Tuesday, December 1, 2015

October/November reading

Only got a couple books in during October, so I decide to just combine the two months.

Total books read October/November: 6

Dead Space by Lee Goldberg
Oh, how happy was I to discover that Goldberg wrote a sequel to My Gun Has Bullets? Pretty damn happy. Cop turned reluctant actor Charlie Willis is back in his new capacity protecting the denizens of Pinnacle Pictures from each other and themselves. Keeping Charlie at the studio gives Goldberg another opportunity to skewer the entertainment industry and its useful idiots with evil glee, and he doesn't disappoint. This time, he takes aim at the reboot of a Star Trek-like series whose delusional old stars and rabid fans turn murderous when they learn the original cast will be replaced by a new, young, hip cast. There's also another plotline in which a mega-agency decides to take over the industry by any means necessary, including murder.

Sadly this appears to be the last of the Charlie Willis stories. Too bad - he's a great character and Goldberg's ability to mock the arrogance and excess of the entertainment industry is up there with the South Park guys.

"Charlie Willis wasn't prepared for this. He came here hoping to intercept Eddie Planet before his lunch, instead he arrived to see Clive Odett carjacked by a guy in a silver space suit with a Styrofoam cup stuck on his crotch."

Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer's Journey edited by Hank Phillippi Ryan
A series of short (2-3 page) essays from over fifty Sisters in Crime writers, covering their writing experiences including procrastination, rejection, unscrupulous agents, finding ideas and the importance of embracing other writers as part of your community. Writing can be hard and even successful writers struggle with the process, which I found comforting and inspirational.

The book also won two awards at Bouchercon 2015 in October:
  • The Anthony Award (named in honor of Bouchercon inspiration Anthony Boucher) for Best Critical or Non-Fiction Work, voted by Bouchercon attendees.
  • The Macavity Award for Best Mystery-Related Non-Fiction (voted by members of Mystery Readers International, subscribers to Mystery Readers Journal and friends of MRI).
"Don't forget to be happy. I think this is the best advice I could give any writer. All of this - the ideas, the work, the craft - comes from within. And the goals keep moving down the field. So stop and celebrate when it works. It makes all the difference." 

The Search for Anne Perry: The Hidden Life of a Bestselling Crime Writer by Joanne Drayton
Anne Perry is an award-winning and best-selling author of historic murder mystery novels. She also - as Juliet Hulme, a teenager in New Zealand - participated in the murder of a friend's mother. After serving her prison sentence, she moved away and changed her name. As an adult a series of jobs took her to different parts of the world until she returned to her native U.K. in the 1970's to help care for her ailing stepfather. She indulged in her love of writing and eventually published her first novel, The Cater Street Hangman, in 1979. Since then the extremely prolific Perry has published more than fifty books and has sold more than twenty-five million copies.

Perry managed to keep her identity and background a well-guarded secret until the release of Peter Jackson's critically acclaimed 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, which told the story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, and their obsessive friendship that ended with the murder of Parker's mother. With the release of the movie, the inevitable question of whatever became of the girls (who had seemingly vanished from the face of the earth) resulted in a journalist eventually identifying Perry as Juliet. Later, Pauline Parker (who had changed her name to Hilary Nathan) was found running a children's riding academy in England. The two have never reconnected since their trial and Perry has been quoted as not being interested in seeing Pauline/Hilary again.

Drayton was given pretty much full access and cooperation by Perry, and her book takes an extremely gentle and sympathetic approach to its subject, unlike Peter Graham's book in which he really takes Perry - who he considers to be cold and highly manipulative - to task for minimizing her role in the murder and putting it behind her a little too easily for Graham's taste. Drayton's approach is more like Perry's - that she wasn't as complicit in the crime so much as she was just trying to help out a frantic, suicidal friend. There's an almost "hasn't she suffered enough" vibe that mirrors Perry's approach to her history that Graham found off putting. To be fair, by the time Heavenly Creatures was released, forty years had passed and Perry had served her time, never re-offended and had built a successful life and career. The fallout from Perry's unmasking turned out to not be anywhere near as bad as she had anticipated. Her friends and associates pretty much banded together to support her and it didn't hurt her career at all.

I've seen Perry at a couple of book events over the past few years. Now in her seventies, she continues to crank out material at an impressive pace and regularly travels to promote her books and make appearances. She was a keynote speaker at the California Crime Writers Conference last June and has been named the Distinguished Guest of Honor for the 2020 Bouchercon in Sacramento. She comes across in person as humble, thoughtful and soft-spoken and is a highly respected writer. On the other hand, I read The Cater Street Hangman a few years ago and for me, there was an inescapable creepy aspect to reading murders written by a person who had actually taken part in one. It's hard not to wonder why of all the genres she could have written, this is the one she ended up with.

"Then it just came out: Anne told Meg that when she was fifteen she and a friend had murdered her friend's mother. It was a tragic, stupid mistake that she would do anything to change. She had accepted her guilt and been punished for her crime, and now she just wanted to move on and write."

Life or Death by Michael Robotham
I saw Robotham on a couple of panels at Bouchercon in October. He had some interesting stories, one of which inspired his newest novel, Life or Death. The idea came from a case in his native Australia. A prisoner escaped, then turned himself in the next day. As a result of this little caper, a couple more years were added to his sentence. Years down the line, the night before he was scheduled to finally be released, he escaped again. Officials didn't go after him because they figured he'd come back like he did after the previous escape, but he was never seen again. Robotham described him as "Australia's least wanted".

In the novel, which is set in Texas, Audie Palmer is one day shy of being released after serving ten years for a bank robbery that ended up with multiple fatalities when he makes a run for it. However, unlike his real life inspiration, all kinds of people are looking for him and the seven million dollars that vanished in the robbery. I genuinely did not see the end coming. Well done.

Cassie and Scarlett will be OK. They've done nothing wrong. They didn't know he'd escaped from prison. He should never have asked for their help. He should never get close to anyone. Never make promises. That's how this started. He made a promise to Belita. Then he made a promise to himself that he wouldn't die in jail.

LAdies' Night edited by Naomi Hirahara, Kate Thornton and Jeri Westerson
That's not a typo. Published by the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime, LAdies' Night is a collection of short crime stories featuring a variety of L.A. women who find themselves in dangerous and sometimes deadly situations.

The stories run the gamut, from Hollywood at the birth of sound to a post-apocalyptic San Fernando Valley of the future, from a Venice artist faking her own death to a vengeful Laurel Canyon wife, from a old-time movie star who returns from the dead to a murdered movie mogul, from a strip mall in Encino to a Malibu beach house. It's Los Angeles in all its many forms and the colorful denizens who make their homes, their dreams and sometimes their downfall here. It's a terrific, lively collection that I read in one sitting.

"You're like all the rest, aren't you Lena? Back home you won the sash for Miss Boone County, or was it Hayride Sweetheart? They said your best prospects were Owen who sang with you in church choir and had hopes to get on at the garage in town one day, or maybe Emmett, whose uncle owned the laundry in Kokomo. But you were destined to parade in beautiful gowns under bright lights as a line of gorgeous men in tuxedos throw themselves at your feet. So you fled Crawfordsville and jumped onto the train-load. One evening you got hired to come to a Hollywood party to carry trays, but had a chance to sing at the piano, and a man with a moustache heard you and made you his protege, and now you think you're on your way."

Bite the Biscuit by Linda O. Johnston
I don't usually read cozies, but this turned up in one of my Bouchercon swag bags so I decided to give it a go. I tried.

Carrie Kennersly is celebrating the grand opening of her combination bakery/all-natural doggie treat shop (Icing on the Cake/Barkery and Biscuits) when Harris and Myra Ethman, owners of a more commercial local pet store, crash the party. Neither are happy with their new competition and Myra makes an ass out of herself by loudly badmouthing Carrie's products. Although not happy with Myra's behavior, Carrie manages to keep her temper for the most part, at least until the Ethman's leave, when she assures everyone within earshot that, "Myra Ethman did enough damage today with her criticism, but she'd better stop. Immediately. She may not realize it, but I'll do anything in my power to make sure that Barkery and Biscuits will survive, and that means finding a way to keep her quiet."

You know what happens next. Myra is murdered that very night, strangled with a dog leash, and with a Barkery and Biscuits treat left next to her body for good measure. And of course, this makes Carrie Suspect Numero Uno.

Sounds fun, right? I got to page 107 and decided I'd given it enough of a chance, although out of simple curiosity I skipped to the end to find out who killed Myra and additionally set Carrie up to take the fall. I found the dialogue stilted to the point of distraction. At times it was unnecessarily formal, not the way people who know each other would converse. In addition, all the pet owners seemed to refer to their furry friends as "my Davinia", "my Fanny and Flip". I don't think I've ever heard anyone refer to their pets that way. Sophie is simply Sophie or "my cat", or "my cat Sophie" if they're unfamiliar with her.

Another thing that kept taking me out of the story was that there was a lot of what a reviewer on Amazon described as "too much repetition" and "excessive detailing" that I felt bogged down the reading experience. It could have been tightened up a lot. It almost felt like the book never went through the editorial process. I'm not sure what happened here - Johnston is an award-winning and best-selling author of about forty books, which wouldn't be the case if she was a weak writer. In her acknowledgements she indicates that unlike her protagonist, she's not much of a cook, so maybe she felt the need to go into unnecessary and excessive detail to make up for that.

At home, I fed Biscuit her regular, wholesome food in a reasonably sized portion. I'd been careful, both at Barkery and Biscuits and in what I'd instructed Faye about treats, to make sure Biscuit didn't overeat, even on the wonderful stuff we were now preparing at the Barkery. Biscuit was part of my family, and I wanted her to stay fit and trim and healthy.

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