Monday, December 24, 2012

Charlotte Elkins and Aaron Elkins write an amusing art-historical mystery.

This novel sounded like it would be amusing, especially since it was set in Santa Fe and concerned Georgia O’Keefe.  I had not encountered this writing couple before, but I will keep a look out from now on.

A Dangerous Talent

Alix London, the heroine of Charlotte Elkins’ and Aaron Elkins’ novel A Dangerous Talent (270 pages, Thomas & Mercer, $14.95) is trying to make her way as an art restorer and advisor to collectors.  She is struggling in her career, largely because she is not well known.  And what people do know about her, they know because of her father.  And that is really no help at all.

Geoff, her well-meaning but utterly frustrating father, has himself just come out of prison for his major role in a huge art forgery ring.  The well-heeled and extraordinarily easy life to which he had introduced his daughter has simply disappeared, and she feels that if she were never to hear from him, it would be too soon.

He has helped her behind the scenes, though, with his long-standing and not so terribly tarnished connections, and in addition he has helped her find a great restoration gig—she is cleaning and restoring the works of a wonderful collector, who has also left the country for a while and allowed Alix to stay in her apartment while she works.  In the middle of this work, she is approached by a different collector who would like to take her on as an advisor to search for art and to help develop her taste.  Alix responds warily; but when this woman, Chris Lemay, proposes a quick trip to Santa Fe in her private jet to look at a Georgia O’Keefe landscape she is hoping to buy, Alix jumps at the chance to leave rainy Seattle for the desert sun.

Things start to go wrong, however, as soon as the pair arrive in Santa Fe.  Alix is scheduled to stay in a casita at the inn where they have reserved.  But no sooner does she enter with her bags, then she smells gas.  And in minutes the whole place has exploded.  Everyone apologizes for the accident, but she senses that there is more to it.

These feelings intensify when the art dealer they have arrived to meet is murdered before they have had much time to do more than say hello to the woman.  This cannot be coincidental, and they are terribly confused about what it all means.

Shuffling around and trying to make sense of it himself, is the handsome and deceptive FBI agent, Ted Ellesworth, who first presents himself as a wealthy Boston collector in town to see some of the same paintings Alix and Chris have come to see.  He is suspicious of the young and attractive Alix, however, because he knows about her father and he cannot imagine that she is not involved in the art scams that he has come to Santa Fe to investigate.

There are many more complications, a few more murders and attempted murders before things start to become clear.  The big issue for Alix, aside from staying alive, is whether or not she can ever forgive her father.  Let’s just say that the novelists make it so that she really has very little choice.

This is an engaging novel, well-paced and carefully plotted, with likable characters and a very satisfying ending.  I will definitely watch for more mysteries by this interesting couple.

Charlotte and Aaron Elkins

A Dangerous Talent is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Matt Cairone tells a chilling tale of gambling and murder.

This novel sounded intriguing, not least because it was called “an existential work of literary fiction” in the publishers blurb.

The Brit

The Brit (346 pages, CreateSpace Publishing, $10.50) tells the story of the professional gambler, T.S. Fowler, and various people who encounter him during his short time in Las Vegas, Nevada.

T.S., who is mostly called The Brit in the novel, has come to Las Vegas to improve his earnings at poker, which he plays for high stakes, as does his wife, and they both support themselves in this way.  The Brit is not cheating or working any system besides luck and his knowledge of the game.  But he gets so into playing that he hardly eats, pops amphetamines to stay awake, and drinks, with coffee or gin, depending on whether he wants to keep playing or to crash.

On this particular visit to Las Vegas, he seems to be doing well in reconstructing his fortunes.  He is strung out, but he still manages to keep up decent conversational patter, and when he does chat late one night with an attractive corporate lawyer, she is on her guard, but she likes him enough to give him her card.

Meanwhile, in London, his wife Edith is trying to cope with a sense that her life has become meaningless.  She visits a counselor and feels for the first time in a long time happy about her prospects and the chance of working things out with the husband, whom she realizes she hardly knows.

During his second day, the Brit’s luck turns sour, and he almost instantly loses not only all his gains but everything he bought with him to Las Vegas.  This sends him into a crazed spell in which he does some horrendous things, and the next thing Edith hears is that he is being held in a Las Vegas jail on an indictment for murder.

Edith responds to his call and heads to Las Vegas with the little cash she has and no idea where to turn.  In the meantime, the Brit has phoned the lawyer, Mary, explaining his plight and asking for her help.  She says she will try to help him find an attorney, but she does nothing and he is appointed a public defender.  That turns out to be an overworked but very competent and concerned young man, who helps the Brit to shape a defense.  He calls Mary again, however, and asks her to help with his wife.

Feeling guilty, Mary agrees to contact Edith and offer her a place to stay when she arrives in Las Vegas.  The two women hit it off immediately, and the intensity of their feelings help them both deal with the crises surrounding them.  I say “crises” because everything seems to go wrong.  The judge rejects a plea—because he is upset that a Lockerbie defendant has been set free in Britain; there is an explosion at the jail; and Edith ends up returning to London alone.

It is a simple tale, almost a long short story or a novella, but it is powerful and thought provoking in lots of ways.  I am not sure I would call it existential, but I would recommend it nonetheless.

Matt Cairone

The Brit: Drawing Dead is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

John Boyne writes a powerful novel about friendship and war.

The Absolutist

John Boyne’s The Absolutist (320 pages, Other Press, $16.95) tells a riveting story about the friendship between two teenage soldiers during the First World War.  Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft meet during training in Aldershot in England before being sent to France to engage in fighting.

The novel is told in retrospect by Tristan, and it quickly becomes clear that of the two, he is the one who survived the war.  Clearly he is shaken by the experience, and as the details emerge, through both his recounting of the experiences themselves and his story as he tells it to Will’s older sister after the war, we come to realize a wrenching and devastating experience whose enormity we only gradually understand.

In training, Tristan and Will become friends, even though they come from different backgrounds—Will’s father is a vicar in a prosperous town, and Tristan’s father is a butcher in grimy North London.  Be that as it may, these two good looking and intelligent young men become soul mates and they find a way of facing the horror of training and what will come after with a certain degree of equanimity.

Their intimacy intensifies, in a way, as they, but especially Will, befriend a conscientious objector among the twenty young men in their regiment.  Wolf, this friend, is outspoken and insistent on his objections to the war.  At first Tristan is simply jealous of Wolf.  He is spending considerable time with Will, and Tristan resents any time that he spends away from the man he has come to love.  When, still in Aldeshot, Wolf is murdered, after it is made to look like he is trying to escape, Will is knocked for a loop.  Tristan is not so quick to imagine a conspiracy, but Will is sure.  He is devastated by Wolf’s loss and what it implies, but he does not discover until later how much it means to him.

Meanwhile Tristan is mooning over Will, and before they leave England, Will initiates a sexual encounter that thrills and confuses Tristan.  He is thrilled for obvious reasons, but he is confused because Will ignores him and refuses to talk about their experience afterward.  He is becoming more and more concerned about the political situation and has no interest in talking about their personal affairs.  

Once in France, the experience of the trenches is told in vivid and grueling detail.  In the midst of the mud and the lice and the constant death all around them, Tristan is still obsessed with Will, and almost to increase the torment, Will drags him off for another encounter, even as he treats him more sternly and almost hostilely.

When Tristan is trying to tell Will's sister what happened to her brother, she knows he is hiding something, and he is hiding it from us as well.  What finally emerges is that when Will sees a brutal atrocity that seems to him to be against any conventions of war or humanity, he turns against the war.  Tristan tries to calm him down, but Will, motivated by an abiding principle, challenges the powers that be and finds himself in opposition to his commanding officers.

Needless to say, this is an uncomfortable position, but what makes it even more difficult in these extreme conditions is the drama that is played out between these two men as the life and death intensity of the war is played out all around them.

Boyne tells this story beautifully, and I don’t want to reduce any of the impact of what happens in the end.  I will say, though, that this is a beautifully crafted novel that will cause you to keep thinking about it for a long time to come.

John Boyne

The Absolutist is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nicholas Sparks has another hit on his hands.

I always feel a little funny reading Nicholas Sparks novels.  They are deeply sentimental and almost a little cheap.  But they are told well, and they seem to make fine films.  This one is no exception.


The Lucky One

Most Nicholas Sparks novels feature a handsome but misunderstood young drifter and a gorgeous, but lost or grieving, young heroine, and this one is no exception.  The Lucky One (416 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $7.99) tells the story of Logan Thibault, a Marine veteran who had extensive experience in Iraq, and Beth, or Elizabeth, a young divorcee with a ten-year-old son, Ben.

While on tour in Iraq, Logan found a photo in the sand, and while he tried to find its owner, he also carried it with him and began to think of it as his lucky charm.  After returning to the States, his best friend from the Marines persuaded him that this photo had saved his life in a number of situations and that he owed the woman in the picture at least his thanks.

With this advice and because of a gnawing emptiness he was feeling, Logan walked however many thousands of miles it is from Colorado to North Carolina, for in a small North Carolina town was where he believed he would find the young woman in the picture. 

When he gets to the town, though, he first encounters a sleazy deputy sheriff, whom he catches ogling and photoing naked coeds at a local river.  After an encounter with this deputy persuades him that he should keep his distance, we readers are discovering that he is actually the adolescent-seeming ex-husband of the heroine, Beth.

Keith Clayton, this deputy, is from the first family of this small town, and he is obviously as foolishly conceited as they come.  The first sign of his badness comes from his interactions with his son.  Ben is a bookish and musically-inclined young kid, and Clayton really wanted an athlete for a son.  He is brutal with the kid, and poor Ben reacts as one might expect.  He is miserable when he has to spend time with his father, and he dreads the grueling games of catch his father inflicts on him.

Clayton is even worse than this, though.  We discover that he has been trailing and then chasing off—with the force of the “law”—anyone Beth has dated since their divorce.  This makes it particularly galling to him that Logan has turned up as a worker at the kennel that Beth and her grandmother run and that the two seem to be hitting it off.  Ben has come to idolize Logan too, not only because he seems willing to spend time with him, but because he takes so much pleasure in doing so.

These three adults—Logan, Beth, and Clayton—are on a collision course, and for a while it seems as if Clayton may have the upper hand, but Beth and Logan are ready to fight back, and finally they do so with all they are worth.

Nicholas Sparks can tell a good story, and as always his Southern settings have a particular charm.  His plotting is strong, and although he is not above a cheap trick or two at the end, he writes a story that is compelling and in many ways true.

Nicholas Sparks

The Lucky One is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alan Furst writes another wonderful thriller.

Who can resist a new novel by Alan Furst?  This one is as good as any.

Mission to Paris

True to form as the novelist-historian of World War II, Alan Furst approaches the war from a new perspective in Mission to Paris (272 pages, Random House, $27).  The story focuses on a Hollywood actor, of Austrian extraction, who is sent to Paris just before the outbreak of the war.  It seems that the powers that be in Hollywood thought an anti-war film would be a good idea.  The Nazi spies, or one can hardly call them spies, the Nazi officials in Paris at this time thought that an Austrian actor could be very useful to their purposes and they decided to use him and dispose of him, as they were already doing to so many.

Frederic Stahl is suspicious about the Germans who are wining and dining him, however, and he finds their political pronouncements increasingly distasteful.  So much so that he approaches the American embassy and talks to someone of considerable importance there.  When it seems that he is dissatisfied with the advice that he not worry, he is asked whether he would like to serve a more important function.  When he jumps to that offer, his role as a spy is initiated.

Furst makes all the details of this tale bristle with life.  When Stahl is dealing with the smarmy and self-assured Germans, it is easy to feel his disgust; and as he carries out simple, but exceedingly dangerous activities, his excitement is palpable.  Furst is clearly having fun with his subject here, and there is every reason that he should.

When it turns out that Stahl, the vague and under impressive actor, has outsmarted the Nazis, even after they have had him in the German capitol and have (they thought) nearly persuaded him to return to Germany,  they refuse to believe that they have been outsmarted. But Stahl and his American supporters have the last laugh.  The ending is almost funny.

Furst is at his best here, and this is a novel to enjoy.  Like his other successes, this one places him easily in the company of the great thriller novelists of the twentieth century, like John Le Carré and Graham Greene.  He is quickly earning his own place as one of the great novelists of the twenty-first century.

Alan Furst

Mission to Paris is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stephen Chbosky looks on from the sidelines in this provocative novel.

I was intrigued with the premise of this novel—the story of a character who feels alienated from his experiences—and I was pleased to see what this talented novelist could make of it.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (213 pages, MTV Books, $14) is told from the perspective of Charlie, a precocious young school kid, just coming into puberty, who has a checklist of neuroses and hospitalizations, but who writes beautifully and has an astonishing imagination.

The story he tells is of budding sexuality and the even more difficult ins and outs of emotional experience for any early teen.  The novel is written in the form of letters to an unspecified friend.  As the novel proceeds, it almost seems as this letter-writing might be a form a therapy.  What is really great about it, though, is the way we get Charlie’s own responses to things.  Sometimes, we feel that we understand more than he does about what’s going on, but at other times, he really surprises us.

Early on, we see Charlie in his family—the youngest of three children—and with his attentive, but hardly overly doting parents. We also hear of an aunt, a sister of his mother, who was wonderful to the boy but who died young in an automobile accident.

Charlie’s depression at his aunt’s death is enough to send him to the hospital for treatment, and as the novel opens, he is coping with another death, this time his best friend at school, who ended his own life.

With the cards stacked against him in this way, Charlie tries to become friendly with some older kids at school.  At first it seems like they are ready to brush him away, but because he is so smart and articulate, they seem ready to take him up.  The brother and sister, Patrick and Sam, befriend Charlie and he is over the moon with the idea that these kids are his friends, and when he is honest with himself he admits that he finds himself deeply attracted to Sam.

As Charlie gets pulled into the lives of these older students—with their smoking, drinking, and drugs, as well as their more mature approach to relationships and experience—he starts to feel that there is more to life than he realized.  As he tries to cope with the sexual realities around him—friend are having sex, some are gay, some are violent—he feels that he is watching from the sidelines and seems afraid of having experiences of his own.  Everyone else seems to know how to do it, and he’s just confused.

The pleasure of the novel is listening to Charlie as he reacts to the special reading that his English teacher is giving him—he is way beyond his grade in reading and writing—and watching him react to all the events that make up high school life.  But what is really wonderful is watching him grow, as he does, from a child to a bona fide adolescent.

This book is listed for “young readers,” but I think anyone could benefit from its insights.  It’s a coming-of-age novel to put with the best of them.

Stephan Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ryan Quinn writes a college novel like no other.

I am not sure where I read a review of this wonderful novel, but I remember hesitating before I opened it.  Was I sure I wanted to read a novel about college.  Well, I should never have hesitated.  This is a great book.

The Fall

Ryan Quinn’s debut novel The Fall  (336 pages, Amazon Encore, $14.95) tells the story of half a dozen undergraduates in a distinguished liberal arts college in the East.  It doesn’t take Ryan Quinn long to engage us in the fate of his characters, and in fact, their crises are neither unusual nor unexpected.  But he tells the tale in such a way that even the simplest events take on unexpected significance.

Quinn uses a specific technique of presentation for each of the three major characters.  Casey, a star of the football team and a pre-med student, keeps a running account of his activities on Facebook, and these are used to introduce the chapters that are told from Casey’s point of view.  His friend Ian, who was on the high school football team with him but has now moved to tennis as a sport, has aspirations to go to film school, and his chapters are introduced with the kinds of scene descriptions used in screenplays.

The third central character is Haile, who has come to this college to escape from the life of demanding achievement, at Julliard, and crushing concerts, with a string quartet—she plays the violin—and now she hopes to find her own voice as a songwriter and performer.  Her chapters start off with review-like headlines, right from the world in which she hopes to project herself.

But these characters are all twenty years old, and their confused aspirations, their pulsing hormones, and the awkward attempts at social interaction mean that they all have a lot to learn.  For Casey, that means moving on past his sorority-cum-cheerleader type girlfriend and also facing squarely his aspiration for playing professional football.

Ian's challenge is more complicated, not only because he is dealing with questions of sexuality and recognizing that he needs to accept himself as gay, but also because his famous football coach father has moved to the college to save the season when a coach leaves mid-season.  This means that Ian has to work out issues with his father right when he is trying simply to discover himself.

Haile confronts her own demons in the practice rooms and attempts to be creative as she suppresses everything she knows as a performer.  Her challenge is to step out from the shadow of her domineering mother, who has managed her performance career and now disapproves vehemently to her escape from the bight lights.

In addition, these characters are coping with their own desires as friends and lovers, to each other but also to a rich cast of characters who take the same classes, play on the same teams, or work at the same campus jobs.

Two faculty members also emerge from the crowd: a charismatic art teacher who moves the students to confront whatever is most meaningful to them; and a music teacher, who knows talent when she sees it and allows students to discover for themselves where their talent lies.  These professors are played off again each other as the crisis of the story builds, but it is really the students and their rich process of self discovery that makes this novel so powerful.

I recommend it without reservation.

Ryan Quinn

The Fall is available at Powell's and Amazon.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Bob Smith has a success with gay science fiction.

Bob Smith is a comic writer, and I have enjoyed some of his earlier work. But this novel is really entertaining in all sorts of ways.

Remembrance of Things I Forgot

Remembrance of Things I Forgot (272 pages, University of Wisconsin Press, $25.95) is your typical gay science fiction narrative.  I mean who wouldn’t want a time machine to go back and figure out what has gone wrong in a relationship or to try to change, just slightly, some of the things that have happened to you?

John Sherkston has these fantasies just as anyone might, but in his case--a gay guy with a partner who has invented a time machine—these are more than idle thoughts.  In fact, when Taylor drags him out to see the new invention, John is simply irritated and feels that he has to make the break.  He’s been more and more upset with Taylor since Taylor shifted politically so far to the right that he is working for the second Bush administration and making fun of democratic ideals.

When John gets to the hotel that hides the secret laboratory, he finds himself challenged once again by Taylor’s charm, and when he hears what the time machine can do, he imagines going back just far enough to keep Taylor from changing his political sympathies and maybe correcting a few other things, like his sister’s suicide, which devastated him but a few years before, and his father's death from alcoholism.

Of course, no one but John is surprised when he steps into the time machine and is hurled back to 1986.  Dick Cheney, the vice president, has flipped the switch, but John hopes that Taylor knows what is going on and will try to bring him back.

The first person John encounters in the past is his earlier self, Junior.  John is impressed at how much better looking his older self is, and Junior responds positively to John’s good build—he has recently been working out—and his familiar manner.  At first Junior feels that he has fallen for an older man, but when John persuades him that he is an older version of himself, Junior feel that it is just his luck that he would fall in love with himself.

John explains to Junior what he wants to achieve, and Junior at first doesn’t believe that his sister would commit suicide.  He is also appalled when John tells him about the political climate of the age and the particular egregiousness of Bush and Cheney, who had led the country into the Iraq War.

John and Junior hook up with an earlier Taylor, whom Junior hasn’t yet met, and all three decide they should do something to stop Bush form being elected.  They will travel to Texas on their way to California and do what it takes to prevent Bush’s victory.

Their trip is made more interesting when they recognize that they are being chased and threatened by Dick Cheney, both the vice president and his younger self, who seem to have gathered a militia to stop them.

The novel is beautifully paced and full of fun at every turn.  But what is most wonderful is the encounter with the past.  Aside from having to persuade members of his family who he is, he has to persuade them very difficult things about themselves.  It is a wonderful way to talk about the past and to confront those things that have made experience so difficult.

The novel has a happy ending—happy in the past and in the present as well—but it is how he gets to that ending that makes this such an entertaining book.

Bob Smith

Remembrance of Things I Forgot is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jude Hardin starts a thriller series with an intriguing tale.

I picked up two of Jude Hardin’s novels, but I decided to read the early one first.


Pocket-47 (420 pages, Oceanview Publishing, $24.95) features Nicholas Colt, a private eye who lives in an old airstream trailer in rural Florida.  He’s had a rough life, not least of which included a plane crash that killed his wife and daughter.  At that time, he was a rock musician.  But now he’s simply trying to make ends meet by doing the work of a private investigator.

In this novel, Nicolas is deeply moved when he is asked to find a high school student who has disappeared.  The older sister of the girl is the person who approaches him.  Nicholas remembers his own daughter, and agrees to do this project for far less than his usual fee.

It isn’t too hard to find the missing girl, Brittany.  She’s hiding with an arrogant pimp, who bashes Nicholas as he tries to chase her.  Nicholas finally catches her and manages to spend some time with her.  She is a smart and smart-ass teenager, but he likes her and feels enough fatherly affection to want to save her.  She has other ideas, escaping from Nicholas and keeping her distance.

The story gets more and more complicated, and as it does, Nicholas Colt gets bashed and beaten at every turn.  Jude Hardin seems to enjoy putting him through it, and only occasionally does he offer his long-suffering hero a little down time with his girlfriend, who is not such an easy alternative to the seething bad guys.

When it turns out that Brittany has been carried off in a sort of militaristic cult,  Nicholas figures out a way to infiltrate the compound.  There is more physical endurance for the hero, but he manages to do what he needs to do.

The novel has a certain energy, and some readers will enjoy this hero.  I can’t say that I was won over, and I don’t think I’ll read the second novel in this series, at least not now.

Jude Hardin

Pocket 47 is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

William Boyd links mother and daughter in a fascination tale of espionage and betrayal.

I have liked William Boyd’s recent novels, so I picked up this one published in 2006.  I liked it as much as any.


William Boyd’s Restless (336 pages, Bloomsbury, $14.95) is billed as an historical thriller, and it does a wonderful job of playing two historical periods against each other.

The “present” of the novel is 1976, and Ruth Gilmartin, who is pursuing a doctorate in History at Oxford, is a frustrated and seemingly paranoid mother who lives deep in the Oxfordshire countryside and imagines that someone is lurking in the woods beyond her garden.

Ruth is busy enough raising a young son and trying to cope with a full docket of ESL students.  Her time is so full, in fact, that she has little time for writing her Ph.D. thesis.  But then when is that not true.

Anyway, Ruth is just about at the end of the tether with her seemingly demented mother, when the older woman hands her a document that turns out the be the account of her life as a spy, first in Europe and then in England and the United States.

Ruth can hardly believe that her mother, Sally Gilmartin, is the Eva Delectorskaya whom she reads about in the narrative.  Even harder to believe is the harrowing account of wartime espionage and betrayal, as Eva Delectorskaya becomes Eve Dalton and eventually the Mrs. Sally Gilamartin that Ruth knows as her mother.

As Sally’s narrative is fed to Ruth in small bits, it becomes increasingly engaging.  When Eva is recruited by a handsome British spy, she falls in love and has an intermittent affair, even as her situation becomes scarier and more threatening.

While we read about wartime Europe and the double-crosses of the Second World War, Ruth is still coping with her son, his estranged father in Germany, that man’s brother who comes to visit and brings all sorts of complications including his girlfriend.  And then there are also her students, who are importuning in various ways and even have the temerity to fall in love with her.

One of these narratives is meant to comment on the other, but at times it is hard to decide in which direction the commentary flows.  What is clear, though, is that Ruth becomes so caught up in her mother’s story that she is ready to play a part in it before the curtain falls.

This is a masterful novel and one that makes clear Boyd’s true talent.

William Boyd

Restless is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mohammed Hanif writes an astonishing account of life on the streets of Pakistan.

I read a review of this novel that made it sound both brutal and beautifully written.  It certainly is both.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Mohammed Hanif’s second novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (256 pages, Knopf, $25.95) recounts life among Pakistan’s poorest of the poor.  These are crazy erratic lives, as played out in and around Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments.  Alice Bhatti is a nurse in this institution and the life and death she sees around her all the time are brutal and, at times, electrifying.

We get her life in bits and pieces: she is from the poorest class in Pakistan and her father spends his life cleaning gutters.  Because of an accident of geography—she has been born in what is called The French Colony—she is brought up Catholic, and that is perhaps part of the reason that she is taken on as a nurse at the hospital.

Brought up in a borstal and at times violent in defense of herself and what she loves, she seems so close to the edge that it is amazing that she survives from day to day.

But survive she does, and her story is very beautiful even as it fulfills its inevitable tragic arch.  She is friends with a teenager called Noor, who helps out at the hospital and watches his mother slowly slip to death from cancer.  The relation between Alice and Noor is wonderful to behold, but it offers neither of them more than a solid, if sometimes misunderstood, friendship.

Alice Bhatti also gets close to an older nurse, who tries to toughen her and give her something of a mother’s guidance.  This works to an extent, and the two women together do a lot to save lives and counteract the forces of malevolence that hover round the hospital.

Out of this malevolence emerges a man that Alice comes to love.  Teddy Butt is a body builder and a petty hooligan, who gets involved with an underhand kind of law enforcement that leaves endless young men dead in the outskirts of town.  Alice doesn’t know about this side of his life, but she gets frustrated about how often he spends nights out with his colleagues.

Mohammed Hanif writes with a beautiful and vividly descriptive style that makes it possible almost to smell the world that Alice inhabits.  When it seems that she has performed a miracle in the obstetrics ward, the novel moves into an almost spiritual mode that is both moving and debilitating.

The climax of the novel is as rich as it is painful, but it brings the forces of the story together in the kind of catastrophe that the novel has been preparing us for all along.

Alice Bhatti is one of the great creations of contemporary literature, to be sure.  Read this novel if you read any novel this year!  I will go back and read Mohammed Hanif’s first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Mohammed Hanif

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Alex Grecian writes a wonderfully dreary Victorian thriller.

After reading one Victorian-like blockbuster, I decided to read another, but this one couldn’t be more different from D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day.


The Yard

The Yard (436 pages, Putnam, $26.95) is Alex Grecian’s novel recounting the early days of the Scotland Yard.  Just after the grizzly failure of the police to find Jack the Ripper, London is both angry with the police and ready to blame them for a lot of its woes.

Into this demoralized Scotland Yard, Grecian introduces three key characters.  The first is Walter Day, a young detective who has risen quickly in the ranks and finds himself running a case in which a policeman was dismembered and left in a trunk in the train station.  Day and his colleagues are baffled by the crime, and it does not help that several other detectives refuse to trust this young man and do things to make it harder for him to accomplish anything.

He does have a couple of supporters, though, and one is a rough and ready young constable called Hammersmith, who worked as a boy in coal mines in the north and has come to London to right wrongs, especially for children, when he can.  Another help to Day for fighting crime is a local doctor, Kingsley, who deplores older medical techniques and tries to introduce new ideas, like looking at fingerprints, into the detectives’ arsenal.

Dr. Kingsley is a wonderful character, and his morgue/autopsy room, with its utter disregard of issues like cleanliness and contamination—one has to shudder as the constable shaves with a razor that had been used to slit someone’s throat—offers a beacon of hope to the detectives who are dealing with far too many murders for their tiny “Murder Squad” to be able to handle.

This is not a mystery, really, because Grecian makes the murderer one of the many characters.  Instead, he offers a portrait of this psychopath and makes him even more threatening because of his maniacal need to keep his obsessions secret.

Grecian brings out vividly the life of the streets, and he does a lot to portray the true misery of nineteenth-century life.  This is not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is a rewarding tale and one that raises the hope that these characters might come together again in a similar seedy challenge to the sanity of London life.

The narrative is well-paced, and the characters are richly drawn.  The novelist struggles a bit at first to find his voice, but once he does, this novel is hard to put down.  This is Grecian's debut attempt at a novel: I hope we can anticipate many more!

Alex Grecian

The Yard is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

D. J. Taylor creates a rich and complex story of a horse race.

I read an enthusiastic review of D. J. Taylor’s novel, and when I looked for it, I realized what a prolific novelist I had stumbled upon.  I enjoyed this novel and will undoubtedly read a few more of his dense and beautifully conceived narratives.

Derby Day

D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day (416 pages, Pegasus, $25.95) recounts the build up for the annual horse race in Epsom Downs by looking at a range of characters at different social levels.  The result is a richly nuanced account of British society in the later nineteenth century.

Primary among the characters under consideration are Mr. Happerton and his wife.  Happerton is a gambler and an investor who buys up debt and then uses it to leverage purchases and financial pressure of various kinds.  He runs a dark and underhanded business and his father-in-law, a London attorney called Gresham, distrusts him and despises him.

Gresham’s daughter, Rebecca, perhaps modeled on Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe, from Vanity Fair, never gives too much away.  She marries Happerton because he intrigues her, and she is ready to throw her weight and her money behind his scheming and his manipulations.

Primary among these is his purchase of the race horse Tiberius, who is an odds-on favorite for winning the Derby that year.  Happerton is only vaguely slowed down in his pursuit of the horse by its being owned by a country gentleman whose financial affairs make him the perfect dupe for Happerton’s techniques; and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Happerton owns the horse and the estate while the poor owner can only apologize to his ancestors and feel a kind of desperation.

Happerton lives large, and he has a few friends, both men and women, that he tries to keep from his wife.  When he recognizes that she is willing to support him in whatever he does, he tells her a bit about the horse and what he is trying to do.  He also explains why he is trying to ruin the horse’s chances of winning: there is more money, he tells her, if the horse loses and he wins by betting on a long shot.

To make this all work, he hires a decrepit jockey and gets involved with  some low-life thieves who help to finance his ascendancy. These activities get more and more sordid, but when Happerton decides to take his mistress to the race instead of his wife, he makes a fatal mistake.

Happerton is the kind of character who has to be brought down, and he plays so fast and loose with the law that it catches up with him eventually.  How it does and what forces conspire to bring him down, D. J. Taylor does a lovely job in relating.

The end of the novel is satisfying as only a sprawling novel like this can be. D. J. Taylor writes a compelling tale with a very satisfying ending.  What more could we ask for?

D. J. Taylor

Derby Day is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, September 10, 2012

William Boyd writes another compelling thriller.

I liked Boyd’s most recent novel, and I have gone back to read some others.  This one is great.

Ordinary Thunderstorms

William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms (432 pages, Harper Perennial, $15.99) was published last year.  It tells the story of Adam Kindred, a handsome young British academic, who has returned to London from Arizona, where he got his doctorate and was working on a project concerned with seeding clouds for rain. 

He has just had a job interview and is feeling great about the world when, like other Boyd heroes, he is caught in a tailspin. Befriending a solo diner, he follows him home and then burst in on what is clearly a murder.  Before he escapes the scene, though, he does just enough to make himself a suspect.  So he takes the only sensible course: he runs.

He gets no farther than his hotel, however, when he realizes that he is being followed; and after some effects swipes with the dead man’s briefcase, he is off and running both from the police, who already list him as prime suspect, and the murderer, who has traced him to the hotel and is now after him once again.

Adam does what no one thinks possible in this day and age: he falls off the grid.  Hiding in a bit of waste ground by the Chelsea Bridge, he throws away his phone, avoids ATMs, and uses the little cash, at first what he had in his pockets and later what he gets by panhandling.  Once his beard grows in and he starts looking like a homeless person, he can get around fairly easily.

Of course, living on the streets as he does, he also comes in for some tough handling in some of the rougher ghetto districts, but he is almost miraculously befriended by a black prostitute, who is upset that he didn’t have any money to offer but nevertheless offers him a place to stay when the Chelsea spot seems compromised.

This woman has a young son whom Adam enjoys, and as he hides out in her flat, he and the boy become quite close.  Nothing is easy for Adam, however, and even though he’s managed to avoid the cops, some other toughs are hot on his trail.

As he runs and tries to put some kind of life together, he recognizes that some of the material he took from the guy who was murdered expose faulty drug trials that may be endangering the lives of young asthma sufferers.  This becomes a kind of crusade, and as he builds a case against the drug companies, his life starts to have new meaning.

This is a great moral tale, as the academic builds his life up again from the very bottom, but is also a nail-biting kind of thriller because Adam is often only a hair’s breath away from capture or exposure.

Boyd tells a wonderful tale here.  The ending is satisfying and everything that builds up to it is of a caliber that I can now come to expect from this fabulous writer.

William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

John Iriving writes a compelling tale of the coming of age of a bisexual writer.

When I read about this quasi-autobiographical tale from this major novelist, I didn’t hesitate to get my (kindle) copy.

In One Person

 John Irving’s In One Person (448 pages, Simon and Schuster, $28) tells the tale of young Bill (or Billy) Abbot, who is a barely prepubescent boy when the novel opens in the 1940s.  Billy is smitten with the local librarian, Miss Frost.  In her thirties and precisely elegant, she charms Billy with her demeanor and her small breasts, about which he fantasizes in private and even in early sexual play with his almost-girlfriend Elaine.

It does not take long for the reader to understand that Miss Frost is a transsexual, either a transvestite or a full male-to-female transsexual.  Billy does not see that the very features he describes are features that betray the sex-change: large hands, deep voice, strapping back, and so on.  But the sexual obsession—or “crush”—that Billy forms turns out to shape him irrevocably.

Almost as if to prove this before explaining Billy’s awakening, Irving offers scenes from Billy’s later life in which he is dating a transsexual or finding mannish women attractive.  And since this first attraction is to a woman who is also a man, Irving uses it to explain his character’s bisexuality.

While attracted to Miss Frost, Billy also almost dates his friend Elaine, has an abiding crush on a fellow student actor and wrestler called Kittredge, and finds himself the heart-throb to his high school classmate called Tom.

The first two-thirds of the novel, when Irving describes the high school experiences of these characters, as they come to terms with budding sexuality and act in high school drama productions, is wonderful.  The drama of discovering the full identity of Miss Frost reads almost like a mystery, and the effect of Billy’s relation with the librarian is truly powerful.

Also compelling is the tale of Billy summer in Europe with Tom.  The relationship between these two boys fails, and the failure is painful to watch; but it is nonetheless well-rendered.  These boys torment each other in ways that are as frustrating as they are inevitable.

After that, though, the novel feels to me a bit rushed.  It does deal with the AIDS crisis, and it handles beautifully the confusion of the early years of the eighties, when gay men were first learning about the illness as their friends died in profusion.  But by that point, many readers, like me, may have lost sympathy with Billy, who seems to feel that bisexuality is a curse, when it is really his inability to love any of the many people who took care of him as he used them for sexual adventure.  It is not Billy that is irritating so much as all those characters who emerged from sexual liberation to feel that they had been cheated.

The novel ends compellingly, though, and the tale of Billy Abbot is one that everyone interested in the later years of the twentieth century can read with interest.  Was it really like that? we may ask ourselves.  Yes, I think it really was.

John Irving

In One Person is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.