Friday, July 25, 2014

Child's Play

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

3 words: creepy, gripping, grim

I was almost too scared to read Jo Nesbo. I kept thinking Nordic noir… that’s some depressing stuff. Then you throw in creepy serial killers with inventive ways of dispatching people, and yeah. I’m running in the opposite direction.

But he was on the genre study assignment list, so I made inquiries of Nesbo readers and learned that The Snowman “isn’t that bad.” And I took a deep breath and downloaded the eBook.

I was traveling when I was reading it, and I got so hooked into the story, it ran down the battery of my iPhone. When I got off the plane, I had to find a power outlet fast.

That made me rather happy.

So we’re talking here about a plot that won’t let go of you. Twists and turns and all that good stuff.

But we’re also talking about some seriously disturbing murder action. I had to skim over sections (I did that thing where I un-focus my eyes) in order to be able to handle it. (I’m a feeble thing when it comes to messed-up murderer characters.)

And Harry Hole, the police detective who is at the center of the series, leads a life so miserable, he’d have to be a Scandinavian police officer.

Grim, my darlings. This stuff is grim.

For those who can handle Luther and for those who became hooked on the Stieg Larsson books.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Battle of the books

Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters

3 words: classic, honest, human

So much for my Top 10 list.

This book has shoved The Killer Angels right off the pile. I thought it couldn’t be done.

The Dear Man’s dear dad gave me a copy of this book when he learned that I was a Gettysburg fanatic.

When I saw the Booklist blurb on the cover that said, “Surpasses Michael Shaara’s classic The Killer Angels,” I was like, yeah, right.

Then I read it.

And the gritty realism of this novel makes the Civil War seem nearer than anything I’ve ever read or seen. It made me want to revisit Gettysburg with new eyes.

The thing I loved about The Killer Angels is the way it portrayed the soldiers and generals as actual human beings. The writing isn’t half bad, either. But its focus is on the people, not the landmarks or the ammunition or the strategy.

The same is true with this book, only more so. The people are more flawed and realistic. Peters puts blood in their veins, and he puts blood on the battlefield.

(photo by Alexander Gardner; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
During the battle scenes (oh, the battle scenes! I could read them only in sort spurts—they were overwhelming to experience otherwise) I felt like I could see and hear and smell and feel what was happening. There were moments when I moaned out loud at something a soldier experienced. 

I was reading with my mouth open in wonder.

There are short paragraphs that build suspense to an almost unbearable level, accomplishing this effect with a severe economy of words.

“The Confederate barrage slackened, then stopped abruptly. Freshly arrived Union batteries sent their shells into the smoke, but the Rebel gunners resisted the urge to reply.
Meade understood. They were coming. Then he heard a distant Rebel yell.” (p. 257)

Peters hits all the bases here: North and South, rank-and-file and generals, the noble and the cowardly, the old guard and recent immigrants, the righteous and the profane, the wise and the foolhardy, the young and the old.

Peters is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, so he knows military matters. But the guy also can write with the best of them. For years now he’s been writing the Abel Jones Civil War mystery series under the pseudonym Owen Parry, but this novel feels like it’s the book he was born to write.

And the best thing is this: When I was sad to turn the last page of the epilogue, I found these words in the Author’s Note: “The Killer Angels will remain the most beloved Gettysburg novel. Michael Shaara’s skillful writing, mythic portraits, and romantic view of the battle make it incomparable.” (p. 425) He goes on to describe how Shaara’s book was perfectly matched to the mid-1970s, when it was necessary to restore regard for the military.

But, he goes on, “It demeans the heroes of Gettysburg to depict them as flawless saints. Not one was cut from marble in the womb. Imperfect men fought an imperfect battle and so preserved ‘a more perfect union’ or all. Heroes are men who overcome themselves.” (p. 426)

The grace with which he credits The Killer Angels and also explains his own novel’s approach makes me happy that Peters took up his pen when he put down his sword. He’s given us a new masterpiece, and he’s done so while upholding the dignity of its predecessor. 

This is the real deal here, guys.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Addicted to the Biscuit

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

3 words: inspiring, journalistic, vivid

Seabiscuit, where have you been all my life?

Oh, just sitting on a library shelf, being all obvious and popular with readers for more than a decade.

I’m telling you… there are books I know I’d like, and then I just don’t read them. Until I get infected with horse fever after a visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum.

And then I spent the happiest days absorbed in the Depression-era story of an unlikely winner and his troupe of humans.

Damn, why can’t reading always be like this?

Seabiscuit was a hugely famous horse whose name I’d never heard until the book was released. But he was a cultural phenomenon in the late 1930s. And he’s one of 4 main characters in this doozy of a book. The others are humans: the trainer, the jockey, and the owner.

Of the humans, the trainer, Tom Smith, was probably my favorite. He looked like Truman and spoke like (Silent Cal) Coolidge. Here’s a good quote:
 “‘Tom Smith,’ wrote a reporter, ‘says almost nothing, constantly.’” (p. 204)

However, later in the story:
“Seabiscuit, sound, brilliantly fast, and impeccably prepared, had spoken on Smith’s behalf.” (p. 237)

Smith was laconic to the extreme, and he was a brilliant horseman. And he knew exactly what to do to bring out the best in Seabiscuit. The two had a connection.
“In moments of uncertainty, the horse would pause and look for Smith. When he found his trainer, the horse would relax.” (p. 104)

I adore that.

Another thing I found fascinating was the jockey-horse relationship, and the way the two act as one on the racetrack. Seabiscuit’s primary jockey was Red Pollard, a book-loving man who suffered serious injuries that would’ve halted a man less obsessed with his work. He and Smith knew their horse, and Seabiscuit trusted them. It really was a lovely thing.

“When Pollard, who called the horse Pops, sat outside the stall, reading the paper while Seabiscuit was cooled out, the horse would tug his hot walker off course to snuffle his jockey’s hands.” (p. 104)

Seabiscuit himself is my favorite of anyone in the book. In looks he was compared to a plowhorse, he had legs that didn't straighten, he was short, and his gait was ungainly. But the guy got the job done. He was a fierce competitor.

But he also suffered some serious setbacks and injuries, and that makes the story even more inspiring. Seabiscuit and his humans were masters of the comeback.

So the story by itself is fantastic, and then you throw in Hillenbrand's lively writing, and this book becomes nearly perfect. 
The description of the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral is some of the best writing I’ve ever read. Here’s just one excerpt:

Seabiscuit “cocked an ear toward his rival, listening to him, watching him. He refused to let War Admiral pass. The battle was joined. The horses stretched out over the track. Their strides, each twenty-one feet in length, fell in perfect synch. They rubbed shoulders and hips, heads snapping up and reaching out together, legs gathering up and unfolding in unison.” (p. 272)

I read that chapter as hungrily as I used to read as a child.

And then, watching the footage of the race, at first it gave me chills. And then I burst into tears. And continue to do so every time I watch the thing start to finish.

I'm gathering some tissues; here it is:

And then there's that Hollywood movie that I hear isn't half bad. (Hesitant to see it: I liked the book too much!)