sábado, maio 31, 2014

"The Potter's Field" by Andrea Camilleri

The Potter's Field - Andrea Camilleri
I always look forward to a novel by Andrea Camilleri. His Mediterranean sense of lightness, of the quirky fun of a life lived well is very hard to find in literature.

This novel has everything I’d expect, being situated in the Crime Fiction Landscape. But then, being a Camilleri novel, everything is different. It starts with a cut-up body, moves on to a missing husband, and then comes the Mafia.  Upon finishing it, I was left with a vision of the sun, sea, nasty crimes, beautiful women, and pasta with sea urchins, which is pretty much what I remember from all of his novels. But what’s important is not the plot. What really matters is what happens on the sidelines.

His novels are also full of the harsher and hard light of the dry Sicilian heat. As we read his novels we sweat along with them. There are very few writers with this sense of place, bringing Sicily to life in small snapshots.

The only other Crime Fiction writers that would seem his equal in this aspect are Ian Rankin with his urban Edinburgh, Henning Mankell with his Ystad in Sweden and Derek Raymond’s with his compelling novels of London.

Camilleri is a refreshing writer. He lets us into the story at all points. His sense of place gives Sicily a distinct flavour. His revulsion with everything government-related rings true with almost everyone. His love and appreciation of women, speaks truly of all men. Camilleri delights all the senses.

Camilleri celebrates what is best in what makes us human. One of the things that I truly appreciate about Camilleri’s novels is the fact that he makes us experience the way Inspector Montalbano ages. We are able to experience all his fears and questions of life coming slowly to an end. As Montalbano experiences the close of life, he realizes that man and woman can draw on the experiences of a life lived to empower the time and experiences still left to them. All the simple pleasures of life, good food, the beauty of women are present throughout his novels.

When I think “hedonist”, Montalbano always comes to mind, ie, someone who enjoys the pleasures of food (religiously in silence), long walks and swims, good reads, better if in solitude (or with Ana by my side…).

Right at the end of the novel, Camilleri brilliantly summarizes what it means to read a Montalbano novel:

How did he Montalbano feel?
“I’m just tired”, was his bleak reply.
Some time ago he had read the title, and only the title, of an essay called:
“God is tired.” Livia had once asked him provocatively if he thought he was a God. A fourth-rate, minor God, he had thought at the time. But, as the years passed, he’d become convinced he wasn’t even a back-row god, but only the poor puppeteer of a wretched puppet theater. A puppeteer who struggled to bring off the performances as best he knew how. And for each new performance he managed to bring to a close, the struggle became greater, more wearisome. How much longer could he keep up?
Better, for now, not to think of such things. Better to sit and gaze at the sea, which, whether in Vigàta or Boccadasse, is still the sea.

sábado, maio 24, 2014

"Cold In July" by Joe R. Lansdale

Cold in July - Joe R. Lansdale
My second Lansdale, right after reading “Hot In December” (reviewed here).

The hard-boiled crime fiction's main characteristics are cynicism, toughness in difficult situations, and a wise-cracking sense of humor, as well as the desire to see justice fulfilled. I got plenty of that with this novel…

The vast majority of Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction being published today is utter crap.

When I hear people talking about “hard-boiled,” what they usually mean is books with urban settings, characters who are professionally involved in solving crime, a fair amount of violence, and a generally cynical outlook. I could give several examples, but I won’t. Suffice to say that the hard-boiled crappy variety is easily recognizable. We’ll know that the world we are about to embark on is dark and corrupt and nothing the main character can do will change that, but he will be nevertheless compelled to try, even though he knows that he is ultimately doomed to fail… It’s alright to play to the genre tropes, but it’s also refreshing to read something different once in a while.

Another pet peeve of mine is the fact that in bad Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction the main character’s knowledge makes him cranky and leads him to drink too much; it also makes him no fun at parties, so he doesn’t usually have many friends (be it male of female). For family maybe he’ll get something approaching warmth with a woman of easy virtue, but she will either get killed or betray him.

Joe R. Lansdale is able to avoid all these traps. On top of that he also wrote a top-notch Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction novel.

The experience I had with this novel was much akin to the one with “Hot in December”: tension-packed, a lot of talk and little action (rest assured that all the talk is necessary, and when the action comes it hits hard). Violence for violence’s sake is not my thing, but by using three-dimensional characters Lansdale was able to consistently create “real” people who usually get caught up in violence against their will. I don’t think that because his books are populated with lots of violence, it doesn't mean that they are macho. Far from it. In fact it could be interpreted as being a fantastic “drama”, packed with human tenderness and high emotions. It reminds me of an Italian Opera by Verdi, where everything is blown out of proportion, but still being able to remain true to the story.

The private investigator (Russell) was one of the more colorful characters I’ve ever read and has some of the best lines. As for Dane’s wife, she served the purpose of counterbalancing the hard-boiledness of the novel, sort of lending a different kind of protective spirit to the story.

The only thing not ringing true in the story are some of Russell’s actions. For me it was hard to accept he’d make the decision he does and even harder that Dane would go along with it.

As stated above, this is my second Lansdale and it won’t my last. His grit-and-wits’ pedigree is evident throughout.

domingo, maio 18, 2014

"Hot in December" by Joe R. Lansdale

Hot in December - Joe R. Lansdale
My first Joe Lansdale and it won't be my last, but I've run into a few glitches. Maybe due to the novella form adopted.

The characters seemed to be interchangeable, ie, a few of them couldn't stand on its own. The Cason character comes to mind. After Cason's introduction at the beginning, and the explanation of burner cell phones, Cason serves no real purpose to the story. After that he became just a mere cypher in the story. With very minor changes, this particular character could have been eliminated altogether.

Lansdale is not alone here, particularly in the crime fiction shorter forms. In Crime Fiction, particularly in the Short Story and Novella form, the authors seem to be unable to avoid cyphering the characters to the point of being quite alike. In my view this is due to the fact that the shorter forms tend to be plot-driven, instead of being character-driven. In this type of approach, each of the characters must be spot on and be able to push the story forward from the beginning, otherwise they lose consistency (they become the abovementioned character cyphers).

This aside, it was still one hell of a ride. Lansdale is brutal in shoving the reader deeper and deeper into Tom’s troubles. It seemed this story was meant to be written this way, ie, to be read briskly, with little stop. And it worked.

sábado, maio 17, 2014

"A Colder War" by Charles Cumming

A Colder War - Charles Cumming
"A Colder War" is Charles Cumming’s sequel to his first Thomas Kell novel, "A Foreign Country" (reviewed here).

I love Gentleman-thief's novels.

I don't usually do book or author comparisons, but this time I'm going down that path.
Is it possible to write successful spy fiction in Le Carrés Milieu? Yes, it is. Charles Cumming proves it.

In my teenage years I fell in love with spy novels. I devoured everything Le Carre, Len Deighton and Graham Greene ever wrote.

And then I started to get bored. Spy Fiction is full of writers who prefer to “tell” what is happening, what someone does, what happened when they went to the loo, what they had for dinner three days ago, instead of dramatizing the event and “showing”. It’s all about keeping the narrative active. I don’t need the writer to tell me that someone is constipated, miserable, and fed up with life. Show me! A slightly more sophisticated version of this is when a writer tells you all there is to know about a set of events or a character’s backstory. It translates to the reader as “pay attention. I’m about to tell you something important”. This kind of thing can and will rapidly lead me into snooze time. Le Carré, Cumming, and Deighton, to name just a few, don’t fall into this trap. I’m particularly fond of the way they use the spy genre to explore the human condition. That’s the name of the game as far as I’m concerned.

On top of that, what makes this book stand out among the spy genre are the characters Rachel, Amelia, Paul and the mole. If they were two-dimensional plot devices, it wouldn't have worked. That's the reason why I discard a lot of spy fiction nowadays. In the first book of this trilogy, Cumming scrutinizes the moral problems Cumming himself might have faced had he made it into MI6 himself (see link for the review above). In "A Colder War" we are taken into the personal quandaries of suffering betrayal. And here resides the books emotional power and allure. 

Another strong point is Cumming’s writing skills. By using the cloak-and-dagger devices, derived not from the mole’s identity, but from Kell’s pursuit, against the backdrop of the secrecy of CIA and SVR motifs, he makes a detour from Le Carré. This is where Cummings mastery clearly shows and keeps him apart from what's being written today in terms of Spy Fiction.

Cumming’s prose doesn’t yet match the elegance of Le Carré but he is improving.  The plot in this particular instance may not be as convoluted as le Carré, but there is a similar attention to detail and location.

Spying might not be the oldest profession, but it probably comes a close second...

domingo, maio 11, 2014

"Half a King" by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King - Joe Abercrombie
While reading Abercrombie's previous books, I'd always wondered whether he could ever write something without the f-word...? He surely can:

"With a good bloody ending this journey will make a fine song, I think," Nothing held his free arm out, fingers spread, towards the archway through which Shadikshirram and her Banyas would no doubt soon be spilling, fixed on murder.
"A band of brave companions escorting the rightful king of Gettland to his stolen chair! A last stand amidst the elf-ruins of yore! You cannot expect all the heroes to survive a good song, you know."
"He's a damn devil," murmured Sumael, jaw muscles clenching and unclenching as she weighted her hatchet in her hand.
"When you're in hell," murmured Yarvi, "only a devil can point the way out."

(at the end of chapter 26)

As soon as it came to my acquaintance that Abercrombie was writing an YA novel, I felt a chill ran through me. I kept wondering whether what makes Joe Abercrombie so different would survive the transition to YA. Have no fear. Despite being an YA novel, it's still an Abercrombie novel.

I still remember tearing into some of Abercrombie's novels as if there were no tomorrow and that's what I did with "Half a King". I was in some kind of reading frenzy... This was not the time to take my time and savour it, stretching the experience out over weeks. That's actually my preferred way of reading something. But last night, just over one day after I started it, I finally finished. Hot damn, that was good.

At its base, this book is your typical standard medieval fantasy novel. There's a (half a) king, who gathers a group of characters to carry out some task that needs doing. There's a bunch of malcontents (Ankran, Rulf, Jaud), and a swordsman (Nothing), and a clever woman (Sumael). There's vengeance, and past actions casting long shadows over the present. Blah-ba-blah-blah-blah. But, as always, the proof is in the execution. And in "Half a King", the execution is nothing short of brilliant. Even taking into account that this is a YA novel.

Abercrombie makes himself comfortable in the classical tropes of the fantasy millieu. I can picture him leaning back, stretching out, putting his feet up, and taking his time with it, treating this novel as the first part of a three-act drama (two more novels to come out in due course), letting his characters and world breathe and come to life as he draws his plot together.

Abercrombie's prose in general is sharp. It reads quickly but packs a verbal twack at the same time. Plus, it's funny. Not in the farcical sense (it's not Abercrombie's cup of tea), but funny nonetheless (I've always disliked fantasy books where a young hero swings his magic wand and speaks a few words to create a lightning, a toad, or whatever, ie, Harry Potter comes to mind).

One thing that this novel lacked was some depth. Here we don't get the POV's of an Abercrombie novel. POV is way better to deepen the knowledge of a character. That is a fact. The omniscient teller is always just a teller, not the character himself. This is YA, ie, it's some sort of a downgrade from the usual Abercrombie. Ah, well. Better an Abercrombie's YA than no Abercrombie novel at all.

As stated in one of my other reviews (not in the one beneath), I just can't read traditional fantasy anymore. There is not much it can give me. That's why, at the moment, only Martin and Abercrombie fit the bill.

"Red Country" review, for those who would care to read it.

domingo, maio 04, 2014

"The Son" by Jo Nesbo

The Son - Jo Nesbø
Eine Mordgeschichte erfordert mehr schöpferische Fantasie, mehr Gespür für Komposition und den sparsamen Umgang mit Effekten als jede andere literarische Gattung. Der Kriminalschriststeller muss stimmig sein; er muss ein Gefühl für die Mathematik der Details haben, denn alles muss in eine streng begrenzte Einheit passen und auf eine einzige, vorbestimmte Auflösung hinzielen.

(My own rough translation: A murder story requires more creative imagination, more sense of composition and the sparing use of effects than any other literary genre. The crime fiction writer must be consistent; he must have a sense of the mathematics of the details, because everything has to adhere to a strictly and coherent unit and aim at a single predetermined resolution.)

In Der Nachtmensch, 1950 by André Bjerke (aka Bernhard Borge).

I can wholeheartedly apply this to Jo Nesbo. He's the mathematician of Crime Fiction. His plots are all worked out down to the smallest detail.

Back in the day, I'd never considered myself as a crime fiction reader. I loved SF, psychological thrillers or gothic mysteries – but Crime Fiction? I wasn’t really into it. And then I discovered Nesbo’s books (iniatially in German, because there weren't translated books of him in English much less in Portuguese) and I was introduced to a completely different world from the one I’d imagined: a world of snowy Oslo streets and a charismatic, damaged detective with plots that were so full of twists and turns that I couldn’t put them down because I just had to know what happened next.

The misnomer unputdownable is often used to classify Nesbo's novels. When Nesbo was still relatively unknown in Portugal, it felt like there were a select group of us who knew the secret of these ridiculously addictive books.

Is Harry Hole gone for good? In the last novels Nesbo tried to destroy him in order to make his return impossible.  Has Nesbo already reached this point? In the book that came after The Snowman, which was called The Leopard he tried to kill off Harry three times, and the increasingly ludicrous violence makes the plot seem like something made for a Soap Opera...

Maybe The Son is his first departure novel from Hole.

In this novel all of Nesbo's main qualities as a writer are also present. What I've always loved about Nesbo’s books is that they aren’t just about the pace of the plot, they might be a breathless read, but they’re also a complex one. I love the fact that through them I’ve discovered what “The Right Movement” in Norway is as well as Norway’s involvement in the Second World War was. Nesbo’s characters feel real to me and their individual stories are just as involving as the hunt to find a killer.

I think the reason for the inventiveness and ingenuity is Nesbo himself.  In this particular novel we've got the "usual" cast of unsavoury and untrustworthy characters and layer upon layer of deceit. Nevertheless, Nesbo was able to turn our perceptions of good and bad completely upside down, as the lines between justice and law and right and wrong became increasingly blurred.

The book's central is one of vengeance, retribution and justice.  People can never truly seem to escape the sins of their past, and I started questioning whether they should. And if they deserve to be punished, what should we think of the person doing the punishing? In fact, there’s a general sense throughout the book that sometimes, crimes can be both justified and inevitable:

‘You saved him, didn’t you?’
‘He called me his angel. But it wasn’t my love for him that saved him. Completely the opposite of what so-called wise men say, I’ll argue that being loved never saved anyone. It was his love of me that did it. He saved himself.’
‘By loving you back.’
‘Amen.’

On the other hand, what comes as the law in Norway is presented as increasingly untrustworthy, with prison governors and police officers under the pay of hoodlums. A corrupt police force isn’t anything new in Crime Fiction, but in this novel I was left questioning the motives of every single character that crossed the page.

When I'm asked when did the Nirvana of the Norwegian Crime Fiction Literature take place, I always answer: Now!