THE PAST NEVER ENDS by Jackson Burnett

Set in what I believe is fictional Vivia, Oklahoma in 1998, this fine mystery features a decent, hard-working solo lawyer.

A simple task, Attorney Chester Morgan thinks. Get a copy of a public record for a young man whose only friend has died in an unexplained accidental death. Except…

The police file regarding the demise of sex worker Tanya Everly has been sealed by the order of the chief of police, and no one will talk. Warned to drop the matter, Attorney Morgan knows that if he doesn’t speak for the dead young woman, no one will.

Haunted by his discovery of the body of a prominent local oilman, Morgan pursues a quest for justice that puts his reputation, career, and life at risk. A journey that takes him into the dark shadows of the sex-for-sale business, into the marble courtrooms of Oklahoma, and into the aching loneliness of his own soul.

Set in the American Southwest in the days before 9/11, The Past Never Ends is both a complex murder mystery and a meditation on the self-perpetuating nature of injustice and the ethereal nature of justice itself. ”

A bit more noir than some of the other allegedly ‘noir’ mysteries I have read, but filled with likable, real people.  A respectable mystery, of the follow-the-money trope, a satisfying ending, so what more do you want out of this genre?  Egg in your beer?

Bonus info, since I am a river to my people:  Egg in your beer. A bonus, something for nothing, as in What do you want—egg in your beer? This expression dates from about 1940 and became widespread during World War II. The origin is unknown, since adding egg to beer does not improve the taste.

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GNOMON by Nick Harkaway

“In the near future world of London, England, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of ‘transparency.’ Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories–all in the name of providing the safest society in history.

When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. The System doesn’t make mistakes, but something isn’t right about the circumstances surrounding Hunter’s death. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn’t Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter’s psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future call Gnomon.

Embedded in the memories of these impossible lives lies a code which Neith must decipher to find out what Hunter is hiding. In the static between these stories, Neith begins to catch glimpses of the real Diana Hunter–and, alarmingly, of herself. The staggering consequences of what she finds will reverberate throughout the world.”

VERY interesting concept, and a pretty interesting execution …. for a while.  This book is  over 700 pages, about 300 pages too long.  Each of those fictional characters parading around inside the dissident woman’s head has its own (very long) story, which clouds what would otherwise be a nifty murder-in-plain-sight mystery.

I found it compelling and page turning for about 65% of the book, and then it just became tedious.  Once we Gentle Readers understand that all these separate stories and characters were deliberately made up by the dead woman to obfuscate her real intentions should she be subjected to interrogation,  the fascination with them plummets to nuttin’.   It’s like somebody telling you their dreams.  Who cares?  It’s dreams, it is not a real happening.  Side diversion while I bitch complain testily about fiction which recounts some character’s dream, yeah, like it means anything.  I don’t let people tell me their dreams in real life, why would I want to waste time reading about the fictional dream of a fictional character in a novel? So I spent the rest of the book skipping over the tedious and seemingly endless tales of these fictional characters in the head of a fictional character in a piece of fiction I was reading, till I got to the end, the mystery was solved, and ended with some very weird and unnecessary woo woo paranormal crap happenings.

Disappointed.  And I LOVED Harkaway’s other book, The Gone-Away World, which you will find here.  But as always, I am bedazzled by such a mind that can create a world such as exists in Gnomon.

PLASHERS MEAD by Compton Mackenzie

Compton Mackenzie (1933 – 1972) was a fairly prolific writer.    Plashers Mead was written in 1915.   It is not from ‘that list‘, but I probably found it while rummaging around Project Gutenberg.

Set in (I think) late 19th century England, it is the rather longish story of a young man who rents a small place outside of London, where he plans to install himself and write poetry, using the rural countryside as his muse.

As any reader over 40 could  have predicted, his work is jejune and juvenile.  His tense relationship with his father is acerbated when our boy falls in love with the youngest daughter of the neighboring rector.  His (and her) lives are then filled with attempts to be permitted some alone time, and to be permitted to get engaged.

Our would-be poet’s income from a very small inheritance is grudgingly supplemented by his father, providing just enough to get by on, and being the feckless young man he is, he runs up some heavy debts until he is forced to sell his library for a pittance, which doesn’t even cover his debts.

After almost two years in the country, growing poorer and further in debt, and without a publisher interested in publishing his collection of poems, he decides to give up the house and move back to the city in order to earn enough for the two of them to be married.  But as any reader over 40 could also have predicted, the realities of life do not permit Love’s Young Dream to continue to exist outside of its original hothouse environment, and eventually they sever their engagement.

It was beautifully written, but for a person of my advanced age, rather boring.  I mean, been there, done that, and burnt down the tee shirt factory, if you know what I mean.

 

THE ROOK by Daniel O’Malley

A pretty nifty fantasy genre book.  Urban fantasy genre.  Urban thriller fantasy genre. Our genres are now begetting their own niche genres.  I guess Urban Fantasy is more modern, no swords and sorcery and sandals.  OK, I had to look it up, such is the lacuna in my knowledge base.  “Works of urban fantasy are set primarily in the real world and contain aspects of fantasy, such as the discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence or conflict between humans and paranormal beings, and other changes to city life. A contemporary setting is not strictly necessary for a work of urban fantasy: works of the genre may also take place in futuristic and historical settings, actual or imagined.”

This is set in ummmm an unnamed city in England, modern times. I think it is London.  I know it is modern times because everybody has cell phones, although faxes still seem to be a viable option.  Well, it was written in 2012, so that would make sense.

Want to know what it is about?

“The body you are wearing used to be mine.” So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.

She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own.

In her quest to uncover which member of the Chequy betrayed her and why, Myfanwy encounters a person with four bodies, an aristocratic woman who can enter her dreams, a secret training facility where children are transformed into deadly fighters, and a conspiracy more vast than she ever could have imagined.

The secret organization hierarchy is based on chess:  Since in England it would be bad form to have a King and Queen, the top two are Lord and Lady, then the Bishops, Then Chevaliers (the knights), Rooks, and Pawns.  Everybody with those nifty strange supernatural powers are one of those ranks.  Anybody working for the Court who is not powered is called a Retainer, and as might be expected, not everyone loves this demeaning appellation.

As with so many long fantasy novels, (this one clocks in at almost 500 pages), it was great for the first three-quarters of the book, and the last quarter or so became somewhat tedious and over the top.  Yeah, I know.  If it is fantasy with fantastical creatures populating it, how can it actually be over the top? Isn’t ‘fantastical creatures’ and’over the top’ a contradiction in terms?   But because we are careening at breakneck speed toward the final denouement,  it becomes less interesting and more action oriented and less, shall we say, cerebral.

Since I am not generally a fantasy reader, I do not seek them out, but somehow happened upon this one, and was happy I did.  I liked it, especially the mystery aspect of it.  Action scenes with severed body parts, gore and body fluids do not entrance me, but that’s why the Universe invented chocolate, vanilla, pistachio and even chile ice cream.  Something for everyone.

TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE by Bohumil Hrabal

Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim.

Written in 1976, set in a crumbling Prague, it is the story of Hant’a – a man who has been working as compactor of wastepaper and books for 35 years. In the process of compacting, he has acquired an education so unwitting he can’t quite tell which of his thoughts are his own and which come from his books. He has rescued many from the jaws of his hydraulic press and now his house is filled to the rooftops with books he has saved. Destroyer of the written word, he is also its perpetrator.

But when a new automatic press makes his job redundant there’s only one thing he can do – go down with his ship.

Told in first person, it celebrates the indestructibility- against censorship, political oppression etc – of the written word.  This is a beautiful paean to the transformative power of words on paper, about finding beauty in the dirtiest, most unlikely places.

This novella-length book is chock full of quotables.  Like this:

When I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each.

Or this:

I look on my brain as a mass of hydraulically compacted thoughts, a bale of ideas, and my head as a smooth, shiny Aladdin’s lamp.

Or

When my eye lands on a real book and looks past the printed word, what it sees is disembodied thoughts flying through air, gliding on air, living off air, returning to air, because in the end everything is air.

Lovely.  Just lovely.

 

NICKEL PACKAGE by David Chill

This is the sixth in a mystery series.  I think it must have been free, because I have no others in the series, and I usually read series in order.

“A vicious killer is on the loose. Their targets are connected, but the motives are unclear. Brought in by a Fortune 500 company to do a simple background check, Private Investigator Burnside is suddenly thrown into the middle of a sea of carnage. And as he moves forward into this harrowing case, his own life is placed in mortal danger.

Desperate to find the culprit before they strike again, Burnside faces his biggest challenge yet, and one in which a single wrong move — or an ill-timed quip — could prove to be very deadly.

Filled with unexpected twists and turns, the story focuses on the glitz of the entertainment industry, but goes on to reveal the harsh corruption that lies seething beneath the surface.

Nickel Package embarks on another vivid tour through the eclectic world that is Los Angeles. From the tony corporate suites to the seemingly peaceful middle-class neighborhoods to the gritty urban neighborhoods, the reader is introduced to intriguing new areas and fascinating characters.

And it wouldn’t be a Burnside novel if it weren’t loaded with irreverent humor! Nickel Package delivers an exciting mystery that is both compelling to follow — and marvelous to read.”

I agree.  Not much to add, other than it was a fine, workmanlike offering.  Nothing overly special.  Burnside is an ex LAPD cop, and an ex high end university football coach, and quit the big life so he could spend more time with his lawyer wife and young son, which definitely makes a nice change from the usual hard-drinking, alcoholic, divorced loner P.I. trope.  The book title is from football.  Yeah, I had to look it up.

The nickel defense is a basic defensive formation that is designed to stop a pass play. The alignment features four down lineman, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. It can also be referred to as a nickel play, nickel package or nickel alignment. Also, it is known as a 4–2–5 or 3–3–5 defense.

I’m not really sure just how this applies to the plotline, but then again, I wasn’t giving this a close reading.  If it doesn’t jump out and whack me between the eyes, I just keep moving on.

 

THE FUNERAL PARTY by Ludmila Ulitskaya

Books about Russian emigrés always seem to be a bit surreal, because, I think, of the nature of Russian people.

Official Description:   August 1991. In a sweltering New York City apartment, a group of Russian émigrés gathers round the deathbed of an artist named Alik, a charismatic character beloved by them all, especially the women who take turns nursing him as he fades from this world. Their reminiscences of the dying man and of their lives in Russia are punctuated by debates and squabbles: Whom did Alik love most? Should he be baptized before he dies, as his alcoholic wife, Nina, desperately wishes, or be reconciled to the faith of his birth by a rabbi who happens to be on hand? And what will be the meaning for them of the Yeltsin putsch, which is happening across the world in their long-lost Moscow but also right before their eyes on CNN?

As one reviewer put it, the book captures the divided soul of the emigrant, who lives eternally in a state of transition, never able to consolidate a singular identity. The characters are colorful, eccentric, and are the soul of the book.  There is no real plot, no real action, it is all about the characters.

Charming, and sad in its own way, it was a lovely read.