Thursday, September 3, 2015

Summer's Best Reads

It’s been a busy summer, what with The Sole Heir finishing her Masters, then helping her
move to Connecticut for medical school, and going back to see her receive her first white coat and stethoscope. I also switched up on my reading habits, and did some truly recreational reading. Not that reading is ever other than recreational for me, but I took the time to read a lot of baseball analysis as a combination of relaxation and palate cleansing. With Labor Day hard upon us, I stand ready to get back into writing and taking a more workmanlike approach to my literary pursuits. (Every time I use my name and “literary” in the same sentence, Cormac McCarthy throws up in his mouth a little and has no idea why.) Here’s what I’ve been up to that’s worth passing along.

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, Ed McBain. I’m in the tank for McBain as much as ever, so anything of his is likely to make my recommended list. This one is fairly early in the 87th Precinct series (1960), but many of the things that made him wear so well are evident, not least including working a little set piece humor into the investigation. Everything kicks off when a patrol officer notices a box left behind at a bus stop and finds a human hand inside. From there, everyone gets involved.

Bank Shot, Donald Westlake. Dortmunder steals a bank. Not just robs; steals. The real bank is undergoing renovation, so business is conducted out of a trailer that’s up on blocks, and Andy Kelp’s nephew, Victor, has the great idea to drive it away, then take the money at their leisure. Dortmunder isn’t crazy about the idea, and he’s even less enchanted with Victor, who is 1.) a putz, and 2.) a former FBI agent. Dortmunder is unaware Victor plans to write a book about the theft. As usual,everything imaginable goes wrong, and a few things only Westlake could have imagined. Great fun.

The Writers Guide to Weapons, Ben Sobieck. Much delayed by the publisher, and worth the wait. I wrote about this in detail right after I read it. Any writer—crime or otherwise—who needs to use weapons in a story should be familiar with everything in this book.

The Bill James Guide To Baseball Managers: From 1870 to Today, Bill James. Now a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, James coined the phrase sabermetrics for the study and analysis of baseball statistics. Others may have better mathematical chops, but no one combines analysis, insight, and a gift for writing like James does. Here he breaks down the evolution of the job of baseball manager from its origins through 1997. No seam head should skip this book.

Knuckleball, Tom Pitts. Artfully weaving a series of baseball games between the Giants and Dodgers into the investigation of the killing of a San Francisco cop and the effects on his partner and a family caught up in it, Pitts sets up a plot twist made all the more effective by its slow reveal. It’s less of a “I never saw that coming” than it is a “Oh, my God, he’s not going to…” and all the more effective because of it. Pitts handles the novella form effortlessly, making another argument for e-books as providing the perfect platform for a renaissance of the form.

Dig Two Graves, Eric Beetner. No one—with the possible exception of Dennis Lehane—that make me think “what a great movie this would make” more than Beetner. This is a classic revenge tale, with layers of variations. Recently paroled Val wants his vengeance on former partner Ernesto for more than ratting him out. In the tradition of the best noir stories, Val’s first bad decision leads him into a series of bad options from which no good choices are available until he meets a worst case scenario ending. Don’t think Walter Neff’s worst case; this is more of a Vic Mackey ending.

Belfast Noir, edited by Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville. As free from anthology disease as any I can remember reading. (Anthology Disease – Some of the stories don’t measure up to the general standard.) A wide variety of styles by a wide variety or writers. Among the best of the Akashic noir series.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis. Portis is a national treasure. His books have the quiet, left-handed zaniness of Wes Anderson’s best movies, with a cast of screwballs not found elsewhere. Best known for True Grit, Portis cares little for period or setting. Anything and everything is fair game. In The Dog of the South he tells the story of a man hunting his wife and the man she’s run off with to Texas. Or Mexico. Actually, it’s what was then (1979) called British Honduras. The narrator is as reliable as a somewhat delusional nitwit can be. Everything is deadpan, not a joke in the book, and more pages than not have a laugh out loud sequence. 

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