Monday, June 27, 2016

Blogger Interview: Patricia Abbott

'Blogging has given me insight
into what people like to read'

© Polis Books
I remember my first acquaintance with Patti. It was towards the end of 2011. I had started visiting her blog Pattinase and reacting to her probing questions about books, films, and music. In those days I used to address her as "Ms. Abbott" out of respect, as we usually do in India. On November 5 that year, in response to my comment to her query—"What piece of music can bring you to tears?"—Patti wrote, "Just got The Mission from my library today. Please call me Patti, btw. Unless you prefer not to." Afterwards I wondered if I'd offended her!

Nearly five years on, I continue to visit her eclectic blog and meet lots of interesting writers and bloggers, and read about some terrific books and films, often new to me.

Patricia Abbott needs no introduction. But it's customary to introduce a guest. She is the author of two riveting thrillers—her debut novel Concrete Angel, published in June 2015, and Shot in Detroit, released very recently. She has also written more than 100 stories in print, online, and in various anthologies, including Needle Mag, The Thrilling Detective, Plots With Guns, Spinetingler, and ThugLit. In 2009, she won a Derringer Award for her story 'My Hero.' She is also the author of two ebooks of stories—Monkey Justice and Home Invasion.

Patti, who lives in Detroit, Michigan, talks about blogging over the past ten years and her latest novel Shot in Detroit.

© Polis Books
Patti, when and why did you start blogging? What is the one thing that you like about it?
I have been blogging for ten years. I like maintaining a community with readers and writers. Facebook serves that purpose now but ten years ago it did not. And blogs, perhaps, allow a closer relationship.

Your blog is like a major railway junction where other bloggers converge to discuss books and movies before exiting or taking the next blog train. How do you feel about the popularity of your blog?
My blog was much more that ten or even five years ago. I used to get several hundred visits a day. Now more like thirty or so. But I enjoy touching base with the people who still stop by. I feel like I have more in common with them than with many of my real life friends, who often don't read fiction and especially crime fiction.

Talking about popularity, can you take us through Friday's Forgotten Books, one of your most widely read and awaited columns?
This is now a many-years project. Most of the contributors have been with me for at least half a dozen years. I originally expected it to last a month or two. But most of the writers had been doing a similar project in written form before online communication began, so they were used to writing new reviews every week.

Do you see FFB as a melting pot of book cultures and reading habits? What motivates you to host the meme almost every Friday? 
I don't know how to define it. Most of the contributors come from a love of crime fiction or westerns. I think if I bowed out, someone else would take the reins. And that might happen 

Is noted author and fellow-blogger Bill Crider the oldest contributor to Forgotten Books?
Yes, Bill contributed a review the first week and every week since. Pretty amazing, right? I was shocked the second week when he did a second one. I never expected repeats!

You often pose interesting questions about books, films and music. For instance, on June 15 you asked, "Why didn't you finish the last book you didn't finish?" Where do these ideas come from?
My kids have always said I should host a talk show because I love asking questions. I love hearing about what people are reading in particular and seldom spend an evening without asking people I know who read that question. I am always surprised how rarely people ask me.

You have written dozens of short stories and authored two crime novels, Concrete Angel and Shot in Detroit. How has blogging influenced your writing of serious fiction?
I think it has given me insight into what people like best in books. More from reading of their blogs than what they say on mine. And their kind reactions to my stories and flash fiction challenges gave me the courage to try to write a novel.

Can you tell us what Shot in Detroit, your latest novel, is about?
It's about a female photographer, turning forty, who is fearful of never producing important work. It's also about the city she lives in, which is going through rough times. Detroit and the photographer come together in SID when she finds a project through her mortician boyfriend -filming the young black men who are dying in the city. This turns out to be a dangerous project.

If a third book is in the works—and I'm sure it is—what can your readers expect?
I have about 40 pages. Right now I am not sure if Violet Hart (the protagonist of Shot in Detroit) has a place in this story or not. I like the idea of writing about the rebirth of Detroit, so perhaps her rebirth and theirs will come together. 

“When I started my blog in many ways I was busier—with elderly parents, a day job, a grandson to sit a few days a week. But I was not busy with so much writing. And I do think the day of the blog
is ending. People can interact more easily on Facebook.”

How do you devote your time between blogging every day, working on your writing projects, and spending time with your family?
Right now, I am half-frantic about it. I came to this at a late age and the energy fades quickly. But when I compare my life to my daughter's (author Megan Abbott), I have it easy. She is finishing her ninth book, publicising her 8th, writing a TV show with David Simon et al (The Deuce), revising two scripts of her own for HBO (Dare Me) and TNT (The Fever), and writing newspaper and magazine articles. How would you like that schedule?

Do you have a fixed time for blogging? How many hours a week do you blog?
No. And I just can't give it the time I used to. When I started my blog in many ways I was busier—with elderly parents, a day job, a grandson to sit a few days a week. But I was not busy with so much writing. And I do think the day of the blog is ending. People can interact more easily on Facebook. If I pose a question there, I get dozens of responses. On my blog, just a few.

Have you ever felt like giving up blogging and reviewing, and devoting all your time to reading books?
No. I love to read but an hour or two a day is enough. I'd be more likely to see more movies. Travel more, spend more time with friends.

Finally, Patti, how has blogging benefited you, particularly your reading and writing?
Blogging has brought me many terrific friends. Friends I have enjoyed meeting in many cases. It has given me insight into what people like to read, what characters interest them, what kind of stories work best. But most of all, I'm in for the comradeship. Friends mean an awfully lot to me.

Thank you very much, Patti.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Killing Floor by Lee Child, 1997

Opening line: I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock, I was eating eggs and drinking from the highway to the edge of town.

The first thing I noticed the moment I read the opening lines was Lee Child’s writing style—refreshing and freewheeling without losing the intensity of the plot. The first-person narrative is matter of fact and almost conversational. It seemed as if the English novelist, who was born Jim Grant, was sitting across from me in a roadside diner and narrating his first story about Jack Reacher, his tall and hardy protagonist.

Jack Reacher is as appealing as Lee Child’s writing, as compelling as Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. Neither knows fear. Both operate with grim determination and cold efficiency, and get to the root of things no matter what. Essentially, Reacher and Bourne are survivors. But the comparison between the two clever heroes ends there, for the stories and the worlds they inhabit are very different.

In Killing Floor, the drifter and former military cop is arrested for murder shortly after he arrives in Margrave, a murky town in Georgia. A case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Reacher and a timid guy named Hubble, who "confesses" to the murders, are interned in a state prison where our man becomes the unintended victim of a murderous attack meant for the other.

Convinced of his innocence, the police let off Reacher, who then discovers that one of the dead men who he was accused of killing was his older brother, Joe. Reacher stays back to avenge the death of a brother he was fond of as a kid and had almost forgotten when he grew up. He and detective Finlay and police officer Roscoe, to whom he is attracted, begin a secret investigation. The case takes them through a bloody trail lined with more bodies, including that of police chief Morrison and his wife, Hubble’s disappearance, and eventually to a brilliant counterfeit operation whose billion-dollar tentacles stretch into the mayor’s office and Margrave police.

Killing Floor has received mixed reviews, some good, some bad, and some average. I thought it was a realistic and hard-hitting debut by Lee Child who plates up a decent mixture of action, including some guerrilla-style killing by the fearless Reacher, and conventional detective work. The narrative is laced with some good lines, like the one I have reproduced below. Reacher is constantly on the move and so is the narrative pace. 

“You can’t find him, can you?” I said. “You’re useless, Kliner. You’re a useless piece of shit. You think you’re some kind of a smart guy, but you can’t find Hubble. You couldn’t find your asshole if I gave you a mirror on a stick.”

Elsewhere, the book is a fascinating study in counterfeiting which, we are told, is well-nigh impossible to accomplish in America. But as Joe, a government official who was hot on the trail of the crime syndicate, and Reacher find out, it can be done—and how.

Now that I have had a glimpse into the not unpleasant world of Jack Reacher, I’m eager to see how his no-nonsense character develops. The series has attracted a lot of attention, not least because of the 2013 namesake film where Tom Cruise plays the eponymous hero. Although, frankly, it’s a role that would have suited a younger Liam Neeson better.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Blogger Interview: Moira Redmond

'There are clothes in all books. I realised that
they could be an indicator of character'

© Moira Redmond
I have read plenty of books and marvelled at the various narrative elements—suspense, ingenuity of plot, action, characters, pace, setting, atmosphere, expressions, and this, that and the other. Never have I noticed clothes in books, not until Moira Redmond—journalist, writer, and blogger—brought them to my attention through her aptly titled blog Clothes in Books. Every day, she features a different book and describes certain aspects of clothes, or accessories, in her reviews. She is the undisputed fashion critic of fiction characters.

Here, Moira tells us a bit about herself: “I worked in all kinds of journalism, from world news for the BBC to writing a book of etiquette, now ending up writing about books, which is a nice way to finish my career. I live in Winchester in the UK with my husband and have two grown-up children. We also had a very happy period living in Seattle, USA, and it was there that I first began working on websites, for Microsoft. I spend far too much of my time reading, but I also love opera and every other kind of music. I go up to London a lot for opera, theatres, music and exhibitions, and I also like walking with friends.”

So what makes ‘Clothes in Books’ a perfect fit? Moira Redmond takes us on a tour of her well-tailored blog and more.

Moira, when did you start blogging? What prompted you to become a blogger?
I started blogging in January 2012: I had been looking for a new project, as my children grew up and another job I had been doing came to an end. I thought it would be nice to do something self-directed.

‘Clothes in Books’ is such a fascinating theme for a book blog. When did you first notice clothes in fiction and what made you choose this theme for your blog?
Even when I was a child, I noticed the clothes in books, and I empathised with heroines trying to find the right outfit for some big party or audition. That carried on—there are clothes in all books. I realised that they could be an indicator of character. I often tried to visualise what my favourite characters wore, and the whole idea came to me in one go—I knew there must be other people who loved books and would love to see a picture of a beautiful ball-dress or shirt.

Did you think of other blog titles before deciding on the very original ‘Clothes in Books’?
No! It seemed obvious that this was it, though I did check that no-one else had come up with my idea first. I was surprised no-one had.

Do you think books would have been “naked” if authors didn't write about the clothes their characters obviously wore?
I notice and miss it if authors don’t specify. I honestly think it’s a missed opportunity, it can tell us so much about characters. I can understand in some very spare styles of writing it might not seem necessary. But sometimes an author will say, ‘Anna dressed with care’ or ‘ he wondered how formal the event would be’ or ‘she spent some time shopping for a new outfit’—and then they don’t describe the clothes! And I say ‘tchah’ to myself—fancy not telling us what Anna wore.

Which genre of books has the best description of clothes? Can you mention a few authors who “dress up” their characters really well?
Two main categories:

1. As you know, I love crime fiction—and the great thing there is that, often, the clothes can be important. Authors will often use clothes as a shortcut—the girl in the slinky gown is a heartbreaker, the lady in tweeds is a respectable spinster. And I strongly approve! And then the clothes can sometimes be a clue in themselves—either for disguise or—that well-known trope—someone borrows a distinctive piece of clothing, and is then murdered. Who was the intended victim?

The women crime authors tend to do the best clothes: Patricia Wentworth is very good, and Dorothy L Sayers—they have really visualised what their characters are wearing. Agatha Christie does not give a lot of detail, but she uses clothes splendidly in both the ways I mention above.

2. The other category is novels of the mid 20th-century—what are sometimes disdainfully called ‘women’s novels’—the kind that are often reprinted now by Virago and Persephone. These are marvellous books about emotions, relationships and life as it was lived. The clothes help to give a vivid picture of life then, and again some of the authors have really thought out the clothes.

Examples are Nancy Mitford, Rosamond Lehmann, EM Delafield—all of them feature heavily on my blog!

"The women crime authors tend to do the best clothes: Patricia Wentworth is very good, and Dorothy L Sayersthey have really visualised what their characters are wearing. Agatha Christie does not give a lot of detail, but she uses clothes splendidly..."

You usually comment about clothes worn by female characters. Is this because there is not much to write about male clothing?  
I would LOVE to write more about men’s clothing, and I take the chance when I can – but the descriptions tend to be less frequent and less detailed, and in the end the women’s clothes are usually more attention-grabbing. I am reading the James Bond novels at the moment and hoped to find splendid men’s clothes there—and I have found a few—but in the end the women tend to win!

How do you know which books have sufficient descriptions of clothes and accessories? 
I don’t! Of course, some authors I can rely on, but most people will have something. When I was first starting out with the blog I made rules for myself and would desperately find some mention of clothes somewhere, even if it was irrelevant and minor. Now I have eased up on myself. So if there is no obvious clothes mention, I will look for something else I can illustrate—so a description of a beautiful work of art, or a group of people gathered for an event. I enjoy the challenge of always finding something, even if the clothes connection is tenuous!

Is it satisfying to read an entire book and then review only those parts about clothes?
Well, the answer to that is that I cheat! As I say above, I was quite strict when I started out, and I really stuck to specific clothes and descriptions. A lot of my entries are still like that, but if I want to write about different aspects of a book, or about a book with no clothes, then I just do these days. My blog, my rules.

How do you distribute your time between blogging every day and writing for other mediums, like The Guardian?
I am very lucky: I am at the end of a long career in journalism, and now work much less, there isn’t the pressure to earn so much, and I can please myself. It would be a rare day when I didn’t do something for the blog, and it is time-consuming—but then it means reading counts as work! I have a very easy relationship with The Guardian, so when life is busy I don’t do anything for them, then I come up with something. I also do some voluntary work, and have a family who take up a lot of time. So I have quite a good balance. As I said, I am very lucky.

Have you ever felt like giving up blogging and only reading books like we once used to?
Sometimes when the books are piling up and the posts aren’t written, and I’ve committed to read one thing but really want to read something else, I say to myself, ‘Why do I do this?’—but not seriously, I am not temped to give up yet.

Finally, Moira, what has blogging done for you, and especially for your own reading and writing?
Blogging has been such a positive thing in my life, in all kinds of way I didn’t expect. I have loved making so many friends, such as you, and feeling part of a big blogging community. My friends are helpful and supportive, and I learn something from them every day (and not JUST that they’re always adding to my TBR list!). I can’t imagine life without you all now—and I love that it is so good-natured and friendly. When people talk about the bad side of the internet, which does of course exist, I wish they could also see a blogging community of book fans where there is never a cross word, just kindness and interest and encouragement.

I have loved finding the incredible picture resources out there for my blog posts—they are obviously the basis of every post I do, and I am astonished every day by the amazing photos you can find, and the generosity of those who put them online and allow people to share them. I think most people have no idea what wonderful visuals can be found.

I think I read more current, new novels now because publishers send them to me. And, of course, I notice clothes even more than I ever did—often as I’m reading I am already working out where I think I might find the right image.

And I think trying to blog so often, find something to say, I hope might improve my writing style.

Thank you very much, Moira.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Currently Reading: Fatherland by Robert Harris, 1992

Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.

Berlin, April 1964. Nazi Germany has won World War II. Adolf Hitler is alive and about to celebrate his 75th birthday. JFK's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, is President of the United States. Edward VIII is King of England. And a Cold War is brewing between the Third Reich and America.

Detective Xavier March of the Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo, is investigating the suicide or murder of a senior Nazi official whose naked body is fished out of Havel River on the outskirts of Berlin. The victim was one of the participants at the Wannsee Conference, held to gain political traction over America. March uncovers a sinister plot to eliminate the other participants which, I think, puts our protagonist on a collision course with the top echelons of the Reich.

The Wannsee Conference was actually held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee in January 1942. The meeting was called by Reinhard Heydrich, director of the Reich Main Security Office and one of the key architects of the Holocaust, to discuss "a final solution to the Jewish question." Heydrich, who figures in the book, was second to Heinrich Himmler in the SS.

Alternative history raises fascinating, and sometimes provoking, questions. Fatherland, the debut novel of noted English novelist and former journalist Robert Harris, weaves his 352-page crime-thriller around one of the most debated what-if scenarios—what if Nazi Germany had won WWII and Hitler were alive and ruling long after the war?

I have read only a few pages of the book so far and I'm already drawn in by Harris' fine narrative, both engrossing and darkly entertaining. In a way Fatherland, particularly the opening pages, has shades and starkness of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park—picture Xavier March as Arkady Renko, post-war Berlin as Moscow, the discovery of a dead body (or bodies) in a public place, the Gestapo as KGB, and a government conspiracy to keep the investigation under wraps. This is my first impression.

Fatherland is first and foremost a detective-crime story. But what a setting in terms of scale and innovation! I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

In 1994, HBO made a TV movie based on the film. Rutger Hauer played the role of SS-Sturmbannführer Xavier March.

Robert Harris specialises in historical fiction and has authored nearly a dozen such novels. His upcoming thriller, Conclave, slated for a September release, is "set over 72 hours in the Vatican" and follows "the election of a fictional Pope."

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Blogger Interview: Margot Kinberg

‘Because I’m a writer, blogging
doesn’t really feel like work to me’

© Margot Kinberg
Indefatigable is the word I’d use to describe Margot Kinberg—academician, writer, and blogger. Not a day goes by when Margot does not write about crime and mystery fiction on her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., visit other people’s blogs, and leave thoughtful comments. The mystery novelist and Associate Professor at National University, La Jolla, CA, has written three Joel Williams novels and is currently revising the fourth. Margot has been blogging since 2009, introducing her readers to the pleasures and treasures of crime and mystery fiction.

In the first of a new series of interviews with book bloggers, Margot Kinberg gives us a ringside view of what blogging means to her and how it has influenced her reading and writing.

Margot, when and why did you start blogging?
I started blogging in August 2009. At the time, my first novel, Publish or Perish, had recently been released, and I wanted to introduce myself and my work to readers. I thought blogging might be a way to do that without being obnoxious or intrusive about it.

What was the motivation, the single impulse, that prompted you to become a blogger?
I think the most important motivation for me to start blogging was the desire to be a part of the crime fiction community. I wanted to join the group of crime fiction readers and writers, and blogging is one of the best ways to do that.

Why did you choose to focus on crime and mystery fiction and pick ‘Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...’ as your blog title?
I’ve been a fan of crime and mystery fiction for nearly my entire reading life. I’ve read more crime fiction than I have other genres, and that’s also the genre I write. So I was hoping that I might be able to share something of interest to other crime fiction fans. And I wanted to learn about other books and authors that are out there. There is far too much fine crime fiction for any one person to know about it all.

As far as my blog’s title goes, I wasn’t sure exactly what to call it at first. I wanted to make it clear that I’m a crime writer. In these days, authors really do have to do their own promotion. At the same time, I wanted to show that the main theme of my blog is not me, but crime fiction. Since I started the blog, I’ve thought a few times about changing the name. But so far, it’s working.

“...blogging has given me very helpful discipline of writing every day. Every time you write, you get better at it. Keeping a blog is, in my opinion, an effective way to plan, focus, write, revise, edit and publish. All of those are things authors need to learn to do well.”

How do you manage to blog every single day and also visit so many other blogs without fail?
That’s not an easy question to answer, actually. It’s a bit like asking a cook how he or she decides how to season a certain dish. The answer you sometimes get is, ‘I don’t know. A little of this, a little of that…’ There is so much depth, breadth and variety in crime fiction that there’s always something to say about it. And since I’m a writer, I’m also an observer. So as I think about the genre, and what I see, hear and read, and what happens to me, I get plenty of inspiration.

As far as visiting other blogs, I learn far too much from other bloggers not to visit them. I get great ideas for books to read, interesting perspectives, and more. So it’s worth it to me to make the time to visit other blogs. I learn with each visit. 

Are there days when you feel, “God, I'm so tired of blogging. I want to give it up and just sit and read books like I used to.”
Not really, to be honest. Of course, there are times when I’m not feeling well, or when work or other commitments crowd me. And I get exhausted, like anyone else does. But because I’m a writer, blogging doesn’t really feel like work to me. It helps me to focus, and it allows me to go on about a topic that’s of real interest to me. What more could you want?

First we had work-life balance. Now we have work-life-blog. How do you balance blogging with your personal and professional commitments? 

Aye, there’s the rub! And, since I’m only human, I’ll admit that I don’t always balance everything perfectly. I don’t see how anyone can. But I do try to plan carefully–I think that’s vital–so that everything gets done. Some days I’m more successful at that than I am on other days… I also try to streamline my life, so that I don’t end up driving myself too hard. There’s nothing wrong with meetings of reasonable length, easy-care clothes, simple recipes and automatic posting of blogs to all of one’s social media outlets. And coffee.

What has blogging done for you, and especially for your own reading and writing? 

Now you’re touching on the real reasons I keep blogging. For one thing, blogging has introduced me to some truly fine people, such as yourself, who have taught me much about books and reading. Whether I’ve met them in person or not, the other members of the book blogging community have enriched my life. I’ve learned so much from everyone. Of course, there is that little matter of the TBR, but I am very grateful for the friendships I’ve formed and the things I’ve learned.

And that leads me to your question about reading. I’ve become much more informed about crime fiction as a result of my blogging. I’ve gotten to know many new-to-me authors, and read all sorts of books that I wouldn’t otherwise have done.

Reading more, and more varied, crime fiction has also made me, I hope, a better writer. In fact, that’s advice I’d give to any writer: read. Read a lot. It does improve one’s writing. I also think that blogging has given me very helpful discipline of writing every day. Every time you write, you get better at it. Keeping a blog is, in my opinion, an effective way to plan, focus, write, revise, edit and publish. All of those are things authors need to learn to do well.

I’ve also learned a lot from the writing-related blogs I follow. Other writers face the same challenges that I do, and have found interesting ways to meet them. And I’ve gotten a wealth of information about the entire writing process; that’s helped me, too. Blogging has given me access to invaluable writing resources. With all of that benefit, how could I not keep blogging? 

Thank you very much, Margot.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969

Entry for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Click on the link and discover films and television series you may have missed.

In a cheeky post on Facebook a few days ago, I observed that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) could well have been the original Brokeback Mountain (2005). I’m sure this is not a new thought. It has probably occurred to others who have seen both films and written about it too.

Partners in crime, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), don't share the sexual relationship and emotional chemistry that Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) do in Ang Lee's heartbreaking film.

Yet, the relationship that Cassidy and the Kid have, as they rob trains in the US and hold up banks in Bolivia, is no less special. They nurture a strong bond of friendship and mutual respect. The outlaws are together from the beginning of the film—covering each other’s backs, drawing comfort from one another, each finding strength in the other's presencetill the very end.

The Cassidy-Kid relationship is not as complicated as that of Ennis and Jack, who marry their girlfriends eventually. They are not physically intimate nor do they pine for each other, although they do sleep with the same woman, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), the Kid’s lover. But it's not about her.

My favourite part in the film is when Cassidy and the Kid get to know each other better during a prolonged run from a dogged US posse, through barren lands and rocky mountains. In one particular scene, the Kid dumps his horse and rides behind Cassidy in an effort to throw off their pursuers. It doesn’t work. It is this adventurous journey, characterised by quiet fear, mild candour and wry humour, that brings them closer in a nonsexual way.

The final scene, when Cassidy and the Kid try and shoot their way out of a hopeless situation, is somewhat reminiscent of a Bollywood film where two lovers jump off a cliff because their parents oppose their relationship. The "boys" ride into the twilight together.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a very likeable and an entertaining western film that could have also been a poignant and tragic gay story. Had it been one, it'd probably have been ahead of its time. What do you think?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Presumption of Death by Perri O’Shaughnessy, 2003

Entry for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. P.S.: This week Todd Mason is hosting FFB over at his blog Sweet Freedom.

Presumption of Death is the ninth book in the Nina Reilly legal suspense and mystery series written by Perri O’Shaughnessy, the pseudonym of sisters Mary and Pamela O'Shaughnessy of California.

Nina Reilly is a successful lawyer with a penchant for difficult cases. She practices out of Lake Tahoe. In this novel, however, Nina comes to Carmel Valley in Monterey County to give her life a new direction. She lives with her boyfriend, private investigator Paul van Wagoner, with whom she shares a close but complicated relationship.

Carmel Valley is where Nina faces the biggest test of her career. Just as she is settling down in the place where she started her career, Wish, the 21-year-old son of her former assistant Sandy Whitefeather, is arrested on suspicion of lighting fires in the valley, destroying homes and property, and causing the suspected death of his no-good jobless friend Danny Cervantes.

Wish is close to both Nina and Paul who feel responsible for his welfare and want to clear his name. He reminds Nina of her own estranged son. Paul feels they owe it to Sandy to get her son out of jail. Wish has been assisting the PI on his cases. The three are like family without being related.

Did Wish ignite the fires? Did he use arson to kill his friend? Or was he framed by one or more people with a dark and sinister motive?

A bigger question—is Danny really dead? The body found after the last fire was charred and was identified as Danny’s from a belt decorated with conchos, small silver medallions. The autopsy revealed a skull injury. Wish is taken into custody because a woman named Ruthie, who picks up stray cats, claimed to have seen the two men in a car and presumed they were the arsonists. Later in the book, the cat lady is found mysteriously dead in her car.

Apart from Ruthie, Presumption of Death has several interesting characters, all of whom are suspects in the eyes of Nina and Paul. There are married couples, old and new, harbouring secrets and fantasies; a creepy and unpleasant young man called Robert ‘Coyote’ Johnson who lives on a dirt road in a canyon with Nate, his terrified younger brother; and Danny’s reclusive but charming uncle Ben Cervantes.

Any of these people could have started the fires in a premeditated move to halt the rapid development of Carmel Valley—the replacement of cottages with condos and mansions, the displacement of old habitants and the handicapped—and let Wish take the rap. Wish and Danny were local Native Americans and were anti-development.

Presumption of Death is an engaging story with some implied elements, like the real wildfires in Carmel Valley in California.
The Nina-Paul relationship is realistic. Although they have their differences, with Nina being more headstrong of the two, they are on the same wavelength. They sound like a newly-married couple next door. The pace is slow in the first-half of the 443-page book, as the author describes the village atmosphere and the ways of disparate neighbours in some detail. The narrative style is elegant but casual, almost conversational. At one point I wanted to put away the book (which I never do) but I was glad I read through, as the suspense built up in the second-half with the action shifting to the courtroom

Perri O’Shaughnessy paints a deceptive picture of Carmel Valley whose landscape is not as beautiful as it would seem and whose residents are not as peace-loving as they appear to be. Nina and Paul pursue their investigation with relentless zeal and considerable risk, as they unravel the chilling truth in, what I thought, was an unexpected twist to a decent legal thriller.

The Nina Reilly novels

01. Motion to Suppress, 1995
02. Invasion of Privacy, 1996
03. Obstruction of Justice, 1997
04. Breach of Promise, 1998
05. Acts of Malice, 1999
06. Move to Strike, 2000
07. Writ of Execution, 2001
08. Unfit to Practice, 2002
09. Presumption of Death, 2003
10. Unlucky in Law, 2004
11. Case of Lies, 2005
12. Show No Fear, 2008
13. Dreams of the Dead, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Drabble #5: A story in 100 words

Mike Hammer sat in a quiet corner in the library and read My Gun is Quick by Mickey Spillane.

“Excuse me, sir. What is that book you are reading?”

Mike looked up into the grim faces of a police inspector and a constable. The librarian, colour draining from her cheeks, lurched against a bookcase.

How dare you! Books about guns, sex, and violence are banned.

The inspector held a pair of handcuffs. “You are under arrest.”

“I don’t think so.”

The gun in Mike’s hand coughed...once, then twice.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Discovering Erma Bombeck

"When humour goes, there goes civilisation."

Some of that humour died with Erma Bombeck in April 1996. 

I first heard of the American author and humourist in the late nineties and read about her work only after I had access to the internet. Then, about a decade ago, I bought a few paperbacks in a secondhand bookshop and was hooked by her clean, elegant, and thoughtful humour. She saw the funny side of everyday life, marriage, family, children, relationships, jobs, dreams, and even issues like post-natal depression. There was a distinct flavour to her humour writing that put me at ease as I read.

Last evening, I bought one more book, I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise: Children Surviving Cancer (1989), a grim and sobering read compared to her previous books. The book is not without humour, except it's not her own. Bombeck sees and hears the wonderful stories of brave children and teenagers who survived cancer and is amazed when she learns how humour and laughter and optimism helped the kids beat the odds.

As she prepared to write the book, Bombeck wondered if there could be humour in such a serious topic. Her doubts were cleared when one kid told her, "Would you be happier if we cried all the time?" She was convinced. Bombeck donated all the money earned from the sale of this book to cancer research. 

Every once in a while I read Erma Bombeck. I leaf through her books at random, in much the same way I read spiritual books. Humour and philosophy, there's not much difference. Both put me in a good mood. That's the idea of reading most anything.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Green Zone, 2010

My entry for Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

I discovered Green Zone (2010), directed by Paul Greengrass, and Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (2006), the book on which it is loosely based, quite by accident.

After watching the film unexpectedly on cable, I read about it online and found that it was adapted from the book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an award-winning Indian-American journalist.

Chandrasekaran was former Bureau Chief of The Washington Post in Baghdad had a ringside view of America’s 2003 war in Iraq. He was until recently National Editor at the paper and, apparently, left the Post to start his own venture.

I plan to read Imperial Life in the Emerald City because I have been following events in Iraq and the Middle East ever since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Before I talk about the film, here is the synopsis of the book.

The Green Zone, Baghdad, 2003: in this walled-off compound of swimming pools and luxurious amenities, Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority set out to fashion a new, democratic Iraq. Staffed by idealistic aides chosen primarily for their views on issues such as abortion and capital punishment, the CPA spent the crucial first year of occupation pursuing goals that had little to do with the immediate needs of a postwar nation: flat taxes instead of electricity and deregulated health care instead of emergency medical supplies.

In this acclaimed firsthand account, the former Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post gives us an intimate portrait of life inside this Oz-like bubble, which continued unaffected by the growing mayhem outside. This is a quietly devastating tale of imperial folly, and the definitive history of those early days when things went irrevocably wrong in Iraq.

I think the common thread between film and book is that things didn’t go as America planned in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war. Democracy cannot replace dictatorship overnight. Any regime change and especially a forced one brings its own set of challenges. There are serious consequences as we have seen in the years following US withdrawal. Iraq seems to be worse off than it was under Saddam, however despotic his regime was.

While George Bush senior was largely justified in launching Operation Desert Shield, his son’s invasion of Iraq thirteen years later had less to do with weapons of mass destruction and more to do with conquering Iraq and replacing Saddam with a puppet regime. Green Zone exposes the lies Bush and his neocon buddies told the world, questions the justification for American involvement, and reveals the deceptions and internal conflicts of agencies like Pentagon and CIA.

Caught in the crossfire of conspiracy are Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his men whose mission is to find the weapons—based on secret information given by an Iraqi named Magellan—and bring in Al-Rawi, a powerful general in the Iraqi Republican Guard. The powers-that-be have good reason to capture Rawi for he can nail America's lie.

During a tense standoff between Miller and Rawi, the general reveals that Iraq got rid of the weapons in the early nineties but Washington didn’t want the world to know the truth. And that might well have been the case.

General Al Rawi: Your government wanted to hear the lie, Mr. Miller... they wanted Saddam out and they did exactly what they had to do... this is why you are here...

Rawi, who was on America’s 55 most wanted list, is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the suppression of the 1991 rebellions in Iraq.

Green Zone has the feel of an action-packed documentary and that’s partly because the events and people seem all too real, including WSJ reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) who suspects the truth and lets Miller in on the secret. The last hour of the film is shot almost entirely in the dark and shadowy lanes of Baghdad, as Miller and his men chase Al Rawi. It’s the kind of film that makes you wonder—"Did this really happen?”—and leaves you balancing on the seesaw of fact and fiction.

The very talented Matt Damon is somewhat expressionless but he does well as a conscientious soldier in a war that should have never taken place. Other notable actors include Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson. The film was shot in Spain, Morocco and England though the viewer wouldn't know. 

Director Paul Greengrass seems to favour Damon who he cast in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) in the Bourne Trilogy. The actor is set to reprise the role of Jason Bourne in the namesake movie slated for a July release. Apart from these films, Greengrass has made Captain Phillips (2013), United 93 (2006) and Bloody Sunday (2002), all very intense and hair-raising. Clearly, he has a penchant for real-life stories laden with drama and action.

If you enjoyed films like American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and Black Hawk Down, you’ll probably like the lesser-known Green Zone, but don’t go in with too many expectations.