Bad Blood (Dahl)

Another great mystery from Mr. Dahl. Like Henning Mankell, he doesn’t limit himself to just writing a crime novel. Instead, he uses a crime novel to explore and comment on societal issues, in this case, the way violence and the world are changing along side each other.

I also admire Dahl’s dexterity when it comes to handling an ensemble of characters. There is clearly a protagonist, but we don’t spend all of our time with him.

Dahl has a unique talent for writing about what it means to listen to (jazz) music. His last book, Misterioso, sent me in search of a Thelonious Monk CD; now I’m headed for Coltrane.

There is definitely an anti-American sentiment, and I can’t tell if I reacted to it because I thought he was taking easy jabs at the US, or because I thought he was right. In any event, he made me think.

The ending, though in a way deliberately predictable, is quietly brilliant.

[Full disclosure: Facebook friend]

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The Leopard (Nesbo)

I know I’ve written before about my search for a Henning Mankell replacement. Since Mankell recommended him, I’ve tried a few of Jo Nesbo’s books. I listened to this one. It took so long that the library assumed that I’d lost it. In any event, Nesbo is awesome at plot. And I liked the fact that the story is continued. What happened in The Snowman still matters here. But there are already suggestions here that Nesbo has written himself into a kind of, at best, formula, at worst, rut.

There’s a difficult case. It seems like Norway might have a serial killer on its hands. Though he’s unconventional, the police need Harry Hole. They bring him back and he operates his way without impunity. Along the way, he gets hurt physically and emotionally and abuses everyone with whom he has a relationship, especially the women. But since he’s such a lovable rogue, people forgive him and are willing to help him. Oh, and there’s a lot of intense wince-worthy violence.

Still, sometimes a formula works. There are red herrings, there are messy ending, there are complications. I’ll keep searching, but I’ve heard good things about Nesbo’s new one, Police.

And Robin Sachs gets huge praise for me for his slight, but memorable and meaningful variations among the characters. I’m pretty sure I’d listen to any story he read.

Gone Girl (Flynn)

This is a remarkably well-constructed book. I don’t want to include any spoilers, but I completely fell for it.

The characterizations are well-drawn. Flynn keeps the main cast small, so by the end, I thought I really had these characters pegged; I could picture them.

Flynn has impressive insights into a young marriage. I laughed in recognition more than a few times.

This book is also disturbing – all the way until its bitter end. There’s no coda here. This is a tough read (in my case, listen) all the way through. You should not bail on this one early.

Flynn writes well, though occasionally it seems like the author is using her characters to voice her own snarky commentary. Then again, who in their mid-20s does not lapse into snark from time to time?

Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne read well, especially Whelan.

I can’t wait for the inevitable movie. It will be a challenge for the director to protect the structure.

Blockade Billy and “Morality” (King)

I needed a book on CD for a 2+ hour drive, and there weren’t many choices. I selected this Stephen King novella and story because I figured that if I wasn’t paying full attention to the plot of each, I’d still be able to track the action. Also, the first one appealed to me because of its baseball plot.

In his book On Writing, King and another writer (Amy Tan?), are complaining that no one ever asks them about their craft. This motivates King to produce this book (which I liked and recommend).

Here he seems to have forgotten his own lessons. There’s little craft here. Both stories are essentially monologues. Both plots are essentially about secrets. The characters are generally cardboard. I just wanted the proverbial yarn to while away the time while I drove; instead, I got King-lite, a kind of paint by numbers affair – a Thomas Kincaide factory model.

Craig Wasson, the narrator of the first story, overdoes it at first, but eventually finds a useful register. Mare Winningham (reduced to this?) does a fine job with the predictable ‘bonus’ story, “Morality.’

The Girl of His Dreams (Leon)

I’m finding that Leon’s mysteries are the right pace for the car. If I miss a few moments, I can quickly recover the plot.

Leon’s writing is fine, if a bit predictably snide in places. I like the concept of how this book ended, if not the actual execution of it. She seemed to be scrambling too much to make it plausible. She could have taken an easier route. I did like how she let one plot strand just drop completely. She seems aware (and puts it in the mouth of her detective near the end) that not everything can be explained neatly, if at all.

Some characters came off as too stock this time – the clueless police superior, for example – but they don’t get in the way too much. I like that Leon has more than the mystery on her mind here. She seeks to explore the impact of immigration on Venice.

So even though the descriptions of the wonderful meals are painful to hear as I munch on a granola bar, I will listen to and perhaps even read another one of her mysteries.

The Lay of the Land (Ford)

I read the first part of this accidental trilogy when I was 13, having received The Sportswriter as a present. It was the first book that I thought of as different because it wasn’t written for children, but adults. Of course, the sports angle appealed to me, but this was also a glimpse of what life was going to be like in the future for me.

I read, but was not so struck by, Independence Day. Now the trilogy is complete. Frank Bascombe’s adventures have come to an end. I admire the ambition here; Ford chooses to focus mostly on just a few days leading up to and including Thanksgiving 2000. The attention to small things is wonderful even if, as Ford himself admits, he kind of loses track of Bascombe’s voice. (Does it become Ford’s?) And then Ford seems to lose his grip; simply put, too much happens for the story to retain its credibility.

Bascombe can be both profound and racist, often in the same sentence. At one point, he says, “Generalizations are my stock in trade.” That seems to speak much about Ford’s writing as well. The real estate metaphor is explored in almost excruciating detail. It works, but is not enough to sustain such a long novel.

Some characterizations, notably Detective Marinara (really) are overly broad and not at all helped by Joe Barrett’s stereotypical renderings.

Though it was often frustrating, I stuck with this audio book until the end. I’m glad I did. There’s much in it to admire and much in it to regret – similar to Frank’s life, I suppose. He remains a decade or so ahead of me. As with the first book, this may provide some insight into the next period of life. If so, I have every reason to be more than just a bit afraid.

By Nightfall (Cunningham)

This was an awesome audiobook experience. If you’ve never heard Hugh Dancy’s voice (he’s great in The Big C), you have to find a way to do it. He’s a perfect match for Cunningham’s material.

And Cunningham has just nailed it here. His language is precise, and he has absolutely captured the internal and external world of his protagonist, Peter Harris. The opening scene, in the taxi, is pure genius. I will likely buy the book just so I can read it again.

Aside from an inclination (like Sam Mendes in American Beauty) to imbue a drifting plastic bag with far too much significance, I have nothing but praise for this book. For a few minutes, I thought maybe Cunningham had let it run too long, but then he provided an ending, then had me keeping the car on in a parking lot just so I could hear the rest.

The word that stood out for me most in this book was evanescence. It captures perfectly what Cunningham is doing here as he applies to relationships (between lovers, siblings, parents & children), art, and life. “This is the world,” Cunningham says and Dancy reads with the simplicity it demands. “You live in it.”

Brilliant, brilliant book.