Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Samuel Johnson prize longlist

The Samuel Johnson prize longlist has been announced. The longlisted books are:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
One on One by Craig Brown
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
Feathers by Thor Hansen
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane
Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk
Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar
Winter King by Thomas Penn
The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker
The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston
Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

The winner will be revealed on 12 November.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Freebird


To Christina Emma and
New Beginnings


She wanted to do something, something small but different, not too weird but a little bit out there, out of her widely known persona. What, though? There were so many things through which she could express herself and her innermost feelings and that could really talk about her well-hidden truths, that she felt at a loss. Confused, that’s what she was, confused and kind of happy. She’d been waiting for so long and in such agony for this day to come that now that’s finally arrived, she just couldn’t decide what to do; to make up her mind as to what the gift she’s supposed to give herself would look like.

Truth be told, choices there were aplenty, but for the time being she could do nothing more but stand there, as if in a trance, and just look at them, studying their every line and curve, marvel at their beauty. What was she to do? What? She was reluctant, felt almost scared, over choosing one thing rather than the other, and she hated herself for that. Whatever she did in her life thus far, she did after giving it serious thought, after obsessing about it, and always having to worry about what the others would have to say.

The others! That’s the two words that she was going to use if anyone ever asked her what the cause of her misery was. She wanted to make love when she was sixteen, she made it when nineteen; she wanted to travel the world, she travelled too little; she had big dreams, she dreamed of achieving great things, but she’s spent thirty years of her life living a slightly different version of the same day; a routine that reminded her of death. She used to be a dreamer, now she is, as a friend puts it, the ghost of her own being. She was not who she wanted to be. She did not become the woman of her teenage fantasies.

And now, on this special day, the cursed and the blessed one of her birthday, the day that she’s decided that it would mark a new beginning in her life, she feels all the old persistent fears rising as by themselves and for themselves, out of her tortured psyche. She was afraid that she could not swim into unchartered waters; that if she escaped her routine she’d be lost; that it would be impossible for her not to follow the established itineraries and allow herself to wonder the labyrinthine paths of the unknown; she was scared of taking the stairway to an unknown heaven; of finally trying hard to make her dreams come true.

She remained standing in front of a shop’s show case, admiring the objects and the delicate designs, with almost non-seeing eyes, drifting in and out the corridors of her mind and soul, and fighting with her demons, the ones that had never given her a chance to pave her own route in life. People kept coming and going, circling around and observing her with an ironic smile or a sense of sadness, but she could not feel or see any of them. A fierce battle was taking place inside of her, and it kept getting more and more violent by the minute, as if composing an ode to psychological violence.

Every now and then she would close her eyes, trying to picture within the image that she so desperately seemed to seek, but to no avail. However, she knew; she knew that today was the day that she needed to take that first step, the most decisive one, because if she didn’t then all would be lost, her last chance would burn to ashes. Her future, tomorrow’s life, seemed to be hanging for the treacherous thread of that given moment; a decision had to be made.

The solution to all her problems and her worries was there, right in front of her eyes, staring back at her, when she had them open, but yet she could not make up her mind about how that solution should be like. She’d look at one thing and say, No, that’s not me, that’s not my world, and then she’d look at another, and a spark would momentarily lit her eyes, before receding again into the shadows.

There was an image though that kept returning time and again into her mind’s eye that has finally managed to bend her resistance, which has made her believe that, Yes, this really talks about who I am, or rather of who I want to become.

She stepped into the shop. There was a customer there already, so she took a sit at a not so comfortable chair and waited her turn. Little by little, a smile started taking shape on her pale lips. And then she started laughing. I can’t wait to see their faces when I show them the gift I’ve got myself, she thought, and she laughed. And she laughed! They would think she was crazy, but so what? Enough was enough; the time has come to live her own life.

When her turn finally arrived she took her sit and allowed the expert work his magic on her. Three hours later, in physical pain but a psychological high, she came out into the real world again, and she was somebody else. Half her shoulder was covered by a big black and white tattoo of an ancient boat. Yes, she was at last ready to set sail into a new life, to let the breeze lead her to a new beginning.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Review: Mulholland Dive by Michael Connelly


I’m a big fan of Michael Connelly and as such I guess I should wear a kind of blindfold when it comes to his work, but alas that is not the case, so I just have to say that, in my humble opinion, Mulholland Dive is not as good as his two previous three-story ebook collections, Suicide Run and Angle of Investigation.

I don’t know if it’s the Harry Bosch component that’s missing here, but I do know that these stories seem a bit flawed. Yet again maybe that’s only because when it comes to short stories I really set the bar high.

When it comes to the stories themselves the best one is the last, Two-Bagger. A meth cook that goes by the name Eugene Vachon has just got out of jail, and two cops, Stilwell and Harwick, are waiting for him to arrive by bus in Los Angeles. According to the info received by the Gang Intelligence Unit, during his stay in jail Vachon was under the protection of the Road Saints Gang, which means that now that he’s out he’ll somehow have to return the favor. How? Most probably by killing someone, following Sonny Mitchell’s, the gang leader’s, orders. Who’s the indented target? Nobody knows. And that’s exactly why Stilwell and Harwick are on Vachon’s tail. The end arrives with a bang, and it’s exactly then that all the pieces fall together.

Cahoots, the first story of the three, takes place in the early 1930’s. The narrator is an unnamed man who’s playing cards with another five men, one of whom is a cheat. McMillan, the bad apple, talks to his co-players about a big heist, which involves stealing the gold and silver Olympic metals, melting them and selling them as bars, thus making themselves rich. The narrator, who tells the story in the present tense, though it has already come to pass, is certain that what McMillan is really trying to do is distract them, so he can take their money while feeding them tales of wealth and glory.

In-between the aforementioned stories, comes Mulholland Dive. Detective Clewiston, a reconstructionist for the LAPD, is heading to Mulholland Drive, where a man in an expensive car has taken a… dive down the hill. The man is dead, and it’s up to Clewiston to determine whether what happened was an accident or not. The victim, a celebrity of sorts, was in the middle of divorce proceedings, so if his death is ruled a homicide his almost ex-wife will become the prime suspect. If not, she’ll walk away richer than ever. What is the verdict going to be? Maybe the expected. The result? The unexpected.

At the end of these stories you can find a generous forty pages of Michael Connelly’s next novel, The Black Box, which comes out on November 26.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book Review: Play Him Again by Jeffrey Stone


Play Him Again by Jeffrey Stone is a novel that doubles as a crime story and a movie industry history.

The events take place in the late 1920’s in Los Angeles. The prohibition is in place and the bootleggers make tons of money by supplying booze to the people who can afford it. One of the aforementioned men is Matt Hudson, a street-wise guy, who does big business with the movie crowd and who dreams of shooting the first all-talking-picture ever.

Before doing that though he has to solve a murder. His oldest friend, and great conman, Danny Kincaid has been brutally tortured and killed. Who was it that killed him and why? Did Danny cross roads with someone too clever or powerful for him to handle?

Well, since the police decided to rule his death an accident, now it’s up to him to bring the perp or perps to justice, even though his chances of doing that seem to be quite slim. He has no clue what his friend was up to, he has a business to take care of, and he does have a dream to pursue and a woman to please. Quite the busy man, isn’t he?

Luck though will decide to give him a helping hand, so he’ll soon discover what the latest con his friend’s put into place was. And he’ll be devastated, since it was his idea that he used, and which had probably got him killed.

Now he has more than one reason to investigate the case, while at the same time he’ll have to deal with a local gangster who’s started stealing his booze supplies, and keep trying to convince some studio executives to give him the green light for his movie.

There are a lot of action scenes in this book, but one could also read it as a document of a whole era: the Hollywood in the 20’s, the fabric of a society in its high and lows, the prohibition that made some people rich and led others to death, the corruption inside the police force, the past of a future to be.

The author does a great job recreating that period in history and delivers to the reader a hero with many flaws, who tries hard to find a balance in a world where doing the right thing could land you into trouble. Hud’s psyche is a tortured one. People don’t get him, not the ones that matter the most anyway, and that makes him every now and again question himself and his own motives. He may be a bootlegger but he’s also a man with principles. He may be an honest man but he more often than not has to deal with crooks. He may cherish life but he may have to kill to survive.

Placing this novel under a particular genre is not such an easy thing to do. I can say one thing though: I really enjoyed reading it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Booker prize shortlist announced


The Man Booker prize 2012 shortlist has been announced a few moments ago. The shortlisted books are:

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

Umbrella by Will Self

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book Review: A Wanted Man by Lee Child


A Wanted Man has managed to put me into a dilemma. How do I rate this book? Should I give it a four star or a three star review? At first I went for four, but then I’ve changed my mind, since, well, this is Lee Child we’re talking about and, like it or not, we expect better from him.

No, I’m not saying that this is not a good book, it is; what I’m saying is that it could be much better. To start with it could be a bit, or rather more than a bit, shorter. There’s just not enough juice in the story, to make it so long, and I think the author himself knew that, and that’s why he started improvising, adding math statistics and… blinks into the equation. Then there are some overwritten scenes. And finally we have that one-man-army act that’s really hard to believe even if you are a hardcore Jack Reacher fan.

To the story now. It all begins when a car stops to give Reacher a ride in the dead of the night. There are two men and a woman in it, which of course, is not by itself something strange. What’s strange though is the fact that even though the men seem to know each other well, the woman acts like she’s a complete stranger, as if she doesn’t belong there. And that, somehow, doesn’t raise any alarms in Reacher’s mind, though it does raise a couple of questions which he hurriedly brushes aside.

The ride though will not prove as easy as he wanted it to be. For starters they encounter a couple of police roadblocks in the almost deserted highway leading away from Omaha, and then one of the men asks him to drive, something he’s not too eager to do, since he’s not the best of drivers.

As the journey continues the mystery deepens, and as the background information accumulates, it starts to take form. Later rather than sooner Reacher realizes that there’s something fishy going on. It’s not only the men’s disposition that makes him suspicious, but also the message, a kind of Morse-code-with-the-eyes that the woman, Karen, blinks to him from the back sit: M-Y-C-A-R.

By the time he decides to take action though it’s too late already. He’s left behind at a motel reception, after an incident with one of the men, and now he’s determined to right his wrongs and save the woman from whatever the two perps have in store for her. But to do that he needs help, which he receives from an unexpected source: a female agent of the FBI.

Despite the fact that they are suspicious of each other, the two of them decide to work together for the hostage’s sake, while trying at the same time to sort out, how it all began. In the meantime, the CIA and the State Department are trying to intervene with the case, and as the truth comes out bit by bit, we come to realize that there’s more to the story than we thought. The finale arrives with a bang, but the slow-drawn events that led to it, take away some of the reading pleasure.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Review: Bones Are Forever by Kathy Reichs


In Bones Are Forever it all begins with the discovery of the corpses of three newborn, at different time periods, babies in an apartment in Montreal, Canada.

Dr. Temperance Brennan is of course at the scene and what she sees really upsets her, something that doesn’t happen quite so often, if at all. Tempe cannot help but wonder what was it that made the mother of these children kill them. Was she really a monster? She had to be. And she’s on the loose.

However, the case is not as simple as it looks. Amy Roberts, or Alma Rogers, or Annaliese Ruben, is not who she seems to be. The cops are certain she is a prostitute and they are close to the truth, but at the same time they couldn’t be any farther from it, as Annaliese has a dark past, and more than one secrets.

What’s the most important thing now though is to find her, and that will not prove such an easy thing to do, since after she paid a visit to a hospital the previous night, she somehow managed to vanish into thin air.

Brennan and her part-time partner and ex-lover Andrew Ryan, are determined to find her, but to do that they first have to find who she really is, where did she come from and if she has a place to return to. Thus in comes Sergeant Oliver “Ollie” Isaac Hasty, a man with whom Brennan had a fling in the past, and who works in Edmonton in Kare, a police division whose sole aim is to protect prostitutes from the predators.

Hasty knows some of Annaliese’s back story, but not all of it, and doesn’t seem to get along with Ryan all that well. Is it because of Brennan, or did the latter provoke him somehow, with his inappropriately sarcastic mood? Or is it the other way around?

Ryan doesn’t seem to be himself these days, but Brennan just doesn’t have the time to sit down and talks things out with him, since they have a scorching hot case to solve. And so begins a journey; a journey that will first lead them to Edmonton, where Annaliese has been spotted, and from there on to Yellowknife, a frozen city in the far north, her hometown.

During it Brennan will meet some colorful characters, create a few enemies, reminiscence about the past and the death of her beloved brother Kevin, think about Katy, her stubborn and independent daughter, learn the history of the region, and come face to face with death time and again.

In the end what started as an investigation for the wrongdoings of a woman, will develop into a journey into the psyches of some greedy people and their dark plans for wealth and power. And Brennan, who’s a fact junky, will at some point come to realize that what things seem are not always what things are.

There’s a lot of pain in this story, and not too many light touches of humor, but it rolls along in a good pace, and even though the plot at some points seems to leak, the reader’s interest remains high from the first page to the last.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Hugo Awards


The Hugo Awards have been announced. The winners in some of the categories are:

BEST NOVEL

Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor)

BEST NOVELLA

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s, September/October 2011)

BEST NOVELETTE

“Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com)

BEST SHORT STORY

“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2011)

You can read the full list here.