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The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad)
The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad)
by Tana French
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.06
99 used & new from $11.83

5.0 out of 5 stars Irish boarding school with lots of teen-speak & a heartbreaking murder, September 22, 2014
Until I’d navigated the shoals of Irish teen speak in <a href="" title="Skippy Dies by Paul Murray">Skippy Dies</a> by Paul Murray, I might have been dismissive of the enormous skill it takes to recreate the speech patterns of a dozen teens. By now I am inoculated against scorn for the abbreviations and <em>slangerizing</em> of words that compose ordinary conversation, and parse much more quickly now.

Tana French’s sleight of hand places in parallel the confusing world of just-awakening teens alongside squads of police learning their craft in the harsh and unforgiving world of crime. By juxtaposing the two groups, we see the seeds of the men and women the teens will become.

St. Kilda’s Girl School and St. Colm’s Boy’s School are just across the way from one another, and the boarders at each mix at dances or in the town shopping arcade called the “Court.” They try on their adult selves like clothes at the thrift shop—delighting and discarding with snide remarks and zings of pleasure.

French slowly unfurls her story, showing us how teens so close to the right answer in the test that is life can actually get the wrong result. It is agonizing to share in the desperation of lovely, lonely girls seeking a closeness together they all feel but cannot preserve. French creates marvelously complex and fully realized girls, boys, cops, but one stands out: Holly Mackey, daughter of Frank Mackey, the detective introduced in <a href="" title="Faithful Place by Tana French">Faithful Place</a>. Holly is sixteen with a mind like a steel trap. One can’t wait to see what she will become.

Two detectives, Antoinette Conway of the Murder Squad and Stephen Moran of Cold Cases, work together for a day and a night on the year-old death of one of the Colm boys. Loners both, they approach the case from different directions. Antoinette takes a flashy MG to the tony school to “Get the respect.” Stephen would prefer to drive “an old Polo, too many miles, too many layers of paint not quite hiding the dings. You come in playing low man on the totem, you get people off guard.” Antoinette faces criticism and office taunts straight on, with hostility. Stephen instead sidesteps the sarcasm and, joshing back, lowers the tension while awaiting his moment to outshine the club boys.

Detective Frank Mackey, both admired as well as feared, makes an appearance during the investigation and suggests the younger cops “go along [with their lesser colleagues] to get along.” Both reject his advice and earn his grudging respect. This may be French’s point after all: one must cleave to the notion there is something you care about more than the adulation of crowds. There may not be as much wisdom as needed in crowds after all.

French involves us completely with the subterfuges of the young folk in the book. We know how teens are: smart, secretive, seductive in what they choose to share. But we also know they are not as clever as they think they are, and they cannot outrun the ghost of youth.

I listened to the audio of this book alongside the paper copy. Stephen Hogan and Lara Hutchinson alternated reading and though the narrative shifted from the year-old lead-up to the murder and the current investigation, points of view were capably interleaved. I was rapt for the duration of this stellar mystery.

The Mathematician's Shiva: A Novel
The Mathematician's Shiva: A Novel
by Stuart Rojstaczer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.97
77 used & new from $4.50

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully conceived novel about marriage, mistakes, and math..., September 17, 2014
<blockquote>"…smart people do stupid things far more often than most people realize."</blockquote>
This beautifully conceived novel revolves around the death of a world-class mathematician and the resolution of a proof about turbulence, or the chaotic movement of air and water in the atmosphere during a hurricane. <blockquote>"Actually, it is more than this. The big <em>D</em> in the Navier-Stokes equation is called the material derivative, and it refers to watching velocities of fluids change not from a fixed reference frame but from one in which you are riding with the storm. When I think of Navier-Stokes, sometimes I imagine myself as a Lilliputian in a tiny canoe that has been lifted up and tossed high in a fun-house mirror. I watch as the fluids careen against and flow around me."</blockquote> Wouldn’t it be great if the turbulence in our lives could be described and defined and <em>nailed down</em> with scientific precision? We could coolly assess a situation and recognize just when things are going to fly out of control, in which direction, and with what force. <blockquote>"Tornados are a good metaphor for how bad things happen in our lives. They build from small disturbances that usually don’t mean a thing and almost always dissipate. But somehow one particular random bad event attracts others, and all of them together grow and attract more nasty stuff. Once it gets to a critical size, the odds of it growing even larger are no longer remote."</blockquote>
Rachela Karnokovitch was the stuff of legend--a brilliant mathematician immigrant to the United States. Born in Poland and raised in Siberia, she escaped to the United States in advance of her husband and her child and was welcomed with open arms into the IV League academic community. However, she preferred the chill of Wisconsin rather than the warm Princeton climate. She hated and derided any modifier to her genius, e.g., <em>female</em> mathematician, though the rarity of that made her even more precious, at least in the eyes of her husband and son.

Could there be a more unique premise for a novel than the funeral of a genius mathematician rumored to have held off dying in order to solve a major problem? This funeral gathers to itself a constellation of weird but bright individuals all circulating about that star of genius to see if the here-to-fore unannounced solution to the problem is anywhere apparent in Rachela’s papers. They sit shiva in her house for seven days. They search the office, walls, and floorboards of her house. They eat the food offered by neighbors, and drink continually. They generally make themselves a nuisance, though not without mathematician jokes, academician jokes, and a gradual but reluctant acceptance of reality.

In searching for the solution to the math problem, her son comes across Rachela’s diary. Rachela’s remembrances interspersed with shiva-sitting prompt her son to consider the big social questions that face us as humans: <blockquote>"Our capacity for love isn’t like a gallon jug that you fill up from a rest stop as you take a drive across the country. It can swell, and sadly, it can shrink. Less is not more. Less is less, and more is better, although I can’t say that I fully understood that at the time of my mother’s death. I’m a whiz at science and math. In matters of people, I am indeed a slow learner."</blockquote>
This is a first novel, though it does not read like one. It is a profound meditation on life’s large questions, on math, on academia, on love and marriage. It is told with humor, pathos, honesty, and the understanding that long experience and large intellect can bring. The writing is mature, assured, and graceful, and the author instinctively seems to understand the requirements of fiction. We readers can follow anywhere, even to a funeral, as long as it has passages like the mathematician Rachela as a child in Siberia encountering a bear as she scoured the woods for lily bulbs to supplement her inadequate diet.

The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
by Louisa Lim
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.13
61 used & new from $15.13

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ... a book I hadn’t known I was waiting to read., September 17, 2014
Louisa Lim is an experienced China-watcher and has been an NPR and BBC reporter in China for at least a decade. She has completely captured a strange phenomenon of modern-day China: the heady mix of strong-arm political repression and an intolerant nationalism that is captured in the term “moral absolutism.” She shares the candid views of a cross-section of Chinese citizens and in the process manages to give an excellent update to our view of post-Tiananmen China.

Lim gives us a series of snapshots that capture the ambiguity and nervous pride with which ordinary citizens view their government: “aren’t we better off than we were four years ago?” When a young girl chooses “official” as her desired profession “because they have more <em>things</em>,” there must be some sidelong glances and reluctant acknowledgements of uneven wealth creation in official circles. But the political consciousness of ordinary citizens is strangely truncated. Those aspiring to work for the government do so for economic security, not with hopes of political change or influence.

The conversation started in 1989 by students at Tiananmen Square was not then ripe for democracy in China as we know it in the West, but some officials knew the risks to the Party and to the country of avoiding discussion of political reform and for suppressing the protests without some acknowledgement of their underlying discontents. That the conversation has been so utterly changed since the loosening of restraints with economic freedoms should not amaze me as much as it has. The government has effectively erased the memory of 1989, so much so that young people don’t even know about that time, and older folks don’t want to talk about it. How so many people can willfully forget that earlier moment when the stability of the Party was in jeopardy is explained: China’s turn towards economic liberalization happened <em>because of</em> Tiananmen.

Lim peels back the veil on the events in Chengdu during June 1989 when protestors sympathetic to students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square also marched and were also suppressed, beaten, jailed, killed. It astonishes me still that we don’t know the extent of the crime, and won’t either, until the government changes hands. Surely there was extensive documentation: some of the dead in Beijing and Chengdu lay for days in morgues or hospitals and photos of loved ones showing their injuries appeared many months after their deaths.

I imagine one day it will be the Chengdu policemen who, on their deathbeds, wish to be forgiven and come clean with what happened in 1989. They must be as haunted as Chen Guang, the military photographer-turned-painter in Beijing, whose work at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989 haunts him still.

Lim has an easy, clear, and precise style that is not without humorous moments. She juxtaposes lives of ordinary citizens with remarks by former officials. In one vignette, she tells of Yang Xiaowu, “a jovial distributor of grain alcohol” who visits Yan’an regularly, once with his sales staff for a bonding exercise. (Yan’an is where the Communist Party ended the Long March in 1935. A huge statue of Mao Zedong dominates a square built in front of the Revolutionary Memorial Hall there.) “[This is] the right place to come…because Mao’s classic essay <em>”On Protracted War”</em> was [Yang’s] business bible. He used it to help his team map out their strategy for marketing booze.”

Bao Tong was Policy Secretary for Zhao Ziyang and Director of the Office of Political Reform for the PCP before both were placed under house arrest in 1989. “Describing the mood at the highest levels of government Bao Tong painted an atmosphere so weighted by factional mistrust that any discussion of the issues was impossible…According to Bao Tong, [he and Zhao Ziyang] never had a single conversation about what stance to take toward the student movement. ‘This wasn’t something you would discuss,’ he said.” This remarkable and revealing admission reminds me that fear of reprisal haunts even the anointed in China, though the lack of discussion saved neither man.

What I liked best about this book is the journalistic skepticism Lim brings to the party: everyone has faults, mistakes, and good intentions in their pasts. No one is unequivocally good or bad Even Deng Xiaoping, according to Bao Tong, “went back and forth like a pendulum.” The student rebels at Tiananmen are not lionized, but placed in the context of their historical moment. I incline towards the viewpoint of Jan de Wilde, then consul general in Chengdu at the time of the protests: “I don’t think they had the foggiest idea what freedom and democracy actually meant in China or anywhere else. They were still very much [operating] in the framework of a one-party state.”

Tiananmen has not been forgotten by everyone, and the issues it raised are as valid today as they were twenty-five years ago. Undoubtedly some folks have begun to think about what political change would look like in a modernizing China. However, recent rhetoric from the center and the tight control the Party has on social discourse does not hold out hope for a “revolution from within” the Party. The change, when it comes, will be demanded by all those “moral absolutists” making up the population that the Party has created, and heaven help the Party then.

“All blood debts must be repaid in kind…”—Lu Xun

Louisa Lim’s brave and unblinking look at modern China is a book I hadn’t known I was waiting to read.


Herbie's Game (A Junior Bender Mystery)
Herbie's Game (A Junior Bender Mystery)
by Timothy Hallinan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.30
79 used & new from $3.03

4.0 out of 5 stars Hallinan has writing skill to burn..., September 17, 2014
Junior Bender is a burglar. That’s a fact. What keeps it from being a hard, cold fact is Bender’s heart. Bender has a set of codes by which he lives and a set of rules given him by his mentor, Herbie, by which he works. One of those rules “was to delay as long as possible the moment the mark realizes his stuff has been boosted.” That means not taking everything, nor making a mess. Another rule is not to take anything the mark can’t live without.

When Bender finds himself holding a matching set of brooches that prove to be irreplaceable, their pricelessness makes him less pleased than uneasy. And Herbie his mentor is dead--not just dead, but tortured. Bender wants to know why, and who was responsible.

Los Angeles is central to the action in this series, and Hallinan goes right for the nub of a characterization, be it cities or people. When entering a house, for instance, he might toss off a comment about the front lawn looking recently replaced: (quote) “Judging from the eye-ringing emerald hue of the lawn, the grass had never endured a dry minute since it was planted, about forty-five minutes ago. There are two schools of thought associated with good lawns: the British approach, which says you simply plant it and roll it for several centuries, and the Los Angeles nouveau-riche view, which says you just put in a new one whenever the old one gets a little ratty.”(endquote) <br/>And this:(quote) ’I went into the kitchen and filled a very nice Baccarat glass with ice water and carried it into the big living room, with its art deco windows that faced east toward downtown. The window framed only a fragment of the usual view, since the top floors of our relatively small collection of skyscrapers disappeared abruptly into a line of yellow-brown smog as hard and sharp as the stripe on a shirt.”(endquote)
Hallinan has a real knack for and sensitivity in portraying girls and women as whole beings. In this novel he has two new fourteen-year-old computer savants who already have a productive history of online theft from various state coffers. Bender recruits them to assist him in his search for Herbie’s killer, though he has twinges of conscience about it. One senses his deep compassion…for himself, but also for the girls. When one of them throws her popsicle stick out the window of his moving vehicle, he has to talk himself out of stopping to pick it up. He imagines becoming <em>their</em> mentor, now that his own has passed. It’s actually kind of frightening, though of all the mentors these girls could possibly meet, Junior Bender might be considered the finest still breathing.

Hallinan has an instinctive ability to dots his i’s and cross his t’s (important in mystery and thriller-writing) and still move the action along in character-revealing scenes. His creation of the lovely Ting Ting, a slim-waisted martial arts bisexual that captures the hearts of bruisers and wasters, is not just an aside to the action…I argue it IS the action. These characters have their basis in life, though perhaps not in lives we often encounter. Either Hallinan runs into folks like these on a regular basis, or they are all running around his head...pretty wild, even for southern California.

In his Afterword, Hallinan admits that he “had to kill off a few” characters he’d created earlier in the series because they were cluttering up the scenery, such that readers wanted them in <em>every</em> installment. Imagine creating such rich characterizations that we feel peripheral characters are neglected when we don’t see them.

Hallinan has a fluency born of long and deep reading, and constant writing. His other series featuring Poke Rafferty are set in Thailand, which is where I first discovered his unerring eye for what I call “the tell”: uncovering the (sometimes laughable, sometimes painful) characteristic of a place or a person that may define it, and that we recognize in our heart-of-hearts as true. My use of heart-of-hearts is not cliché. Hallinan has more “heart” than any other thriller/mystery writer I know. He and his characters seem to actively practice the Zen Buddhist (?) No Jerk Rule. And characters call each other on transgressions.

Reading Hallinan is just fun and because of that, it reminds me of the Don Winslow's mystery series about surfing. I mean, really, can crime BE more fun than hanging out with these guys? Junior Bender is such a softie, we don’t like to think of him actually killing people, though he does in this one. He carries a gun after all. It’s not just for show.

Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not just for finance field insiders, this explains a lot..., June 6, 2014
Unelected Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner had more influence on the thoughts and motivations, successes and failures of ordinary Americans than Congress ever did in the years he was in office. While Congress played politics (and not very well at that), Geithner did a lot (some might say too much) with his global role as fire extinguisher.

And who <em>was</em> he? Those of us just watching his pronouncements and public speeches, or feeling the impact of his decisions really did not have a good picture of the man orchestrating the mayhem. <em>
<u>Stress Test</u>
</em> goes some way to explaining how he moved from President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York when the monetary crisis began to become U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in 2009, and what he was thinking as the crisis unfolded. It is not a book written for Wall Street insiders. It is written with the general American public, Europe, and other countries in mind. It is, in some sense, a White Paper on the crisis, telling of personalities, events, and lessons learned. It is well worth the time invested to read or listen to it.

Two thoughts competed for precedence as I listened to Geithner narrate the Random House audiobook production of his book. One was that he really is just an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. He didn’t have a background in finance; he studied international affairs at Johns Hopkins. He never worked in the finance industry before getting a government job at Treasury in the International Affairs Division in the 1980's. There he met Rubin and Summers, and was named Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs in 1998.

The second thought that rivaled the “ordinary guy” theory was that he <em>does</em> has an extraordinary calm and one-or-two-steps-at-a time pragmatist mentality, a willingness to go “all in,” and a lack of interest in the trappings of wealth creation. I remember coming away from Robert Gates’ memoir thinking that only those that don’t want the fame and fortune that comes with vaunted public service must be the ones chosen to serve. (Remember Sam Nunn? He did his duty, oh so well, but he appeared to hate the limelight.) And Geithner must be an impressive thinker and proponent of his thinking in person and in writing, despite or perhaps because of, his measured and sometimes turgid prose. He consistently had strong supporters and powerful mentors all along his path. That doesn’t happen to everyone.

Something we may not value enough is his ability to withstand withering abuse from those who disagreed with him. While there may be, and undoubtedly will be, many who could do his job, not many could handle a crisis of that magnitude while listening, adjusting, and holding firm when necessary. It was a labor of love, doing that job at that time. It occurred to me that some who recommended him for the job wanted someone else to handle the crisis—to be a fall guy.

Somehow I remain convinced that disagreeing with his handling of the crisis (injecting cash, propping up illiquid banks, and overseeing TARP) needn’t have boiled over into personal attacks. It would have been far more useful to him and to all of us if those with reasonable alternative ideas could have presented them in a civil manner. The market scare showed us unfit and fat, at our ugliest. Nothing would have made me happier than to see the banks fail, if it weren’t that we were all involved.

Geithner’s method, though he freely admits it created “moral hazard” along the way, did bring us back with limited pain and loss, to a market higher than ever in a remarkably short period of time. If anything, this may be the thing that worries me the most. One could argue now that the cash injected into the system allowed us to paper over some of the inequity issues we face, despite changes made to the regulatory system. That someone makes an outsized salary can be remedied by tax reform, but the politics have become even more contentious and disabling. What worries me is that there weren’t enough lessons learned by the folks who needed to learn them.

Histories of the financial meltdown in 2007-2008 we have heard before, but what we learn from Geithner’s personal history is how the crisis looked from his desk, what he was thinking, who he was talking to, and how, as the crises widened, his perceptions changed or crystallized. This type of meltdown crisis will probably happen again, especially if our political system continues to fail. We may not use the methods Geithner used to repair the damage in the future, but everything he did will be considered in the next crisis, combed over and debated, regardless of political affiliation and ideology. This is because pragmatism really does trump ideology in a crisis, no matter what the pundits and politicians say. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty Thriller Book 5)
The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty Thriller Book 5)
Price: $8.97

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars featuring Poke Rafferty, an Anglo-Asian male living in Bangkok, March 8, 2014
Bangkok becomes an international center of intrigue focused on its restive Muslim south and juggling its overheated, overaged male spy population who had happily retired themselves only to be called back into harness. More importantly, Hallinan has created his most interesting and powerful female character yet, Ming Li.

Ming Li is the Anglo-Chinese step-sister of Poke and she aids his latest attempt to uncover a psychopath bent on destroying those who know his shadowy past. Young, (female), smart, (vulnerable), and irreverent, Ming Li blasts through accepted modes of spycraft to intuit actions of the players in advance. She does not spare her brother who, as a member of the male ruling class, had no need to learn lessons of body language and intent early on.

What I loved: 1) Poke Rafferty’s humanity. When attacked by a man with a gun, he manages to save his attacker before rushing off to save himself. Fearful as Poke might have been, he was a good man first. Rafferty is willing to believe the best of people he suspects, reserves judgment on their behalf, and stretches to preserve their basic dignity despite their iniquities—not including the really bad man who deserved everything coming to him. 2) Ming Li. Where Rafferty sees ambiguity, Ming Li cuts through the dross with a rapier mind and lays flat broad swathes of bad folk. 3) The way the author ratchets up the tension by having a long-winded Russian collaborator slow the action with pages-long detail at a critical moment when Rafferty (and readers!) just want the facts. It’s a gentle, funny way to tense us up and preserve forward momentum.

Hallinan did very well in raising the temperature of this thriller, but he didn't succeed without flaw: I disliked what I saw as the artificial character of “Treasure” when I first met her. Later, I realized how entirely possible it was to have such a character, neglected, abused, and exploited, when a psychopath is in charge. But the psychopath and the daughter felt like weak links.

And herein lie my only quibble: I would have preferred, were it at all possible, to have a bad man with more ambiguity, depth, and moral equivocation than our bad man here. He was so dark, he seemed like a caricature, and made everyone else a little like a caricature also. I believe the general outline of these characters and places are quite the real thing, with only a few of their sketch lines missing.

But you know what? It would have been a completely different book had Hallinan made it difficult for us with moral ambiguity. One could even argue the bad man wasn't as bad as he made out, since he did something uncharacteristic for his nature at the end of the book, one assumes because he was a father after all. And after the big event in the final pages, only one body was found instead of two, so one of the two that were "taken out" will be back, I fear. Which will it be?

I like Hallinan’s books very much, and when one needs a dose of the heat and flavour of Southeast Asia, or of Thailand's wonderful, complicated "anything goes" acceptance, I recommend having your moral compass realigned by reading a couple of Hallinan's books. Onward [Buddhist] soldier…and tell us more tales.

The Queen of Patpong: A Poke Rafferty Thriller
The Queen of Patpong: A Poke Rafferty Thriller
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $9.78

5.0 out of 5 stars I felt completely simpatico with Hallinan's characters, March 8, 2014
Hallinan did such a good job getting us inside his characters and their lives, I felt as though I’d just spent a week in Southeast Asia. In this latest offering, Hallinan describes how one comes to live the life of a bar girl in Patpong, Bangkok. While undoubtedly fiction, it sounded plausible enough to describe the experiences of many country girls sold to the meat markets of the city, making their way the best they can.

Hallinan has the good sense to be matter-of-fact about life in Thailand. He is no apologist for a whole country or way of life, but he has a depth of sympathy for the reality of people’s lives and a deep and abiding love for people of honor, wherever he finds them. And he describes Thailand with the splash and fizz it deserves—one can smell the markets and hear the traffic. In The Queen of Patpong, Hallinan succeeds on many levels: Poke Rafferty daughter is acting in a school play, and it is described with such skill, one feels one has just read a particularly good newspaper review. One wants to race right out and book a ticket. The central mystery of the novel circles and mirrors the play ingeniously, and the play itself is central to a final resolution of the mystery. Hallinan deserves very high marks for this wonderful warm and friendly novel, and for sharing his imagination and his life with us.

I asked a friend once what was the draw of the TV serial Sex in the City. She replied that, for her, the strength and depth of the female friendships was the draw. She knew it was fiction, but it presented such a wonderful fiction that she watched it whenever she could. Hallinan has a little of that specialness in his books. There is such friendliness, such sincere human-to-human contact, one wants to be in that place. Kudos, Hallinan.

Crashed (A Junior Bender Mystery Book 1)
Crashed (A Junior Bender Mystery Book 1)
Price: $6.15

5.0 out of 5 stars "...This series is essentially all crooks...", March 8, 2014
Tim Hallinan wrote "creating crooks is more than half the fun...." in the “Author’s Note” to the first book in his new series featuring Junior Bender, "Burglar to the Stars," in Los Angeles. For those readers unfamiliar with Hallinan’s work, he has written a series set in Thailand featuring Poke Rafferty, a travel writer with a heart of gold and karma to burn. Rafferty makes a lot of sense (and friends) defending the underdog in unequal transactions and seems to grasp the essentially welcoming Thai society is not as morally deficient as it is painted by some critics, but has a strong sense of values that are easily transgressed by unwitting or unthinking Westerners.

In the Junior Bender series Hallinan turns his eagle eye on Los Angeles for a change. The reader can tell he is having a blast with the range of folks and the shifting sense of morality he encountered there. Hallinan still has a strong instinct for protecting the underdog: witness his lack of judgment about the drug addiction of his latest fictional charge, a young female actress on a downward spiral snookered into making a porn film. These are verboten subjects in Western educated circles but Hallinan doesn’t let it faze him. He has the “come to me with your handicaps” generosity of the Dalai or the Pope. And if those two men of god will fix your afterlife, Hallinan, and his henchman Junior Bender, will fix the here-and-now.

The pace in this novel is fast—the whole thing takes place in a couple of sleepless days (the reader may experience this also)-- and the subject matter is edgy. California is once again on the leading edge in reformulating “moral man.” But everybody is a crook of some sort, as Hallinan said in the opening quote to this review, so one has to roll with the attitude and take the material for the laughs. Moral insights are there, however, as they always are with Hallinan’s books, which makes it thought-provoking and good discussion material. How far would we be willing to go, given the same constraints or circumstances?

Check out the genesis of this series on Hallinan is a man who doesn’t let a little negativity let him down. When his long-time publisher didn’t want an L.A. series, Hallinan self-published until Soho Crime picked him up. Now he has sold the film rights and the audio rights. But he’s got it going on now.

Little Elvises (A Junior Bender Mystery Book 2)
Little Elvises (A Junior Bender Mystery Book 2)
Price: $9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars One picks up a book by Tim Hallinan to have fun, March 8, 2014
There’s a little murder, sure…sometimes a lot of murder…but it’s usually the bad guys that “get it” and we rest easy, knowing there is someone out there who’d rob us blind if he could, but who won’t take more than we can afford to lose.

Hallinan’s creation, Junior Bender, is the kind of guy you might ask back to your house for a party, after he’d robbed it, just to ask how he did it. He’s that amusing.

The Junior Bender series of books is based in Los Angeles and captures the vibration of southern California precisely. If you’ve ever found yourself missing the place, you might want to pick up one of Hallinan’s books for a cure. Hallinan lasers in on defining characteristics, and picks up those things we thought we’d fixed with botox, or managed to hide with designer advice. He is brilliant at describing environments, in this case an old art deco apartment building with a view of the city purchased by crooked Koreans. Crumbling and unkempt on the outside, it is gloriously restored on the inside, with secret escapes and hidden garages, just perfect for hiding ill-gotten gains or for a man on the run.

Junior has a code of ethics that is not taught in any religion, but like many southern Californians, is just something he created out of whole cloth and “evolved” into. But we like this code, just as we like him. He is a thief, yes, but his heart is in the right place. Everyone wants his help at some time or another, even the cops, and if they don’t, well, mostly they want to lock him up or kill him. Which keeps Junior on his toes.

Junior has a family, and in this episode, his thirteen-year-old daughter, Rina, shows she is growing up into someone he can admire. Do I need to say she has computer skills that put her father to shame? And while she is not old enough to have a boyfriend, she has a friend that is a boy who is as special and interesting as everyone else in the family. We yearn to see more of him, and watch him grow.

Hallinan writes crime novels that defy the type. One can imagine finding a sprung-binding massmarket paperback of his with its delicious, distinctive single-color cover and woodcut silhouettes and opening to the first page…only hours later surfacing to reflect that one had found gold.

The Apocalypse Chase: Fishing in the world's most dangerous places
The Apocalypse Chase: Fishing in the world's most dangerous places
Price: $1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific fishing tale..., March 4, 2014
So what makes a good fishing tale? Perhaps it is a little like real estate: location, location, location (or, as the Australians like to say, “position, position, position...”) But it is more than that…it is the temperament of the fisherman, the poles, the flies, the weather, the obstacles to success…as well as the size of the catch. There also has to be a little time for contemplation, and ruminations about the state of the world, both personally and globally. All this is here for the taking in this first self-published novel by Graham Spence, co-author of several nonfiction titles about the African bush with the fabled conservationist Lawrence Anthony, who died in 2012.

I read this story in a day because Spence made this fiction absolutely propulsive. The central character, Chris, sells advertising for a small newspaper in Queens, New York and is bored with his life. He is middle-aged, divorced, and barely speaks to his wife or daughter anymore. After experiencing a “heart incident” in a meeting one day at work, he decides to go ahead and live before he dies. He wants to fish the wild places where fish have never seen a human. This is the tale.

He first chooses South Africa. The narrative shifts between moments of sunny calm with great, satisfying catches and moments of breath-catching, death-defying horror. The absolute best part of this narrative (who really trusts a fisherman/storyteller anyway?) are the details and keen insights that convince us that this is the real thing, the actual location, the true situation. It is fascinating. But Chris doesn’t end there.

The next location is Colombia, South America of all places. Chris thinks that no one in their right mind would go to Colombia with all the FARC activity and kidnappings, so he won't have any competition for fish. He researches locations and decides fishing along the coastline beaches and away from the jungle would probably be safe. His Colombia section just reminds us just what a fisherman (tall tales) Chris really is. But he is so good at storytelling and fishing, we find it hard to put the book down. He survives (!) his travels in Africa and South America and we move on. But I don’t want to give away all his secrets. This is something you need to discover for yourselves. I thought it was a blast.

So I discovered this title when I began researching the authors of THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER, an exceptionally well-written nonfiction about game conservation and elephant killings in Africa. Graham Spence has a low-key website on which he introduces his two self-published fiction titles, including this one.

Do yourself a favor. I can guarantee you will have an unusual (and terrific!) day’s reading ahead with a natural raconteur, especially if you like fly fishing stories.

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