THE CROW ROAD by Iain Banks

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”   So opens this likable 1993 tale of an extended family in Argyll,  Scotland.  When a novel opens like this, I’m IN!

In Scotland, there is apparently a saying “away the Crow Road”  It meant dying, being dead.  “Aye, he’s away the crow road,” meant “He’s dead.”  The crow is such a heavily laden symbol in many cultures, and often symbolizes death.  This book is all about death.  And sex.  And cars.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.  I sat in the crematorium listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

There is also a local road named Crow Road, and it figures, if not prominently, at least conspicuously, in the story. It is narrated in the first person by young Prentice McHoan as he navigates his last year at college, trying to come to terms with his various preoccupations: death, drink, sex, God, illegal substances, and whatever happened to Uncle Rory (who disappeared a decade earlier).   Uncle Rory’s disappearance is a thread woven throughout the story, and as life unfolds, and events happen, it slowly becomes a murder mystery, with Prentice being the terribly inept detective.

It is filled with lovely, quirky characters, and situations that are funny, yet believable.  His father is struck by lightning while climbing a steeple in the local church,  his grandmother died from falling through the celestial windows of their home as she was cleaning them,  his aunt died while a passenger in a car her husband was driving too fast,  and there was one more.  I forget.  It was Four Funerals and a Wedding.   He receives a substantial bequest from one of those who was away the Crow Road, and says

… suddenly I was, if not quite within range of the mountains of Rich, certainly well into the foothills of Comfortable.

Lovely writing style, good storyline, enough unknowns to keep you interested, and some great quotes:

While dancing with Aunt Ilsa at a wedding:

Aunt Ilsa — even larger than I remembered her, and dressed in something which looked like a cross between a Persian rug and a multi-occupancy poncho – moved with the determined grace of an elephant, and a curious stiffness that made the experience a little like dancing with a garden shed.

At the funeral of his grandmother:

My Aunt Antonia — a ball of pink-rinse hair above the bulk of her black coat, like candy floss stuck upon a hearse.

The family lawyer:

Mr. Blawke was dressed somewhere in the high nines, sporting a dark grey double-breasted suit over a memorable purple waistcoat that took its inspiration from what looked like Mandelbrot but might more charitably have been Paisley.  A glittering gold fob watch the size of a small frying pan was anchored in the shallows of one waistcoat pocket by a bulk-carrier grade chain.

Mr. Blawke always reminded me of a heron;  I’m not sure why.  Something to do with a sense of rapacious stillness perhaps, and also the aura of one who knows that time is on his side.  I thought he had looked oddly comfortable int he presence of the undertakers.

All in all, a fine read.  One of those that when you are done reading, you say, ‘Gee, that was good.’





EVEN THE WICKED by Lawrence Block

The Lord hath made all things for Himself, yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.  –  PROVERBS 16:4

I do like Block’s titles.  This thirteenth in the Matthew Scudder NYC P.I. series might just be my favorite of the lot so far.

It centers around a self-anointed “Will of the People”, a serial killer with a difference. His targets are all people you might yourself wish were dead, from child rapist-murderer Richie Vollmer to mafioso Patsy Salerno to rabid anti-abortion activist Roswell Berry to anti-Semitic black professor Julian Rashid.

“Will of the People” writes gravely threatening letters to popular Daily News columnist Marty McGraw, naming his next target. He got started on his illustrious career of murder because McGraw, after a child rapist and murderer got released on a technicality, wrote a piece openly wishing for the man’s death. So “Will” made it happen. And then decided to carry on his good work.

Will’s latest target, all-too-successful criminal defender Adrian Whitfield, calls up Scudder to help protect him, and look into the serial killer. Scudder is sure he can’t do much about the investigation that a city full of police on the case can’t do, but does set in place top notch security for the lawyer.

Meanwhile, a friend from AA asks him to look into the unrelated shooting of AIDS-stricken Byron Leopold as he sits reading his paper in a public park.

These were both cleverly constructed cases, and the park murder was based on “viatical transactions.”

Fortunately, viatical transactions are explained very well in the book because I had never heard of them. Basically, it has to do with life insurance. If a person has life insurance, he/she can transfer the ownership of that insurance to someone else, by eliminating any named beneficiaries. (Such beneficiaries have to agree to being removed as a beneficiary). Then usually a middleman brokers the policy to someone who wishes to buy it. So someone with a terminal illness, who essentially has no money to live on for the rest of their short life, can sell the policy to get money to live on, and the buyer pays the premiums until the seller dies. Since the buyer would not want a policy on a healthy young person, they usually buy from an elderly or terminally ill person with no surviving partner they wish to take care of. So you could buy a policy for what it is worth, say $50,000, pay the premiums for a few months to a couple of years, then collect the payout value of the policy, say $75,000 and earn a big interest on your investment in a very short time. If it is a double indemnity policy, and the person dies from what is deemed accidental death, the buyer (policyholder) receives double the amount. And did you know murder is considered accidental death and the policies pay the double?

A number of aids sufferers and cancer patients take advantage of this option.

In this book, Scudder finally got his PI license, and PJ, the street kid whom Scudder befriended and hires to do scut work occasionally, has been bugging Matt to buy a computer, insisting that so much of their work could be done on a computer, Scudder does NOT give in to temptation to call and visit that other widow woman, and finally decides that since he hardly even goes in to his rent controlled room in the hotel across the street which he has had for twenty years, installs PJ in it as his on, with Scudder still the tenant of record, because Elaine and Scudder are sure the kid is homeless. And buys a computer and gives it to the kid for Christmas. Sniffle sniffle. Nice ending.

THE GADFLY by Ethel Lillian Voynich

Ethel Lillian Voynich was an Irish novelist and musician, born in 1864, and a supporter of several revolutionary causes. She was born in Cork, but grew up in England. Voynich was a significant figure, not only on the late Victorian literary scene, but also in Russian émigré circles. She is best known for her novel The Gadfly, which became hugely popular in her lifetime, especially in Russia.

Ethel Lilian Voynich was married to Habdank-Wojnicz, a revolutionary who had escaped from Siberia. In 1904 he anglicised his name to Voynich and became an antiquarian book dealer, giving his name eventually to the Voynich manuscript. Yeah, THAT Voynich.

Written in 1897, the story is about Arthur Burton, an English Catholic, who travels to Italy to study to be a priest. He discovers radical ideas, renounces Catholicism, is thrown into prison for a while, and after his release, learns that his beloved mentor, Father Montanelli, who evenutally becomes a Cardinal in the church, was actually his biological father.  His girlfriend believes false rumors about him, and tosses him over as he is returning home from prison.  In despair, he fakes his death and leaves Italy. While away he suffers great hardship, but returns with renewed revolutionary fervor. He becomes a journalist, expounding radical ideas in brilliant satirical tracts published under the pseudonym “the gadfly”.

The story examines the emotions Arthur experiences as a revolutionary, particularly drawing on the relationship between religious and revolutionary feelings. This is especially explicit at the climax of the book, where sacred descriptions intertwine with reflections on the Gadfly’s fate. Eventually Arthur is captured by the authorities and executed by a firing squad. Montanelli also dies, having lost his faith and his sanity.

The central theme of the book is the nature of a true revolutionary,and throughout we read the reflections on religion and rebellion.  The Gadfly was exceptionally popular in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and Iran exerting a large cultural influence.  It was made into a opera, and George Bernard Shaw wrote the theatrical version.   Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a suite for orchestra which he named The Gadfly.

It was certainly a page-turner, set in a time when the peninsula of Italy had finally been brought under one flag, but the land and the people were by no means unified. Decades of internal strife had left a legacy of violence, social chaos, and widespread poverty.  The Church was a major political player, and there were a number of political revolutionary groups fighting against the authorities in attempts to bring better conditions to the average citizen.

Oh, yeah.  The Voynich Manuscript.  It is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The vellum on which it is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and it may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Lillian’s husband, as I mentioned above.  It has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II.  No one has yet demonstrably deciphered the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography. The mystery of the meaning and origin of the manuscript has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript the subject of novels and speculation. None of the many hypotheses proposed over the last hundred years has yet been independently verified.  None of this has anything to do with The Gadfly.  I just thought it was an interest side note.


“Deep down we’ve never been who we think we once were, and we only remember what never happened.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Spanish novelist. Born in Barcelona in 1964, he has lived in Los Angeles since 1994, and might possibly be the most popular author in Europe.

This is the third in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle.  The other two, The Shadow of the Wind, and The Angel’s Game, I talked about here, and here.   In this continuation, as it were, of  the story of Daniel Sempere, the bookseller’s son, he is married to his childhood sweetheart, has a small son, and his BFF is Fermin, the scrawny fellow we first met in The Shadow of the Wind.  We learn more about Fermin, in a long section devoted to his time in prison, and his eventual escape.

It is Barcelona, 1957.  Fermin is about to marry!  Wow, the confirmed bachelor is going to get married?  But it is marred by the appearance of a mysterious, dangerous-seeming individual who comes to the bookshop looking for Fermin.  When Fermin learns this guy is on his tail, he freaks.  That is when we learn about Fermin’s past and just how he came to be in the lives of the Semperes.

It is melodrama.  Somehow, melodrama set in mid-20th century Europe seems so much niftier than just plain old ordinary melodrama.  Those dark days of Franco’s reign were referred to as the heart of darkness,  which phrase continually popped up as well in  Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.  I love it when synchronicity happens like that. I leave you with a quote about stories of difficult times:

Once the last page is turned, the poison of its words will drag them [the readers] slowly but inexorably towards the heart of darkness.

Franco, dictator of Spain, and you-know-who.


A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN by Lawrence Block

Still working my way through the Matt Scudder, quasi-P.I. detective series.  This is number sebendy-lebendy.  (Actually it is book twelve.  Have I really read twelve of these?  Holy patoly.)

This one had a very interesting premise. A secret gentlemen’s Club of 31 men are assembled for the purpose of …. OK, this is hard to explain ….. they meet once a year, read off the names of any member who has died in the course of the year, until the club is down to only one man, whose job it is to assemble another group of 30 (31 including himself), and at their first meeting  he reads off the list of the previous 30, and destroys the list, and the new group begin the process anew.  This Club has been in existence for, apparently, centuries. It is supposed to be an offshoot of Freemasonry, possibly mentioned in the Hammurabi Code. There is only a $1,000 initiation fee, and nothing else, the last man standing receives nothing, the club seemingly has no purpose.  They meet simply to mark the passage of time.

Well.  This current group in the club seem to be suffering an unusually high rate of mortality.  Four murders, four or five suicides, a bunch of accidents, one guy killed in Viet Nam, a heart attack, a cancer victim.  But right now, there are only 14 left, and one member is starting to get the idea that the death rate of the group is higher than average, and is referred to Matt to ask him to look into the matter.

Really good mystery, one of the more interesting I have read.

Well, our boy is still sober, ten years now, still seeing the fair Eileen, but still occasionally bonking the willing widow from the last book.  However, in spite of that, he asks his long time lady friend to tie the knot, she accepts, and so they do, with her assuring him that nothing had to change, he would keep his hotel room as his office, and they would still have their own interests.  I don’t know about that.  Hmmm.   So I like him less, and yeah yeah yeah, flawed is flawed, but self-serving infidelity does kind of grate, you know what I mean?

The mystery is solved, and taken care of in a way I really disapprove of, and it is done for all the wrong reasons, according to my lights. and yeah, it’s fiction.  But still ….

As to the title, the phrase must have grabbed the author, as phrases are often wont to do, and it appears several times in the book, the most poignant being when Scudder’s friend tells about his trip to Washington, DC to see the Vietnam Memorial.  And he says that after finding the name he wanted to see, he found himself walking along, continuing to read names.  “A long line of dead men.  That was a long line of dead men.  Thousands of names in no particular order, and only one name among them that meant a thing to me, so why was I reading the others?… I was there for hours.  How many names did I read?  I could not hope to tell you.”


Arundhati Roy has the ability to tell a riveting story, but one that has a dark undertone.   I talk about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness  here.   

This story is not so complex and sprawling as The Ministry..  It is more contained, tighter.  It is about twins, two-egg twins, Dizygotic.  A male and a female.  And their single parent mother, the mother’s brother, and the poisonous ex-nun aunt, sister of the grandmother of the twins.  And of the beautiful  irreplaceable untouchable caste man.

“They all crossed into forbidden territory.  They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how.  And how much.”  The mother loved an inappropriate man;  the untouchable loved hopelessly a woman who could not be his; the twins loved each other; the ex-nun loved a priest; a pedophile loved all little boys;  the mother’s brother loved a woman who found she couldn’t love him and so divorced him.

It was 1969 in India, the time of Marxism and the Communists.  The family had a pickling business, and the village had communists and trade unionists.  And touchables and untouchables.  It moves back and forth from the childhood of the twins, to the present day, telling the story of their lives, and how many relations are not permitted.

The book is cleverly constructed, and the writing is almost poetic in many places.  The weaving of the older story with the current story, the stories of the various characters intertwining — just masterful, so compelling you cannot stop reading.

The god of small things is also referred to as the god of loss in the book. It seems to refer to Velutha, the untouchable man.

This book was the winner of the Booker Prize in 1997.  Yeah, I know.  I just got around to reading it.

One funny quote for you, just because I liked it.

Comrade Pillai’s arms were crossed over his chest, and he clasped his own armpits possessively, as though someone has asked to borrow them and he had just refused.

The quality of the writing style, of the construction of the plot, so far exceeds the shopworn topic of forbidden love and prudery as to make the reader forget that those well-worn themes are the bones of the book.



A charming story of a young woman who left Iowa in 1865 for the Colorado Territory as the new wife of a homesteader.  It is built around the idea that a woman  in current times is helping her elderly neighbor lady clean out her home prior to moving to assisted living.  In a trunk, she finds an old diary, hidden in the lid lining. It turns out to be the diary of the grandmother of the elderly neighbor.  The  helpful neighbor types it out so the fading writing can be read and the brittle paper can be preserved.

It is a lovely story, but it is a basic chic lit theme.  The young husband has been courting another gal for years, and suddenly, asks Mattie to wed, and a month later, they are on their way.  Of course, she learns that he only asked her because the other chick was too smart to agree to go live in a soddy on the prairie with all the hardships involved.

It is filled with details of life on the trail and then on the plains, with nary a tree in sight, daily life including the hardships of childbirth in remote areas.  The characters are finely drawn, and Mattie herself makes us modern day lasses ashamed of our wimpy, self-indulgent ways when we compare our lives of indoor plumbing and one-touch pizza delivery to her daily grind.

It is curious;  it is not a new plot — I’ve read it hundreds of times; it’s not the setting of mid-19th century America, the trek west and frontier life — Jessamyn West probably has the corner on that;  it isn’t that s.o.b. cheating husband – that trope  fairly litters chic lit;  and that diary style narrative – getting old and rusty.  But all together, it was a wonderful read and I loved it.

This is an accomplished author who has written a number of books.  I think I might look around and see what else I can find of hers for those times when a chic-lit kind of story is just the ticket.