Monday, March 31, 2014

March reading roundup

Where did this month go? You'd think with 31 days, it would have moved slowly, but no - it zoomed on by. I have to say that with only a few exceptions, the books I read this month have been pretty much the most offbeat novels in a long time. My favorites in the fiction/literature department, of course are the original Barrytown Trilogy, by Roddy Doyle. I liked The Guts, but there was just something about the first three that will stick with me for a long time.  The Madonna on the Moon by Rolf Bauerdick was also very good right up to the last one hundred pages or so, but left me a wee bit disappointed with the ending. Up to then, though, I couldn't put it down. Very quirky -- right up my alley. 
 In the weird fiction department, I finished only two books: Robert Aickman's The Wine-Dark Sea, which gave me such a case of the willies I had to stop and start, stop and start again. Then there was A Season in Carcosa, edited by Joseph Pulver Sr., which I didn't read because of HBO's True Detective, but because I was in the mood for something exceedingly strange and it fit the bill at the moment. 
 The crime fiction reads were also less this month:  two Chandlers, Benjamin Black, and a new author took up my time.
 I also ended up giving away eight books this month -- and I've decided to not keep my copy of The Guts if anyone would like it (US only, sorry).

So - let the lowdown begin:

The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkel, by Magdalena Zyzak
The Madonna on the Moon, by Rolf Bauerdick
The Barrytown Trilogy:
The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Vanby Roddy Doyle
The Guts, by Roddy Doyle
The Club at Eddy's Bar, by Zoltán Böszörményi (liked it -- review in April)

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
Playback, by Raymond Chandler
The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black
Black Chalk, by Christopher Yates

zero, zip, nada

weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
The Wine-Dark Sea, by Robert Aickman
A Season in Carcosa, ed. Joseph Pulver Sr. (review coming)

Now the rest

1)  Added to the  wishlist this month:
 crime fiction:
A Dark Redemption, by Stav Sherez
  general fiction/literature: 
Before I Burn, by Gaute Heivoll
the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
The Invisible Eye, by Erckmann-Chatrian (ed. Hugh Lamb)


The Other Victorians, by Steven Marcus
A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre

2) Books bought this month:
The Cyclist Conspiracy, by Svetislav Basara (fiction/literature)
Raymond Chandler: Collected Stories (crime)

A Fairy Tale, by Jonas Bengtsson  (fiction/literature)
Southern Gods, by John Hornor Jacobs  (horror/weird fiction)
Welcome to Mars: Politics, Pop Culture and Weird Science in 1950s America, by Ken Hollings (nonfiction)
Nameless Places, by Gerald W. Page (horror/weird fiction)
The Unsettled Dust, by Robert Aickman (horror/weird fiction)
Painted Devils, by Robert Aickman (horror/weird fiction)
The Complete John Thunstone, by Manly Wade Wellman (supernatural/weird fiction)
Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue (historical fiction)
Astoria,by Peter Stark (nonfiction)
Everland, by Rebecca Hunt (fiction/literature)
1940, by Jay Neugeboren (historical fiction)
The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar's Tale, by Reggie Oliver (horror)

preorder: The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders, by Lord Dunsany 
preorder: The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry
preorder: Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, by Gabrielle Carey

3) Indiespensable and Book Passage Signed First Edition books for this month (in that order):
The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (I mistakenly listed it for February, but it's actually for March)
The UnAmericans , by Molly Antopol

4The book group read: Well, we had to move our discussion of our current book Burial Rites by Hannah Kent to tomorrow (April 1) because of scheduling issues so we didn't have a March meeting. Feedback I'm getting from the members of my group is that it's bleak, but they like it.

5) Currently reading:
  The Hastur Cycle, ed. Robert M. Price (horror/weird fiction)
Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue. Actually, it will arrive tomorrow, but I'll list it here today because as soon as it arrives, my nose will be in it.

and, at the end of the first quarter:

books read:
horror/weird fiction: 6
fiction/literature: 12
crime: 10
nonfiction: 3

that's it... happy reading as always.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

30 book reviews a week?

Doing my leisurely Saturday morning coffee internet reading, I came across an article from the Washington Post highlighting a woman who reads and reviews on average thirty books a day [The link to the article is here if you're interested in checking it out]. She reads anything  “from Jane Austen, to 1970s bodice rippers, to contemporary books about the philosophy of physics.” Then, in her spare time, she's a writer.

This woman holds the #1 reviewer spot on Goodreads --  which in itself is no big deal for someone like me who, unlike  most people,  has no interest in rankings of any sort, but the sheer number of books she reads seems very high. She  reminds me of someone on Amazon with the initials HK who caught a lot of flak for reading and reviewing several books a day -- I mean, seriously -- how does someone in the real world really achieve these numbers?   Maybe by speedreading, but still. Even when I do what I call "crap" reading which goes fast because I don't really have to think about it, I couldn't pull that one off.

 The author of the piece in the Post is Ron Charles, someone whose work I admire, and as he ends his article, he notes the following:

"In the time it’s taken me to write this blog post, I should have reviewed 16 books." 

I started my day with a chuckle, to be sure.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

Viking, 2014
328 pp

"Music is a great escape." 

I knew going into this novel that the main character here has been diagnosed with bowel cancer, and I wondered how in the heck the author was going to make something funny out of something so normally depressing.  I knew it had to be -- in the first three Barrytown novels (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van), he managed to create often laugh-out-loud humor around some pretty downbeat topics, so I took it for granted that the trend would continue in The Guts.  I was right -- it does, although perhaps not on as big of a scale as the other three.  At the same time, it's not only the humor that attracts me to Roddy Doyle -- it's also his ongoing themes of family, friendship and most especially fatherhood, as well as how his characters fare when they run up against some of life's biggest stumbling blocks.  In The Guts, the author also writes about nostalgia -- which is "always big in a recession."

Jimmy Rabbitte Jr. of The Commitments is back again, now middle-aged at 47. He's married to Aoife and they have four children.  He'd been working as a car salesman, but had hated it and had quit ahead of the recession some "eighteen months later when people stopped buying cars." The economy is bad, and Jimmy's traded selling cars for selling old bands.   To make ends meet and to give in to his passion for music, he and Aoife had started an online business,, reuniting, promoting and selling punk bands of yesteryear, "Like Itunes...But boutique. More personal. Welcomin'. Not just buy or fuck off." He finds the old bands, and also finds fans with money to pay for their music."   At some point, when they noticed that their sales had been slowing to nothing, "before the recession, the crunch, the collapse" they sold three-quarters of the business, allowing them to at least pay off their mortgage. And now Jimmy's been diagnosed with cancer. Although  he spends time pondering what's next in store for him, he is not one to sit idle and be morose -- it's music and family that's always driven him and it is those same two factors  that help keep him going now. His latest venture is putting together an album of music from 1932 to coincide with the Eucharistic Congress that will be held in Dublin for the first time since then, and it's rumored that the pope might even be there. As he says, "People will cryin' for it, remeberin' their parents and grannies talkin' about it."

While one  storyline follows Jimmy's cancer treatments and his off-again/on-again gloom about mortality which have totally shaken him, there are others that make it  not nearly as depressing as I thought it might be.  The chances are high that he'll survive the disease, but surviving the ups and downs of every-day life and the recession might be a different story.  Aside from cancer, this novel is also filled with the kinds of things that anyone might experience in midlife -- loss of income, losing a home to the bank,  the temptations of an extramarital affair, the realization that we're more like our parents than we know, or in general wondering where the old dreams of the past have gone. Yet, I think in this last item is where the book is most meaningful, at least for me -- some of our big dreams may be gone, but by keeping our passions alive, we inspire the love of them in others, and it brings us great joy to see them come alive especially in the people we love most. This becomes very obvious toward the end of the novel, but I won't say how.

In Mr. Doyle's hands, the comedic edge of these serious issues makes the reading a lot less painful, and actually funny. I mean, where else would you laugh at the mention of a pair of purple velour sweats that are called cancer pants? Or lyrics to a song called "Erectional Dysfunction?" And I loved The Electric Picnic -- that whole scene just crackled. In fact, I had a very good time with this book,  although I must say that to me, the energy level of this one was a bit lower than the previous three Rabbitte family novels and some of the situations seemed forced, while some felt  underdeveloped.  However, aside from the funny moments, what I really liked about this book and the others I've read is that  while the author employs humor to take the edge off the serious things, he never lets his readers lose sight of the fact that life can be downright tough. I've also become fond of  the Rabbitte family, who over the last couple of decades have experienced one crisis after another, getting through them with wit, wisdom, love and practicality. The same applies here.

I can without any qualms recommend this book -- you'll get so much more out of it by reading the first three Barrytown novels but it's certainly not a problem if you don't.   I'll most definitely be returning to Roddy Doyle in the very near future.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Van, by Roddy Doyle

Penguin, 1993
originally written 1991
320 pp


Sweet Jaysis, this was a fine book!  In fact, over the course of the last week or two, I've managed to finish all three fine books of Roddy Doyle's original Barrytown Trilogy, in preparation for reading The Guts, which just came out this year. One big thing about these novels that kept me glued to their pages was how the major dilemmas in their lives prompted the characters to move beyond their current troubles,  to have faith in and to take advantage of what ever possibilities might present themselves.  On the lighter side, if a funnier trio of books exist, I haven't yet read them.

When we last saw Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., he was working as a plasterer, but now he's been laid off.  He spends a lot of time at the library, watching TV or taking home books to read. There are other changes as well -- the twins' Sugar Puffs have become Cornflakes, Baby Gina has a stack of videos but they can't afford a new video player, the twins, unlike Darren, wouldn't be going off on a school trip to Scotland this year, this Christmas is leaner than ever, and Jimmy can't even afford to buy ice-cream for Gina.  Even the town has changed -- as Jimmy Sr. notes, "there was money in this town," watching people go by and counting
"fifty-four great-looking young ones going by in only a quarter of an hour; brilliant-looking women now, and all of them dressed beautifully, the height of style; they must have paid fortunes for the stuff they had on them; you could tell."

Most of all, he misses the camraderie from  his local, The Hikers. He does miss the pints, but much more than that, he misses "the lads here, the crack, the laughing."  He'd like to be there more, but "he'd had a family to feed and that," only able to come to his pub about twice a week. As it turns out though, Jimmy's not the only one who's become redundant: his friend Bimbo also gets laid off from his bakery job.  Bimbo eventually buys a decrepit chip van (what we'd call a food truck) with part of his severance pay -- one with no engine and coated inside and out in grease, but to Bimbo, it's all about the potential.  It also just happens to be World Cup time -- so the two roll up their sleeves to get the van cleaned up and usable, so that the crowds coming out of the pub after Ireland plays can buy their burgers, sausages, fish and chips etc.  Ireland's wins, along with the logistical help of Bimbo's wife Maggie, make Bimbo's Burgers -- Today's Chips Today" successful, but working so close together and dealing with all the shite they have to go through begins to test their friendship.

The Van is longer than the previous two novels in this trilogy, structured in three distinct parts, and here we get into a  little more depth re Jimmy Sr.'s character. The laugh-out-loud humor is still there, especially in the pages where they're opening the chip van for business for the first time -- including of all things a fried nappy (158-174 in my copy). [As an aside,  I laughed so much and so loud while reading these pages that my husband, who was busy reading Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, gave me such an evil glare that I had to take my book elsewhere.]  Yet there's a serious side here as well, beyond the relationship between Jimmy Sr. and Bimbo. As just one example, while they're in the van, the local street toughs who have nothing better to do than stone the van and try to wreck it bring out Jimmy's feelings about family, parenting, and how lucky he is that even though his son Leslie's had some problems, he and Veronica were there to help set him straight so that he wouldn't end up like these guys.   And, as in all of the other books in this trilogy, the ending is spot on -- nothing overly sentimental, nothing overly romanticized. 

While I'm not so much into trying to root out deeper meanings found within, leaving that up to more well-read people than myself,  I've had a great time with these novels. They're all highly entertaining, and all of them focus on how these people never give up as long as the possibility of something more might be lurking just around the corner.  I cannot recommend them highly enough. 

an afterthought:
After finishing this novel yesterday, I streamed the movie -- and if ever there was a book so lost in translation from page to screen -- it's this one. I haven't yet seen the other two movies (The Commitments, The Snapper), but so much of what made this book so good was just gone in the movie version. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

back in Barrytown again: The Snapper, by Roddy Doyle

Penguin, 1992 (originally written 1990)
216 pp


"---Times've changed..."
"---I suppose so... ---But do we have to keep up with them?"

Not quite as entertaining as its predecessor, The Snapper is still a good read.  As in The Commitments, the plot is unraveled via the brisk dialogue and the action takes place within a working-class neighborhood;  unlike The Commitments,  the author takes his readers into Barrytown family life and more specifically inside the Rabbitte home. 

Daughter Sharon Rabbitte, aged 20, is pregnant, and is keeping mum on the identity of the father, for reasons she doesn't care to discuss with anyone. A chance remark overheard in a pub sets off the Barrytown rumor mill,  leads to some embarrassing problems for Sharon.    Her father, Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., tries to be supportive, but also endures his share of headaches caused by the scandal and "Barrytown's sense of humor," which he and his daughter are both fighting. Her pregnancy and the resulting fallout  test both of their respective mettles, their individual senses of who they are, and also their relationship. In the meantime, life at the Rabbitte house goes on -- the twins, Linda and Tracy, adopt a dog that provides many comic moments and drive their mother Veronica up the wall by changing their minds so many times; Darren gets kicked out of Barrytown's cycling club so Jimmy Sr. starts one, Leslie won't get up in the morning, and Jimmy Jr. (of previous Commitments fame)  is honing his DJ skills upstairs.

While perhaps not as funny as The Commitments, The Snapper is still a joy and an entertaining look inside the lives of these people -- not just the Rabbittes, but their friends and neighbors as well all in this little slice of the city called Barrytown.   I particularly enjoyed the character of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., and the way he often calls into question his role as a father and as the head of the household -- all done with punchy humor that needs no sentimentality for his character to be fully understood.  The comedy runs throughout --  there's a particular scene in the pub where a calculator giveaway had me laughing out loud, and another where Sharon and her friends are giving the poor lounge boy a hard time, and then there are the bits of every day life in the Rabbitte household which were the funniest for me -- but there's also a large measure of sensitivity in Mr. Doyle's writing.  Even the real father of Sharon's little snapper gets his due, despite the fact that the circumstances under which the baby was conceived bring Sharon a lot of anger and pain as she remembers what happened. The story isn't always pleasant reading, but it comes off as very real. 

I don't get testy about  things like no quotation marks or the fact that this books is written in dialect -- okay, so that's the way the author writes.  Big deal. The bottom line is that I'm really enjoying Roddy Doyle, and he's a writer I'd definitely recommend.  Now on to the third book -- The Van. 


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Commitments, by Roddy Doyle

Vintage Contemporaries, 1989
165 pp


First of all, I've not yet seen the movie that was made from this book, but now I want to. If the movie is at all true to the book, I know I'm going to love it.

Set in working-class North Dublin, the novel begins with  teens Outspan, Derek and Ray, who have formed a new band called And And And. Only in existence for three days, Outspan and Derek decide they need help with the band's direction and go to music-manager guru Jimmy Rabbitte, who"ate melody Maker and the NME every week and Hot Press every two weeks."  Jimmy "knew his music...knew his stuff alright."  After convincing the two that they really should be doing "Soul. Dublin Soul," because it has both sex and politics, and because their music should be "abou' where you're from an' the sort o' people yeh come from,"  he gets rid of Ray and changes the band's name to The Commitments, with a "Good, old fashioned THE."  An ad for musicians goes in the paper:

"Have you got Soul? If yes, The World's Hardest Working Band is looking for you....Rednecks and Southsiders need not apply."
The band eventually comes together, and the story tracks The Commitments right up to the very edge of success. The group is a mixed bag of musicians and a trio of singers who, with one exception, are learning as they go. The odd man out, so to speak,  is Joey The Lips Fagan, who often goes into religious speak and is   old enough to be their father ("sixteen years younger than B.B. King. And six years younger than James Brown," and  claims to have played for not only James Brown but for a host of others, including playing the "DOO DUH DOO DUH DOO" for the Beatles' "All You Need is Love."   And all along, Jimmy Rabbitte, who isn't a musician,  works tirelessly -- giving the musicians their own nicknames, trying to get and keep them inspired, finding the band its small gigs, publicity and whatever it takes to make a success of this group, but with the combination of egos and other problems, that's not always an easy task.  

The book is mostly dialogue,  in dialect and given without quotation marks, using only  ----- to denote a change in speaker. Mixed in and noted in all caps are song lyrics as well as the transcription of  the instrumental  parts of  a song such as The Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There" -- "DONG CADDA DONG CADDA DONG CADDA DONG."  It's a stylistic maneuver that brings a lot of energy to the page and had me playing the songs in my head while reading. (I would have turned on some Motown -- I was that energized,  but I can't read with singing in the background.) The songs are also revamped to fit and unite a Dublin working-class audience, part of Rabbitte's original political vision.

While the book is very short, there's a lot going on here. There is of course the story of the making of the band and the various personalities and conflicts involved after it comes together, and there's both  humor and irony that in more than a couple of spots had me laughing out loud.  I think though, for me, it was all about what Jimmy Rabbitte developed in these teenagers -- which at the very least is a measure of self respect and  a desire to be better than they are -- and the idea that when shit happens, you have to get up, dust your boots off and make things work for yourself.  I'm sure there's much more, but as I'm so fond of saying, I'm an ordinary reader, not a lit major.

Definitely recommendedI feel bad for myself that I'm only starting to realize how many good books I've  missed in the past --  this was certainly one of them!

[definitely keeping this one!]

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Madonna on the Moon, by Rolf Bauerdick

Knopf, 2013
originally published 2009, as Wei die Madonna auf den Mond kam
translated by David Dollenmayer
402 pp


"The spaceflight of a dog opened up Pandora's box."

Nestled at the base of the Carpathian Mountains is a little village called Baia Luna. There's a small school, a church, and a little store that after hours becomes a taproom for the men. Close by there is also a chapel of  the village's patron saint The Virgin of  Eternal Consolation. The owner of the store is Ilja Botev, who lives there with his wife, his daughter, and his teen-aged grandson Pavel; Ilja's best friend is Dimitru Gabor, a gypsy.   As an older man looking back on previous events, Pavel provides the rather cryptic opening of this story, offering the reader a tantalizing hint as to what is to come:
"No one in Baia Luna had the slightest doubt that the source of Ilja Botev’s visions was not some luminous gift of prophetic insight, but the delusions of a wandering mind -- least of all me, Pavel, his grandson. When I was a little boy, I shrugged off my grandfather’s imaginings as foolish fancies, the result of the influence of the Gypsy Dimitru Gabor. Dimitru never gave much of a hoot about the laws of reason and logic. But later, as the solid ground of good common sense grew progressively thin and crumbly beneath Grandfather’s feet, I myself played no small part in the old man’s getting more and more hopelessly tangled up in the net of his fantasies. It was certainly not my intent to have Grandfather make himself the town idiot, the butt of everyone’s jokes, but what could you say about a tavern owner who sets off in a horse and cart on a secret mission to warn the president of the United States about the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, a mysterious Fourth Power, and an impending international catastrophe? Armed, by the way, with a laughable top secret dossier, a treatise on the mystery of the corporeal Assumption of the Virgin Mary, handwritten and triple-sewn into the lining of his wool jacket."
If the author's purpose here was to provide the proverbial hook, it worked very well in my case. Sustaining the power of this opening was also successful, but then I got to the last one hundred or so pages and well, more on that later.

November 6, 1957 is a day that changes everything.  It's Ilja's birthday, and Sputnik II has successfully launched, carrying Laika the space dog along with it. While Ilja is less than impressed, noting that "The Russian beeping won't fill my belly, " the village priest Johannes Baptiste is greatly concerned, interpreting the Soviet interest in space flight not only as a search for the existence of God, but also for the Virgin Mary,  who, according to a declaration made by Pope Pius in 1950, "at the end of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."  For him, it's the last straw, and he plans to speak about it the following Sunday as part of his sermon.  Pavel's worries are elsewhere, though. His teacher Angela Barbescu has disappeared.  The last time he'd seen her she'd made him hang a photo of party chief Dr. Stefan Stephanescu on a classroom wall, and as she's doing so, whispers to Pavel  "Send this man straight to hell. Exterminate him!"  When the priest ends up brutally murdered, questions over who did it and why begin to divide the village to the point where Ilja realizes "Baia Luna isn't Baia Luna any more," and that Sputnik "seems to have been a harbinger of the catastrophe that's now upon us."  Pavel sets out on a quest for answers and ultimately for justice,  putting him the middle of a  strange conspiracy that will follow him over the next three decades.  As Pavel is involved in finding out what really happened to Angela Barbescu and Johannes Baptiste, and as Ilja and Dimitru become partners in a "cuckoo idea of two crazy old men" trying to get the Americans involved in getting to the moon before the cosmonauts,  in the background this country (which is obviously Romania)  is changing,  and not all for the good.  There are corrupt party officials who will do whatever it takes to hang on to their power, and with the arrival of the regime of the "Great Conducator," things quickly go from bad to even worse. 

There's so much in this novel to love -- the craziness of two colorful old men whose antics often made me laugh out loud, the people of Baia Luna in general and their responses to what's going outside of their pretty-much isolated world in the modern one, and the historical backdrop of a totalitarian regime -- all of these components, along with Mr. Bauerdick's nearly magical-quality writing and story-telling ability  make the book a highly entertaining  read.  Then I got to about the last hundred pages, where things start to change very quickly.  It's almost as if having been so deeply involved with the people of Baia Luna and the mysteries that are left to Pavel to take care of, the author just got tired. Where the writing before this point was vibrant and the characters filled with life,  it's like in the last one hundred or so pages he rushed to finish the book so that the characters came off sort of hollow.  Toward the very end, it's obvious that the author felt compelled to make sure that this book had a happy ending where everything is tied up in a perfect bow, but it was too pat, overly contrived,  and in making it this way, it's like the author lost whatever spark he had up until then. When I hear myself speaking out loud to an author saying  "please don't do this," well, that's a problem.

While I realize that there are readers out there who will come unglued without a happy ending of some sort, the way this novel ends was just wrong and not in keeping with everything that came before.  Up until then, it was headed for a top place in the one-of-the-best-and-most-entertaining-novels-I've-read category but ultimately, the consistency just wasn't there.  Then again, this is Mr. Bauerdick's first novel, so maybe if he writes a second, he can iron things out.  And even though I had a hard time with the last parts of the book, up to then I was in reading heaven.  I'm just a little disappointed with this one, but it was a great ride while it lasted. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, by Magdalena Zyzak

Henry Holt, 2014 (January)
288 pp

arc -- my thanks to the publisher.

The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkel is one of those novels where I wasn't quite sure what I'd just read after I finished it.  I can absolutely guarantee that it's different from pretty much anything I've ever read. It took me a few days to think about it before even attempting to write anything, and only after I'd whirled it around in my head for a while did I come to appreciate this story. 

 The novel looks at the people and goings-on in an imaginary village in an imaginary European country, at a time when these people lived very simple but full lives.  Sadly, their rather carefree existence is about to bump up against modern history, beginning with the invasion of the Nazis.  The thing is though that Ms. Zyzak takes a different path than what you'd normally expect: she doesn't write about about how all of the villagers fared after the Nazis took over their homeland and the regime that followed which, in 1945 brought about the "country's final destruction;"   instead, she focuses on the last bastion of  simpler times. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel, the "pigboy," is related by a "self-effacing bureaucrat" from this fictional country during the Communist era,  who'd traveled to the country, went through the archives, and interviewed "the survivors" to produce a work  that had been "copied out between the lines of a copy of "Concepts for Screw-Cutting Lathe Operators," and smuggled out of the country via a Polish friend.

Scalvusia is the name of this fictional country, a place where "the peaks on the eastern border were ... sleeping giant nights, said to rise to protect the people, were we ever in need," and where "for hundreds of years," the country "spread from the Black Sea to the Baltic."  The little village of Odolechka in the summer of 1939  is the scene of the action, and it is there that Barnabas Pierkiel, a young swineherd of 17, reader of such "national classics as The Eggcup of Countess Kurpuchnik,"  and a loner, falls for and pursues the gypsy girl Roosha Papusha.  She is already the mistress of Karl Von Grushka, whose family made a fortune in shoes and boots. He also has the only automobile in town, and Roosha is living in one of his homes.  Even though she's already spoken for, she doesn't exactly try to thwart Pierkiel's attentions, and the naïve boy continues to pursue her.  As he's involved in his quest, through which he must pass through several obstacles (none the least of which is the theft of a few gifts by an escaped inmate of a nearby asylum with his same last name),  the little village experiences a bit of upheaval: not long after a strange sermon by the local priest, he is found dead.  And within only a short amount of time, the blame settles on the gypsies after the overzealous, randy wife of the mayor has a talk with a man who turns out to be the escaped lunatic (who she sees as a reincarnation of Simeon the Holy Fool) who shows up wanting to marry his goat.

If that last sentence clues you in to the fact that there may be some absurdity going on in this book, you are right, in a way, but it's absurdity with a purpose. Or at least, this is my interpretation.  The author, I think, is trying to provide a look at the people living in Odalechka, perhaps representative of villagers throughout Europe, where they live traditional lives, share bawdy jokes, farm, go to church, and just generally lead simple lifestyles.  What is absurd will soon turn to the grotesque, however, with the coming of the Nazis and then eventually the Communists.  The turning point in this novel is the arrival by parachute of a German man, disguised as someone from the capital, who tries to gather as much info as he can, and who is helped somewhat by the bumbling mayor & police chief because of the language barrier.   We all know what comes next, but the author keeps things focused on the villagers and their uncomplicated, apolitical and much simpler way of living up until then.

Now here's the thing: I didn't get a lot of the humor, and the whole thing at first seemed wholly farcical to me, up until I got to the arrival of the German stranger, where the farce turned sort of sinister.   Then it sort of clicked, but it was really only after I'd finished the novel and spent time ruminating that I had my idea of what this book was about.   The point is, if you're not quite sure about what you're reading, don't give up! In the end, I decided that I liked this book -- different though it may be, there is a point to all of the silliness that goes on here.  My only niggle about this book is that while the author spends so much time on village life, the book seems to ramble for a while until it turns, and then it's pretty much over, so I wondered whether or not even she knew where she was taking this story.  But in the long run,  I ended up enjoying the book and would definitely try anything she writes in the future.

[this book has a new home!]

March: the plan: read, find new homes for books read, and read some more

When we  redid our upstairs, I reworked every bookshelf in every room so that each and every book had a place. Well, that was a few months ago and now I seem to have more books than shelf room again. One would think that the effort and time I put into this project would have taught me something, but well, the best-laid plans and all that.  There are just too many good books coming out right now that I want to read to prevent myself from picking up more. So this month I'll be making a serious effort to find new homes for a number of books -- first, trying to give them away, and if that fails, listing them at paperback swap.  I like paperback swap, but  my wishlist there is filled with books that few people  read, so I have an abundance of credits that just aren't being used.

On tap for this month for sure is the entire Barrytown Trilogy and The Guts, by Roddy Doyle, Playback, the last original Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler  and then The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black aka John Banville, in which he channels Chandler.  If I get through those, then I'll just start pulling books off the stacks that are growing higher on my office floor.

So that's that -- I'll be sure to mark whether the books are destined for the "free books" pile or not as I discuss them here. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

TLC book tours: The Sound of Broken Glass, by Deborah Crombie

William Morrow, 2014 (paperback ed.)
384 pp

my copy from the publisher, thank you!

The Sound of Broken Glass is Crombie's fifteenth installment in her Duncan/Kincaid series set in the UK. Crombie is actually from Texas, but you'd never know it because she does such a good job of making readers think they're on the streets of South London.   In The Sound of Broken Glass, the past reaches out to confront the present -- my favorite kind of story. 

Long-time readers of Crombie's novels are aware that her main characters are Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid, a married couple who are both on the police force. In this book, Duncan is home on leave taking care of their adopted daughter who seems to have a hard time adjusting to being away from either of her new parents.  Gemma is called to a murder scene where a barrister has been found in a disgustingly seedy hotel, bound and strangled to death.  His last known whereabouts were at a local pub where he'd had a run in with a guitar player in a band.  While investigating that murder, Gemma's team find themselves involved in the case of yet another murdered barrister.  The MO seems to be the same, but the lives of the two victims are such that they have nothing in common at all -- or do they? 

Each chapter is headed by a description of London's Crystal Palace -- which was ultimately destroyed in 1936.  While I won't give away plot elements or how these little blurbs are metaphorically related to the overall storyline, I will say that you may want to pay attention to them.  A very nice touch, I thought, but the importance of these descriptions really didn't hit me until after I'd finished the book -- and I was impressed by how well everything fit together along this parallel line.

I'm a huge crime fiction fan, and while I'm normally not fond of descriptions of family life in mystery novels, it worked here.  Even while Duncan is home taking care of a bustling household,  he's not idly sitting by waiting for Gemma to come home every night -- he is in his own way just as involved in the investigation as his wife is.  The romance I could do without, but that's just my own personal thing and it shouldn't detract other readers who like it. 

I used to be a frequent reader of British mysteries and even though she's American, I included Crombie's James/Kincaid books in that genre.  I haven't been reading them so much for a while now, but if you're at all concerned that this is the fifteenth novel in the series  and you don't want to go back and read the other fourteen, don't worry.  I stopped reading them midway through the series (not because they're bad books but because I moved on to more international, translated crime fiction) but I had no trouble at all getting into what was going on.  With the back story more or less spelled out here very quickly, there is no need to be concerned about what you may have missed. The core mystery is very well done, very well plotted, and I loved how the author wove in the past to rear its head in the present.  I also applaud Ms. Crombie: I was absolutely positive I knew the identity of the killer early on, but she brought in a nice twist that made things not as obvious as I thought they were. I LOVE when I can't guess the whodunit, and I was not disappointed.

I'd recommend this novel to readers who enjoy lighter police procedurals, and since there's so much about family here as well as a romantic aspect, I think readers of cozy mysteries would also like it.  I read so much dark crime fiction, so reading The Sound of Broken Glass gave me a nice break. 

 the tour for The Sound of Broken Glass continues through March 12; you can find where it's been and where it's going here

My thanks to tlc and to the publisher for my copy.