Friday, November 30, 2012

Recommended Reading: "The Hot Country" by Robert Olen Butler.

The Hot Country is a historical thriller set in Mexico in April and May of 1914.  Mexico in 1914 is in the midst of revolution.  Its president, Victor Huerta, is violently opposed by various internal factions and leaders, such as Pancho Villa.  In addition to internal conflict, relations are tense between Mexico and the United States.  President Woodrow Wilson sent Marines to occupy the Mexican port town of Vera Cruz.  Wilson's action was in response to the arrest of nine American sailors by Mexican federal soldiers for allegedly entering a prohibited zone in the city of Tampico.

As The Hot Country begins, war correspondent Christopher (Kit) Marlowe Cobb is in Mexico covering the situation in Vera Cruz.  As a news story, the United States occupation of Vera Cruz has slowed down. Since President Wilson is not pursuing any further intrusion into Mexico, Kit Cobb is looking for stories to report for his Chicago paper.

Pancho Villa and his men.

Cobb's attention is caught by a German cargo ship anchored in the Vera Cruz port; it allegedly is carrying weapons.  He smells a story and begins to investigate.  Are the Germans, in an effort to gain allies in Mexico and harass the United States, intending to arm some faction of the combatants in the Mexican Revolution, such as Villa?  To get the story, Cobb must finesse the danger and threats posed by the Germans, spies, Mexican revolutionaries, and beautiful women.

The Hot Country is a smart and entertaining book set during an interesting period in the history of both Mexico and the United States.  I got the impression at the end of the story that this may be the first in a series featuring Kit Cobb.  If so, that's great news.  Meanwhile, check out The Hot Country for an exciting read.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn.

I've finally gotten around to reading Gone Girl.  I put it off because, really, who wants to read about marriage on the skids, a missing-presumed-murdered young wife, bad adult behavior, and borderline sociopaths?  Isn't this the kind of story that television is there to supply?

Well, it turns out that lots of people have wanted to read Gone Girl.

Gone Girl is one of Amazon's biggest sellers this year.  Checking today, it ranks at number 12 after the clutter of Fifty Shades and Hunger Games titles.  So, I gave the book a turn.  And admittedly, it is entertaining reading.

The book is about Nick and Amy, a married couple in their mid-30s.  After both lose their job in New York City, they move to Nick's hometown in Missouri.  Things don't go well.  Amy, a native New Yorker, isn't thrilled with her new life.  Money is tight.  The last $80,000 from her trust fund is used by Nick to purchase a bar.  But their fifth wedding anniversary is coming around and it is an opportunity to get on track.

However, Amy disappears on the day of their anniversary.  The police investigate.  Soon Nick becomes their primary suspect for being the cause of that disappearance.

Did Nick do something irrevocable?  Did Amy?

Gone Girl is easy to read, occasionally funny, and often insightful about people and what motivates them.  The plot is nicely put together to build interest and some suspense.

Don't fear the grim subject matter.  If Gone Girl were a cocktail, it would be a Diet and Jack:  Easy to consume and providing a little jolt of entertainment.  If that's what you like, or are looking for on occasion, check it out.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

There's a song in here somewhere

Walking the dog this morning, I saw lying in the road three empty beer cans and the ace of hearts.  I think somewhere in this there must be a country song.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Highly Recommended Reading: "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

The Round House is already appearing on lists of the best books of 2012, and rightly so.  This finalist for the National Book Award is definitely one of the best books I've read all year.

If you've previously read books by Louise Erdrich, you know that her writing is superb.  In The Round House, Erdrich again satisfies one of Kurt Vonnegut's rules for creative writing:  Every sentence in her book either reveals something about a character or advances the action.  She does not waste the reader's time.  Erdich is in complete control of her art.  In The Round House, she uses her talents to tell a story about a 13-year old boy, Joe Coutts, and his family.

Joe and his parents are Ojibwe and live on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.  Joe's dad, Antone Bazil Coutts, is a tribal judge and his mom, Geraldine, is a tribal enrollment specialist.  One summer Sunday in 1988, Geraldine gets a phone call which prompts her to go to her office.  While away, she is brutally attacked.

The attack is, of course, shattering to Joe's close and loving family. Bazil Coutts, as a lawyer and judge, knows that if there is to be justice for this crime against Geraldine, complicated issues of legal jurisdiction must be quickly resolved.  In the complex world of Indian law, a criminal matter may fall under the purview of tribal, state or federal police and courts.  The precise geographic location of a crime will determine which police force investigates and which court will ultimately hear any criminal case brought on the matter. These important determinations are slowed as Geraldine struggles to recover.  Joe, wanting to help and be a part of obtaining justice, starts to investigate the crime with the help of his closest friends.

As Joe's investigation moves forward, Erdrich does a masterful job building tension, suspense and foreboding.  It is the grown-up Joe who is the narrator of this story, giving an adult's perspective to events experienced by a 13-year old.  This technique also puts the plot's pressure points squarely on the events of that summer in 1988 because the adult Joe shares with the reader some information about what transpires in subsequent years, allowing us to fill in parts of the story on our own.

Supporting the central plot about Joe and his parents are terrific secondary characters and stories that add wonderful richness to the book.  All these elements together make The Round House a transporting, memorable novel.

It is highly recommended reading.

Note:  The 2012 National Book Award will be announced on November 14.

Up-Date:  The Round House won the National Book Award prize for fiction.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Interesting fiction can present itself in many different styles.  For example, a novel might be absorbing and transporting.  A mystery might draw the reader into a world of suspense and drama.  Nick Harkaway's novel Angelmaker is enjoyable, but in a different manner than either of these examples.

To me, Angelmaker is more akin to looking at a large and complex painting, such as The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch's famous triptych.  This particular painting, like reading Angelmaker, is enthralling.  You admire the artist's talent, imagination, and the complexity of his work.  Further, in both Bosch's painting and in Harkaway's Angelmaker, there is a lot of strange stuff.  The upside of Angelmaker is that it is also funny.

The story's protagonist is Joe Spork.  A single guy in his mid-30s, Joe, like his grandfather before him, repairs clockworks.  To vastly oversimplify the plot of this long and wild story, Joe's skills are used to put into motion the unleashing of a bizarre doomsday machine.  His involvement puts him in danger from bad guys in both the public and private sector.  To survive these dangers, Joe must find and stop the machine.  And to do this, Joe turns to the allies and networks created by his father, a notorious gangster.

Layered over this basic outline of the plot is a complex jungle of characters, locations, and machines.  There are mad monks, evil dictators, secret government activities from World War II, elephants, a giant submarine, an enormous train, mechanical bees, a criminal underground, and more.  To give you a flavor of the story, its video trailer is below.

Angelmaker is extremely imaginative.  It is also very long and I must admit that at times I did find it a bit tedious.  What kept me reading, however, is Harkaway's fantastic sense of humor, wonderful word choice and use of language.  I recommend you check it out.  Reading Angelmaker is an art experience.