Bits, bobs, book review: Faithful Place, by Tana French

My father is heading off to China for a couple of years and has heard rumors that photoblogging there doesn’t work so well if one uses Flickr. Anyone been there recently enough to know if this is true?

And speaking of Flickr, I caught a cedar waxwing with its gob open on my way to Italian Tuesday:
Cedar Waxwing
On to books: I started reviewing fiction for Tangent, way back in its print day, because I felt as though I had stuck myself in a readerly rut. I wanted an external reason to pick up books I would never hear of, let alone consider reading. And it worked: I discovered a whole wide wonderful range of writers I might not have otherwise heard of: Kurt R.A. Giambiastiani and Peter Watts and Justina Robson and Syne Mitchell, to name a few. I also, of course, read a lot of things that were just okay. And even a few I regretted; that’s the price, right?

Time moves on, needs change and I have been in a place lately where I want total control over my reading choices. So, perhaps not surprisingly, I have really liked the last four books I read. This past weekend I inhaled the newest novel by my latest writer crush: Tana French. Faithful Place is the third of the Dublin Murder Squad books. I had planned to be disciplined, to take my time, but it’s a suspenseful novel. I got up a head of steam and about the time when I meant to put it down, there was a noisy car accident outside our window that eliminated all chance of sleep for another hour. So I gulped it in two sittings, too fast to truly enjoy the nuances. I am already taking a second run at it, from the beginning, savoring every heartbreakingly witty word.

I know I have already raved about French plenty since picking up In The Woods; that I have told you about her prose, which is so sinfully rich that spending time with it seems nigh-adulterous. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that French’s grip on human nature is so sure it’s almost frightening. I may even have admitted to sending her, via her publisher, a whimpering little fan note mentioning that I might die, OMG srsly die I tellya, if she didn’t start cranking out four books a year.

What can I tell you about Faithful Place without spoiling it? All three books absolutely stand alone, first. So jump ahead, if you want, and read this one. I can mention that like a lot of readers, I thought this third novel would be about Sam, the third major player in the In The Woods triangle. Instead, the POV character is Frank, the Undercover guy from The Likeness. A week ago, I was invested in getting a Sam book. Now I don’t even care.

The protagonists of the first two books were fully realized characters, well developed, scarily easy to relate to. As for relating to Frank… well! He’s a child of the Eighties who ran away from a wretched home as soon as he was legally able. He left on foot, carrying only a small bag of clothes and a big sack of child-of-alcoholic issues. He meant to bring a girl named Rosie, too, but she skipped out on him–or so he thought. He left anyway, built a life entirely apart from his origins, and now Rosie’s suitcase has turned up, stuffed up a chimney. Yes, this book really is all about baggage. Anyway the discovery sets his current life and his old one to slam-dancing, and he has no idea how to fit his family into the world he’s been living in for twenty-two years.

There’s one moment, I won’t tell you, but in it Frank realizes something central to his existence–something he had under control, you understand–is not even remotely what he thought it was, and–Oh! It is a wholly individual moment, specific to his family dilemma. I am not sure I’ve ever understood a fictional character’s feelings so well.

I tend to favor beautifully written mysteries that are as much character studies as they are puzzles. In French’s first books, the identity of the killer, while not entirely a side issue, is distinctly less compelling than the detective’s journey. In Faithful Place, French integrates the personal and the homicidal in ways that had me second guessing myself over and over again. I was always pulling for Frank, but when the truth came out, I have to say I really got where the killer was coming from.

This is, simply put, a terrific book.

Book Review: The Bridge

One of my buddies from Cafe Calabria is gentleman from Turkey who’s in, as I tend to be, at 6:30 a.m. on the weekends. He’s an early riser and his family are a batch of sleep-ins, so he takes a book, has a coffee and whiles away a couple hours. One day he was reading OSMAN’S DREAM and I told him I’d started poking at the history of Istanbul–in an aimless, I-have-no-immediate-use-for-this-research fashion–but quickly found I wasn’t up to that particular book.

A few weeks ago, months after the original conversation, he gave me THE BRIDGE: A JOURNEY BETWEEN ORIENT AND OCCIDENT, by Geert Mak.

THE BRIDGE is a slender little account of life on the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn in Istanbul. It’s well worth image-searching it: it’s got a car deck and a retail level, is festooned with fishers (whom Mak describes eloquently) and despite being a functional block o’ concrete, manages to convey a little old-World charm. Mak spent some months hanging out with the fishers, the pickpockets, the marginal-stuff vendors of various types and backgrounds, chit-chatting about their politics, their home villages, and their hardships. The book is a documentary about these characters, a little snapshot of the place where Western-leaning Istanbul is connected to the more Eastern-influenced part of the city. It’s a much simpler book than OSMAN’S DREAM, which is a pile of this Caliph, and that Sultan, and then they invaded Mars! OK, not really.

I wasn’t grounded enough in the history, is what I’m saying, and my buddy, with impressive perspicacity, handed me something that’s much simpler, heavy on the atmosphere, and which still manages to convey a sense of an intricate multicultural society, with a capital city that has been full of diversity and compromises for centuries.

Otherworldly beings from Planet Fab

I just finished Darrin Hagin’s tenth anniversary edition of The Edmonton Queen: The Final Voyage, a slice of queer Canadian history that just barely intersects with my life: I was living in Edmonton at the time Hagin writes about, and kelly-yoyoKelly went to high school with one of its queens, Cleo; we saw hir in a Fringe show last year.

I never went to the legendary Flashback club. I am so not a club person. In my entire life I haven’t once partied until I dropped. By the time the queens in this book were getting up for the day, I tend to be ready for my nap. A single glass of cheap wine will give me a next-day headache. The world of The Edmonton Queen was as much an alien landscape as any I’ve created in my fiction, or I’ve read about. And yet I shared weather, and terrain with these exotic beings. I could have visited, had I been inclined. Say that for Planet Vuvula!

I picked it off our bookshelf partly out of interest (of course!), in part because of that little intersection with our past, and because I am contemplating whether the next mystery novel, The Rain Garden, might include someone from that scene. Or, rather, it does–I just haven’t decided how she fits into the picture.

Hagin’s style flows nicely, I found myself comparing him favorably with John Barrowman’s autobiography, whose prose and content weren’t nearly as colorful. There’s delicious humor and wit. This hit my funnybone especially hard:

12:45 a.m. Meet in the ladies’ can at the pre-arranged time, in the handicapped cubicle. Squeeze everyone in. Sit on the floor, screaming with laughter at absolutely anything. Drop the acid. Pass around the hairspray. Stay until some dyke kicks you all out for reinforcing negative stereotypes of women. Leave in a huff.

What resonated most with me, not surprisingly, was the stuff about growing up queer in smalltown Alberta. As with these queens, that experience created in me a great need to get away, to reinvent, to find and nurture a truer self. The construction of alternate family, its evolution into something as complex and sometimes dysfunctional as any biopham, was familiar, too. As for the slow terrible parade of death that struck Hagin’s Family… well, I have been to a fair number of funerals these past few years.

One of the most interesting things about this anniversary edition, though, is that it has a long and fascinating coda. Hagin chased down the survivors of the Flashback days, and gave them a chance to offer their perspectives on his version of their shared history. He talks about what it was like to have published and then revisited a story that so many people had such a deep emotional stake in. In the process, he reveals the writer-as-Spiderman once again; his afterword is a textbook illustration of that Spidey saying, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

He told the stories, and he got some things wrong. He saw other things very differently from people who were present beside him in the very same moment. Watching him wrestle with that, and with balancing good storytelling against fairness, provides a deeply interesting behind-the-scenes look at what writing is and how it interacts with the real.

It is also genuinely affecting. You will laugh and cry. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Review: Seize the Fire

On Saturday I finished up Adam Nicolson‘s SEIZE THE FIRE: HEROISM, DUTY, AND NELSON’S BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR. It is not at all a minute-by-minute account of the battle–about which I knew beans and still know almost nothing–and more an analysis of the cultural, economic and emotional context in which it took place.

Nicolson talks about the forces that shaped Navy culture in this century–the long tradition of deep aggression and violence embedded within British culture, the profit motive (many of the officers, particularly, were in the racket to make fortunes that would let them buy homes in the country and live the gentleman lifestyle), the disciplined maintenance rituals that kept the ships in good shape and the immense amounts of money borrowed by Parliament to keep them so. The spending supported the navy in both a direct and an indirect manner: they bought up so much of the world’s available supply of ship materiel that other countries were hard pressed to get their hands on things like wood, canvas and hemp.

His prose is precise and lovely to read aloud. Here, he uses Jane Austen to illustrate how the idea of masculinity had evolved between the 18th and 19th centuries:

By 1805, the femininity of the mid-18th century was being left behind. Exaggerated sensibility had started to look absurd. Clothes, for both men and women, had become sober and simple…. one can see dramatised the shift in values between the 18th and 19th centuries arranged around the two potential heroes of [Pride and Prejudice]: Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley is 18th-century man: handsome, young, agreeable, delightful, fond of dancing, gentlemanlike, pleasant, easy, unaffected and not entirely in control of his destiny. Darcy is fine, tall, handsome, noble, proud, forbidding, disagreeable, and subject to no control but his own. It is a strikingly schematic division. Darcy is like a craggy black mountainside–Mrs. Bennet calls him ‘horrid’, the word used to describe the pleasure to be derived from a harsh and sublime landscape; Mr. Bingley is a verdant park with bubbling rills. Darcy is 19th century man, manliness itself, uncompromising, dark and sexy.

SEIZE THE FIRE isn’t light reading, obviously, but it’s also not dense or in any way a grind. It’s mostly about emotion–how people felt about war, their attitude toward battle, the vital cultural differences between the British and French-Spanish fleets that led to the victory at Trafalgar, and the way the ideas of heroism and honor were shaped before the battle and, afterwards, by it. Nicolson’s analysis is intriguing but never ethereal. He’s writing about a slaughter, and you never forget that; this is a humane book, and a really interesting one. Not only do I recommend it, but I expect I’ll pick up his book about the translation of the King James bible, GOD’S SECRETARIES, in the not too distant.

Hammer hammer, saw saw

I converted to a WordPress site in June of 2010, with the goal of integrating the static site about my writing with the more dynamic content of my blog, which originated on Livejournal, and whose archives still live there. I have great plans for this site, and given my posting habits, I know that all of the areas you see in the menus on this site will soon be brimming over with new, up-to-date, recent, sexy content. I will continue to grab text fragments and post mini-reviews of books as I read them, talk film and TV, discuss the music I’m listening to as well as whatever I’m singing with my choir, and write about food, wine, cheese, and eco-consumerism.

I am also getting ready to launch an interview series, Journeys, which will discuss the career paths of various authors in the SF and fantasy fields.

I could dig up old posts on some of these topics and whip off a few new ones, if I wished, but I want this process to happen organically. I want to write good thoughtful posts, things you will enjoy, things that will make you hungry or thoughtful or maybe even mad once in awhile–things that will get you talking. In the meantime, this post is just a quick note to say I’m sorry there’s nothing more on point here just yet, and to beg your patience while I generate content that’s really worth reading.