Saturday, May 31, 2008

Girls in Trucks / by Katie Crouch

From an early age, ladies of Charleston’s Cotillion society know what's expected of them. After all, it’s not for nothing that such a fuss is made over etiquette and decorum. So it goes for Sarah Walters and her "Camellia" sisters as they navigate their way from sheltered girls to "coming out" and into adulthood in this humorous narrative on modern day debutantes.

The "Camellia" world is a priveleged one where life is less about living and more about looking pretty enough to land a rich husband; even if reality, as Sarah soon discovers, abides by no such rule. There’s her older sister for one (former Camellia), whose glamour went unmatched until she dropped out of college to marry an African refugee. And it seems no man could be worthy of her mother’s austere opinion; not that Sarah minds much while slumming it with “Island boys” the summer prior to "coming out". College in upstate New York is the real eye-opener though; a ‘faster’ world of hookups, drugs and easy betrayal which paves her way into NYC single life. After a series of abysmal relationships and more than a few desperate affairs, Sarah, with the help of her Camellia sisters, resettles in Charleston to begin anew as a wiser but no less conflicted ex-debutante.

Rather than deifying the debutante microcosm, Sarah and her Camellias see the order for what it is: one of life's 'big' things with more flash than entitlement. This in mind, nothing's held back from the edge; tactless behavior established as the norm with Sarah practically excelling at self-induced misery. Crouch's authoritarian style seems all too eager to describe Sarah's plight: sleeping with her dead friend's husband after the funeral, flying off to Peru in mail-order bride fashion, stalking her abusive ex, etc. The issues with her family only add to the farce; her mom's strange friends, her father's detachment and her sister's rebellion all revealing holes in the well-maintained veneer of Southern gentility.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

International Intrigue

A journalist for the BBC during WWII, Frederick Forsyth once tried to 'hop a ride' on a D-Day invasion craft. His adventurism coupled with experience as a global correspondent have helped firmly establish him at the pinnacle of the political thriller genre. Among his many popular works, Day of the Jackal (1971) and The Afghan (2007) are two of his most enthralling epics.

Day of the Jackal (1971)
Rebuff in France over the Algerian question reached its apex in 1962 when, in a move unpopular with many, President De Gaulle withdrew all French troops and granted sovereignty to the North African state. Among the outraged, members of the French OAS (Secret Army Organisations) were former soldiers and colonists who, feeling betrayed after sacrifices made on their country's behalf, decided retaliation was only too necessary. Between the summer of 1962 and spring 1963, a string of unsuccessful assassination attempts were made on De Gaulle’s life. With their ranks dwindling and their cause dying, one last option assuaged the OAS: hire an outside professional killer who, acting alone, would eliminate their target. Following an intense search, a meeting of the strictest confidence was held in Vienna where 3 OAS men and one stranger discussed details of the operation. The stranger--codename "The Jackal"--ultimately agreed to kill the French President for half a million dollars. Up until and beyond the pinned date, no OAS or allied partisan would see or hear from the Jackal accept through the designated middle-man. The OAS now had their last and best ‘shot’ to avenge their betrayal.

Even knowing De Gaulle died--peacefully in his sleep--in 1970 and that there was likely no such lone gunman plot (the other attempts were real enough), you can’t help but be caught up in the drama of this taut thriller. The Jackal's methodical preparations are as intriguing as the climax while the intelligence bureau's counter-operations only add to the appeal. Forsyth's steady, detached style may deter some with its lack of cliffhanger suspense. But his ability to create fascination out of one man's inconspicuous maneuvers has a way of overriding the desire for more action. The film version of this book came out in 1973 and stars Edward Fox as the Jackal. (FIC FORSYTH)

The Afghan (2007)
Army Col. Mike Martin is well-acquainted with the Middle East. Since his time spent in Iraq as a boy up until his present life as a paratrooper, he’s become familiar with all aspects of the volatile region, even learning the language well enough to translate several remote dialects. But when the intelligence community desperately needs information on a major Al-Qaeda operation, even they know the hard truth: there’s no way to get what they need aside from personally infiltrating the enemy, an impossibility because no one (not even Martin) is capable of doing so.

Even the only conceivable option, an Afghani political prisoner in quarantine, is a non-option. Izmat Khan is a former Taliban commander who even now, after 5 years of interrogation at Guantanamo, remains a staunch fundamentalist ally of Al-Qaeda. Yet a twist of fate many years earlier helped make Khan and Martin loyal friends. Is it even possible? Could Martin’s shared knowledge and intimacy with Khan allow Martin—disguised as Khan—to ‘become an enemy’ among the enemy?

Forsyth writes with such incomparable authority and structure that little room is left for fault-finding. The Afghan could almost pass as a geography textbook, so remarkable is the detail, and yet the story's intriguing enough captivate any politically naïve reader. The action, as with other Forsyth classics, is less personal--war casualties described like a newscast. But it’s the broader picture that’s indirectly intended, fate and conflict viewed at a global scale. With its distinctly middle-eastern attributes, The Afghan shares more than a few parallels with Lawrence of Arabia and readers gung-ho on Indiana Jones won't be disappointed. (FIC FORSYTH)

Escape from Saddam, by Lewis Alsamari

Lewis Alsamari is an Iraqi who spent his early life in England when his father was pursuing his studies there. His parents separated and his mother returned to Iraq with his younger brother and sister, and Lewis was sent back to be with his mother at age 12. Shortly after that his father also returned and Lewis lived with him in Mosul. Although Lewis is eager to return to England, he instead ends up having to attend university in Iraq after graduating from high school, or else face conscription in the army. Dreaming and believing that his “escape” is just around the corner; Lewis fails to apply himself at university, and is inducted after not attending classes. Believing he would get a chance at another course of study, Lewis is stunned to find himself in the Iraqi army. We witness the brutal elements of his army training. After being posted in southern Iraq, his fluency in English is noted and he’s slated for transfer to the army intelligence sector, to help implement Saddam’s repressive regime. This news makes him ready to do anything to escape his situation. When he finally makes it to England, his troubles are just beginning, since the Iraqi authorities imprison his uncle, mother and brother because of his escape. The book is exciting and absorbing, with Alsamari not trying to justify or excuse his actions, but only to explain them. His desperate dilemma of trying to get his family out of the country shows us the seamy and grim side of borders and customs, and what it’s like to be juggling all your resources and money just to get to freedom.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Killshot / by Elmore Leonard

A resident-native of Detroit, Elmore Leonard began his career writing westerns before expanding into crime and mystery thrillers. Killshot follows a veteran assassin and his ex-con partner after their shakedown scheme is foiled by a middle-aged ironworker and his wife.

Armand Degas, a.k.a.“Blackbird”, knows stealth. Even if he weren’t half-Indian, he’d be aware of the indiscretions which get you caught or dead in this line of work. So how'd he end up next to this trigger-happy punk, fleeing the scene of a botched extortion scam with two witnesses left still breathing? The punk is none other than 30-year-old Richie Nix, a dumb-crazy sociopath who's somehow walking around free despite numerous arrest warrants. When a routine carjacking lands him a new cohort and some unlicensed firearms, it’s all he needs to collect on his $10,000 ‘insurance’ from a local realtor. Even when things get a little hairy—it’s OK; Richie’s never hesitated to take anyone out.

All her mother’s warnings about ironworkers couldn’t keep Carmen from wedding Wayne Colson. It wouldn’t be the last thing her mom was wrong about; eighteen years and her only complaint is Wayne’s seasonal devotion to hunting. Yet when a run-in with some bad guys furnishes their way into the witness protection program (and out of their house), even Carmen’s steady trust that Wayne will do the right thing can’t quiet her deepest fears, fears only heightened after meeting the dimwit US Marshal assigned to them.

No one writes dialogue like Elmore Leonard. If there's a literary equivalent to Quentin Tarantino, it's the veteran master, a man who pairs humor and violence as well as anyone. Not much on themes or symbolism, Leonard's concerned more with who's doing it and how rather than what's happening and why. Still there's an authenticity to Killshot however subtle, flowing through characters and dialogue as much as the third-person narrative. As tediously cautious as Armand is, it's easy to see how Richie's heedless, off-the-cuff attitude grabs his attention while for Richie, who rarely thought once--but never twice--about anything, it's Armand's cool demeanor and professionalism. Together they form a lethal if offbeat tandem of cold-blooded killers out to tie-up their loose ends. (MYS LEONARD)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dirty Pretty Things (2002) DVD / w/ Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tatou, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo, et. al.

"I'm here to pick up those the system has left behind..."

On a night like any other, Okwe, a clerk at a ritzy hotel, is summoned to a room with an overflowing toilet only to discover a human heart as the obstruction. Deeply disturbed, his report of the incident goes unheeded; the night boss telling him to forget about it. Other problems demand his attention anyway. An illegal in a foreign country, Okwe and his roommate Senay, another illegal, barely make enough--both working two jobs--to eat their one meal a day. Not that there's much time for liesure, what with immigration services constantly at their heels.

After saving the life of a man with a mysterious wound near his ribcage, Okwe’s true identity as a doctor is unraveled by the worst person possible: his same night boss, Juan. Things soon turn diabolical when Okwe and Senay are blackmailed into Juan's lucrative side business...a most 'inhumane' enterprise. Now Okwe must navigate not only his own fate but that of refugees just like himself.

For all the lamentable cinematic drivel pumped out today, it’s rare to find a movie that surpasses even the lowest expectations and be deemed worthy of universal esteem. ‘Things’, whether because of creativity, luck in casting before-they-were-stars stars, or cosmic alignment, manages this; a movie where you don’t think “I’m watching a movie.”, you just flow with the story. Granted, the premise is sympathetic; the characters admirable. But the appeal remains subtle, wielding interest through motives and gestures rather than overt action or dialogue. Throw in two actors acting in a language other than their native tongue and you have a remarkable achievement.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Kidnapped...for real

The Birthday Party: a Memoir of Survival / by Stanley P. Alpert
While walking near his Manhattan home on the eve of his thirty-eighth birthday, federal prosecutor Stanley Alpert was abducted at gunpoint, blindfolded and forced to submit his bank card and PIN number to a carful of would-be-thieves. Upon revelation of his identity as an attorney, Alpert was taken to a Brooklyn apartment, strapped to a chair and threatened at gunpoint throughout the night. Though initially persisting with a series of violent threats, taunts and accusations, the atmosphere eventually became more relaxed with the kidnappers even offering Alpert alcohol upon learning it was his birthday. In a strange twist of fate, Alpert was released the following day relatively unharmed. Details of the incident along with the ensuing investigation and trial are chronicled by Alpert himself in this harrowing memoir of a man who lived to tell about his own abduction.

Kidnap: the Story of the Lindbergh Case / by George Waller
American aviator Charles Lindbergh became even more famous in 1932 when his one-year-old son was taken from his crib one night in March. The incident set off one of the nineteenth century's most involved criminal investigations, attracting widespread public attention with even mafia members--then incarcerated Al Capone among them--proffering aid in exchange for plea-bargains. A ransom note found at the scene demanded nearly $100,0000 for the child's life with subsequent notes upping the sum to nearly $200,000 before a rendesvous could be settled upon. Tragically, events unfolded unsuccessfully when the deceased child's remains were found one month after being abducted. Bruno Hauptmann, a carpenter and first generation German-American, was eventually convicted and electrocuted for the crime despite proclaiming his innocence throughout.

In Plain Sight: the Startling Truth Behind the Elizabeth Smart Investigation / by Tom Smart
In a case made widely-popular through several 24-hour news outlets, the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping wasted no time in becoming the most celebrated child-abduction story of the new millenium. It was the summer of 2002 when the 14-year-old Smart went missing, apparently captured from her own bedroom by Brian David Mitchell as part of an intended bigamist plot. Uncle and one-time suspect Tom Smart chronicles the bizarre case from start to finish, commenting on the frenzied media atmosphere which likely hindered the police investigation and thwarted quicker rescue efforts.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri fans will welcome her latest offering, a collection of eight rather longish short stories. The first five stories are unconnected, and the last three are about the same characters, how they meet in their youth and again as adults. Her characters are, as always, Indians immigrating to the United States and the stories are about how they and their children cope with their old and new identities. Lahiri’s gift for narrative detail gives her prose a cinematic quality; we feel we are watching the characters, not seeing through their eyes. It is this quality that makes us so interested in what will happen next, we are “there”, but we have no private access to the characters’ emotions. Like a movie, the characters’ actions have to explain themselves. If they don’t, then we find ourselves engaged, trying to figure them out. I find this aspect of Lahiri troubling in that very serious things happen in the stories – family members keep secrets from each other, a fiancé consistently cheats on his future bride, a young man rains emotional abuse on two little girls (his new stepsisters) who were left in his care. Motivation is evident, but in Lahiri's world of detached sorrow, there's no glimmer of redemption or renewal.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Regeneration / by Pat Barker

Pat Barker's award-winning Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy of historical novels set during World War I. Actual events and people from history constitute the story's subject with Barker imagining hypothetical sequences using real patients interned at Craiglockhart Hospital, Scotland.

"Good Morning, good-morning!" the General said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

-- from "The General" (1917) by Siegfried Sassoon

Real-life poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) served as an infantry officer during the first World War. A good soldier but rigid pacifist, his written anti-war declaration inadvertently earned him a "shell-shocked" diagnosis by a sympathetic Dr. W.H. Rivers. The end result was Sassoon's admittance to a mental hospital (an alternative to court-martial) alongside other patients suffering severe mind and nerve damage. The novel begins with Sassoon trying to justify his idealism and Rivers employing various modes of treatment to rehabilitate his other highly traumatized patients. Among the ailing is Lieutenant Prior, a man made mute by combat, Captain Burns, who's been unable to eat after a corpse exploded over him, and Wilfred Owen, another (real-life) poet and contemporary of Sassoon's.

A "war" novel, Regeneration is more of a behind the scenes viewpoint. Nonetheless, Barker still relies heavily on factual events to tell the story, re-imagining situations and characters at a personal level. Even with Sassoon and Rivers at the forefront, the narrative jumps around in a more or less scattered fashion, emphasizing minor characters (some fictional, some real) with as much weight as the two protagonists. It's this enhanced intimacy which, despite the real vs. not-real contrast, ultimately illuminates the book's intentions: the re-creation of a wartime atmosphere through emotions rather than action.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Center of Everything / by Laura Moriarty

Eileen frowns, taking a drag off her cigarette. "She'll go to hell, honey, if she keeps making fun. I know it's sad, but those are the rules." (p. 8)

Evelyn Bucknow wasn't planned. Her mom Tina had her as a teenager after cutting ties with Evelyn's father. Resenting her own father's disapproval, Tina relocated to middle-of-nowhere Kerrville, Kansas where now only Eileen--Tina's mom, Evelyn's grandmother--makes visits to their ratty apartment by the highway. At 10, Evelyn's bright and observant, already percieving how her mother's immaturity preserves their near-destitute lifestyle. A disadvantaged homelife isn't easy, but peer-rejection only inflates Evelyn's animosity, inadvertently making school her refuge during the adolescent years. But even Evelyn isn't immune to hormones, revealed through an unrequited infatuation with Travis, a neighbor boy in love with her best friend.

It's not through absence of initiative that things remain more or less the same for the pair. Tina wants better for her and Evelyn but lacks the discipline to roll with the punches. A man magnet, Tina's never without 'opportunities', albeit ones with consequences like her second "accident", Samuel, whose mental handicap does little to alleviate economic burdens. Yet it's his presence which quietly sparks (or rather settles) something in Tina, a humble compassion little evidenced beforehand creating a responsible mother out of a once-haughty renegade. Between Evelyn's subdued persistence and Tina's evolving maturity, things slowly begin to perk up after so many years of dismal prospects.

No matter how redundant it sounds, it's still true: Everyone has a story to tell. A cliche perfectly describing this story. Tina and Evelyn's circumstances could--and do--exist anywhere, and yet Moriarty's touch adds so much more. It's the small things that subtly connect with the reader: smell of the laundromat, stained carpet, dirt under the apartment's staircase, etc. Apart from the physical atmosphere, it's the emotional quality of Evelyn's narrative--a somber, increasingly submissive attitude--which evokes that identifiable distinction of realism. Altogether it culminates in a vivid description of low-income America where drudgery and discontent go hand in hand.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Notable Narrators

Barbara Rosenblat
Rosenblat is one of today’s foremost female narrators compiling an impressive body of work over the past decade. Among the numerous titles she’s lent her talents are books by Elizabeth Peters, Diane Mott Davidson, Lisa Scottoline and Nevada Barr. A prominent reader of feminine sleuth mysteries like Peters’ Tomb of the Golden Bird and Davidson’s Dark Tort, she’s recently performed two award-winning titles: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and Amy Bloom’s Away.

Scott Brick
With nearly 100 titles to his credit, Scott Brick is no stranger to most fans of talking books. He narrated over 15 books by 15 different authors in 2006 alone. Authors he’s given 'voice' to have been heavily concentrated in the action/suspense genre--among them Harlan Coben and Dean Koontz--where his own unique energy effectively heightens reader interest. A versatile talent, his range of ability has helped him branch out into other works, both fiction and non-fiction alike. Some of his latest performances include Gregg Hurwitz's The Crime Writer, Steve Barry's The Venetian Betrayal and The Chase by Clive Cussler.

Simon Prebble
Prebble's accent epitomizes British aristocracy, a trait evidenced with each recording's docile manner and well-pitched inflection. His tone never fails to place proper emphasis on critical words and phrases, which is perhaps why so many audio mysteries and historical epics feature him. Authors he’s read include--but aren't excluded to--Susanna Clarke, Pat Barker, and A.S. Byatt. His non-fiction works, such as The First World War by John Keegan, are impressive also.

For more narrators and audiobook titles, look on the library's website: