Friday, May 31, 2013

May reading roundup


I haven't posted in a long while but that doesn't mean I haven't been reading. Au contraire -- I've been reading a lot -- making the time to get to my computer has been, however, another story.  Oh well.

Here's what happened this month.

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally  --read, discussion coming in June 
Constance, by Patrick McGrath -- read, discussion coming in  June 
The Asylum, by John Harwood -- read, discussion coming in June 
  Harlequin's Costume, by Leonid Yuzefovich 

 odd/weird fiction
They That Dwell in Dark Places, by Daniel McGachey

crime fiction/mystery
Original Skin, by David Mark
The Asylum, by Johan Theoriin -- read, discussion coming in June 


just stuck my nose into
Evil and the Mask, by Fuminori Nakamura

And now, the  other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen in May -- I'm not a huge fan of Jane Austen, but for some reason, I really liked this one -- maybe it was the play on Gothic fiction.  

 2) Added to the  wishlist this month (as usual, mostly obscure titles):
     crime fiction:
      general fiction:
Port Mungo, by Patrick McGrath
Trauma, by Patrick McGrath

the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, ed. Michael Cox

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century  Literary Imagination, by Sandra M. Gilbert

 3) Books bought this month (again with the obscure titles, I'm sure!)
The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook 
TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann
The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, by Jack Saul
Maurice, by E.M. Forster
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Widow and Her Hero, by Thomas Keneally  (I probably should have signed up for this year's Aussie Author Challenge with as many books as I plan on reading by this author)
Bring Larks and Heroes, by Thomas Keneally
Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, by Sinclair McKay

4) Currently reading: 
Evil and the Mask, by Fuminori Nakamura
The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters
The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, From Key West to the Arctic Ocean, by Philip Caputo

****5) Books I'm giving away this month --  just one, I'm afraid -- for US readers only.    -- Unlike many other things in life, for you, it is  absolutely 100% totally free;  I'll even pay postage to get it to its new home.  All you need to do is to be the first to leave a comment here, and then email me at with contact info INCLUDING A HOME ADDRESS, PLEASE!!

  • The Asylum, by John Harwood (just FYI -- a couple of raindrops spilled on a page or two, but it's still in nearly perfect shape)
That's it ...

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Original Skin, by David Mark

blue rider press/Penguin, 2013
427 pp

(my copy from the publisher -- thank you!)

[reposted at the crime segments page of my reading journal ]

Last November when I read David Mark's crime fiction book called  The Dark Winter , I was surprised at how very good it was for a first novel. Now, with  Original Skin, Mark has kicked things up a few notches to create an even better second series installment, set in the Hull, West Yorkshire area of England.

 His protagonist, Aector McAvoy, is a  member of the specialized squad known as the Serious and Organized Crime Unit, under the direction of McAvoy's boss Trish Pharaoh.  The unit is currently under fire from the Humberside Police Authority because of the rise of violent crime statistics, not helped much by the crimes of a gang viciously attacking and torturing smaller growers as a means of taking over their farms and intimidating them. After doing his best to convince the Police Authority committee members that the unit is working hard to solve the case, McAvoy decompresses by  taking a walk along the towpath by the Humber, where a) he sees two people talking that may be committee members, and b) in the water among the litter of supermarket carts, bottles, mattress springs etc., he finds a cell phone and picks it up. Curious, he picks it up, thinking he might be able to fix it.  What he finds on the phone starts another investigation rolling, one that leads to a very clever and rather nasty killer whose first crime, as it turns out,  was written off as a suicide. If what I've written so far doesn't spark your interest (although for serious crime readers it should whet some measure of curiosity), and you're more of a Fifty Shades of Gray type person, you can add  into the mix a young woman with a unique tattoo who belongs to the world of swinging sex parties, sexual submission  and sex for thrills with people she's only met online. 

Keeping the action up over 427 pages in any novel of crime fiction is a tough job, but the author does not disappoint.   With his excellent characterizations, a well-plotted and rather twisty core murder mystery and his look at how the local area is primed for "high crime --  for example, the decline of local industry, lack of investment, lack of "impetus on education," and the geographical "sense of isolation,"  -- all working together harmoniously, the 400+ pages fly by in no time.  My own small niggle here is the amount of time spent with Aector's home life, but that's a personal issue, because I'm more about the crime, less about crying babies keeping both parents awake over several nights. It's all about character development, but I'm an impatient reader.

 While McAvoy is a gentle giant of a policeman and a family man, the author takes him down some very dark paths in this book, so I'd recommend it to fans of more darkly-oriented police procedurals.  While cozy readers may find this book a bit overwhelming, readers who enjoy more serious crime will definitely be glued.  Do not, however, start the series with this novel, but instead with Dark Winter, as things in Original Skin build from the first book.  Overall -- much better than the first book and an intriguing read any serious crime reader will want to read. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Price of Justice: A True Story of Two Lawyers' Epic Battle Against Corruption and Greed in Coal Country, by Laurence Leamer

Times Books/Henry Holt, 2013
448 pp

(arc: thanks to LibraryThing's early reviewers program  and to the publisher for my copy)

[reposted at The Real Stuff (nonfiction) page of my reading journal]

"A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a fundamental constitutional right...That means not only the absence of actual bias, but a guarantee against even the probability of an unfair tribunal." (334)

When I first requested this book from LibraryThing I thought it sounded interesting, and once I picked it up, I didn't realize just how blah a word "interesting" would come to be in this case. That cliché about not being able to put the book down was absolutely true for me. I'll get right to the point and say that this is one of the most outstanding books I've read this year. Coming on the heels of Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, you can believe that The Price of Justice was a powerful read.  It reads much like a legal thriller, but this story of corporate greed, judicial and political corruption, and sheer, unmitigated disregard for human life in return for one man's drive for greater profit in the coal industry is all too real.

While there are several issues covered in this work of investigative journalism, at the heart of this story is the question of whether or not corporations should be allowed to fund the very court justices who are involved in rulings involving the corporation,  followed by the question of correctness in allowing the justice in question to remain as a judge.  In this instance, it all started with a verdict handed down by a West Virginia court in the case of Caperton v. Massey Coal Company. Mr. Caperton had sued Massey because it had canceled its contract with Harman Mining to supply Harman with needed coal. Caperton, the owner of Harman, was severely affected by Massey's fraudulent cancellation, and his company went out of business.  He found himself in huge trouble and a mounting pile of debts including miners' pension funds.  His attorneys, Bruce Stanley and Dave Fawcett, worked hard to get Caperton an award for damages;  Massey, headed by Don Blankenship, appealed the decision and the case was set to be ruled on by the West Virginia Supreme Court.  However, before the judgment could be appealed, an election of a new WV Supreme Court Justice was underway, and Blankenship set up a nonprofit through which he was able to contribute millions to eliminate the incumbent (Warren McGraw) and bring in someone he knew would take his side in the case. Although legally not allowed to directly support his candidate of choice (Brent Benjamin), Blankenship used the money to pay for a slur campaign against McGraw.  Even though Blankenship's participation in the campaign against McGraw came to light, the appeals trial continued with Benjamin as a justice, and ended up in Massey's favor.  Later developments would take the case right up to the US Supreme Court, but as Leamer notes, the battle was far from over. In the meantime, Massey (and Blankenship) was allowed to continued its fraudulent practices while the utter disdain for following mandated safety and environmental measures led to tragedy among many mine workers and their families.

For several reasons the topics involved in this  book struck a personal chord. I wish I could say that I was surprised at some of the blatant misdeeds going on in the courts and among politicians as outlined by Mr. Leamer in this most excellent book, but frankly, I'm not. Aside from those issues, I was also deeply disturbed by the blatant disregard that this one man in the coal industry showed for his workers and other human beings whose lives were turned upside down, ruined or extinguished by his unscrupulous business & political practices. His absolute control was backed up by threats, intimidation, money and protection from court officials and politicians who looked out for their own financial and political interests, rather than for the interests of the victims. Had the above-mentioned subjects been all there was to this book, it still would have been good, but Mr. Leamer also examines the price paid in personal terms by everyone involved on the side of obtaining justice, including the dedicated attorneys fighting this man for over 14 years.

Other reviewers of The Price of Justice have correctly noted that this book reads like a legal thriller, and while I'm not a huge fan of that genre, the book kept me turning pages until the very end. Definitely and highly recommended -- absolutely one of the best books I've read this year. 

sadly, read on the way home from Maui

Monday, May 13, 2013

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

Knopf, 2013
430 pp (including index & bibliography)

[reposted at The Real Stuff (nonfiction) page of my reading journal]

Once in a while you pick up a book that just literally blows you away, and for me, Going Clear is one of these.   From the first words through the last, I have to say I was completely mesmerized and well entrenched in this page turner of a book -- even missing a day on a Maui beach to finish it -- some of the stuff in here is so unbelievable that you just know it has to be real.   If you're an ardent Scientologist, you probably won't want to read this book, but for anyone who's interested in looking at this group's origins, the life of its founder, its beliefs and the goings on within, it's a definite must read.  Now added to  my favorites list for 2013, Going Clear is an outstanding work of investigative journalism, made even more believable by the author's focus on maintaining a balanced presentation, including comments from the Church of Scientology's leaders, attorneys, and meticulous fact finding and fact checking.  I'll skip to my usual ending and recommend it highly right up front. 

The author was, in his own words, "drawn to write this book" based on a number of questions many people have regarding Scientology: what makes it so "alluring;" what its adherents gain from it; how "seemingly rational people" can subscribe to beliefs that most people would see as "incomprehensible;" why celebrities and other "popular personalities" get themselves involved when the end result is a "public relations martyrdom;"  etc.  The book starts out with a look at the life of L.Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who ultimately became the founder of this religion/cult/organization whatever you want to call it, the beliefs it is founded on and espouses,  and its growing popularity.  Then Wright spends some time on just how Scientology came to acquire religion status with the IRS -- an ugly story that  will cause you to shake your head in total disbelief, -- and how even the FBI couldn't shake down this organization despite its illegal maneuverings and activities because no one would speak up.  He also examines the Hollywood celebrities and other well-known people who embraced Scientology and how the head of the organization came to woo them for monetary gain and as a lure for new members, and finally, he examines why people are reluctant to leave the organization and the experiences of those who managed to "blow."   Throughout the book he also examines "the process of belief," not just in terms of Scientology, but in other religions as well. He's done an amazing amount of meticulous research, and his narrative is based partially on people who got out of Scientology and had plenty to tell, although as I noted above, he gives equal time to Scientology's array of attorneys, some of the organization's own documentation, and to the people high up in the movement.

There is no adequate way to summarize what's in this book's definitely one you must read for yourself. All I can say is that you will likely be blown away by its contents and by Wright's magnificent reportage.  Granted there are a few tedious spots centering around Tom Cruise which probably could have been left out because frankly, he's just not that interesting of a person, but overall, it's one that should not be missed whatsoever.  Definitely prizeworthy, it will keep you absolutely astounded throughout the entire book.

read from Seattle to Maui and on my hotel balcony 

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, by João Cerqueira

River Grove Books, 2013
originally published 2008 as A tragedia de Fidel Castro
translated by Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay
168 pp

from the author, thank you!

Just above the ISBN bar code, this book advertises itself as an "Alternate History," but it's really more along the lines of an allegorical fable in which JFK and Fidel Castro meet for a final battle. Underneath its level of allegory you'll find a tale which speaks to the positives, flaws and foibles of both capitalism and Communism both politically and economically, as well as a story about differing views between two leaders who each, in their own way, work to provide the best  for their people given the constraints of their political/economic ideologies. There's also a theological component revealing that leaving the fate of humanity to religion also has its limits and that people's faith in miracles has lessened as time has gone on.   It's short in length but it's also a story that requires time to think about what you've just read. While the allegorical components can get a little heavy going sometimes, there's enough humor sprinkled throughout the book to keep it lively.

It's an interesting little book, very satirical in nature and more than a little over the top,  but as you're reading it, you come to realize that the sometimes over-the-top farcical elements in this novel make very good sense.  This is definitely not a book for the casual reader because there's so much going on between the lines to keep up with and political/religious allegory to sort out in terms of real life.  However, if you take time with this novel there is some really good stuff going on here, and although it's set in a cold-war environment, the focus on different ideologies is rather timely considering what's going on in the world today. You might be tempted to give up on it at times when it starts to trend toward the surreal or the religious,  but don't. It's worth reading through to the end.

fiction from Portugal

read in Seattle, overnight and at Sea-Tac airport

Harlequin's Costume, by Leonid Yuzefovich

Glagoslav Publications, 2013
263 pp

(ARC from the publisher, thank you!)
--reposted at the crime segments

"During the performance he ruled the stage, entertained the public and ordered poor Pierrot about until, brought to the point of despair, Pierrot found an imperceptible thread in his tormenter's costume and pulled it. At that, Harlequin's costume, virtuosically sewn from rags with one single thread, fell to pieces."

Harlequin's Costume is a blend of two of my favorite genres, crime fiction and historical fiction. The time is 1871, the place St. Petersburg, Russia; Czar Alexander II is sitting on the imperial throne.  It is a politically-charged time, and after the death of Austrian military attaché Prince von Ahrensburg, Chief Inspector Ivan Dmitrievich Putilin has a tough job trying to a) determine whether or not his murder is the work of some political faction and b) keep his head above water since the Czar's own secret police are also involved with their own agenda and c) maneuver around circles during a delicate time.  The story is told looking back, as Putilin is working on his memoirs, "the most interesting material...accumulated over the course of my career,... something like a chronicle of crime in our Northern capital over the last thirty years."  Harlequin's Costume is the first of a three-volume trilogy based on the real Ivan Putilin who served as St. Petersburg's chief of police from 1866 to 1892; in Russia his exploits are the subject of a television mini-series. 

The novel is rich in period detail, and there is a definite sense of time and place that runs throughout. Considering that Yuzefovich is an historian who taught his beloved subject for some 29 years, this is not surprising.  It's easy to envision not only St. Petersburg at this time, but also the multi-faceted political and diplomatic intrigue going on all around poor Putilin as he tries to suss out the truth behind the death of von Ahrensburg.  The story is filled with potential suspects who have more than a few motives to want the attaché dead.  As it turns out, sometimes even the slightest detail becomes important to the crime's solution.  As you navigate through the streets of St. Petersburg, there are also some funny moments that lighten the intensity of Putilin's investigation.   At one point  Putilin's editor notes:
"Ivan Dmietrievich worked like an artist who scatters smears, blots, spots and lines on the canvas before a bewildered audience, in apparently random fashion, and then, with a flick of the wrist, suddenly pulls them together into a single whole and blinds his viewers with the instantaneous revelation of his intent, concealed hitherto in chaos."

and that is precisely the way Yuzefovich writes as well.  Ivan Dmietrievich bides his time until he finds that "imperceptible thread" to unravel the investigation; Yuzefovich also waits for the perfect moment to reveal all. My only issue with this novel is that a number of times, with the switch from 1871 to later when Ivan Dmietrievich is discussing his stories with his editor, I did a quick "huh?" at the sudden changes. One moment you're reading about a shipment from Genoa with its cargo of oranges and lemons, and the next the editor is saying "somehow the freight seems out of season." These little sections would be fine (imho) in little chapters by themselves, but within the narrative it was a bit jarring to switch from one time to another so quickly.

This is definitely not a book for crime readers who want a quick solution. The story moves a bit slowly, taking you through multiple suspects and their motives, and the author takes his time to set up the political and diplomatic scene while carefully sketching out his characters.  This book would probably be suited more for readers of good historical fiction (not the soap-operaish sort) or historical crime readers who want to immerse themselves in a specific time and place while their armchair detective selves try to figure out the whodunit along with the detective. I defy you to figure this one out - I certainly didn't.   I hope the publishers don't wait too long before publishing the next installment -- this one was definitely right up my alley.


 note: read from Ft. Lauderdale to Seattle -- leg one of the Hawaii trip

Friday, May 3, 2013

May: books for long airplane rides and Hawaiian sun

the view from our hotel room in Lahaina

It's May, so it's vacation time again, and for 2 lovely weeks we're in Maui. We got in yesterday after a long flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Seattle for an overnight stay to see family. Then after an overnight stay we took another very long plane ride from Seattle to Maui.  After about 5 hours of sleep, we left at about 3 a.m. to go up to the top of Haleakalā, the local volcano where at 10,000 ft, we watched the sunrise at about 5:45. It was freezing up there, so we're standing around above the cloud line in our long sleeves, fleece vests, hoodies, hats and thermal socks trying to keep warm. 

sun rising over Haleakalā

Then back to Lahaina for a change into shorts and tank tops and a few hours of driving along the coast and looking for local food (we try to eat mom-and-pop local wherever we go...thank god for Yelp!); and we drove to the north of the western side of the island

where we saw the most incredible scenery that made me want to move here.

But we're only here for a couple of weeks, then home again home again.  In the meantime, I brought several ARCs I need to finish, along with Hakan Nesser's newest book The Weeping Girl, Johan Theorin's Asylum, Going Clear by Lawrence Wright and a few others to read while laying out on the beach, by the pool or on the balcony with MaiTai in hand; not to mention the uber-long plane ride from Maui to Seattle to Ft. Lauderdale all in one fell swoop! 

ahhhh -- relax, get sun and much better can it get?