Category Archives: First Impressions

First Impressions: Walter Mosley and Easy Rawlins

20342538It has been a ridiculously long time since I’ve done this feature.  I’ve been sticking to mostly-familiar authors for a while now. But I finally found a First Impressions book and author worth talking about, so here we go. A well-established author who is totally new to me. Let’s do this thing.

When I started tracking the diversity of the authors I read, I found that black men are among the most under-represented on my shelves. Walter Mosley is an incredibly prolific author, and I’ve been meaning to check him out for a few years now. So when I saw Rose Gold come across my desk, it seemed like the perfect time to jump in.

It’s 1968, and black power radical Uhuru Nolice has kidnapped Rosemary Goldsmith, the (white) daughter of a prominent weapons manufacturer. Or at least, so it seems. The FBI, the State Department, and the LAPD each turn to Easy Rawlins to track down Nolice, but Rawlins finds himself untangling a mystery that goes deeper than a simple kidnapping.

So I have to start out by saying that it probably wasn’t the greatest idea to start on the thirteenth book in a series (the first Easy Rawlins book, Devil in a Blue Dress, was published all the way back in 1990). I didn’t need those previous books to understand anything that was going on in the plot. Mosley makes plenty of references to earlier adventures–perhaps too many. But I know that by jumping in so late, I’ve missed how the character has evolved, and some of the depth of his relationships.

That didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story, though. Rose Gold is fairly simple as mysteries go–what complexity there is in the plot comes in from the fact that Rawlins is spinning so many plates in the air at one time. But the style of the book was great. Rawlins was an interesting character. A philosopher-poet one minute, powerfully violent the next. I never quite knew how he was going to respond to a given situation. It was interesting to find out.

Stylistically, there’s an obsession with color in this book, and I don’t just mean race. One of the things that struck me most was that when Easy walks into a room, he notices the colors of everything, every scrap of clothing, every bit of upholstery and furniture and paint. It was exhausting, in a way, but it was an interesting trick to convey that he is a detective: his constant notice was clearly part and parcel of his profession. And when it did come to race, I have to say that I admired Mosley’s descriptive style. It can be exhaustive and reductive to read skin colors described with “food words” (chocolate, cinnamon, coffee…trust me, whether you notice it or not, you’ve seen it a million times). Mosley avoids all that almost entirely. Rawlins’ corner of L.A. is full of different cultures, and the people are tawny. Bronze and copper. Sand. Pink. And, yes, rose gold. There are food words here and there, but they’re judicious, and it was a breath of fresh air to see race described in a different way than the usual. The only complaint I sort of have regarding race is that there’s an American Indian character who is almost fetishized in the narrative.  It’s a fine line, and Mosley played a little too close to the “noble savage” trope for my taste. But otherwise, this book is very much about a clash of cultures, class, and race at a turbulent time in American history.

It’s also a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same; most of Rawlins’ uneasy and interactions with police and white people, unfortunately, ring as true in 2015 as they did in 1968. It’s sad that this is the case, but it’s a mark of a good writer that an historical character can read as true as a modern one.

I’m inspired enough by Rose Gold that I would like to go back to the very beginning. I’ll certainly be reading more of Mosley in the future.

 

 

 

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First Impressions: A Scandinavian Crime Fiction Face Off!

10776592So, it turns out that in the summertime I really crave Scandanavian crime fiction.

For awhile I didn’t even know this was a thing. Over the past few summers, I’ve read and re-read and adored Stieg Larsson (yes, there are many problems with the Millenium books. That doesn’t make me enjoy them any less), but I had no idea there was such a ‘genre’ as Scandanavian crime fiction. But when I started work in a library, I began to realize there’s an awful lot of books by authors with extra vowels in their names, and they all seem to deal with similar issues and themes.

Which leads me to a face-off. I picked up novels by Lene Kaaberbol and Jo Nesbo and read them back to back, to see how they stacked up.

The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol

The setup: The first book by Danish writer Lene Kaaberbol to feature Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, it starts with a bang as Borg, thinking she is doing a simple favor for an estranged friend, picks up a suitcase from a train station locker and opens it to find a drugged toddler. Soon on the run from a dangerous hit man and the police, Borg struggles to keep the child safe and learn where he is from. Meanwhile, the child’s Lithuanian mother works to piece together her son’s abduction and the people who took and lost him him desperately try to get him back.

The outcome: I enjoyed the fact that Kaaberbol dealt extensively with the meaning of motherhood, both willing and unwilling, something I haven’t seen often in my past experience with mystery and crime fiction. Nina Borg was a fascinating, deftly written character with a backstory I was itching to uncover as I tried to understand her motivation. Unfortunately, the plot is fairly unsurprising, and in order to try and keep it surprising, Kaaberbol ignored some key characters until pretty late in the novel. They were really interesting characters, and I wish I had known them earlier in the book. I figured out the reason for the kidnapping pretty early on (I won’t spoil it just in case, but the big reveal left me feeling pretty ‘meh’), and the ending was way too neat and tidy.

Rating: 3 stars

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo 465226

The setup: The Redbreast is Norwegian author Jo Nesbo’s third book featuring inspector Harry Hole, but the earliest translated into English, which is why I chose it. Shoved into a new job title that’s supposed to keep him from causing trouble, Hole uncovers an assassination conspiracy involving Norweigan soldiers who fought for Hitler at the Eastern Front. There are Neo Nazis, people with Multiple Personality Disorder, tangled and twisty plots, and lots and lots of bird imagery.

The outcome: The past- and present- setting of The Redbreast kept me on my toes and kept me guessing. The characters were incredibly complex, with no easy heroes and villains. Everyone had mostly empathetic motivations, even the Nazis. There were actual stakes; it’s not just the bad guys who have things to lose. And the prose was often surprisingly beautiful for a tense crime thriller. It was a long novel–weighing in at over 500 pages–but it I enjoyed every second of it.

Rating: 4 stars

Ultimately, I think Nesbo has fully moved onto my reading list. I can’t wait to read more of his work. But I’ll probably pass on Kaaberbol in the future. Her prose was good and Borg was a fantastic character, but I’m not hooked enough to check out the rest of her work.

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First Impressions: Louise Erdrich and Tales of Burning Love

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Tales of Burning Love

It absolutely astonishes me that I have never once read Louise Erdrich. I studied literature at a women’s college, and have read many varied and wonderful women writers. I’m also not a stranger to Native American writers, though clearly I haven’t read as widely in that area as I should. Erdrich has been on my radar for at least ten years, and I could have sworn I first read her ages ago, but looking through her book titles I was surprised to see that’s not the case. Which is why I’ll be talking about a seventeen year old novel today, and not Erdrich’s most recent, The Round House (though that is ready and waiting on my ereader. I learn from my mistakes and oversights). It also brings me to a new, and hopefully somewhat regular, feature. First Impressions: the first experience I have reading an established author, and why that matters.

Tales of Burning Love is a novel centered around Jack Mauser, a hapless yet curiously lucky man, who has a trail of five wives behind him. After his funeral (despite the fact that he is not actually dead), the four living ex-wives get stuck in a dangerous blizzard, and only keep themselves alive by telling stories of their lives before, during, and after Jack Mauser.

The writing is intensely lyrical and occasionally deeply funny; early chapters show lots of promise. There’s a lot of lovely repeated imagery: blizzards, religious epiphany, physical accidents brought on by sex. The weather is a character of it’s own in  this novel, and I found myself awed by how many descriptions of ice and snow Erditch wove. But Tales of Burning Love is about a hundred pages too long. The symmetry of the imagery hints at a more even book than it turns out to be. The absurd situations the character find themselves in start off touching and funny, but eventually become somewhat ridiculous when added all together. I wasn’t all that surprised when I came across a bunch of Goodreads reviews warning not to start reading Erdrich with this novel.

Well, I’ve already done it and it can’t be undone, but I can’t help but wonder. where should I have begun? I liked this novel well enough to keep going with Erdrich, but first impressions are important. They color how you view an author, and a bad experience can turn you off a potentially great author for good. For years I’ve labored under the assumption that I hate J.D. Salinger because I hated high school and The Catcher in the Rye. It was only after coming across a short story (that I wouldn’t have even read if I’d realized he’d written it) that I realized this might not be the case, and I should try more than just that one novel.

Sometimes, the longer an author’s canon is, the harder it can be to crack into them. This is one way in which reading genre fiction can be helpful: you just find the beginning of a series (they almost always come in a series) and start there. But where do you begin with an author who has ten standalone novels, or fifteen, or even only two? 

I don’t really have a process of figuring out where to start with an author. How I came to pick up Tales of Burning Love went something like this: I was wandering the stacks in my local used bookstore. I’d been hearing a lot of good things about The Round HouseTales of Burning Love was the cheapest thing on the Erdrich shelf. All very scientific, I assure you.

My first Murakami was  Norwegian Wood (an easy choice, it’s my favorite Lennon-sung Beatles song). My first Chabon was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, because my friends would not shut up about it (with good reason). My first Gaiman was American Gods, which I still think is the best entry point into his canon. My first Nabokov was Lolita, because everyone starts with Lolita. Sometimes I start with an author’s newest novel and work my way backwards. Sometimes I try to find the earliest thing an author wrote and work my way forward. Sometimes it just depends on what the library has to offer, or a novel’s cover, or how I feel about the blurb.

There’s no right or wrong way to start down the road of reading a given author. But what you read first helps you decide to read more. So, how do you make those decisions? (I’m speaking specifically here, not generally. How do *you* first pick up an author? Tell me in the comments!)

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