Lost nearly a week of reading to the damn flu (although I did finish Season 7 of 24, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time). What I did read, though, was marvelous. January was a banner month.
Bruen, Ken, The Guards, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2001. Let me just say, “Oh, my.” I had no idea you could write like this and get published. The Guards is a prose poem of darkness, with a character that I—the daughter of two alcoholics—should hate, and I don’t hate him even though he drinks his way through the entire novel, and makes all the mistakes that an alcoholic makes. Set in Ireland and very very dark, very well written, unforgettable. One of the best novels I’ve read in years. Seriously. Buy it, read it, but not before bed.
Cantrell, Rebecca, A Trace of Smoke, Forge, 2009. One of the best first novels I’ve read in years. One of the best novels I’ve read in years, quite honestly. Set in 1931 Berlin, A Trace of Smoke follows Hannah Vogel as she tries to find out why her brother was murdered. That her brother was gay and part of Berlin’s night club scene makes her work all the more difficult. She manages to show the bone-shaking poverty of the time, along with the menace of the political situation. The rise of the Nazis, and the involvement of some famous Nazis makes this story all the more hair-raising.
But the book is unputdownable because of one character, Anton, about whom I’m going to say little without spoiling the read. From his first line of dialogue to the very end of the novel, Anton kept me reading. Wonderful job. Evocative novel. Set aside several hours because you’ll read it in one sitting.
Carlin, Peter Ames, Paul McCartney: A Life, Touchstone, 2009. Paul McCartney was my first crush, back before my age had two digits in it. I must’ve been four when I first became aware of the man. I thought him marvelous then, and I still like him even now, which is more than I can say for any other childhood or teenage crush. I don’t think I find him sexy so much as intriguingly creative. Talk about surviving a long-time career, and still going strong.
Carlin’s book is very, very well written, and very thin. He did do his interviews with the side players and did all of his research, but obviously didn’t interview McCartney. The book skips over things in an odd fashion—like John Lennon’s murder. Carlin assumes we all know how Lennon died. I’m not sure a 20-something who ended up liking Beatles: Rock Band will know. Still, I couldn’t put this down—and much of that was the sentence-by-sentence writing (and the subject matter, of course).
Gates, David Edgerly, “Skin and Bones,” Between The Dark And The Daylight And 27 More Of The Best Crime & Mystery Stories of The Year, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, Tyrus, 2009. I have no idea how I missed this excellent story when it first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s a marvelous hardboiled novella that got nominated for the Edgar award (deservedly so), set in 1949 New York. The language is right, the feel is right, the town is right—and it reads like a novel. It’s as deep and rich as anything else you’ll read this year. Highly Recommended.
Gorman, Ed and Greenberg, Martin H., editors, Between The Dark And The Daylight And 27 More Of The Best Crime & Mystery Stories of The Year, Tyrus, 2009. I love this volume every year, and every year, I only recommend a few stories from it. Partly that’s because I’ve already recommended some of the stories (like Doug Allyn’s “Pig Party”) and partly it’s because the quality of this volume is so consistently good that stories which would normally stand out are part of a piece here. This best of the year volume always has more of the award-winning and nominated stories than its competitor, and is probably more representative of the short mystery field. The only thing I really would like to improve the volume is the kind of analysis that Gardner Dozois and Ellen Datlow do in their best of the year volume. (The Jon L. Breen overview is nice, but not enough.) Pick this up. It’s good.
James, P.D., Talking About Detective Fiction, Knopf, 2009. This little book was a joy to read. From the dust jacket to the paperstock to the inky smell of the pages, the actual book itself was a pleasure to hold. The subject matter is one I love, and the writer herself is one of my very favorites.
She doesn’t disappoint. This little book on detective fiction focuses mostly on the British tradition (which makes sense, since P.D. James is a British writer), but the analysis is cogent and thought-provoking. She takes aim at a few other critics of mystery fiction, always remembering that the important thing about fiction is its ability to tell a story. Her insights into her own work are great, but my favorite part of the book is her discussion of the American hardboiled tradition versus the British drawing room mystery, both of which were being developed at the same time.
I’ve never seen the two traditions analyzed as a product of their time before (the late 1920s and early 1930s). I learned a lot reading this little book and I enjoyed the experience of holding it. What more can you want?
Kinsale, Laura, Lessons in French, Sourcebooks, January, 2010. Ah, Laura Kinsale is back and all is right with the world. Seriously, does anyone else get depressed when one of their favorite writers doesn’t put out a book for a few years? Kinsale hit some personal setbacks in her writing (she alludes to them in her Author’s Note), and they made her stop publishing books for a while. I, for one, missed her tremendously.
Kinsale wrote one of my favorite novels ever, Flowers from the Storm, which is not your classic romance novel. It’s better. It’s better than most novels in any genre. Is Lessons in French that good? No, of course not, but Kinsale hit it out of the park with Flowers. I don’t ask my favorite writers to hit a homerun each time at bat, but I do want them to hit the ball. And to extend the already overwrought metaphor, Lessons in French is at least a double, maybe a triple.
Wonderful characters, great situations, lots of humor without being a funny book, lots of tension—and a bull named Hubert who becomes very important to the plot. This book lives and breathes adventure and fun and warmth and…oh, I read it too fast. Please, is there another Kinsale novel on the horizon? Please?