Book Review: After the Fire by Henning Mankell

After the Fire
Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Vintage Books, October 31, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-5254-3508-2
Trade Paperback

Henning Mankell, who died in 2015, capped a distinguished career with this follow-up to Italian Shoes, in which Frederik Welin, a disgraced surgeon, was the principal character, as he is in After the Fire.  In  each novel, Welin looks deeply into his present as a lone resident on an island in the Swedish archipelago, living in his boyhood home built by his grandfather, as well as dredging up past memories.

The major difference between the two novels, however, is in the later book, his house burns down, apparently by arson (of which he is suspected) while he is asleep and narrowly escapes death.  Previously, Welin was content to live quietly, taking a daily dip in the sea, even if he had to cut a hole in the ice with an axe to do so.  Following the destruction of his home, things change.  When a female journalist visits to write a story about the event, it awakens sexual hope in the 70-year-old retired doctor, but to develop into only a close friendship.  At the same time,  his somewhat strained relationship with his daughter changes for the better.

In other words, the consequences of the house being reduced to ashes forces Welin to approach life differently, accepting life (and death) as it is, rather than as was his attitude toward it in the past.  His introspection leads him to develop a more practical approach to his relationships.

Mankell has here written a superlatively insightful look into a man’s mind.  While, perhaps, better known for his Kurt Wallender mysteries, Mankell has here added another well-written and -thought-out novel to a long list of other books he penned.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2017.

Book Review: Living with Shakespeare edited by Susannah Carson

Living With Shakespeare
Susannah Carson, ed.
Vintage Books, April 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-74291-9
Trade Paperback

A very long time ago, my parents collaborated to make to me a gift of a beautiful book that my father originally acquired in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1928. The Complete Dramatic and Poetic Works of William Shakespeare was compiled and discussed by Professor Frederick D. Losey of Harvard. The book was published in 1926 by The John C. Winston Company of Philadelphia and Chicago. It is a beautiful leather-bound volume of thin gilt-edged pages. The book survived our travails in Goodwell, Oklahoma, between 1930 and 1938. I treasure and refer to it often. And I had the great good fortune to perform a minor part in a community theater production of “Othello,” a good many years ago.

And now there is a companion book, about which, I cannot say enough good things. Living With Shakespeare, is a series of essays from a wide array of writers, directors and others about their lives with this astounding writer’s works. Some are funny, some of them are irreverent. Some will engender disagreement and all will add to our understanding of the greatest writer in the English language. Ask yourself; how it is that 400 years after he lived, his plays are being re-interpreted, his sonnets sung, his insights helping us to better understand ourselves?

The book is smoothly organized with a few fine photographs scattered throughout the thirty-eight original essays from the likes of Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley and James Earl Jones. Readers should not neglect to read the excellent introduction by Susannah Carson. Bravo to all the aforementioned individuals, as well as those who produced this handsome volume. Writers and readers of Crime Fiction can certainly benefit from this work. Readers should not pass by Harold Bloom’s precise and pointed Foreword that echoes the question so often asked in literature classes, “Why Shakespeare?” And the answer comes still, after four hundred years. “Who else is there?” Who else, indeed.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: The Last Six Million Seconds by John Burdett, A Pimp’s Notes by Giorgio Faletti, and Death Comes Silently by Carolyn Hart

The Last Six Million SecondsThe Last Six Million Seconds
John Burdett
Vintage Books, June 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-74529-3
Trade Paperback

This book is advertised as being in print for the first time in 15 years – a significant time frame, for fifteen years ago Hong Kong was getting ready for the handover of rule of the country from England to China, a momentous occasion after one hundred years of British rule. This is a fascinating book, with writing that is by turn wonderful, delightful and enchanting.  The protagonist, “Charlie” Chan Siu-kai, Chief Inspector, Homicide, Eurasian – half Irish, half Chinese, 36 years old, and divorced from an Englishwoman.  He loves his city:  We are told that “Chan would have turned down the governorship of Hong Kong so long as he could always be Chinese in an Asian street market;” he “liked the smell of Chinese books, subtly different from Western books.  There were no pictures on the heavy paper covers, no commercialism at all; the print was everything.  It was the way books should always smell: paper, binding and words, no frills.”

As the book begins, eight weeks before the handover, a public clock, large and digital, reads six million seconds.  As one bystander says, “one second for each of us – and disappearing.”  As the book ends, the display shows less than two and a half million seconds left to run: 28 days to go.  The time in between shines a light – not the most flattering, to be sure – on the country and the people.  That unflattering portrait is not limited to the Far East, it should be noted.  The book provides an insight into that world that few non-inhabitants get to see [other than events such as the very public murder of students in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989].

The cast of characters includes the Commissioner of Police, the Right Honorable Ronald “Ronny” Tsui, JP; Chief Supt. John Riley; Inspector Richard Aston, 24-year-old blond Brit; a 49-year-old alcoholic shoplifter from the Bronx; also “an aging psychopath, a sex-hungry billionairess and a scheming diplomat,” of whom Charlie says his “penthouse flat was to light, air and space what Chan’s was to darkness, asphyxiation and cramp“ and notes that he owns “the best collection of opium pipes Chan had seen outside an antiques dealer’s showroom.”

It is noted that “the Chinese Navy, always sensitive to foreign incursions, had never forgiven the theft of Hong Kong by bullies in British uniforms more than a hundred years before” and that “it was true what they told you when you first came out:  The longer you remained in the Far East, the less you understood.”  When he is working on a particularly gruesome triple murder at the outset of the novel, Chan believes he’s being sabotaged, but doesn’t know the source. The answers don’t come till the end, in one of many surprising turns of events.  This is a dense book, but well worth the submersion. It is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2012.

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A Pimp's NotesA Pimp’s Notes
Giorgio Faletti
Translated by Antony Shugaar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 2012
ISBN: 978-0-374-23140-8
Hardcover

This new novel by Giorgio Faletti takes place, naturally, in Italy,Milan to be precise. The era is the late ‘70’s, made evident by asides dealing with rotary telephones and cigarettes being smoked on airplanes.  The period is made clear as well, e.g.:  “A politician of Aldo Moro’s stature, held captive by the Red Brigades; another one of equal prominence lying dead on a slab in the morgue, slain by persons unknown.  Add to that the strain of ongoing terrorism trials and the chilly veil of fear that touches everyone and everything.”

The eponymous protagonist, nicknamed “Bravo,” is a 35-year-old man whose profession is accurately described: he is a procurer.  And one with a quite startling physical handicap.  He is a fascinating individual – not the sleazy person one might expect, any more than a high-class call girl, or ‘escort,’ is the same as the streetwalker. He procures discreet women of intelligence and beauty, whose clientele count among their number some of the wealthiest and most prominent men in the country.  One night he encounters Carla, a woman unlike any he’s known before, and his life will never be the same.  When he arranges a very special evening with one of his very special clients, things go horribly wrong.  Lives are lost, and Bravo becomes hunted by those enforcing the law and those on the other side of it, and is the target of both.

Bravo has a philosophical nature, e.g., “happiness comes to him who settles for less,” and “Optimists believe that reading books helps them fight their ignorance, while realists are certain of only one thing, that books give them proof of their ignorance.”  As to dining in Milan, he says:  “As in all fashionable restaurants, the food is no good at all and the prices are astronomical.  This is the magic of Milan by night, mysterious alchemies that transform lousy food into solid gold.”  When hearing of Moro’s kidnapping, he is greatly saddened.  “The photographs of his detention, his forlorn face, his death sentence, all make me think that, when you live with the suspicion that you’re surrounded by nothingness, there’s almost always something or someone ready and willing to convert that suspicion to certainty.  I wonder if he thought the same thing while the vast world that he once had at his fingertips shrank to the few dozen square feet of a tiny cubicle.”

Bravo is given to tackling, and solving, cryptic puzzles, “even though apparently easy challenges often conceal tangled welters of complication . . . I have the feeling that this is a final, terminal enigma, a puzzle whose solution might be worse than the puzzle itself.”  The writing is quite wonderful, and the novel compulsively readable.  This is a book quite unlike anything I’ve read recently, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2013.

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Death Comes SilentlyDeath Comes Silently
A Death on Demand Mystery
Carolyn Hart
Berkley Prime Crime, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-425-25209-3
Mass Market Paperback

This marks the twenty-first novel in the Death on Demand series featuring the mystery bookstore owner, Annie Darling, and her husband, Max, who runs Confidential Commissions, through which he offers “counsel to people in trouble.”  There is, of course, a death early on, a seemingly accidental drowning of Everett Hathaway, who was, strangely [it being early January], kayaking before somehow tipping out into the water and suffering hypothermia before drowning.  Very soon thereafter there is another death, one that shakes Annie to the core:  The victim was Gretchen Burkholt, who had taken Annie’s place at the charity shop at which they both volunteered so that Annie could attend a booksigning at Death on Demand.  When Annie returns to the shop after a series of calls from Gretchen, she discovers her body on the floor, a blood-covered ax nearby.

Annie is guilt-ridden at the fact that Annie herself should have been there, not Gretchen, and is determined to find the killer.  When it becomes known that Gretchen had discovered something in the clothing that the dead man was wearing the night he died, with shocking implications, Annie is not persuaded that his death was an accident, and believes that that discovery might have led to Gretchen’s death.  Annie is aided in this by the usual cast of characters: husband Max, and his mother, Laurel; local crime writer Emma Clyde, whose booksigning took place on the night Gretchen was murdered, and Annie’s long-time friend Henny Brawley.  The reader is introduced to a whole cast of characters, any one of whom had a motive to kill.

The action takes place in Broward’s Rock, a barrier island 40 minutes from the South Carolina mainland described by the author as “undoubtedly the most glorious place in the universe to live.”  Fans of this delightful series will smile in recognition, as I did, at Agatha, the store’s resident feline [the one who shares Annie and Max’ home is named Dorothy L].  The story shifts from one to the other of these amateur sleuths, as they pursue different aspects of the investigation while the police continue to believe that Hathaway’s death was an accidental drowning.

There are of course references to many much-loved mystery authors scattered along the way, along with the observation that “that was the comfort of mysteries.  Bad things happened, but good people tried to make things better.”  A sentiment with which readers of this wonderful series can agree.  A charming read, and recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2013.

Book Review: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful ThingsTiny Beautiful Things:
Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Cheryl Strayed
Vintage Books, July 2012
ISBN 978-0-307-94933-2
Trade Paperback

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed is simply amazing.  The book is essentially a compilation of letters to, and responses from Dear Sugar.  I could tell you that Dear Sugar is an advice column, and technically, that would be true.  More accurately, though, Dear Sugar is to an advice column what a home-made, warm-from-the-oven, chocolate-chip cookie is to a vanilla wafer.

Cheryl Strayed, aka “Sugar”, is a fascinating, compassionate, outstanding person.  She doesn’t read the letters that are written to her.  She absorbs them.  She mulls them over.  She lets the questions stew in her mind.  Only then, does she write her heart out in a response.  This must be why her responses are awesome.

Ms. Strayed is a truly generous person, in that she shares so much of herself in her replies.  Her bravery amazes me.  Her willingness to bare her soul and expose raw wounds to absolute strangers is courageous, supportive and understanding, but most importantly, natural.  Only a handful of people are actually that honest and humble.  She has the unique ability to be tough, sympathetic and comforting.  I found that, whether or not I could identify with the letters to Sugar, I always garnered something from her responses.

A very dear friend gave me this book as a gift.  It is among the top 5 presents that I have ever received.  It has already become my travel companion.  It lives in my favorite tote.  Pages are dog-eared, passages highlighted.

My cousin suffered a stroke over the weekend.  I sent him a copy of this book to help him heal.  This is a book that I can, and will, give as a gift.  It is versatile.  It will be a fabulous happiness gift, or a gift to help someone cope, a graduation gift, or a gift to give someone hope.  I believe that anyone can take something away from Dear Sugar’s replies.

I felt good reading this.  I cried for some of the letter writers and I cried for Ms. Strayed.  I marveled at the courage and thoughtfulness that went into each letter and that was matched by each response.  I feel stronger, braver and “normal”.  I found something that had been lost:  confidence, in myself, and in others.

To give you a flavour, without a spoiler, here is a passage from correspondence that does not appear in the book:  You swam across a wide and wild sea and you made it all the way to the other side. That it feels different here on this shore than you thought it would does not negate the enormity of the distance you traversed and the strength it took you to do it.”

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2013.

Book Reviews: The Sparrow’s Blade by Kenneth R. Lewis, Headhunters by Jo Nesbo, The Cut by George Pelecanos, The Infernals by John Connolly, and Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke

The Sparrow's BladeThe Sparrow’s Blade
Kenneth R. Lewis
Krill Press, February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9821443-8-1
Trade Paperback

As in this author’s debut novel, Little Blue Whales, which was warmly received, this one also takes place in Cutter City, OR, and features Kevin Kearnes and Thud Compton.  It is now a few years after the harrowing experience described in the earlier book in which they were almost killed, and their roles have changed:  Kearnes, the former Chief of Police, is now with the Dept. of Homeland Security in Portland, and Compton has replaced him as Police Chief.

The book opens with Kevin traveling to Cutter City with his fiancée Britt McGraw and his sons by a former marriage, to be married as well as to visit with the Comptons.  Little did any of them know that a sword on display at the local library, a relic of World War II when a Japanese pilot dropped two bombs in the vicinity and then crashed, would result in the turmoil that it did when it is stolen.

The excellent portrayal of the characters, coupled with the tension of the plot, maintain reader interest on the same high level of the predecessor book.  The level of writing remains at the high level of Little Blue Whales which presumably will continue in the forthcoming The Helical Vane.  Needless to say, Sparrow (the name for the sword, btw) is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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HeadhuntersHeadhunters
Jo Nesbo
Vintage Books, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-94868-7
Trade Paperback

Turning his attention away from his highly regarded Harry Hole series, the author has written a compelling standalone.  While the background of Roger Brown, as a top headhunter of corporate officials in Oslo, provides some interesting and useful information on how to judge and place candidates, it is the main crime plot and character descriptions that are undeniably gripping.

Roger seems to have it all, except sufficient income to pay for the art gallery he has helped his wife, Diana, establish and operate. Thus, to supplement his need for cash to deal with the operating deficit, he steals art from candidates he interviews for jobs.  Until, that is, he encounters Clas Greve, whom he meets one evening at his wife’s gallery.  And the plot thickens.

Jo Nesbo, in this novel, has proved he is an author capable of writing almost anything.  It is superbly formulated, with humor and irony. The plot has more twists and turns in its concluding pages than a mountain road.  It needs no further recommendation other than to go get a copy and revel in a job well done.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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The CutThe Cut
George Pelecanos
A Reagan Arthur Book/Little, Brown and Company, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-07842-9
Hardcover

In the first novel of a new series, we are introduced to Spero Lucas, a just-returned Iraq war veteran, working as an investigator for a Washington, D.C. defense attorney with a sideline of recovering “lost” property for a 40 per cent cut of its value.  In the caper he undertakes in this initial foray, he seems to bite off more than he can chew.

The attorney is defending a top marijuana peddler, and the client asks for Spero to visit him in jail.  He tells Spero that his deliveries are being stolen and he is out of money, and would appreciate recovery of either the merchandise or the cash.  The assignment takes Spero off into all kinds of action, some of which is kind of far-fetched.

Mr. Pelecanos is well-known for his characterizations and his use of the nation’s Capital as background, and this book is no exception. Somehow, however, using Spero as an example of a footloose vet just returned from the desert just didn’t quite ring true.  Some of his friends who served with him there do exhibit the plight of wounded, disabled marines, or just plain still unemployed, somewhat more realistically.  That said, the novel is written with the author’s accustomed flair, and the plot moves at a rapid pace.  Certainly, the action is vivid, and the reader keeps turning pages.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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The InfernalsThe Infernals
John Connolly
Atria Books, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4308-4
Hardcover

This novel, the sequel to The Gates, picks up 18 months after the events described in that book, after young Samuel Johnson [just turned 13], assisted by his faithful dog, Boswell, repelled an invasion of earth by the forces of evil.  The two books are quite a departure for the author, whose Charlie Parker mysteries are highly regarded and widely read.  These are categorized as YA books, laced with pseudo-scientific and amusing footnotes.  [It should perhaps be noted that the tenth Charlie Parker novel, The Burning Soul, has also been released.]

This time around Samuel, accompanied by four dwarfs and the truck in which they were riding, an ice cream truck and its vendor-driver, and two policemen and their patrol car, are instead transported by the ogre Ba’al in the form of Mrs. Abernathy to the netherworld to present the boy to her master, the Great Malevolence, as a gift in an effort to regain his favor.  And so we follow their adventures as they experience the strange land and seek a way to get back home.

Written at times with tongue firmly in cheek, the little nuggets of information on a wide variety of subjects are both informative and often just plain funny.  A very enjoyable read that is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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Feast Day of FoolsFeast Day of Fools
James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4311-4
Hardcover

Against the bleak terrain of southern Texas, a morality play featuring Sheriff Hackberry Holland is played out.  It begins with a man who escapes his captors, who had planned to turn him over to Al Qaeda, for a price, for his knowledge of drone technology.  Not only is he sought by his former captors, but the FBI, among others, as well.  Hack, and his deputy, Pam Tibbs, become involved in the interplay.

This is a complicated novel, one in which the author delves into a wide variety of moral and ethical values, adding Hack’s past experiences as a POW during the Korean Conflict, to raise additional questions of right and wrong.  And bringing in The Preacher as a counterpoint further adds to the complexity of not only the plot, but also Hack’s integrity.

James Lee Burke’s prose is as stark as his descriptions of the Texas and Mexican landscapes, and the characters he introduces are deftly portrayed, both good and evil.  He has presented an intricate plot in this, his 30th novel, and the fifth featuring the Texas sheriff.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

Book Review: My Dark Places by James Ellroy

My Dark PlacesMy Dark Places
James Ellroy
Vintage Books, 1997
ISBN 0-679-76205-1
Trade Paperback

James Ellroy, prolific Los Angeles crime writer, takes us on a rock-strewn, rutted road through his internal landscape in this memoir, which has at its heart, the loss of his mother to an anonymous murder.

This intimate view of the inside of James Ellroy is not for the faint of heart.  As one reads it, one feels the jagged edges, the desperation, the loneliness and lostness of a boy turned man, still boy, trapped with the feelings of a 10-year-old toward his beautiful, red-headed mother, like a fly trapped in amber.

Mr. Ellroy will be the first to tell the reader, and with frequency, that he transmogrified his feelings toward his mother’s death into his fascination with crime in Los Angeles.  He is one of our living literary giants of noir.  Reading this book shows one how he got there. He lived noir.  He is noir.

Yet, there is redemption.  He should have ended up incarcerated.  He should have wound up dead of an overdose or acute alcohol poisoning.  He should have died an ugly death at the end of a short, tormented life, but he did not.  He lived to thrill us with tales of the dark side, the shadow side that lives in us all.  His courage, talent and genetic midwestern work ethic pulled him out of the muck that wanted to kill him.  The reader is the beneficiary, with not only this memoir, but his L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz) and his other crime books and essays.

Reviewed by Marta Chausée, December 2011.

Book Review: Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker

Bruno, Chief of Police
Martin Walker
Vintage Books, 2010
Originally published in the UK in 2008 by Quercus Books
ISBN 9780307454690
Trade Paperback

Suddenly Bruno noticed something odd. After every previous parade, whether it was for the eighth of May, or the eighteenth of June, when de Gaulle launched Free France, or the fourteenth of July, when France celebrated her Revolution, or the eleventh of November, when the Great War ended, Jean-Pierre and Bachelot would turn away from each other without so much as a nod and walk back separately to the Mairie to store the flags they carried. But this time they were standing still, staring fixedly at one another. Not talking, but somehow communicating. Amazing what one bugle can do, thought Bruno. Maybe if I can get some Americans into the parade next year they might even start talking. But now it was thirty minutes after midday and, like every good Frenchman, Bruno turned his thoughts to lunch.

In the village of St. Denis, in the Périgord region of France, Bosnian war veteran and police chief Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges keeps the peace. It’s not a particularly daunting task; he keeps his gun locked up in his office safe even when out on patrol, and isn’t entirely sure where his handcuffs are, though he thinks they’re in his van somewhere. Fortunately life in St. Denis is peaceful, the greatest threats being obnoxious English tourists and even more obnoxious health inspectors from the European Union who want to shut down St. Denis’ centuries-old market for selling unlicensed cheese and pâté de foie gras. When he’s not keeping a sharp eye out for the inspectors, Bruno makes sure everything is in order for the annual round of parades commemorating France’s liberation, teaches tennis at the local athletic club, and bottles his own vin de noix, a liqueur made from unripened walnuts. Bruno’s life is as idyllic as anyone could ask for.

But then an elderly North African immigrant and World War II veteran is horrifically murdered, and suddenly St. Denis’ pastoral veneer is pulled aside, revealing the darkness lying beneath. Immediately the twin specters of racism and anti-immigration politics rear their ugly heads. The investigation is taken over by a team of detectives from the Police Nationale, effectively shutting Bruno out. Inspector Isabel Perrault, however, recognizes the value of Bruno’s local knowledge and the trust the villagers have in him, and so he is able to keep up with the investigation’s progress.

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