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

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Ascendant by Drew Chapman

Simon & Schuster, $25, 400 pages (release date - 1/7/13)

The promo material for The Ascendant said that the book was a real page-turner, how the editor read it in two sittings -- hey, it is 400 pages and supposedly editors need to sleep. There's usually publisher's hyperbole and hyper, hyped-up hyping that accompanies the release of a book. In this case, the enthusiasm is not misplaced. The book is captivating and clever.

Cross the venerable cult movie "War Games" with big-time movie "Wall Street," especially notable for the Wall Street sleezoid Gordon Gekko, and you've got a rough approximation of The Ascendant.

Garrett Diego Reilly is 26 years old, a bond analyst on Wall Street, and a genius at pattern recognition and arrogant behavior. He grew up on the rough streets of Long Beach, California. He was a surfer dude with a dysfunctional family. His older brother was a Marine who died while serving, maybe from "friendly fire." Garrett's only passion is making money, no matter how. If making money means betting against the U.S. in the financial market, then so be it.

One day Garrett notices a pattern in the bond market. That pattern potentially will disrupt the American economy, and the source of the disruption is China. He tells this to his boss (preparatory to striking while the iron is hot and shorting the market), who promptly calls the Treasury Department. Thanks to Garrett's information, the government avoids a meltdown -- but also disrupts Garrett's plans to make a lot of money for his firm. What a jackass! you will say repeatedly about Garrett throughout the first 50 or so pages.

Captain Alexis Truffant, an attractive representative of the Defense Intelligence Agency, enlists Garrett to find other patterns in the enormous amount of data streaming from all points of the world through the internet. The U.S. needs his unconventional and effective way of thinking, she says.

The government gives him a team of odd individuals, all of whom have a special area of knowledge that they must cram into Garrett's head so he can start coalescing the data and spotting the next pattern of disruption.

The status quo military powers-that-be aren't too sure about Garrett's helpfulness until he pulls a fast one on them in a test of his out-of-the-box thinking. (I'll leave the details out so you can be surprised.)

At the halfway point in the book, the tenor changes. Garrett is running for his life. He and his team of misfits were once part of the military organization. Now they are on the outs but still committed to their original purpose: avoiding war with China.

Part of the book takes place in China. Hu Mei, or "The Tiger," as her followers call her, is leading a grass roots insurrection against appalling labor practices in her small area of China. Word of her bravery has made her a folk hero. She knows, however, that she is human and in over her head.

Eventually, when war between China and the U.S. looms, author Drew Chapman draws that story together with his David-and-Goliath main story, and he does it very well.

This is an appealing, fast-paced, at times geeky, story of international intrigue. What Chapman does very well is introduce subjects that could have his audience yawning -- internet/techno and financial stuff -- and not slow down the pace with overdone explanations. However, he always puts his characters first. It's easy to get a sense of the differences in the individuals on the team and to appreciate them for what they are. Even though Chapman would have served his story better if he had thrown out his one-paragraph sex scene, that's only one cliché among a ton of original ideas.

It's not War and Peace, but it is good fun.

Ten Lords A-Leaping by C. C. Benison

Delacorte Press, 512 pages, $25

The lords leap from a plane, as it turns out, in C. C. Benison’s third book in the Tom Christmas series. Ten Lords A-Leaping is crowded with ladies as well. Most of the lords and ladies, far from being gentle mannered folk, comport themselves badly or have had enervating tragedies. The setting and murders are in the fashion of an English manor mystery, the suspects limited to the residents, guests, and staff of Eggescombe Manor.

How did Tom Christmas get himself into the middle of this lordly muddle? Tom is the vicar of St. Nicholas in Thornford Regis. He and his 10-year-old daughter are on vacation and on their way to visit relatives, but first they stop off at Eggescombe for a fundraiser. A group of skydiving lords do formation parachuting a few times a year as fundraisers for charities. Tom’s church is the current recipient of their generosity. The catch is that Tom and some of his fellow villagers must also jump, albeit from a lower elevation, with no need to do fancy formations.

Parachuting is thrilling even when nothing goes wrong, but in this case there’s more to keep the audience gasping. In a silly accident, Tom’s microphone doesn’t work and he can’t hear the instructor’s advice about braking during his fall. He comes down too fast and, voilà, sprains his ankle. While Tom is recuperating on a cot, he witnesses the lords’ portion of the event. As they pour out of the plane, it appears two of them are fighting in mid-air. Then the parachute of one fails to open. Fortunately, the secondary chute opens and there are no deaths that day. The deaths come later.

With his bum ankle, Tom and his daughter are the unwilling guests of Lord and Lady Fairhaven for at least a day or two. The other guests, both invited and unvited, are of the lordly vein. This is where the spider’s web of isn’t-it-a-small-world tangles hopelessly.

Among the guests are Jane and Jaime Allan (Lord and Lady Kirkbride), who are already known to Tom. Jaime is the brother of Tom’s ex-verger, Sebastian (whose real name is John), from Twelve Drummers Drumming. Sebastian/John disappeared suddenly a year and a half ago from Thornford Regis. He had been on the run from a family tragedy, of which more is learned in this book.

Lady Fairhaven’s wayward brother, Oliver, their wayward half-sister, Lucy, and HER half-brother, Dominic, are also visiting. The Dowager Countess Fairhaven (Marve to her friends) and her lodger, Roberto, a sculptor, round out the residents. Mick and Ellen Gaunt are the live-in staff. Coincidentally, the Gaunts' houseguest is Madrun Prowse, Tom’s housekeeper, also on vacation. Madrun is put to use, however, when the helper from the village, Anna Phillips, fails to show up.

There are all sorts of dark connections among these people, and C. C. Benison must have had a big wall chart to keep everyone straight. Whether you think all of these characters prove to be necessary or not, you certainly will get your money's worth at 512 pages of interlocking storylines.

Benison’s books are an odd mixture of standard cozy mystery fare (definitely as homage to the genre) overlaid with contemporary tones. Madrun Prowse’s chatty letters to her mother are cute and clean. Some of the goings-on in contrast would be shocking in their portrayal to a cozy reader. Tonally, the book is not consistent. However, Benison's writing is a well done synthesis of polysyllabic words and a thimbleful of four-letter ones. His writing has pizazz and humor, which immediately elevates him in my eyes. For instance, this is Tom lying on his cot after injuring his ankle: 
In the second before his frangible body embraced the planet’s inflexible surface, he wondered with a strange detachment which bones might crack, which ligaments might tear.
And this is Tom waiting for the police after the first murder:
Apparently being a peer of the realm buttered no parsnips with the local constabulary, which, on the other hand, was perhaps a good thing: We’re all as one in the great democracy of poor service.
The police turn out to be Blessing and Bliss of the Totnes CID, characters Tom has already met.They really have no purpose or flavor, other than to be the token police. Tom and Jane (a former investigator for the Royal Household, no less) do all the sleuthing.

There are red herrings, magic tricks, mandatory drawing room scenes, tunnels, and secretive tip-toeing at dawn (actually, far too many people gadding about before or at dawn), much to appeal to the cozy reader, as long as he or she doesn’t mind a dash of the rougher aspects of human nature thrown in.

Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates

Soho Crime, 320 pages, $26.95

Iceland isn’t so much ice as land. People writing about Reykjavík must get tired pointing out that their yearly winter snow, rain, and temperatures resemble the climate of Portland, Oregon, more than the North Pole. No worries, in both places all that weather can lend quite a bit of dreary atmosphere to a murder mystery.

Gunnhildur Gisladóttir, nicknamed Gunna, is the series heroine. She was the police officer in a small village, but her perspicacity won her a spot in the big city. Chilled to the Bone is the third in the chilling series penned by British author Quentin Bates. This time Gunna has to deal with the body of a man found dead in a compromising position in a hotel. Who was the mysterious woman with whom he was last seen? Did she kill him?

There are four main characters that Quentin Bates tails in his book: Gunna; Bigfoot Baddó, a bad guy just released from a Lithuanian prison who is doing a “job” for another suspicious character; Jóel Ingi Bragason, a low level government minister’s assistant; and Hekla, the dominatrix who scams her customers. Now you know that sooner or later the stories will intersect, but in the meantime, confusion reigns. There aren’t any chapters to speak of. The breaks are fairly frequent and it’s not always immediately obvious whose storyline is now being worked over. Sometimes it’s necessary to backtrack after the character becomes apparent. Then there’s actually a fifth character with a minor storyline: an unnamed woman shadowing one of the other characters. At one point I think there was a sentence in which both Gunna and the mysterious woman appear, and the “she” references were confusing.

I have fallen for both of the other Icelandic storytellers I’ve read so far: Arnaldur Indridasson and Yrsa Sigurdadóttir. The Icelandic landscape is bleak and should inspire books that are bleak and dramatic as well. This book wasn’t quite all that, but I did like the character of Gunna. She was a regular person with a (mostly) regular family with a couple of soap-opera type problems. I also liked criminally-inclined Hekla, who was a sympathetic character.

I’m sorry that I started with the third book in the series, because there’s almost no catch-up on the police characters, even though Bates does eventually accord them some description. In most cases, however, the reader is flying blind for a while. It’s not rocket science, so the gist of the story is apparent.

What Bates does well is present an authentic-sounding look at Reykjavík’s culture. He lived there for a number of years, speaks Icelandic, and has read and appreciated Icelandic authors. That has certainly worked in his favor.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

Dutton, 736 pages, $29.95

Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers is the detective I’d most like assigned to help me should I have criminal difficulties in London. She may run a little rough under the hood, but she is smart, loyal, and reliable. She sneers at office politics, disdainfully and grumpily agrees to spruce herself up (you can lead a horse to water, but apparently you can’t make it be fashion conscious), and wouldn’t know proper nutrition if it sat up and begged. What's there not to love?

Which is why I was so disappointed with this book.

My hero, Barbara Havers, comes across like a buffoon in this latest tale in the “Lynley series” (and which I prefer to call the “Havers series”). Has she lost her mind? Apparently so.

When last we left Barbara’s story, Angelina, the errant lover of Barbara's neighbor, Taymullah Azhar, had returned home, to the ecstatic welcome of their 9-year-old daughter Hadiyyah. Barbara was sad because of her unrequited shy passion for Azhar, but she gamely swore to help and uphold the whole damn family. As Just One Evil Act opens, however, Azhar is devastated. Angelina has taken off again, this time with their daughter, and he doesn’t know where they are.

Frantic with trying to help Azhar, Barbara sinks her status even lower at New Scotland Yard by demanding this and nagging about that. Lynley (the stinker) was courting his new love when Barbara needed him most and forgot to return her phone calls. The abyss is deep from the start and Barbara starts digging a deeper hole. Unfortunately, there is nothing the police can do to help Azhar. Angelina is the mother on the birth certificate, but Azhar is not listed as the father. He has no legal rights.

Bollocks, Barbara would say, and hies off with Azhar and hires a private detective. There’s no joy there as far as Barbara is concerned, but George’s readers can spot right away from her narrative that something is fishy in the P.I.’s office. It’s a tremendously long time before there’s elucidation.

Time passes. Azhar is despondent. Barbara is despondent. Suddenly, Angelina and some Italian guy show up and demand that Azhar give back his daughter, whom they claim he kidnapped after Angelina had kidnapped Hadiyyah first. The Italian guy turns out to be her latest lover, Lorenzo, a member of THE Mura family in Lucca, Italy. Eventually, Lynley and Azhar go to Lucca to try and find Hadiyyah. There’s a lot of Italian bandied about, Lynley keeps his calm before Barbara’s storm, and little progress is made. Barbara, meanwhile, is seething in London, having in no uncertain terms NOT received permission to go to Italy.

Early on Barbara hacked at her hair. Gone is the stylish cut everyone labored so hard to force her to get. What’s left is a haphazardly mown lawn. That’s the least of her worries as she increasingly goes off the rails trying to direct the investigation by long distance. Now her acts match her looks.

There is a secondary story whose thread runs throughout the main story. It’s about a nun in Italy who is not really a nun. She is taking care of an unnamed little girl for whom Italian is not the main language. Hmm.

Where’s my blue pencil? Slash the other people in the P.I.’s office. Slash Chief Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco’s byplay with the officious Publicco Ministero Piero Fanucci. Slash the nun’s story. Slash large animal vet Daidre Trahair’s roller derby antics. Slash most of Azhar’s abandoned family’s story. Slash the loathsome British paparazzi part. I say this even though what I most treasure about Elizabeth George is her fulsomeness and wordy abandon. Normally she creates a fascinatingly detailed world that supports her characters and their story.

Bring back the (mostly) rational Barbara Havers I love.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Alfred A. Knopf, 504 pages, $27.95

This was a 400-page Socratic dialogue. The other 100 pages are 1984 meets THX 1138 meets Brave New World, but set in a time fairly close to our own. At its 500-page heart, it’s a satiric social commentary.

Mae Holland is a young woman, fairly fresh out of college, who is thrilled to work for The Circle, a Google-like internet construct. Her best friend from college, Annie, has gotten her the job. Annie, young though she is, has shot up through the ranks and is one of the people in the know. Almost all Circlers, as they are known, are young, enthusiastic, and true believers in their work to bring forth a massive internet community.

The reclusive Ty Gospodinov developed “the Unified Operating System, which combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy — users’ social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests.” He then brought on board two others, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Together they have created a megalithic entity. The 12,000 Circlers who physically work together participate heavily in Circle life on a massive campus in California. (I’m not sure when anyone has time to actually work, considering all the extracurricular activities that are constantly scheduled.)

Sinister Orwellian pronouncements like “All that happens must be known,” are engraved on the campus architecture. Wrong thinking is not punished so much as it is sternly nudged toward a clearer understanding of The Circle’s beliefs. For instance, Mae publicly confesses to Bailey a misdeed and the gesalt moment that resulted from it:

    “I understand that we’re obligated, as humans, to share what we see and know. And that all knowledge must be democratically accessible.”
   “It’s the natural state of information to be free.”
   “We all have a right to know everything we can. We all collectively own the accumulated knowledge of the world.”
   “Right,” Mae said. “So what happens if I deprive anyone or everyone of something I know? Aren’t I stealing from my fellow humans?”

Eggers tries hard to create the specifics of a realistic web giant, but in the end it’s more a fantasy than an actuality. In any event, that’s secondary to the moral of this cautionary tale. It’s actually plural, so the morals are: Nothing is free, There’s always a downside, If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile. The story also poses one of those psychological dilemmas: Whom should you save, the one or the many? In saving the many, there may be a lot more lost with the one.

Mae begins her Circle life in the CE department (known as customer service in our world). She receives an instant analysis of how she does in answering questions. As she makes (computer-only) friends, she receives more instant gratification through “zings” and “smiles.” As more and more social duties are added to her load — joining LinkedIn-like networks, answering emails and surveys, participating in Twitter-like blasts (“zings”) — she multitasks faster and faster. Her PartiRank (the be-all and end-all popularity indicator for Circlers) rises. She sacrifices relationships and sleep to ascend.

It’s obvious from the beginning what Eggers is trying to say. Social media doesn’t necessarily make people more social. They lose the human element as their screen presences take over. Their individual identities are subsumed as they cavort towards corporate-approved personas. Beware the mega-websters. Perhaps the Assanges and Snowdens are doing us a big favor.

The people urging Mae to proceed with caution are her parents, ex-boyfriend Mercer, and a shadowy figure on campus named Kalden. Can Mae be saved from The Circle, from the “tear opening up in her,” and from herself?

Kind of long, kind of hit-me-over-the-head-over-and-over, kind of one-note. Should have been an intense and muscular short story or novella. (This is apparently out-of-the-circle thinking, as Eggers’s book was given a star by Publishers Weekly and named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times.) What can I say? Sometimes I don't agree with the masses.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

William Morrow, 192 pages, $25

Truth? This is not a mystery. This is a fantasy by the premiere fantasist Neil Gaiman, whose Neverwhere is a classic. There are, of course, mysterious, supernatural elements. There is an endangered 7-year-old boy — I don’t think he’s ever named — who is smart and brave for his age. There’s suspense and otherworldly criminal activity. I call it fair game for this blog.

In a rural area of Sussex, England, a dark shadow has fallen. Initially it boded surprising riches, but then the tide turned, so to speak. The boy’s family, with the exception of the boy himself, is beguiled by a mysterious force, brought upon our world by the boy himself.

With the help of the family who lives at the end of the lane, 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, her mother Ginny Hempstock, and Old Lady Hempstock, the boy is drawn into an ancient fight and a dimension of wonders.

As with other Gaiman books, there is a sweetness to it. There should never be any doubt that good will triumph over evil, and that’s the comfort Gaiman offers. Most of the time The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels like a kid’s book, but I’d say it would have to be a pretty mature kid, because there’s a joyless oblique sex scene and an ugly corpse.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Little, Brown & Co., 771 pages, $30

“The Goldfinch” is a real painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, one of Rembrandt’s pupils. The artist was killed and his studio shattered in an explosion of a gunpowder storeroom in 1654, but this painting survived. Donna Tartt uses “The Goldfinch,” after which her book is named, to great effect. Throughout The Goldfinch, Tartt describes this painting emotionally, artistically, and intellectually through her protagonist, Theo Decker. The advantage to using a real painting is that with the ability for most of her readers to instantly access its image on the internet, they can see for themselves what Tartt/Decker is talking about.

The Goldfinch begins with Theo in considerable mental anguish and physical distress in a hotel in Amsterdam. Then comes a 600-page flashback to what brought him to that point. The Dickensian misery and the events that throw Theo into ever more fantastical situations flow from a day when he was 13 years old.

On that day in Manhattan, Theo, who had been suspended from his private school, and his mother were on their way to a meeting at that school. On the way, they decide to briefly stop at a museum to look at her favorite painting, “The Goldfinch.” For young Theo, part of the museum’s fascination is a girl he has spotted. She appears to be about his age and is accompanied by a man of grandfatherly vintage. At this intersection of joy and anxiety, a terrorist’s bomb explodes in the museum.

Theo and the girl, Pippa, survive. Theo’s mother and Pippa’s grandfather do not. In the chaos and confusion that follows — brilliantly described by Tartt — Theo hears the grandfather’s dying words and reaches for The Goldfinch, blown off the wall by the explosion but still somehow intact. He crawls to safety with the painting and only later heartbreakingly hears about the fate of his mother.

One thing leads to another and Theo never manages to tell anyone that he has the painting. In his 13-year-old brain, he imagines that he will be in serious trouble for having taken the painting. Each passing day brings another day’s agony for his delay. From his journey as an unofficial ward of a troubled upper class family, to his reunion with his wayward father and his brash girlfriend in Las Vegas, to his drug and alcohol daze with his best friend, Boris, another troubled juvenile, to landing on the doorstep of the kindly business partner of Pippa’s dead grandfather back in Manhattan, Theo’s childhood odyssey of happiness and despair takes up only the first half of Tartt’s book.

The adult Theo, present in the second half of the book, has some better luck, but poison again creeps into his life. It is to Tartt’s credit that she is able to pull off such an epic tale of woe without descending into schlock or pot-boiling pathos. Although the vision of Theo the Victim, standing paralyzed and open-mouthed as his life swirls the drain, is a frequent one, he is also the enthusiastic master of his destruction. However, Tartt never lets go of the central thesis that Theo at heart is a good boy, that he wants to do the right thing for the people he loves, that he is a genuine victim, that his edginess and acerbity/absurdity is a function of the twin devils of self-preservation and self-flagellation. Like the goldfinch in the painting, he is hobbled by a chain. Theo is tied to his guilt and a series of what-ifs that were never adequately addressed when he was younger.

Tartt talks about seeing the artist’s work as well as the picture he intended his viewers to see. The goldfinch is both a painting and a bird. Her book is like that: It is a story and it is the illumination of the human heart.

P.S. To enhance your experience, read Boris’s dialogue out loud (complete with Ukrainian accent, please).
P.P.S. The last twenty or so pages of the book are fabulous. Tartt's writing soars. It is bittersweet and satisfying.