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Friday, December 12, 2003

More on Booksense 

Publisher's Lunch links to the latest Booksense 76 list. At least on the fiction and mystery side, I've already read a fair number or want to.

Topping the fiction list is Tracy Chevalier's THE LADY AND THE UNICORN, which has already been out for several months in the UK. While I don't think it is quite as good as the ever-ubiquitious GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, it's very good indeed. Chevalier has become one of my favorite authors because of her uncanny ability to convey character development with a few short sentences or chapters. UNICORN is similar in structure to her previous book, FALLING ANGELS, in that there are many points of view, all told from the first person. We are privy to each character's innermost thoughts and the story moves through many years and a multitude of places. The novel unfolds like the tapestries it is centered about; full of meaning and depth, yet deceptively simplistic.

At #3 is Jilliane Hoffman's RETRIBUTION, a suspense novel that's received considerable buzz since the initial deal was announced a year ago. Though it's already received some good reviews, I must admit I was put off after the first couple of pages when the heroine flipped her long blonde hair as she examined herself in the mirror. Isn't that a phrase best kept buried in the 80s time vault? In any case, it's in keeping with a trend for strong female protagonists with tortured pasts, something which will no doubt figure in book deals for a few more years yet.

Jennifer Crusie's next novel, BET ME (at #5) has an interesting history. The book was originally her fourth, written in 1992 and rejected by everybody she ever sent it to. Fast forward 10 years and her agent sells it to Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin's in keeping with her philosophy that "no unpublished book should stay that way." But Crusie's writing has improved much since that time, and she was horrified that the original book would see the light of day. So she rewrote it, and barely anything of the original book exists now. She's happy with the final result, regardless of what other people think. Granted, it's been a while since I've read her books but back when I was reading romance novels on a regular basis (every genre is educational, and I stand by that) she was one of my favorites, with smart, snappy dialogue and an incredibly fast pace.

Peter Robinson's PLAYING WITH FIRE finishes the fiction list, and I freely admit to being incredibly grumpy that practically everybody in the mystery community has read it before I have. There's a reason why Robinson finally made it to the bestseller lists this year--he's an excellent writer who has improved by leaps and bounds from the time his Inspector Banks series made its debut in 1987 to the pivotal IN A DRY SEASON in 1999, and he's only gotten better since then (though IADS is still my sentimental favorite of the bunch.) Knee-deep in character detail and psychological insight, this is much, much more than your basic police procedural or "British cozy."

Peeking at the mystery/suspense list, what's most interesting is that a reissue is listed along with the latest new and noteworthy books. That book is Ross Thomas's TWILIGHT AT MAC'S PLACE, something which I had a chance to read during my New York travels (where I averaged about a book a day, a nice return to my binge-reading days of old.) If I haven't mentioned it here on the blog, though I certainly have elsewhere, Thomas may well be my favorite mystery writer and I rue the fact daily that his oeuvre was cut short by his death of cancer in 1995. MAC'S PLACE is the final book to feature "Mac" MacCorkle and Michael Padillo, those scheming, wily, charming proprietors of a saloon first based in Bonn (later in Washington) who get mixed up in various espionage and shadowy events. They made their debut in Thomas's Edgar award-winning first novel THE COLD WAR SWAP back in 1966, with two more appearances in the next five years. MAC'S PLACE first saw the light of day back in 1992, and the passage of two decades may have slowed the boys down somewhat but haven't dulled their mental acuities in the slightest. The plot's as twisty as any of Thomas's other novels, but packs an extra punch with the initial premise: what happens when a Cold War veteran suddenly drops dead and bequeaths his memoirs to his son, who then immediately gets an offer of 100K to sell them to someone who wants the book buried for good? And what if other bids come in, leading to a bunch of murders, double-crosses, and even some romance along the way? Suffice it to say that it's a hell of a ride and full of the usual razor-sharp observations and dialogue that figure prominently in Thomas's books. I wouldn't suggest this as the one to introduce yourself to his books, but St. Martin's is doing a fine job in reissuing his work, so pick up COLD WAR SWAP if you want to meet MacCorkle & Padillo, or OUT ON THE RIM (my own introduction to Thomas's work) to get acquainted with his other beloved series characters, Arthur Case Wu and Quincy "That F&@king" Durant. Two more reissues are scheduled in March and may there be more in the months and years to come.

Another author who makes the mystery/suspense list who was amongst my reading list this past week is Ken Bruen. Though the book I read was BLITZ, the followup (available in the UK only) to his acclaimed THE WHITE TRILOGY, what makes the list is the upcoming US release of THE KILLING OF THE TINKERS. Bruen really burst on the crime fiction map about a year ago when St. Martin's Press released THE GUARDS. I got to it a bit late after hearing the near-deafening buzz about how wonderful it was, how unique his prose style is and how gritty the main character, Jack Taylor, and the book itself was. It's the first Irish-set PI novel, and when I finally got to it last March or so, I knew I had to read the rest of Bruen's oeuvre. TINKERS (my favorite of the Taylor books) was out in the UK in 2002 and the third book, THE MAGDALEN MARTYRS, was released there this past year. Taylor may be the most seriously addicted person in crime fiction, which is saying a hell of a lot. In three books he's been grappling with booze, cocaine, ectsasy, painkillers, and a couple of addictions I've probably left out. Allegedly in the fourth installment (due out in the spring), he'll be clean and sober, but I don't believe it for a moment. In spite of his problems and failures, Taylor is one arresting character. There's this glimmer of hope that pervades the books throughout and romantic that I am, I hope he reaches it at some point. Though naturally, it won't be for a while yet. Bruen is quite prolific, and he's currently working on three books--the fifth Jack Taylor, the sixth in the Brixton police series (which is the crack cocaine version of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels) and a standalone set in Arizona, where he's based for the next few months. Based on his reception at Bouchercon a couple of months ago and the excitement about his upcoming US tour for TINKERS, there's no question his star's on the rise.

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