Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Happy Holidays meme

Sandra Ruttan over at On Life and Other Inconveniences has posted a Happy Holidays meme and invited people to tag themselves, so here goes...

What's the most original Christmas gift you received?
The same as every year: my beloved Spousal Equivalent makes me a personalized desk calendar. This year's theme is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Previous years have included Deadwood and Blazing Saddles. Every year she come up with something new to make them fun.

What book did you get for Christmas?
Death was the Other Woman, by Linda L. Richards
The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley

The best thing about the holidays...
Relaxing with my daughter and the Spousal Equivalent, with no one having anyplace else they needed to be, or any pending tasks.

The worst thing about the holidays...

Something you did this year for the first time, or first time in a long time.
Got Mono.

Do you have a New Year's resolution?
Don't get mono anymore.

I'll do the same as Sandra did: I won't tag anyone, but feel free to tag yourself. Just a leave a comment below to let me know you did, and where to find you.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Best Reads of 2008

Not all of these books came out in 2008; I read them as I get to them. These were the ten (plus one)best books I read for first time this year, listed alphabetically by author. Books I reviewed contain links to the review, as do the names of authors I was able to interview.

Mark BillinghamIn the Dark
My first exposure to Billingham; I’ll be back. A compelling, multi-faceted story told with an economical style that never lapses into dryness. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the plot twists are unforeseen, yet inevitable. A reader can’t ask for more.

Jimmy Breslin – The Good Rat
The story of Burt Kaplan, the prime witness in the case against New York’s two hit man cops, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, told as only Breslin can. The arrogance and hubris of the mobsters, the matter-of-factness of their betrayal, and insights into the decline of a mob well past the glory days of Costello, Profaci, Gambino, et al. A must read for anyone with an interest in how New York’s Five Families have played out their strings, and a lot of fun.

Declan BurkeThe Big O
The most fun I’ve had reading a book all year, laugh out loud funny. Burke’s cast of characters are the love children of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. More than once I caught myself wondering, “What’s this asshole going to do now?” (Referring to a character, not Burke.) No one’s quite as sharp as they think they are, want to be, or need to be. The ending is a little more complicated than it needs to be, but that’s quibbling.

Sean Chercover – Trigger City
Chercover may be the next big deal in American PI fiction. Trigger City has its homage to Chandler in tone and style, but never feels retro; it’s Twenty-First Century all the way. A major plot twist halfway through is exquisitely set up to provide a true “Oh shit!” moment, and the ending is satisfying for being as good for the characters as can be expected. Nothing too Hollywood here, just top-rate hard-boiled fiction from a writer who bears watching. (Note: Schedules dictated the delay of my interview with Sean Chercover. It should be posted here in early January.)

John Connolly – The Reapers
Louis and Angel get their own book; Charlie Parker appears only as The Detective, who gets to try to repay some of the chits he’s rolled up in Connolly’s previous books. As formidable as Parker and Louis are, the book is stolen by everyman Willie Brew, who becomes the moral center of the book. As violent as anything Connolly has ever written, The Reapers always retains its humanity, in large part through Connolly’s artful descriptions. He’s probably the closest current writer to James Lee Burke in the poetic narrative department, and his skills are well used here.

Timothy HallinanThe Fourth Watcher
Maybe the best pure thriller I read this year, but reading it as just a thriller is cheating yourself. This is what thrillers should want to be when they grow up, a multi-layered story about people, with the suspense growing entirely from the reader’s empathy for the characters. Hallinan’s writing style is perfectly suited for such a tale: crisp, not dry; humor flows naturally from the characters’ personalities and relationships; and your emotions are evoked, not demanded. Not to be missed.

Declan HughesThe Price of Blood
The third book in Hughes’s Ed Loy series; let’s hope there are plenty more. Right up there with Connolly as a wordsmith, Hughes combines the atmospherics of Chandler with the family histories of Ross Macdonald, tying them together in aftermath of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom. Never apologetic, Hughes lays out flawed characters for the reader to decide who to root for. Loy fights his demons without becoming maudlin about it, and Tommy Owens may be the most well-rounded sidekick currently operating.

Laura Lippman – Hardly Knew Her
This collection of short stories puts a whole new sheen on Lippman’s work. Best known for her Tess Monahan novels, the Monahan short stories may be the least compelling of the bunch, as the writing there is the least adventurous. A wide-ranging list of subjects, covered by a writer equally at home in a variety of styles. Short story collections are sometimes good bathroom reads; take this one in there and the rest of your family may explode before you come out again.

David McCullough – The Great Bridge
Yes, I do read books other than crime. This story of how the Roeblings built the Brooklyn Bridge is a masterpiece on a par with the bridge itself. No detail is too small for McCullough’s eye, yet the tale is never bogged down in minutiae. A look into New York and Brooklyn life of the day as well as the story of the bridge, this book alone would cement McCullough’s reputation, even without the rest of his formidable oeuvre.

John McFetridge – Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
A sequel of sorts to his first novel, Dirty Sweet, EKTIN uses the same Toronto settings and a handful of the characters to provide continuity. Dirty Sweet was good; EKTIN is a lot better than good. The writing is crisper, the humor flows better, and the plotlines spins themselves out effortlessly, yet unexpectedly. Contains maybe the best opening sequence of the year.

Richard Price – Freedomland
This one’s been around a while, but I only discovered Price through my immersion in The Wire. A crime story that isn’t, Freedomland uses a crime to show the dynamics of a situation that, once launched, communicates like a fire, not obeying the intent of any of its originators. Darker than Wolfe’s work, but Freedomland is not unlike The Bonfire of the Vanities for the underclass.

So, while 2008 may have been a shit year in a lot of ways, it was a good year for reading.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Query Me This

Annette Dashofy, a contributor to the excellent collective blog Working Stiffs, has provided a link to a PW article by agent Stephen Barbara that arrived to me though Sisters in Crime via a friend. Barbara’s subject is “The Great American Query Letter,” and comments on what he clearly considers to be the Golden Age of the query letter.

According to Barbara, more good query letters are written now that ever before, and it’s driving him crazy. It used to be an agent could look at the query letter—maybe not even have to read it—and know immediately the book could be passed on. (See his article for an entertaining passage on how he’d just know.) Now, thanks to seminars, webinars, blogs, and a general understanding that a writer must get the agent’s attention before he can get a reading, all the query letters look great. Most of the writing samples still stink, but now he has to read them to separate the wheat from the chaff; the query doesn’t help with elimination. He ends his article by saying not to worry too much about queries you send him. (It’s another entertaining passage, well worth reading. The whole piece is fun.)

From a writer’s perspective, this is probably good news. I have friends who spend time and effort agonizing over queries when that time would have been better spent on another draft. At least now we know of one agent who isn’t going to use a white glove to see if your query is worthy of reading your book, so long as you avoid certain obvious errors.

It may make things a little harder for agents, and God knows they don’t need any more on their plates. (Just read one of their blogs for more than a week and see if that topic doesn’t get mentioned.) It can also free up some time and energy for writers, who can concentrate more on getting a better book out, which should work to everyone’s advantage.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

November Reading

A pretty slow month for several reasons, not the least of which was a family visit over the long Thanksgiving weekend. Some oldies but goodies got read, though, starting with

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett
I'd read it before and thought it was okay, thought I'd read it again in light of my (hopefully) more discerning taste. Yep, it's all they said it was. Tightly written, and it moves along with the staccato rhythm of gunfire, of which there is plenty. Maybe the most filmed book of the genre, though never under its own name, Red Harvest is, indeed, a seminal piece of American crime fiction everyone interested in the form should be familiar with.

Hardly Knew Her, by Laura Lippman
My review for New Mystery Reader is here, but. more informally, this is an excellent, if a little schizophrenic, book. An anthology of stories written over an eight year period, some specifically for this book, it reads as if written by two people. The Tess Monaghan stories are good, but stylistically more bland; several others, notably "The Crack Cocaine Diet," sizzle with wit and unique writing. Personally, I think the style used for the Monaghan stories is weaker, their immense popularity notwithstanding, but that's probably just em being contrary again.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
This is another re-read, as research into next year's writing project. I savored it even more than the first time, when I loved it. Part of that is due to my increased knowledge and appreciation of what the cops are doing, and part is how artfully Simon weaves a year of unrelated events into a narrative that explains the Ten Rules of a Homicide Cop, as well as humanizing both cops and crooks. Having seen The Wire made this even more fun, as the parallels are so easy to see. My face lit up with recognition at the first mention of the tale of Snot Boogie. For anyone who hasn't read this and has an interest in learning about police procedure beyond investigative technique and into how the cops think about things, this is still the book to read.