on his scepticism of those who are against the EU, or as he calls them ‘Europhobes’, and the infringement of CCTV into personal freedoms; all very current issues today…

Stephen Poole in The Guardian was less impressed:

… Dead Air is narrated by Kenneth Nott, a shock-jock on commercial radio who takes a swollen pride in his contrarian opinions. We first meet him at a drug-fuelled loft party in the East End of London, where everyone, for some reason, starts chucking fruit and furniture off the balcony. Ken’s girlfriend, Jo, does PR for a snotty young British indie band called Addicta; he is also sleeping with a woman called Celia (or "Ceel"), who happens to be married to a dangerous gangster.

You probably wouldn’t like to meet Ken. He is one of those annoying, professionally opinionated people who are never off duty. Large portions of the novel are dedicated to expounding his reactions to the latest topics of media discussion, whether he is on air or just chatting in a pub: gun control ("Guns for nutters only; makes sense"), American imperialism, CCTV cameras, Euroscepticism, the death of Diana ("put on a fucking seatbelt"), all get extended libertarian rants. It is a tribute to Banks’s chatty prose skill that these discussions are largely entertaining, if superficially argued.

After hundreds of pages of colourfully diversionary drinking, shagging and talking, Banks eventually remembers that he needs a plot, and so Ken does something unutterably stupid with a mobile phone..

I didn’t fret about the apparent lack of plot in those pages – even if Poole is exaggerating, I feel. I was caught up in the voice, which is brilliantly created; you don’t have to like Kenneth Nott after all. And he is saved by his self-deprecation.

A quote:

… Maybe, even, some tiny little strand of [religious belief], like, for example, the Wee Frees, who are part of the Presbyterian movement in Scotland, which is itself part of the Protestant franchise, which is part of the Christian faith, which is part of the Abrahamic belief-set, which is one of the monotheistic religions … maybe they and only they – all few thousand of them –  are absolutely bang on the money in what they believe and how they worship, and everybody else has been wrong-diddly-wrong-wrong all these centuries. Or maybe the One True Way has only ever been revealed to a one-man cult within the outer fringes of Guatemalan Highland Sufism, reformed. All I can say is, I’ve tried to prepare myself for being wrong, for waking up after I’ve died and finding out that – uh-oh – my atheism was actually, like, a Really Big Mistake.

… If people want to respect their environment by believing that the fish they eat might have been an ancestor, or learn to lower the toilet seats because their chi is leaking out, I’m happy to accept and even honour the results even if I think the root of their behaviour is basically barmy. I can live with that and with them. I hope they can live with me…

 

Yacqub Khayre and Holsworthy plot

Everyone in Australia will be aware of the plot uncovered recently in which it is alleged a small band of Somalis planned to attack the Holsworthy Barracks in South-West Sydney. (Note Jim Belshaw’s reservations in his post Australia’s dumb would be terrorists. Note too that the presumption of innocence applies to these men. There is no way we should allow terrorism to water down our own hard-won legal system.)

Given all that, its is well worth reading for humanity’s sake the admirable story Ibrahim Khayre and Somalia | Yacqub Khayre and Holsworthy plot | Selma Milovanovic in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

IBRAHIM KHAYRE wipes away tears and shakes his head.

To him, the story of his nephew, Yacqub Khayre, an accused terrorist, is one of a system that failed an intelligent boy.

It is a story that began in the chaos of war in Mogadishu in 1991, when Ibrahim, who was already living in Australia, brought three-year-old Yacqub and his family here from Somalia to save them.Yacqub grew up in Melbourne’s Gladstone Park and was schooled locally, before becoming friends with Lebanese boys who were a ‘‘bad influence’’.

This week it ended in the arrest of Yacqub, 21, who is alleged to have travelled to Somalia this year, where he attended a camp where ‘‘weapons and military training may have happened’’. At the same time, his co-accused allegedly sought a religious ruling to give the group, suspected members of jihadist sect al-Shabab, approval to attack the Holsworthy army base and a military target in Victoria.

Ibrahim Khayre is a law-abiding citizen who runs a coffee shop. He is not religious, looks after his family and otherwise keeps to himself. He migrated to Australia in 1985 and, in 1991, brought his brother, Yacqub’s father, to Australia along with the rest of the family…

In 2006, the police rang him, trying to track down Yacqub. ‘‘I said, ‘I don’t know where he is. You took him from my house. He could be sleeping with terrorists for all I know.’’’

He saw his nephew once, a year later, but the next time Ibrahim heard of Yacqub was on Tuesday, when a man showed him a newspaper front page in his coffee shop.

Ibrahim says the system let him down. ‘‘The state who said we want to help, they did not. They left him out in the cold. It’s the Government that tied our hands.’’

Ibrahim sits at home, plagued by insomnia, crying constantly. His tears flow as he utters the words he says he thought he would never say. He regrets bringing his family to Australia, even though it saved their lives.

Another issue in this case is the use of private unarmed guards at Australian military bases. I first noted this practice sometime in the 1980s at Victoria Barracks in Sydney and thought 1) they looked inappropriate compared with actual soldiers manning the gates and 2) what a silly way to save money. I see the government is going to review this absurd policy. I wonder too how sophisticated electronic and CCTV surveillance is around such bases. It strikes me they should be very sophisticated, but I somehow doubt they are. In the old days no-one would really have imagined a terrorist attack on such things, the worst scenario way back then being peace demonstrators who are not generally homicidal.

Thomas noted on Twitter that the story was carrying Melbourne-Sydney rivalry just a bit too far. 😉 He lives not far from Holsworthy, I should add, near enough to hear when they are practising with their artillery, as I also did as a kid growing up in Sutherland.

Addendum

isirmohamud_wideweb__470x3110

Could apply to this post too.

 

June review catch-up 2

Some quickies.

star30 star30star30  1. Ed Gaffney, Enemy Combatant (2008)

A good courtroom drama with a strong post 9/11 twist. It may be improbable, but not so improbable as to not make you wonder “What if?” See also Thoughts On "Enemy Combatant" by Ed Gaffney.

star30star30star30star30  2. Susanna Gregory, To Kill or Cure (2007)

I haven’t read many in the Medieval Whodunnit genre. This one is sufficiently entertaining and informative. See also Euro Crime.

star30star30star30star30star30 3. 1945: The Year That Changed the World (DVD 2008)

This series (2 DVDs) is excellent. There are contributions from first-rate historians, one of whom, Ian Nish, taught me Japanese and Chinese history in 1962! Yes he is rather older now. If you check YouTube you will find it well represented.

star30star30star30star30 4. Frontier: Worse than Slavery Itself (DVD 1997)

Famous so-called “Black Armband” presentation of Indigenous Australia and European settlement 1830 – 1860, based on the work of Henry Reynolds. I was particularly struck, of course, by the NSW material which focussed on the Dangar family of the Hunter/New England areas, and on some of the better documented massacres of those years. The series still stands up well despite the reaction to aspects of it from the likes of Keith Windschuttle. It really is good on the role of evangelical thought as a conscience of the times.

It is interesting to compare the more recent SBS series First Australians (2008). Its episode dealing with NSW in the early to mid 19th century drew attention to another settler family, the Suttors of Brucedale, whose relations with the Aboriginal people were comparatively enlightened.

 
Comments Off on June review catch-up 2

Posted by on June 23, 2009 in best viewing 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, dvd, Fiction, film and dvd, History, Indigenous Australians, reading, Thriller

 

Perception versus fact on crime in Australia

crime There is a brief report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that caught my eye while I had my morning coffee at Juice & Java.

A DAILY media focus on crime is largely to blame for more than a third of people wrongly believing a terrorist attack is imminent on Australian soil and that the crime rate is rising, experts say.

Three-quarters of Australians believed a terrorist attack would happen in South-East Asia last year while more than a third thought it would happen at home, a survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology has found.

Despite a decrease in the crime rate, 65 per cent of people surveyed for the 2007 report said they believed it had risen, with about half saying it had increased substantially.

Researchers Lynne Roberts and David Indermaur said Australians remained sceptical or ambivalent about the performance of the criminal justice system, wrongly believed courts were too soft on criminals and mistakenly thought they were at much greater risk of becoming a crime victim than was actually the case.

"These misperceptions are generally attributable to the main source of information respondents rely on for their picture of crime and criminal justice – the popular media," the researchers said…

That figures! But there is a lot more in the Australian Institute of Criminology Report than that. I urge you to go there and download a copy. There is much else of interest on the site too.

 

Book reviews as promised…

Fiction

Certainly Siddon Rock has many fine moments and does evoke a rural setting and its period (the 1940s) very well, even if Persia is referred to as Iran and Pakistan, then non-existent, mentioned. Perhaps too I am tiring of magic realism, or, in our Australian context, the Wintonesque; when people wander around with blue spots floating above their heads I tend to turn off. Nonetheless, the novel is well worth reading.

Cut Her Dead is an effective crime fiction, but the best of this lot is the witty T is for Trespass.

Non-fiction

In a field where pseudohistory is rampant – think Da Vinci Code – this intelligent, well-written introduction is a must read. It is so refreshingly no-nonsense.

Excerpt:

Introduction: Recouping Our Losses

It may be difficult to imagine a religious phenomenon more diverse than modern-day Christianity. There are Catholic missionaries in developing countries who devote themselves to voluntary poverty for the sake of others, and evangelical televangelists who run twelve-step programs to ensure financial success. There are New England Presbyterians and Appalachian snake handlers. There are Greek Orthodox priests committed to the liturgical service of God, replete with set prayers, incantations, and incense, and fundamentalist preachers who view high-church liturgy as a demonic invention. There are liberal Methodist political activists intent on transforming society, and Pentecostals who think that society will soon come to a crashing halt with the return of Jesus. And there are the followers of David Koresh — still today — who think the world has already started to end, beginning with the events at Waco, a fulfillment of prophecies from Revelation. Many of these Christian groups, of course, refuse to consider other such groups Christian.

All this diversity of belief and practice, and the intolerance that occasionally results, makes it difficult to know whether we should think of Christianity as one thing or lots of things, whether we should speak of Christianity or Christianities.

What could be more diverse than this variegated phenomenon, Christianity in the modern world? In fact, there may be an answer: Christianity in the ancient world. As historians have come to realize, during the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison.

Most of these ancient forms of Christianity are unknown to people in the world today, since they eventually came to be reformed or stamped out. As a result, the sacred texts that some ancient Christians used to support their religious perspectives came to be proscribed, destroyed, or forgotten — in one way or another lost. Many of these texts claimed to be written by Jesus’ closest followers. Opponents of these texts claimed they had been forged.

This book is about these texts and the lost forms of Christianity they tried to authorize…

It is worth the price of admission for Chapter 4 alone, on Morton Smith and the “Secret Gospel of Mark”. Is it a forgery, and if so, whodunnit? Fascinating, whatever your own religious views. Ehrman delivers an open verdict.

See also Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith by Anthony Grafton in The Nation January 7, 2009. “The sexual undertones of the document have led some to suggest, explicitly or by innuendo, that Smith, a gay man, forged the text for personal reasons…”. From Grafton’s article:

In 1973, Morton Smith, professor of ancient history at Columbia University, shook the world–or at least the world of scholars who work on early Christianity. Fifteen years before, Smith had found an unknown document in the Mar Saba Greek Orthodox monastery, fifteen kilometers southeast of Jerusalem–an ancient Christian text that no one before him had ever mentioned. A letter in Greek, originally composed in the second century by a church father, Clement of Alexandria, and addressed to one Theodore, it was handwritten in ink, in an eighteenth-century hand, on the blank end pages of a seventeenth-century printed book. Less than a thousand words long but rich in detail, the text attacked one of the wonderfully named sects that made the early centuries of Christianity so complex–the followers of Carpocrates, or Carpocratians. These heretics, as Clement and Theodore saw them, claimed that they possessed a secret version of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, they believed, had taught his followers that they were freed from the law and could do whatever they wanted without sinning. According to one of their Christian critics, Irenaeus, they actually thought they earned salvation by "doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts."

Clement assured Theodore that he had been right to silence these "unspeakable teachings." But he also admitted that there was a secret version of Mark’s Gospel–a version that the Church of Alexandria made available only to initiates. In a passage that Clement quoted, Jesus raised a rich young man from the dead in Bethany. "And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan"–a passage that suggests a libertine interpretation of its own, at least to the twenty-first-century reader. At the same time, Clement denied that an inflammatory phrase, "naked man with naked man," which the Carpocratians had cited, came from the true secret Gospel. The evil Carpocrates had obtained a copy of the text and "polluted" it with lies.

It was an astonishing discovery…

 
Comments Off on Book reviews as promised…

Posted by on May 25, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Christianity, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, History, OzLit, reading

 

Four from Surry Hills Library 4 – nasty doings in Iraq and the USA

star30 star30star30 Scott Frost, Point of No Return, Headline 2008.

It starts with a chilling phone call to Pasadena homicide detective Alex Delillo from a former Los Angeles cop, Jack Salem, who tells her: "I saw a boy on a bicycle vanish in a flash of light" before hanging up. The call becomes more ominous when it turns out that Salem was working for a private security firm in Iraq and has since disappeared. The more Alex looks into the case, the more she puts herself in danger; she is treading on the very sensitive toes of people involved in atrocities in Iraq, including the use of children as weapons. Other words of Salem’s ring in her ears: "Everyone dies. The children. You. Me. Every bastard son of a bitch, and all the grey men in suits." What emerges is an unnerving conspiracy that is another indictment of the war in Iraq and the incompetence and corruption of the so-called "nation building" going on there. Exhilarating stuff.

Clearly no fan of the Republicans or George W, Scott Frost extrapolates from the undoubted darkest side of the shadowy world of what we used to call mercenaries a thriller which does strain credibility rather. It’s quite good in its way, but I don’t think I would say “exhilarating”. For more see Point Of No Return by Scott Frost.

 
Comments Off on Four from Surry Hills Library 4 – nasty doings in Iraq and the USA

Posted by on April 9, 2009 in America, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, Thriller, USA, writers

 

Four from Surry Hills Library 3 – strange but good

star30 star30star30star30 we-disappear_sm Scott Heim, We Disappear, Harper Perennial 2008.

The body of a teenage boy is discovered in a Kansas field. The murder haunts Donna—a recent widow battling cancer—calling forth troubling details from long-suppressed memories of her past. Hoping to discover more about "disappeared" people, she turns to her son, Scott, who is fighting demons of his own. Addicted to methamphetamines and sleeping pills, Scott is barely holding on—though the chance to help his mother in her strange and desperate search holds out a slim promise of some small salvation.

But what he finds is a boy named Otis handcuffed in a secret basement room, and the questions that arise seem too disturbing even to contemplate. With his mother’s health rapidly deteriorating, he must surrender to his own obsession, and unravel Otis’s unsettling connections to other missing teens . . . and, ultimately, to Scott himself.

The Backroad Librarian sums up a very insightful review thus: “with We Disappear he has created a work of subtle, eerie potency.” I agree. The novel successfully combines American Gothic with documentary realism – not only about rural Kansas but also about gay life and drug life in the cities.

The edition I read features a “P.S.” of considerable interest.

 
Comments Off on Four from Surry Hills Library 3 – strange but good

Posted by on April 7, 2009 in America, Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, reading, writers

 

2009 book notes 2

Grace Notes cover.indd Four diverse choices from Surry Hills Library.

1. Cormac Millar, An Irish Solution (2004)

I read and greatly enjoyed Millar’s second novel The Grounds in January. I was glad to find his first novel which was alluded to time and again in the second, although The Grounds also stands alone quite well. I have to say I enjoyed The Grounds more, though I still rate this clever novel ***** and add it to my best reads of 2009. For more on Millar go to that January entry.

2. Sheri Holman, A Stolen Tongue (1997)

The title is literal as well as figurative. There are some high praise grabs from some famous people on the covers and fly leaf, but The Name of the Rose this isn’t. It is not without interest in its portrayal of the medieval mind, but I do tend to agree with this blogger.***

3. Jenny Pattrick, Grace Notes (2008)

This one is from New Zealand. The central characters are all in their eighties. Occasionally Grace Notes is a little cloying, but generally speaking it is very witty and often insightful. Some episodes are quite brilliant, and it did retain my interest. Pattrick captures voice very well. I couldn’t but compare the manners portrayed as reflecting an Australia (in my experience) of long ago, but imagine there are parts where the New Zealand portrayed in Grace Notes would still apply here. It is a very warm and genuine book. I was reminded a little of McCall Smith. ****

4. Shobhaa De, Sultry Days (1994)

This is from India. I can imagine many Indians may find her offensive. In The Nation (May 2004) is a profile of Shobhaa De titled The Maharani of Muck.

Shobhaa De, perhaps better known here as the Maharani of Muck or the Princess of Porn, is India’s most commercially successful English-language author. It’s a crazy claim for a 56-year-old middle-class Indian woman–one who describes herself as a "traditional" mother to six children–to be able to make. But sex sells, even in one of the world’s most socially conservative countries. Bucking all convention, for years De has dared to write lusty, shocking sex scenes, and from a female point of view. In a country where women rarely bare more than two inches of leg and hardly ever file for divorce, she writes about women who, like herself, flee marriages because they are bored. De is author of more than a dozen titles, all of which start with the letter "s" (Sultry Days, Starry Nights, Strange Obsession–you get the point) and all of which depict a level of privilege that most of India’s more than 1 billion impoverished masses cannot even imagine.

The India De knows and writes about is also a far cry from the India pictured by most writers, that of abject urban poverty or quaint village life. "My books put an unflinching gaze on upper-middle-class India," she says. "It wasn’t done before, mainly because we didn’t have writers out of that class." Although her readership represents but a tiny fraction of India’s population–only about 2 percent of India reads English–De’s books are consistently bestsellers, which means they sell between 20,000 and 30,000 copies. Those sales figures sound meager, but they make her Penguin India’s star, and the publisher can’t get enough of her. This year Penguin is repackaging her entire oeuvre in a sleeker format to position her better in the mass market. De’s editor, Karthika Menon, is especially enthusiastic about her second novel, Starry Nights, which she calls "near classic in its freshness and vitality." …

Shobhaa De has a well-rehearsed rebuttal to the criticism that she writes only for the elite: "I don’t have to go live in a slum to prove that my heart bleeds for anybody. There’s no point in me writing for the poor because they are illiterate." De is well aware that, in addition to being the most popular English-language writer in India, she may be the most hated as well. She once boasted that she had received a record number of bad reviews–165–for one book. But she now says that writing forthrightly about sex, as she did in Starry Nights, was a childish rebellion against the strict protocol for women’s behavior in India. "The bad press was just something that acted like a prod to see how far I could take it, and I really didn’t give a damn."…

I found the novel enormously entertaining. ***** Best read of 2009

Shobhaa De is also a blogger.

 
Comments Off on 2009 book notes 2

Posted by on March 3, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, writers

 

Tags:

Book reviews concluded

First a “neglected classic”  — James Hanley, Boy (1930 – Oneworld Classics edition with extra material by Chris Gostick 2007). I do recommend Oneworld Classics; there are some excellent titles there, and if they are all as well presented as Boy the series is well worth looking for.

Hanley’s novella was banned for years. There is a detailed account of that on Penniless Press.

But in spite of this outcry from respected figures in the literary world, Boy remained banned from 1935 to 1991, with the exception of two reprints by Jack Kahane’s Paris-based Obelisk Press (in 1936 and 1946) from which Hanley did not receive a penny in royalties.[35] The effect of such a legal case so early in the career of an up-and-coming author was devastating, and it haunted him for the rest of his life. Hanley’s strongly Catholic family were horrified by the incident,'[36] and as John Fordham notes, Hanley himself was outraged by "the publishers’ ‘sheer greed’ in issuing his novel in such a provocative format in the first place, and at their betrayal of professional integrity in their admission of guilt."[37] But the indignity would seem to have severely affected Hanley’s professional confidence too. He refused to speak of Boy for years afterwards and turned down all publishers’ requests for a reprint: although Horizon came close to securing the rights to a fiftieth anniversary edition around 1981, Hanley backed out at the last minute and there was to be no new release of Boy in his lifetime.[38] In the essay ‘Oddfish‘ quoted earlier he is quite scathing about the novel, calling it "shapeless and crude and overburdened with feelings,"[39] and claiming it was a rushed job produced in just ten days. (This is, as Fordham points out, not the case; Boy was in the planning stages at least as early as 1930, one year before its publication.)[40] But the trial of Boy also put a stop to the truly innovative experiments with gender and sexuality that make Hanley’s early works such as The German Prisoner and A Passion Before Death so exciting. After 1935 Hanley turned his attention to more archetypal proletarian writing without the daring homoerotic elements that had featured in his output before then. Dull, formulaic love stories like Stoker Bush (1935), reportage books such as Grey Children (1937) and the overlong and over-rated family drama that is The Furys Chronicle are the products of Hanley’s insecurity about writing books that might have been received in the same way that the 1934 edition of Boy was.

Here perhaps we see just how much wrong can come of the sort of paranoid literary censoriousness that characterised the 1930s. Boy is, as Ken Worpole puts it, "a truly disturbing novel;"[41] it is, in the words of Edward Stokes, "horrifying and dreadful… sordid and horrible,"[42] and it is, to quote Frank G. Harrington, "a gruesome story of the fate of an inarticulate victim."[43] But because the law could see no purpose to the horrors it portrayed other than to lead the country into moral ruin, the creative development of a writer who may have had much more to say on this subject was abruptly curtailed and altered. It’s only with hindsight now that we can see that Hanley’s works of the early thirties were the best he ever produced. This is not to downplay the quality of his writing produced after the trial some of which is excellent. It’s merely to illustrate that, had it not been for the intolerant spirit of the time in which he worked, the writing of James Hanley might have taken a very different course, and Boy would be recognised not for the reasons it is today, but for its inherent quality as a bold and powerful work of 1930s English literature.

Even the Oneworld edition has a clear gap in the chapter describing an “initiation ceremony” on the Liverpool docks; according to Chris Gostick’s afterword, the one good manuscript copy has about four pages of detail which have clearly not found their way into print yet.

I found it bleak indeed, but a great corrective to romantic ideas about the past, and indeed about the working class, even if it is very much on the side of the working class. But there isn’t much hope in Boy. It isn’t nearly as good as Conrad, despite some of the more overheated rhetoric of Anthony Burgess in his preface, but it is more realistic and more honest than D H Lawrence. There are some passages of memorably bad writing, but others that are quite wonderful. I do think enough of it to add it to my Best Reads of 2009. Ken Worpole, a chronicler of working class writing, notes:

Yet these faults are minor compared with the enduring literary impact of the novel’s description of adolescent humiliation. It can be easy to forget just how brutalising physical labour can be. As a former soldier and merchant seaman, Hanley never did. His novels often centred around individuals and small groups trapped by circumstances, and driven to extremes. I interviewed him shortly before his death: a polite, modest and pugnacious man who declared himself obsessively fascinated by those deemed inarticulate, yet whose inner worlds were, in his words, "like great forests or endless seas". Overwrought at times, Boy remains unforgettable; and the meek have yet to inherit the earth.

The second novel is really very good: David Hewson, Dante’s Numbers (2008). It appears that we have a Da Vinci Code takeoff from the title, but this is not really the case. It is much less pretentious, much more ironic, and very much better written that the Great Brown. I give it an 8/10, I think, just short of a “best read”. Perhaps it falls short because I have also been reading Jesse Kellerman’s quite outstanding novel, which I reviewed here yesterday.

You may see what another reader thought here.

In my mind Dante’s Numbers is action-packed suspense at its most intelligent. By transplanting Nic Costa and his fellow Italian detectives into the dizzying world of Hitchock’s ‘Vertigo’ in San Francisco the author is able to juxtapose the US and Italy. This makes for some fascinating plot and character developments.

The absence of clichéd police officers is to be highly commended. Although pathologist Teresa Lupo is a light-hearted character, she doesn’t hang around making horrible jokes. All four of the main characters are thoroughly plausible human beings.

There is a great author blog too: davidhewson.com.

 
Comments Off on Book reviews concluded

Posted by on February 5, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, writers

 

Quote of the week, and book reviews 1

The quote of the week comes from the best of this week’s three books, The Brutal Art by Jesse Kellerman (2008).

I’ll end as I began: with a confession. I am not now, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be, a genius. Odds are, neither are you. I feel obligated to point this out, both because it has taken me a while to understand my own limitations and because these days we’ve gotten the idea into our heads that every person has infinite potential. The briefest spell of sober reflection reveals this to be a gentle lie, designed to cradle those with low self-esteem.

Ordinariness is nothing to be ashamed of. It carries no moral weight. I don’t believe that geniuses are worth more in some cosmic Blue Book. They are worthy of more attention, of course, because they’re so rare – one in a million, or rarer. What that means for the rest of us is that someone has to be the first of the remaining 999.999 souls; and the higher up you are, the closer you are to the genius’s vantage point.

To pursue that – to clamber up – to stretch out fingertips in the hopes of grazing the surface – can you imagine a more uniquely modern aspiration? A better metaphor for our oversaturated era than the desire to be president of the fan club? The hero for the age is Boswell…

Bit of a genius himself is Kellerman, and yes a US writer. The Guardian preview notes:

Faye and Jonathan Kellerman are both bestselling thriller writers, but it seems that their greatest contribution to the genre could be their son, Jesse, whose latest psychological drama is as startlingly original as his first two. This author, already an award-winning playwright, has no need of blood and bullets to build tension; he knows exactly which buttons to push to keep readers anxiously engaged – even when the plot apparently involves nothing more sinister than a New York art gallery owner, Ethan Muller, who discovers a cache of brilliant but disturbing drawings by a mysterious artist who has since disappeared. Kellerman writes with grace and style, and shows nimble creative footwork when long-buried secrets about Ethan’s own family begin to break through the fictions carefully constructed by people who want the past to remain somewhere else.

“An essential read for all, The Brutal Art is the best thriller I’ve read in years.” That’s Civilian Reader’s view. I would agree. Definitely a best read of 2009.

From Jesse Kellerman’s site (linked above):

Who are some of your favorite writers?

This is a very partial list that follows no particular order.

My parents
Vladimir Nabokov
Stephen King
Evelyn Waugh
Jim Thompson
Ruth Rendell
Elmore Leonard
John Fowles
Kurt Vonnegut
David Mamet
David Ives
Sam Shepard
Graham Greene
Samuel Beckett
Tom Wolfe
Richard Dawkins
Both the Bible and the Bab

Two more book reviews to come…

 
Comments Off on Quote of the week, and book reviews 1

Posted by on February 4, 2009 in America, Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, USA, writers

 

2009 book notes: 1

jan06 The current Surry Hills Library crop has thrown up two excellent novels (Best Reads of 2009), one just short of that but still very good, and one ordinary novel with a good plot line.

Cormac Millar, The Grounds (Penguin 2006/7) – crime fiction ***** Best Read of 2009

This is just delightful in every way: witty, stylish, intelligent, and a good story as well. It’s up there with the best in crime fiction, social satire, and sheer enjoyment. The author is clearly conservative, but then this has never been unusual in satire. Among the targets are the sacred cows of university “reform” and international eduspeak and corporate jargon.

‘…My new system is going to let the academics do their work, and give us all something to celebrate going forward.’

The contagious phrase ‘going forward’, used at the end of a sentence, denoted a positive mental attitude and was obligatory in all statements and interviews given by managerially minded persons.

See: Cormac Millar’s Home Page and Book Review: The Grounds by Cormac Millar. That reviewer wouldn’t know good writing if it bit her on the bum; what she deplores I revelled in!

Jose Luis de Juan, This Breathing World (Arcadia 2007; first published in Spanish in 1999) – crime fiction, pomo to the hilt **** Best Read of 2009

Imagine a scribe/amanuensis in post-Augustan Rome channelling Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You can’t? You will if you read this. Yes, it’s all a bit Borges, but it is very cleverly done and there’s much lovely writing. The other setting is Harvard University in the 1960s where crimes committed in Ancient Rome seem to be resurfacing. Plays with your head, it does. Intertextuality on steroids. It is also very gay and quite amoral. So be warned. Personally I loved it, and learned along the way a lot about how authorship and writing were seen in Rome.

See: This Breathing World, where The Guardian reviewer likes it rather less than I did.

Magdalen Nabb, Vita Nuova (Soho 2008) – crime fiction **** Best Read of 2009

Synopsis (from the publisher): Daniela is a quiet single mother studying for a doctorate in chemistry. She rarely goes out, so her murder in her bedroom at the family’s new villa seems inexplicable. It is true that her mother, who appears to be an alcoholic; her younger sister, who has had mental problems; and her father, who has made his money running nightclubs and is probably involved in the international sex trade, are not your average home-loving Italian nuclear family, but what can she have done to be singled out for slaughter? And why has the prosecutor asked specifically for Marshal Guarnaccia to head the investigation?

I took that from Vita Nuova by Magdalen Nabb (Mystery Book Review). Very strong on characterisation and spirit of place, yet I was a little disappointed. That’s not to say it does not merit the “best read” tag.

Published posthumously. English-born Nabb died in Florence in 2007 aged 60.

See: International Noir Fiction: The last Magdalen Nabb.

Aline Templeton, Lying Dead (Hodder 2008/hb 2007) – crime fiction ***

OK, the writing is very ordinary, even at times pedestrian. The plot takes ages to take off, but once it does it is really very well executed.

See: Interview with Aline Templeton.

Quadrant: a footnote

While I have not always slammed everything that appears in John Howard’s favourite mag Quadrant, as searches here and here will show, I am underwhelmed by it in its various post-Robert Manne manifestations. Even so, there are good articles there from time to time, and some good stuff in the literary area. But I have spat at the mag more often than not in recent years: for example — How Martin Krygier ambushed the Quadranters…; Three magazines and an amazing AIDS story… (“You will all be overjoyed to discover that HIV does not cause AIDS. Lord Malcolm will be especially pleased, I should think, as this means he isn’t really sick at all and must have been in hospital all those times for work experience, or a vacation, and all that pain he suffers must just be imaginitis… I look forward to ‘Why the Earth is Flat’ in some future Quadrant; I think we have already had articles on why climate change is a left-wing fantasy…); Vilifying Australia – The perverse ideology of our adversary culture :: Keith Windschuttle (“Windschuttle is to the study or History what the Visigoths were to Ancient Rome. He is the hired assassin of the Culture Wars.”) A bit strong that last one, perhaps, but it rolls off the tongue well.

Now we have a story I first saw on Arthur’s blog: Keith Windschuttle has Sokal on his face. The second link takes you to the original Crikey post:

Margaret Simons writes:

Keith Windschuttle, the editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant, has been taken in by a hoax intended to show that he will print outrageous propositions.

This month’s edition of Quadrant contains a hoax article purporting to be by “Sharon Gould”, a Brisbane based New York biotechnologist.

But in the tradition of Ern Malley – the famous literary hoax perpetrated by Quadrant’s first editor, James McAuley – the Sharon Gould persona is entirely fictitious and the article is studded with false science, logical leaps, outrageous claims and a mixture of genuine and bogus footnotes.

(Bloody ads on Crikey!)

The Sydney Morning Herald has David Marr on the matter:

The hoax was beautifully done. Provoked by Quadrant’s embrace of global warming sceptics, the unidentified hoaxer concocted the article early last year and sent it to Windschuttle. The aim was to "employ some of Quadrant’s sleight-of-hand reasoning devices to argue something ludicrous", the hoaxer later wrote. "Something like the importance of putting human genes into food crops to save civilisation from its own ills, and how this sort of science shouldn’t be scrutinised by the media because, you know, it’s empirical."

Skeptic Lawyer comes in on the defence team with Quadrant Demidenkoed. That is all. I think she misses the point and I commented rather tartly on my Google Reader: “Given the crap Quadrant has published on things like HIV in the recent past, it deserved all it got. The magazine has been unmasked as ‘new political correctness’ rather than serious intellectual enquiry.”  This note expands on that.

I was a Quadrant subscriber in the late 1960s.

Update

On Quadrant see Club Troppo: Who is Sharon Gould?

 
Comments Off on 2009 book notes: 1

Posted by on January 7, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, magazines, reading, weirdness