Monday, August 27, 2018

Slower Read: "Never Anyone But You" by Rupert Thomson

Slower Read: Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson, 2018, 9781590519134.

You know how a book review or dust cover will say, "Beautifully written"? What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I think this novel is beautifully written but I am at a loss to describe how or why. Should I type in some excerpts and analyze Thomson's writing? Because I will not.

Never mind that reviews that focus on "beautiful" like that are a cop-out; they invariably skip any plot description and say things like "a tour de force" or "an emotional experience". A 5-second internet video of a crashing bicyclist in France can make me cringe. That video provokes a physical response so could I describe that as a "Tour de France emotional experience"? [When it comes to bad reviews don't get my wife started about poetry book reviews in Booklist or Library Journal. Those reviews are a waste of time.]

Anyhoo. I reserved this novel off a review or after I read an excerpt and I decided to give it a whirl. I then got sucked in by the writing and language. But, the "sucking in" turned to "this sucks" in the last 50 pages. Beautiful writing may be beautiful but there was not enough plot and action to keep me there. Make your own analogies about beautiful people with no personality or brains.

Suzanne and Lucie meet when they are young teenagers in 1909 France. They immediately fall for one another. But, they're only about 17 and 14 years old and unable and unwilling to risk sharing those feelings. They end up very close friends and then become lovers after a year or two.

Homosexuality is, of course, very frowned upon. "Frowned upon" is code for "Might be sent to an insane asylum or given brain surgery if you are gay". Suzanne and Lucie keep their romance secret. When their widowed parents remarry each other the two young women have a ready excuse to spend all their time together and move in together. They are sisters after all, why not share an apartment?

We follow Suzanne and Lucie through their lives together. Lucie changing her to name to Claude and Suzanne to Marcel. Claude's difficult mental health and suicide attempts. Marcel's jealousy and stability. Marcel's work as an illustrator in 1920s Paris. Hanging out with famous artists and attending parties attended by people like Dali and Hemingway. Moving to the island of Jersey. Waging a two person anti-nazi propaganda campaign during the German occupation. Capture and imprisonment. The death of Claude in the early 1950s and Marcel's lonely life until her death 20 years later.

The writing really was beautiful at times. Thomson skips over a few years to keep things moving a bit. I think this ran about 50 pages too long. I did enjoy quite a bit of this as we follow along in their relationship. Marcel does most of the heavy lifting with Claude who comes off manic-depressive. Claude also forms some intense emotional relationships with men and other women leaving Marvel on tenterhooks about Claude's fidelity.

Friday, August 24, 2018

QUIT: "Saturn Run" by John Sandford and Ctein

Quit: Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein, 2015, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

I figured to try this novel out since I had not read a Sandford novel in a while. This might have been an OK book if something actually happened.

Here is the plot: in 2066 some people at CalTech discover evidence of a alien spacecraft approaching Saturn. The news is kept secret as the U.S. decides what to do and how to get to Saturn. When the spacecraft leaves Saturn it is discovered by amateur astronomers and the U.S. and China are in a race over who gets to Saturn and gains a scientific advantage by acquiring super advanced technology. [Whether or not that technology can actually be taken or sneaked away from such a super advanced alien society was not covered before I quite listening.]

A crew is assembled. A propulsion method devised. A space station repurposed. A vain President appeased. The space craft goes on it's way. Sabotage slows the ship. Someone gets killed. I give up.

I stayed with the book hoping something interesting would happen. After a character was killed off I hoped things would improve. Nope. The whole novel just kinda loped along with some sex talk, some technical talk, plenty of space travel talk, counter espionage scheming, blah, blah, blah.

There were a few things that actively pissed me off. One is how all the characters have to be introduced with their alma mater. "Joe Blow was a brilliant scientist who attended MIT. Jill Blow was a brilliant scientist from Stanford. Jane Brain is a brilliant scientist from Harvard and Oxford." Your value is only as good as the college you went to. For fuck's sake. You know who went to Harvard? Jared Goddamn Kushner. All the "MIT this" and "MIT that" started to annoy the hell out of me.

Another thing is how characters and authors treat sex like a bunch of 7th graders. "Will they do it?! Are they doing it?! Ohh-la-la. Hubba hubba. Bless  my stars." I think of the psychology 101 freshmen who writes "SEX!" in big letters and then goes,  "Got your attention now? Hee-hee. I'm just kidding. I want to sell my futon. Call for details." Jesus H. Christ.

Even the characters who are given some character were pretty boring.
  • One main character is stock from a romance novel: Deadly Handsome Super Rich War Hero With Combat PTSD But A Loving Side. 
  • Chubby But Brilliant, Hard Working, and Cute Science Woman Who Acquires Deadly Handsome Hero. 
  • Poker Faced Counter Intelligence Chief With A Hidden and Tragic Past.
  • Ball Busting High-Heel-Wearing President With a Hair Trigger Temper.
  • Wacky But Loveable Old Man Scientist Who Won't Leave Earth Without His Cat and Some Marijuana
Fuck that noise. I gave up. I started Animal Farm and I just downloaded Abbott, Jr.'s brand spanking new novel. Hell, Abbott's new novel is about scientists and I fucking guarantee it will probably be just as fucking brilliant as her other books and without all the bullshit of Saturn Run.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Re-Heard on Vacation: "Sharpe's Gold" by Bernard Cornwell

Re-Heard on Vacation: Sharpe's Gold by Bernard Cornwell, 1981 (print), downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

I picked out several books for the long vacation drives from WI to WY to MT to WI again. All the books I chose were fantastic selections of adventure or intrigue or illuminating nonfiction. Unfortunately, my family did not recognize my great taste and this is the only book we listened to. (See previous post regarding Cosmos.)

I used to sneer at the Sharpe books. They looked like crappy male adventure novels that should have been printed on acidic paper and sold out of porn stores. I ended up trying one out almost 20 years ago, really enjoyed the novel, and I've been a enthusiastic fan of Cornwell ever since.

I chose a couple Sharpe audiobooks for the family drive because Cornwell tells a great story and his historical accuracy and detail add so much to that story. Cornwell's concise, descriptive sentences give great details and he he always keeps the story moving along.

Anyhoo. Sharpe is a Captain now. Still serving with Wellington's Army in Spain as the French Army is sweeping West towards Portugal. Things are looking bad for the limeys and Sharpe gets called to headquarters. Sharpe is called in front of Wellington himself and the General's intelligence chief. Sharpe and his company of riflemen are tasked with going into French territory and recovering a cache of Spanish gold. Sharpe is not told by Wellington how the gold will be spent but Sharpe is told that recovery of the gold is key to the survival of the British.

Sharpe and a supercilious, hyper-religious Major head into French territory to meet up with another British Army Officer who has been working with the Spanish partisans. The other Officer is the one who knows where the gold has been hidden. Sharpe and Co. arrive at the village to find it occupied by the Frogs. The witness a skirmish between the Spanish partisans and the Major is captured trying to rendezvous with the partisans.

As usual Sharpe has many troubles to overcome. This challenges come from the enemy and his own men and allies. The Major is a would-be-Spaniard and his sympathies for the Spanish are overriding Sharpe's own orders. Sharpe has to battle the partisan leader who wants to keep the gold for himself and establish his own fiefdom and government since the Spanish King and government have fallen apart and fled the French.

There are:
  • beheadings
  • torture
  • murder of Spanish women and children
  • revenge by the Partisans
  • Sharpe's fear and hatred of lancers
  • Long range rifle shooting
  • night attacks
  • sneakiness and subterfuge
  • Sharpe's dedication to the mission
  • pompous British officers
  • an absurd love affair between Sharpe and a beautiful partisan
  • The siege of Almeida
  • Sharpe blowing up Almeida when the British General does not let Sharpe leave with the gold (as mentioned above: Sharpe will complete the mission).

Another Comic: "Preacher: Volume 2" by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon

Another Comic: Preacher: volume 2 by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, 2010, 9781401242558.

Preacher Jesse and Tulip go to San Francisco to look for Cassady. Plenty of things happen as they go for revenge against pushers who Cassady blames for his girlfriend's death. They then are hunted by super powerful sect that defends the secret bloodline of Christ.

Included are:
Bloody shootouts.
Jesse and Tulip sex.
Bloody fist fights.
Violent bounty hunters.
Bizarre sex parties.
Obscene libertines.
Hugely obese and murderous secret Pope.
Airplane trips.
Jesse using the voice of Genesis to command people.
Vampire being shot apart.
A story about genital torture and mutilation.
A imprisoned angel who fell from Heaven.
God angry at Jesse for trying to track God down on earth.

What is a good description? How about: "Wild, wacky,and sexy trail of death and destruction across the Western hemisphere. With a vampire."

1. Reminded me of this Adam Ant tune.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Re-Listened: "Sharpe's Tiger" by Bernard Cornwell

Re-Listened: Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell, 1997, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Another book I downloaded to maybe play on our drive to WY and back. I have always greatly enjoyed the narration of Frederick Davidson. There are a number of novels in the Wisconsin Digital Library narrated by Davidson. Many of those are HEAVY LITERATURE. Like Jude the Obscure, Dubliners, Gulag Archipelago, and Brothers Karamazov. Maybe I'll give one of his versions a try. According to my internet box Davidson passed away in 2005. Bummer.

After Cornwell stuck Richard Sharpe into every battle, skirmish, and attack he could think of during the Peninsula Campaign he started setting his stories back when Sharpe as a 22-year-old Redcoat in India. This is the first of those three novels. Sharpe is a Redcoat in the 33rd Foot as the regiment and the rest of a combined British and East India Company army march against the Tippoo of Mysore. The Tippoo wants to drive the Limeys out of India and have his own massive kingdom.

Sharpe is considering desertion. He is bored. He hates his cruel company Sergeant, Hakeswilll. He wants to flee with his new girlfriend, Mary Bickerstaff, to somewhere interesting. Sergeant Hakeswill is cruel for cruelties sake and early in the novel he tries to set Sharpe up  - a trap that Sharpe escapes. But, Hakeswill's cruelty is determined and he gets the company's drunken Captain Morris to help. Hakeswill godes Sharpe into slugging Hakeswill, the Captain witnesses the assault, and Sharpe is sentenced to 2,000 lashes. That'll kill ya.

Anyhoo. As happens in several of the Sharpe novels Sharpe is rescued from punishment by a officer who wants Sharpe for a special job. Sharpe's Lieutenant is  tasked with sneaking into the city of Seringapatam to try and rescue a British soldier/spy. The Lieutenant knows he needs help and requests Sharpe. The General in charge of the campaign agrees to the request and off Sharpe and the Lieutenant go.They pretend to be deserters, are captured, prove themselves to their captors, are assigned to a company of European soldiers, and have to figure how to escape the city and warn the attacking army to avoid a trap.

Of course plenty more happens. We learn about the Tippoo (still revered in modern India). How siege warfare was run once armies had artillery. The brutality of the Tippoo on British prisoners. The gulf between officer and enlisted in the English army. The difficulties of night attacks, provisioning several thousand people who are marching hundreds of miles, and storming a freaking walled city. Great stuff. Much fun. Sharpe always wins out in the end and the bad guys are always dealt with.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Sounds: "The Confession" by Olen Steinhauer.

Book Sounds: The Confession by Olen Steinhauer, 2003 and I don't know the date for the audio production, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Second novel in Steinhauer's series about murder cops in a fictional Eastern Europe country. The last novel focused on young cop Emil. This is seven years later and Emil is a side character to Ferenc. Ferenc is older, married, with a young teen daughter. Ferenc is a very big fella and only sometimes uses that imposing size to his advantage when speaking to people. Ferenc was a feted novelist a few years ago and make the drinking rounds of the artistic community. Ferenc still drinks it up on occassion but now has in a troubled marriage and suspects his wife of infidelity.

Daily life in Unnamed Country is not so bad for the cops. They have cars. They don't have an overbearing boss. They have enough to eat. But, every one is subject to a forced vacation to a labor camp with a boot in the face - forever. Basically, things are not so bad after the war. Sure, everyone suffered during the war, and Ferenc killed plenty of people, yet things are slowly building back. One problem is that the country is ultimately under control of the Russkies. What's more the citizens are in danger of being swept up in purges both before and after the silent coups.

Anyhoo. Ferenc starts investigating a couple murders involving the art community and comes across one of those unfortunate victims of state violence. Ferenc runs into: A dangerous Russian political officer. A Frenchman. A few artists. A few women. And several instances of betrayal.

Steinhaurer has some interesting things to say about oppressive governments but the plot is more about family, loyalty, and revenge.

  • Ferenc can't quite figure out what has happened to his marriage. He ends up moving out and sleeping with other women but still wants his wife back. 
  • The murder investigations show ties to Russian soldiers who occupied the country after the war and then raped and kills some teenage girls. The police investigator at the time stayed loyal to his community and the law. The Russkies stayed loyal to Russkies and killed the investigator. 
  • The murder investigation shows the killer may be out for revenge after a betrayal sent him to prison. The betrayers sent him to prison and then claimed his paintings as their own and went on to acclaim and money.
  • Emil thinks that he should maybe leave his wife because that would be better for her.

1. Gratuitous Eastern European car brands.
2. An interesting novel but I enjoyed Steinhauer's other spy/assassin novels more.
3. Alan Furst is still my benchmark for post-WWII Eastern Europe espionage.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Another Camp One: "Pines" by Blake Crouch.

Another Camp One: Pines by Blake Crouch, 2012, 9781612183954.

I ended up enjoying the TV version of this quite a bit. That show was cancelled after the second season. I saw this on the shelf and figured "What the hell, maybe there will be more stuff in the novel." Well, kinda more stuff. But the first season of the show had plenty of episodes and covered a lot of ground.

Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke wakes up in a hospital bed. Burke doesn't quite know what the hell is going on and his memory of the accident that sent him to hospital is very fuzzy. Things are weird at the hospital. There is only one nurse and the doctor never shows like the nurse said he would. Ethan is still badly injured but struggles from bed, finds his clothes, and leaves.

Burke is in Wayward Pines, ID. He and another agent were sent from Seattle to find two other missing Agents. Burke starts walking around town and really starts to like the small town atmosphere. The neighborhoods are neat and orderly. People are friendly. The surrounding mountain cliffs provide fantastic scenery. Burke starts to think this is a place worth moving to.

But, Burke has no cash. Burke tries to call home and only gets a message. Burke tries to call work and can only reach a receptionist who is incompetent and will not connect Burke to the Agent in charge. Burke starts getting massive headaches and worries he might have a very serious concussion.

Things happen. Burke is a bit of a pitbull and keeps pushing and probing and questioning the hospital, local people, and the strange local Sheriff. Things, of course, are not what they seem. I already knew what would be happening but the adaptation made quite a few changes to the story line and I enjoyed the novel. I'm not sure if I will read the other two books in the series.

Enough to Count: "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan.

Enough to Count: Cosmos by Carl Sagan, 1980 with 2017 audio production, download from Audible.

Man was that guy long-winded. Read by LeVar Reading Rainbow Burton. I wonder if LeVar had to pause and say, "Will this ever end?!" like I did.

My family listened to the audio version on our family vacation drive out to Wyoming. We wanted Neil Tyson's updated TV version of Cosmos and the enjoyed that. My wife checked this one out using an Audible trial because the boys dig science topics. 

I know Cosmos was a landmark book and television series. Maybe that is why what Sagan writes about seems old hat. His influence was so great that the topics of space, physics, human history, human development, human effects on earth are common knowledge. I actually prefer to think that I am so brilliant that much of what he covered I had heard before.

The I Am The Brilliant Gerard is the obvious answer.

Anyhoo. Not much to say. Very interesting topics but Sagan droned on and talked about the same things over and over. I had no choice but to listen.

At camp: "The Catch" by Archer Mayor

At Camp: The Catch by Archer Mayor, 2009 (paperback edition),

I stopped reading the Joe Gunther series a few years ago. I had really, really enjoyed the series until I read one novel that was a total dog. It made no damn sense. I am pretty sure that novel was The Marble Mask.

Anyhoo, my wife was weeding fiction in her library and pulled a couple Mayor paperbacks and asked if I wanted them. I said "Sure" and took one up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the first of two Scout Camps this summer. I went along on the backpacking portion of the trip and since the hike lasted three days I brought along a book. I did not have many opportunities to read but I did get some reading done.

Most important is that I really ended up enjoying this novel. Being reintroduced to characters that I rhad not read about in over 10 years was a pleasure.

To recap the series. Joe Gunther was a Police Officer in Brattleboro, VT. The population of Brattleboro is only 11,600 people but Gunther had plenty of murders to solve. Later in the series Gunther joined a new statewide agency that helps investigate serious crime. Serious crimes like the murder of a Deputy on a rural road.

Deputy Sleuter was a hard charger who wanted to arrest his way into a Federal agency. He pulls aside a speeding car late one night and the stop is taped by his cruiser's camera. After coming back to his cruiser to use the radio the camera records the offending driver's passenger car door open, the passenger sneaking out, and Sleuter is shot by an off camera person.

Gunther is called in and brings his team along. Gunther's long-time Brattleboro colleagues Willy and Sammy. They have names from the cruiser's video and start investigating. Travels to Boston end in a shooting and links to murder and drugs in Maine get Gunther hooked up with the DEA and Maine's state DEA.

Things happen. Gunther has turned timeless. Gunther was originally written as a veteran of the Korean War in the first novel in 1988. Now Gunther is indeterminately "older" and has a younger bartening girlfriend whose recent jailbird brother introduces Gunther to some of Maine's crime scene.

We follow a few bad guy drug dealers and killers around. We follow Willy around as he insults and snarls at every one he meets. Sammy tempers Willy's behavior. Gunther gets tired of all the investigative dead ends.

Fun stuff. I liked it.

Quick-ish: "The Soak" by Patrick E McLean

Quick-ish: The Soak by Patrick E. McLean, 2017, 9780997832310.

Lee Goldberg kept pluggin this online. He must really like the book because he even published it through Brash Books.

I really enjoyed this one. A big part of my enjoyment is that McLean takes Richard Stark's (Donald E. Westlake) Parker and makes him human. I've considered Parker to be a sociopath with his own defined set of rules. McLean has his character Hobbs following much of Parker's details: life-long robber who never went to prison, crooked Army Sergeant, long-time girlfriend met during a heist, living on a lake, either working or waiting to work, a defined set of ro rules and behavior. But, McLean's Hobbs is getting old. He needs to retire. Hobbs knows this because every one keeps telling him so. But, Hobbs has been living a life of rob-and-rest-and-rob-again for about 40 or 50 years. What else is he going to do?

The story starts with Hobbs waking up in a bed. He'd been in a coma for a while and, old John Doe that he was, he was stuck in a state hospital for the elderly. Hobbs has no money, no car, and no memory of what the hell is going on. Well, this is a crime novel. So, Hobbs kills and steals his way out of the hospital and hits the road. On the way his memory comes back and he starts going after the money he is missing.

Flashback to a 20-year-hacker and stepson of a mobster. Hacker wants to break into real crime. He researches armored cars and discovers that one route in Northern Florida regularly carries large amounts of cash. He pulls together all the online data and finds someone who can help him hook-up with in-person heisters. 

Cue Hobbs and Co. Hobbs gets the call that a job is available and the script follows a standard Stark format. Hobbs recruits other heisters, Hobbs does not want to work with the amateur Hacker, Hobbs and Co. plan things out, things go tits up, Hobbs gets even.

And that's just the thing. Hobbs, being like Parker, isn't always exactly out for revenge. Or even getting even. Being double-crossed or lied to by another crook or a crooked cop does not make Hobbs happy. For him the issue is more You Do Not Act This Way Without Consequences. People have transgressed and Hobbs will settle things.

I really enjoyed this and very much recommend it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Heard: "Devil's Peak" by Deon Meyer

Heard: Devil's Peak by Deon Meyer, 2007, download form Wisconsin Digital Library.

I think Meyer writes in Afrikaans. I wonder if he does his own translations.

I really enjoyed Meyer's books with the character Lemmer. This book features Cape Town copper Benny Griessel and the plot is a three way story among Benny, Thobela, and Christine.

Griessel is a drunk. Griessel's part of the novel begins on Benny's living room couch with a massive hangover, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels, and a black eye on his wife.

Griessel turned into a drunk a few years ago. But, now, after other failed attempts at sobriety his wife has had enough. He hit her the previous night and has been getting progressively worse with nightly blackouts. She has packed a bag for Benny and told him to get out. He can see the kids on Sunday - if he is sober - and if he stays sober for six months she will consider a reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Thobela The Bad Guy, is having an even worse time. Thobela has been raising his young son since Thobela's wife passed away. He moved them out of Cape Town to a farm. Driving his pick-up truck back from a off-road motorcycle trip Thobela and his son stop at a gas station. Thobela exits the truck for gas when a couple robbers run out of the shop, shoot up the pick-up, and kill Thobela's son.

Thobela is left mourning for both his wife and young son when the two killers escape police custody. Thobela learns that the cops are not actively hunting for the killers.He bribes a detective for the case file and starts hunting for the killers who likely fled to Cape Town. Along the way Thobela hears of a child rapist and murderer (one of those scumbags who rape an infant in the belief that doing so will cure AIDS) who has gotten away with the crime. Thobela gets an Assegai spear and murders the rapist. Thobela decides he will be the one to revenge crimes against children and attacks other child abusers and killers who he reads about in the newspapers.

Things stay tough for Benny. He is having a tough time going sober and withdrawal puts him in the hospital. But, Benny has strong support from his commanding officer and starts to see a bit more clear headed. He even gets assigned to command the new task force on the Assegai murders. 

Christine enters the picture early on in the novel as she is talking to a priest in a rural town. Christine's dialogue with the priest is a confession of sorts and her retelling of the past week's events involving Benny and Thebola. Over the course of the novel we learn not to trust too much of what Christine says about her background and what happened.

Anyhoo. Benny and company are chasing Thebola. Thebola becomes something of a fold hero. Christine is a high cost prostitute and takes up with a Colombian cocaine king. All three come together when Thebola kills the Colombian after Christine accuses him of kidnapping her daughter and the arrest makes the newspapers.

Neat stuff. Meyer and Roger Smith's crime novels both give a neat look at life in Cape Town. Meyer writes about the white Afrikaaners and Smith will often cover both the wealthy whites and dirt-poor blacks and coloreds on the Cape Flats. You learn a lot about how race is handled there. For instance, "colored" is not the pejorative it is in the United States. Colored in S.A. means biracial. Meyer often covers the tension of changing politics as the whites who ran everything in the country for so long will sometimes wonder at the experience and capabilities of black colleagues.

1. The narrator speaks the Afrikaans dialogue in that accent and I thought it sounded great. But, his American accent sounded like the Monty Python parodies of American accents. With that in mind I wonder how accurate the other accents are.
2. More "broken man's redemption" bullshit. Benny is going through less than two weeks of sobriety and he falls off the wagon on day 10. Benny thinks he is trying to redeem himself with work and reconnecting with the children he ignored in a drunken haze the last few years. He'll be going through that booze struggle every day. Making up for his years of booze enhanced neglect will take years.
3. Part of Benny's new sobriety is a reappreciation of pop music. Benny used to play bass in a band and he and his son appreciate a strong bass and drum beat. Meyer names several singers and musicians but I did not try to look them up.
4. Meyer's website has neat-o location photos for some of his novels.

DNF: "Agents of Terror" by Alexander Vatlin

DNF: Agents of Terror: ordinary men and extraordinary violence in Stalin's Secret Police by Alexander Vatlin. Edited, translated and with an Introduction by Seth Bernstein. 2016, 9780299310806.

A look at Stalinist purges at the ground level. The men who did the local dirty work. I just never got into the book and it was sitting around at home forever. I read the Foreword and learned a decent amount from that. Especially how people would turn on their neighbors. How secret police officers would strive to meet quotas by grabbing convenient victims. How interrogations were torture sessions and confessions were bullshit. Kangaroo courts with quick convictions and sentences.