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David W. Straight (knoxville, tennessee United States)

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The Manual of Detection
The Manual of Detection
by Jedediah Berry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.48

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a dreamcrossed twilight, 14 Mar 2009
This novel reminds me a lot of Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil: a lowly clerk suddenly finds his world turned upside-down. A rather humdrum life has become a nightmare where nothing is as it seems: somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness, between reality and something you know is a dream, a trip on LSD. Unwin is a clerk--one of many in a huge room--on the 14th floor of the Agency. On the 29th floor is the person he clerks for, Detective Sivart. On the 36th floor is the Watcher Lamech, who oversees Sivart, and well below Unwin are the underclerks. Communications are all done through messengers. For anyone--clerk, underclerk, detective, or watcher--to be on the wrong floor of the Agency is a terrible and unthinkable breech. Everything is regimented--very regimented. Then Unwin's regimented life takes an abrupt upheaval.

Unwin is told that he's been promoted to Detective, and to move to Sivart's office on the 29th floor: Sivart has gone missing. Unwin reports to Sivart's boss, Watcher Lamech, only to find that Lamech has been murdered. So Unwin sets out to find Sivart, and you find yourself sucked into the whirlpool. Unwin meets the elusive Cleopatra Greenwood, Sivart's femme fatale (for lack of a more appropriate term for this very strange woman) and Sivart's archenemy Hoffman. The further you read, the more yu feel as though you've entered a hallucination. Everything is off-kilter: you enter a world of narcolepsy and somnambulism. Unwin follows somnambulists who go to the Cat & Tonic carrying bags of alarm clocks to gamble with. There's Caligari's Circus, taken over by Hoffman (Cleopatra Greenwood used to be a performer).

I don't think that there's any time in the novel where you have any idea at all what will happen next, but as things unfold they're either logically illogical or illogically logical--I think! If you like nice predictable novels, this definitely will not be your cup of LSD. This is very creative--bizarrely imaginative--and it had me turning quickly to Waitzkin's Attacking Chess and Guinn's new book on Bonnie and Clyde to try to unpretzel my mind. Think of the movie Brazil, or Jonathan Barnes' fine novel The Somnambulist, and toss in some LSD on top of those: a powerful and effective work!

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Millennium Trilogy)
The Girl Who Played With Fire (Millennium Trilogy)
by Stieg Larsson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.60

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A worthy sequel to dragon tattoo, 11 Feb 2009
I didn't want to wait until July 28th when the US edition is released--so luckily Amazon UK sent it in early January. You'll see many of the same people as Dragon Tattoo here--Lisabeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist, the evil Bjurman, and many others. As with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is the most complex and interesting character: Blomkvist is a bit drab in comparison, but then, who wouldn't be in comparison with Salander? Blomkvist had more of a central role in Dragon Tattoo: you get the feeling here that this time he's a bit more peripheral. It took some time for things to really get moving in Dragon Tattoo, but here the pace is faster even at the start. It still takes a while for the plot to really heat up here--but you know that it will, and you can savor and enjoy the buildup.

Dragon Tattoo had some hints about Salander's background: you learn much more about her here: things get much more complex that almost anything you might have imagined. Suffice it to say that many of the same themes of abuse and exploitation continue and are expanded on, sometimes in painful detail. As with Dragon Tattoo, this is not a book for the squeamish--it's tough, gritty, realistic. The author does, unfortunately, telegraph a punch or two, so you may--or may not--see where the plot might be leading sooner than you might like. But no matter. The tale is powerful enough to overcome any obstacles.

There are what may be some subtle, or not-so-subtle, hints as regards where the third and unfortunately last part of the trilogy might be going: there are parts of Salander's past that may have to wait. So enjoy this fine book. If you haven't yet read Dragon Tattoo, start with that--don't start here, since it may spoil some of the surprises of Dragon Tattoo--and wait for the third book.

The Ingredients of a Good Thriller: A Simple Guide to Noir, Cops, Gangsters, Heists, Badasses in Book and Film, and How to Make That Genre Work for You
The Ingredients of a Good Thriller: A Simple Guide to Noir, Cops, Gangsters, Heists, Badasses in Book and Film, and How to Make That Genre Work for You
by Chris Wood
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good fun, 23 Dec 2008
This book can be fun if you like, well, "thrillers" in a very loose sense indeed. There are a lot of movies and books described herein that are a long way from what I would call a thriller, such as, say, Peckinpaugh's The Wild Bunch, which is a superb western that I have never before seen categorized as a thriller. I would also hesitate to call the James Bond series by this term, but there are plenty of spy novels/movies (e.g. le Carre) for which the term is appropriate. There are chapters in the book that you'll enjoy, but other chapters have less relevance--background music, for example, is unlikely to be in a novelist's hands, and perhaps not even in those of a scriptwriter. Background music can be a great asset to a movie: think of Karas' zither in The Third Man, and ask what role Graham Greene may have had in the choice.

Part of the enjoyment is to find things that you agree with Wood about, and to find things that Wood may never have heard of. In his chapter on victims, for instance, Wood mentions the possibility of a kidnapping mistake--but missed the classic movie example High and Low (based on a McBain 87th Precinct novel): the son of Mifune's chauffeur is grabbed by the kidnapper who thinks he has Mifune's son. Will the rich Mifune pay a fortune to free the chauffeur's son? Woods talks at length about L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, but not very much about The Big Sleep. In that fine film the director and actors had no idea about who did some of the murders--and that helped give the film a darkness and depth that many other films lack. I would have been happier if Wood had left the movie The Untouchables out entirely--that is a vastly overrated film. Several of the Coen brothers films are in the book, but I don't recall seeing Blood Simple, which is perhaps their best movie. In Blood Simple you never seem to have any idea of what's going to happen, and many moviegoers prefer predictability.

Finally, what needs to be in the book is The Friends of Eddie Coyle. This was a wonderful novel by George Higgins made into a superb movie with Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. Most of the prime ingredients that Wood describes are present here. Mitchum as the small-time gun-dealing Eddie Coyle is a fine flawed antihero. Boyle as Dillon, the bartender/hitman is equally flawed. The dialogue, crucial to Wood, is as authentic as you'll ever see in any movie, and like the Sopranos, the locales are authentic as well. Everything is character-driven, and interestingly there are no victims in the usual sense. The plot/plots--also crucial for Wood is almost a contradiction--it's simple and complex at the same time: Coyle the gun dealer must interact with mob figures, bank robbers, and minor terrorists at the same time. If you read the book or see the movie, you'll find that it seems to embody most of what Wood is describing. So read Wood and also read or see The Friends of Eddie Coyle--you'll understand what I mean.

No Title Available

5.0 out of 5 stars great cricket history, 21 Dec 2008
I reread this fine work every few years. This is the story of Middlesex and the 1920 County Championship. Plum Warner, Middlesex's captain, was in his final year, and Middlesex were the Champion County , rising from mediocrity in mid-season with a string of improbable victories. It almost sounds like fiction for young adults, but it's all true. A bookie would have given you very long odds indeed at midseason, and almost equally long odds up through the final matches.

Mason writes very well: you're given fine biographical portraits of those who played for Middlesex. There are excellent decriptions of the matches and their drama. In the match against Yorkshire in mid-August, they needed a victory, and won by 4 runs. At one of the darkest moments for Middlesex, when defeat was looming, one of the Yorkshire crowd yelled out into the silence "You're beat, Ploom!" which helped inspire Middlesex to extra effort. They needed to win their final match against Surrey at Lord's: a draw or loss would have given Lancashire the championship. They set Surrey 244 in 3 hours to win on the final day of the match: about 2 1/2 hours sufficed to put Surrey out for a 55-run win. It's a truly great story: you get to know Warner and his style, the players for Middlesex and the other counties. Highly recommended!

Chemistry and Other Stories
Chemistry and Other Stories
by Ron Rash
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.74

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars good until the last few stories--then great, 11 Oct 2008
While awaiting my copy of Rash's new novel Serena coming through Amazon Vine, I picked up Chemistry at my local Borders and ordered Rash's other works that were easily available (i.e. not for $75 for a used copy) through Amazon. As I read along, I thought that the stories were good, but not great. There's another Southern writer of enormous power, William Gay, whose novels and short stories are lyrical and dark--much like some of Cormac McCarthy's work, especially his dark and brooding Child of God. Gay took the title of one of his novels--Provinces of Night--from a sentence in Child of God. Then I read the last three stories in Chemistry, and here Rash makes a transition into a different and much more powerful writing style--a darker, lyrical flavor comparable to Gay or McCarthy.

Speckled Trout, the final short story, was later expanded into a full-length novel The World Made Straight, which luckily I should get in a day or two from Amazon. It's a strong, compelling work. The penultimate story, Pemberton's Bride, is the longest and best work in the collection, and this has been expanded into Serena, available in early October (unless you can get it through Vine). This story alone would be sufficient to bring the book up to 5 stars, even if the other tales rated only 3-4 stars each. A 46-page story is enriched into a 370-page novel. You cannot do that with most short stories--but here (not having read Serena yet) it seems perfectly natural and logical. Serena--Pemberton's new wife--joins her husband in his logging operation in the late 1920's in the mountains of western North Carolina. It's a rugged, brutal existence, and the Pembertons are both tougher and more brutal than the others. It's a dark, almost surrealistic tale.

For other books of short stories with a similar flavor, try Pollock's fine Knockemstiff, centered around Knockemstiff. KY, and also William Gay's lyrical I Hate to See the Evening Sun Go Down. Both of those books, like Chemistry, have short stories which are eminently suitable for expansion into full-length novels. All three books give you powerful character-driven tales, and all three are books that you'll find yourself looking forward to rereading.

God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre
God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre
by Richard Grant
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.92

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the young gringo, 11 Oct 2008
"The old gringo came to Mexico to die" is how the second chapter of Fuentes' fine novel The Old Gringo begins. That novel (made into a movie) is about Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico during the revolution. In that novel Bierce says that being shot in front of a Mexican stone wall is much preferable to falling down the cellar stairs or dying in a hospital. You get the feeling with God's Middle Finger that Grant must have a similar deathwish: Grant pushes fate to the limit and, still alive by some strange quirk of chance, comes back and gives fate an even stronger jab. It this were live TV rather than a book Grant wrote you might be yelling "Go back!" at the TV or covering your eyes. This is a harrowing book, with an appallingly close sense of imminent death.

The book begins with Grant being hunted by half-drunken drug gang members: one of them told him that killing Grant would "please his trigger finger", and Grant is on their home turf--they know the area and he does not. They are having fun--sport--and Grant at this point is terrified. The episode resumes in the last chapter, and in between you see how Grant got into that predicament. This area of Mexico is bad, very bad indeed, but you find that there's really bad and really really bad, and then worse yet. There is no effective difference between the drug gangs and what passes for law enforcement. In one town the police chief and some of his men make Grant join them in snorting lines of cocaine, and as touchy as the situation becomes, it's a walk in the park compared to much of what Grant encounters. But Grant keeps returning, pushing deeper into the worst parts of the area, pushing the envelope.

Most of us, with exceptions such as Sebastian Junger who is quoted on the cover of the book "you can't decide whether to keep reading or go to Mexico to see for yourself", would happily stay a long way away. If we did feel brave and foolhardy enough to go near the fringes, the first time we had stone killers point their AK-47s at us, we'd leave in a great fornication of a hurry (as the book might phrase it) never to return. This is a wonderfully-written book, hair-raising to a degree that would put any Stephen King novels to shame, one that you won't forget.

The English Major
The English Major
by Jim Harrison
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.11

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars thoroughly enjoyable--but not as deep as some of his other work, 11 Oct 2008
This review is from: The English Major (Hardcover)
With Jim Harrison, you always know that you'll be reading something that is well off the beaten track, so to speak. He writes for himself, not to please a segment of the population. With most of his work, you feel that you're getting deep within a person's soul. The English Major is a bit more "escapist" than some of his deeper and darker (in the sense of unsettling, not supernatural, although there may be a surreal feel) novels. The story is about a man recently in his 60's whose wife of almost 40 years has booted him out for another man. Cliff leaves his farm in Michigan on an Odyssey (using caps seems appropriate) across many of the western US states. He takes with him an old jigsaw puzzle, and as he leaves each state he "sacrifices" that piece of the puzzle.

Cliff's journey takes him to Wisconsin, Minnestota, and eventually into Montana. On this early part of the trip he is joined by a former student Marybelle, who will be dropped off at her husband's digging site in Montana. Marybelle is a cell-phone addict to an extent that rivals Cliff's ex-wife's appetite for junk food. Cliff wants open spaces, Marybelle wants nearby cell phone towers. Harrison's great strength lies in the depth of his characterizations. You seem to always get a good understanding and appreciation of everyone--evn the waitresses in the small cafes along the way. There are wonderful descriptions of Cliff's mixed reactions to Marybelle--the sex, the incessant cellphone chatter, whether it is better to have companionship or quiet solitary communions with nature (Cliff also enjoys fishing).

Cliff's son lives in San Francisco, and always has more advice for him than Cliff wants, the ex-wife wants to see him as well, and, of course, Marybelle and her cell phone intrudes. Harrison's novels are mostly about change, about introspection, about discovering yourself. You may well find youself thinking about Homer's Odyssey: are there parallels? deliberate parallels? or is this totally irrelevant? It's a strange voyage, full of character and characters, and a very engaging story.

by Ron Rash
Edition: Hardcover

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars as deep and dark as the shadowed mountain hollows, 11 Oct 2008
This review is from: Serena (Hardcover)
Serena is an expansion of a long short story by Ron Rash: Pemberton's Bride is the longest and the best of the tales in Chemistry. A second short story from that book, Speckled Trout, was expanded into the novel The World Made Straight. Not many short stories--even long short stories such as Pemberton's Bride--can be made into successful full-length novels. Too often the result has a padded feel to it, as with Edgerton's Bible Salesman, which would have worked best as a novella. But Pemberton's Bride had a power to it, and was intense, compact, dark, and strongly character-driven. There are two central figures--George Pemberton and his new wife Serena--who arrive in western North Carolina to oversee operations on Pemberton's logging operation. A few of the main parts of the plot are altered when the 46-page short story was expanded into a 370-page novel, but the novel is deeper, richer, and darker--there's never a sense of padding.

The very first paragraph of the novel (and short story) quickly set the lasting tone: in 1929 a backwoods father waits on the station platform for the arrival of the Pembertons. He is accompanied by his 16 or 17-year old daughter, pregnant by Pemberton, and carries a freshly-honed bowie knife to plunge into Pemberton's heart. After the Pembertons arrive, some words are exchanged, Harmon draws his bowie knife and approaches Pemberton. "'We're settling this now,' Harmon shouted. 'He's right,' Serena said, "Get your knife and settle it now, Pemberton.'" Which Pemberton indeed does. So you immediately see that Serena is no shrinking violet. She's tough--tougher than Pemberton--and brutal--more brutal than Pemberton. People who stand in the Pembertons' way have an unfortunate tendency to die, usually unpleasantly. Sheriff McDowell is the only one who can stand up to the Pembertons, and this is only because of toleration on the Pembertons' part. Logging during the Depression is hard and dangerous work: accidents, debilitating and fatal, are all too common, and there is always a group looking for work, for whom accidents to the logging crews mean possible job openings. There's the frightening Galloway, who does Serena's bidding and who brings death in his wake. For some authors, carefully-drawn characters are rare (usually compensated for with action). But with Rash, even unimportant people are carefully drawn. You feel as if you've come to know people well--you may not like them, but you know them.

There are two other Southern writers that this novel brings to mind. First is Cormac Mccarthy. Some of Mccarthy's works have the same lyrical dark depth that Serena has, particularly the brooding Child of God. Child of God has a wonderful phrase in it "The provinces of night" which was used as the title of a novel that the second writer used. William Gay's novels have the same dark nature that Child of God and Serena have. All three authors have a lyrical quality to their writing, an ease with words and phrases. "Southern Gothic" might describe their work. Serena is a strong work indeed, and one that you'll look forward to rereading.

Fighting Ships 1750-1850
Fighting Ships 1750-1850
by Sam Willis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 20.00

48 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars beautifully done work!, 13 Sep 2008
This is a massive and elegant work that is part art history, part naval history. Before you buy it--look at the dimensions (I had not done that). 90% of the 225 pages consists of art (the rest is narrative). You expect to see old paintings of naval battles, and you certainly get lots of those, all in full color. You also get lots of portraits of admirals, captains, etc, paintings and drawings of life below decks, contemporary maps of battles and harbors, architectural drawings of ship plans, paintings of navy yards and ships under construction.

The book illustrates a wide variety of naval activities--from the loss of the Royal George to shipwrecks to recovery efforts. The title is a bit of a misnomer--not everything here involves fighting ships. There is, for example, a painting of the Terror (a former bomb vessel) trapped in the ice of Hudson's bay in 1837. A delightful book indeed!

Found Wanting
Found Wanting
by Robert Goddard
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars only for the most hardcore uncritical goddard fans, 13 Sep 2008
This review is from: Found Wanting (Hardcover)
If I could have rated this 2 1/2 stars, I might have done so. Name to a Face, Goddard's previous novel, had some flashes of what most of us enjoy about Goddard's best novels (Past Caring, Painting the Darkness, and In Pale Battalions--all 5-star works). I rated Name to a Face 3 stars on Amazon, and I cannot bring myself to give Found Wanting that high a rating. Found Wanting is not a terrible book--it's, well, pedestrian. There's little that's memorable, little that will remind you of what Goddard can be capable of. I wander into a bookstore to browse, and I pick up a book and on the dustcover it says "The President's [or, for Brits, the Prime Minister's] daughter has been kidnapped by.." and I close the book and put it back on the store shelf. That plot line has been thoroughly beaten to death. Stories about the Russian Royal Family are not quite as common, but Bayard's The Black Tower is a recent release, and interesting for its portrayal of Vidocq, not for the Russian Royal Family material. Found Wanting also made me think of the people who write James Bond novels who are not Ian Fleming. Get a life! If you have talent, create your own characters. Could Found Wanting be written by, say, Ludwig Snarf, "in the style of Robert Goddard"? This book almost has that feel to it.

The protagonist, Richard Eusden, a Foreign Office plodder, is swept up in a web of intrigue. This is a common theme of Goddard's [not always a FO plodder, but usually a nonentity of some kind]. The common theme is that this being swept up is unwilling and unwitting--doing a small favor for a friend--something most of us might perhaps do. But here, Eusden seems to be a much more willing participant, and the actions he takes simply do not seem as reasonable as they should be, and he is not as hesitant as he should be. Eusden's former wife, who is supposed to deliver a mysterious briefcase of materials to her second husband (Marty, a friend of Eusden) in Brussels, asks Eusden to deliver the briefcase. Marty has had numerous run-ins with the law. There was no convincing reason why Eusden should agree to do something for which--as far as he knows--might land him in prison for many years so very readily. From there we get further misadventures--lots of criminal actions for which the longtime civil servant never considers informing the police. The dust cover blurb indicates that the plot story involves the Tsar's family at Ekaterinburg many years before. But none of this is very original, and Eusden's behavior never seems very logical.

Since Eusden never seems to do what you or I might do in a similar situation, it's hard to identify with him. Compare this with Goddard's great works Past Caring, Painting the Darkness, and In Pale Battalions. In those novels you can easily identify with the protagonists: you can understand their bewilderment, their reactions, their behavior. You might not do exactly the same thing in the same situation, but you can understand and appreciate why they did what they did. But not here. The pace seems slow and the plotline unsatisfying. The three earlier books I've mentioned I have read perhaps 6-8 times. I have multiple copies (in case I misplace one) and I look forward to reading them again and again. They are examples of truly great writing, but in that regard, Found Wanting is found wanting.
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