Monday, December 15, 2014

another mystery from the vault of obscure: They Rang Up the Police, by Joanna Cannan

Written in 1939, They Rang Up the Police by Joanna Cannan  is quite frankly, unlike any other mystery novel from this period I've read so far in my long mystery/crime-fiction reading career.  It has a psychological aspect to it that is just downright chilling, but one which I can't explore by writing about it since basically it would give away the entire show all at once.  It's a book where I ended up with nothing but total sympathy for the murderer, something that rarely happens and as I noted on the crime page, just felt right to me. There is a lot of craziness in this novel that masks what ultimately turns out to be a downright heartbreaking story where justice just might have been served in its own way.  

This book is #3 in my ongoing quest to read obscure crime-fiction novels written by unknown or forgotten women authors, and so far, I've had extremely good luck.  They Rang Up the Police is another English country house mystery, and my favorite so far.  Trust me. Even if you think you've read them all, there are still some surprises to be found in this genre.  It also ain't Agatha Christie by any stretch of the imagination.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

captain's log: reading Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy

I should make it very clear at the outset that this is not a review of this book, nor is it a post where someone looking for any sort of revelations about Judge Holden, the Kid, or what McCarthy's saying here will discover anything at all.

Instead, it's about two and a half moleskine notebooks (large size) being filled  with close-reading notes, with observations, vocabulary, googled references to Shakespeare, the Bible and other sources,  lightbulb moments, a bazillion questions, and pink and blue highlighting over the course of a couple of weeks.  It's about getting stuck in a world that is difficult to leave, even when you've left it. It's about getting one chapter shy of the end and wondering if I can take any more that day because I was just too depressed to move on.

It's just that kind of book.  And I loved it.

As I made my way through it, I started posting status updates about it on Goodreads.  I started it on 11/19 and immediately realized this wasn't going to be something I could just mark with my little sticky tabbies on the page edges and come back to later.  Each and every paragraph had something in it that made reading it pretty much line by line a necessity.  First real entry, 11/28 with

page 44: 13% -- "Loving every slow second of this book."

page 84: 24% -- "I don't remember the last time I read something this intense. Going slow to get the most from it."
 -- In truth I was really barely crawling through this book, making very s-l-o-w progress. On the home front, Larry was actually here that day (not traveling), and I told an online friend I planned to read all day if he didn't need me. In my head, it was a pretty safe bet that he wouldn't -- as I said to her, "he's pretty busy with writing a speech for work so hopefully that will corral him for a while."  Not four hours later I wrote her that "he's out of his corral.  There may be "Evening Redness in the East" if I keep having to listen to his speech after every addition."

12/01: -- I noted "Super progress today - this book gets darker and darker, but better and better with every chapter."
-- In the real world, I had read up to page 124.  Then at around 4:00 that day, since I'd just been sitting there reading the entire time, Larry comes downstairs and says, "do you know you're wearing the same clothes you had on yesterday? The pants are inside out."  I was absolutely horrified but then I just started laughing. He looks at the table where I'm sitting and I could almost read his mind. There was the coffee cup I'd used that morning, still half full; my half-eaten lunch quesadilla still on a plate on the placemat to the right, a bunched-up paper napkin with dried-up tangerine peels on top of it just sitting there, and the Neilsen tv diaries (most days marked "no viewing")  I was supposed to have mailed 2 days earlier. Oh well. Nothing I can do about that now.  Actually he made me feel like one of those world of warcraft addicts that sits in front of a computer screen all day, and I didn't blame him at all. I just took a shower and changed my clothes.

12/02: -- Page 152, and "Oops. I got so wrapped up I forgot it was my turn to cook today."

Holy crap. How does someone forget to make dinner? Blame it on the book. I was really wrapped up in the novel that day and did not want to stop. Larry came downstairs took a look at the once-again world-of-warcraft station (the breakfast room table) and says "where are we eating tonight?"  In my house that's a serious question because where we live you have pretty much no choices - eating at a decent place requires a minimum 20-minute drive. I was in no condition to leave the house. I had my hair in a scrunchie on the top of my head with strands leaking out every which way; I was wearing a pair of comfy yoga pants that Larry keeps telling me to throw away because the elastic has been pretty much dead for a year and at that point, the thought of going upstairs to put on any kind of makeup and real clothes was just too much work.   We used to go to the neighborhood Italian for pizza when we were desperate, but they closed because the manager's such a cow and had huge staff turnover. There's another smaller little pizza place that smells like cheese the minute you walk in and they don't deliver so you have to go in and face the cheese smell if you want to eat, so that's out. Then there's one nearby Chinese restaurant where you have to be pretty desperate to eat since they give you yesterday's grey, stringy pork in today's pork fried rice and their eggroll drips with so much grease that you take one look at the paper it's wrapped in and just want to puke -- so that was out too. I'm getting desperate  because he's hungry and I'm feeling guilty, so we call the one place left where you won't die if you eat the food. Next day I had to give up reading to atone and made homemade pasta.

12/04: -- by now I've read to page 232, and my status update said: "109 pages until the end. My brain hurts." Well, evidently my brain wasn't even functioning at that time, because there are 351 pages in my book so I was off by like 10 pages. I wasn't joking though. My brain really did hurt.  By now I also started feeling like the South Park kids in that episode where they're all playing world of warcraft and can't leave their computers so they get really fat (of course, while I'm reading this intently, my regular exercise has become a freakin' chore I just don't want to do).  I'm also neglecting things again.  Larry came down at one point during the day and asked me when the dogs had gone out last and I swear I couldn't remember.

 I'd looked in on the group at the end of the day to see how everyone was progressing, and the discussion about what the letters branded on one of the character's face meant had come to a close. My friend in the group says something along the lines of "well, we can all sleep soundly knowing that we've answered a few questions today," and I figured that she's so right -- not because I was thinking about questions answered, but because I was just exhausted from spending my days so focused on reading this novel. I mean, this is NOT the easiest book to read because it's pretty philosophical and you absolutely must pay attention to language use in this novel, and on top of that, it's emotionally draining to get through scenes of scalping, wanton violence and murder, etc.

12/05 -- no updates, but  as it happened, I reported back to the group that morning in response to the "sleep soundly" post,  that
"I'm giving the book a pass today. I didn't sleep soundly -- I was dreaming of being in Texas in the desert and seeing St. Elmo's fire, so I think I need to walk away for a day."
It was true. Instead of a horse, though, I was in a car and on the side of the car was a huge red white and blue logo in the shape of the state of Texas and as I was being driven through, all kinds of horrible stuff was going on all around.

I also noted that
"I can't remember a book that has so gotten under my skin that it reproduces itself in nightmares. And it wasn't even the violence -- I've been thinking about it all morning and it was more my ongoing idea as I've been reading that the landscape in this book reminds me of hell. I'm not religious at all, but dreaming of being in hell is never a good thing. "
Let's just say that I've read books that were so creepy that I couldn't get to sleep -- but this nightmare thing was new.

The weekend comes along now, and so I actually need to spend time with my spousal unit who has to leave Monday for a week, so I read a little but not until Sunday. That night I had to go to a neighborhood Christmas party and that day I realized just how far I'd let myself go being stuck in this book for so long -- I went to the grocery store and bought Nestle's pre-made refrigerator cookies, stuck them all on 2 baking sheets and threw them in the oven. That was my contribution. I love to cook, but I had absolutely zero energy ... I just wanted to read.  I went for an hour or so -- thankfully they put desserts in the back room so I didn't have to claim ownership. The store-bought cookies remained anonymous.  So - at the same party, someone asked me what I was reading and I opened my mouth to say Blood Meridian but I was afraid she would ask me what it was about and I didn't want to go there.

12/08 --
My coffee pot died this morning.  My faithful workhorse grind-and-brew Capresso coffee maker just quit working after seven years, so now I'm down to the pod machine. That is not real coffee by any stretch of the imagination.  The day started out poorly. I made a note about it on Facebook because my friends and family know that coffee for me is the elixir of life. Yes. A first-world problem, but still.  I need coffee when I read.

I shouldn't have spent the entire day reading with no one here to give me a reality check. Larry left in the morning, but not before telling me that a guy from A-1 leak detection is coming on Thursday to take a look at our pool to see if he can find and fix the leak, and that I needed to fill it on Wednesday.  I knew deep down that I would totally forget and the guy would show up so I actually had to write down on the calendar for Wednesday that I needed to fill the pool and at what time.  Otherwise, and I swear this is true -- he would have shown up Thursday probably to a completely empty swimming pool.  Also, to prove that I could actually get away from the book and do what needed doing around here, I threw a load of laundry in the washing machine. It was still there when I went to bed that night. Ah, but that was the day when I started the dreaded chapter 22, which was so disheartening I had trouble sleeping that night. Laundry getting moldy in my washing machine was nothing in comparison. I forgot to eat today.

12/9 -- Today's evening update entry reads
"Today chapter XXII damn near did me in. I have to say, this book is so incredibly outstanding - but probably the most emotionally pulverizing."
 I wake up and remember after wondering where the hell's my coffee maker that it no longer exists. I walk to the pod machine (it's in this little niche where there used to be a wonderful huge pantry, but no, the former owners of this house decided to make it a stupid and useless butler's pantry) and open the coffee pod drawer and it's filled with Larry's latte pods, some decaf espresso and then paydirt -- "real" espresso so I fix that. Gross. I can't take the coffee situation any longer so I decide to do something about it. . Like getting takeout, that's easier said than done where I live.  The only place to buy a coffee maker without driving 20 minutes is the local grocery store. Have you ever seen the selection of coffee makers at your local grocery store? I hadn't either.  My choice was Mr. Coffee 4-cup brew or the 12-cup model.  So I decide on the 12-cup and put it in the basket. Taking it out of the cart to put it up onto the checkout counter thingie I twisted my back somehow and it was all I could do to get home and throw on a heat wrap so I can make it through the day. I was supposed to go to lunch with my friends but now I'm sort of stuck at home.  So instead of feeling really awful about missing lunch, I think "oh cool. I can finish the book today!"  which is terrible, because the purpose of the lunch was to help cheer up a woman whose  very young son had just passed away.

That final chapter was just so draining and downright depressing that at some point during the day, I posted to the group

"Can we read like "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" or its equal next?"

 By the end of the day I only have 4 pages to go ... but I can't take any more so I have to stop reading.

12/10: "marked as read."

Up at 4:30 a.m. and enjoying my coffee, although I must say that Starbucks Rwanda Rift Valley is less than perfect  through a Mr. Coffee machine. I look over at the table (which once again, now that Larry's not here. looks like the good old world of warcraft station) and the book is beckoning.  I can't do it. I haven't had enough coffee yet to get through the horrors of those last four pages.  Later I go out and turn on the hose to fill the pool, setting the timer on the microwave so that I won't forget to turn off the water in my reading haze because I would have.  I finally have enough guts to get started on the book and I finish the last chapter. Then I puzzle through the epilogue, filling more pages in my notebook, and  adding even more questions I want to bring to the group.  I must say, I would have done a happy dance after having finished it but a) it's not that kind of book and b) if you've read it, the words "happy" and "dance" just don't sit well together, especially in the last chapter.

I'm glad it's over, but now I'm sort of feeling like I'm suffering from book-related PTSD. I can't explain it any better than that. The killer part is that reading it was the easy part -- now I have to go through and put things together in my head and relive it all over again.  But it's well worth it. It turned out to be the epitome of book excellence.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

November reading roundup

How appropriate this little piece of art is at the moment, since I am currently reading McCarthy's Blood Meridian with my online group.  I've only just started chapter five but without a doubt, it's definitely the best book I've read this year.  Forget those lists of 2014 favorites I've been writing about  -- Blood Meridian blows them all away. I'll be hard pressed to find another book that I love this well over the next year.

down to business now. The books I was well in the mood to read in November are:

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki 
This Dark Road to Mercy, by Wiley Cash

Dark Prophecy, by Marjorie Alan
Postscript to Poison, by Dorothy Bowers
Build My Gallows High, by Geoffrey Homes
Rustication, by Charles Palliser
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain

The Disunited States, by Vladimir Pozner 

weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
Revival, by Stephen King 
Our Lady of Pain, by John Blackburn (Valancourt ed.) 

other stuff in my reading life this month
 The book group is on a break, returning mid-December to discuss The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown.  I've already started to hear negatives from people -- based on comments, here's my thinking: people are way too caught up in little details and are missing the bigger picture.  

the smaller book group   just read A Tale for the Time Being this month -- again, the grumbles about detail. 

currently reading
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy -- I have to say that the people in my online group are  incredibly intelligent and insightful, and it makes for an excellent reading experience.

Moriarity, by Anthony Horowitz

that's it -- I'm discovering that going with my gut on reading choices and not trying to be any kind of trendy is so liberating. Everyone should try it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

new from indieville: the demon who peddled longing, by Khanh Ha

Underground Voices, 2014
291 pp

paperback; arc  - thanks!

 Khanh Ha is a Vietnamese author whose book Flesh I read sometime back and enjoyed. He is a three-time Pushcart nominee as well as the recipient of Greensboro Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction. His work has also appeared in several magazines and journals.   His newest book, the demon who peddled longing is just now out,  published by Underground Voices.
In this book, the author unearths the darker side of human nature as his young (19 years old)  protagonist, known only as "the boy," sets out on a quest for revenge. What happens to him during his journey is the focus of this very interesting novel.

In a better time in his past, the boy had fallen in love with his cousin, the daughter of the uncle who raised him. He makes no apologies for the situation, and one day out of nowhere, she simply disappeared.  When he finally finds her, she's been dead for two days, and had been brutally raped. To make matters worse, his uncle was bitten by a venomous snake while making a visit to his daughter's grave. The boy has kept that hurt with him since and it has caused some deep pain and psychological damage which he's carried with him on his mission to find the two men who caused her death. He knows only that he's looking for two brothers, and he's been roaming around trying to find them and make them pay for what they did. His travels lead him to some very interesting encounters with different people who have to shoulder their own torments just to carry on living.

At its heart, the demon who peddled longing is good story, and the wide variety of characters rule this book from its beginning. The tale of the boy has a circular feel with the end returning to its beginning as though the boy has returned with life lessons under his belt and gets a chance to start over again. It also examines the continuing legacies of the war in Vietnam. And as original as the story may be, I just wasn't in love with the book as a whole.  My biggest issue here is that the writing is really uneven. There are sections of the book that flow along so nicely and then it's like you hit another section where words just sort of explode all around you and the flow just stops and starts in on a ramble. I get that every writer has his/her own style, but the effect is pretty jarring to the reader. There are also a number of scenes that imo were way too drawn out, going on too long -- for example, do we really need to be repeatedly put through a man's boils bursting and pus oozing, etc. etc.? Or did we really need an entire page on a wife ministering to her impotent, wheelchair-bound husband? Sometimes less is so much more ... I think more judicious editing would have been a really good thing.

I read this book as part of a book tour, and even though I've quit accepting so many of these requests, I took on this one because I have a soft spot for  the author whom I first became aware of with his earlier novel Flesh.  I remember how in that novel I was wowed by his descriptive talent, something he showcases here as well. Despite my own issues with this book, it is garnering several four and five-star reviews among its readers. I hope it does very well.


Monday, November 24, 2014

think obscure -- part two. This time it's Marjorie Alan.

MS Mill, 1945
originally published in England as Masked Murder
188 pages


Talk about obscure -- while researching this author, all I could find on her is the following: 

real name: Doris Marjorie Bumpus
born: 1905
number of books: eight, published between 1945 and 1956 

One would think that a crime writer with eight novels under her belt would be more widely known, but I've scoured the internet and have come up with absolutely nothing other than what I've written here, absolutely bupkus on Bumpus. If anyone at all has any information about this author, please share -- I would love to know more.  In the meantime, she wrote an okay mystery novel of the English country home murder variety, the first of her eight called Dark Prophecy that I've written about on the crime page.  

popping out all over! More best books of 2014 -- part six

Just in time for Black Friday (sorry, but I'm a cynical person), more best of 2014 lists have appeared.

Let's start with "The Ten Best Books of 2014" from The Washington Post.
 (in order of appearance)

1. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
2. Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson 
3. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan 
(...that's good to know, since I'm going to read it here shortly)
4. The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters 
(I'll definitely agree)
5. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
6. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
7. Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries, by Rory MacLean
8. Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, by Gary Krist
9. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert
10. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr

As an added bonus, you can also find the Washington Post's selection of the best fifty fiction books of 2014 in the same issue. 

Moving right along, Tim Martin of the Telegraph in the UK says, "forget Amis, McEwan, and the Booker winner" -- he has his own standouts for the year (or at least up through Christmas...same thing).  After sweating through Kirkus' top 100, I'll just leave you the link to Martin's choices. They are legion. 

Flavorwire has its own take on the top books -- "2014's Best Indie Fiction and Poetry Books of 2014." There are fifty books in this list, so again, I won't reproduce them, but  I will say that while I don't often read Flavorwhile, kudos to them for focusing on the smaller publishing houses.  You can see them for yourself in the article, but I'll mention a few here:

Two Dollar Radio
New Directions
Melville House
OR Books

and many, many more.  It's about time these little presses were publicly acknowledged in a wider reading venue -- and good on you, Flavorwire for doing so. 

That's it for now -- I'm sure that the cheap TVs, toys,  DVD players, gaming systems and other such things people stand in line for over a period of hours will be the hot ticket items again this year, but  all of those things will become obsolete next year, and books never go out of style. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

best of 2014, part five: Publisher's Weekly

Somehow, I overlooked Publisher's Weekly last week, but they've also jumped on the pre-Thanksgiving  best of 2014 books list bandwagon early this year. Less in the mainstream than any other list I've noted here, PW's top ten is a varied mix of nonfiction and fiction, with two books coming from Graywolf Press and one from Europa.   Here's what PW has to say:

"Each November, our reviews editors look back at the nearly 9,000 titles we reviewed over the course of the year and pick favorites in several categories: fiction, poetry, mystery/thriller, SF/fantasy/horror, romance/erotica, comics, picture books, middle grade, and young adult. From those longlists, the editors choose an overall top 10, including five each of the year’s best fiction and nonfiction titles."

 Here's their top ten (offered in the order as they are listed on the website):

On Immunity: An Education, by Eula Bliss  (nonfiction)
Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David, by Lawrence Wright (nonfiction)
The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, by Hassan Blasim
Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrère (nonfiction)
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante
A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
The Empathy Exams, by Leslie  Jamison (nonfiction)
Bark, by Lorrie Moore
The Dog, by Joseph O'Neill
Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free, by Héctor Tobar