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Book Review: The Cove by Ron Rash

This is the first Ron Rash novel I’ve read and I’ll certainly get ahold of more. My only complaint is a compliment to the writing, which is that I had a weight of foreboding hanging over my head the entire time I was reading. This is partly as a result of the time, place and writing style. I just knew something bad was going to happen. Without giving anything away Mr. Rash gave a pretty blatant hint in the beginning. I think that was part of the effect though. I knew this wasn’t going to end well.

The novel is the story of Laurel, her brother Hank, and a stranger who Laurel finds stung almost to death by bees in the woods in the cove where she and Hank live. The cove is a bad luck place, and the local people believe Laurel and Hank are cursed. Hank is starting to win a more normal place in local society, but not Laurel. Her birthmark seems to be enough to convince the locals, with a few notable exceptions, that she is a witch. She is shunned and treated abysmally.

The best thing about the novel is the writing. The prose is good, which nowadays is much more the exception than the rule. The townspeople are not admirable but are completely believable. Laurel and her brother Hank are extremely well drawn. For the most part Laurel draws on our sympathy, but she is not a perfect, one-dimensional, Disney type character. She makes mistakes and reacts in ways that make you shake your head. Hank left me with ambivalent feelings. I don’t want to give away what went on between them, but I will say that, while I sympathized with him, I couldn’t feel completely good about him.

I won’t tell you about the stranger, because I think an important part of the novel is discovering what is going on with him as the novel proceeds. Suffice it to say that they nurse him back to health and he ends up having a profound influence on their lives. I didn’t like the ending. Not because it wasn’t realistic, but because it was all too believable. As with much that is realistic, it struck me as anticlimactic and unsatisfying. It was completely in line with the overall realism of the novel though so there’s no legitimate complaint. I think it is a clear sign that Mr. Rash cares more about the literary nature of his work than popular success.

As I said, I will be looking for more of Mr. Rash’s work. The writing is good, the characters are interesting, and he brings you to a world that is at the same time completely different and depressingly similar to our own.

Book Review: Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (August 2015)

I recently read something that referred to Alan Furst as an anti-fascist writer. This is certainly true, but too narrow a description. In fact, this first novel of the Night Soldiers series is much more about Stalinism than Fascism. I think it’s more accurate to say that Alan Furst writes about the struggle of individuals to find some happiness in the maws of faceless, violent police states.

I gave Alan Furst’s most recent novel a fairly poor review. After reading that I decided to go back and re-read the first novel in the Night Soldiers series to remind myself why I am such a fan. I was not disappointed. believe Alan Furst wrote four novels before he hit on Night Soldiers with limited success. It is fortunate for the reading world that he didn’t give up.

Night Soldiers spans from 1934 to 1945 and from Bulgaria in the east to the United States in the west. It is largely about people caught within the spider web that was life for any Soviet citizen with any official status during the reign of Stalin. I think Alan Furst does a couple of things extremely well. First, he sets a great scene geographically. Wherever the characters find themselves their surroundings are vivid and clear. Even more important is how he captures the looking glass world of a Soviet intelligence official under Stalin. Denunciation and condemnation was more a matter of when than if. No one could be trusted. The logic was Byzantine and changed randomly and without warning. People living under that system generally ended up being reduced to a universe of one, trying to keep some inner part of their minds free from the apparatchiks trying to root them out, an almost incomprehensibly lonely place to be.

The story follows one of these people, Khristo Stoianev, a young Bulgarian who watches his brother beaten to death by Fascists. Khristo is seduced away to the Soviet Union and finds that he has an aptitude for the spy business. The novel for the most part follows Khristo through the Spanish Civil War, pre WWII France, and then the Second World War. I won’t tell you how things work out for Khristo. My advice is to get a copy and find out for yourself.

I felt kind of bad writing the poor review of Midnight in Europe because I am such an Alan Furst fan. I enjoyed re-reading Night Soldiers so much that I’m going to start working my way through the rest of the series again. One of the nice things about the series is that you run into the same characters in very different places, so if you decide to pick it up I recommend starting with Night Soldiers and reading them in order. You’ll enjoy them either way but reading them in order is a little more satisfying.

Book Review: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

I’ve always been a big fan of the movie, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read the book before. I’m also a big fan of Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man, both the book and movie, and The Continental Op series. I have to confess though, that The Maltese Falcon was something of a disappointment.

The really interesting thing is that some of the book is very good, while other parts read like a parody of a noir novel. It seems to me that the weak parts were the ones describing Sam Spade in action, fighting, etc. I also didn’t like the descriptions of Sam Spade much. The general narration, dialogue, other characters, etc. were up to the Hammett standard.

If you’ve read other Dashiell Hammett novels, or if you’re a fan of the movie, you’re likely to be somewhat disappointed by the novel. It’s worth picking up on Kindle and giving it a read though.

Book Review: Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

I am a big Alan Furst fan. He writes about an interesting place and time and generally comes up with a pretty interesting cast of characters who often find themself in pretty tough positions. Occasionally his books seem to meander to an end without anything being resolved, but given that is how real life works I’ve never been bothered by that.

I bought this book as a gift for my wife, who is also an Alan Furst fan. I picked it up and noticed she’d started reading it and set it aside. She couldn’t remember why, so I read it myself.

By the end of the first twenty pages or so I had a pretty good idea why she’d set down. I kept going. It wasn’t exactly a chore, the prose was good, as always. I finished it relatively quickly, it isn’t that long, and when I set it down I told her what I have to tell you, I can’t really recommend it.

As I said, the prose is good, but that is all I can really say positive about it. The setting is Paris, where many of Furst’s novels are set, but this one seems to be missing the atmosphere that his other novels have. The main character, a successful lawyer, is dull. He gets involved with the Spanish Civil War, steals a train in Poland, and is shot at by an Italian patrol boat, but never seems to be in any real danger. Nothing much happens to him and there’s almost a complete lack of dramatic tension.

I have an almost complete set of Alan Furst’s novels, and have read many of them multiple times. I doubt I’ll be reading this one again though. He is one of my favorite writers, but I think he phoned this one in.

Book Review: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel, written in 1939. There have been two adaptations for the movies, one with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe (1946), and one with Robert Mitchum (1978).

A lot of people have probably seen the Humphrey Bogart version at one time or another but maybe not as many have read the book. I really like Chandler’s writing. Marlowe is the kind of guy that some part of nearly every man wants to be. He’s a loner who plays chess against games he remembers from dead grand masters, honest, and therefore relatively poor, tough, and doesn’t kowtow to anyone. He’s tough but gets pushed around by cops and occasionally knocked out on the back of the head, but rarely loses a fair fight.

In the Big Sleep, Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood, a very old, very rich, disabled man to find out why one of his wild daughters is being blackmailed. The blackmailer is killed while Marlowe is trailing him, and he ends up running a gauntlet of racketeers, tough guys, drunk rich guys, and cops (mostly honest in this novel, but not in all of Chandler’s novels), following the two young women and the missing husband of one of them.

In the end Marlowe figures it all out and keeps the worst of the truth from his client, the old general, and keeps the general out of the police official version. He does this at great risk to himself and his detective license, but that’s what you owe to a client. And he does it all for $25 a day and expenses, when he can get them.

Free Kindle versions of all four of my novels this weekend

All four of my books will be free on Kindle this weekend. Find them at my Amazon website, Pick them up and see what all the fuss hasn’t been about.