22 Following
2020

2020

The Coroner's Lunch - Colin Cotterill My quest for good writing and a good mystery has finally led me to Colin Cotteril. I have been up and down the Mystery rack at one bookstore after another and there are many mystery writers who can write a pretty good mystery, but not many who can write a good book. "The Coroner's Lunch" is my first by this author, but probably won't be my last. Another reviewer read the opening passage and knew immediately that this book wasn't for her. I, on the other hand, read the first passage and knew immediately that it was for me.

"Tran, Tran, and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds. The warm night air rushed against their reluctant smiles and yanked their hair vertical. They fell in a neat formation, like sleet. There was no time for elegant floating or fancy aerobatics; they just followed the rusty bombshells that were tied to their feet with pink nylon string.
Tran the elder led the charge. He was the heaviest of the three. By the time he reached the surface of Nam Ngum reservoir, he was already ahead by two seconds. If this had been the Olympics, he would have scored a 9.98 or thereabouts. There was barely a splash. Tran the younger and Hok-the-twice-dead pierced the water without so much as a pulse-beat between them.
A quarter of a ton of unarmed ordnance dragged all three men quickly to the smooth muddy bottom of the lake and anchored them there. For two weeks, Tran, Tran, and Hok swayed gently back and forth in the current and entertained the fish and algae that fed on them like diners at a slow-moving noodle stall."

And so begins another day at the office for the reluctant Dr. Siri Paiboun, and the beginning of a labyrinthine voyage through the alleyways and jungle trails of Laos and Cambodia, with some furtive forays into Vietnam, which the good doctor navigates with his quick mind and tired old feet. Dragged out of retirement by a naively enthusiastic and newborn communist regime in Laos, Dr. Paiboun had no experience, training, or desire for the science of forensics or the professional calling to be a coroner. But here he was. Doing his part for the good of all with not much say in the matter. His wisdom and his wit, surpassed only by his extraordinary sense of irony, provides the fuel and fortitude with which he drags himself to work everyday and back home to a humble apartment every night.

"The bathroom downstairs was shared with two couples, three kids, and a lady who was the acting head of the teacher training division at the Department of Education. Such were the spoils of a communist victory. But as conditions were no worse than before, nobody complained. He lit the gas on the one-ring range and boiled his kettle of water for coffee. In a way, it felt good to be home.

And when he faced the office each morning, he had Dtui to lean on. Smart, dedicated to her boss, and pretty much OK with her lot in life, Dtui provides the good doctor with the missing pieces on every case. But, as far as Dr. Siri knew, she had never been with a man.

"Her high standards pretty much eliminated her from the market. The romance she sought wasn't to be found here in the morgue. It wasn't to be found in the single room she shared with her sick mother, and probably it wasn't in Laos at all. Men were two-dimensional creatures with specific three-dimensional tastes. There had been eras when large torsos were in high fashion, a symbol of wealth and plenty. Physiology went through cycles. But in the twentieth century, malnutrition was à la mode. Dtui with her laundry-bin build was off the scale. There were no suitors queuing at her door. They wouldn't have to dig deep to find her kindness and humor, but they didn't even bring a spade."

In and out of the actual mystery at hand, far too complex to grasp while reading, and even more difficult to retell, we are led through the exotic lands of southeast Asia, through political intrigue and corruption, as well as the pitfalls and exuberance of the people who are dragged along, somewhat good-naturedly, by the usual fools in power, and who manage to cling to the myths and customs with which they have clung for generations.

"Out in the streets, people were already preparing for the That Luang Festival. It was one of the few dates on the Lao Buddhist calendar that was guaranteed to spark excitement across generations and ethnic lines. The golden Grand Stupa had watched over its excited children on the thirteenth day of the twelfth moon for as long as anyone living could remember.
This was the first festival since the revolution and it promised to be a little more restrained than usual. The new regime had banned certain excesses: the popular freak shows, for one. There'd be no five-legged goats or three-breasted women to entertain the crowds. Alcohol was forbidden, along with gambling, so there were unlikely any spontaneous shootings to write about in the papers the next day. The government also put the lid on displays of opulence and "extravagant religious outpourings". All of which might have made one wonder what could possibly be left to celebrate."

With Dr. Siri's sense of irony and steadfast ability to keep on keeping' on, and the steady hand and wry wit of Colin Cotteril, we have plenty to celebrate in this story and enough to keep us asking for more. Good mystery, good writing, good fun.






Sutton - J.R. Moehringer A story of an Irish kid from a tough Brooklyn neighborhood who grows up to become a legendary, and very well read, bank robber because "the banks are the real crooks". What's not to like? Well, if, like I was, you are looking for an informative biography that digs into what makes a character like Willie Sutton tick, there's quite a bit not to like. Actually, better said, there's not much to like.

I was first drawn to the story because Sutton was once confined, until he escaped, to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, not far from where I once briefly lived. The prison was such a gothic nightmare, Quaker founders notwithstanding, that it's actually been saved from the bulldozers and is open for tours, not to mention dressed up as a haunted house for halloween. But details about the life in this hellhole are lacking, just as the details are lacking about most everything else that a deep biography should include. Instead, Moehringer sets up a conceit to frame the story wherein Sutton is driven through the streets of New York upon his final release from prison and is manipulated into "telling his tale" to a photographer and reporter for the New York Times, and who both spend most of their time whining about their assignment. This creates a double story, one in the past and one in the present, which leaves no room for either one to be interesting. And, in fact, there is no way to be sure what is actually true.

Willie Sutton was a fascinating American anti-hero. He was so well read that he would be a legend on "Goodreads". He was versed in Socrates, Shakespeare, Proust, and Pound, and spent hours in his numerous prison cells committing verse to memory. He escaped from many of these cells, only to continue robbing banks, because, as legend has it, though Willie denies ever saying it, "that's where the money is". Unfortunately, the author skims over the real Willie and his real psychological profile to fit the story to his framework and leaves the reader wondering who this guy really was.

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald Just about perfect. The story flows along like a bubbling stream and is enhanced throughout by Fitzgerald's endless images of light. It is his use of language that makes this such an enjoyable read, despite the sadness and tragic events of the story. The roaring twenties, bootlegging, fabulous wealth and parties in The Hamptons are simply the backdrop. Woody Allen (or someone) said the only two things worth writing about are love and death. That's what The Great Gatsby is about.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption - Laura Hillenbrand I actually felt a little guilty for not particularly liking this book. The unending trials that the subject, Louie Zamperini, had to endure at the hands of both the sea and his fellow man, were truly biblical. Page after page and chapter after chapter of endless torment, torture, fear and abuse were difficult enough to read about. I can't imagine how any of these guys endured. But, honestly, I began fairly early on in the story, to find it kind of boring. The author provided no relief and I felt guilty because Louie certainly wasn't getting any. But one of the reasons most readers keep reading any story is for the reward of discovering "what happens next". In this case there was very little reward -- just more of the same. I also came away with the impression that Louie was indeed "broken", as any human would be. His recovery was remarkable, if not miraculous, because he had been broken. Maybe a better title would have been "Restored".
The historical facts of life in Japanese prison camps was terrifying, but interesting to someone like myself who was hearing much of it for the first time. I plowed through to the end but found it vaguely dissatisfying. As much as I like survival stories, this one felt like a forced march.
Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History - Scott Andrew Selby, Greg Campbell Fair to middlin'. What I thought was going to be an exciting thriller, advertised as "the largest diamond heist in history", was rather flat both in the story and in the telling. The details of the planning and the heist itself were described as if our "school of Turin" was a crew of plumbers off to replace the fixtures in a customer's bathroom. And to have the apparently successful heist come undone within twenty-four hours because the masterminds were careless about their trash was disappointing. Even I know to be careful of my credit card receipts before they get tossed into the kitchen waste basket. Even the authors seemed a little bored by the mechanics of the operation. Interesting, to a point, but definitely not thrilling.
The Rage - Gene Kerrigan "The Rage" could be an Elmore Leonard story with Irish subtitles. The lingo and setting are pure Dublin and require a little getting used to, but Gene Kerrigan has the Irish knack for storytelling. Confusing early on thanks to the frequent introduction of ever more characters and a flow of the intertwined stories that was a bit jumpy, things gradually come together thanks to a little "off the clock" footwork, not entirely legal, of the persistent Detective Bob Tidey.

Detective Chief Superintendent Malachy Hogg sums up the case quite nicely:
"... how come a forty-two-year-old millionaire banker and property speculator, a man at the heart of the property bubble, a man who was murdered in the doorway of his Southside mansion, got shot dead with the same weapon that killed a minor mule on the Northside Dublin drug scene? It opens up a new line of inquiry -- in a case that already has more than enough."

Kerrigan then describes why the police (the Garda) prefer that the case would just go away:
"The police officer's ideal murder case isn't one that involves clues and alibis, obscure poisons and convoluted motives. The ideal murder is one in which the victim is known to have pissed someone off and when the police arrive that someone is standing over the body with a bloody axe in his hand. With a bit of luck, several people witnessed what happened and someone has already uploaded a thirty-second video of the killing onto YouTube. Anything much more complicated was a pain in the arse."

And a complicated pain in the arse is exactly what the police are faced with in "The Rage". Finally, the higher ups in the police department decide to just close the book on this one, under shady circumstances at that, but Detective Bob Tidey has different ideas and decides to see this through, at great risk to his safety and his career. With Tidey's diligent and dramatic work, we get a good ride to a satisfying conclusion.

Not great literature, but a fun read! Recommended.

The Art of Fielding: A Novel - Chad Harbach I was first drawn to The Art of Fielding because I thought it was a baseball book. I think it's safe to say that most of us who like to read "baseball books" like to read them for the action of the game, the drama of the game, or maybe for some insights regarding the strategy of the pitcher, the preparation or the psychology of the batter, or maybe the chemistry of the team - heroic, outlandish, brotherly, dysfunctional, spiteful, or whatever. Or, perhaps we are drawn by the old "baseball as life" metaphors, the poetry of the game, the images of the emerald diamonds, the Elysian fields, or any of the other endless baseball clichés. But I'm pretty sure that few, if any, baseball book readers pick up a baseball book looking for a made-for-TV mini-series about relationships. This, however, is what we get from our author, Chad Harbach.

And the relationships that evolve not only take over the subject matter, which some of us assumed was baseball, but they do so in uncomfortable and unbelievable ways. The President of the insular little preppy college, the gay out-fielding but mostly bench-warming roommate, the daughter of the President of the college, the catcher and captain of the team, Mike Schwartz (the only likable and believable character in the book), and, of course, Henry, the ultimate, but ultimately choking, star shortstop, are swirled into an incestuous soap opera of coincidences in one chapter after another of "what happens next?" endings that there is barely time to call "time-out". And, in fact, the only option is to give up or to give in.

I actually gave in. I just went with it, because I wanted, of all things, to find out "what happened next". Of course, I felt totally manipulated in the process but I went willingly. Somehow, and I'm not sure how, I was entertained, but in the way millions are entertained after a long day at work by surfing cable TV and stopping for inexplicably long periods of time at things like "Here Comes Honey, Boo Boo", or "Ex-Wives of Rock". But not entertained enough to celebrate when it was finally over. No champagne in this locker room. Just a lukewarm shower and the thrill of reaching toward the bedside table to finally grab a new book.

A Simple Plan - Scott B. Smith Probably the most ridiculous and unbelievable book I have ever read. Despite all the rave reviews, the two lead characters are operated like mindless puppets by the author to create his idea of a thriller without doing any of the work. There is no way these two would have ever behaved this way. None.
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China - Paul French A terrific example of what the "true crime" genre is all about. This was a dark and tragic tale in a bizarre and colorful part of the world where the English lived a life of privilege, which they have been so go at throughout their empire-building history. The naiveté of a young English girl playing where she shouldn't have been playing led to her ominous end. Paul French takes us on a thrill ride through the back alleys, brothels, and opium dens of old Peking to piece together the events leading to the girl's murder which, thanks to political power and cover-ups, was never solved. Although in his research, the author seems to have tied up the mystery very neatly and has come closer than anyone else in solving the case. He brings the reader with him every step of the way in a tense and irresistible chase that kept me with him to the end.
Darkness at Noon - Arthur Koestler, Daphne Hardy A recent re-reading of Darkness At Noon didn't live up to my memory of it from many years ago. The prison descriptions were excellent, in a claustrophobic way, and the inner workings of Rubashov's mind in an effort to keep his sanity were riveting indeed. But the long political discourses about "the party" were obtuse, dated, and honestly, quite boring. Unfortunately, they took up most of the narrative. The result was a reading that was a prison unto itself.
The Fear Index - Robert Harris Would call this a page turner if I hadn't read it on a Kindle. A cover to cover, don't put it down thriller. A lot of fun!
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West - Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto A ponderous study of John Wesley Powell. Powell's exploratory river trip down the Colorado and ultimately through the Grand Canyon was the highlight of this biography. Unfortunately, it's downhill from there, with the minutiae of the politics involved with Powell's subsequent fights in Washington, D.C. to gain power, position, and the funding to continue his exploration and mapping of the west. I love most everything I've read by Wallace Stegner, but this stands out as a dense and tiresome read.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt - Edmund Morris A detailed narrative with the page-turning energy of a good novel, probably because of the burning energy of the subject. Teddy Roosevelt was an explorer, an adventurer, a voracious reader, a classicist, and a brilliant bulldog of a politician who went after what he wanted, damn the torpedoes and political correctness, a notion he would never had heard of or would have given two cents about if he had. He was also a bit of a nut who probably never would have survived in today's political climate because he would have offended every disenfranchised group out there. He overcame seriously ill health as a boy and as a young man simply because he was determined not to be held back. Morris details TR's inexorable climb to political power through the grimy precincts of New York City and into the halls of the Albany statehouse and the US. Navy, not to mention learning the ropes of ranching and hunting out west, where he proved himself to be as capable as those who belonged there. This is an extremely well-researched and well written study of Roosevelt's rise to power.
Light in August (The Corrected Text) - William Faulkner As I am getting older I find myself going back to read, or re-read, those books I was supposed to read in school many years ago. Although I majored in English, much of the required reading was over my head, partly because it was the late sixties and I was otherwise occupied and/or impaired. Now, at last, I can begin to appreciate the greats, and Faulkner is surely one of them. I took a reverse route to find him. I had read everything Cormac McCarthy had written and he vaguely reminded me of the one Faulkner book I could actually recall to memory. As I recently devoured "Light In August" it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was still reading Cormac McCarthy (or I should say I had been reading Faulkner all along?)

"Light In August" is really a study of race relations, bigotry, sex and religion in the American south of the early twentieth century, although it can certainly be extrapolated to describe almost any culture in which bloody conflict is often the result of confused righteousness. The examples in our time are too obvious. McCarthy is no stranger to righteousness and bloody conflict himself, but the similarities between the two authors go beyond time and place. In the work of both there is the darkness of the brooding characters, unbelievably beautiful descriptions of landscape and unbelievably horrid descriptions of violence, all described in often esoteric, yet precise language. Keep a dictionary handy.

Faulkner and McCarthy can both be difficult to read but the rewards are rich. All through my reading of "Light In August" I realized that I would want to read it again. Multiple stories, in different places about different characters, are eventually forged into one, but it takes a little time to get there. Unlike Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying", in which each chapter is a different character's narration and experience of the same story, "Light" is one narrator speaking for different characters at different times, all contributing to the same story. Every character becomes a story unto him or herself, whether violent, clownish, righteous, or downright endearing, and is mixed into a stew that eventually is discovered to be a very carefully prepared and well-seasoned dish.
Straight Man - Richard Russo I was working at a bookstore when "Straight Man" was first released and it made quite a splash. My compadres at the store were talking it up, and customers who read it thought it was a riot. I probably would have agreed if I read it at the time. But I didn't. Years later I dove into Richard Russo and read "Empire Falls", Bridge of Sighs", and "Nobody's Fool". I became an enthusiastic Russo fan, peaking with "Nobody's Fool". Then, I went back and finally got to "Straight Man". Based on Russo's other books I'd have to say he was just warming up in his career as a novelist. It was fun. It was a quick read. And if it had been the first or only Richard Russo book I had read I'm sure I would have found it to be a hoot. But it wasn't. It was the last one I read and it pales in comparison to the others. I'd still recommend it as an introduction to Russo, but if you've read any of his others you might be disappointed. Next up -- his memoir, "Elsewhere". But I sure hope he has a few more novels in him.
Defending Jacob - William Landay Why do reviewers spew forth quotes like "NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
Entertainment Weekly • The Boston Globe • Kansas City Star"? Defending Jacob was a pretty good read, but "one of the best books of the year"? Not having read ALL of the books published this year I suppose I'm in no position to say, but have these reviewers read ALL of the books published this year? Now that I've gotten that off my chest, back to Defending Jacob.

When I first heard a blurb about it on the radio I got the impression that it was a true story. "Son of local DA charged with murder". Well, that sounds interesting. I bought the Audible version because it seemed like an easy listen. I learned quickly, of course, that it was fiction, but it didn't lessen the interest. I've always loved courtroom dramas, since I first watched Perry Mason as a kid. The original Perry Mason - not Ironsides. Defending Jacob keeps up the suspense right from the start and leads you to thinking "did he really do it? Could he have really done it?" right into "Yes. I think he really did it".

The interplay between the prosecutor and the defense attorney was right on. The interplay between the father and son and the father and the mother wasn't quite as sharp, but it did the job. Enough questions were raised and the timing was just right so that it kept my interest throughout. Couldn't wait to get in the old truck and plug in the ipod to continue listening as I made my rounds.

Unfortunately (sort of spoiler alert) there is a surprise twist at the end that fails the whole book. Almost as bad as "then I woke up". It was a cheap way out of a plot that the author couldn't end with enough of a bang by his own writing merits, so he throws in an ending that is bizarrely out of character for the person involved and pretty much trashed the whole book for me. Sorry, Mr. Landay, but you're not ready for prime time yet.