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Sunday, September 27, 2009

White Bird Black Bird, Epic Novel of the Rights of Native Canadians vs. the Development of Oil and Gas Resources

White Bird Black Bird was written by Val Wake, the Australian-born journalist who worked for many years in Canada and England before returning to his native land. Wake worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC ) from 1969-73, the time when a nascent native rights movement ran head-on into oil and gas development, big business and government policies. Wake's fictionalized account of the conflicts comes directly from his personal experience as the broadcast reporter who covered this story on location for the CBC, doing so by traveling from his base in Yellowknife throughout the Arctic regions of Canada.

While the rights of indigenous peoples have now been established to some extent in various countries, this was not the case during the tumultuous, initial development of energy resources in the Canadian north. In fact, it was only in 2007 that the United Nations adopted its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Wake tells his story from the perspective of fictional journalist Warren Pritchard and provides the kind of details that give his fiction true credibility. For such an important story in a relatively unknown time and place, we are lucky to have Val Wake's insider knowledge as the basis of his book. I'm sure that Wake's time as an information officer for the British government added insight into the relationship between government and big business.

Those with an interest in human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, the politics and business of exploiting energy resources, or one of the little-known stories of North American development, will see that White Bird Black Bird provides the goods. The novel also offers a rich and exciting read for fiction lovers everywhere.

White Bird Black Bird is available at amazon.com. I hope to follow up this brief post with an author interview accomplished by email.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Magdalen Nabb and Thomas Perry: mystery-thriller writers from different worlds

The Marshal and the Murderer by the late Magdalen Nabb is another foray into Florence and its nearby villages under the watchful eye of the ever-delightful and self-deprecating Marshall Guarnaccia. However, the events that transpire are not nearly as pleasant as the portly Marshall himself. In this episode, the murder of a foreign student leads Guarnaccia to a small town to assist the local authorities, or authority, as it turns out. There is the possibility of a turf war between the investigators, but after a few awkward moments along the way, they end up being a rather good-natured team. Food is a great common denominator for these Italian men, but it is their different backgrounds that end up providing crucial, complementary insights into the crime.

In fact, the mystery can't be solved at all without intimate knowledge of the closed-in, rather inbred village and its history, a history not readily yielded to outsiders. Guarnaccia contributes his usual insights, but remains somewhat mystified about how he actually helped the investigation.

The events that created a dangerous and volatile environment in the village date to before and during World War II. The terrible past meets the murderous present when the life of a young Swiss pottery student is taken violently. The village where the crime takes place is devoted largely to making clay pots and similar products, mostly for purely commercial rather than artistic reasons. There is at least one artist present, however, and he was the victim's teacher. Though quite elderly, he is as lecherous as he is brusque, and he falls under suspicion.

The villagers themselves make assumptions about the murder based on what happened in town 60 years earlier, during the war, and try their hand at vigilante justice. However, the Marshall and his new colleague are not convinced that the villagers understand who the real criminal is.

The story provides a view of how the war divided Italy, and how deeply those divisions might still run in some places. What is the protocol for interacting with the children of fascists and Nazi sympathizers in the aftermath of such a deadly war: must the parents' sins be carried on the shoulders of their children?

We see alliances and hatreds that formed in an isolated, working class village over its long history, a history written as much by the distance of modern highways as by the war itself. We experience first-hand accounts of the complex and terrible interactions between the Germans and Italians in latter stages of World War II.

Be sure to read this wonderfully-plotted mystery from the pen of a master- it is recommended to all.

The Butcher's Boy
I also recently read The Butcher's Boy by Thomas Perry. This is a good thriller, though forgive me if I find it hard to empathize with a mob hit man as protagonist. Yes, that goes for Lawrence Block's work, also: I much prefer Block's mysteries such as In the Midst of Death (from the Matthew Scudder series) to Hit Man (one of the John Keller Mysteries).

The new paperback edition of The Butcher's Boy has a laudatory introduction by one of my favorite authors, Michael Connelly (e.g. The Harry Bosch Novels: The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Concrete Blonde), and seems to be a favorite of many readers and reviewers, but I'm a bit less enthusiastic in my support.

The Butcher's Boy
follows a female Department of Justice investigator who tries to tie a set of suspicious deaths together, and the man who has done the killing. While law enforcement is trying to sort through the seemingly disconnected crimes, or apparent accidents, the clever killer makes a mistake with his mob employers, and becomes their next target. The hit man doesn't take this well, to say the least, and his field of view becomes a dangerous place for all involved.

At the end of a hard month or so of hard and harrowing work, both the hit man and the insightful Justice Department analyst, Elizabeth Waring, earn much needed vacations...

While I found the first few Jane Whitfield novels by Perry (Dance for the Dead, Vanishing Act) to be more compelling than The Butcher's Boy, I do enjoy reading about women with good aim, excellent survival and crime solving skills, and good hearts. Ms. Waring is highly capable and well worth following, but she is no force of nature the way Jane Whitfield is. The Butcher's Boy offers more sardonic pleasure than flat-out exhilaration.

Thomas Perry has written a number of novels with unusual characters, and I recommend most of them to fans of crime fiction (the later Whitfield novels seemed to me to have lost their way). I reviewed the crime thriller Nightlife here: it is about another of Perry's strong female protagonists named Catherine Hobbes. Memory tells me that Nightlife has more hard-core violence and suspense than The Butcher's Boy, and it lacks the dark humor hidden in Ms. Waring's world; Nightlife receives the stronger recommendation from me, especially for readers who can enjoy its rougher edges, but both these books deserve your time.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

Palace Council (Vintage Contemporaries)
This wonderful novel is Stephen L. Carter’s third thriller. It is a captivating mystery story that I absolutely loved, which has enough conspiracies on all sides to, among other things, reanimate J. Edgar Hoover without putting a foot wrong. Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter is a fictional account, mixed in with a lot of historical facts, of race relations and national politics from before JFK to the end of the Nixon era. Of course, this time period encompasses the Vietnam War, and we have occasion to drop in on the Southeast Asian conflict for some object lessons. The author describes roles played by fictional and real power brokers, by fictional and real African American influences and by, again, both fictional and real African American experiences in shaping the country's political landscapes and affecting the outcomes of elections, political movements and individual lives.

Through the eyes of its many major and minor characters, Palace Council both embraces and confronts student and Afro-centrist extremism. The story encompasses many layers of scheming on all sides of the political spectrum, and within or between families, and it explores links and breaks between African American characters and conservative, centrist and liberal representatives of the Caucasian majority.

The author successfully turns history that we think we know into a thriller by the addition of fictional elements that will show many of us a part of America that we have little knowledge of (no matter what our family or racial backgrounds may be). A lot of ground is covered, from personal and family loyalty and Civil Rights to the bizarre personality of Richard M. Nixon. This is the stuff of great conflicts!

As part of a thread that connects murder with history, Palace Council offers a fascinating picture of Harlem as it undergoes an unfortunate though hardly unique dismantling, starting out as the major center of African American culture and power, and ending up as a broken down neighborhood populated by the ghosts of greatness past and those who were left behind when most of the educated and wealthy headed for the suburbs (or more attractive waterfront property). That's not to say that no great minds remain in Harlem, they are undoubtedly born frequently, but we watch as the once stratified and often regal neighborhoods in Harlem cease being magnets or oases for intellectual and artistic development in African American culture, at least from perspectives that lean toward the conservative definition of what culture is... so, ignoring, say, Hip-Hop, though credit for that really goes to The Bronx, I guess; see Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

Along the way, we enjoy excellent, gripping writing, clever plots and subplots, and a cast of characters that is simply fascinating. Adding to the pleasure, threads of the plot link Palace Council to Carter's first two novels:

New England White and The Emperor of Ocean Park.

Both of these earlier novels are also a pleasure to read. New England White, for example, which I already reviewed briefly, is an outstanding thriller that manages to present us with convincing murder mysteries and behavioral mysteries while it addresses race relations and racial politics at local (village), elite academic and national levels.

I can't say that the novel Palace Council is perfect, but it is darned close, and my quibbles aren't worth mentioning: it is an epic "must read" that will thrill, delight, sadden, and involve the reader as all great stories do.


James K. Bashkin, Nearlynothingbutnovels, Creative Commons License

Note that an early, draft version of this book review appears on the Barnes & Noble Website.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

See the Blog Crime Fiction by Author Leigh Russell

Author Leigh Russell of the U.K. is having technical issues with certain web-based book stores (see the comment on the previous post). Please look at Leigh's blog for more information about the new novel Cut Short, featuring detective inspector (DI) Geraldine Steel. The blog also has a schedule of author appearances and book signings. Pre-order the book from amazon here: Cut Short (DI Geraldine Steel, No. 1).

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