Into The Grey by Celine Kiernan

intothegreyI wanted to have a twin when I was little. Even last week I was thinking to myself: ‘You know who would get that joke I just told?  My twin.’ If she got stuck with a needle I’d feel it too. If my heart was breaking and I was choking on the pieces I’d have her with me, hurting just as much and helping me plan revenge on the person who tore my heart into bits. But then I thought: ‘Is it really a good idea having two of me stumbling through the world?’

No.

In Celine Kiernan’s YA novel Into the Grey, it’s 1974 and Patrick’s grandmother has burned the house down. Not on purpose. She’s got dementia but back in 1974 they called it senility or having a fit as in ‘Granny put her bra on the outside of her blouse today.’ The short stories and novel Pat had been working on? Gone. Dom’s drawings and sketches? Gone. Their mom and dad hate each other and now that their house has burned down, they hate each other more. The family couch surfs for a couple of weeks before going to a seaside cottage they rent once a year while on holiday.

Patrick and Dom think they’ll die from boredom, surrounded by a closed fairgrounds and the sea. It’s beyond cruel to have a fairground within walking distance only to find that it’s closed for the season. Nothing to look at but tourist shops, the sea, pubs, the sea. What’s that over there? Oh yeah. The sea. One day the boys are out for a walk when they see an old man being ejected from a bar. He’s singing an English tune in an Irish pub. Not a good idea. He gets thrown out of the pub with a warning: “If you come in here again singing your old army songs and wearing your old army poppy, I will have you disappeared.”

Pat and Dom watch the old drunk reel around. The man’s not only close to black out drunk but he seems almost…haunted. And he is. The old man walks into the sea to drown himself. Pat and Dom go in after him, nearly drowning themselves. They manage to get him to the shore and get help from a woman in a small shop. She tells them the old man’s name is James.

So, finding a majorly depressed old drunk who was a soldier in WWI  is kinda on the weird scale of things. But Pat begins to have vivid dreams that aren’t his own, nightmare images of muddy trenches. Dom begins to have nightmares too, only he becomes a ghost of himself. Something wanted Dom and Dom was wide open for a spirit to slip in. Dom says his name is Francis and that Patrick is named Lorry. One night Patrick wakes up in the bottom bunk and sees a small pale hand gripping the sides of Dom’s upper bunk.  It’s a boy. “Maybe ten years old.  White face.  Dark, dark eyes, underscored with deep lines, surrounded by purple shadows.”  I saw that creepy little kid from The Grudge when I read the description of the small boy.

Soon Dom is lost to Patrick and Patrick thinks Dom’s soul has flown the coop never to be seen or felt again. Francis, a soldier from WWI, has hijacked his body and isn’t going to give it up.

I don’t do spoilers. I won’t ruin a book for anyone.  Unless I hate them. Then I will blast the entire plot on a boom box and hold it over my head at my enemy’s house a la John Cusack in that one movie that I can’t remember the name of but I remember being annoyed by the movie but confused because I really liked John Cusack. What was I saying?  Celine Kiernan has written a seemingly simple young adult novel about the relationship between siblings. It’s not a simple book at all. It reads like a fast paced thriller but it’s about what you would do for your brother or sister, how far would you go to keep them safe and sound. Evidently, battling for your sibling’s soul is pretty high on the list of “Hey, brat. I rescued you from purgatory. Now gimme your fries.”

Bad Good Guys

Based on a scientific analysis conducted by consulting my own opinion, I have determined that protagonists are typically good guys or heroes.

Except when they aren’t.

It’s easy enough to like a likable character (Einstein wrote a paper on this), but less easy to like a jerk. Why would you want to read an entire book about someone unsympathetic or nasty? Creating compelling stories where the reader cares about a psychopath or a twit is a challenging undertaking.

I seem to have run across my fair share of such stories of late, and here are a few unlikable people you might like to meet.

Spellman FilesThe Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz
This book is the first in a series about a family of detectives, the Spellmans. Izzy, the middle daughter, is the protagonist, a self-destructive, defiant, irritable and sarcastic example of humanity. David, her eldest sibling, is annoyingly perfect in every way which simply highlights Izzy’s shortcomings. Their parents, in misguided attempts to reign in Izzy’s destructiveness, resort to techniques (i.e. planting listening devices in her bedroom) which are not found among Dr. Spock’s parenting tips. The only person unaffected by the family’s general craziness is Izzy’s much younger sister Rae. And in this highly dysfunctional family, Izzy is the queen of maladjustment, seemingly lacking in all virtuous qualities.

The narrative ricochets through time, starting in the present with Izzy at age 28 and Rae missing. The author admirably fills in backstory in a non-linear fashion as we learn family history and the events leading up to Rae’s disappearance. Izzy matures along the way but never really becomes a likable character.

Yet I still found the book hard to put down. This family might be crazy, but they’re interesting and the drama around finding Rae, which stretches through most of the book as the narrative jumps around in time, is compelling. Author Lisa Lutz makes me want to read about her unpleasant hero.

fast-one-1952Fast One by Paul Cain
This little-known gem, written in 1932 and currently on-order at EPL, was referred to by Raymond Chandler as “… [representing] some kind of highpoint in the ultra hardboiled manner!”  What Ray meant is that the writing style is extremely choppy and pared down. There is dialogue and action, action and dialogue, but very little description. Although you learn about the characters, it is through (wait for it) dialogue and action only.

Our protagonist, Gerry Kells, is a man who is ostensibly a detective, but who in the past had intimate connections with the slimy underbelly of society. As this story of crime lords vying for control of Los Angeles unfolds, Kells throws his hat in the ring and rapidly shifts from a seemingly good guy to a really bad guy. It’s difficult to say much more without giving the story away, but suffice it to say that Kells is perhaps the least sympathetic protagonist you’ll ever meet. Yet once again I couldn’t put the book down until the end.

You can listen to some of Cain’s other writings in The Black Mask Audio Magazine Volume 1.

Black Mask

Shovel ReadyShovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
A final example is found in Spademan, a former sanitation worker living in a near-future New York City that has been devastated by a nuclear bomb. Most survivors leave the city, but those who stay behind do whatever it takes to stay alive. Spademan becomes a guy-with-a-box-cutter-for-hire. Perhaps it’s harder to define hero and anti-hero in this world where the concepts of right and wrong no longer rigidly apply, but a guy killing people with a box cutter for money is not someone you’d bring home to meet your Meemaw. Moving amongst poor people living in tent cities and rich people plugged into a happier virtual world, Spademan searches for his latest target, a famous televangelist’s daughter. While hunting he falls in love with her and transcends the role of assassin, but never fear, there is still plenty of brutality and violence.

Books are filled with other great anti-heroes such as Dexter and Serge Storms, and what fascinates me is that we want to read about these people. So, “Bravo!” to their authors for creating stories where we readers connect with these undesirable types. If only I could feel so well-disposed towards their real-life counterparts.

Heartwood 4:6 – Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

Pushkin HIllsIn Sergei Dovlatov’s entertaining Pushkin Hills, Boris Alikhanov is a struggling writer who takes a job as a tour guide at Pushkin’s estate. The book begins with his journey there and his interactions with the other guides and cultural functionaries. He gets settled into a squalid room with a raging alcoholic known as Misha for a landlord (whose drunken babblings include some great non sequiturs and neologisms). Boris learns what he has to in order to give tours and he seems to enjoy it, despite having to put up with ignorant tourists. He stays away from offers to go out for a drink, remarking that it’s easy for him to say no to the first one but once he starts he’s like a train without brakes.

Boris has a wife, he’s semi-separated from, who wants to emigrate to America with their daughter, but he doesn’t want to leave Russia, saying it would be a disaster for an author to be removed from speakers of his native tongue. You get the idea that Boris doesn’t write much but he has managed to publish a number of pieces in literary magazines and they have caught the eyes of Soviet censors. The news of his wife’s emigration plan causes Boris to fall off the wagon in a big way, and his spontaneous candor in a phone conversation with her after she has left the country raises the question of whether or not they will ever be getting together as a family again (yet he seems like a guy whose various transgressions are frequently forgiven).

This is a stylish and snappy piece of writing that surprises the reader with unexpected turns and an episodic storyline. Dovlatov is fond of witty dialogue and of aphorisms, such as “You want justice? Relax, that fruit doesn’t grow here.” There’s something both straightforward and enigmatic in his concise sentences. He leaves you wanting more – in a good way – and he tempts you to reread him for the pleasure of his prose, in this case, capably translated by his daughter Katherine. This is a short, comic, satisfying novel that should appeal to most readers.

__________

Masha Gessen, writing in the New York Review of Books, says in Russia Dovlatov “went from being a writer known to very few to a household name and, finally, to the status of a classic. Dovlatov is to Russian vernacular what Casablanca and Mark Twain are to American speech.”

Spot-Lit for November 2014

Spot-Lit

Here are some of November’s fiction releases you may want to have on your radar. Click the titles below and then the Full Display button to read summaries or reviews or to place titles on hold.

General Fiction / Literary Fiction  

Book of STrangeMermaids in ParadiseUsMap of BetrayalLet Me Be Frank with You

The Book of Strange New Things  by Michel Faber
Mermaids in Paradise  by Lydia Millet
Us  by David Nicholls
A Map of Betrayal  by Ha Jin
Let Me Be Frank with You  by Richard Ford

First Novels / Fiction

Bed of NailsPetite MortBad CountryForty DaysPreparation

Bed of Nails  by Antonin Varenne
Petite Mort  by Beatrice Hitchman
Bad Country  by C.B. McKenzie
Forty Days without Shadow  by Olivier Truc
Preparation for the Next Life  by Atticus Lish

Crime Fiction /Suspense

Burning RoomWink of an EyeKiller Next DoorMidnight PlanMurder of Harriet Krohn

The Burning Room  by Michael Connelly
Wink of an Eye  by Lynn Chandler-Willis
The Killer Next Door  by Alex Marwood
The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man  by W. Bruce Cameron
The Murder of Harriet Krohn  by Karin Fossum

SF / Fantasy / Horror

Three-BodyPeripheralDreamer's PoolRevival

The Three-Body Problem  by Cixin Liu
The Peripheral  by William Gibson
Dreamer’s Pool  by Juliet Marillier
Revival  by Stephen King

Romance

Before We FallAll Broke DownBlood MagickKraken King

Before We Fall  by Courtney Cole
All Broke Down  by Cora Carmack
Blood Magick  by Nora Roberts
The Kraken King  by Meljean Brook

 To see all on-order fiction, click here.

You Just Need a Good Book!

Recently Christin Rude from the University of Washington Bookstore came to the Everett Public Library and presented some reading recommendations to the Everett Woman’s Book Club. I have been attacking this list with fervor and have found the books to be not just good, but excellent.

index (19)The first book I picked up was non-fiction. I think we all know what we would learn if we read the book The Shallows: What the internet is Doing to Our Brains. We would find what author Nicholas Carr presents: that books and reading help to focus our minds and promote deep thoughts while the internet, with its rapid, distracted sampling of small bits and pieces, is making us good at scanning and skimming. What we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection. We don’t have time to read and even if we did, we’d be too distracted to concentrate.

That is exactly what we’d learn if we had time to read The Shallows. I know I don’t.  I’m too busy with Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and my other online obsessions. Until I find a good book. And, you guys, I have! I have found two from Rude’s list that I’ve read more quickly than any in recent memory because they grabbed me and I was consumed with their worlds. In the interest of fighting Internet distraction, I’d like to share them with you.

index (20)Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is fabulous. This literary murder mystery won the Gold Dagger Award in 2011 because of wonderfully drawn characters and a setting which sucks you into the world of rural Mississippi of the 1970′s. Silas was the son of a poor, single black mother, and Larry was the child of lower middle-class white parents. Despite the racial tensions of the era, they become friends until a girl goes missing after a date with Larry. She is never found and Larry lives with the suspicion of her murder for years, spending his days as a lonely mechanic and becoming known as ‘Scary Larry’ to the folks in the town. He’s a compelling character as he visits his mother daily and keeps her chickens (named after the first ladies) and home up, all the while just hoping for a friend. His boyhood friend Silas returns after many years to become the town ‘constable’ who must investigate a new murder. It turns out that Silas does know something of the long ago murder and what he has left unsaid impacts his life and that of many others. Read this book if you want an engrossing novel which you will contemplate and reflect upon for many days.

index (1)The second book I read from Rude’s list has been a runaway number one best-seller in France and is the first work translated into English by author Gregoire Delacourt. My Wish List  is the story of Jocelyne, a wife and mother living in a small French town. She runs a haberdashery and writes a successful crafting blog. Her best friends work at the hairdressers next door and dream of winning big on the Euromillions. Convinced that Jocelyne will get a taste for their lottery habit, they encourage her to buy a ticket and, amazingly, Jocelyne wins 18 million euros. Before cashing her winnings, Jocelyne begins to list her ‘desires’ which are mostly simple, everyday objects.  She ponders whether money can truly bring happiness. Should she cash the check? Or will having such a large sum of money cause more problems than it solves?

My Wish List made me contemplate just how much influence money has over our lives, not just the opportunities it can afford but also affecting how you are perceived by others and whether it is healthy to be able to afford everything you wish for. From the opening sentence to the closing message, it was a literary, yet very accessible book. Touching and heart-wrenching, My Wish List lives up to the hype surrounding it. It is a well crafted and all-consuming novel.

I am looking forward to reading more books on Rude’s list and perhaps sharing them with you. But right now, I gotta go check my Facebook page. Squirrel!

Looking for Ghosts

hauntedstuffI’ve been on the hunt for a good ghost story, not because it’s October but because ghosts scare the bejesus out of me. My friend gave me a book last week called Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Skulls and Other Creepy Collectibles by Stacey Graham. It’s not only about traditional hauntings but also about all the seemingly innocent junk around our houses that could have a dark past that is still with the object and shooting out trouble. I woke up at 3am and couldn’t go back to sleep and decided to read through this book. Big mistake, especially when I got to the chapter about a doll named Robert in Florida who likes to move around rooms and look out the windows all on his own.

That is so not cool. So not cool at all.

Ghost ships, skulls in walls that don’t stop screaming until they’re put back into the walls (because I guess there’s nothing to scream about when you’re sealed up tight in a wall), séances, this book has enough terrifying stuff to cause me a few sleepless nights. But it’s those dolls sitting on a shelf, staring and maybe moving around at night or, God no, crawling down from the shelf and touching your face while you sleep. Those were the stories that I craved. And feared. I creaved them. Yeah, I just made up a word.

roomsI wanted more ghost stories, something a little somber and less frightening than a doll moving around a room and staring out at the people in the streets. (Man, I am not going to get over that one.) I picked up Lauren Oliver’s Rooms. Ghost jackpot! In Rooms, Richard Walker dies and in swoops his estranged and EXTREMELY screwed up son, daughter and ex-wife to settle his estate. The house is already occupied by two ghosts: Alice, a house wife from WW II and Sandra, a woman who died in the house in 1987. Both ghosts watched Richard’s children grow up, lovely Minna who always seemed to have a hard edge to her and angelic Trenton.

The ghosts are disappointed to see what has become of this brother and sister in the 12 years since their parent’s divorce. Minna has become a bit of a whore although when a woman has daddy issues I don’t think you’re supposed to call her a whore when she uses sex to get what she wants. I think you’re supposed to shake your head in pity and go clean your own house. The funeral director comes over with picture samples of urns for her father’s remains and the next thing you know, bang a gong they’re getting it on. Minna’s 6 year old daughter Amy nearly catches them in the act but Minna stows the funeral director under the bed and doesn’t flinch when he calls her a crazy bitch. She moves on to the fed ex guy.

Trenton is now a pimple ridden 16-year-old who almost died a year before in a car accident. He goes to an all-boys school and is a miserable kid, more miserable than usual because he remembers almost dying and he wants to return to that feeling, of being in a warm and comforting place, a place where he doesn’t have an embarrassing nickname earned at a party. Their mom Caroline has spent years hiding in a bottle and is now a throwing-up-blood alcoholic who can’t make it past 8am without a glass of vodka. They have a whole house to get through along with a funeral. The two ghosts, Alice and Sandra watch them. Trenton is the only one who can sense them and sometimes catches them talking to one another. The ghosts have terrible secrets. In alternating chapters each tells her story full of tragedy, loneliness, and regret. But a new ghost appears out of nowhere and she can’t remember who she is or how she died.  And she tempts Trenton into killing himself so they can be together.

Like most great ghost stories, Rooms unfolds layer after layer of the past, examining wrong turns, unkindness’s and broken hearts. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I think we’re so chock full of energy that we leave an imprint behind, a mixed tape cassette left on repeat that keeps playing our lowest points and maybe even some of the good times.

Good news? There’s a happy ending to Rooms. Bad news? I have a weird take on what a happy ending means. Enjoy a good ghost story that won’t have you checking under the bed for evil dolls.

Extra, Extra! Perry Mason Kisses Della Street!

As my year of nostalgic reading continues, I’ve discovered that good books often go out of print, libraries weed their collections, used book stores don’t often carry copies of older books. In other words, it can be very difficult to find certain books.

Technology to the rescue!

Many out-of-print books that would perhaps not sell well if reprinted are being re-issued as ebooks. Currently, I am thoroughly entrenched in detective pulp, noire and mysteries, and at the forefront of my assault on those genres has been that judiciary steamroller, Perry Mason.

Perry televisionPerry hit the network airwaves in 1957, and I recall as a young man watching the occasional rerun in the afternoon. It wasn’t until my adult years that I watched the show in earnest, thoroughly enjoying Perry’s daily evisceration of Hamilton Burger. And it wasn’t until even later that I read one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books, The Case of the Glamorous Ghost. While I did enjoy the story, it took several years for me to return to the courtroom, this time with a purchased ebook, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. I devoured this story in no time at all, so I purchased another. And another, and another … (They were on sale, so I was actually saving money by buying them!)

Mason1

Anywho, after accumulating a handful of titles, I discovered that amongst them were the first two volumes in the series (there are roughly 87 titles!). I like to see how characters develop, and it appealed to my sense of order to start at the beginning. As it turns out, book character Perry, while similar to television Perry, is not identical to the icon we all know.

Mason2

Mason first appears in The Case of the Velvet Claws, written in 1933. Keeping in mind that morés of the 30’s differed from current standards, that America was fiercely entrenched in an economic crisis and that law enforcement was perhaps less than 100% lawful, Mason’s character has what we would now consider questionable ethics. But his overriding goal is still laudable, to prove the innocence of all clients. The ends that he goes to, however, are certainly not legal, and the original written Mason is not above pulling dirty tricks to win cases. Television Mason, on the other hand, while pushing boundaries would not actually break the law.

Incidentally, Perry and Della do not have a platonic boss/underling relationship! But I’ll let you explore that in your own readings.

Out of the many other early pulp authors I have discovered, the library has scarce holdings. After all, these are long out-of-print items. But here are a few authors of interest that you can find on the shelves.

Library holdings
Charles Willeford
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Peter Rabe
Day Keene
John Trinian

Group1

Additional books by the same authors

Group2

You can practically smell the ink jump off of the pages! Lurid covers, foul murders, pathetic hopelessness, crooked cops … Ooh, I wanna go grab one off the shelf right now and hear the rapid staccato of a tommy gun sending a deadly warning, or the dull thud of a well-placed blackjack dropping a floozy like a pig from a zeppelin. Off I go!