Christmas Shiny Linkiness …

Today, I’d like to direct you over to my reviews in the Shiny New Books Christmas Inbetweeny.  By the way, have you tried our Shiny Advent Quiz yet? Ideal as a post-prandial competition… But back to my reviews as these books are all too good to leave off mentioning here too:

The Islanders by Pascal Garnier

islanders Translated for Gallic Books by Emily Boyce, with whom I’ve been having some lovely email conversations.

I’m a recent convert to Garnier (see here), and if his novel The A26 was ‘the Road to Hell’, the latest to be published – The Islanders is certainly about the Christmas from Hell!

A man returns home to Versailles just before Christmas when his mother dies in the coldest December for years and re-encounters an old flame… cue memories and murderously dark noir events tinged with humour.  Absolutely brilliant!

Read my review here, and Emily wrote a piece about translating it for Shiny here.

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The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli

head of the saintYA books in translation are a rarity – so I lapped up the chance to read this one by Brazilian author Acioli, developed at a writers’ workshop hosted by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It’s a lovely quest story about a young boy who sets out to find his grandmother when his own mother dies and he ends up sleeping inside the giant saint’s head that never got raised onto the statue. A magical and lovely tale.

Read my review here.

 

 

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Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmI always find accounts of lives worked in medicine absolutely fascinating, especially those of surgeons, who live on the cutting edge (sorry!) of medical science.

Henry Marsh is one of the UK’s foremost brain surgeons and his account of a life in neurosurgery is candid, honest, reassuring and totally engrossing and fascinating. Successes and failures are all discussed with compassion and wit where required.

Now out in paperback and a must-read for all those fascinated by doctors and medicine.

Read my review here.

 

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Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry book cover Perry’s book, which is essentially a transcript of his Reith Lectures for the BBC last year, seeks to demystify the modern art world in his trademark flippant yet serious at the same time style.

It’s fully illustrated with his cartoons too, which accompanied the talk, but which we couldn’t previously see on the radio where the lectures were broadcast.

Full of anecdotes, advice and jokes, it’s great fun.

Read my review here.

 

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Shiny New Books will be back in late January with a new batch of reviews and features for you, but there is still much to explore in Issue 3 of Shiny, which includes the Christmas update. Also why not explore the archives from Issue 1 and Issue 2 you can explore for inspiration, especially as some of those books are now available in more affordable paperbacks.

 

 

It may be arthouse, but violence is violence…

I wanted to write a post about my reactions to a film I saw on TV the other night. It’s not one I would have chosen to see in the cinema, or buy the DVD of – it was just ‘on’…

Drive (2011) starring Ryan Gosling, dir Nicholas Winding Refn

DriveThe other night on BBC3 there was a big ‘for one night only’ showing of the 2011 film Drive with a new soundtrack curated by Radio 1’s Zane Lowe – ‘Drive Rescored’. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d heard that it was a good film, although the info on the screen did say it was very violent and with lots of bad language – it didn’t even start until 10pm. I started watching…

A getaway driver outlines his terms – you have five minutes he tells the robbers. He collects his car – a silver Impala – the most common car out there in LA. The heist goes to plan and they get away safely. Cut to the driver being a stunt double on a movie set – he’s something special as a driver …

So at this stage I was hooked. Even the Radio 1 supplied soundtrack was more chilled than I’d expected.

The driver (Ryan Gosling) who is never named, meets his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio.  They strike up a friendship, which looks sure to lead to something else, if only her husband wasn’t due out of prison.  When Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) gets out, he is beaten up for money he owes. The driver agrees to be getaway driver for him to rob a pawnshop to get the cash – but it all goes wrong and Gabriel gets shot …

Up until this point, we’d had the initial heist and getaway, the character building scenes and one guy had beaten up and later shot.  It was all done in an arthouse style, moody, noirish – but after this getaway things really took a violent turn for the worse, as the driver and Gabriel’s accomplice Blanche are followed.

It was obvious that Blanche was going to get killed, and I’m never going to be able to watch the last series of Mad Men to come in the same way – Christina Hendricks (Joan in Mad Men, Blanche in Drive) (highlight to see) gets her head pulped with shotgun pellets l‘Oh ****’ I said to myself.  It went on to out-Soprano The Sopranos, being one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen.

Yet I kept on watching it, admittedly gasping and wincing with every shot and blow from then on. If it had been a straight-forward schlock-action thriller I think I’d have been able to switch the telly off – it was now way past my bedtime.  Because I’d been enjoying the arthouse 1980s style of the film, which references Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction etc. and the aforementioned Sopranos I kept watching.  In spite of all the violence I enjoyed the intelligent storytelling.

I guess the point of this is, that I’m shocked that I can say that it and others of the same ilk are such good movies or series – and in these darker months, there are lots more to come on the TV too. Those who enjoy crime novels in particular have to put up with some awful violence and depravity too – imaginative deaths and tortures become de rigeur. I can dissociate myself from these awful fictions, but they do make one long for something more gentle and amusing as an antidote – I shall be catching up with The Detectorists tonight.

Have you seen Drive?
How do you react to violence on the screen and/or page?

“This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway … This is the road to hell”

The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the-a26 Quite a few bloggers (notably Stu and recently Guy) have already discovered and loved the novels of Pascal Garnier, the French author of some decidedly bleak, black comedies of the purest noir! Having acquired a couple of them, I picked his short novel The A26 to begin my own exploration.

Set in the 1990s, this is the story of an ageing pair – brother and sister – Bernard and Yolande. Bernard works for SNCF, the French railways, and has terminal cancer. He has now finished work:

As for his boss and his colleagues, he knew he wouldn’t be seeing them again. It was no sadder than casting off an old pair of slippers. In taking leave, he had married death – that was why life had so often made him suffer. Now he would say ‘yes’ to everything, good and bad, sunshine and grey skies alike; this November afternoon it was the latter.

It’s that decision to say ‘yes’ to everything that is driving Bernard now – and for his remaining days, in doing that he will get his own back on the cards that life had dealt him. Bernard never married, he lost his love to another long ago when he had to look after Yolande.

Yolande never leaves the house. They live in gloom, for in the entire house there is only one opening on the outside world – ‘a hole made specially’ in the shutter. Yolande has never been the same since she was dragged from the house in 1945 to have her head shaved, accused of a liaison with a German. She’s a hoarder, never throwing anything away, obsessively cooking or watching the world through her pinhole…

Yolande could have been anywhere from twenty to seventy. She had the blurry texture and outlines of an old photograph. As if she were covered in a fine dust. Inside this wreck of an old woman there was a young girl.

The whole area has been blighted by the building of a new motorway, the A26, driving a swathe of mud and concrete through the land; life isn’t the same and when Bernard’s thoughts turn murderous, it provides the ideal place to dispose of things… (one is reminded of the Vogon Constructor Fleet’s mission to drive an intergalactic highway through Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

What Bernard does may be very nasty, but Garnier elicits some pathos in us for him, in the same way that John Wayne as the terminally ill gunslinger in the film The Shootist seeks to regain his dignity in death.

The A26 is just 100 pages long and we learn all we need to from Bernard and Yolande, of their lives and loves all lost. There’s no wastage in this slim volume. It’s a very black story indeed but with touches of comedy that always surprise you and a plot that keeps you guessing until the end. Translator Melanie Florence has done a splendid job to maintain the French feel.

The A26 connects Calais and Troyes to the southwest of Paris.  It is known as L’Autoroute des Anglais and I’m glad Garnier’s books have made it over the channel to us thanks to Gallic Books –  I’ve yet to read a volume from them that hasn’t delivered.  Deliciously dark, funny and complex, I’m going to have to read a lot more by Pascal Garnier. (9/10)

P.S. Title quote from ‘The Road to Hell’ by Chris Rea.

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The A26by Pascal Garnier, trans Melanie Florence. Gallic Books 2013. Paperback, 100 pages.

Lighten up Anita

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton

I am profoundly aware that I often read books in the wrong order. I’m not referring to books in a series here though – I always prefer to start from the beginning with them; instead I’m talking about influence.

This means for instance that it was forty years before I came to We by Yevgeny Zamyatkin (my review)- the 1924 Russian dystopia that so profoundly influenced Orwell’s 1984. I was really glad to have read both, and actually would probably have found 1984 derivative if read in the publication order. In this case, reading the influenced before the influencer allowed me to revel in both future visions.

Then for my first Season of the Living Dead on this blog back in 2009, I managed to read Twilight before LK Smith’s The Vampire Diaries (my review). The Vampire Diaries arguably paved the way for subsequent teen high-school paranormal romances, but didn’t grab my imagination the way Twilight did.

Affliction

Which brings me to Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton. I was prompted to read this book when a copy of Affliction was sent by the publisher to me.  Affliction turns out to be the 22nd (!) in a series of vampire novels featuring Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter.  Good for me then, that I just happened to have the first, the aforesaid Guilty Pleasures in my bookcase, as I couldn’t possibly dive in at volume 22.

But first, a caveat: I have read and loved some of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels set in the deep south (my review of the first here). Apart from all the vampire blood and gore, there is a rich vein of humour in these books, and Sookie is a kooky and lovable heroine. It didn’t take much research to find that the first Sookie book didn’t appear until eight years after Guilty Pleasures, which also predates Buffy. With Anita being a sort of paranormal Private Investigator, I thought there may be similarities too with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (my review of the first two here), but again The Dresden Files didn’t start until 2000.

Obviously I’ve read these books in the wrong order again, as Hamilton can probably claim to be the first in this particular sub-genre of paranormal urban fantasy writers. So how does Anita Blake hold up to those that follow …

guilty pleasures

I don’t date Vampires. I kill them.
My name is Anita Blake. Vampires call me the Executioner. What I call them isn’t repeatable.
Every since the Supreme Court granted the undead equal rights, most people think vampires are just ordinary folks with fangs. I know better. I’ve seen their victims. I carry the scars.
But now a serial killer is murdering vampires – and the most powerful bloodsucker in town wants me to find the killer.

Anita Blake lives and works in St Louis, Missouri.  Her primary job at the agency run by Bert is as an Animator – she can raise zombies, or put them to rest again. She’s also an expert in vampires. We don’t know the detail, but we know she bears a grudge against the bloodsuckers.  Her expertise in these areas though is very useful to the police; she’s on retainer and is often called in to murders where undead have been involved.

When vampires start being murdered, against her better judgement, she reluctantly agrees to investigate for the vampire grandmaster.  She’s better placed than most investigators to to this, for she is partially immune to the effects of a vampire’s gaze. She still knows better than to look them directly in the eyes.

It’s not clear whether it’s a vampire killing vampires, or one of the human anti-vampire activist groups.  Anita’s first port of call is to the club, Guilty Pleasures, run by vampire Jean-Claude – who has a definite attraction to her.  I suspect that Jean-Claude, who does remain alive at the end of the book, will play a big role in subsequent novels.

Jean-Claude, although masterful, is not the grandmaster of the vampires. That is Nikolaos – a thousand year old child vampire, whose powers are strong indeed. This evil girl is determined to let Anita know that the only reason she is alive is to solve the crimes.

Anita’s investigations also take her to a ‘freak’ party, where she masquerades as a new human vampire junkie – addicted to having some blood sucked from her.  Her escort for the night is Philip, a junkie trying to kick the habit.  He is strong and noble in protecting her, but things go wrong, the party is attacked and they escape. From there, it all gets terribly complicated between all the factions involved, the vampires, the hate-groups, the human servants, and the internal rivalries between the vamps.  Anyone who associates with Anita is at risk too.

We know that Anita will survive to tell at least another 21 tales, but how many others are going to die along with the way with her?  Frankly, it was all a bit grim, and there’s no let-up, no pause for breath. All the action takes place over just a few days and you wonder how Anita has the stamina for it.

Anita is a typical heroine. Super-tough and feisty, also petite – she has to punch above her weight being small. We get few details about what she does off-duty – this is a gal that lives for her job.  She narrates the story in a noir-ish style which, it feels, allows every noir cliché ever coined to be adapted to the world of vampires.

What Anita lacks though, and hence the book, is a sense of humour.  That’s what the other books I mentioned above have, and it allows us to take a breather from the action, and absorb all the complexities of the plot.  With Anita, it’s all bam, bam, bam – no pauses for a cup of joe with a friend, no chance to let off steam and allow another side of her personality to come through. Actually, she’s a bit whiny (mostly at herself, it must be admitted), but I didn’t warm to her the way I did Sookie.  It’s just non-stop action, with a few hours sleep to recover from the mounting number of injuries Anita accrues along the way.  The amount of pain this gal can sustain is superhuman – oh – maybe she is one?

Also, I without the device of Harris’s Tru-blood – the synthetic blood that allows vampires to live alongside humans without the risk of bloodlust killing them all, even if vampires were real, they couldn’t be given equal rights to live alongside humans safely.  Given all their superhuman powers, unless the blood thing could be resolved, Anita’s world can’t exist – they have to remain underground.  That’s what makes the later series work.

While this first novel in the series did keep me reading until the end, I didn’t bond enough with Anita to want to read more of this series.  She does have legions of fans though. Do let me know if you think I should give her another chance. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton, Headline paperback, 327 pages.
Affliction (Anita Blake Vampire Hunter 22), pub July 2nd, 2013, Headline hardback.

Hollywood Noir down Mexico Way

Bitter Drink by FG Haghenbeck, translated from the Spanish by Tanya Huntingdon.

bitter drink

Whenever I read some noir, I know I should read lots more, for I love it, but I get distracted onto other things – I think it’s a dead cert that’ll happen this time too.  Meanwhile, although this slim novel is no masterpiece, I did enjoy it for its little dose of Hollywood glamour.

The tale is set around the filming of the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, and starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr with Sue Lyon.  Tennesse Williams’ play tells the story of a defrocked Episcopal priest scraping the bottom of the barrel as a tour guide to a coachload of Baptist women in Mexico.

The Night of the Iguana - movie poster by Howard Terpning

The filming took place in Mismaloya, Mexico and put the town of Puerto Vallarta on the map. It was notorious for two things in particular: firstly, the still-married Burton, fresh off the set of Cleopatra, brought the still-married Liz Taylor with him on location; and secondly, the fact that John Huston had gold plated revolvers made for the acting leads, each with silver bullets engraved with their colleagues’ names.

So much for reality. Haghenbeck takes the already colourful facts, and weaves a story around them centred on a Beatnik detective Sunny Pascal, a Mexican working in Hollywood, who is hired to be in charge of security on set and keeping the cast out of trouble too.  The set, its cast and crew, are awash with booze, and the town is full of tension so when someone ends up with one of those silver bullets in them, it’s not a surprise. Things will only get worse once the Mexican Mafia turn up.

Sunny doesn’t seem to be much of a security guy – he seems to spend most of his time getting beaten up – he successfully deflects the worst attention from the shenanigans of the film’s stars though. How much is luck and how much is judgement isn’t always clear, but he does know how to make things go away.  Nearly everyone seems to like Sunny, and when not getting beaten up, he’s usually to be found propping up the bar on the set knocking back a few cocktails, which brings me to a major feature of this book…

Cocktails!  Each of the 26 short chapters is titled after one, which will make an appearance in the main story later.  Preceding that is the recipe and a potted history of each cocktail’s development, so that’s 26 pages out of 147 in total devoted to cocktails.  This made the story rather slight, and I doubt I’d have read this book if it hadn’t been about the film and its stars – indeed I’d love to see the film now.

The author is a fan of Chandler, and a lot of Sunny’s dialogue echoes that of Philip Marlowe – sometimes cheesy (but with tongue in cheek) – of course I don’t know how much of the cheesiness is in the translation.  It was fun though (6.5/10).

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I received a review copy of this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Bitter Drink by FG Haghenbeck, pub 2012 by Amazon Crossing, 147 pages.
Night of the Iguana [1964] [DVD]

For blacker than black, read super-noir

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Scene: A diner in Central City, Texas; it’s the early 1950s.  A man walks up to the counter to pay his bill…

The proprietor shoved back my money and laid a couple of cigars on top of it. He thanked me again for taking his son in hand.
‘He’s a different boy now, Lou,’ he said, kind of running his words together like foreigners do. ‘Stays in nights; gets along fine in school. And always he talks about you – what a good man is Deputy Lou Ford.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said. ‘Just talk to him. Showed him a little interest. Anyone else could have done as much.’
‘Only you,’ he said. ‘Because you are good, you make others so.’

This is our first glimpse of Deputy Lou Ford, a respected and stalwart member of the community.  A police officer so at ease with himself and his job, that he doesn’t even carry a gun.  He has a beautiful girlfriend Amy who wants to marry him, he has a house. surely he has everything he wants?

But Lou’s outward persona is just a façade. Inside he harbours deep, dark secrets of the murderous kind. Lou is the only one left in his family.  Only he now knows the truth of what happened with his adoptive brother Mike, it killed his Dad.

Then one day, Lou gets the opportunity to avenge his brother, to get back at the man who was responsible for getting Mike pushed off a girder. The sickness that he has successfully hidden all these years bubbles up to the surface, but Lou believes that he can get away with it.  However best laid plans …

It doesn’t take many pages for us to get the measure of Lou, he’s told us his secret by page 15, and from then on in, we know how the story is going to end – but not how.  The suspense is killing!

Reading Lou’s story, I immediately wondered whether he was the prototype for Jeff Lindsay’s ‘Dexter’ (a forensic blood spatter expert who only murders criminals as an avenging force), but whereas Dexter’s sickness is channelled, Lou’s takes over.  There’s certainly no humour in Thompson’s novel either, it’s blacker than black noir through and through.

The entire novel is told by Lou. He tells us his mind, what he’s really thinking –  when outwardly, he’s the patient lawman.  Even when the net is starting to close in on him, he’s sure they can’t pin anything on him, ever deluding himself. Lou tells us, with obvious relish in the detail, about each blow he strikes in his killing spree.

Thompson’s protagonist is a nasty piece of work, the most amoral man I’ve met in a book since the last noir novel I read which was published just a few years before this one – (Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon). But Thompson’s killer is, in a way, worse than Simenon’s because he is an officer of the law!

Whereas James M Cain can lay claim to having created the biggest femme fatale in crime fiction – that is Phyllis Nirdinger in Double Indemnity, published a few years earlier, I think Jim Thompson has come very close to the ultimate male equivalent with Deputy Lou Ford, and has instilled in me a need to read more of his books, which means I have to award it (10/10).

P.S. I’ve now ordered the DVD of the 2010 film – Will report back.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (originally published in 1952, paperback).
The Killer Inside Me [DVD]- directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson.
Further noir reading & viewing:
Double Indemnityby James M Cain
Dirty Snow (New York Review Books Classics)by Georges Simenon
Darkly Dreaming Dexterby Jeff Lindsay
Dexter : Complete Season 1 [DVD]

The case of the nasty young man

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon

For most of us, Simenon is famous, justly, for his creation of Maigret, the pipe-smoking French detective that appeared in over a hundred novels and short stories from the 1930s to early 70s. The Maigret novels are light and the detective is a delight, but Simenon also wrote many other novels that are very different in tone – La neige était sale – Dirty Snow (1948) being one of them.

Dirty Snow was written in the USA after Simenon had left France in 1945 where he was under some suspicion for being a collaborator, having negotiated German film rights during the occupation.  His observations of living in occupied France obviously influenced the writing of this novel which is set in an unspecified occupied country – it could be France, it could be Germany itself…

Dirty Snow is the story of one young man’s fall.  Frank Friedmaier is nineteen. Fatherless, he lives with his mother Lotte who runs a whorehouse in an apartment block,  tolerated by the other residents as she caters mainly to the town’s oppressors which keeps the attention away from them.  Frank is itching to show that he can play with the big boys at Timo’s – the bar they all frequent. He decides it’s time to make his first kill …

And for Frank, who was nineteen, to kill his first man was another loss of viriginity hardly more disturbing than the first. And, like the first, it wasn’t premeditated. It just happened. As though a moment comes when it’s both necessary and natural to make a decision that has long since been made.
No one had pushed him to do it. No one had laughed at him. Besides, only fools let themselves be influenced by their friends.
For weeks, perhaps months, he had kept saying to himself, because he had felt within himself a sort of inferiority. ‘I’ll have to try …’
Not in a fight. That would have been against his nature. To have it count, it seemed to him, it would have to be done in cold blood.

And so by page four we know where we are with Frank.  He chooses and kills his prey, but tellingly, also allows himself to be seen in the locality by Holst, a neighbour.  However, he intuitively senses that Holst won’t tell.  Blooded and with a gun in his pocket, Frank becomes fearless, but it is one callous and totally despicable act that I won’t say any more about, that will make him feared and lead to his downfall.

The second half of the book follows Frank’s few weeks under interrogation. Yes, he was caught – hoorah!  After an initial beating, the interrogation is carried out by an old gentleman who takes his time with Frank to winkle out every single thing he knows about all of the people in his life, playing mind games with him, never telling him what he was arrested for. The sleep-deprived and starving Frank remains strong, determined to make it last as long as possible until the day he’s ready.

Told entirely from Frank’s perspective, this novel is really bleak. He is an amoral piece of scum; friendless, increasingly cold and emotionless.  In the nurture versus nature debate, undoubtedly, his lack of a father figure in his life, and his over-protective mother have both helped to make him what he becomes.

Simenon takes us down all the way with Frank, but allows him one little glimpse of what could have been, before he meets his end.  Maybe writing the book in the sunshine of Tucson, Arizona, Simenon needed to come up for air before ending it.  I amongst others, (see Lizzies Literary Life review here), would have preferred that he stayed down – Frank didn’t deserve it.

The afterword by William T Vollmann was interesting – after positioning Dirty Snow as ultimate noir more akin to Chekov than Chandler, he compares Frank to characters in Middlemarch by George Eliot – in their failure to meet their potential – which was surprising, yet I could sort of see the sense in it.  Personally, I was reminded throughout by Pinkie in Brighton Rock by Graham Greene – another very nasty young man, (and due for a re-read). The book also brought to mind Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada which I read earlier this year and reviewed here in terms of the sense of living under suspicion.

The Maigret books, yet wonderful, are as a mere bagatelle in comparison with this look into the abyss from Simenon. (10/10)

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1948) trans Marc Romano and Louise Varèse, pub NYRB, 257 pages including afterword.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)
Middlemarch (Oxford World’s Classics) by George Eliot
Alone in Berlinby Hans Fallada

Great cover – hope the book lives up to it

I was browsing in my local indie bookshop yesterday afternoon, and this new book, which they’d only just put out on the table leapt out at me.  What a fab cover!

Then I turned it over and read the blurb, and two more words made me buy it without further investigation.  They were ‘Cowboy Noir’. These words are guaranteed to interest me – loving both Westerns and classic styled crime. Comparisons to the Coen brothers also feature.

Set during the Gold Rush of 1851, it’s the story of brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters who are notorious killers and are on their way to California to kill someone.

It’s also a no-brainer – no prizes for guessing what I shall be reading next!

To buy this book for yourself from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

An author I’ll definitely look out for …

Daniel Woodrell is barely known in this country, but has started to increase his profile a little with the release of a highly acclaimed film (it won at Sundance) made of his 2006 novel Winter’s Bone.  He’s actually written eight novels, all of them set in the area he knows best – the Missouri Ozarks – a mountainous region in the middle of America, and coined the term ‘country noir’ to describe them.  The Ozark region is one of extremes – bleak and freezing in winter, and sultry and sweltering in summer and Woodrell’s novels are peopled with memorable characters all struggling to get along in this unforgiving land.  While the ones I’ve read are not traditional noir crime novels, they are bleak, tragic and there is a definite criminal sub-culture to them so they are full of noirish elements.

Winter’s Bone

I read Winter’s Bone back in late 2007, and this is what I wrote in Librarything back then …

When Jessup goes missing after putting up the Dolly family house for his bail bond, his teenage daughter Ree has to find him or be made homeless. What’s more, her Ma is crazy and she’s having to bring up her younger brothers on her own.This is life on the edge and making a living is hard.  Just about everyone is related, but these mountain folks still don’t trust each other, as Ree discovers when she goes looking for her Pa on the other side of the valley.

In a mere 193 pages, you get a icy clear picture of this hard life in the brutal winter of the Ozark mountains. Although there’s little cheer, Ree has a true pioneer spirit and you root for her from page one. (10/10)

I am really looking forward to getting the DVD of the film when it comes out at the end of January.

The Death of Sweet Mister

In contrast to Winter’s Bone, Woodrell’s previous book The Death of Sweet Mister is set during a hot summer. The story is again told by a teenager, this time a fat boy known as Shug who lives with his mother in a shack where Glenda’s job is to mow the cemetery, which means that Shug does it.  Glenda gets by drinking her ‘tea’ (rum and coke), she’s never without a thermos of it, and lives life slightly three sheets to the wind.  This makes her rather uninhibited, she’s a terrible flirt and Shug is beginning to find this awkward.  Meanwhile Glenda’s sometime boyfriend Red, a small time crook, is the nearest to a father he’s ever going to have – but he’s not a good role model using Shug to burgle sick people’s houses for their drugs as if he’s caught he’s still a juvenile.

One day Red has him respraying a car they’d used in a robbery and Shug is in trouble for doing a bad job – Glenda intervenes…

Glenda said, “Red, honey, come here.”
For her to call him honey hurt both of us but she could see he was clouding up over me.  She knew how that went.  I knew to be alert for his left fist to come at my tummy.  I knew to fall down and act destroyed if the fist landed.
“You’d like it if they run me back to the pen, huh, boy? You’d like to make a couple of fuck-ups that got me a nickel bit in the pen, or more’n that, even. Why not life, huh?”
I never answered, for what deeply stung me that day was when Glenda stood up and swished over and stood between us and did her entire girly-girl act of heaving chest and batted eyes and comely dimples that showed as bookends to her smiles.  She leaned against that man and purred.  She smelled his chest of wet red hairs and hummed a “My, oh my” hum of girly-girl invitation.  She stroked his arm with her lovely fingers.
Finally he took his attention from me and gave it to her…

There’s a terrible inevitability about Shug’s coming of age, he’s never going to escape his white trash life, well not unless something drastic happens.  Glenda really doesn’t seem to realise what she’s doing to her little boy with her overt sexuality and it’s just heartbreaking to read.  The worst thing is that Shug is really a good boy, but all these influences will turn him bad in the end.

Again in under 200 pages of spare yet beautifully descriptive prose, the author tells another hard story and leaves you in no doubt about the outcome. There are no winners in this neck of the woods – it’s only about how fast you lose. (9.5/10)
I bought this book.

To buy these from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Winter’s Bone
The Death of Sweet Mister

* * * * *

File under Noir, not Fantasy

The Dresden Files Books 1 and 2 by Jim Butcher

A few weeks ago while talking about crime series to read, my good blog-friend LizF recommended these books to me. As is often the case with me and my TBR mountains, I’d spotted them myself some time ago and had already picked up the first two in the series, (which now runs to over a dozen), but they’d got buried and forgotten.  They sounded just the sort of thing I wanted to read however, so I dug them out and I was not disappointed.  From the outset, I enjoyed  Storm Front,  the first one so much, that I went on to read the second, Fool Moon, straight away. Having met some of the recurring characters, it was perhaps even better than the first.

Harry Dresden is a private investigator with a difference – he’s Chicago’s only practising wizard. Shame only a few people believe that magic works, else he wouldn’t have to scrape a living being a paranormal investigator.

 HARRY DRESDEN — WIZARD

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting  Advice. Reasonable Rates.

No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties or Other Entertainment.

Butcher’s website describes Harry thus: “Take Sam Spade, your Average Joe Underdog Action Star, and toss in some spellcraft, and you get Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Heck of a guy.”  I totally agree – he’s a noir magician gumshoe for the new millennium!

He’s also lucky in that one of the few believers in magic is Lieutenant Karrin Murphy of the Chicago Special Investigations unit.  When there’s an unusual crime in the neighbourhood, she calls him in to help much to the digust of some of the regular police officers.  There’s also Johnnie Marcone, the Tony Soprano of the city; he recognises Harry for what he is and knows he could be useful. And then there’s Bob … If you’re tempted, I’ll leave you to discover him for yourself.

In each of the novels, Harry faces dastardly magical crimes – from a double murder involving black magic in Storm Front to strange paw prints by a mutilated corpse at the wrong time of the month in Fool Moon.  These are hard-boiled detective novels with complex plots that just happen to have a magical element to them. Like Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels, they have a degree of raunch and gore that makes them fairly adult too.  They’re also huge fun, and you’re with Harry for the ride all the way.  In the noir tradition, they’re narrated by reluctant action-hero Harry who has a droll delivery style as you’d expect.

These were right up my street, and I’m hoping for better still to come from subsequent installments.  With the recurring characters and back stories about the world of magic, I would suggest that they’re best read in order.

My ratings:   Storm Front 8/10.   Fool Moon 8.5/10.  (I bought these books.)