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Posts Tagged ‘Book Recommendations’

Mystery Monday – The Track of Sand

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

The Track of Sand by Andrea Camilleri

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

I hesitated to read The Track of Sand, a 2008 mystery that is the twelfth in the series of mysteries starring a Sicilian police inspector. The reason is that the one previous, The Wings of the Sphinx, was so weak. The recurring themes – Salvo’s rocky romance with Livia, globalization as criminal enterprise – felt stale, so I wondered if the series, like The Big Bang Theory, was just going through the motions.

I was pleasantly surprised that international crooks play no part in The Track of Sand. The series hero Salvo Montalbano wakes up one morning to find in his yard the battered carcass of a horse that was beaten to death. Salvo feels admirable grief for the horse and rage at the evil-doing perps. His half-official investigation delves in Mafia schemes and the lifestyles of the filthy rich. A new character, the lovely Rachele Esterman, adds to Salvo’s diversions.

The sense of place still feels authentic and familiar, with Salvo walking on his jetty and sitting on his rock. He still eats local cuisine at Enzo’s trattoria. The translation is extremely smooth and readable, with helpful cultural notes at the end. Camilleri handles skillfully the spectrum of life, from the funny to the horrible, often following each other only in minutes.

The plot, however, is thin and the reveal has a tacked-on feeling. There’s no harm reading this one if human interest and like of characters outplay plot and detecting, but I advise readers new to Camillieri to read – in order, please – The Shape of Water, The Terracotta Dog, The Snack Thief, The Voice of the Violin and Excursion to Tindari.

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Biography Review – Petty

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

I have been a huge fan of Tom Petty for years.  My earliest recollection is finding my sister’s copy of the Full Moon Fever album but my love for Tom Petty really began in 1993 in Miami and Brazil with the Greatest Hits album; it became the music of my summer.  Any time I hear songs from that album I feel compelled to sing along and I am taken back in time. While I’ve attended Tom Petty concerts and listened to his music for years, I really didn’t know much about the man himself.  In comes Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes.

Zanes chronicles Petty’s life from his childhood in Gainesville, Florida to his meteoric rise in the music industry to his position now as rock royalty.  Petty: The Biography was rated as #4 in Rolling Stone’s top 10 music books of 2015.   Beginning with Tom’s troubled childhood with an abusive father and a mother who tried her best, Tom was determined to get something more from his life that was expected.  It was heartbreaking reading of his accounts of living with his father and the lengths his father’s family went to in an effort to exploit his fame. What sticks with me the most was Tom’s admission that having his brother acknowledge and validate Tom’s abuse at the hands of his father proved that he was not alone or making it worse in his mind than it actually was.  I found that to be truly heart wrenching to read.

Tom’s honesty with Zanes about his struggle through the dark times in his life and the roles of his friends, family, and bandmates was illuminating. I felt in the beginning Zanes spent too much time identifying the myriad of former bandmates of Tom’s and it got very overwhelming. I couldn’t keep a lot of the names straight and it was a lot of ‘he was in the band, he was out of the band’.  I think that could have been streamlined quite a bit.  But whether with The Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys, or Mudcrutch, Tom has created unique sounds that fit each band and over the years he has worked at his bands like a business, which I think is what accounted for much of his success.

I admit I was apprehensive about reading this book because I was afraid something would be divulged that would change how I felt about Tom Petty.  Thankfully that did not happen and I got a deepened respect for the man who overcame personal demons and challenges to being a rock and roll legend. I can’t recommend this book enough to other Tom Petty fans.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Epitaph for a Lobbyist

Monday, May 8th, 2017

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Epitaph for a Lobbyist by R. B. Dominic

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

An indiscreet memo leaked to the papers by her own daughter implicates Shirley Knapp, lobbyist for energy and oil companies, in a possible case of bribery. The vote to kill a pollution control provision in a new law cost $50,000 in 1974, which would be about $235,000 in today’s purchasing power. Series hero Congressman Ben Safford (D, OH) is named chair of the committee to investigate the charge of bribery.

When Shirley Knapp is found shot to death in her car, Ben leads his committee members as they formally and informally investigate the bribery, which they assume is linked to Knapp’s murder. House members Val Oakes and Lou Flecker are veterans of politics, both conservative, though in different parties. Elsie Hollenbach is a California liberal, moralistic but politically canny. Tony Martinelli is machine Democrat from RI, practical and realistic. Their conversations are intelligent and plausible.

Suspicion falls on the three congressmen that voted to kill the proviso. Although this really limits the number of suspects, I didn’t see whodunit until the reveal. The fair play really is amazing. We are indeed given all we need to know. The reveal proves that we missed the obvious as do our hero congress members. It is often the case that the really sophisticated can be in the end very simple.

The authors of this book were Mary Jane Latsis, an economist, and Martha Henissart, an economic analyst. Both knew from their professional experience that astute people will in fact get distracted and miss what is staring them in the face. They know how people at all levels think and act in business and government. Obviously specific conditions are dated (e.g., the non-partisan respect the politicians have for each other), but classic are the treatments of how people with agile minds and deep experience deal with novel situations. That timelessness is what makes these R.B. Dominic novels – there are seven –worth reading still.

These authors also wrote a couple dozen business mysteries under the pen name of Emma Lathen. Perhaps to distinguish the style of R. B. Dominic, they have the mildly annoying wont of always modifying a verb meaning “say” with an adverb or adverbial phrase: “said reminiscently” or “roared in anger.” Also, people don’t just say things they “mutter,” “interject,” “murmur,” “bleat” and so on. It’s a defect we expect from a whodunnit writer of the 1920s.

 

 

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Winner of The Gargoyle Hunters by John Freeman Gill!

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

The Winner of the brand-new copy of John Freeman Gill’s book,

The Gargoyle Hunters is:

Veronica S. (snowkitty)

 

Congratulations! Your book will be on its way to you soon!

 Thank you to everyone who commented on the Blog!

Thank you again, Mr. Gill!

 

To read Vostromo’s interview with Author John Freeman Gill, click here.

 

 

 

 

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Mystery Monday – Death before Bedtime

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Death before Bedtime by Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box

Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries as Edgar Box in the early 1950s. In this, the second novel, series hero Peter Sargent, ex-reporter and PR man, lands a contract with a Senator whose eye is on the Oval Office. On the day prior to his tossing his hat in the ring, he’s blown up in the study of his DC house. In a highly unlikely move, the cops keep all the suspects in the house while they try to identify the culprit.

Helping the cops as he writes sensational articles for a newspaper, Sargent interacts with a weird group of people. The wanton daughter. The too loyal aide. The distant widow. The smooth munitions manufacturer. The lefty journalist.The unctuous governor who appoints himself to fill the murdered Senator’s spot.

Vidal wrote as Edgar Box when publishers thought he was radioactive because of the fallout over his novel about gay men, The City and the Pillar. When his publisher suggested he write mysteries under a pen name, Vidal claims he said “I don’t think I’m sufficiently stupid to be a popular author.”

A man’s got to eat, though.  Vidal was not a mystery writer so the mystery side of this novel is weak though the tone is confident, ironic and suave. It’s worth reading if one is into thrusts and jibes and swipes against the American ruling class in cahoots with conceited politicians. If a reader likes the blunt satire in Burr, 1876, and Hollywood, she will be entertained by this artifact of the Eisenhower era.

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Interview with Author John Freeman Gill & Book Give-Away

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Vostromo‘s Interview with Author John Freeman Gillgill

JOHN FREEMAN GILL is a native New Yorker and the writer behind Avenue magazine’s popular Edifice Complex column. His nonfiction pieces about New York have been featured in The New York Times Magazine, the collections The New York Times Book of New York and More New York Stories: The Best of the City Section of the New York Times, as well as The Atlantic, The New York Observer, The Washington Monthly, The International Herald Tribune, Premiere and, because that’s not enough, “and others.” (For comparison’s sake, mine have not.)

John graduated Yale University summa cum laude and received an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. (For comparison’s sake, I did not.) His novel THE GARGOYLE HUNTERS has just been published by Knopf, to wide acclaim from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, Omnivoracious: The Amazon Book Review, Booklist, and, because that’s not enough, “and more.”

John is charming and witty and loves Steely Dan and cats and if there is even the slightest degree of autobiographical truth in his novel do not, I say not, let him teach you how to French kiss. If you meet him you can ask about the roast chicken with the Barbie doll head, though I don’t advise it. Everyone in his family has fabulous hair. (For comparison’s sake, I once had a gerbil named Monty.)

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VOSTROMO: Welcome to PaperBackSwap, John, and congratulations on the publication of your novel. You’ve been writing about architectural history and the stories behind cityscapes for a long time. Where does your interest in the subject come from?

JOHN FREEMAN GILL: Initially it was just osmosis. The Upper West Side apartment where I grew up was something of a museum of Lost New York. My mother is an artist and native New Yorker, and for the past 63 years she’s been keeping one step ahead of the wrecking ball by painting portraits of city blocks just before their buildings are torn down. When I was growing up, the demolished landmarks of old New York were very much alive and well on the walls of our apartment: the 57th Street Automat served up cheesecake in the kitchen; the windows of the Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller (razed for Trump Tower) displayed dresses in my mom’s bedroom; trains hurtled along the Third Avenue el in our front hall. In addition, she collected salvaged scraps of the lost city. There were grotesques carved into limestone keystones, terra-cotta spandrels that had once adorned a tenement, a stained-glass window bearing the word Delicatessen, giant carved stone brackets turned upside down to support a stone slab as a bar. She even had a picture frame made of wood salvaged from the Third Avenue El, or elevated train, when it was demolished in the 1950s. So I lived with the vanished city, which inevitably sensitized me to the living city around me when I headed out into the streets to live my life as a teenager and then adult.

V: One of your columns for Avenue begins If you know where to look, [the city] is full of rabbit holes, portals to worlds of splendid peculiarity hidden from the street. This could easily be the tagline for The Gargoyle Hunters. Setting aside the fact that I was not consulted about this obvious missed cross-promotional opportunity, real events inspired the novel. What made you decide to incorporate them into fiction, instead of reportage?

JFG: In truth, real events inspired only one important strand of the novel; most of the story is my invention. I began with the characters and the circumstance—a 13-year-old boy in the aftermath of a difficult divorce in the vividly crumbling New York of the 1970s. I thought it would be meaningful to tell a small, intimate story of a fracturing family while also telling a big story about the near death of New York City in the year and a half leading up to the famous Daily News headline: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. The idea of using a real-life event came later. The event was a bizarre and seemingly impossible architectural heist: the theft of an entire landmark city building, which shocked the city and made the front page of The New York Times in 1974. The mystery was never solved, and I wanted to find out how the story ended. So I sat down and wrote it, placing at the center of the action my reluctant 13-year-old protagonist, Griffin, and his obsessive father.

V: Hunters is a coming-of-age story that mirrors a changing cityscape with a boy’s changing understanding of family dynamics. One of the ways you express this is the twinning of opposites: characters focusing on the importance of the past miss the importance of the present; they move up and down from parapets to basements, inside and outside from bedrooms to scaffolds; they have deeply private moments in very public places; they compare the meaning of the lowliest of buildings (an outhouse) to the most exalted (the landmark first skyscrapers of New York). There are lovely phrasings scattered throughout the book: an architectural detail is “protected from the filthy heavens;” an artwork throws a “spotlight on the invisible;” a first kiss makes one feel “magnificently lost and at home at the same time.” My favorite of these is the moment the narrator imagines the part he played in his complex family history as “the bridge that kept my parents apart.” I mention these to prove that I can read, and that I read your book, and that your publisher shouldn’t feel they wasted their money sending me a copy, and that they haven’t made a huge mistake by agreeing to have you appear here. Truce?

JFG: In theory, a truce would be just fine. But then what am I going to do with this handy sword-cane I brought along to this interview? [Editor’s note: for comparison’s sake, I came to this interview unarmed.]

V: The theme of twinned opposites has a larger resonance, reflected in the first-person narration being easily, straightforwardly casual but unable to cover a deep undercurrent of menace: characters appreciate and cherish their city even as they lie, steal, and manipulate its people, flout its laws with abandon, risk their physical safety in its heights and depths; they reach for meaningful connection to each other even as they keep dangerous secrets. It’s a feeling startlingly encapsulated in the prologue, where a happy family drive to a Sunday picnic reveals the steaming sidelots of a slaughterhouse, glimpsed in passing though the pre-dawn fog. It’s also a very American maturation from boy to man, and marks a striking departure from the themes of your earlier works like My Sister Is A Big Fat Poopyhead and Mom, Make Her Give My Hot Wheels Back, to name two. Was this change of focus a conscious choice, or did your sister, now an adult, threaten you in some way, perhaps physically?

JFG: For the record, you just made up those two sophomoric titles, but I gather your readers are used to that sort of thing by now. On a serious note, though, one of my sisters actually did regularly chase me around and beat the hell out of me when I was little. Then one day, when I was seven and she was eleven, I turned around and socked her in the eyeball. Never one to skimp on drama, she ran around screaming, “I’m blind! I’m blind! I can’t see! Oh, I’m blind!” We’ve been getting along swimmingly ever since.

V: I went to school with your sister Claudia. She was one of the Beautiful People, it’s not much of an overstatement to say a lot of the boys had a bit of a crush on her. Years later, when I did a show that required me to grow a full beard, I had some head shots taken, and still more years later I shared one on Facebook. Her comment was “Very handsome, got better with age!” which is of course a barely-concealed way of saying “my god you were hideous in tenth grade.” Does this kind of passive-aggressive exchange explain why you named her “Quigley” and did all those horrible things to her in the book?

JFG: Ahh, you are jumping to false conclusions based on the one sliver of my life you know about. I actually have two sisters, and Quigley is not based on either of them. (And may I just say how sweet I think it is that after all these decades, a man of your advanced years still feels compelled to say, “a lot of the boys had a bit of a crush on her,” when you’re clearly talking about yourself?)

V: Claudia designs, crafts and sells beautiful decorative home objets d’art. As a writer, have you been able to solve the conundrum of how to be positively supportive of someone’s creative work while drawing as little attention as possible to the fact that you haven’t bought anything from them because as much as you like her stuff it’s hard to afford because money is tight what with having to save for the plastic surgery you want to get because of what she said about you in high school?

JFG: If I tell you you’re a perfectly attractive man, will you take off that rubber Nixon mask? It’s hard to hear what you’re saying in there.

V: Did Claudia read your book? Did she like it?

JFG: Yes, Claudia did read it and was generously supportive. But I guess you never know if she was just being polite; after all, she told you you were handsome.

V: Do you know if she’s… seeing anyone? I mean, just, you know. Curious! About an old friend, it’s not, I mean, you know, I’m only…

JFG: You’re gibbering. You know that, right?

V: [Loud coughing] Getting back to The Gargoyle Hunters, what stands out for me more than anything is a single line that I can fairly say sums up much of my own outlook on life. It occurs just about halfway through, at a time when the narrator is learning that an individual life, like a single building or an entire metropolis, is a process of construction, use, and wear over time, a million pieces held together by a purpose perhaps appreciated fully only in restrospect; I thought to end our time together by quoting it:

I felt it vibrating through my fingertips — like the time I touched the robot girl’s damaged nipple at Dad’s studio door, only much, much worse.

If that drives one person to read your book, I’ll have done my part.

 

 

Thank you Mr. Gill and of course, Vostromo for this great interview!

Mr. Gill has generously offered a brand-new copy of his book, The Gargoyle Hunters to a PaperBackSwap member who comments here on the Blog. A winner will be chosen at random. We will announce the winner in a week. Good Luck to everyone!

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Mystery Monday – Up for Grabs

Monday, April 17th, 2017

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Up for Grabs by A. A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner)

The PI team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam resemble the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. Bertha Cool, like Hardy, is irascible, easily driven to distraction by her partner’s antics.

There’s an important difference, however, between Bertha and Babe. Oliver Hardy sagely observed of his character, “He’s the worst kind of dumb guy. He’s the dumb guy that thinks he’s smart.” Bertha may be a lot of things – ham-handed, hard-charging, overly fond of barnyard epithets and old-fashioned (even for 1964) expressions like “Pickle me for a beet.” But one thing she is not, is dumb. Her canny observations cut to the pith of the investigation.

On the surface, Donald Lam resembles Stan Laurel.  Both are short and slight. But bright Donald stands in contrast to dim-bulb Stanley. Bertha praises Donald with, “He’s a little runt, but he’s brainy.” As a disbarred lawyer, Donald knows the law well enough to bend it, and the cops enough to send them into conniptions by making evidence twist like a tornado.

Erle Stanley Gardner goes against stereotype by making Bertha the shrewd one and Donald the intuitive one. Materialist Bertha is always distracted by the prospect of big client fees while subtle Donald inevitably senses that the client is not on the up and up, or that something is screwy about a situation. The game afoot is usually a scheme in the grey area between the unethical and the illegal.

Describing the involved plot in this review will dilute the pleasure of surprise for the reader, so I won’t go there. Suffice to say, an insurance executive hires Lam and Cool to catch out malingers who file false claims of injury and disability. Lam flies to Tucson and Dallas to solve the case. He also spends time at a guest ranch in Arizona, in which the desert makes Gardner’s mundane writing as pretty as it ever gets (see also the descriptions of Nevada landscape in Spill the Jackpot!). The exec’s elaborate plan goes by the board, when murder enters the picture.

The mystery plot is not the main attraction. The enjoyment is in watching Donald get in and out trouble with the crooks, the clients, the cops, and crabby Bertha. The complexity of the plots showcases how ingeniously con artists cook up scams and how adroitly Donald can think on his feet and talk his way out of jams. True, Donald Lam, unlike PI Lew Archer or Archie in Nero Wolfe stories, never tells us readers what he is thinking so we have to take his leaps of logic and stunning insight on faith.

Getting to the resolution adds to the fun, even as we shake our heads in bewilderment at Gardner’s endless inventiveness in devising swindles and twisting plots. Gardner’s prose is necessarily concise and plain so the convolutions of the plot won’t confound us alert readers to the point of exasperation.  But who needs puzzles or amazing reveals when the characters are so much fun to hang out with?

 

 

 

 

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