Archive for the ‘Fiction Fortune Hunter’ Category

Lots Of Light In These Shadows

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

In The Shadows Of The Sun, by Alexander Parsons, paints a searing portrait of man, not only against the elements, but also against his fellow man in parallel stories that separate time and place but intertwine the binds to home, family and each other that tug at us all.

Parson takes us along on the Bataan Death March with a young man struggling both to survive and to continue desiring to do so. His realistic portrayal of this inhumanly brutish chapter of World War II is stunning in its ability to evoke hideous conditions with tantalizingly soothingly prose.

The young man’s family, back in the New Mexico badlands, are struggling to hold onto each other, their way of life, the very soil they’ve labored over and loved for generations. The same unforgiving sun that shines on the Philippine jungle, shines on the American west. None of us can escape it.

Parson’s hero lives to return to his family. But that’s certainly not the end of either story. Reunion, while exhilarating, is only a temporary substitute for the broken dreams that separated them in the first place. And overcoming one battle, is no guarantee of victory in another.

In The Shadows Of The Sun takes you back to a war and its aftermath that we were all foolish enough to believe would make the world right for all mankind. The trials of those who bore the brunt of that war, both stateside and abroad, give us reason to hope we’ll overcome the tribulations that beset us. That’s one of the rewards of Parson’s novel, but it’s far from the only one.

If, like the Fiction Fortune Hunter, you revel in the opportunity to be swept away to times and places not like our own, yet similar in the hopes and fears and dreams and wonder that affect us all, find and read Alexander Parsons’ In The Shadows Of The Sun. You just may see your own reflection there.

Shadowy Killer In A Shell-Shocked City

Monday, September 14th, 2009

In 2003, Pierre Frei penned a thoroughly engrossing serial murder mystery with the straightforward title, Berlin. He apparently knew instinctively that it was the one city name that, alone, conjured visions of nightmarish deeds without need of embroidery. Especially when he set the story at the end of the second world war, and brought to life a city of rubble, occupied by satiated victors, starving losers and innumerable inhabitants rummaging like rats to survive. The pity was, it was the survivors who were now being picked off one by one.

You can’t read Berlin without hearing a bit of Zither music in your head. Yes, that strangely bizarre tune (Third Man’s Theme) that so perfectly captured the intrigue of another divided city in Carol Reed’s famous movie. But Frei doesn’t have the light and shadows of cinema to play tricks with your eyes, or the repetitiveness of melody to insert itself in your head. He has only the printed word, and your own imagination, to bring you into a world dark, jittery, electric with the promise of danger.

Frei’s Berlin is a world where cigarette butts are legal tender, fought over, traded on the black market, sought after like precious jewels. They buy everything from sex to suits to education. It’s a world turned inside out, where women make love to men who killed their husbands and lovers, seniors take in soldiers who obliterated their sons, and policemen work with recent enemies to find and stop a serial killer.

The characters are finely drawn and disturbingly real. The plot is wholly believable and frighteningly etched. And the author uses an interesting technique to tell his victims stories. You only learn their life histories after they’ve been killed, not before. Each is a tale of resilience and survival. Survival of the Nazi’s, the war, each other.

Berlin is a mix of mystery and history, at times funny, sobering, repellent. It reminds us that Hitler’s appalling attempt to subjugate Europe may have done the most harm to Germany itself.

Berlin is Frei’s first novel. But here’s a surprise. It was written and published when the author was in his seventies.

If you like your whodunits steeped in atmosphere and anxiety, buy a ticket to Pierre Frei’s Berlin. You won’t be disappointed.

Bleak And Trending Darker

Friday, September 4th, 2009

If you’re the type of reader who takes solace from a relatively unsympathetic protagonist whose life is far worse than yours, you just might be attracted to J. M. Coetzee’s 1999 Booker Prize winner, Disgrace. On the surface, it tells the story of a fifty-something college professor who has an affair with one of his young students. This ill-conceived misadventure starts a series of events that go predictably (as the title obviously gives away) down hill. But the plot of Coetzee’s searingly brilliant novel is merely the skeleton that holds the blood, bone, marrow, muscle and flesh of a look into the darker recesses of aging, loneliness, withdrawal and alienation. You’ll notice I didn’t add “fat” to my metaphor. That’s because there isn’t an ounce of it in Disgrace.

Coetzee’s unsparing chronicle of David Lurie’s downward spiral takes him from Cape Town’s spectacularly beautiful coast to the hauntingly sterile vastness of South Africa’s interior. And in so doing, it also delineates Lurie’s wholly inadequate ability to make any real connection to his young lover, his lesbian daughter, or the potential friends and real enemies he meets along the way. What is it that isolates an individual even when he’s surrounded by those who wish him well? What is it that keeps him from
appreciating happenstance? Or makes him recoil from those who might help him even though they have precious little reason to do so. Coetzee wastes no adjectives exploring these questions as psychology. He is more than content to simply select his verbs with such precision that behavior alone achieves what mere moralizing never could.

A South African native, Coetzee lived in England prior to moving to the United States. After graduating with a PhD in English from the University of Texas in Austin, he taught English in Buffalo, New York before returning to his homeland. He left for the states again in the early eighties and held positions at Johns Hopkins University, Stanford, Harvard and the University of Chicago. In 2002 he emigrated to Australia. And in 2003 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Disgrace was actually one of the books that influenced the Fiction Fortune Hunter’s novel The Blunder. J. M. Coetzee’s work has been an inspiration to many an author and a joy (realizing joy can often be found in the deepest, darkest places) to readers around the world.

If stark landscapes, sparse prose, incisive wit and an abundance of intelligence whets your fiction appetite, bite into Disgrace. The initial shock might be bitter, but the aftertaste will be sweet.

Perfect Prose Of The Evil That Men Do

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

I confess. For years, decades really, I’ve seen all the movies and read all the reviews of works by John LeCarre. I always assumed the cinematic simplifications of his stories were easier to digest in two-hour bites than in multiple hours of slogging through which spy is which and whose side is either really on. I realize now how indisputably stupid that was.

In the space of a few weeks, I’ve read and loved LeCarre’s first novel, Call For The Dead, where he introduced George Smiley to the world, his second novel, A Murder of Quality, where Smiley became more the detective and less the spy, his third and perhaps most famous novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which like many of his works, was turned into a particularly good motion picture, and The Mission Song, a relatively recent (2006) offering. All were exceptional in the extreme. And while you might assume, if you’re not a LeCarre fan, that any writer in the spy genre must always favor intricacy of plot over elegance of prose, you, like I, would be dead wrong.

I had seen and liked the film version of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (Released in the mid 1960’s.) But I was compelled to read it because I was so enamored of the quality of the writing in his previous two novels. I was not disappointed in the least. While the plot is indeed an ingenious foray into Cold War intrigue and double dealing, the prose itself is as dry as a good Martini and as piercing as a stiletto buried to the hilt. LeCarre’s protagonists are the anti-Bond. They are neither suave, nor handsome, nor devil-may-care, nor invulnerable. They are humanity personified trapped in very dehumanizing activities. Often of their own choosing. Which perhaps makes them the most human of all.

In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Alec Leamas is the figurative chess master who becomes the pawn in a game of cat and mouse so devilishly constructed that you’ll be unable to get him, his fate and his ultimate choice, out of your mind forever. For those of you who didn’t live through The Cold War, as it was known post World War II, there is no better history than this fictional account of just what the East and the West were willing to do to each other, and to themselves, to one-up the enemy.

Writers who succeed in a particular genre are often too quickly categorized as a crime writer, or a spy writer, or a romance novelist, or an adventure writer, or whatever. The fact of the matter, is that John LeCarre is a wonderful writer whose stories and prose are as literate and compelling as any Pulitzer or Nobel winner.

If, like the Fiction Fortune Hunter, you’ve only nibbled around the edges of John LeCarre without partaking of one of his sumptuous meals, dine on the nearest one you can find. And if you have a taste for the bitterly moving and that which is unsentimental even in it’s warmth, do yourself a favor and order The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Hard to find, but worth the hunt

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

If you’re a fan of dark, wet streets, foggy nights, lamp post shadows that outline tall, mysterious figures in Fedoras and raincoats, women who are almost always tougher than men, and worlds where fatalistic gloom hangs overhead, omnipresent and unavoidable, then you should seek out the work of Cornell Woolrich.

Perhaps lesser known than other crime writers of his day, such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Woolrich ripped through the 1940’s with noir hit after noir hit. His sad detectives, vengeful wives and doomed heroes actually got turned into more movies than either of his more famous counterparts.

Cornell Woolrich lived a tormented life that equaled the sordid stories of many of his characters. A relatively promiscuous homosexual, Woolrich
married the daughter of a silent film producer, never consummated the marriage and had it subsequently annulled. He spent the majority of his adult life living with his mother in the Hotel Marseille in New York. After her death he moved to another hotel where he lived and wrote and drank.
An ill-fitting shoe, that he refused to replace, eventually gave him an infection that led to an amputated leg. He remained an alcoholic recluse for the remainder of his life and died at the age of 65 weighing approximately 89 pounds.

One shouldn’t read Woolrich expecting finely tuned tales that intertwine as precisely as a Swiss watch. He was much more interested in mood, character and inescapable fate. Therefore you have to take his plots with immense reliance on coincidence and contrivance as mere scaffolding for the unlucky characters that inhabit them. Do that, and you’ll find some of the most rewarding and suspenseful page turning you can imagine.

Take for example Rendezvous In Black. The story of Johnny Marr who loses his fiancee on the eve of their wedding to a horrible (and quite unlikely) accident. Johnny is so scarred by his loss that he sets out on a quest to revenge the perpetrators of the aforementioned accident. Then, every year, on the anniversary of his love’s demise, one of the involved-perpetrators looses a wife, lover or daughter. And a good part of the fun is the way Johnny does them in while the cops are hot on his trail. Will they catch him before he gets them all. Will he get them all? And just what was the cause of Johnny’s fiancee’s weird accident? Set aside your inherent suspension of disbelief and you’re in for both a who done it and how that will have you hanging on to the very last page.

You probably won’t find Rendezvous In Black in bookstores, unless they really handle the hard-to-find. But you can run it down through Amazon
or at If, like the Fiction Fortune Hunter, you’re into nostalgic noir, get on the trail of Cornell Woolrich and enjoy a great writer who’s work was turned into classic’s like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1984’s Cloak & Dagger, and the Antonio Banderas /Angelina Jolie flick, Original Sin. You’ll be in for some serious and highly entertaining downers.

The Literary Equivalent of Spontaneous Combustion

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Much has been written about Norman Mailer. He is certainly one of the most famous authors of the last century. And while his prodigious writing talent is the source of most of that fame, his innate ability as a self promoter and a publicity magnate bear a large percentage of the responsibility as well. Two time Pulitzer Prize winner. Co-founder of The Village Voice. Harvard and Sorbonne alum. Persevering pugilist. Bad film director. Unpredictable chat show guest. His life seemed to be made for the television medium he grew up and grew old with.

Mailer and his contemporaries such as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and more, are given credit for innovating what came to be known as narrative nonfiction, or the new journalism. And certainly Mailer’s works like The Executioner’s Song and The Armies of the Night are fascinating examples of truth scaling literary heights.

But I’d like to focus this post on Norman Mailer’s big bang fiction beginning. In 1948, Rinehart and Company published The Naked And The Dead. A big, meaty, page-turning and thought provoking novel of World War II. It was immediately met with a fusillade of praise. Time Magazine called it “the best novel yet about World War II. Newsweek said it was “brutal, agonizing, astonishingly thoughtful.” The Providence Journal hailed it as “the most important novel since Moby-Dick.”

The Naked And The Dead, along with James Jone’s From Here To Eternity and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, tower above the infinite number of novels that sprung from that conflict. But Mailer, who was only twenty-four when he penned his masterpiece, seems, to this writer, to have best captured all the savagery, heroism, boredom, bravery, cowardice and and terrible coincidence that were part of that gigantic struggle.

The author tells his tale by focusing mostly on one platoon engaged in the battle for possession of the Japanese-held island of Anopopei in the South Pacific. Through the troop-ship taking them ashore to the rain-soaked days and nights in pup tents continually being blown away, to the final mission undertaken to provide recon for the larger invading force, Mailer weaves a tapestry of men engaged in human endeavor no human should be forced to endure. Cutting back and forth between the men on the island and their lives prior to the war, we live with this cross-section of Americans that have since become rather stilted stereotypes in lesser hands. But with Mailer at the helm, their fears, their desires, their longing for home and a safer place is mesmerizing. So too is the bigger picture that they are part of, as the author parallels the squad’s struggles with the battalion commander’s intricate offensive that must be achieved at any cost. And always looming overhead, for officer and enlisted man alike, is the constant need to come to grips with why they have to be where they are and whether they’re really making any difference at all.

Not unlike Orson Welles, who created a sensation in his youth with his film, Citizen Kane, a young Mailer wrote the great book about the great war. And while subsequent efforts in his long and storied life garnered fame and recognition for him as well as his works, none ever eclipsed the power of The Naked And The Dead.

And the hits just keep on coming

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

At the moment you’re reading this, there’s probably a new Elmore Leonard novel coming out. How do I know this? Because there’s always a new Elmore Leonard novel coming out. The guy has written over 40 books (when you throw in his short story compilations as well). We’re talking now about an author who’s in his 80’s. Think that’s slowed him down? Not a chance. The guy’s a machine. Cranks them out like sausage. And boy do they taste good.

The one Fiction Fortune Hunter is lauding today, is of relatively recent vintage. Copyright 2007. It’s entitled Up In Honey’s Room. Think of it as a wry romp through the mean streets of Detroit during the second world war. You remember that one, it was in all the papers. You remember papers, don’t you? Lucky for us, both Leonard’s memory and imagination are still humming along like a 1944 Buick. He brings the era back with a keen eye for detail and a coalition of characters who’ll keep you reading and smiling.

There’s Honey, of the title. A beautiful blond whose good looks are only exceeded by her moxie. Her ex-husband, Walter, a dead ringer for Heinrich Himmler. Carl Webster, the U. S. Marshall from Oklahoma with a reputation like the Ringo Kid. Two escaped German P.O.W’s. A sleek but hard-drinking femme fatale who just might be a Nazi spy, or a double agent, or both. There’s a KKK wizard (or is it a dragon, I can never remember), an ex-con brother-in-law, a stalwart FBI agent, a junkie doctor and an unforgettable cross-dressing Polish concentration camp survivor who’s wound tighter than a Timex. In other words, the typical suspects of an Elmore Leonard enterprise.

The plot, as in most of Mr. Leonard’s novels, is intricate enough to keep you wondering what’s going to happen, but never tediously gets in the way
of a slam bang scene or snappy dialogue. I always find myself reading faster and faster the deeper I get into one of his books. Not to finish in a hurry, but rather to enjoy it even more gluttonously.

Elmore Leonard is an American treasure. His books have been the source of many movies you’ve probably seen. Get Shorty and Be Cool with John Travolta. Fifty-Two Pickup with Roy Scheider and Ann Margaret. Hombre with Paul Newman. Mr. Majestic with Charles Bronson. And lots, lots more.

Look in the bargain bins for Elmore Leonard titles. Anyone you find
will be fun to read. And in particular, be on the lookout for Up In Honey’s Room, which, I forgot to mention earlier, culminates in her apartment with most of the characters stark naked. I need say no more.

A Fish Story Unlike Any Other

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

If you’re looking for a book somewhere in the metaphysical realm of Robinson Crusoe & Alice In Wonderland Meet The Count of Monte Cristo (which of course doesn’t exist), you might try Gould’s Book of Fish which fortunately does exist. It’s a bit like the aforementioned heroes and heroines on both steroids and acid.

Tasmanian born author Richard Flanagan has taken a wee bit of history, added large dollops of imagination and mixed both liberally with C4 explosive to take you on a journey quite unlike anything you’ve ever (thankfully) experienced.

It’s quite easy to fall in love with this book without ever actually reading it. The jacket cover and the design of the book (attributed to Mary Callahan) almost assure you’ll leave it on your coffee table and not in your bookshelf. The subtitle of Gould’s Book of Fish is A Novel In 12 Fish, and each of the twelve is wonderfully illustrated throughout. Plus, each of the twelve sections are printed in a different color. No, it doesn’t make the text harder to read, it simply adds to the morphing nature of the tale and the teller presented throughout the narrative.

Gould’s Book of Fish is the story of Billy Gould, an artist himself, who does a bit of dabbling in forgery and thievery. The majority of the richly expressed yarn takes place in the 19th century and follows the enterprising and exploited lad on his travels in and around England, Tasmania and Australia. Most of the time Gould is a resident of a penal colony doing his dead level best to survive. It’s not easy telling your own story when you’re in a cage submerged under water. Obviously you do most of your talking at low tide. Oh yes, and there is this. Aside from being a thief and a forger, Billy is also a liar. So you have to take what he says with a grain of salt about the size of Mount Rushmore. But if you’re into high adventure, low morals, brutality, filth, spirituality, fantasy, love, unforgettable imagery and people occasionally turning into fish, you’re in for the ride of your life with Gould’s Book of Fish.

Flanagan’s novel was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best book in 2002. It’s a magical story lavishly told and you’ll be a decidedly happier person or sawtooth shark if you choose to swim in its waters.

Tale Told By Idiot Is Mesmerizing

Monday, July 13th, 2009

“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” So says Bill Shakespeare. And since then a number of novels have been written by authors who have chosen to tell their tales through the mouths of those who most would consider something less than normal.

William Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury is probably the most famous of these. And more recently, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time became a national bestseller by spinning a compelling narrative through the mind and voice of a child savant.

But the purpose of this post is not to bring your attention to either of those worthy tomes. Rather, it is to make you aware of The Getaway Man penned by Andrew Vachss and published in 2003. The narrator and protagonist is Eddie. To be sure, he is what the title implies, a wheel jockey who deals in burning rubber, escape and evasion. But he’s also what we used to call (in pre politically correct times) a little “slow.” Or is he? Near the end you think you know the answer. Then all of a sudden, you don’t.

Andrew Vachss is one of the premier crime fiction writers working today.
His prose slaps you in the face and makes you like it. It slices you so expertly you don’t even know you’ve been cut until the blood starts to trickle. While the native New Yorker is best known for his Burke series, his other novels like The Getaway Man and Two Trains Running (where he tells the entire 450 page story in chronological running-time) are just as tight, tough and menacing.

If, like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, you like your noir with dirty double crosses, hairpin turns and hot pages you hate to put down…pick up
The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss. And decide for yourself if it’s the storyteller who’s the dim wit, or the reader.

Burrowing To The Bowels Of The Earth

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Most people would not gladly claw their way through the dark intestines of
a West Virginia coal mine in the 1930’s. To the vast majority it would seem too dangerous and too depressing. But the adventurous are often rewarded with the spoils. And spoils abound in Davis Grubb’sThe Barefoot Man. What are the spoils? Exhilaration. Suspense. Ecstasy and agony unbound.

While John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath has come down as the seminal novel of the Great Depression (and deservedly so), Grubb’s The Barefoot Man is in some ways the more approachable fiction. It is no less harrowing in its depiction of poverty, hopelessness and despair for interweaving a tale of murder, revenge and eventual redemption.

Published in 1971, Grubb draws upon his considerable familiarity with the scarred hills and stoic faces he grew up with. His recounting of a terrible time in our nation’s history is Dickensian in its ability to transport the reader to a claustrophobic cabin inhabited by a courageous old woman and her family who must face down killers, strikebreakers and treachery in their midst. In the face of starvation, misery and death, a mysterious stranger and his pregnant wife wander into their world and lives are changed forever.

Davis Grubb, after leaving his native West Virginia to study art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh abandoned his thoughts of a painting career when he realized he was color blind. He moved on to New York where he turned to writing copy for radio broadcasts in Manhattan, then Florida and Philadelphia. Writing fiction in his spare time, he published several short stories. His first published novel became his most famous, The Night Of The Hunter. Which was later turned into a classic film starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Charles Laughton.

Grubb believed in reinventing himself with each new novel, though he realized his reputation probably suffered for it. He said “Literary critics seem to get very upset when you don’t write the same thing. They say you have lost your talent.”

But in his next to last novel, The Barefoot Man, his talents (certainly to this reader) seem not to have dimmed. Witness his exquisitely expressed descriptions of sensuality in the love scenes between Farjeon and Jessie. As well as his ability to turn seemingly ordinary people into portentous figures who rise from the pages far larger than life.

Sometimes the most unforgettable novels are found in the deepest, darkest places. Such is the case with The Barefoot Man. Dig it up if you can.