Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wouldn't it be great if back cover blurb writers actually read the book?

Every now and then I have a gripe about back cover blurbs.  It seems as if half or more are written by folk who have never read the book given their general inaccuracies and misleading statements.  I know these are marketing devices, but surely they should have some grounding in the realities of the story they are selling?  The latest one to rub me up the wrong way is for Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.  Here's what it says:

"To Have and Have Not is the dramatic story of Harry Morgan, an honest man who is forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West as a means of keeping his crumbling family financially afloat.  His adventures lead him into the world of the wealthy and dissipated yatchsmen who throng the region, and involve him in a strange and unlikely love affair.  Harshly realistic, yet with one of the most subtle and moving relationships in the Hemingway oeuvre, To Have and Have Not is literary high adventure at its finest."

Seems straightforward, however there are number of problems with the description.  Harry Morgan is not an honest man; he just doesn't smuggle 'anything that can talk'.  His family is not crumbling and he's content in his relationship with his wife and three kids.  His adverntures do not lead him into the world of wealthy yatchsmen, but with rummys, smugglers and Cuban revolutionaries.  He does not have a strange and unlikely love affair - he's faithful to his wife.  That relationship is hardly subtle or moving.  In fact, Harry is a bully and misogynist, who has little pity for others or himself.  I'll post my review tomorrow, but I also do not agree that the book is literary high adventure at its finest - indeed most reviewers seem to think this one of Hemingway's weakest stories.

My sense is that whoever wrote this blurb might have been basing it on having watched the movie, which bares little resemblence to the book.  How difficult would it have been to write something appealing that also bore a passing resemblence to the book?  Okay, rant over.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review of The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004)

Baseball has often been considered the most individual of team sports, and because of its tightly formulated format and rules can be easily captured by summary statistics.  From the very start of the game in the mid-nineteenth century fans and the media have charted player and team performances through various batting, pitching and fielding measures.  Since the 1970s some of these statistics have influenced management decisions on trades, contract negotiations, and on-field plays, with their authority growing in the last two decades to the extent that every professional baseball team now employs a stats unit and uses a plethora of computer packages to help augment all kinds of decisions in the club and dugout.  Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics charts the evolution of measuring games through box scores, basic summary statistics, more complex measures and algorithms, companies that compile and sell stats, the development of dice and card games utilising baseball stats, statistic societies and initiatives, books and chewing gum cards, the media’s use of stats to help fans follow games via newspapers, radio and TV, and their seepage into decisions by coaches and general managers.  The book has both historical depth and width of coverage and provides an engaging account by focusing on key personalities and the innovations they added to baseball’s statistical landscape.  For the most part the structure works well, but starts to struggle in its account of developments from the early 1970s up to the present.  In part, this is because there are a number of parallel developments that fracture the timeline.  The final chapter on academic attempts to make sense of baseball statistics is perhaps the weakest chapter, and the book suffers at its end because there is no concluding chapter that summarises the main thread of the argument or postulates as to what developments might or should emerge in the future.  Overall, however, an interesting read.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Review of Night Moves by Randy Wayne White (Berkeley, 2013)

Doc Ford works as a marine biologist on Sanibel Island, off the west coast of Florida, when he’s not doing secret wet work for the US government.  When his friend Dan Futch, a local pilot, asks him to help investigate a possible last resting place of the infamous Flight 19, when five planes disappeared on a training run in 1945, Doc and his hippie pal, Tomlinson, tag along.  The plane, however, has been sabotaged and is forced to make a crash landing in the Everglades.  Futch fixes the plane and flies out, but Doc and Tomlinson walk, picking up a stray dog on the way.  Back at Dinkin’s Bay it’s clear that all is not well.  Two new expensive boats with mystery owners are in dock, a married woman is seeking a divorce by pursuing Doc and Tomlinson, her crazy documentary-making brother-in-law wants to capture the finding of Flight 19, and Tomlinson’s rival recreational drug supplier is seeking to corner the market.  Plus Doc has inherited a dog that leaves chaos in its wake.  What should have been some covert archaeological work is become something a little more dangerous.

The hook of Night Moves is the possible discovery of Flight 19, the infamous training run in 1945 in which five torpedo planes disappeared on a routine flight out of Fort Lauderdale.  Whilst generally thought to be lost at sea, for the purposes of the story White postulates that they crashed into the Everglades.  Finding the flight would be a major discovery, so any attempt demands a level of secrecy to stop the site being swarmed by news crews and crazies.  But such is the draw, that any hint of discovery can attract unwanted and deadly attention.  Entwined through this central thread, White weaves a number of subplots, including a manipulative diva, a tentative romance, a drug rivalry, an international hitman, a lost dog, and general carry-on in Dinkin’s Bay.  To his credit, this unlikely cocktail for the most part works, in the main because the story is engaging and the characterisation and place is nicely drawn.  The reader kind of floats along in the narrative.  Where the story starts to become unstuck however is towards the end, where the credibility of the plot is stretched to breaking point.  Ultimately, it seemed as if White made the decision that the Flight 19 was not a sufficient hook, so populated the book with a series of weaker subplots to try and create mystery and action.   In my view, that was a shame as the Flight 19 mystery should have provided more than enough intrigue to hang a decent story on.  Overall, an enjoyable read that loses its way a little in the last quarter.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm reading To Have and Have Not at present.  The dialogue and demeanour of the lead character and the general atmosphere bought to mind Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.  So I looked up the movie of the book to discover that Bogart played Harry Morgan in the movie.  Which was kind of uncanny.  Just about everything else about the movie, however, seems to bear little resemblence to the book - the plot has been reframed into a Second World War drama concerning smuggling a Free French resistance leader and his wife to Martinique rather than smuggling contraband between Cuba and Key West in the prohibition era.

Since I didn't get round to do doing a similar post last week, below is a summary of two week's worth of posts.

Carpetbagger blues
Review of Tropical Freeze by James W. Hall
Slides for “Urban indicators, city benchmarking, and real-time dashboards” talk
Florida trip
Short presentation on the need for critical data studies
Review of Margin of Error by Edna Buchanan
Review of Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey
Review of Tropical Heat by John Lutz
Staring into the jaws of defeat

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Carpetbagger blues

‘He’s just a carpetbagger.  A blow-in.  The only thing he cares about is his himself.’

‘Try looking in the mirror sometime, Tom.’

‘I was born and raised here!  I know this place and I know its people.’

‘And they know you.  They think it’s time for a change.’

‘Disloyal ingrates!  After all I’ve done for them.’ 

‘What?  Delivered hot air and empty promises?’

‘Why you ... you’re meant to be my election agent!’

‘And you’re meant to be a representative of and for the people.’

‘I’m not losing to a carpetbagger.’

‘You are unless you change your tune.  And fast.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review of Tropical Freeze by James W. Hall (1989, WW Norton)

Thorn tries to live a quiet life on Key Largo, scraping out a living as a fishing guide and doing odd jobs, but trouble has a habit of finding him.  In this case, trouble manifests itself through his childhood friend, Gaeton Richards, a former FBI agent, and his weather-broadcaster sister, Darcy.  Gaeton is working for former DEA agent, Benny Cousins, who is now running a business smuggling wanted criminals from other countries into the US and giving them new identities, and has ambitions to run the Keys as his private kingdom.  Darcy is the lustful focus of Ozzie, a trailer trash lowlife with a short fuse, little brains and ambitions to be a country singer.  When Ozzie escalates from stalking to actively pursuing Darcy and Gaeton turns up dead, Thorn is drawn into protecting Darcy and seeking the truth and justice with regards to her brother’s death.  It soon puts him on a collision course with Benny Cousins, who seems to settle all his skirmishes with deadly violence.

Tropical Freeze is the second book in the Thorn series set in and around the Florida Keys.  There’s much to like about the story - the characterisation, sense of place, and quick moving plot.  Thorn is the classic loner, lonely, hard man drawn to the beautiful and determined, Darcy Richards, who is stalked by the slightly crazy, Ozzie, and whose brother works for the megalomaniac Benny Cousins.  They inhabit the backwaters of the Florida Keys, with its rundown shacks and trailers nestled amongst the millionaire mansions and strip mall development.  Hall places the reader in this landscape, evoking a slightly seedy atmosphere that mixes laidbackness and lawlessness.  The edgy plot rattles along, with plenty of tension and understated action sequences.  There’s not much in the way of reveals or twists as Hall’s style is to tell aspects of the story from different perspectives, which works well.  Where the story suffers a little is with respect to plausibility, especially with respect to the Benny Cousin’s plotline and Thorn’s heroic exploits.  However, if one can suspend one’s belief a little, then Tropical Freeze is an entertaining and atmospheric yarn.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Florida trip

I returned from Florida on Sunday/Monday after 10 days wandering round the state and also attending a conference.  I spent some time in Miami, the Everglades, Key West, and Tampa.  I've read a couple of dozen crime novels set in the state, so it was nice to put places to books.  Before and whilst there I read a handful of other Florida-based tales.  These include:

Margin of Error by Edna Buchanan
Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey
Tropical Heat by John Lutz
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
The Big Goodbye by Michael Lister

I've still got two more book reviews to post, plus one more book to read.
Tropical Freeze by James W. Hall
Night Moves by Randy Wayne White
To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

I should get to those in the next few days.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review of Margin of Error by Edna Buchanan (Hyperion, 1997)

Britt Montero is the hardnosed, police beat reporter for the Miami News.  What she’d like to be doing is getting the scoop on the various crimes happening in the city.  Her bosses though have teamed her up with Lance Westfell, a Hollywood heartthrob on location in the city to film a new movie, Margin of Error, in which he plays a journalist.  Britt’s job is to give him a sense of what being a reporter is all about.  She’s hoping that he’ll get the gist in a day as she’s up to her eyes with various cases, including a young security guard shot dead at his place of work, a young mother who’s baby seemingly died of starvation, and a pervert with a foot fetish.  Lance, however, believes in doing reasonably thorough research and plans to tag along for a while.  He has problems of his own, including a stalker, a messy separation from a diva, and a career that is starting to wane, plus the movie he’s working on is being plagued by mishaps.  Soon the mishaps become murder and Britt and Lance are drawn together as they try to stay alive and workout who is responsible and why.

Margin of Error is a kind of tart noir, with its sassy, smart, streetwise reporter pitching her wits against cops, criminals and anyone else that gets in the way of a good story, with the obligatory romantic subplot.  It’s nicely written in an engaging style, with the story zipping along.  Britt Montero is well portrayed as the committed reporter with a messy personal life, and Lance Westfell is a ringer for Matthew McConaughey, being all charm, wit, good looks and slightly vulnerable.  The story felt a little cliched, both in terms of the general arc and the romance, but was blended with a handful of interesting, intertwined subplots, and was generally entertaining.  However, as it progressed and Buchanan ratcheted up the intrigue and tension it became less believable and the reveal just didn’t ring true at all and firmly bumped me out a story.  That was a shame as it had been working quite well up to the last third.  Overall, a relatively light, fun read that didn’t quite strike all the right notes.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Staring into the jaws of defeat

Jimmy threw the stinking piece of meat in a slow arc.  A wide mouth rose up, snapping its jagged jaws closed with a thud, sinking back into the swamp. 

‘Big bastard, ain’t he?  American Alligator.  Grows up to fifteen feet long.  He’ll eat just about anything - fish, birds, lizards, critters.’

He glanced across at the bound man, then up at McKenzie sitting at the helm of airboat.

‘What do you think?  Ten footer?’

‘Maybe twelve,’ McKenzie answered.

‘Might be thirteen, you don’t tell me where my money is, Carlos.’

The jaws snatched another piece of meat from the air.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review of Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey (Harper, 2008)

Serge Storms, the hyperactive, under-medicated, fatal dispenser of justice and Florida trivia, is preparing for hurricane season and some recreational storm chasing in the eye of the vortex.  As usual, his stoned and/or drunk buddy Coleman is riding shotgun.  Spoiling Serge’s fun, however, is a copycat serial killer who is sending slanderous letters to the local newspaper.  They’re soon engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange of letters and bodies.  In the meantime, mild-mannered journalist, Jeff McSweeney, has the task of writing about their escapades and interviewing the victim’s families, making his a nervous, depressive wreck.  His disposition is not aided by the help of Maloney, a federal agent who’s Serge’s nemesis and thinks he’s operating in a 1940s noir-styled world and has psychiatric problems of his own.  As one hurricane after another rolls across the Florida panhandle, all kinds of mayhem unfolds, most of it caused by Serge and Coleman.

Dorsey’s Serge Storms’ novels are always a zany rollercoaster ride of cartoonish violence and madcap behaviour underlain with a dose of suspect moral philosophy – yes, Serge does terrible, imaginative things to his victims but there’s a logic and natural justice to his actions; though the ultimate price is rarely what most might consider the ‘right’ punishment.  In Hurricane Punch he interweaves five main plotlines – storm chasing during a particularly bad hurricane season, his duel with a copycat serial killer, a cop beat journalist’s slow breakdown as he covers murders, the rivalry between competing media outlets, and federal agent Maloney’s attempt to capture Serge.  The result is a fast moving tale of madness, destruction, rivalries, and parody of the news industry, that is often amusing and sometimes poignant.  As usual the story is peppered with Florida trivia and history.  The characterisation is well done, the dialogue snappy, and the plot engaging.  As with most comic crime capers realism takes a backseat for much of the time enabling Dorset to set up some great scenes and to twist the tale along.  There are a couple of odd moments with the timeline, but overall this is good fun, with some nice observational asides.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Review of Tropical Heat by John Lutz (No Exit Press, 1986)

Fred Carver has been invalided out of the police after being shot in the knee.  Living in a beachfront shack he takes long therapeutic swims in the ocean and undertakes the occasional bit of private investigation work whilst living off his compensation payout.  Edwina Talbot is pointed in his direction by his old boss, Lieutenant Desoto.  She wants him to track down her lover, Willis Davis, a time-shares salesman who seemingly committed suicide by leaping into the sea, though his body has not been found.  Carver reluctantly takes the case and it soon becomes more interesting than he anticipated, with a couple of attempts on his life and a growing attraction to Edwina.

Tropical Heat is the first Fred Carver book in a series of ten published between 1986 and 1996.  Carver is a somewhat reluctant private investigator who hobbles about with a cane (that doubles as a weapon) due to a gammy leg.  Set in central Florida, the story is a typical PI tale of finding a missing person who doesn’t want to be found, who has a more complex back story than originally thought, and the PI and woman hiring him becoming romantically involved.  Whilst there are a number of action sequences as Carver tangles with a deadly gang, the tale felt more like an episode of The Rockford Files than Miami Vice; more small screen than big screen.  It was an interesting enough read, but never really fully captured the imagination.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that I simply didn't believe in the fledgling romance and the way in which Carver engineers it.  The ending had a reasonable twist, but involved a leap of faith and an unnecessary rush in order to create a tension point.  Overall, a solid enough, run-of-the-mill start to a series.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Today I'll be taking the train from Miami to Tampa.  Yesterday I spent the day going down the keys to Key West and the day before in the Everglades.  I've four of my Florida-set novels read - Dennis Lehane and Michael Lister (links below); and Tropical Heat by John Lutz and Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey (reviews soon).  I should get Edna Buchanan's Margin of Error finished on the train.  That leaves Tropical Freeze by James Hall and To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.  Then I'm onto buying more books.

My posts this week
Review of Prime Cut by Alan Carter
Review of The Secrets in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri
March reviews
Review of Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
Review of The Big Goodbye by Michael Lister
Path of least resistivity

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Path of least resistivity

‘How was I supposed to know he didn’t speak English?’

‘By talking to him.’

‘But he wouldn’t have understood me!’

‘Precisely.  Instead you plugged fifty thousand volts into him.’

‘I just gave him a quick blast to get his attention.’

‘You already had his attention.  It was your attention that got him agitated.’

‘Which is why he needed a quick taser jolt.’

‘You almost killed him, Carver.  The guy was in his seventies.’

 ‘He’s okay now, isn’t he?’

‘He’ll probably sue us, unless he dies, in which case his family will.’

‘I could give them a jolt if you like?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Big Goodbye by Michael Lister (Pulpwood Press, 2011)

1943 and Jimmy Riley is a private investigator in Panama City in Northern Florida. A year previously he’d been a cop, but then he’d met and started an affair with femme fatale, Lauren Lewis, who is married to a banker with political ambitions.  Riley had fallen head-over-heels for Lauren, but their relationship soon floundered, and he became so distracted that he lost an arm to a shotgun blast and was invalided out of the police.  Now Lauren thinks that someone is following her and is acting erratically, people are threatening Riley, and her husband is bewildered.  All Riley knows is that he’s still obsessed with Lauren and will do anything to stop her coming to harm, regardless of what she wants or the consequences.

The Big Goodbye is a hardboiled, noir, PI story set during the Second World War era in Florida.  Lister keeps the writing snappy and the pace high as the main character, one-armed Jimmy Riley helter-skelters blindly from one situation to the next as he tries to work out what is happening with respect to his old girlfriend.  The plot is strength of the book, with a nice mix of feints and twists.  However, the storytelling tries a little too hard to create a particular style and atmosphere, the characters often verge on caricatures, and a consequence of pace is an underplaying of sense of place and historical contextualisation - it’s all about the puzzle and the relationship between Riley and Lauren.  Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable read, especially if you like hardboiled noir.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review of Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (2012, Abacus)

The mid 1920s and Joe Coughlin, the son of a deputy superintendent in the Boston police, has been running wild since he was thirteen with his friends Dion and Paolo.  Still in their teens, they hold up a speakeasy owned by local Irish mafia boss, Albert White.  During the raid, Joe meets Emma Gould, White’s mistress, and vows to get to know her better.  A few days later he tracks her down and they start an affair.  Stealing cash from White is a bad idea, stealing his girl is suicidal.  Joe’s plan is for one last robbery, then to run off with Emma.  Instead, he ends up in prison, where as the son of a cop, he’s highly vulnerable.  His strategy is to do whatever it takes to survive and he’s soon on the path to becoming a made-man.  On release he’s asked to run Albert White, who’s moved to Tampa, out of town and to build up the Italian Mob’s rum-making operation.  Joe would like to think that he’s an outlaw, but he knows he’s become a gangster, someone who lives by night, outside of the rules of the day.  He also knows that he’s now the boss in an enterprise that specialises in violence, double-crossing and greed, and that to survive and prosper he needs to be ruthless and committed and to jettison his innate compassion.

Most crime stories take place over the course of a few days or weeks.  Live by Night is much more ambitious in its scope, following the life of Joe Coughlin from small time crook to feared gangster boss over a ten year period, tracing his ups and downs, and exploring themes of family, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, love, compassion, and violence.  Despite the fact that Coughlin’s life is full of incident, Lehane manages to pack an awful lot into 500 pages without ever rushing or skimping on detail.  Indeed, a real strength of the book is how he manages to deal with the temporal shifts across years and incidents to create a smooth overarching narrative that always keeps the reader engaged. It took me a little bit of time to warm to Coughlin and the story, but the story soon becomes compelling.  And whilst there are plenty of twists and turns, the plot is coherent and does not rely on coincidence or plot devices, and does not get sidetracked with subplots.  The characterisation is well penned, especially Coughlin, who develops and matures over time, his friend Dion, Graciela, Albert White and Maso, who are all alive on the page and have back stories, and even the minor characters have some depth.  Throughout there’s a good sense of time (prohibition period), place (Boston, Tampa and Cuba) and social context (race, politics, crime).  If you’re looking for a 1920/30s gangster story with some heart and depth, or a crime story that is expansive in scope, then Live by Night will be just your ticket.