Dark Times in the City by Gene Kerrigan

dark times in the cityNo good deed goes unpunished.  Not in Dublin, anyway.

Danny Callaghan is fresh out of prison after eight years, trying to get his life back on track, an honest track, when two armed men enter the Dublin pub where he is quietly enjoying a drink.  When the two men approach a third man weapons drawn, Danny instinctively intervenes, attempting to save the third man’s life.

He succeeds, but in doing so, he offends the boss of Dublin’s most notorious crime gang putting his own life at risk. The police are little help as they believe Danny has already gone back to his previous life of crime–he must be connected to the failed hit somehow.  Why else would he intervene.  So friendless and alone, Danny must find a way to convince the crime boss that he meant no offense, and the police that he had nothing to do with the failed hit.

This is just one of several plot lines in Gene Kerrigan’s portrait of post economic boom Dublin.  Dark Times in the City follows Danny, the two failed hit men, their intended victim, the crime boss who sent them and the police officers who are investigating it all to create a vivid, if dark, picture of what must be the most corrupt city in the world.  Judging from Mr. Kerrigan’s novels, anyway.

Honestly, after reading Gene Kerrigan, I’ve no idea why anyone would want to live in Dublin, Ireland.  This is not Roddy Doyle’s comedic Dublin–you won’t find any laughs or a groovy soundtrack in Gene Kerrigan’s books.  Dark Times in the City is a cold-hearted look at the corruption that Ireland’s economic boom hid, a corruption that flourished once the good times stopped rolling.

This mix of plot lines, this lack of a clear hero/protagonist, added up to an engrossing read.  Mr. Kerrigan knows how to invoke a noir setting, how to create a noir sensibility, a kind of morality the exists outside of polite society, but is the only morality characters in novels like Dark Times in the City could ever find useful.

If you’re a fan of noir crime fiction who hasn’t yet read Gene Kerrigan yet, you should really get around to him soon.

But my advice is, whatever you do, stay out of Dublin.

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Sunday Salon: Holiday Randomness and a New Car!

sigorneyMeet Sigorney.  This is the first time I’ve named my car; it’s also the first time I’ve ever been really excited about a car.  For someone who’s lived his whole life in California, it’s a little odd that I’ve never really cared much about cars. This is my fourth one, my second new one.  But the other three were just a way to get around town.

This one, I kind of love.

It’s a Kia Soul. The color is called Alien Green.  I know–it’s ridiculous.  But it makes me smile, and driving it is really fun.  It’s very big inside, almost bigger on the inside.  Lots of room for people and plenty of space in the back for piles of books.

I should write a poem about it.

I have been doing more reading this week, in part because of all the rain.  We’ve been stuck in the house much of the time, even during the two days school was closed due to potential flooding.  My school didn’t flood but my basement did. So, the basement, where all of our non-reading hobby stuff is done, has been off-limits for some time now; it’s been internet and books for the last two weeks.

My one big discovery has been A History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus.  He’s a guy who lives his subject, knows everything there is to know about it and loves to talk about it.  And he loves words.  It’s so refreshing to read writing that isn’t economical.  The trend of late has been less is more, not just in detective fiction where it really is probably best to be economical, but in a large swath of literary fiction as well. But Mr. Marcus loves words as much as he loves music.   He goes off on riff after riff, rhapsodizing about one particular record or one fantastic concert and the words just fly and keep on flying.  I love it.  Like in Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, sometimes more is more.

It’s also a book that has me reaching for Wikipedia and YouTube both, to look up people he mentions and to watch the different performances of songs I thought I knew well.   That’s the best thing about the book–Mr. Marcus has studied the songs in such depth that he can point out things I never noticed, things that make the song even better than I thought it was though I’ve listened to some of them hundreds  of times.

The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs will be a late addition to my top ten favorite reads of 2014 list.

We have twenty people officially signed up for the TBR Double Dog Dare this year. There is still time to sign up if you’re interested.  Our numbers are down from last year, I suspect because many people have not found this new blog yet and because I’ve not been the active blogger I used to be.  But it really is fun to do, so if you’d like to give it a go for the full three months or just one month or even just a couple of weeks, please sign up in a comment, either here or on the TBR Double Dog Dare page by clicking on the button at the top here.

I’ve the next two weeks off, and a small stack of books I’d like to review, so I should be much more active this week.   Though we do have to rip up the rest of the floor in the basement which should keep us busy, and I have more than a few road trips planned.

I really do love that ridiculous little car.

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“It was a dark and stormy night.” A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was one of my favorite books of all time, back when I was 12. It was one of those books that opened up a new world of reading for me. I read all of the sequels that existed, at the time just two, and everything I could find by Ms. L’Engle at my local and school library. Everything. To this day I recall the chapter about the man with red eyes just about every time I enter a new housing subdivision with its rows of nearly identical houses. I expect every front door to open and one boy and one girl to simultaneously come out of each with a ball and a jump rope and for them all to begin jumping and bouncing in perfect unison, just like they do in chapter 7 of  A Wrinkle in Time, “The Man With Red Eyes. I think it’s one of the creepiest images in all of English literature.

For several years I’ve had a set of five copies in my classroom, an option for my students’ book clubs to select. This month, at long last, one group finally chose it, so I decided to re-read it along with them. Recently, Sam over at Book Chase wondered if he should re-read a book he loved back in college. Turns out he is right to hesitate before going back to revisit a book he loved 20 plus years ago. This is not to say that A Wrinkle in Time is a bad book, not by any means, it’s just not what I remembered.

The story concerns three children, Meg, Charles and Calvin. Meg Wallace,the central character in the book, is the daughter of genius parents. Her father is a renowned government scientist who has been missing for several years. The government will not tell the Wallace family everything, but they do know that he was lost while working on tesseract, a method of bending three dimensional space around a fourth dimension in order to travel extremely long distances between planets. Charles is Meg’s youngest brother, also a genius and Calvin is the new boy next door, too smart to fit in with his large family of very normal siblings. Meg wishes she could fit in, be closer to normal like her twin brothers who show no sign of possessing extraordinary ability or powers the way Charles does.

Enter the three witches: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who. These three elderly ladies have moved into a run down house long believed to be haunted. Charles befriends and introduces them to Meg and Calvin. They help the children begin a journey to rescue the lost Mr. Wallace by teaching them how to tesseract. Eventually they learn the true identity of the three witches and Meg learns a lesson about the power of love and that what she saw as her own faults are really her strengths.

But for me, A Wrinkle in Time has always been about the man with red eyes. His planet is a perfect looking American suburb, where all of the children look and act the same, to the point that when every little girl jumps rope, every rope hits the ground at the same time. Any child who deviates from this norm is subjected to retraining that lasts until that child is broken and remolded into one who will cooperate and get along with everyone else by being like everyone else. It has been suggested that Ms. L’Engle was critiquing Soviet style communism here, but it seemed like suburban California to me when I was 12 and lived in an all white town where every fourth house had the same floor plan, and still felt that way when I re-read the book this week. Meg, who sees herself as someone who cannot get along with the culture on her own world, is horrified by what she sees on his planet and by what happens to the one boy who does not fit in with the others.

It turns out that I had forgotten everything that happened after the man with the red eyes. That was the end of the book as far as I was concerned, but it actually goes on for several more chapters. Chapters that I did not like this time around, unfortunately. The actual ending struck me as so simplistic that it was very hard to believe, and it turned out to be kind of preachy. But, I suspect, in spite of this, that the next time I find myself in a new subdivision, I’ll still have a moment when I wait for all of the doors to open at once and for identical children to come out of each house and begin their play, in unison like they all did 30 years ago when I first read A Wrinkle in Time.


In the years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009 only a handful of students have read A Wrinkle in Time.  Those who have, all enjoyed it, a few raved about it as their favorite book of all time.  While I still think it holds up well overall, it has become a bit dated, a bit sweet when a harder edge is the current trend in dystopian YA fiction.   I suspect it will become something of a cult book eventually, not so widely read but with a very devoted fan base.   As long as it does survive.  Chapter 7 alone makes preserving A Wrinkle in Time worth the effort. 

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, Fantasy, Fiction, Novel, Science Fiction, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Garth Stein takes his chances with treacle overdose in The Art of Racing in the Rain. The novel’s hero, Denny, faces his wife’s struggle with terminal illness only to face his in-laws in a protracted battle for the custody of his young daughter. As if this plot wasn’t risky enough, Mr. Stein chooses Enzo, the family dog, as the narrator for his novel. If this doesn’t raise enough red flags to decorate a used car lot, consider that Enzo’s age, which puts him in his final years, has made him start dreaming of reincarnation as a human. This could all go horribly wrong.

But it works. In large part because Enzo, the dog narrator, is sure to win over even the most skeptical, urban sophisticate like yours truly. Enzo begins his story at the end–he is old, his body is starting to break down, but he is looking forward to his next incarnation as a human since he has successfully overseen the happy ending the novel will eventually reach. Enzo, like many pets, has spent much of his life home alone with the television on, Public Television. He once saw a program about Buddhism in Mongolia that explained the high position dogs hold, so high that the next step up is reincarnation as a human. Enzo is devoted to his owner, Denny, as only a dog can be. He hopes this devotion will lead him to life as a human being.

A dog narrator has it pluses and it minuses. On the plus side, people assume they can talk freely in front of a dog. Those given to thinking out loud make confessions to dogs, revealing secrets they wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else. (If they’re like me, they pause their confessions to give the dog a chance to jump in with her view.) Thus, Enzo is a first person narrator who is almost able to function as a third person omniscient one. He knows more than anyone else possibly could. As an intelligent, thinking being, he is able to editorialize about what the humans in the story are up to. However, because he is also a character in the book, his narration never comes across as the voice of the author preaching to the audience; it’s just what one character thinks about another. On the minus side, he is a dog. A dog cannot offer testimony in a court of law, nor can he do much to change the course of events in the human world though Enzo does do what he can, often to great effect. There are a few points in the novel where I would have preferred to be where the action was, instead of home with the dog watching television.

The Art of Racing in the Rain could have gone terrible wrong, it could have ended up a simple tear-jerker, just another re-telling of Kramer vs. Kramer, this time with a father who wants to be race car driver. It’s really Enzo, the dog-narrator, who saves the book from this fate. In spite of his religious beliefs and his ability to understand very high levels of language, he remains a dog devoted to pleasing his master. His love for his owners has no limit so once we start rooting for Enzo we can’t help but root for Denny. Fifty or sixty pages into the book, urban sophistication began to give way. Thirty pages more, Enzo had won me over completely. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I liked him.

Good dog.

I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009 when this book was THE book.  I remember how pleased I was to finally be getting A-list ARC’s.  I really did enjoy the book, too.  The author did an interview with me that I will run tomorrow or later this week. 

I decided to re-run it today because it is raining.  It’s been raining a lot here in Northern California which is good for us, but darned inconvenient just the same.  I’m also in the process of migrating my reviews along with many of my more random posts from my old blog over to this new one.  It’s kind of a chore but it’s been kind of fun, too.

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Favorite Reads of 2014: The Long List

I’ve only got 20 books on my long list this year.  Yesterday, when I compiled this list I began thinking I didn’t really read that many great books this year.  However, as I kept hitting that “older posts” button, I found quite a few.  One reason why it’s a great idea to review everything you read, even if it’s just a few quick paragraphs.

So, here is my long list in alphabetical order.

  • Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish – Probably the strangest book I read this year.  Each chapter uses only words beginning with certain letters of the alphabet, starting with ‘a’ then adding one letter until all of the alphabet is in play. Then removing one letter each chapter until the final chapter which uses only words starting with ‘a’ again.  I really loved it.  Mr. Abish manages to tell a pretty good story using this strategy.  The strategy itself makes a profound point as well.
  • Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner – I have not finished this yet, but I swear I will get it done before the midnight deadline for 2014.
  • Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly – Nellie Bly was one of my personal discoveries this year.  The 19th century journalist writes like a blogger, but she certainly has some adventures. In this one, she becomes the first real life person to break Phileas Fogg’s record of 80 days.
  • Ask the Dust by John Fante – If the books here at James Reads Books were a church, John Fante would be our new prophet.  I loved this book.  It’s a cry from the darkness featuring an author in love with words.  Where have you been all my life, Mr. Fante?
  • California by Kevin Starr – I’ve been reading lots of books about California this year with the goal of becoming an expert in local history.  This one was one of my favorites.  An easy, entertaining and very informative read.
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Murakami back in form again at last.  This book stayed with me. It’s a deceptively simple story that reaches profound territory without the reader really noticing it.
  • Confessions of a Dangerous Mind by Chuck Barris – I just read this one on something of a lark, and was surprised by how good it was, how intelligent Mr. Barris turns out to be and by how much I loved, loved, loved it.
  • Five Fires  by David Wyatt -Another book about California, specifically about race in California.  This one uses the literature and artwork produced in California to present an historical analysis of the state.  But don’t let that fool you; it’s also highly readable.
  • The Judges of the Secret Court by David Stacton – It’s rare for me to find a piece of historical fiction that I love but Mr. Stacton’s account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln works well as a novel without becoming too fanciful as so much historical fiction does.  I feel confident that he has the history right here.
  • The Last Policeman by Ben Winters – This is not a great piece of literature, but I really enjoyed reading about the one policeman still investigating cases after everyone realizes the world will end in three months when an asteroid strikes.  It was fun.
  • More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon – One of the rereads on this years list.  A classic piece of science fiction that looks at what humanity might become as evolution continues to change and ‘improve’ us.
  • Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny – I just discovered this cult series of science fiction/fantasy novels.  Mr. Zelazny is a very good writer working in what was not an appreciated genre in his day.  I think he deserves a much wider readership than he currently has.
  • The Nose by Nicoli Gogol – A man wakes up to find his nose missing.  He soon discovers that his nose is living his life better than he himself had been doing.  19th century Russian humor at its best.
  • Other Voices Other Rooms by Truman Capote – I read this in tandem with To Kill a Mockingbird as Mr. Capote and Ms. Lee grew up together and refer to each other in their work.  This one deals with Mr. Capote’s childhood which, while magical in its way, was far from the idyllic small town childhood Ms. Lee presents in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon – Penguin you shall feel my wrath one day.  I planned on reading  all (about 80) Inspector Maigret novels since Penguin began releasing them one per month promising to publish them all over the next five years.  They published five, I think, then stopped with no announced plans to continue the series.  Bad flightless bird!!!!
  • The Shining by Stephen King – Another re-read.  I’m always impressed by how fine the writing is in the early Stephen King books before his plots spiralled out of control.  This one is a tightly written account of madness, alcoholism and how each affects the family.  I was impressed by how much I admired it.
  • The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant – Take A Confederacy of Dunces and set in a Lower East Side Manhattan tenement building and you’ll have The Tenants of Moonbloom.  
  • Ten Days in the Madhouse by Nellie Bly – Nellie Bly makes my long list twice this year.  Of the two books here, I’d say this is the one to read if you only read one book by Nellie Bly.  She’s available on Kindle at a reasonable price.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – While overall, I was a bit disappointed by To Kill a Mockingbird this time around, it’s still a wonderful book.  It may turn out to be THE American Novel of the 20th century.
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen J. Fowler – As an experiment in animal behavior a family raises a chimpanzee alongside their two children.  This was probably the best read I had all year.  I was compelled to stay up way, way past my bedtime reading.

I already see some titles that won’t make it to my final list.  The criteria I use is not really based on literary merit much.  Since I’m looking for favorite reads, I’m looking for books that I might read again some time.  While To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, is a great book, maybe the best one on this list, I’m not going to read it again.  I’ve read it many times, but I think this time was the last one.  That’s the reason why I didn’t put Our Mutual Friend on the long list.  It’s terrific, I enjoyed it, but I know that I’m not going to read it again.

So Nellie Bly won’t make the final cut, nor will Stephen King.  I’ve read The Shining three or four times which is enough.

I’ll publish my final list towards the end of the year.  Here’s hoping I finish Angle of Repose  in time.

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