Tag Archives: Kindle

Matador Serial by Ray Banks: A Novel Idea

Partly because I’m a fan of Ray Banks, and partly because I want to see how this plays out, I signed up for MATADOR: a 7-part serial available on the kindle. Total cost: $1.99. Beginning on November 20th 2012, one episode out of seven will be published, and the subsequent six episodes will be sent in two-week intervals. Subscribers receive e-mail notification when each new episode is available.

According to Amazon, episode one is 55 pages and the blurb says this:

A man wakes in a shallow grave next to a corpse to find himself shot, amnesiac and in deep trouble. Meanwhile, an expat drug runner finds out that he’s not the killer he thought he was.

In some ways this has been done before. I’m thinking of the Cornhill Magazine which in 1860 (according to some sources) began featuring the works of many notable writers in serial form, but the reading of novels in carefully parcelled out sections has been passé for years. The world of the ‘printed word’ is changing, and here’s someone grabbing an opportunity in the new still-shifting paradigm. Perhaps I’m easy to please, but I can’t help but be excited about this new serial. Since e-readers open up worlds of possibilities for readers and writers, will we see more of these in the future?

Watch this space…

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Bookshops & the internet

I came across an article, written by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times which included a number of facts and figures regarding some of the differences between the publishing industry in America and France. One of the main differences is the Lang Law–a law which addresses the discounting of books, and due to this law, book prices cannot be discounted more than 5% below the publisher’s list price. Another point the article makes is that e-book sales in France are 1.8% of the market compared with 6.4% in America. Apparently 13% of French books were purchased from the internet last year. On another note, an article in the Telegraph says that the number of bookshops in Britain halved in the years 2005-2011 shrinking from 4,000 down to 2,178.

Interesting reading which of course raises the question: is the demise of the independent (or even chain) bookshop (thinking Borders here) inevitable? Amazon often comes out as the villain in these ruminations, and I’m sure that if I owned and operated a bookshop, I’d feel that I was fighting in a price war I couldn’t match. But as a reader there are other considerations.

Before the arrival of the internet, I liked nothing better than to head my car towards a book-friendly town and spend the day browsing through the shelves of a number of used book shops. Santa Monica had the added attraction of the British pubs, of course, and I always came away from these forays with a decent amount of plunder. Some of the titles I bought came from the continually overhauled list of books I wanted, and some titles were a complete, delightful surprise as I stumbled across books on the shelves by pure accident. At the time (pre-internet), I typically read books by favourite authors, books recommended by friends or work colleagues, and the occasional unexpected title excavated at a bookshop. I also picked up names of books from magazines such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Then came the internet…. I came across more and more obscure titles, books from small publishers, and the trail led deeper and deeper off the beaten path. Then came blogging, my reading community expanded, and now I’m reading recommendations from all over the world, including: AustraliaCanada, Britain, France, and the very multi-cultural Caroline. I still love book shops, but they simply cannot stock the vast number of titles available via internet outlets. Here’s an example, I recently visited a used bookshop sure that I’d find at least one title by John O’Hara, but alas no. I ended up buying a book for someone else so that I wouldn’t leave empty-handed.

All this reminds me of the days when video shops were the only way to go for VHS and then DVD rentals. I remember picking over the sad little foreign film section at a local Blockbuster and then learning about Netflix….

It’s not that I don’t want to buy from bookshops. I love bookshops. But they simply cannot offer the inventory of online book sellers. It’s not all about pricing and discounting and cut-throat tactics. It’s also about selection. I recently read a review of a Peter Stamm book on Tony’s Reading List. Fat chance of my local used bookshop having that in stock.

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Victor Gischler Strikes Again

Last year, I read and throughly enjoyed Victor Gischler’s novel Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, so when I saw the author’s offer of a free short story, I jumped at it. The story, Duffers of the Apocalypse which originally appeared in Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir came pdf format, so I sent it to my kindle to read. 

The story starts on a golf course–hardly a place you’d expect someone to get himself killed, but there again, this is the perverse mind of Victor Gischler. And here’s a quote:

All three of us each had our own cart. Almost everyone in the retirement community surrounding the golf course had a cart, even those who didn’t play. It was a convenient way to get around, the golf course, the pool, the general store, community center, and Dotty’s the little bacon and egg diner almost out to the highway. Some people even took their carts to the Methodist church down the road a bit. Not me. God and I weren’t speaking.

The story is told by Roscoe Carter who’s retired from the army and now lives in an Oklahoma retirement community. Roscoe hangs out with his two buddies, Pete Dexter and shady Tony DeLuca, and the three men play a lot of golf until one day something goes wrong….

Thanks for the story, Victor. Isn’t the internet great?

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

I saw the film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? some time ago, and due to my film-book obsession, it was just a matter of time before I sought out the source material. I wondered whether the visual advantages of the film would overrule the novel, but no, for its intense, unrelenting bleak depiction of a luridly exploitive dance marathon in 1930s California, the book outweighs the film. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1897-1955) is considered his masterpiece, and after finishing the novel, it’s easy to see why. This is a fairly short novel, and the title makes sense by the time the book concludes.

Robert Syverten is walking down Melrose Boulevard with seven dollars in his pocket when he meets Gloria Beatty. He’s just left the Paramount studio lot after being rejected, yet again, for a part as an extra in a von Sternberg film. Although the name of von Sternberg’s “Russian picture” isn’t mentioned, the date 1935 appears later in the novel. Von Sternberg made The Scarlet Empress in 1934, and Crime and Punishment in 1935, so if McCoy referred to the latter film, then that’s a significant allusion given the events that take place.

Both Robert, originally from Arkansas and Gloria, from West Texas are trying to get bit parts and break into film, and since they are both meeting with little success, they appear to have something in common. They strike up a conversation and then Gloria suggests that they join a dance marathon.

“A girlfriend of mine has been trying to get me to enter a dance marathon down at the beach,” she said. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars in you win.”

“The free food part of it sounds good,” I said.

“That’s not the big thing,” she said. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture … What do you say?”

Gloria overrules Robert’s initial objections, and so they sign up for the 2500 hour marathon which is held at the beach on an amusement pier. 144 couples begin the marathon, but 61 dropped out the first week. The conditions are horrendous, and this is, of course, an indication of just how many desperate young people are willing to risk their health for $1000.

The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

Some of the couples in the marathon are professionals and so they have tips for how to maximise the ten minute breaks. As the vicious contest continues, there’s a sense of brewing violence. Tempers are short, exhausted partners begin squabbling and the men organising the marathon arrange a number of questionable publicity stirring events to boost attendance. One of the worst aspects of the dance marathon is the derby–this is a nightly event which exists simply to cut remaining couples. It’s a brutal rapid walk-around the dance floor with the last couple being eliminated, and many others collapsing and seeking medical help in the “pit.”

“Two minutes to go,” Rocky announced. “A little rally, ladies and gentleman–” They began clapping their hands and stamping their feet, much louder than before.

Other couples began to sprint past us and I put on a little more steam. I was pretty sure Gloria and I weren’t in last place, but we had both been in the pit and I didn’t want to take a chance on being eliminated. When the pistol sounded for the finish half the teams collapsed on the floor. I turned around to Gloria and saw her eyes were glassy. I knew she was going to faint.

“Hey…” I yelled to one of the nurses, but just then Gloria sagged and I had to catch her myself. It was all I could do to carry her to the pit. “Hey!” I yelled to one of the trainers. “Doctor!”

Nobody paid any attention to me. They were too busy picking up the bodies. The customers were standing on their seats, screaming in excitement.

The curious thing is that while Robert was reluctant to join the marathon in the first place, he very quickly becomes the team’s cheerleader. Gloria sinks into pessimism and despair, refusing to talk to the sponsors,  and while one of her main (and pitifully sad) reasons for joining was to meet ‘movie people,’ when anyone famous attends, their presence serves to create Gloria’s anger and resentment. Gloria sees life as hopeless, and the contest as a meaningless diversion from their fate:

“This whole business is a merry-go-round. When we get out of here we’re right back where we started.”

“We’ve been eating and sleeping,” I said.

“Well what’s the good of that when you’re just postponing something that’s bound to happen.”

Unfortunately, Robert doesn’t realise that Gloria is one of the “Kamikaze women” we find in Woody Allen films, and as a character says in Husbands and Wives (1992)

 “I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”  (Professor Gabe Roth played by Woody Allen)

Within minutes of meeting Robert, Gloria mentions that she tried to kill herself with poison. A warning for any man who’s listening. This is a woman with a serious death-wish:

“It’s peculiar to me,” she said, “that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me who want to die but haven’t got the guts–”

The only time Gloria shows any fight is when she meets a couple of do-gooders from The Mothers’ League for Good Morals. In a wonderful showdown, Gloria tells the women where they can shove their good intentions:

“It’s time somebody got women like you told,” Gloria said, moving over and standing with her back to the door, as if to keep them in, “and I’m just the baby to do it. You’re the kind of bitches who sneak in the toilet to read dirty books and tell filthy stories and then go out and try to spoil somebody else’s fun-”

Anyone who’s enjoyed the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? needs to read the novel from which the film sprang. Dancing is a social and cultural mechanism for romance & courtship and here it’s degraded into brutal, demeaning savagery, and the voyeuristic public’s taste for destruction harks to the modern-day excesses and morally questionable abuses of reality television.  While McCoy’s novel is ostensibly about a vicious dance marathon in which the suffering of a few becomes entertainment for the masses, Gloria understands that the marathon–the desperate struggle to survive and the demeaning obsequiousness they must show towards the audience and the sponsors are symbolic of the struggles of a bitter, hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken life from which there’s only one escape….

Review copy from Open Road Media

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E publishing

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I own a kindle, initially for the ease of reading long-out-of-print Balzac, and I’ll admit that I don’t leave home without it. Years ago, someone gave me an electronic reader and I hated the thing. Loathed it with a passion, and so I was surprised by how quickly I became inseparable from my kindle–and bear in mind that I am NOT a gadget person at all.

I get a lot of comments about the kindle. Positive, of course from other kindle owners, as we recognise a fellow user like some lost tribe member: “so how do you like your kindle?” “Love it,” but most of the comments still tend to be derisive, negative and snotty: “I prefer books.”  (emphasis on “I”) and “I refuse to have one in my home.”  I’ve given up explaining that I haven’t stopped buying books, or that it’s not an either/or situation. Instead I chalk the reader debate up to a matter of taste. But of course, that’s not the only issue at stake here.

I came across a post called Talking Shop written by Lee Goldberg on his blog in which he discusses e-publishing, and how the publishing world is changing. In particular, he discusses how the “ebook revolution” is empowering authors–especially “mid-list authors” (and this was a point made by John Barlow when he decided to take Hope Road directly to kindle). Another very important point that Lee Goldberg raises is that it’s not easy to get the rights of out-of-print books back from the publisher.

While there’s a consensus that the publishing world is changing, it’s difficult to predict just where it’s going to go. With newspapers folding and downsizing, professional book reviewers are dwindling even as we see the rise of the non-professional (like me)–someone who’s just an obsessive reader and gets some sort of cheap thrill from passing on posts about the books I’ve read. The literary world has been managed by gatekeepers–publishers who select what is going to be published and then managed by literary journals which tell us which of those books are worth buying and reading. While this structure isn’t exactly collapsing, it is undergoing a metamorphosis. Scary if your livelihood depends on it, and exciting f0r someone like me whose major pastime is reading.

An interesting fact is that crime readers are early adopters of the kindle, and along with that goes the idea that the world of crime reading isn’t subject to the same gatekeeping (the gatekeepers of culture and taste–such as literary journals). You’re not going to see the TLS or NYRB stuffed with reviews of crime novels–although there are sites such as The Rap Sheet, edited by J Kingston Pierce, a self-described “labour of love,”  which survey the world of crime and inform readers of new and upcoming books. So I speculate that it’s perhaps no accident that crime readers were early adopters of the kindle–there were underlying factors at work–including the fact that we don’t rely on gatekeepers of culture and tend to be more fan-based.

And from that last point I’m moving on to the issue of what it’s like to be a reader who wants to read out of print books or just books that are no longer hot-off-the-presses. Amazon shipping is 3.99, and it’s possible, as we all know, to get a book for a mere penny. Many crime authors seem acutely aware of this pricing, and so they price their work accordingly.   Lee Goldberg’s  4 novel Jury Series is a mere $5.99. Allan Guthrie has several titles for $1.99 and $2.99 –including his oop Two-Way Split which is available used in traditional print form for .02 (plus 3.99 shipping) and $2.99 on the kindle. He gets a big fat zero if you buy a used copy, but he gets a percentage if you buy a kindle version.

And this brings me to my another observation, and one I don’t see often. If the publishing world went 100% electronic reader, and I don’t advocate that, by the way, and neither do I think that is the future, but let’s just say that happens, eventually the used book market would dry up. Let’s argue that this happens in the year 2030 and from that point on, only e-books are released (nook, kindle). The used book market after 2030 would be non-existent, so publishers who get zero for used books would still get a chunk of the action via the e-book version if and only if they were involved in the contractual process.

Finally, the oldest surviving cheque was written in 1659, and in Britain there’s a phase-out date of 2018 for check-writing. Ten years ago, most consumer transactions were cheques but now it’s debit cards or credit cards–a system which apparently works great for the credit card industry since they’ve managed to get themselves in between the merchant and the consumer for almost every transaction. There was a time when not having a checkbook would have been unimaginable, and now cheques seem to be the fading into the past. Something to think about….

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Hope Road by John Barlow

Hope Road sits at the feet of the optimistic, vertical city, close to the glamour but somehow cut off from it, left on the outside. This part of Leeds clings to its low-slung industrial past like an old drunk, scared to change his ways and knowing that, in any case, he’s not welcome anywhere. Victorian workshops and squat 1920s factory blocks are either bricked up or hide unnamed businesses behind steel-panelled gates topped off with coils of rusting barbed wire. Occasional splashes of colour announce exhaust refits and commercial printing services.  

I’m going to admit that the idea of a new series of no less than 9 crime novels is a daunting prospect–even for a die-hard crime reader like me, but the good news is that this is an opportunity for those interested to get in at the ground floor level for a mere 2.99. The books I’m talking about are the LS9 series written by John Barlow. John, a self-described mid-list author went straight to kindle with his book Hope Road, and you can find his (well-worth reading) explanations for that  here. Last year, thanks to Tom at A Common Reader, I discovered Conan Kennedy and his kindle e-book The Colour of Her Eyes. The kindle (and yes I own one) opens up worlds of possibilities for authors and readers, and I think it’s rather exciting.

So back to Hope Road which I bought after checking out a sample chapter (another great feature of the kindle). First of all, I can see the mini-series now, so Mr. Barlow, I hope you’re working on the second book. For those who watch television crime mini-series, think Finney or even The Take (based on the book by Martina Cole), and you’ll have an idea of where Hope Road slots into the crime genre. Yes this book is the first entry in what promises to be a sprawling saga of a notorious crime family from Leeds.

The novel’s main character is John Ray, the only surviving son of Tony Ray, a much-respected Leeds crime boss. In Tony Ray’s heyday, he had his finger in many pies, and his used car business served as a front for his less-legit concerns. But those days appear to be over. Wheel-chair bound, geriatric Tony Ray is spending his sunset years drooling at Oakwell Nursing Home,  and John Ray’s brother, Joe “a hardened, joyless version of their father,” who took the family crime business to the next level,  had his brains blown out  two years before. The crime remains unsolved. This leaves the youngest son, John Ray, the ‘white sheep’ of the family, and when the book begins, John Ray who denounced the criminal life years earlier and worked as an accountant, is back in Leeds running the old family business Tony Ray’s Motors, and he appears to be making a success of it.

John Ray runs the shop with the help of two employees: a distant relative with murky connections, the libidinous Connie, and the young reformed crook, Freddie. It looks as though John Ray may be winning the respect of the local business community when he’s awarded the Autotrader Used Car Dealer of the Year Award. On top of that, John Ray is also dating copper Denise Danson, and that relationship has people on both sides of the fence upset.

John’s world begins to crumble when the body of a prostitute named Donna is found in the boot of one of his cars, and before long, Freddie, sweating it out in Millgarth police station, is the odds-on favourite for the crime. The police however, also found 50,000 pounds of forged pound notes in the car, and since the Ray family dabbled in counterfeit notes, suspicion also falls on John, but the police can’t make the crime stick to John no matter how hard they try. 

Hope Road follows John’s investigation of the death of  Donna as he tries to prove that Freddie is innocent of the murder, but with every step he takes, he digs deeper into the Leeds underworld and finds that the local crims and coppers alike both mistrust him. All roads of the investigation seem to take John back to the seedy rundown motel called the Eurolodge. Here’s one of my favourite scenes between former barmaid Sandy, who now works at the motel, and John Ray as they discuss the Eurolodge:

“Adrian Fuller, owner-manager…”

She sniffs. “He’s all right, Fuller. He inherited the building a couple of years ago, had an idea for business hotels, budget ones. Eurolodges all over the country. Told me one night when he was pissed.”

“So what happened?”

“Place didn’t take off. Then he started getting funny guests. Blokes, groups of ‘em all in one room, asking for big discounts. They’d book by the week, or longer, and they’d be coming and going at all hours….”

“Let me guess. The kind of people my dad used to employ?”

“Something like that. Before he knew it, his normal customers had disappeared.”

“I bet.”

He watches as she puts out her cigarette and immediately lights another.

“Ahh, that hits the spot,” she moans, almost curling up in pleasure.

“Jesus, I spend years trying to get it down to two-a-day, then one-a-day. Suddenly I’m surrounded by women who just adore tobacco.”

“It’s about the only pleasure I can afford, love,” she says, and takes another draw.

 Hope Road asks some relevant questions: can a person whose past is immersed in crime ever make a complete break, and even if he does will anyone believe that he’s not chosen the same path as the rest of his family? This is an intriguing beginning for author John Barlow. The first is the series is often the weakest, but this is a strong start which establishes core behaviours and core characters and sets the foundations for a sprawling crime family saga amidst the seedy hotels, drab flats and various low-lifes of Leeds. I particularly enjoyed how John Ray runs into Sandy, once the object of his adolescent fantasies, and while the meeting is a reality check, John Ray isn’t exactly a Hollywood type either:

Shirley Kirk studies John Ray’s features, strong nose, high forehead, thick black hair. A heavy-set man with faded good looks. Attractive? Up to a point, but there’s something else. A frisson of excitement with him, the fact he comes from serious criminal stock, old school crims, love their mothers, all that shit. It’s not his fault, but it’s not as if he does anything to hide it. We’re all playing somebody, she tells herself, and this is how Mr. Ray has chosen to play it.

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At the Sign of the Cat and Racket by Balzac

“This is what comes of sight-seeing,” exclaimed Monsieur Guillaume, “a headache.”

When I saw the title At the Sign of the Cat and Racket,  my first thought was that this Balzac novel concerned a pub. No, the sign of the title is actually an old painting which serves as a trade indicator on the outside of a draper’s shop in 19th century Paris. In this story, Balzac examines how class differences impact male-female relationships, and he also asks the question ‘does it take a particular kind of  woman to live with a man of genius?’  I’d hazard a guess that the question is self-reflective, and that question pales next to the issue of class differences between the characters. Furthermore the behaviour of the fictional ‘man of genius’ in the story, Theodore de Sommervieux, isn’t entirely motivated by his intelligence.

The novella opens on the Rue Saint-Denis with a description of a very old house “which enable[s] historians to reconstruct old Paris by analogy.” The house which is also a business is a “relic of the civic life of the sixteenth century.”  The house, Balzac tells us, “had been encrusted with as many coats of different paint as there are of rouge on an old duchess’ cheek,” and the ancient painting of a cat  is weather-worn and faded. Opposite the house, a young man stands in the pouring rain. He stares at the house … waiting, and of course, it’s easy to guess that he’s waiting for the glimpse of a young girl.

The young man is  Theodore de Sommervieux, artist and scion of a wealthy family. He’s there to catch a glance of a young woman who’s caught his eye, 18-year-old Augustine Guillaume, the youngest daughter of the shopkeeper and master draper, Monsieur Guillaume. The worthy Guillaume has two daughters, and he has a plan to marry the eldest 28-year-old Mademoiselle Virginie, to his long-standing apprentice and chief assistant, the orphaned Joseph Lebas. Guillaume’s plan is that Lebas, who’s like a son to him, will make the legal move to become his son-in-law by marrying Virginie. Then Lebas and Virginie will eventually take over the business and Guillaume and his wife will retire. Well that’s the plan anyway.

 The Guillaume family lead a simple but good life. As daughters of a tradesman, the education of the daughters is sadly limited:

Brought up to a commercial life, accustomed to hear nothing but dreary arguments and calculations about trade, having studied nothing but grammar, book-keeping, a little bible-history, and the history of France in Le Ragois, and never reading any book but what their mother would sanction, their ideas had not acquired much scope. They knew perfectly how to keep house; they were familiar with the prices of things; they understood the difficulty of amassing money; they were economical, and had a great respect for the qualities that make a man of business.

But there’s trouble on the horizon. Virginie and Augustine have been brought up to marry tradesmen, but Augustine may long for something more:

It is possible that two romances discovered by Augustine in the cupboard of a cook Madame Guillaume had lately discharged– Hippolyte Comte de Douglas and Le Comte de Comminges–may have contributed to develop the ideas of the young girl, who had devoured them in secret, during the long nights of the past winter.

Those blasted romances always cause trouble!

Imagine how Augustine feels, then, when she attends the Paris Salon and sees a portrait of her on display. All those romantic thoughts must have rushed through her head. She’s infused with “rapture,” a “chaos of sensations,” and she almost faints.

So it would appear that Balzac has written a fairly simple love story. Apprentice Joseph Lebas is in love with Augustine;  Augustine is in love with Theodore de Sommervieux, and Virginie is in love with Joseph. Will Guillaume, who believes firmly in marrying within one’s class, allow his daughter Augustine to marry Sommervieux? Will Sommervieux marry Augustine? What of Virginie and Lebas? There’s a “crazy mania” for “commerce and finance” to marry into the nobility, but this goes against Guillaume’s staunch principles.

This is the delightful element of this Balzac story–we think we can predict its twists and turns, but Balzac has a few surprises in store.

Balzac has some marvellous comments to make on the subject of trade. The Guillaumes engage in a laborious period of stock-taking during which they called out stock items and their value which were “spouted over the counters like verses of modern poetry, quoted by romantic spirits, to excite each other’s enthusiasm for one of their poets.” And here’s Balzac’s take on the Guillaumes:

In the evening, Guillaume, shut up with his assistant and his wife balanced his accounts, carried on the balance, wrote to debtors in arrears, and made out bills. All three were busy over this enormous labor, of which the result could be stated on a sheet of foolscap, proving to the head of the house that there was so much to the good in hard cash, so much in goods, so much in bills and notes; that he did not owe a sou; that a hundred or two hundred thousand francs were owing to him; that the capital had been increased; that the farmlands, the houses, or the investments were extended, or repaired, or doubled. Whence it became necessary to begin again with increased ardor, to accumulate more crown-pieces, without its ever entering the brain of these laborious ants to ask–”To what end?”

Yet at the same time, Balzac finds a great deal that’s admirable about Guillaume and his life. He’s a good man, a moral man. He lacks imagination, and is too parsimonious, but then his talents lie elsewhere.  Balzac’s biggest beef about their lifestyle seems to be ‘when are these people going to start enjoying themselves?‘ The annual stock-taking is rewarded by a rare “debauch,” a trip to the theatre.

Translated by Clara Bell

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1222 by Anne Holt

2011 brought a new-found appreciation for Icelandic literature in the form of Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets and The Ambassador, so fast forward to December 2011 and me thinking it would be a good idea to read something seasonal. No Xmas cosy for me. Instead I read 1222 by Norwegian crime author Anne Holt. It’s the sort of novel that makes you glad you’re inside with the doors locked and not stuck in a snowstorm somewhere freezing in Norway.

The action starts immediately with a dramatic train derailment at Finse 1222. We’re in Northern Norway on a trip from Oslo to Bergen in the middle of the worst blizzard recorded in over 100 years. The story is told by passenger, Hanne Wilhelmsen, a  former police officer who left the force after being paralyzed by a bullet still lodged in the spine. Hanne probably never had the best personality, and now she’s even more prickly.  More of that later.

The stunned passengers are rescued and removed from the train and taken to a nearby centuries old hotel. There’s plenty of food, and it’s warm, so all the 268 people have to do is wait out the storm. They should feel fortunate as only one person died in the derailment. Yes there are an assortment of sundry injuries, but it could have been worse, and since a number of doctors were on board the train to attend a conference, at least there’s medical help available. That’s just as well as the passengers and train crew are completely stranded and isolated. Finse 1222 is only accessible by train.  Due to the snow storm,  the televisions in the hotel aren’t working and snowploughs cannot get to the hotel.  

Right after the rescue, it becomes obvious to Hanne that there’s something fishy going on. The train held some anonymous VIP who stayed in a separate carriage surrounded by armed guards, and this person now occupies the top floor of the hotel. Any attempt to connect with the mysterious guest ends up with threats of violence. Nice.

Within just a few short hours, an execution-style murder takes place, and while Hanne and a few other people at the hotel are in on the fact that one of the guests was shot at point-blank range, the truth is, at first, kept from the general hotel population in order to avoid panic. Think stampede.

Since Hanne is a retired police officer, and a famous one at that, she’s expected to take over the investigation by the hotel management. At first she tries to shove the responsibility over to someone else, but when the body count rises and there’s no contact with the outside world in sight, Hanne reluctantly finds herself being dragged back into the world of criminal investigation. Here’s Hanne’s thoughts on the matter:

When it comes to the actual murder, that can wait. There’s no point in starting an investigation here and now. Wait for better weather. Wait for the police. Let them do what they can and this will all be cleared up in no time.

At least that’s what she tells solicitor Geir Rugholmen and hotel manager, Berit Tverre. The few guests who know about the murder can’t understand why Hanne refuses the responsibility of the investigation, but Hanne is one step ahead of everyone else. She reasons that the murderer walks amongst the guests. An overt investigation will provoke panic and paranoia, so she clings to that reason while silently ruminating that an investigation will make the killer nervous.

In the meantime, I thought, there’s a murderer with a heavy calibre weapon wandering around amongst us. In the meantime we can only hope that the intention of the person in question was to murder ** [no spoilers], and that he or she would not dream of harming anyone else. While we are waiting for the police, I thought without saying anything, we could pray to the gods every one of us must believe in that the perpetrator was rational, focused, and did not suspect any of us of knowing who he or she was. And that he or she would have no reason to suspect that anyone might be starting to investigate the case here and now.

The situation in the hotel begins to unravel fast, and Hanne finds that she must use her old skills to whether or not she wants to….

I’ve read some reviews that compare this to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and obviously there are some similarities between these two  “closed circle of suspect” mysteries. In fact the narrator doesn’t fail to make the connection:

I thought about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I immediately tried to dismiss the thought. And Then There Were None is a story that doesn’t exactly have a happy ending.

The similarities to Agatha Christie must be acknowledged, but those similarities reside in the set-up, and 1222 is refreshingly bitter thanks to its edgy narrator, Hanne, a woman who’s become anti-social almost to the point of pathology. Hanne doesn’t exactly shine in the personality department. In fact she actively tries to keep people away from her by her taciturn comments. Not that I blame her. Here she is with Geir Rugholmen:

He placed his hands on his hips and looked down his nose at me. That look from those who are standing up, the tall ones, the ones whose bodies work perfectly. Strictly speaking, I think it’s perfectly ok to have mobility problems. I want to be immobile; that’s the way I’ve chosen to live. The chair doesn’t really hamper me significantly in my everyday life. It can be weeks before between the occasions on which I leave my apartment. The problems arise when I am forced to go out. People are just desperate to help me all the time. Lifting, pushing, carrying. That’s why I chose the train. Flying is a complete nightmare, I have to say. The train is simpler. Less touching. Fewer strange hands. The train offers at least some degree of independence.

Until it crashed….

 Added to the tension at the hotel is a anti-muslim nut who manages to whip up fear and paranoia amongst the guests. 1222 is apparently number 8 in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. The fact that I’m jumping late on board didn’t seem to matter; Hanne’s life was fully explained, so no pieces of the puzzle were missing.

Review copy from the publisher via netgalley.

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Gabrielle de Bergerac by Henry James

The title Gabrielle de Bergerac from Henry James was new to me when I stumbled across it on Amazon for the princely sum of $2.99 for a Kindle edition. For those who don’t mind reading large amounts of material on the computer, I’ve since found it free online. Gabrielle de Bergerac is set pre-French Revolution, so it’s not standard James fare. It’s not a perfect novella, but it starts off strongly over the discussion of an ancestral portrait. The elderly M. de Bergerac owes the unnamed narrator a sum of money which he realises he can never repay. In lieu of payment, M. de Bergerac offers the narrator one of his paintings instead:

He told me frankly that he saw no way, either in the present or the future, to reimburse me in cash. His only treasures were his paintings; would I choose one of them? Now I had not spent an hour in M. de Bergerac’s little parlour twice a week for three winters, without learning that the Baron’s paintings were, with a single exception, of very indifferent merit. On the other hand, I had taken a great fancy to the picture thus excepted. Yet, as I knew it was a family portrait, I hesitated to claim it. I refused to make a choice. M. de Bergerac, however, insisted, and I finally laid my finger on the charming image of my friend’s aunt. I of course insisted, on my side, that M. de Bergerac should retain it during the remainder of his life, and so it was only after his decease that I came into possession of it. It hangs above my table as I write, and I have only to glance up at the face of my heroine to feel how vain it is to attempt to describe it.

But he does describe it:

The countenance is interesting rather than beautiful,-the forehead broad and open, the eyes slightly prominent, all the features full and firm and yet replete with gentleness. The head is slightly thrown back, as if in movement, and the lips are parted in a half-smile. And yet, in spite of this tender smile, I always fancy that her eyes are sad. … The whole face has a look of mingled softness and decision, and seems to reveal a nature inclined to reverie, affection, and repose, but capable of action and even of heroism.

The narrator, half in love with the portrait of a long-dead woman, presses his elderly friend to tell him the story of his aunt, Gabrielle de Bergerac, and so the narration passes to the elderly Baron who recalls his childhood as the little Chevalier, pre-French Revolution at the Bergerac estate. There’s little money and not much of a social life, and the person to potentially suffer the most from social isolation and the lack of money neccesary to enter into the sort of entertainments that might offer a new way of life through marriage, is Gabrielle de Bergerac, the 9-year-old Chevalier’s aunt. Gabrielle isn’t, however, interested in marriage:

I remember that she frequently dressed in blue, my poor aunt, and I know that she must have dressed simply. Fancy her in a light stuff gown, covered with big blue flowers with a blue ribbon in her dark hair, and the points of her high-heeled blue slippers peeping out under her stiff white petticoat. Imagine her strolling along the terrace of the château with a villainous black crow perched on her wrist. You’ll admit it’s a picture.

The elderly Baron recounts the story of Gabrielle de Bergerac to the unnamed narrator, so we get a story told through another story–a neat framework for a short summer that took place decades earlier. All of the characters in the elderly Baron’s story are dead and he’s now displaced in another country, but he remembers this significant summer when he was 9 and his role in the events that took place.

There’s a frequent visitor to the Bergerac estate–a close family friend, the Vicomte de Treuil. He’s run through his entire fortune and now he lays siege to a wealthy elderly uncle who lives in the “adjacent château, and who was dying of age and his infirmities.”  The Vicomte’s visits bring life to the Bergerac household as his “conversation  was a constant popping of corks.” While the Vicomte is the Chevalier’s father’s closest friend, his fiercest defender is the Baronne:

She had a passion for the world, and seclusion had only sharpened the edge of her curiosity. She lived on old memories–shabby, tarnished bits of intellectual finery–and vagrant rumours, anecdotes, and scandals.

Gabrielle de Bergerac is a beautiful story for its marvellous descriptions of its characters. We know, of course, that all of those involved–with the exception of the elderly Baron are all dead, so this frail old man’s story–filled with nostalgia and sadness and recalled after his death–has incredible, vital power. There are no villains here, and instead James creates well-rounded characters who are trapped by class and circumstance, and through the author’s sagacious eyes, we see the dying embers of a class and culture on the verge of disappearance. The Vicomte, the elderly baron tells us:

was the last relic of the lily-handed youth of the bon temps; and as he looks at me out of the poignant sadness of the past, with a reproachful glitter in his cold blue eyes,and a scornful smile on his fine lips, I feel that, elegant and silent as he is, he has the last word in our dispute.

My kindle version gives the date of the story as 1918 (James died in 1916), but elsewhere on the internet, I see the date 1869, and that Gabrielle de Bergerac first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.  For the subject matter, Gabrielle de Bergerac is an excellent companion story to Balzac’s The Ball at Sceaux.

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Getting Lucky by DC Brod

I’m going to say upfront that I dislike the title of DC Brod’s novel Getting Lucky. There’s an easy-pick-up implication to the novel that doesn’t do the plot or the book’s content justice. I’m also going to say that I read this on a whim–not sure if I’d like it at all. My review copy came from netgalley, and I decided to give it a go after taking a look at the author’s website.

The novel’s protagonist is freelance journalist, forty-something Robyn Guthrie–a single woman who ekes out a marginal living in the town of Fowler, Illinois. Robyn’s life, shared with her dog, is fairly standard and non-glamorous. She lives alone, has a boyfriend, a strange, slightly shady character–ex-jockey, Mick and her mother is safely stashed, albeit reluctantly at Dryden Manor with the other “decrepits.” When the novel begins, Robyn is confronted with two situations:

1) Her mother has decided she wants to buy a house and share it with Robyn

2) Robyn is asked to take over the work left by a reporter killed in a hit-and-run accident.

It’s difficult to say which scenario causes Robyn the most anguish.

The reporter killed in the accident was Clair, a woman whose integrity Robyn admired. Clair worked for the Fowler News and Record and was working on a piece about Cedar Ridge–a new  ‘Green’  housing development at the time of her death. Clair’s boss, Nita asks Robyn to take over the assignment and picking up Clair’s notes, Robyn begins working on completing the story while simultaneously digging into the details surrounding Clair’s death. At the same time, she also juggles her mother’s demands to snap up a house in this buyer’s market.

One of the first things Robyn does is keep a meeting Clair had scheduled with Joseph Kendrick, the man “behind the Cedar Ridge concept.” The meeting takes place at the snotty Douglas Grove Country Club, and it’s here that Robyn begins to sense that there’s more to the Cedar Ridge story. Here’s Robyn’s meeting with Kendrick:

Although middle-age spread had begun to claim his waistline and his face was a bit jowly, Kendrick gave the impression of being the image of health, His smile was warm and energetic, and when he shook my hand I felt as though he meant it. He was one of those shakers who moved in with his other hand and grasped my elbow as he pumped. Nothing unseemly about it, but I’m one of those people who appreciates the concept of personal space.

As luck would have it, Kendrick’s trophy wife, Katherine–now trendily known as “Kat” is an old nemesis from Robyn’s past. Kendrick and Kat, a lawyer who worked for Habitat for Humanity seem to treat Cedar Ridge as an idealistic project rather than a business venture. According to Kendrick, he and his wife consider Cedar Ridge a way of “giving back”

At Cedar Ridge, we’re developing a community of affordable green homes and offering low-interest loans to help people buy those homes.

Sounds good, but then Robyn has this feeling that everything at Cedar Ridge isn’t as perfect as it appears, and she begins to wonder if Clair’s story on the housing project had anything to do with her death.

D C Brod’s storyline is well constructed, but it’s the warmth and humour here that make this an entertaining read. Robyn is a great character–certainly not perfect and sometimes so frank that it’s very easy to identify with some of her opinions and reactions. Here’s Robyn remembering, but trying to hide, how much she disliked Kat:

Isn’t it great the way life loves to bite you on the butt every now and then? How the mere mention of a name evokes all that high school angst, reminding you that we never, ever really get over it. Your face may clear up and you may be earning enough to put a roof over your head, but a high school moment still has the power to flatten you.

I realized he [Kendrick] wasn’t looking at me anymore, and was, in fact, watching me. Compelled to give him something , I just said, “It”ll be fun to see her.” Why I said that and not something like, “Keep that bitch away from me,” I’ll never know.

The novel is also strong on characterisation, and we see Brod’s characters through Robyn’s eyes, with her wit and her pithy comments. Here she is at the Country Club catching a glimpse of a nasty piece of work, a man named Leoni:

As Leoni waxed on, Kendrick, who had begun to perspire, mainly nodded and produced monosyllabic responses. Apparently that was all he had to do, because Leoni seemed capable of long chats with himself. I also noticed he didn’t quite focus on Kendrick, looking past him, toward the patio, as though something there distracted him. Diverted him. Almost like he was admiring something. When I followed his gaze, I couldn’t figure out who was out there. The tables were empty and no one was strolling across the patio. And that’s when I realized what it was–he was flirting with his own reflection. When it hit me, I tried not to laugh. He must have realized he’d been busted when he glanced my way, seeing how hard I was trying not to laugh. He abruptly broke off his fixation and turned towards Kendrick.

The scenes with Leoni’s bratty daughter are hilarious, and for this reader, I admired the way D. D. Brod took ‘the road less traveled’ in her portrayal of a child who’s less-than angelically perfect. Robyn is a plucky heroine: practical independent, a dog lover. She’s the sort of person whose beliefs have defined her lifestyle but in a subtle–not obnoxious way, so we find her working freelance and worrying more about the quality of her work than a splashy career. Meanwhile she juggles her relationship with her mother and her relationship with Mick, and all these mundane concerns make her a very real person. Throughout the course of the story, Robyn moves from Fowler’s elite to Fowler’s underbelly, and naturally she feels more comfortable with a local prostitute than she does with the country club crowd. It’s Robyn’s sense of humour (and probably the author’s) that made this an enjoyable read. Getting Lucky is, apparently, the first installment in a new series. After finishing the book, I strolled over to Amazon and found the second installment, Getting Sassy (again I’m not a fan of this title either) free. You bet I’ll be reading it. Getting Lucky is lighter than my average fare–yes, there are a few bodies but the violence is off the page and some of it is even amusing, but in spite of the fact this novel is not as hard core as my usual picks, I really enjoyed it nonetheless. The experience felt like a short trip in friendlier climes, and if you find yourself enjoying the quotes, I’d hazard a guess that you’d enjoy this book too.

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Filed under Brod D C, Fiction