Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pulp Fiction: The Dames edited by Otto Penzler (2008)

I may have mentioned before that I have the best husband in the world. Part of the reason he is so great is that he can spot just the thing I would love to read. A case in point: Pulp Fiction: The Dames, edited by Otto Penzler with an introduction by Laura Lippman (2008). This book features 22 stories and one set of comics that were published in detective and mystery "pulps" of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. That would be pretty great in and of itself, but what brings this collection together is that each story features a woman -- sometimes as a simpering sap, sometimes as a hard-as-nails thief, and more often than not as a smart and sexy gal who uses her looks and her brains to either solve the case or get away with the loot.

There are a few well-known names in the collection (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich), but most of the authors are either forgotten bestsellers of the past or untraceable hacks who wrote under a pseudonym. Penzler's introductions are wonderful -- providing just enough context about the author and the original publisher, without going overboard -- and they serve as a solid introduction to the world of pulpy publishing. The quality of the stories varies, but they are representative of a genre that included both the literary Hammett and the low-rent Spicy Detective.

While this is not a feminist collection by any means, there are a lot of spunky gals that can hold their own in the man's world of gangsters, police, journalists, and private eyes -- even if they do wear extremely tight dresses and bat their eyes a few times while doing so.

This is a really great collection -- highly recommended if you like mysteries, gangsters, or pulpy action and adventure.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Last Act by Christopher Pike (1988)

Lately I've been reading some later-period Christopher Pike books that I had never read before, but Pike's Last Act came out in 1988, when I was twelve -- perfectly timed for my post-Little House on the Prairie / Narnia love and my pre-Stephen King glut. But would the 34-year-old me like this as much as I did 22 years ago? (In addition: 22 years ago? How the hell did that happen?)

Well, I don't know that I liked it as much, but it still packs that Pike punch, and it is a much tighter and more enjoyable mystery than some of the later ones. In Last Act, Melanie Martin and her father have moved from San Francisco to a small town in Iowa after her parents' divorce. She is having a hard time making any friends until she impulsively helps popular Susan Trels with a trigonometry quiz, strikes up a conversation, and ends up going to audition for a play that Susan is directing at the high school. Melanie gets the part and is thrown into the tangled relationships of Rindy (beautiful, rich, and distant - she and Melanie got into a fender bender earlier in the year), Marc (handsome, athletic, Melanie's dream man), Carl (young and dorky, Rindy's brother), Jeramie (tall and crazy, but smart), and Tracy (ditzy and rude). Susan directs this group in a play filled with twisted relationships, unrequited love, injury, and jealousy that conveniently matches the real-life teenage emotions of this group from before Melanie came to town.

At the end of Act 2, Melanie's character shoots the beautiful Rindy. They had practiced the scene dozens of times, and Melanie loaded the blanks into the gun herself, but when Rindy falls there is way more blood than there should have been, and she never gets up. Melanie, with the help of a friendly detective, sets herself to untangling the twisted lives of her new friends and solving the murder of Rindy to clear her own name.

This book follows a lot of Pike's usual plot points: beautiful people who seem mean end up being nice; beautiful people who seem nice end up being evil; and perfectly ordinary teenage angst harnessed into elaborate plots of murder and revenge. Still, the hokey dialogue and descriptions are kept to a minimum here, the mystery is solid (although unrealistic), and the climactic scene is action-packed and suspenseful. If you have been thinking of re-reading some Christopher Pike, you couldn't do better than picking up Last Act.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Geography of Secrets by Frederick Reuss (2010)

I recently received a review copy of A Geography of Secrets (2010), the fifth novel by Frederick Reuss, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. The books I get through the Early Reviewers program are always interesting to read, but only rarely do I luck on one as beautifully written and nicely constructed as this.

A Geography of Secrets is told in alternating chapters -- the third person story of Noel Leonard, a federal defense analyst; and the first person story of our unnamed narrator, a mapmaker whose father, retired from the Foreign Service, has recently died in Switzerland. Both men are based in Washington, D.C. and the city and its bureaucracies, and their influence on the two men, are lovingly described by Reuss.

Noel is feeling disconnected from his only child, a daughter, who recently left home for college and won't return his calls, and he and his wife are drifting apart. He can't tell them (or anyone) about his job analyzing maps and drone footage to plan military attacks with the defense department, and when his decisions lead to a school being bombed in Pakistan, his delicate balance of routine is irrevocably shifted.

Our narrator travels to Switzerland for his father's funeral and meets a friend of his father's that he had never seen before. This pushes him to dig into the past and learn the truth about the work his father did for the government and the real implications of the end of his parent's marriage when the family was living in Germany.

The two narratives intersect briefly at the beginning of the book and then unexpectedly (and perfectly) at the end. Choosing to structure the book in a back and forth switch between first and third person provides a satisfying foundation to this exploration of the things we say and the things we withhold. Reuss is a beautiful writer -- descriptive without being flowery, with (for the most part) realistic dialogue and convincing interactions. The male mid-life crisis has been explored over and over again in literature, and while I like a lot of those novels, I generally have a hard time relating to them. Reuss does the genre justice, and this book was a pleasure to read.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Frommer's Montréal & Québec City by Leslie Brokaw (2010)

I've always wanted to take a trip north of the border, so I recently picked up a travel guide to Montréal and Québec City, because if you are going to go to Canada, shouldn't you go to the part with the oldest buildings, the different language, and the exciting separatist movement? Of course you should!

Montréal is very appealing as an urban and kind of cosmopolitan getaway, but I think in my ideal trip I'd spend a day or two there at the start and end of the visit, and spend the rest of the time in Québec City and the little towns nearby. If you don't ski and aren't particularly interested in shopping, it seems the big things to do in Québec City are stroll around the old streets looking at old buildings, sit down and look at the river, or sit in a café, restaurant, or bar and eat and drink tasty things. These happen to be some of my favorite activities ever!

This Frommer's guide was a great introduction to the region -- it was nicely written with clear maps, gave just enough detail without being overwhelming, and included a pretty detailed section on the history of the region, which is something I really like to have in a travel guide.

Also, the national dish in Québec is the amazing sounding poutine. I seriously can't think of any better reason to go to Canada and I wish I had a big bowl of gravy and cheese curd covered french fries in front of me right now.