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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George (hardcover, $28.95) (due date 1/10/12)

Believing the Lie is so long and takes so long to finish, rife as it is with plot and setting details and character descriptions, that it felt like a member of the family had died when I finally finished it. It  had had breakfast and lunch with me for so many days that I now have forgotten what I used to do while eating before this 624-page guest came to stay.

Lynley and Haver have their own personal turmoils to contend with while solving a crime in the far-off Lake District. The Lake District, where Peter Rabbit frolicked and daffodils grow in great abundance in Spring. The Lake District, where the body of the presumed heir to a bathroom fixtures fortune has been found in the family boathouse, expired by way of drowning.

It's a tortured path that brings Lynley to the victim's family estate incognito. He co-opts Havers into performing her own brand of subterfuge to get research past acting superintendent Isabelle Ardery, the bane of Havers' existence and Lynley's erstwhile lover, because no one must know that Lynley is in the Lake District. Sorry. That's a little too contrived. Nevertheless, there sits Lynley, far from the madding crowd of London.

Even more contrived is the involvement of Simon St. James, forensic scientist, and his wife, Deborah St. James. Deborah, although she is a photographer and not a law enforcement officer, plays a part in the deception to discover who might want Ian Caldwell dead. Deborah's part of the book takes a good fourth, and her part makes for a sad tale in the end. 

Apart from the ongoing soap opera involving George's standard players, there are three distinct mysteries that George sets before us. Who killed Ian Caldwell? Who is the mysterious Argentinian wife of the victim's cousin? What is Ian's young son's terrible secret?

It's hard to swallow all the stories George creates; some are more sympathetic than others and some are too outrageous. Each of the non-recurring characters is the carrier of his or her own salvation or destruction, and heavy lie the heads with that burden. At this stage in her series, Believing the Lie is neither the best nor the worst of her stories. George always gets an A+ for effort. I admit to a heavily tilted prejudice in favor of the stories with Barbara Havers over the other main characters, and the more Barbara the better. That being said, I really enjoyed the fourth of the book that was Barbara's and less the fourth that was Deborah's.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Whisperer, by Donato Carrisi (hardcover, $25.99) (due 1/5/12)

Foreign authors are only as good as their translators let them be, and conversely, translators are only as good as the material they have to translate. I've read translated books with an awkward rhythm to them and wondered who was to blame.

The best translated book I've read recently, The Boy in the Suitcase, had a co-author who was fluent in English. I think that must have had an impact on the translation, as she, it turns out, was the translator. If only that were possible for all books. An author's art is not just the story being told but the way it's told. Look at how many English translations of the Iliad and Dante's Inferno there are by translators/poets fighting to get both the intent, meter, and beauty just right. I'm currently also reading Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery and trying to linger over every paragraph -- and what a lot of paragraphs there are! His translator is fabulous, as is the original work, I'm sure.

It's hard to stand in comparison to Umberto Eco, and Carrisi does and doesn't succeed. Both books are full of details served up as side dishes. Eco's side dish is a rich, opinionated history lesson; Carrisi's is "CSI"-like detail. Eco wants to seduce you; Carrisi is simply thorough. In any event, the translation is good but there's still a definite otherness and a vague tediousness to the writing.

Although Carrisi is Italian, it is not clear exactly where his story is set. The characters have last names like Stern, Gavila, Rosa, Boris, Roche, Vasquez, Bermann, Rockford, and first names like Sarah, Debby, Anneke, Sabine, Mila, Goran, Alexander, an international hodgepodge. I could imagine Sweden just as easily as I could France. (However, I think I can rule out the whole continents of Africa, Asia, and Antarctica.)

In an interview conducted in Italian by Raffaello Ferrante for Mangialibri (http://www.mangialibri.com/node/4255) and translated awkwardly by Google, Carrisi says that evil can be anywhere. The multiracial and multicultural society of the "no land" he depicts in the book is actually the society he hopes Italy will become one day.

Dr. Goran Gavila, a civilian criminologist working with the police, and Mila Vasquez, a police officer specializing in crimes against children, are the main characters. They have been banded together with others to catch the person or persons who have kidnapped and possibly killed six young girls. Both Goran and Mila have tragedies in their own lives, and both are seeking some comfort or distance from their personal problems by solving crimes. Each is intuitive. But the similarity ends there. Goran has the respect of the other team members, while Mila is a twitchy, indecipherable outsider.

Surprises start popping up as this lengthy novel begins to wind up. As the team discovers the bodies of the missing girls, each taken and killed by a different man, the team suspects that there's a mastermind behind the killers, a "whisperer" who controls their movements. But is that an illusion fed by intuition and psychic mumbo-jumbo? Hard evidence proves evasive.

While the book does seem overly long, it is a good thriller with an unexpected and stunning ending, and Mila is a strangely captivating character. In the same aforementioned interview, Carrisi mentions that he learned from the great masters of the genre: Dan Brown and Jeffery Deaver! He certainly has matched or exceeded them in cleverness.

Friday, December 16, 2011

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander ($13.95) (c2005)

Portland author Bill Cameron has been telling me for years (years!) to read Tasha Alexander. I'm not a vociferous historical mystery reader, so I generally need all the hints I can get. But still, it took me a while before I picked up this first book in her series.

And I'm glad I did. It was a proper little Victorian mystery.

Emily, widow of Philip, the Viscount Ashton, is young, rich, and nearing the end of her two-year period of mourning. Her husband succumbed to an illness while on a hunt for an elephant in Africa. But don't cry for her, Argentina. She didn't love him anyway and the austerity of mourning chafes her. She married Philip to get away from her nagging, interfering mother. 

But surprise of surprises, Emily finds herself getting to know her husband, posthumously, through his journals and falling in love with him. She finds that he was a patron of the British Museum, a smart and educated world traveler, and someone who loved her deeply. Oh, dear.

Then Emily discovers that someone had been stealing artifacts from the museum and replacing them with excellent copies. It appears that that someone was her husband. And maybe he's not dead after all. 

Helped or hindered by a couple of hopeful suitors, giddy aristocratic girlfriends, and a wise and eccentric Frenchwoman, Emily prepares to both find her husband and solve the mystery of the missing artifacts.

What I enjoyed most of all was Alexander's light touch. Some authors create a character more suitable for contemporary times rather than the conservative and repressive society of Victorian times. Alexander allows Emily to be progressive but within self-imposed bounds. Emily explores and expands bit by little bit. She worries that the husband she now loves will be appalled by her independence. 

All the characters, good and bad, fictional and real (e.g., Renoir), male and female, make you want to turn the page and read more.

P.S. Tasha Alexander's series is not just for the female of the species. Ask Bill Cameron!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

2011 Year's Best Paperback Books

We've chosen our favorite books of 2011. Go to http://www.mbtb.com/home/favorites-of-2011 and find out what they were!

Mr. Kill, by Martin Limón (hardcover, $25)

Over the prior six books Martin Limón has written in his series, he has taken Army Criminal Investigations Division detectives George Sueño and Ernie Bascom through some physically punishing times in 1970s South Korea. Add Mr. Kill to the list. Bascom especially has a way with his fists and uses them when words don't accomplish what he wants. Sueño, the narrator of the stories, has a more intellectual approach to crime solving, but he, too, can come out swinging.

Mr. Kill is the closest Americans can get to pronouncing Mr. [G/K]il Kwon-up, a heroic and almost mythical detective for the Korean National Police. He exhibits talents learned from both the new and old worlds. He's a tae-kwon-do expert who also knows calligraphy and history. His office is in a modern police station, and his officers use 1970s-modern techniques. There wasn't enough of Mr. Kill in the book, in my opinion. He was such a fascinating character that I'm hoping Limón has more in store for him.

Sueño and Bascom determine that an American G.I. is raping Korean women on trains. They are not interested in covering up on behalf of the U.S. government, which immediately puts them at a disadvantage in terms of cooperation. Luckily they're bull-headed and heavy-fisted. They are not above bending the law themselves to suit their purpose. And their purpose is to catch the rapist.

On the other hand, while not immediately sanctioning this more important case, the military puts Sueño and Bascom in charge of escorting women country and western singers who are on a USO tour. Someone has been stealing pieces of clothing and equipment. A boot here, a bra there. 

The C.I.D. detectives must balance working on these cases, and find time to sleep somewhere in their busy days and nights.

What Limón does really well is return us to a time and country that we never knew  while it was happening. G.I.s have been stationed in South Korea since the Korean War in the 1950s. The complications resulting from a clash of cultures, a not-so-hidden American feeling of superiority, and the tense military situation between North and South Koreas provide the unique background of Limón's books.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Slash and Burn, by Colin Cotterill (hardcover, $25)(due 12/6/11)

Colin Cotterill's books starring Dr. Siri Paiboun have been among our most recommended at the store. Dr. Siri is a coroner in 1970s Communist Laos. Actually, Dr. Siri is Laos' ONLY coroner. He gets into plenty of political and criminal hot water because of his irreverent attitude and acute observations, some of which are not of this world. It sometimes helps and sometimes hurts that he can see ghosts. One particular soul who haunts Siri is an ancient Hmong shaman. The books have humor and warmth, they speak about a time and locale that are beyond the personal knowledge of most of Cotterill's readers, and they also incorporate serious political and cultural issues that affected Southeast Asia at the time.

So it was with great sadness that I read the announcement that this would be the last Dr. Siri book.

Slash and Burn is not as brilliant as Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, its immediate predecessor, but it constitutes a fond enough farewell to Siri.

A MIA U.S. helicopter pilot who worked for Air America (now widely accepted as a CiA/drug-running outfit) is the subject of a search by a joint U.S./Lao group. Ten years after his helicopter crashed, there is evidence that he might still be alive. Dr. Siri is roped into being a member of the team. He, in turn, ropes his wife, morgue colleagues, and best friend into accompanying him. The flamboyant, psychic, and cross-dressing Auntie Bpoo sneaks aboard. She claims she's there to prevent Siri's death, which she has foreseen on her psychic channel.

After a helicopter trip into the remote area where the investigation will begin, after truck rides in which no rut or pothole is left unfelt, after figuring out how the U.S. and Laotian sides will communicate, and especially after a murder occurs, Siri and his gang realize this will be a real busman's holiday.

Goodbye to the intuitive and wise Dr. Siri. Goodbye to his gun-toting, ex-rebel, noodle-making wife Daeng. Goodbye to competent Nurse Dtui and her macho police officer husband Phosy. Goodbye to sweet, mentally challenged morgue attendent Geung. Goodbye to sarcastic former politico Civilai. Goodbye to Ugly, the dog Siri discovers and adopts in this book; we hardly knew ye. Goodbye, even, to weasley Judge Haeng, Siri's incompetent nemesis. But it's not goodbye to Colin Cotterill.

Recently released Killed at the Whim of a Hat was Cotterill's first non-Siri book. It, too, is a winner and has the same lovely blend of humor and seriousness. Nevertheless, we can all have a group hug and together shuffle over to the Kleenex box.*

* A pop culture reference to the last scene in the last episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," still one of the funniest sad scenes ever.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Murder in the 11th House, by Mitchell Scott Lewis ($14.95)

There are many interesting things about this book, including an unusual astrologer/detective and his crusading lawyer daughter. However, there's also a disconcerting mixture of mostly polite talk with a lot of incongruous heavy-duty swearing. David Lowell, the astrologer, is a beer connoisseur à la Nero Wolfe, prickly personality, gentleman, and aikido black belt. His daughter's client is quick-tempered Joanna "Johnny" Colbert, a foul-mouthed bartender accused of murdering a judge. 

Reasons to keep reading: Johnny has a gambling problem, so there's an interesting and sobering aside on the mechanics of gambling addiction. I quite enjoyed the fact that Lowell is wealthy, and he made his money in the stock market by using astrology. There are spots of humor, especially with Lowell's secretary, and they were good touches.

Things that make you close your eyes: Johnny develops a crush on the much older and more sophisticated Lowell, and there's an awkward moment or two as his daughter, Melinda, seems to sanction it. Although the book is written in the third person, the only character who is fleshed out is Lowell. It's classic amateur sleuthing meets political thriller meets My Fair Lady, and the mishmash is dizzying.

There's a lot of potential for turning this into an interesting series. Had Johnny's swearing not been so graphically portrayed, the story would have been smoother and better defined. Or, conversely, maybe everyone else should have been harder-boiled.

The Clairvoyant Countess, by Dorothy Gilman ($6.99) (c1975)

With books toppling over on my nightstand and bookshelves, why did I grab this book? I know I'd read it years ago, but I didn't remember anything about it. Dorothy Gilman and Rex Stout are my "comfort food" authors. Their stories raise my spirits and entertain me. It's a guilty pleasure to which I succumbed.

Dorothy Gilman is better known for her Mrs. Pollifax stories, but she's written quite a few stand-alones for adults and children. Mrs. P is the calm center in her stories, and in The Clairvoyant Countess, it's Madame Karitska, a psychic, who holds the center together.

The book contains a series of vignettes, starring Madame Karitska and her reluctant believer, Lt. Pruden of the Trafton, New Jersey, police. She can tell the future, see the dead, find missing objects and people, and always lands on her feet.

This work is a little dated, referring to hippies and modest gang activity in an urban setting. There's an innocence attached to how Lt. Pruden begins to rely on the psychic and in how Madame Karitska's flamboyant background is portrayed.

In the end, it's just good fun, with interesting characters in simpler times.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Interview of Gary McKinney at Murder by the Book - 11/19/11

Washington author Gary McKinney stopped by one rainy afternoon to talk about his new book, Darkness Bids the Dead Goodbye (Kearney Street Books, $14.95).

Before he uttered a word about his book, Gary strapped on a guitar and sang a Grateful Dead song.* This was a "grate" introduction to his series hero who is a Deadhead. Gavin Pruitt is also the sheriff of a small town, a soon-to-be grandfather, and a soon-to-be father. What in Gary's background could have produced such a meld of stories?

Gary has a Masters in Creative Writing and played music professionally for several years. That's the short answer.

The long answer involves much of Gary's background story. How is Pruitt like him? Gary, too, grew up in an area much like what Sheriff Pruitt patrols. Pruitt's Grateful Dead and sensory deprivation tank interests are Gary's as well, but Pruitt is more intense and has a temper. Gary "wouldn't personally be good at" what Pruitt does. And Pruitt is starting over with his life (e.g., his child-in-waiting), and Gary contentedly isn't.

Was Gary one of the bad boys in town while growing up? No, more of a "geek-wuss," he says, laughing. In fact, he found it difficult to write the part of the killer. It "creeped me out," he says. About his town while he was growing up, Gary says, "It wasn't art and literature; it was beer and fights." 

Gary's gentleness has infused Sheriff Pruitt with an optimism that is at odds with his job dealing with the evil that people can do to themselves and others. Pruitt "expects the worst but hopes for the best," Gary says.

Gary's evident sense of humor inserts itself into his books. He "wants the reader to get a few chuckles." It is a balance of humor and seriousness that he hopes will engage his audience. He says, "There should be a little bit of everything!"

That's why he may have brought back Angela, whom he had "fallen in love with as a character." Her outrageous behavior in Slipknot, the first book in his series, was too good to leave out of the second. Moving her next door to the sheriff lightened the more serious main story of a brutal murder.

How did Gary make his female characters believable? The rest of the members of his writer's group is all women. They have kept him on a realistic course. "He's a feminist-humanist," shouted a friend who had joined the get together. Good credentials.

The world of Sheriff Pruitt seems so far away from the life of Gary McKinney. How does he manage the technical details of his story? He has his stories vetted by a member of the Bellingham PD and by his friend, fellow author Robert Lopresti.

Gary works to keep his books real. He says that he has learned "what not to put in." Because the sheriff's town and the sheriff's character are so clear to him, it's "almost impossible" not to have the story be visual. (That will help if Hollywood ever comes knocking!) 

There are some funny things from Gary and his wife's lives that he can still draw from. If you spot a muscular red Mustang car in one of his books, it's because his wife's parents owned one. Both Gary and Karen gave credible impressions of teenage girls flirting with the machine, only to be eventually surprised (and disappointed) to see Karen's mother at the wheel!

Next up for Gary is some research into hunting, because that's what Sheriff Pruitt is going to have to know for his next adventure. Gary is working to keep Pruitt from becoming jaded. No chance of that.

*Gary played three songs, each of which told a story. Ergo, Gary is a storyteller no matter what his venue.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley ($15)

Although Alan Bradley has just released #4 in the series, here I am just finishing #2. On the one hand, I am pleased to have two more to look forward to; and on the other hand, I'm anxious to get caught up. Especially since the two remaining have such cool names: A Red Herring Without Mustard and I Am Half-Sick of Shadows.

Speaking of cool names, the 11-year-old heroine is named Flavia de Luce. Her family is blue-blooded, her home is a mansion in rural England, and she is for all intents and purposes alone in the world. Yes, she has a father, but he's distant, shell-shocked, on the verge of losing his holdings. Yes, Flavia has two older sisters, but they take every opportunity to let her know that she's a pest, not wanted, and being shipped off to a Home at the earliest opportunity. Flavia's hobby is creating poisons in her home laboratory.

It is 1950, which the author lets the reader figure out from a couple of hints in the first few pages. (Sorry if I've spoiled your fun.) Flavia meets a famous puppeteer and his assistant when their van breaks down in her small village of Bishop's Lacey. When Rupert Porson, the puppeteer, dies, Flavia succeeds in figuring out, à la Sherlock Holmes, that it was murder. Flavia tracks down Rupert's connection to the little village, which then opens up the field as far as murder suspects go.

Flavia is charming, eccentric, and knowledgeable beyond her years. Yet she is still an 11-year-old child, and her heart yearns for her dead mother, kindness from others, and a grace that is missing from her life.

Although it's a grown-up murder with grown-up reasons and repercussions, the narrator is refreshingly young. She deals with the difficulties in her life as best she can.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An interview of Dana Haynes - 11/17/11

Portland author Dana Haynes stopped by Murder by the Book to discuss himself and his new book, Breaking Point, the follow-up to the successful Crashers.

The downside of becoming better known and in demand by the media is that one's name isn't always spelled right. Dana Haynes has morphed into "Dana Hayes" in Connecticut and the dreaded "Donna Hines" in Italy. It turns out he is all for getting his name out there, no matter what the form.

Speaking of the Italian language release of his book, when Haynes first received a copy, he didn't realize what it was and thought he had suffered a stroke because he couldn't read the words. He has since become relaxed enough to enjoy the Italian trailer for his book, despite being a little disconcerted by the Italian villain's maniacal laugh sounding strangely like Kermit the Frog's.

It's easy to be entertained by Haynes' easy-going demeanor and self-deprecating humor. In fact, he jumped up and unabashedly re-created the "happy dance" he did when he heard his publisher wanted two further books about Daria Gibron, his Lisbeth Salander-like character in his series. But humor is not what his books are about.

Both Crashers and Breaking Point are stories about the laborious and detailed forensic work done by National Transportation Safety Board crash teams – "CSI" for airplanes. Haynes' background as a journalist gave him the discipline to do the required research to factually represent what goes on at an airplane crash site investigation. He takes great pains to point out, however, that real crash investigations go on for months, even years, whereas his stories are resolved within days.

Humor does manage to sneak in sometimes as a way to segue between the complicated technical scenes, the crazy killer scenes, and the human interplay. Tommy Tomzak especially is a good old Texas boy with a wry sense of the absurd.

Haynes acknowledges that creating the huge number of protagonists and antagonists in his books was a "dumb way to write." He says, "No one would have done it intentionally," but that's what these over-the-top disaster books needed. There are many people with their own little area of expertise who comprise a real-life crash team, and Haynes' fictional team mirrors that. The characters' names and curricula vitae written on butcher block paper taped to kitchen cabinets helps keep things straight, especially when viewed with a morning cup of coffee.

One of his more fascinating characters is Kiki Duvall. She has an acute sense of hearing and an uncanny intuition when things don't sound right. For instance, she notices nuances in accents and speech patterns that escape the rest of us, and can tell where someone is from, à la Henry Higgins. Haynes refers to Jonathan Harr's "The Crash Detectives," a 1996 The New Yorker article, the inspiration for Haynes' books. In the article, Harr mentions an investigator who could determine amazing details of a crash by listening to ticking sounds on a recording. Duvall is modeled after that investigator.

In an interesting aside, Haynes says that he has read of examiners being able to determine what was showing on the flight deck monitors at the time of the crash by what the break pattern is on the light bulbs. Hot bulbs break differently than cold bulbs. That's an example of the material yet to be mined for his future books. Not that Haynes has trouble writing. His years as a journalist taught him how to write copiously under pressure. As any reporter knows, there's "no writer's block, just unemployment."

Of course, Haynes vets his books before they're published, but there is inevitable scrutiny by people who know about crashes – and some who think they know about crashes. The kind of plane that crashes in Breaking Point is a figment of Haynes' imagination. Nevertheless, one reader insisted that Haynes did not depict the plane accurately. "But I invented the damn thing," he says, shaking his head. He acknowledges that he does use literary license in some cases – not the least of which is the aforementioned foreshortening of the investigative timeframe.

Haynes was published by Bantam when he was 21-year-old, along with literary contemporaries Sue Grafton and Robert Crais. Unlike Grafton and Crais, he was dropped after a run of three books. A lengthy dryspell followed, although Haynes wrote the entire time. He got his hopes up when a publisher showed interest in an older rendition of Crashers, that book about terrorists in New York and a plane crash. His timing was awful, however, as this was shortly before 9/11. Obscurity followed again. After knowing the ups and downs of being an author, Haynes is enjoying each minute now. He works at tweeting, blogging, and whatever else his publisher wants. "If they wanted me to do sock puppets, I'd do it," he says.

Breaking Point, by Dana Haynes (hardcover, $24.99)

Dana Haynes' first book, Crashers -- the nickname used for the National Transportation Safety Board's team of investigators of airplane crashes -- brought a quirky but brilliant group of individuals together for an investigation in Portland. We met pathologist Tommy Tomzak, sharp-eared Kiki Duvall, and pilot Isaiah Grey, the core of that crash team. This time around, they are passengers in the plane that crashes in a forest in Montana. Turnabout is not fair play.

Haynes informs us that it is not unusual for real-life crash teams to have different configurations each time. Members are drawn from experts all over the country, depending on who is closest and available, and Haynes' fictional team is no exception. New faces with new talents pop up to help. However, Peter Kim, the pain-in-the-heinie from Crashers, is the Investigator in Charge this time. Gulp.

Further hindering the dream team is the fact that tiny-but-tough Susan Tanaka is on a rare vacation, so she isn't in charge of enabling the investigation either on-site or in D.C. By-the-book Peter as the IIC is missing the elusive creative factor needed to solve the mystery of the crash. It's a good thing the NTSB survivors -- ostracized by Kim -- form an unauthorized shadow team.

FBI agent Ray Calabrese and mysterious ex-Israeli agent Daria Gibron are also back and join our heroes. 

A silver-haired mercenary, nicknamed Calendar, caused the crash. One can only think that his benign-sounding name represents the clock ticking and time running out. Will the forest fire started by the plane crash destroy all the evidence? Why was Calendar hired to destroy the plane? Will the primary go-team stumble on the truth? Will the shadow go-team find Calendar before he kills them? Are Calendar's days numbered?

The combination of main team, shadow team, double-crossers, and double-double-crossers puts a lot of players up front, but Haynes does an outstanding job sorting them out.

This is a page-turner that will put a blister on your finger.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Buyer's Remorse, by Lori L. Lake (paperback, $19.95)

Lori Lake is a seasoned writer and teacher, and her ability to create an interesting story is apparent in Buyer's Remorse. Her writing shows impeccable plotting and research.

Leona "Leo" Reese is a 33-year-old police patrol sergeant who has been sidelined temporarily, at least she hopes it's temporary. She's failed a shooting qualification test and has been reassigned as an investigator to the Department of Human Services, the state's watchdog many institutions, including independent living facilities. When an older woman suffering from Alzheimer's is murdered in such a facility, Leo finds herself back in the police business.

At the same time, other aspects of Leo's life are in a whirl. Her partner Daria is a criminal defense attorney. With Leo's unwanted work reassignment and Daria's long hours preparing for an important trial, there's a lot of stress at home. Add to the mix the blinding headaches that Leo has been getting, the reason, it turns out, that Leo has failed her shooting test. It's almost a blessing that Leo can focus on the murder and less on what has been happening to her personally. "'Welcome to the International House of Zombies,'" Daria says at one point.

Eleanor Sinclair doesn't see the blessing in the situation, however. It is her partner, Callie, who has been murdered. Although Eleanor is capable of living independently outside of a facility, she retired from teaching high school and took a room at the Rivers' Edge Apartments, which "is nowhere near any rivers or edges," to be close to her companion of 40 years. Who would want to kill a retired high school cook with no money to speak of? 

It is easy to be drawn to the characters of Leo and Eleanor as they struggle through both their personal problems and catching Callie's killer. They are both independent women with a large capacity for empathy, no doubt the reason both were good at and satisfied with their jobs.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny ($14.99) (c2010)

Louise Penny gets better and better. Bury Your Dead still is infused with Penny's signature quiet style and subtle movements, but she again has added more depth to her characters and plot. Only one of her three storylines takes place in the quirky village of Three Pines, although there is some intertwining.

At the end of her prior novel, The Brutal Telling, one of the resident eccentric characters of Three Pines has been imprisoned for murder. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, our thoughtful and cast-against-type hero -- he is often described as resembling a professor more than a police chief -- has reconsidered whether the prisoner (pardon my cagey reluctance to name the prisoner in case some of you may not have read the book) in fact is guilty. He sends Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second-in-command, to surreptitiously investigate. Since Three Pines is a small village, there's not much that can occur surreptitiously, but Beauvoir attempts to stick out less like a sort thumb than a numb pinkie as he revisits the residents he not-so-secretly considers irritating and provocative. Once again, he looks over the life, such as it was, of "The Hermit," the murder victim, and what relationships he may have had with the townspeople.

Why isn't Gamache himself reviewing the case? He is in Quebec City visiting his mentor, retired detective Émile Comeau, and recovering from physical and psychological wounds received in a police action gone wrong. (Jean-Guy also was a victim of the same action and he uses his recovery as an excuse to visit Three Pines.) The mysterious case that devastated Gamache is slowly revealed throughout the book. One of his young detectives, Paul Morin, had been kidnapped and his captors were threatening to kill him if Gamache and his remaining team could not locate his whereabouts. This story slips in and out of the other narratives without warning. One minute you are reading about the Three Pines investigation, then suddenly you realize you are listening to the inner ruminations of Beauvoir about that case.

The third story is about the death of Augustin Renaud in Quebec City. Although Gamache is on leave and Comeau is retired, they both become involved in helping to solve his murder. Renaud was a true eccentric, a Quixote trying to find the burial site of Quebec's founder and leading light, Samuel de Champlain. (It is a true story that Champlain's final resting place is unknown.) In Penny's fictional universe, Renaud, a Francophone (French-speaking Quebec resident), is found dead in the sub-basement of the Historical and Literary Society's Library, the bastion of the Anglophones (English-speaking) in the tight inner world of Quebec City. This allows Penny to give us an interesting aside on separatist issues. It competes satisfyingly with Penny's interesting asides on Quebec's history and community activities. Mystery and travelogue in one!

We meet many new characters who are associated with the Lit and His, as it is known. It is run by the English -- so-called because they speak English, even though they may also speak French fluently and have families who've resided in Quebec for generations. During his leave, Gamache has been using the library to research a historical question that has interested him, so he is virtually on-site when the murder occurs. His familiarity with the Lit and His people gives him a special insight into the difficult relationship they had with Renaud.

The resolutions to all three cases are stunning. Penny eases us into her story and gradually steps up the tension, until she ties up the ends with a bang and whump.

MBTB has awarded a star to Bury Your Dead.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis (hardcover, $24)

Yes, this book is about a boy in a suitcase.

Denmark has entered the race for the next golden book to come out of Scandinavia. There's not a dysfunctional detective in sight in this thriller. Rather, our heroine is a dysfunctional nurse. She wants to save the world -- the reason becomes a little clearer as the book progresses -- and fate gives her the opportunity to include one little boy stuffed in a suitcase.

As is so prevalent these days, the book begins with several storylines which, we hope, will eventually untangle into one story. Sigita, a young mother in Lithuania, awakens in a hospital with a broken arm. She is told that she was massively drunk and fell down the stairs, and her little boy is with her ex-husband. But, wait! Sigita is a sober, responsible person and her son is not with her ex-husband. Back in Copenhagen, Nina Borg, the dysfunctional nurse, is currently working in a Red Cross center with illegal immigrants. She gets a desperate call from an old friend, who eventually asks Nina to retrieve a suitcase from a locker.

So we assume that the boy Nina finds in the suitcase in Copenhagen  is probably the little boy Sigita is missing in Lithuania. But why is he in Denmark? Nina does not call the police for help. It was hard to swallow her reasoning. (The boy is an illegal immigrant and he might be put into "the system" and never heard from again.) Nevertheless, she soldiers on and tries to find out the child's identity herself. Beginning with her friend Karin, the woman who sent her on the quest, seems like the best place to start. It puts the problem at a different level when Nina finds Karin murdered.

Sigita is having her own problem in getting people to believe that her son is really missing. It's her background story that is the most touching and interesting in the book.

In order to enjoy the book and find the ending clever, you must accept that one of the characters is capable of extreme heartlessness. However, if you've accepted that it was okay that Nina didn't call the police, then, hey, you'll have no problem with this. In the end, I did find the book enjoyable and the ending clever. A big part of why I found the book readable was the competent translation. The story was smooth without awkward phrasing. So here's to one of the authors who translated her own story, Lene Kaaberbøl.

1222, by Anne Holt (hardcover, $25) (due 12/11)

I knew I would like this book when our at-first anonymous narrator, confined to a wheelchair and injured in a train accident, is attended by a dwarf physician. Anne Holt writes, "His voice was surprisingly deep. I had expected some kind of helium voice, as if he were an entertainer at a children's party."

This is the eighth Hanne Wilhelmsen story but the first to be translated into English from Norwegian. It really doesn't matter that we haven't read the other seven, a statement I don't make too often because usually, especially this far into a series, our understanding is contingent on some preceding adventure. Holt slowly introduces Hanne, a retired police detective, and this teasing introduction actually serves the story well.

A once-in-a-hundred-years snowstorm derails a train and traps 268 people, including Hanne, in an out-of-the-way hotel, Finse 1222. They are rats in a maze with no foreseeable reward. Although the snow does its best to quickly bury the hotel, it is not quite quick enough to totally bury the body of a murdered "guest" before it is discovered. The victim is a "televangelist," who is well known to many of the other detainees.

Holt's selection of unorthodox characters to populate the hotel is captivating. Each one of the highlighted people encapsulates a mini-mystery.

Kari Thue, "the woman with a voice as sharp as the parting in her thin hair," is an aggressive television personality, one who has some deep-seated racial prejudices, currently aimed like laser beams at two putative Muslims trapped with everyone else. In a display of pack mentality, she draws similarly narrow-minded people to her, and they stridently demand the impossible.

Adrian, a fifteen-year-old boy, is someone Hanne wants to protect, but he falls under the sway of black-clad, Goth-visaged Veronica.

Magnus Treng, the dwarf physician, Berit Tverre, the hotel manager who must rise to the occasion and organize the storm's hostages, and Geir Rugholmen, the man who appears to be a backwoodsman but is actually a lawyer, are the people upon whom Hanne relies.

Hanne is less a movable character than a stationary narrator. Her handicap limits her to the lobby of the hotel. Although she is still familiar with police procedure, she is reluctant to investigate. The police are coming soon; they will solve the crime easily, she thinks. As the storm rages on far longer than expected, we watch death after death occur, with no discernible movement on Hanne's part to figure out why. Holt builds this tension to an excruciating point. Several times I silently willed Hanne to metaphorically leap up and frisk people, search rooms, haul them in one by one to be interrogated. So "Law and Order"-ish of me, so American, so wrong. Even though we see things through Hanne's first-person narrative, we are never privy to her real thoughts, a clever device, as it turns out.

In the end we learn that this reluctance is what now defines Hanne. After she was shot and paralyzed, she entered some sort of purgatorial waiting room:
I thought I had swapped one life for another. After these days at Finse, it struck me that I had actually swapped a vital, ambitious life for an existence in waiting.
Clever Holt serves up a little existential drama along with a murder mystery.

There's a subplot that swirls around occasionally. A mysterious extra car was added onto the train. Rumor has it that it is a royal carriage. Indeed, the occupants of the last car are surreptitiously bundled into the hotel and hidden from sight. There are armed bodyguards, even. 

If you need a reference point, then Lord of the Flies meets And Then There Were None, perhaps. Holt and translator Marlaine Delargy present an interesting and well-written book, one that truly can stand alone, despite being the eighth in a series.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Call Me Princess, by Sara Blaedel (hardcover, $25)

This is the second book in Sara Blaedel's series starring Assistant Detective Louise Rick of the Copenhagen police but the first one to be translated into English.

It's a plainly written book, heavy on police procedures. "Law and Order," Danish style, with swearing. Louise is a pretty smart cookie about everything except her personal life. She is on the trail of a particularly nasty serial rapist. We meet her team of detectives, and they fill the requisite spots: sympathetic, collegial, brutish, alpha dog, confused. Her clueless boyfriend and self-absorbed best friend round out the main characters.

The plot is okay and I like how Blaedel worked the title into the story, but the writing and/or translation is a little stilted. I always want to love the Scandinavians, but sometimes it's hard to feel the love.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Edinburgh Dead, by Brian Ruckley ($14.99)

Caution: Although I don't truly give anything away -- until the section marked "Spoiler" -- if you want to be surprised by Edinburgh Dead, don't read this review until after you've read the book.

One advantage to reading advanced reading copies is that there's no dustjacket summary to give away the plot. There were suspicions of what the book would eventually turn out to emphasize, but until the first full-blown genre-defining scene a third of the way through the book, I thought it would be a tiger of another stripe.

Brian Ruckley does an impressive job creating both suspenseful literary atmosphere and a historical sense of what Edinburgh was like during the early 1800s. He describes the violence of the times as well as transmits a subtle sense of the underlying menace that is the eventual subject of the book.

It isn't until a third way into the book that what has been hinted at finally is voiced, and not until half-way through the book that we get a real scene. To Ruckley's credit, he doesn't make it campy but keeps his voice relatively restrained and historical, not hysterical or histrionic.

Our hero Quire, an Edinburgh police officer, is interesting because he is bendable but not bent. He tries to stay away from his prostitute girlfriend. He tries to play the game at work. He doesn't manage either very successfully.

What Quire does do is get involved with the "resurrectionists," grave robbers who supply dead bodies to the medical schools and anatomists. Soon he spots anomalies, people who aren't what they should be, people who aren't where they should be.

If you've read this review so far but haven't actually read the book, here is a second chance to stop. Following this are some real spoilers. Really, read the book (but not the dustjacket). It's good.

So. Zombies. In many ways this book set in 1800s Edinburgh was scarier and more thrilling than a book set in contemporary times with its flamethrowers, ninja sticks, cellphones, nuclear weapons, and stainless steel swords. Shades of Boris Karloff, the zombie gravedigger and zombie dogs were chilling.

Despite several close calls, Quire manages to evade true peril. Even when he confronts the various villains, he has the upper hand and is never captured. One part of me said, "Whew," and another said, why not? Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this "speculative fiction," as Ruckley has branded it. To me, it was less speculative fiction than a supernatural period piece.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One Man, One Murder, by Jakob Arjouni ($14.95)(c1991, re-released 2011)

This is a story with a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, dissolute, wise-ass, world-weary private eye, in the best American tradition à la Raymond Chandler. However, the author, Jakob Arjouni, is German. Kemal Kayankaya, the aforementioned dissolute p.i., is a German citizen of Turkish descent. Otherwise, not so different. There are the requisite dissipated denizens of the underworld: women of ill-repute, pugnacious mobsters, and cement block-shaped henchmen. Tossed in are corruption, betrayal, snappy dialogue, and a missing dame. See, not so different.

How colorful is this? Kemal Kayankaya must find Sri Dao Rakdee for his client, Manuel Weidenbusch. It's a veritable United Nations. Even the asides are multicultural. At one point, some of the characters are watching a tennis match with American John McEnroe playing a "taciturn Swede."

Here's a taste of the tough guy talk:

The joint was packed. Clouds of smoke hung under the ceiling, and the waiters' faces glistened with sweat. I made my way to the bar. Ignoring the instant angry chatter of the woman working the beer tap I opened the door marked Office and saw Schlumpi, the man I didn't know, and Slibulsky.

A plain man wants the woman of his dreams returned to him. She's apparently a Thai hooker, however, and disappears in the process of trying to extend her visa. While investigating at the brothel and engaging in badinage with some odd fellows, Kayankaya runs into an old friend who is working for a member of the mob. Does the mob have anything to do with the woman's disappearance? Or was she merely toying with Kayankaya's client and done a runner with his money? The various stories twist about but manage to be resolved all of a piece at the end.

Arjouni's writing is spritely, sarcastic, and funny. Kayankaya has Attitude to spare and a probable death-wish, a good combination.

I must give the translator, Anselm Hollo, a standing "o" for a wonderful, flowing narrative. (It wasn't originally written in English? Really?)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hell and Gone, by Duane Swierczynski ($14.99) (due 10/31/11)

This is the second in a projected three-book series about Charlie Hardie. I'm hoping there will in fact be a third book (Point and Shoot, projected release date 3/12), because there was a lot of hanging by the fingernails from a cliff at the end of this one.

Fun and Games was the first book. To my loss I have not read this, but Swierczynski encapsulates the first book's action very well, as in: therewasashootoutoverthepeoplehewassupposedtoprotectandanactressgotkilledbutCharliewasinnocent,gotshotandkidnappedoutofthehospital.

Charlie is a tough guy, apparently too tough to put under with an ordinary amount of anesthesia. He unexpectedly wakes up to bizarre scenes: in an ambulance after he's been shot or finding he’s stuck on a life-support system in the trunk of a car. The next thing he knows he has (mostly) recovered somehow and is now handcuffed to a chair. His arch-nemesis, a female assassin, is telling him he is the new "warden" of a facility where they keep "monsters."


You probably have the (correct) impression that this is not a normal book of crime fiction. It's very visual in a ka-bam, pow-y sort of way, but there are also a lot of nods to old-time pulp fiction. Swierczynski hits his readers between their eyes with his fast movements. For example, the book starts this way:

During the past fifteen minutes Charlie Hardie had been nearly drowned, shot in his left arm, shot in the side of his head, and almost shot in the face at point-blank range.

Now he was sprawled out on a damp suburban lawn handcuffed to a crazy secret-assassin lady who liked to sunbathe topless. He figured things could only go up from here.
The quotes Swierczynski adds before each chapter warrant a book report all by themselves. A lot of them are from incarceration fiction and movies: from "Papillon" to "Cool Hand Luke" to the campy "Shock Corridor." Toss in a sprinkling from cult classics, books and movies also featuring man vs. The Man.

Reference Kafka, Sarte (also quoted), or any other existential dude you want, add kick-ass action, gnarly and grotesque dudes and dudettes who could be good or bad or both or actors, and shake everything up thoroughly until you are verging on a headache, and serve.

My best advice is to stop saying "What?" every few minutes as you read the book. Go with the flow, enjoy the staccato ride, and wait in sweaty and grimy anticipation for Point and Shoot.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Revisionists, by Thomas Mullen (hardcover, $25.99)

This is an odd mixture of sinister world politics, sci-fi, and people grappling with their own personal tragedies. The personal tragedies impinge upon, however unlikely, world politics. The mixture was intriguing. But then Thomas Mullen, author of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, is an intriguing writer.

Also, anyone who can write, "spooged through the clump that had agglutinated around the spout," also wins my vote for the Gotta-Read-More-of-This award.

The time is now. Zed, aka Troy Jones, claims to be from the future, an agent sent back in time to ensure that the "hags," provocateurs from his time, don't tamper with events in the past. "The integrity of history must be preserved," is the mantra of his department. He is here to prevent interference with the forces that produce an apocalyptic world catastrophe. That's right. He's a government agent sent here to PREVENT anyone from stopping the catastrophe.

Leo Hastings is a former CIA-agent who is now working for a private information-gathering enterprise. He accidentally meets an Indonesian woman, Sari, who is working for a South Korean diplomat. His prior assignment was in Jakarta, so he understands Sari's language and culture. He discovers that through her he might learn some high-level nasty stuff about the South Koreans that will reinstate him in the graces of the Big Boys.

Tasha Wilson is a corporate attorney who is beginning to sour on her duties. She's also trying to unravel the truth behind the death of her brother, a soldier stationed in the Middle East. She is caught between governmental forces when she uncovers a moral atrocity committed by one of her firm's clients. She eventually meets the other main characters, and it is the story behind the confluence of their tribulations that is both odd and wonderful.

The main thoughts that this thoughtful book brings out are: Do the ends justify the means? How does one do "The Right Thing"? And, as Tasha wonders, "Where was the gray area between ignorance and obsession?" 

Zed tells us his cover identity is that of a real "contemp," Troy Jones, a man whose life closely approximates Zed's. Both have lost a wife and child. Both have something to hide and discover. Tasha and Leo also understand loss. The three of them stumble across each other's paths and wind up questioning  the underlying "truth" of their assignments and lives. Leo's mysterious client, Tasha's mysterious friend T.J., Zed's ambiguous future agency swirl the moral dilemma into a froth. 

Zed has been winking in and out of so many different times that he says, "Now. I barely know what the word means anymore." However, he remains the ultimate loyal, disciplined machine, killing hags to save the "perfect" time. Even though Leo has been cut loose by the Agency, he feels loyalty to his country. He asks of the people who would question it, "Didn't they realize how much better this was than any other country, any other system, any other way of life?" Tasha's two acts of rebellion are to leak to a newspaper that one of her firm's clients potentially sacrificed soldiers' lives to save some money and to question the military's explanation of her brother's death.

Although a lot of the book sounds like a spy story, with battling agencies and underground insurrectionists, it's ultimately a philosophical and political challenge to the reader. How much governmental bending of the rules in the name of (what may be a false) freedom are we willing to allow? How much is too much until we can't turn away any longer? Are we, the people, in charge of our government and our own destinies in name only? If we are paranoid, could there be a good reason for it?

Most people in Mullen's world are apathetic or ignorant at best. The governments in his world might be amoral, weak, and selfish, but we don't know whether they are or not for quite a while as we wait for his protagonists to sort out their lives and finally expose the answer.

The movie, "The Adjustment Bureau," and Orwell's 1984 are distant cousins of this book. There is a moral to this tale, and there is hope, as well.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Ranger, by Ace Atkins (hardcover, $25.95)

Ace Atkins has been around for a while. He wrote the Nick Travers series, about an ex-football player who knows about the blues. He also recently was picked to continue Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. A big high-five to him for that honor, and it is well-deserved because Atkins can keep an audience entertained.

The Ranger is neither a Travers nor a Spenser book. It feels like the start of a new series. In which case, I'd say Atkins' plate is falling-over-the-edges full.

Quinn Colson has returned to the small southern town where he grew up. His uncle, the sheriff, has died. Quinn is shocked to learn that his uncle's death has been declared a suicide. With prodding by deputy Lillie Virgil, a friend he hasn't seen for years, Quinn is determined to find out if he had been murdered instead.

Quinn has been in the Army since he was 18. He is 29 now, has seen quite a bit of action, is a member of the elite Ranger unit, and has many psychological skeletons buried in Tibbehah County, Mississippi. Although he is on a short leave from being an instructor at an Army base, he vows he will not leave town until he has unraveled what caused his uncle's death.

Former friends and acquaintances come out of the woodwork to either help or hinder his investigation. Old hurts are revisited; old lives mourned as new lives move on. What Quinn finds is that his sleepy valley has been hijacked by some unsavory characters. 

Quinn turned his back on the town years ago, so what right does he have to stir things up now, some people wonder. He makes people move way outside their comfort zones. His ultimate contradiction is that he is a trained killer who thinks of killing only as a last resort. It would have been a way shorter book if he just had taken care of the bad guys when he had the chance. But that's not what Quinn Colson and Ace Atkins are about.

There were times that I grunted in disgust as one of his characters did something really stupid. I had to remind myself that real people do stupid things, and, once again, it would have been a much shorter book had I been allowed to choose my own adventure, as it were. I weathered the attack on the cows, dog, barns, trailers, low-lifes, high-lifes, a pregnant woman, and assorted bozos and yahoos. The end result was that I would like to see another Quinn Colson adventure. (Maybe with fewer than the cast of thousands in this book.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Calling Mr. King, by Ronald De Feo ($14.95)

This book is somewhat of a one-trick pony. It would have made a fabulous short story with a Saki-like ending, but instead it's a 291-page novel. Against the odds, I liked much of it.

When the phone rings for "Peter Chilton" and the voice on the other end asks for "Mr. King," it means the man, who is neither Peter Chilton nor Mr. King, must go to work. He is a hitman and an excellent one to boot.

One day, Peter becomes distracted while waiting for his mark to arrive. He begins to notice buildings -- in fact, eventually becoming quite enamored with Georgian architecture in England. Horror of horrors, soon he messes up a hit. His employers place him on hiatus in New York. At first resentful, Peter soon begins to relax and haunts bookstores, picking up weighty works on architecture. He begins to notice people, other than the ones he has been hired to kill. His world begins to tilt and he dreams of retiring from the business. But how to extract himself. And, anyway, can he ever really be a normal guy?

It's not the story that fascinated me but the intensity of Peter's interest in architecture and art. De Feo gives us short lessons in what-is-what and it's fascinating, especially when he describes Gaudi's art when Peter is sent to Barcelona.

Art appreciation disguised as a mystery? Why not?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Daniel Woodrell: An Interview (10/9/11)

(This interview contains spoilers.)

Daniel Woodrell, the author of The Bayou Trilogy, Winter's Bone, and Tomato Red, among others, made a special trip to the store last night to sign books and to let us ask him questions. That was especially grand because he had been up since the wee hours of the morning to fly into Portland and appear at Portland's literary convention, Wordstock.

I didn't have a taping device going because it was an informal meeting, so his remarks are paraphrased for the most part. All his answers were considered, articulate, and courteous. (He hestitated to tell a mildly risqué joke, rephrasing it instead. When cajoled to tell the whole thing, he paused, looked at author Johnny Shaw, one of our guests, seemed to gain accord, and let it fly.)

Thanks to the movie version of Winter's Bone, released in 2010, he has become better known. Of course, he has been writing for 35 years, so commercial success has been a long time coming. He has always had critical success. Five of Woodrell's eight books have made the New York Times' best books of the year list.

I'm going to bypass an introduction to or summary of his works. I've reviewed the remarkable Winter's Bone elsewhere, and the Internet is full of reviews and comments about his works.

Reviewers often use the words bleak and dark to describe his books. What's up with that, he asks. He doesn't consider his works bleak. As a matter of fact, "Uncle," one of the short stories in his new book, The Outlaw Album, is downright hilarious, he says. But only to those who know Ozark folklore and humor, apparently. When he has read the story to audiences not familiar with that, he gets furrowed brows and grim faces. Woodrell was funny and good-humored last night, and it puts the lie to the thought that one is what one writes.

Eschewing genre classification of his works (noir, country noir, gothic, crime fiction, blah, blah), I asked him if he simply wrote about life and tragedy, with a focus on character. He has always said that character is his main consideration, and he reiterated it last night. On occasion, he has tried to write a different kind of book, lighter or more conventional in tone, for example, but in the end, he can't seem to do it. He has to be emotionally connected to his work, or the project bores him and remains unfinished.

What has made him the writer he is today? In his younger days, he read Mickey Spillane and John D. MacDonald. (Very impressive fact: John D. blurbed -- "Sly and powerful" -- Woodrell's first book!) "Chandler was too fancy when I was young," he said with a smile. He was a "library haunter" and rattled off a few of the books and authors he's liked over the years: Pissing in the Snow, by Vance Randolph; Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter; Charles Williams (Hell Hath No Fury); Swamp Sister, by Robert Edmund Alter.

He attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What did he learn there? It wasn't about learning technique. It was about gaining self-confidence in his ability to write and being around other writers. His choice of occupation has not always gone down well with the members of his family. His grandfather said it was too bad Daniel didn't have a "real" job. Nevertheless, Woodrell is happy doing exactly what he wants to do.

What does he do better now than he did earlier? He used to throw everything into his books, he said, getting it all out on the page. Now he edits better, he's more focused, and he is better able to keep his ego out of the picture.

Some of his books are heavy in patois. Does it matter that readers may not understand what he's saying? "I can't worry about that," he said. The story must be true to what the characters say and do. He loves folk words like "coggly" and "brassle," and will use them without explanation or a glossary. (If you're curious, coggly means uneven and brassle is the sound branches make rubbing against each other.) He surrounds his dialogue with poetic narrative that gives a "visual" rendering of the scene. Other writers, like David Milch ("Deadwood") and George Pelecanos, didn't hesitate to do something similar.

Woodrell talked briefly about the choices he made at an early age. Although he had the opportunity to get into trouble as a teenager and several less-than-legal scenarios may have "crossed my mind," he chose to go with book "pages instead of rap sheets." He carried the essence of his young experience into shaping his characters, giving them a "talk back quality" when up against authority figures. "Rude democracy," he has termed it.

Especially in Winter's Bone, most of his female characters are very strong. The story revolves around 16-year-old Ree Dolly and her distant relatives, Thump Milton's wife and her sisters. How has he managed to write female characters so well? He laughed and said he ran things past his wife, who "parses" his work for inauthentic portrayals. Besides, he added, his mother was a strong woman, his grandmother was a strong woman, and his other grandmother "was a REALLY strong woman." Ree, he said, could have been a 16-year-old boy just as easily.

The ending of Winter's Bone was almost even more tragic. True tragedy would have dictated that the family feud be continued by Ree and her brothers. He debated with himself but finally deleted the line, "We're with Teardrop now," as uttered by Ree.

Although Woodrell has received critical acclaim for his eight books, until Winter's Bone was made into a movie, he was a cult author with a small audience. Now at least he's a better known cult author. Although it has been a struggle to make ends meet at times, he has held true to his course. It is well-known that Woodrell lives in the Ozarks, in the area where he spent some of his childhood. After living in other places as an adult, he consciously chose to return home to the people and culture he loved, but it helped that houses were cheaper there. "I have a Ford Taurus, and I don't care who knows it," he declared.

His final thought: "If I weren't so lazy, I would have fourteen books, not eight."