Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Plaster City by Johnny Shaw

Thomas & Mercer, 352 pages, $14.95 (release date - 5/1/14)

When Dove Season, the first of the Jimmy Veeder Fiasco books, came out, I decided that it was my favorite in the series — even though there was only one book at that point in the series. Now that Plaster City, the second in the series, has come out, I know that this is my favorite in the series. (Sorry, Dove Season.) In other words, each one of Johnny Shaw’s books has left me a happy camper, with the conviction that the next book couldn’t possibly be better. That includes Shaw’s Big Maria, not a Jimmy Veeder Fiasco book, which had me busting a gut with laughter.

Plaster City is a wonderfully plotted, humor-filled book, with masterfully drawn eccentric characters up the yin-yang.

I would say that the Jimmy Veeder books are guy books, except that I’m not a guy and I love them. The strong personal ties in both books are between men, and yes, I’ll use that over-used, Hollywood, gossip-column word here, they’re “bromances.” Jimmy’s lifelong friend is Bobby Maves. At one point in Plaster City another character marvels that Bobby actually went to college, that’s how senseless some of his actions are. The safety valve in his brain took a hike a long time ago. One of them even coined a term for Bobby’s misadventures: Mavescapades. Indeed.

Both Jimmy and Bobby are farmers in the Calexico, California, area, on the border with Mexico. They are also boozers and brawlers and boisterous bromancers and brothers from another mother … and father. Only time is slowing them down. Time and the realization that they both have families now. Jimmy’s young son, Juan, discovered in Dove Season, and his girlfriend Angie provide Jimmy with a reason to grow up.

Julie is Bobby’s sixteen-year-old daughter with ex-wife Becky. Now she’s missing, and Bobby calls in his pal Jimmy to help him find her. He was never much of a father; he never let responsibility get in the way of a good time. But now he wants to own up to how he may have set the model for wasting one’s youth and inadvertently gotten his daughter into trouble. Despite Jimmy’s misgivings about leaving his family for this road warrior trip, he feels he owes Bobby for all the times Bobby had his back. (Of course, Bobby often wouldn’t have had to have Jimmy’s back if Bobby hadn’t gotten Jimmy into trouble in the first place.)

Shaw has a way with words when describing the hot, arid, isolated area where most of the action takes place, and in describing the people, both law-abiding and criminal (and those who are a little of both), who live in those areas as well.

There is a lot of action — hey, it’s a Johnny Shaw book — but some of the best moments are the quiet ones, especially the last few pages of the book. It is the path down which Shaw takes his characters that reveals his true writer’s mettle, and it is awesome.

Here’s a pretend conversation between me and Johnny Shaw:
Shaw: What? No.
Me: Yes.
Here is an MBTB star for a book that shows genuine heart.

2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bark by Lorrie Moore

Knopf, 208 pages, $24.95

I hoped against hope that one of Lorrie Moore’s eight shining short stories would have a murder in it so I could award it an MBTB star, but alas, no such luck. Thus, here’s my alert: No fictional characters were murdered in the making of this book.

Lorrie Moore captures her eccentric characters and wraps them in humor and regret. The paired people in most of her stories whiz by each other instead of connecting. This is love — and not just romantic love — on a different plane.

If you have a chance to read these eight short stories, do so. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dominion by C. J. Sansom

Mulholland Books, 640 pages, $28

Dominion is quite an accomplishment for British author C. J. Sansom. He is known for his Matthew Shardlake 16th-century series, which is well-done and well-received, but Dominion is not part of that series.

Dominion is a what-if story, part of a genre called alternate history. The premise is simply this: What if on May 9, 1940, at 5:00 p.m., Winston Churchill had not succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime minister of Great Britain. What if Lord Halifax had emerged the victor instead. Great Britain had been at war with Hitler’s Germany for about a year at that point. How would that war have been affected?

In Sansom’s world Britain settled for peace with Germany, ending the war after about a year. Britain was allowed to keep its empire and Germany plays the big brother. There are advisors from and generous trade accommodations for Germany. The U.S. never had cause to intervene and, as a result, Adlai Stevenson is poised to become the next president in 1953.

And what of merry old England? By 1952, the blackshirts have become more predominant. The inexorable take-over of the British government by Nazi sympathizers has been slow but steady. British Jews finally are being rounded up to be sent away to camps. Enough time has passed that citizens are too cowed to voice dissent. The SS has a foothold in Britain and there are spies, both for and against the government. That is where David Fitzgerald comes in.

David is a minor civil servant, but he can surreptitiously gain access to secret files to pass on to the Resistance, an organization headed by Winston Churchill, a man in failing health but whose unflaggingly strong personality has held the diverse anti-government forces together. Fitzgerald was recruited by an old Oxford chum, Geoff Drax.

One day it becomes more than just about shuffling secret papers. Frank Muncaster, one of David and Geoff’s old Oxford mates, finds himself in a pickle. He’s locked up in an insane asylum for having tried to kill his brother. Before the pro-Nazi British government can realize that Frank knows a world-changing deep dark secret that the brother he tried to kill imparted to him before being thrown out a window — and is actually the reason he was thrown out the window — David and Geoff must spirit him away to keep the secret safe.

Sansom has crafted a good, old-fashioned spy thriller. Even though Dominion often holds tight to the formula for wartimes spy stories, it is still immensely enjoyable. Besides Geoff and Frank, David’s spy team has the requisite lower-class tough guy and a mysterious, pretty woman who speaks with an accent. Also, there are two wronged women: one David semi-seduces to gain access to top secret papers and one is David’s wife. Almost everyone has a tragic backstory. (For instance, David and his wife lost a young son to an accident.) Although a lot of the elements may seem familiar, Dominion is unique.

Sansom is an excellent and sophisticated storyteller. He compellingly draws portraits of people who are involved in the struggle against their own government, whether they got to that point after considerable thought or whether they simply stumbled into it. Their reasons are many, as are the dangers. Most are good, moral people with heavy burdens to bear, and Sansom is good at depicting that weight.

Kudos to Sansom for the amount of research he did to present a credible alternate history for Great Britain. At times it is scary how authentic the alternate world seems. And all it took was one moment that never was in a cabinet meeting in a room far away in time.