Friday, 17 December 2010

John Connolly

john connolly book reviews Darker, stranger, more violent than authors previously reviewed, I'm a great fan of John Connolly. As an author he has the necessary writing talents - descriptive powers, ability to structure and pace a novel; he also has an imagination, a feeling for evil and a flair for characters that put him above many other writers around today.

Carl Hiaasen: Skinny Dip

Carl Hiaasen book review skinny dip

The Atlantic at night: beautiful, eh? Not if you're half drunk and your husband has just pushed you over the rail of a cruise ship. And it's your wedding anniversary to boot.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Carl Hiaasen: Lucky You

jesus face on naan bread Bode Gazzer and no-last-name Chub have won the lottery. The two-man white supremacist militia can arm itself to the teeth and live on beer and fried food for life. Sadly for them, there's a fly in the ointment - JoLayne Lucks has also won. Even worse, she's a woman, and worse still -- she has Black Skin. The only thing to do is cunningly beat her up and steal her ticket.

Carl Hiaasen: Native Tongue

snow white at disney world Set in Florida around a poor man's version of Disney World, you know this could get nasty, given Carl Hiaasen's views on Walt and "Team Rodent". You also know, when a policeman shoots dead a vole in chapter one, when a grandmother shoots the foot (twice) of a baddie she hired to kidnap the vole, that Hiaasen's eye for the absurd is functioning as well as ever.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Carl Hiaasen: Double Whammy

largemouth bass: carl hiaasen double whammy Largemouth bass fishing. That should turn you off this review of Carl Hiaasen's second novel. Has JR Hartley written a thriller?


Friday, 10 December 2010

Carl Hiaasen

Romps, rollicking good yarns, flawed heroes, outlandish baddies, behaviour that sounds almost over the top in a novel but can be googled in Florida news sites: Carl Hiaasen has a sense of the absurd and a nose for corruption that shine through his novels.

Ross Thomas: The Eighth Dwarf

"Well sir, we might have to use the dwarf."

"Dwarf!" the Colonel said, spluttering the word in spite of his resolve not to. "Did you say a dwarf?"

"Yes, sir," Baker-Blake said, still smiling, "the dwarf."

If a novel written in 1979 still reads ok in these PC times despite having a villainous, double-crossing dwarf as one of its main protagonists then it must have been skilfully written in the first place. And this being a Ross Thomas work, you can of course guarantee the expertise of the writing.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Audubon "Birds Of America" sells for £7.3 million

A book on birds became the world's most expensive ever when Sotheby's last night auctioned a copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America for £7.3 million. Those of us who buy paperbacks rather than hardbacks and who frequent charity shops and Amazon book sales will be a little taken aback at the price.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Ross Thomas: Out On The Rim

We meet one of Thomas's recurring characters, Booth Stallings, for the first time in this tale of spies, conmen and guerillas set in the Philippines. Then a WW2 second lieutenant, he watches his irregular companion behead a mad medic to keep their position safe, a hell of a bonding exercise as we later come to discover.

Ross Thomas: The Singapore Wink

Salvatore Callese and sidekick Palmisano want retired stuntman Ed Cauthorne to find Angelo Sacchetti. This is problematic as Cauthorne killed Sacchetti two years earlier in a film stunt that went wrong. It's also a problem as Sacchetti, of course, didn't die -- but had good reasons for faking it. His godfather, Mafia fixer Charles Cole, sent the two aged killers to Cauthorne because of their powers of persuasion ...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

World Book Night: One Million Free Books

I'm in a bit of a quandary here: do I applaud a great idea or do I slag it off for being badly executed? Well, most of this blog is about being nice to authors because I've read and liked their books, so let's go the other way and vent some spleen.

World Book Night is a worthy plan to promote reading amongst adults by giving away one million books. The twist is that they'll be given away by 20,000 volunteers:

Ross Thomas: Twilight At Mac's Place

The famous bar has long ago moved from West Germany to Washington but Mac and Padillo are ready as ever to help the good guys in this tale of old spies, dead spies and old, cold spies.

Ex CIA agent Steadfast Haynes has popped his clogs, leaving behind a potentially explosive set of memoirs. Decades of action abroad would have given him more material than Wikileaks could handle so the risk for the US government, and especially for certain smug aristocrats of the secret world, is enormous. Estranged son Granville has been bequeathed the memoirs - before the body's cold the bad guys are wondering whether to kill him or bribe him (if they can't just steal the document).

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Delia Smith: Cookery writer extraordinaire

Bono. Voltaire. Caligula. Delia. One musician, one despot and two writers (albeit of very different sorts). Assuming Voltaire never played in a rock band, the thing they all have in common is the singular aspect of their names. There's a tribe of pygmies in the Amazon basin who've never seen a white man but mention Delia to them and they'll boil up a caiman egg and produce perfect roast potatoes.

Delia Smith, affectionately aka The Blessed Delia, may just be the world's best known cookery instructor. Other television cooks come and go, swearing or gor blimeying unconvincingly, but Delia has lasted for decades and still pulls in the audiences. Her TV shows get ratings that otherwise require naked C-list celebs in a jungle, her books sell like porn to a US Congressman, she's one of the very few topics that amiably crosses generations, she's a bit prim and we love her. Why?

Well, the basic reason is that she's very good at what she does. She shows you what to do and tells you why she's doing it. Her books are the same: calmly written, easy to follow, informative without hectoring. They're well laid out, well illustrated and you know that every recipe will work. Novice cooks love her books, experts admire them. They, together with Leiths Vegetable Bibleare the ones I resort to time and again. Like the best schoolteachers, she won't snarl at you if you need a refresher or a few hints.

delia smith book review christmas pudding As the recipes are clear and orderly, so you'd expect her books themselves to be clear and logical, and indeed they are. Chapter by chapter, descriptions of main ingredients and what to look for when buying, simple cooking through to detailed recipes, the books show a huge amount of forethought and an attention to editing that many other cookery books would do well to emulate.

So, Delia Smith walks on water and probably cooks on it also. Well, she has had the odd mishap -- I thought her "absolute basics" series was slow and too simplistic, and her "How to Cheat at Cooking" was simply awful. It's so unlike her to do things wrong that Cheat got slated by just about everybody. Rest assured: a couple of booboos in a highly public forty year career is a fantastic record.

Want to see some more Delia? Try her own site. Just what you'd expect, an excellent and generous cookery site, with various freebies and over 1000 recipes.

Find all her books at Amazon; if you go for one only, get the classic shown below (ignore the slightly scary picture on the front):

I started with a rock reference; let's finish with another. There's a persistent rumour that Delia baked the cake shown on the cover of the Stones' Let It Bleed.Rolling Stones Let It Bleed Delia Smith and Mick Jagger, ah, we can only dream ...

Friday, 3 December 2010

Ross Thomas: The Cold War Swap

"You can probably find a couple of thousand spots like Mac's Place in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. They are dark and quiet with the furniture growing just a little shabby, the carpet stained to an indeterminate shade by spilled drinks and cigarette ashes, and the barman friendly and fast but tactful enough to let it ride if you walk in with someone else's wife."

This Mac's Place though is in Bad Godesberg and the Cold War is going strong. East Berlin is enemy territory and one of mine hosts is an American spy, albeit reluctantly.  Michael Padillo strongarms himself into partnership with McCorkle as a cover, much as he himself was strongarmed by the anonynous suits with Ivy League accents. Fortunately for the world of victims and novel readers, Mac and Padillo are tough as rattlesnakes and deeply disliking of the professional spies and hangers-on who try to mess up their lives.

bad godenberg
Bad Godesberg before the spies wake up

Mac, apparently by chance, encounters a man on a plane. Herr Maas, a "fat little man who carries a big fat gun", just happens to be heading  for Mac's Place to meet a man from the Jordanian embassy. Minutes after arrival two masked men burst in and kill the Jordanian. And it's downhill for Mac and Padillo from there as the local police, US agents and sundry others poke their noses in, all while Padillo is or isn't on another unwanted assignment.

There are American defectors, East Berlin goodies, East Berlin baddies, friends and dames (sometimes these two are the same person) along the way. The action is prefectly paced, the prose is elegant and  finely honed.

So, another Cold War spy novel?  Done to death? Not at all. Thomas embraces the stereotypes of the genre, the grubby but clever policeman etc, and slots them into the narrative like scenery. They form part of the circumstances but it's Mac and Padillo's actions that make the story, and a very good story it is. Fans of the genre will love this, fans of any well-written novel also.

Click for another blog's take on Cold War Swap

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ross Thomas: Missionary Stew

"He flew into Paris, the city of his birth, on a cold wet November afternoon. He flew in from Equatorial Africa wearing green polyester pants, a white T-shirt that posed the suspect question HAVE YOU EATEN YOUR HONEY TODAY? and a machine-knitted cardigan whose colour, he had finally decided, was mauve."

Morgan Citron has just been released after 13 months in a hellhole of an African jail, kept alive by bribing guards, forced to eat what he was told was monkey (remember, this book is called Misssionary Stew ...). Our hero is on his way back to the States. Looking for a quiet if impecunious life he is subtly dragged into a mix of US political chicanery and wrongdoing in South America, with cocaine and murder to spice things up.

Set against a framework of politicians jockeying for position in a future race for the presidency, ranging from murders in a Florida condo to Latin revolution, this is a typical Ross Thomas novel. The writing is elegant as ever, every word carefully chosen and anything that doesn't lend to the fun omitted. If you haven't read any of Thomas's books yet, grab this -- it's a great introduction. If you are familar with him, grab this, it's an excellent continuation.

Ross Thomas

If you like elegantly written, cleverly plotted, crime/spy novels, Ross Thomas is the author for you. Understated, crudity-free, you can read his books as either straight adventure or as gently biting comment on the frailties and dishonesty of individuals and society.

Thomas shows affection for many of his characters, possibly because they're based on the people he knew in his non-writing career, and several appear and reappear:

Artie Wu, the vast, elegant Chinaman in distant line for the Chinese throne. From early, crooked youth to marriage and fatherhood (via the aristocratic Aggie), Wu is the immovable rock behind the irresistible con.

Quincy Durant: Wu's partner in crime, the scarred hard man with the sensitive soul. If you think that's a cliché, don't worry, Thomas handles it perfectly and without sentiment.

Quincy and Wu appear in: Out On The Rim

Michael Padillo: part-owner of Mac's bar, develops from grubby US spy to reluctant hero.

McCorkle: first name Cyril, hence everybody calls him Mac. Padillo's partner in business and in whatever comes along to bother them and theirs.

Mac and Padillo appear in: The Cold War Swap and Twilight At Mac's Place

Throw in an a huge supporting cast from Otherguy Overby, con man, to Georgia Blue, ex secret service and now freelance crook (loveable and deadly, injustice and time in a Phillipines jail will do that). Throw in plots and sub-plots where nobody can be trusted unless you have to, and even then you keep one hand on your gun and one eye on the money. All of these and you know that whichever book you read you won't be disappointed: Ross Thomas has never written a bad book and I doubt he's ever written a bad sentence. If I had to choose one word to describe his work I'd say "polished".

Don't read him if you want buckets of blood and a headcount like a Rambo film: do read him if you like style that doesn't insult your intelligence.

Characters appear again and again, so what order should you read them in? It doesn't matter: where a bit of history is needed Thomas provides it in a few sharp sentences. His work actually went out of fashion (Clancy-like blockbusters and fancy weaponry became fashionable and de rigeur). Indeed, for seven years after his death he was out of print and I had to hunt down his books, hence some very ropey and tatty secondhand copies on the shelves. That meant I read them in the order I found them and don't feel I missed anything by so doing. Now, fortunately, many of his novels have been reprinted by the likes of the excellent St Martin's Minotaur and other sensible publishing houses.

What of Thomas's history? There are many who think that he was a spy himself -- early years spent in various countries working for various NGOs would have been a perfect cover. He certainly captures the venality and cruelty of the government agent and he shows a healthy (but well-mannered) contempt for the soulless political apes and fixers. Whatever the truth (and he's probably up there smiling gently at the debate), his writing rings true.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest

Final volume in Larsson's Millennium Trilogy and the focus switches to Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, misanthropic hacker and survivor. She has to face the power of the Swedish state in two guises: a corrupt group of secret operatives and the State proper.

Salander faces murder charges: she has the unwanted help of the crusading magazine Millennium and editor Blomqvist's sister, a lawyer. Against her she has the state, the spies, Hell's Angels and a psychopathic killer who feels no pain. Can she use her extraordinary skills (computer hacking, disguise, violence) and will her actions hinder those who are trying to help her? Well, yes and yes are the obvious answers but one of Larsson's skills lies in handling the different threads of the plot, bringing them together and hurling them apart as necessary, like speeding cars trying to knock each other off the road.

More of the secrets of Salander's tormented past are teased out, explaining how the confrontations of her adult life are just about inevitable. Yet the only person who wouldn't use that past as excuse or explanation is Salander herself.

All this is neatly counterpointed by the good guys of the law agonising over the intricacies of the Swedish constitution (don't knock them, look at how long it takes to free an innocent person in the UK, then wait eight years for piddling compensation because a judge doesn't like you). Some of the final resolution of these conflicts is a little rushed and flawed, almost as though it's the author who's trying to convince himself rather than the reader. A minor cavil.

Recommended? Absolutely. Thrilling, horrible, violent, sad, ultimately uplifting. Make sure you read this as the last of the three though.

See The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -- The Book and The Movies for a discussion of books and both Swedish and US movies.