Thursday, December 2, 2010
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
1) His characters are stuck in a moral minefield - Take three of his lead characters, Detective Dave Robicheaux, PI Clete Purcel and Sheriff Helen Soileau. Each of them exhibits a tremendous amount of depth and growth throughout the series, yet we are constantly reminded of the basket of snakes each carries inside them. Any one of them could easily be "the bad guy" in any given novel and yet they remain fully committed to their own vision of justice, regardless of the consequences.
2) The setting constantly shifts - New Iberia and New Orleans represent a beautiful cesspool of mobsters, gangsters, corrupt politicians, racist oligarchies and dirty cops. Each novel introduces a new set of characters who are fully fleshed out and ready to unleash their own version of hell on Dave and his friends. There have been continual elements like the Giancano Mob Family and Lee Burke weaves their rise and fall through several early books. He never ignores the history he has created for his characters and builds upon it brilliantly - not many other writers have this ability. Robicheaux has undergone several life changes (and wives) and each one has been written with subtly uniqueness and understated power.
3) The Writing - Lee Burke writes so well your senses are completely assaulted. You hear, smell, see and taste every part of his world - no other writer can do this as well as Lee Burke. Occasionally he throws in a big twist near his endings but usually the books build to a forgone conclusion you may or may not accept. Nothing ever ties up completely and the good characters do not always triumph over evil. Often, his main "hero" is wrong in his assessment of the bad guys. Few other crime writers take these chances.
4) He is the only one who can pull off the slightly supernatural elements - Lee Burke occasionally has supernatural or mystical elements involving life and death in his books and surprisingly it always works. I have read other novels where the authors have tried similiar things and it does not work. For Lee Burke, it always does.
His latest The Glass Rainbow (number 18!) is a fantastic summation of the entire series. All the elements are there and the book is fantastic. The great thing about his series is you can pick it up anywhere and get a great read. It is not necessary to read from the very beginning, but, each novel has to be read, and fully enjoyed.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons resonated deeply with me. It took me a long time to figure out why, and then it hit me: I understand as my team is also suffering a championship drought.
Living in Vancouver (in my opinion a cursed sports city) I understand the futility of watching your team fall short of expectactions year in and year out. In Vancouver, there is only one option for the Vancouver Canucks each year - winning the Stanley Cup. They have not yet won the Cup in their 40 year history. Twice they have made it before losing: in 1994 they pushed the Rangers to Game Seven and lost even though Trevor Linden hit the post twice. Ridiculous. Needless to say the team has yet to carry the championship belt. In 1994 the city shut down and banded together in cheering elation (then we lost and there was a riot) so you cannot say the fans do not deserve it.
Additionally, we had to suffer through The Vancouver Grizzlies (and #1 pick Bryant "Big Country" Reeves who had his nickname changed to "Sleep Country" before the end of his first season) who showed tantalizing potential in their first two games (winning both including a thrilling home opener) before embarking on several seasons of mediocrity and an NBA record 23 game losing streak. Then, to top it all off, new owner, Michael "I am so angry I cannot in good conscience put anything here without being censured" Heisley, moved the team to Memphis where they promptly learned how to draft quality players and made the playoffs.
Simmons was able to perfectly portray a tormented fan base, but also cut to the heart of the sports experience: you follow your team through all the good and band and ultimately they will reward you (unless you live in Cleveland). The beauty of sports is their ability to resonate with entire populaces which they draw together against common foes. Sports are a metaphor for life and despite the ups and downs we all fight through.
Now for something a little different: Reggie Bush voluntarily gives up his Heisman. Terrible. For shame, NCAA, for shame. Even though he was paid by a greedy agent (who recieves no punishment whatsoever and only came forward because he was burned by Bush) there is no denying that in 2005 he was the best player in college football (just watch the clip he was electrifying!) Now, they want to punish USC and Bush? Why? Bush does not play for USC anymore and given he has now voluntarily given up his Heisman what was the point? In all likelyhood a lot of great players take money and gifts - Bush got caught. Did it somehow affect his on-field performance? When the money was promised did that make him play harder? I doubt it. Now, Vince Young (who may have also taken money) wants the 2005 Heisman. Newsflash: It is not yours, nor will it ever be. End the stupidity NCAA, please.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
Why: Like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos owns the mantle of best crime writer of a certain city. While Lehane has claimed Boston as his territory, Pelecanos rules DC. His Nick Stefanos trilogy, followed by his DC Quartet and Derek Strange Quartet and his stand alone The Night Gardener (easily his Mystic River) cemented his place in 08. His works show the degeneration of DC after the war and the slow influx of gang crime which led to its ranking among the world's most dangerous cities. A fascinating and complex look through time which easily holds a place among the best crime fiction of all time.
Alternate: Michael Crichton - this was the year I discovered his earlier works which are all unique and all exceptional. One of my favourites: Rising Sun a page turner which makes you think and informs you down to the last page.
2009: Stephen King
Why: A shockingly tough year to pick a champ, despite the fact I read a staggering 14 books by King. He ultimately had the most impact, even though he did not write the best overall book I read that year. From his masterworks It and The Stand through his earlier novels such as Salem's Lot, King kept me more entertained than any other author. Fittingly, the last book I read in 2009 was King's latest opus epic Under the Dome.
Alternate: James Ellroy's American Tabloid was without a doubt the best book I read in 2009. In fact, it may be my favourite fictional book ever. His follow up The Cold Six Thousand was very nearly the equivelent. Awesome fictional accounts of the Kennedy conspiracies (and beyond!) these books are must reads for anyone interested in the noirish side of American history written by someone with a vendetta against any unecessary words. Powerful stuff.
2010: Bill Simmons
Why: So far, this year there are two possibilities for my writer of the year. However, when the full impact of reading (not only books but also weekly columns) is factored in there is no other choice but Simmons. His epic The Book of Basketball not only reignited a love of sports books for me, but also made me a huge basketball fan. Before I could take it or leave it, now, I cannot get enough. Thanks Bill for being so hilarious and such a pop culture master that your book literally had me laughing so hard I could not continue for long stretches due to serious stomach pains.
Alternate: David Peace whose Red Riding Quartet was the most literary work I read this year. Each of the four books ties so beautifully together that only when Peace's full vision is recognized does the reader understand the full, brutal impact of the journey. Haunting, harrowing and among the best crime fiction has ever offered.
Grandmaster Award - James Lee Burke
Burke really could have dominated in any given year due to the sheer volume of his works and the overall quality of each one. In 2007 I read three of his books; 2008 saw five go down; during 2009 I crushed four more; currently in 2010 I have made my way through three more. His works are incredible tributes to the Lousiana with all its seedy, mob-driven darkness and quiet almost mythical beauty. His books are not read but fully experienced. Pick up any one of the 15ish Dave Robicheaux novels and you will see what I am talking about.
Friday, August 13, 2010
1) Bubba - Dennis Lehane
Why: Lehane has created some solid secondary characters but he topped himself with Bubba who defies any conventional labels. He is (among other things) a psychopathic gun dealer who kills without conscience and whose apartment is rigged with landmines. Whew. A charmer you would love to bring home to mom...and he is one of the good guys?! Bubba only loves two people, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, and helps them in Lehane's early books. Bubba may not be a star but he certainly leaves and impression and give Lehane credit for not overutilizing the character. He leaves you wanting more Bubba, not sick of him.
2) Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino - Clive Cussler
Why: Why not just one of them? Try picking Redford or Newman - not possible. They are a tag team hell-bent on doing what they believe is right. Naturally they end up saving the world multiple times and killing more bad guys than most small-market dictators. However, they are the epitome of the self-deprecating heroes who never sought the spotlight but made a real difference. They had the best peak (1976 - 1999) of any characters and within that peak the ten year run of Cyclops (1986) - Shock Wave (1996) remains one of the best stretches of thriller fiction in history. Quick with the one liner and endlessly sacrificial, these two had the adventures of a lifetime, thankfully dragging readers alongside.
3) Pete Bondurant - James Ellroy
Why: A pimp, shakedown artist, thug and murderer who ultimately proves he has a heart, Bondurant is one of a kind. He works for Howard Hughes, the CIA, Jimmy Hoffa and the mob and does so with a reckless abandon all his one. Big Pete, haunted by the fact that he murdered his own brother - and did not care!?, is one of the most compelling and morally ambiguous protagonists in modern fiction.
4) Lisbeth Salander - Stieg Larsson
Why: Lisbeth, the heroine of Larsson's Millenium Trilogy is a marvel of character. She is damaged, flawed, peerlessly brave and incredibly intelligent. In an era of strong women in fiction, she may be the strongest. From getting revenge on her rapist to brutally beating a serial killer and going right at evil head on, Salander does not shy away from anything. Thankfully, of course, for the reader.
5) Bernie Gunther - Philip Kerr
Why: Sarcastic, brutal and a complete thug almost as bad as the Nazi's he despises, Bernie is one of a kind. Truly a symbol of justice in the Nazi era (and beyond) he proved just how terrible a person had to be to survive - and thrive - in that time. The hero of six novels, Bernie is about to make his seventh (and final?) appearence in the fall. Here's hoping he is good as ever.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
The book kicks off with a bang and does not stop for four hundred pages. Ellroy uses his three character format to radically redefine crime fiction; everything in this book makes what you have read before inconsequential. It is so complex and fascinating that you cannot put it down. Ellroy's Bosh / Wade / Lebron combo is Ed Exley, Jack Vincennes and Bud White. Each is struggling to expel their own demons and are so lifelike they jump off the page. Ellroy also used other excepts such as newspaper articles to fill in the pieces (yet hands nothing to the reader). The characters come together around the "Night Owl" shootings, a brutal crime in which six people are shotgunned to death. While the crime is brutal, the repeated solvings and fitting together of puzzle pieces is a breathless race to the last page.
When the final twist was revealed I literally dropped the book in complete shock.
It was that good. This is not a book for the faint of heart and fits in chronologically with Ellroy's LA Quartet trilogy. The story is so twisted and complex you will have spun clean circles when all is said and done. Do yourself a favour and read the one of the best crime writers at his peak, you will not be disappointed even if you have seen the movie.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
I read a lot of books. A lot. Last year, I posted a "Best Books of 2009" in November. This year, because I have already read so many great books, I decided to do one post for the first half of the year and one for the second half. I'm sure my adoring public has been waiting with baited breath, and will appreciate the extra recommendations...
The Clive Cussler Award (Could not put this book down):
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
Given that his previous book in the Millenium trilogy won this award last year, it is only fitting to hand it to Larsson again. Deservedly so, as his second book kept me turning the pages so quickly I got windburn. After page 200 I dare you to attempt to put this book aside...it will not be possible.
The David Simon Award (Smartest Book):
The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons
Hilarious, witty, insightful - all these labels and more could be applied to this book that also displayed an inhumanly encyclopedic knowledge of basketball and pop-culture. If you want to understand basketball or even more about sports in general, you have to read this book.
The James Patterson Award (Worst Book):
Omerta by Mario Puzo
I almost went with the new Dan Brown book (unread) and, truly, this one really pains me to write about. Sigh. The Godfather is rightfully a classic but this was a poor attempt on Puzo's part. Not quite as bad as The Godfather Returns / Revenge but it might as well not have been written by Puzo. All the things that made his other novel so great were shunned and replaced with a terrible and predictable story.
The Rick Reilly Award (Best Written Line):
If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr
(p. 454) "And if the house wasn't haunted, I knew I was, and probably always would be. Some of us die in a day. For some, like me, it takes much longer than that. Years, perhaps. We all die, like Adam, it's true, only it's not every man that's made alive again, like Ernest Hemingway. If the dead rise not then what happens to a man's spirit? And if they do, with what body shall we live again? I didn't have the answers. Nobody did. Perhaps, if the dead could rise and be incorruptible and I could be changed for ever in the blinking of an eye, then dying might just be worth the trouble of getting killed, or killing myself."
Ellroy Award*(Most Information Packed into One Novel - New!):
Exodus by Leon Uris
He literally could not have packed more info into this book about the birth of Israel if he tried. Whether giving the history of the holocaust, the Jewish state or religious background there are more facts in here than an atlas.
Top 5 Books of the First Half of 2010
5. Wizard and Glass by Stephen King
I am a big Stephen King fan - as evidenced by The Stand hitting number 3 on my list in 2009. This book blew me away for a couple of reasons: a) it is unlike anything else he has written before or since ; b) it is possibly the best romance story I have read. Romance? you say, Stephen King? In short order: yes, and yes. This novel, part of his epic Dark Tower series contains some of his best writing of his career.
4. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
This is an older novel and is highly regarded as a classic of the crowded, courtroom - drama field so overpopulated by John Grisham. Turow, in my humble opinion, has written the book Grisham always wishes he could. The story is realistic, moving and often insightful. The final twist literally takes your breath away.
3. If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels continue to amaze with their consistency and fantastic writing. And...somehow Kerr always manages to pull the rug completely out from under his reader with one stunning twist after another. This novel helped to shade the entire series in a new light for me - Bernie Gunther is a survivor who has bitten and clawed his way through one of histories darkest periods. His existence is a brutal purgatory where redemption and judgement always seem just out of his grasp (rightfully so?). I am eagerly awaiting the seventh offering: Field Grey due out in the UK in October 2010.
2. Open by Andre Agassi
1. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons
These two books were so close in the rankings that, in honor of Simmons, they demand a point-by-point breakdown.
Purpose of the book: Agassi sets out to hold a mirror to his entire life and truly reflect on his whole being. He comes to the conclusion that tennis, as much a part of his life as it was, is not the most important part. Simmons write the defining book on the NBA. Period. Edge - Agassi
Writing Style: Agassi is straightforward and his prose is incredibly open and shockingly not self-serving. Simmons breaks up his book with more statistical analysis than Wall Street. Add in Simmons hilarious footnotes and we have a winner. Edge - Simmons
Best Part of the Book: Agassi details his comeback that leads to him playing the best tennis of his life long after he has passed an age when people continue to play. It is thoroughly inspiring. Simmons puts up his Pyramid of the top 96 guys in the NBA and the reasons why. It is thoroughly hilarious. Edge - Even
Revelations: Agassi could not win a tournament once because his wig was falling off. He also used crystal meth at a dark chapter in his life and Stefanie Graf was a way larger part of his life than you can imagine. Simmons details MJ's baseball "sabbatical" and just about every other possible thing that happened in the NBA. Plus he includes his "runner up" best cocaine story and best cocaine story in NBA history. Gold...pure gold. Edge - Simmons
Intangibles: Agassi has written a book that forces the reader to take a look in the mirror and reflect on their own life. It is truly a life changing book, and it rightfully deserves consideration for the Pulitzer prize. Simmons has written a 700 page book on the NBA that includes a "What if..." chapter, a "Wine Cellar team" chapter and paragraphs such as "Imagine a guy was in prison and the warden told him if he grabbed 40 rebounds in 40 minutes he could be paroled. That was how hard Moses Malone hit the glass." Unfailingly insightful and funny. Edge - Simmons (by a freaking inch!)
So ultimately, Simmons takes it...but not by much.
Friday, June 18, 2010
He is six books into his watershed Bernie Gunther series with a 7th due in October 2010. The first three books in the series (March Violets, A Pale Criminal, A German Requiem) were written in the late 80's and early 90's and were later collected into a one volume edition titled Berlin Noir. These books were tough, tough noir so hard it made your stomach ache like you had been chewing on broken glass. Kerr's books were so taut and twisty they released slowly like a coiled cobra.
One of the reasons the books were so effective was Kerr's lean and powerful prose which was aided immensely by the historical depth of the Nazi era. Of course it helped that his character, Bernie Gunther is a former German police detective with the morality of a pirate. Gunther gets to witness the Nazi depravity before, during and after the war.
Seventeen years after the trilogy finished, with a solid closure, Kerr resurrected Gunther with a novel (The One From the Other) so unbelievable and perfect that it easily kept pace with the other novels and in some ways expanded and surpassed them. This was Kerr writing retrospectively about the Holocaust and showing a new side of the history of his character during the war (during which he has not set a book).
A year later he put out A Quiet Flame which detailed a piece of history Argentina hopes will be relegated to few memories. The novel was set amid postwar decadence in the South American country and it is a slam bang thriller so well written it made my list of 2009's Best Books.
The sixth book If the Dead Rise Not fills in many of the gaps in Bernie's life and adds a worthy new chapter. Kerr's willingness to experiment with new narrative structures (such as two different time periods) has kept the series from growing stagnant or stale.
This sixth book, more than any other, further characterizes Gunther as a moral quandry. He is a reluctant hero, a man trapped by the flow of a dark piece of history and condemned to a brutal existence. He dishes it out - but has to take a fair amount too. And, he is forced to commit horrific acts that are morally reprehensible but understandable given his contemporaries. Gunther is a hero for his time, when a hero was a dark knight who had to be just as brutal as the Nazi's in order to battle them. More than any other character in noir, Gunther is a man haunted and hunted by his past. He is trapped by the sins of an entire nation but shows time and again how much of a surviver he is, as well as a stunning ability to overcome trouble.
One of the more brilliant twists Kerr devised was forcing his character to leave Germany and move to South America with the people he despised most. For the character it was shattering moment, and continues his Dante-like journey through the stages of hell. Kerr leaves the morality of his character's choices up to the reader and that is why the series is so successful.
It is my theory Kerr has written the seven definitive books on the Nazi era. He has gone far and beyond most histories and gives the reader a true feeling of what Nazi Germany (and Argentina....) were like.
Monday, May 31, 2010
It is that funny.
However, as I said before, Simmons also offers the most comprehensive and astounding book yet written on the NBA. He weaves together a litany of pop-culture, NBA greats, awesome moments and random teams ("Best Bearded Team", "All Name Team") to make a stew of pure readabilty. You will devour this book and his witty references. Plus, I learned more about the NBA than I ever wanted and it made me love the game that much more.
Of course, the book is not without (Len) bias. Be warned Lakers fans, this will be tough to get through yet it is ultimately a worthwhile and rewarding read, bookended by Simmon's Hall of Fame Pyramid and arguments on who is the greatest of all time. While the answer may not be a mystery to many - SPOILER ALERT it's MJ - the reasons why and who comes before him are nonetheless compelling.
Highly recommended for sports fans and non fans alike. If you only pick up one book on the NBA in your lifetime, this is without a doubt the one to read.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Thursday, April 29, 2010
I have written things such as "Lehane is my Boston guy" or "Burke is my New Orleans guy" without really explaining the context, so, without further ado - my princes of crime writing.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Having just finished the incredible third season of AMC's Mad Men it was high time I tried to explain the brilliance of a show that is way too underrated for its own good. This is not a show for the casual viewer: there is a complexity at work that is at times, completely daunting. It took me deep into the third season before I had the sudden ephiphany about how I could tie my love of Mad Men into a blog ostensibly about books. However, it can be done.
One of the best things about the show is how it ties literature into the dense, knotty plot. The plot by the way, is inherently too complicated to explain - it is about happiness, and the illusion of happiness seen through the eyes of a man who has everything. It is about his wife, and his office and it is about the 1960's.
Each season, and there have been three so far, the show displays one book that the characters are reading. Thematically, this book comes to represent many of the themes explored in the season. Without too many spoilers, they are Exodus by Leon Uris, Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons. The first season is about a man waging an eventual conquest on all around him and carving his own place - a better place - within the world. The second season focuses on this man fighting to reconcile the two halves of his own self within the larger context of his own happiness as well as that of those around him. The third season details the slow and ultimate decline.
I cannot wait for the fourth season.
Mad Men is the kind of show that can be watched over and again and each season so far has contained a scene so utterly moving and powerful that it simply blows the viewer away. The third season in particular contains one of the single best episodes of television I have ever witnessed.
If you have not watched this show before, rent it, buy it, beg for it...but watch it, and watch it soon - the fourth season is about to start.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Exodus by Leon Uris is an essential novel for understanding the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. Uris set out to write the definitive novel about the birth of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to their own nation and he succeeds.
This is a powerful story: dense, complex and somewhat morally ambiguous. I do not really know how to feel about the novel's conclusions. It rightly portrays the Jewish people as a nation that has been forever persecuted and attacked, and they deserved a chance to return to their homeland after the Holocaust. However, the portrayel of the Arab nations is not without serious bias - this epic of biblical proportions chooses to take an "us versus them" stance as opposed to a more multi-faceted view. Yes, the Jewish people deserved a new homeland, but perhaps they should have worked peacefully with the Arabs to establish this, rather than setting up a military state ready to give their own children's blood for their new nation.
The characters are deeply drawn and serve as vivid and compelling anti-archtypes, particularly Ari Ben Canaan and Kitty Fremont. Ari's ultimate realization of the bloody cost of what he has undertaken is one of the most hauntingly realistic moments in the story. So too is the harrowing, brutal depiction of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - time and again, the characters reveal themselves as true heroes and this is no exception.
The foundation of Israel was built on the statement "never again" and Uris does not shy away from the fact the people are more than willing to defend what they believe is rightfully - and biblically - theirs. A triumphant story that has to be read not only to understand one of the most important events of the twentieth century but also to gain a deeper understanding of why our world can never fully be at peace.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
I recently discovered Breaking Bad and my first reaction was "what the hell took me so long?" This show features the best decent into evil since the Godfather and some of the finest acting performances since The Wire. The first thing that truly struck me about this show was the staggering performance of Bryan Cranston. This is a man who has completely reinvented himself at least three times that I know of. A friend reminded me he was the suave Tim Wattley on Seinfeld before I remembered him as the incomparable Hal on Malcolm in the Middle. I thought Malcolm was one of the most underrated and brilliant shows in the history of television and part of that was Cranston's peerless depiction of an overworked, underpaid father to four boys. Seriously, try watching Cranston teach his son to figure skate to the song Funky Town, and then try picturing him in any other role. That is part of what makes his role on Breaking Bad so incredible. He is Walter White, man with incurable lung cancer who just happens to cook the best meth on the planet. His slow reconciliation with the depths of the man he is rapidly becoming leaves behind one, simple question: "Why me?" Watch it, and you will not be disappointed by the best show on TV.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
6) Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane