March 27, 2008

The Holland Suggestions **

** The Holland Suggestions, John Dunning, 1975

It all started when I moved to Denver in 2000. We packed a 26-foot diesel UHaul in Scottsdale and dragged our pitiful car behind it. The one we bought in Phoenix after the previous car died in El Paso on a Sunday evening and we abandoned it and rented a car to get to my new job by Monday morning.

Engaging backstory ensues

On the trip from AZ to CO, we stopped in Winslow, Arizona to take pictures of the statue of Jackson Browne standing on the corner by a mural of a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford. Then, because of my ridiculous insistence on seeing sights from Tony Hillerman novels, we eschewed the easy route across 40 and up 25. Instead, we left 40 at Gallup, slipped over to Window Rock and looked at the window rock and bought some souvenirs, then back over to 491 and up to Shiprock, an amazing sight, over to Four Corners (Stand with each heel and toe in a different state!), and up through Moab to 70.

The hell of this particular route was that instead of a nice easy ride through Albuquerque and Colorado Springs, we drove right through the Rockies, through Vail and Frisco and Silverthorne. With a 26-foot truck that drove like a semi. Pulling a car. It was an education.

The nice part came when H flew in to help me unload the UHaul. We did it in record time, which gave us some time for exploring. H had heard of a place called Edward's Pipe and Tobacco Shop and wanted to check it out. We found it on Broadway and wandered into a time warp. Woodwork everywhere, an excellent bar with stools where a few gents were smoking cigars. H and I bought a few cigars and pulled up a stool to the bar. The owner offered us a free beer. (Couldn't sell them without a liquor license, but it didn't break any laws to give them away.)

Long after the UHaul was unpacked and H had flown away and the house was in working order, I continued to frequent Edward's, especially on Friday afternoons when a BYOB party brought a few dozen aficionados out of the woodwork to sip and smoke and schmooze. Where I met an editor at the Denver Post, who regaled me with many tales of growing up in a Catholic monastery or some such out in the arid high-desert of southwest Colorado.

Somewhere along the way during one of these confabs, I asked the editor if he knew of any authors who write about the Denver area with the same sense of place as Tony Hillerman does about the Four Corners area. He turned me onto Booked to Die and John Dunning. I devoured that novel and the sequel, The Bookman's Wake, and loved every word. They are three star books, at least. And Google informs me that there are other Bookman sequels that I will have to track down. If you are a lover of whodunits, I strongly advise you to check out these books.

Actual book review occurs

However, this review is about The Holland Suggestions, which turns out to be Dunning's first novel. As a first novel, it's a decent bit of work, much better than my early, pre-publication attempts, but far from riveting. As a confirmed reader of dead, white guys, I concede that this novel has much in common with the writings of dead, white guys, only without the good parts. As a bonus (or not) it adds the mid-life crisis introspection, the arm-chair psychoanalysis, and the obligatory casual sex scenes of a 1970s novel.

It seems that after Dunning experienced success with the Bookman series, Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) republished his earlier stuff, which accounts for the versions of The Holland Suggestions (1975) and Deadline (1981) on my shelf. They include an introduction in which Dunning talks about the circumstances under which the books were written and the writing process, which is very different between the two books. The average reader may find this introduction boring and skip over it, but for me it was the most fascinating part of The Holland Suggestions, and pretty engaging for Deadline, too.

As the rating system indicates, it's not a bad book, but hardly something I would suggest. If you're stranded in a vacation cottage and find it on the shelf, you might give it a whirl. If you like that sort of thing.

March 20, 2008

Finding Hollywood Nobody ***

*** Finding Hollywood Nobody, Lisa Samson, 2008

Reading a Hollywood Nobody novel is like spending an afternoon with Lisa Samson. That's how it feels.

True confessions time. I've read everything Lisa has published since The Church Ladies (2001), having been turned onto Lisa by Snyderman at our first meeting in a coffee shop in Nashville. Her novels are not exactly what you would expect a reader of dead white guys to be consuming, but I am an eclectic reader, consuming good writing, regardless of the genre, and Lisa is a good writer. So, I find myself reading stuff completely out of my demographic just because. I'm just saying.

I first hooked up with Lisa when we both won the Christy award the same year, me in the First Novel category for Welcome to Fred and her in the Contemporary category for Songbird. (Although The Living End, which came out the same year and was also a finalist, should have won. It is my favorite Lisa novel. The Wunderfool List of top three Lisa novels goes like this: Living End, Straight Up, Club Sandwich. Hollywood Nobody is in a separate category. )

Then a few years back I stopped by Che Samson in Lexington, KY on a winter/spring weekend while on business travel. I spent a pleasant afternoon with Snyderman in Nashville, then drove up to Lexington and got snowed in for two days, hapless guest of the very gracious Samson clan as ice formed on the inside of the windows and Lisa and I sat with our laptops in the warm room and wrote in silence, occasionally exchanging comments as she worked on the beginnings of the Hollywood Nobody project. It was a magical time I will never forget.

So, at this point you're thinking, "This guy, who slept shivering with his clothes on in Gwynnie's princess bed with Little Mermaid purple gauze hanging around because the Boston airport was closed for two days, can't be objective where Lisa's writing is concerned." Wrongo, bucko. I can like the person and not the writing. I do it all the time.

OK, here's the deal: The Hollywood Nobody series is a Young Adult (YA) series. I say, "So what?" It's entertaining stuff. Scotty, the protagonist, is a highly engaging character and once you get her vibe, you're in for the ride and that's it. I devoured the first Hollywood Nobody novel and was highly displeased to have to wait for the second. I pre-ordered it on Amazon, but when it came in my daughter snagged it. I got it back just this week. I read it in two sittings.

The first sitting, I read the first few pages and thought, "Hmm, I'm not getting that Hollywood Nobody vibe. Where's the magic?" The next time I picked it up, I was hooked in a few pages. At 1:30am I thought, "I should go to bed." I actually got to the top of the stairs, turned off the light, and opened the bedroom door to tiptoe into the bedroom to avoid waking The Woman, when I had an epiphany. Or rather, a conversation with Me, Myself and I.

Me: What are you doing? Myself: Going to bed. It's 1:30 am for crying out loud! I: Because? Myself: Well, it's late. Me: And what's on the schedule tomorrow? Myself: Uhh. I have to get some work done on the day job. I: Doing what, exactly? Myself: Writing a brochure on Fibre Channel over Ethernet. I: Due when? Myself: Whenever I decide to finish it. Me: So, nobody cares if you get up at 8 am or 11 am. Myself: Well, yeah, pretty much. I: So, why aren't you finishing that Lisa Samson novel tonight? Myself: Uhhhhh . . . . Me: You know you want to. Myself: Well, duh!

So I went back downstairs and finished the novel around 3 am. When I hit page 152 I freaked out and there was no question of going to bed at that point. I was in for the duration and boy howdie, shoot I reckon! As they say.

Reading a Lisa Samson novel, any of them since 2001, is a treat. (I must confess that, even though in a moment of bonhomie she gave me one, I haven't read the early-days romances and that's probably the best for everyone concerned.) But in the Hollywood Nobody novels I feel that vibe of hanging out with Lisa. And it is a good vibe, folks. I have two actual sisters. They rock each in their own way. But they're not writers. If I had a sister who was a writer, I would want her to be like Lisa. Heck, I'd want her to be Lisa.

I also have a copy of Embrace Me. I haven't started it, and I don't know anything about it. But you'll be hearing about it soon. Heck, I might even start it tonight. It's only 2am. What have I got to do that's so important?

March 13, 2008

Skeleton Man ***

*** Skeleton Man, Tony Hillerman, 2004

I'm a Hillerman fan from way back, as can be seen from my original reading lists. Hillerman gets it. He gets the sense of place. He gets the people, as attested by the endorsements he gets from Native American groups. And he gets the story.

All that being said, he's getting on up there in years and is not in the best of health. So we can understand if he's not at the top of his game in the more recent books.

Set that thought aside. Skeleton Man delivers a good solid Jim Chee story. And the Leaphorn sub-plot has some interesting tweaks.

My only critique is that the real begining was Chapter Two. You can lose Chapter One and the story is as good or better. This is a worthy read, but not a good starting point. If you're new to Hillerman, go back to the beginning.

March 7, 2008

The Whodunit

aLike a lot of other folks I know, I can’t resist a good whodunit. Of course, we all have our standard of what exactly a good whodunit is. As you might expect, I’m about to tell you what I think makes a good whodunit.

First of all I use the term whodunit as a broad term to include what is normally labeled mystery in the bookstore. It includes novels about private detectives (Sherlock Holmes), police detectives (Harry Bosch), regular cops (Jim Chee), CIA operatives (Emily Polifax), private citizens (Miss Marple), investigative reporters (Fletch), wealthy playboys (Lord Peter Wimsey), medieval priests (Caedfel), medieval samurai (Sano Ichiro), bookstore owners (Cliff Janeway), burnt-out musicians (Kinky Friedman), aged barristers (Horace Rumpole), have I gone on long enough, yet? Yes, I believe I have.

A good puzzle is table stakes. You can’t even get into the game without one, so we will take that as a given. A good whodunit has memorable characters to go along with the puzzle. The main characters should have some mysteries of their own. They should struggle with more than just the case; they should have to wrestle with themselves as well.

Disqualifiers: see Murder by Death for the initial list. In addition, I get extremely annoyed when the main character does something extremely stupid, like getting romantically involved with the suspect, especially if he/she already knows the suspect is probably guilty. Even worse is going to bed with the prime suspect. Just how stupid can you be? I also get annoyed when I can see the obvious clue but it takes the protagonist multiple chapters to figure it out. The author should be better at hiding the solution.

I prefer a minimum of sex, profanity and graphic violence. A good whodunit depends on the quality of the puzzle and characters and doesn’t need to highlight the sex lives of the characters to tittilate the readers. (You know, that's a pretty weird word.)

Even with these self-imposed restrictions, there are so many good books out there that it would take me years to read them all. So what am I doing sitting here writing this? I think I have a good one on the shelf right now!