Monday, February 27, 2012

Revenge

Mark Young situates his police procedural in the wilds of Idaho. He makes you smell and feel the outdoors and you wish you were there. His hero, Travis Mays, takes a whitewater kayak trip with his Indian guide, Jessie, and begins a romance and a mystery that takes us up and down the river and trails along Highway 12 in western Idaho.

Takes us a few too many times, really. The 350-page book could have been 70, if not 100, pages shorter. The action is at times needlessly duplicated or drawn out without adding anything to the plot or character development. Travis is well-drawn as a policeman who has a case go terribly wrong and who wants to retreat to his inaccessible cabin in the Idaho mountains and teach his courses at nearby Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. But Jessie is two-dimensional and comes across as a bit whiney, while her father, Frank, the tribal chief of police for the Nez Perce, is also a cliche who never really gets fleshed out.

Otherwise, there are too many characters doing too many superfluous things to make this successful as a suspense thriller. I enjoyed the scenery, the sense of place, but felt too often that I was plodding through. There are a couple of twists at the end, but one twist creating too many coincidences, and the unmasking of a villain who is introduced late but too obviously.

It's a good enough addition to my 50-state mystery challenge, but could have been much more satisfying with a little more judicious editing. Young has a good command of narrative and language; his action sequences work well. His years as an officer in the Santa Rosa police force give the book an authentic voice and feel. I can't quite get to four stars on this but I would want to give it more than three, so I won't post it elsewhere. There is much to emulate in writing a procedural and some other good lessons from the mistakes.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Armchair traveler

Armchair traveling has of course always been one of the pleasures of reading. I love to travel and discover new places, though I've done enough physical traveling that I don't mind kicking back in the comfort of my own home and exploring new places vicariously through books. It's why I signed up so readily to the Goodreads challenges related to geography -- the 50-State Mystery Challenge and Around the World in 52 Books.

It's possible just to sit back and let the writers' marvelous descriptions of scenery, places and people wash over you. But since I like maps and I enjoy refining my knowledge of geography, I also like looking these places up in Google maps and Wikipedia.

One recent mystery, Desert Wives, was set in the Arizona Strip. The author described it as being on the Arizona-Utah border (and supplied vivid descriptions of the Vermilion Cliffs). But a quick search in Wikipedia showed me exactly where the Arizona Strip was and explained that it had more affinity to Utah and Nevada because it was isolated from the rest of Arizona by the Grand Canyon.

I'm currently reading a really nice indie book (that I downloaded for free from Amazon), Revenge by Mark Young, which is situated so far in western Idaho, in the Nez Perce territory. So on Google maps I've located Orofino, which is not far from Pullman, Washington, where the protagonist teaches at Washington State University. (By an odd coincidence, I'm finding out via Facebook that an old friend from college currently lives in Ketchum, Idaho, in Sun Valley -- not particularly close to Orofino but I know a lot more about Idaho geography today than I did yesterday.)

Meanwhile, on the Around the World challenge, I'm taking a trip to the Negev Desert with Amos Oz's Don't Call It Night. This comes after a refreshing trip to Mykonos with Murder in Mykonos and a harrowing trip to Saudi Arabia with Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.

The point is, I guess, that armchair traveling via books can now be a multimedia experience. I can zoom down with the Google satellite to supplement the author's descriptions of actual places or slake my curiosity about these new places in Wikipedia. This is obviously the direction that enhanced ebooks want to go in, though I've yet to read one because publishers, typically, want to charge an arm and a leg for them.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Desert Wives

There is a murder mystery in Betty Webb's Desert Wives, but it takes a back seat to her harrowing portrayal of a polygamy compound on the Arizona-Utah border. The author's vivid descriptions of a primitive society outside the law, where women are treated primarily as breeding stock, make you feel like you've entered an alternative universe or a new circle of hell.

Lena Jones is a former cop/private eye based in Scottsdale, Ariz. Her client is a woman who has fled from the Purity polygamy compound operated by a fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church. Her former husband wants to marry off their 13-year-old daughter to one of the elders in the compound, who all seek to earn their place in heaven by taking as many wives and producing as many children as possible.

Lena manages to rescue the young Rebecca but the girl's mother, Lena's client, is charged with the murder of the compound's head, Prophet Solomon. To clear her, Lena has to investigate the murder and find the real killer (even though she is not sure her client is innocent). Through various connections, she finds an older man in the compound who has become disaffected with its whole ethos and embittered because he unwittingly signed over all his property and assets and would be virtually impoverished if he leaves. Saul is willing to bring Lena into the compound as his second wife to investigate the murder. She must wear the plain clothing of the compound's women and adopt their submissive attitude --  none of which comes easily to Lena, who is fiercely independent and wrestling with demons from her own childhood spent in foster care.

There are some truths that can only be told in fiction, and Webb's brutal descriptions of present-day polygamy are one of them. This is not Big Love, but it rings too true to be made up (and the author offers considerable documentation at the end of the novel to show it is based on fact).

Lena observes two-thirds of the way through the book that she has been in the compound more than a week and is no closer to finding out Solomon's killer. This may frustrate some mystery readers who want her to get on with it. But the portrayal of this universe is as compelling and suspenseful as any murder mystery, if not more so. In the end, victim and killer alike are caught up in a system that appears to be unalloyed evil. It combines some of the worst ills in society today -- unbridled greed hypocritically posing as religious fundamentalism, battering and abuse of women, and child molestation, among others.

That said, some of the description of life in the compound could probably have been sacrificed to move the plot along more quickly. Also, in terms of mystery plotting, the reader would have benefited from more clues. As it is, Lena's illumination about the identity of the killer seems abrupt and somewhat arbitrary. Lena herself seems at times less mature and less professional than one might expect from a veteran law enforcement officer, and some of the other characters remain two-dimensional.

Webb excels at evoking the desert landscape of the Arizona Strip, with its beauty and its danger. The flashes of scenic beauty, the genuine joy of many of the children living together in a closed community with fixed parameters lighten the gloom of compound, where most of the people live in sordid poverty while the "prophets" enjoy a life of luxury.

The reader is happy to leave Purity, but much sadder, if wiser, knowing that such places exist and are allowed to exist by a corrupt society.


Monday, February 6, 2012

The Vineyard at the End of World

My review of The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec by Ian Mount appeared today in The Washington Independent Review of Books:

Aficionados will lap up this history of the Argentine wine industry and its signature grape, Malbec. Writing in a lively, journalistic style, Ian Mount combines colorful vignettes and extensive interviews of the key players with a wealth of information to provide the definitive word on what has become a mainstay of New World wine.
Mount writes authoritatively about wine. His deft descriptions explain why it’s important how vines are planted, how the grapes are picked, how high the pH level should be, why oxygen must be avoided at all costs, how modern equipment and techniques have improved the product, and how revolutionary the last three decades have been in creating a wonderful new world of wine.
The story he tells is truly astonishing. Argentina has a tradition of wine growing and production dating back to the conquistadors. Waves of Italian immigrants well-schooled in Old World vineyards gave the country a robust wine culture. But Argentina often remained mired in autarkic economic policies, at times a political and economic pariah in the world community. Through much of the country’s history, Argentine vintners produced a cheap, substandard wine, (“plonk” is one of Mount’s favorite words) suitable only for domestic consumption.
It was only as the wine revolution in Europe and California was under way that a handful of intrepid Argentine winemakers brought in these foreign consultants to study the challenges posed by the hot, dry climate of the country’s western wine-growing regions. Hoping at first to compete in a global market dominated by Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, they developed Argentine versions of these varietals that gave them their first export products.
Through trial and error, patience and skill, the winemakers and their foreign consultants eventually came to the realization that the Malbec grape, one of the original constituents of fine Bordeaux wines that had survived as an ugly-duckling varietal in the New World, offered the best opportunity to create a distinctive, world-class wine. With its dark, inky color and fruity flavor, Malbec previously had been used to lend body to thin clarets. By adapting the grape to the Argentine terroir and using modern techniques, a new generation of winemakers was able to create a wine that could not only stand on its own but enrich what had become a truly global market.
Mount tells the story with verve and distills a great amount of research and reporting into his book. But he makes the reader work a little harder than necessary by failing to mold the story into a tight narrative. The wine connoisseur will relish every detail, but the general reader and casual wine consumer may not have the motivation to read through the early chapters about the settling of western Argentina and the often extraneous details about some of the colorful characters involved.
Without a strong narrative arc, the book, even though it is roughly chronological, emerges as a somewhat disjointed series of anecdotes, vignettes, snatches of historical research and a textbook on wine production. Rather than plunging us immediately into the historical beginnings of the Argentine wine industry, Mount could have made it easier for the reader by starting with the success of Malbec — this is what we’re most familiar with — and then going back into history to explain where it all comes from after he had us hooked.
When Mount does get to the series of events that brought the new Malbec wines to the world, even though he clearly has talked to numerous sources on three continents, his account seems to rely heavily on Nicol├ís Catena and the role of his family company. However crucial Catena’s contribution might have been, the book at times reads almost like a corporate history.
Nonetheless, Mount does not gloss over Catena’s failings, describing him at times as Machiavellian. The author presents both sides regarding Catena’s final break with his longtime consultant, Paul Hobbs, but the parting was obviously acrimonious because of competing claims about who should get the credit for discovering Malbec.
In any case, The Vineyard at the End of the World is a great read for anyone caught up in the romance of wine (or, for that matter, the romance of Argentina). It is amazing in retrospect that the breakthrough for Malbec and for Argentine wines in general took place in the mid-90s, less than two decades ago.
For expert and casual consumers alike, the dazzling array of wine choices now available at affordable prices has reached Bacchanalian proportions. Ian Mount’s book, focusing on this one important location, helps us appreciate the history, the talent and the hard work that has gone into making that possible.
Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, has visited vineyards on four continents. His latest book is The Grand Mirage, a historical thriller.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Murder in Mykonos

Jeffrey Siger's accomplished procedural delivers everything you want from a murder mystery -- a plot with lots of twists and mounting suspense, a protagonist who's not perfect but sympathetic, and a great sense of place. It helps that the place in this instance is a beautiful, exotic island in the Aegean. I found the vicarious trip to Greece so real that I broke out the ouzo for an aperitif and cooked up a lamb stew from my Greek cookbook.

Inspector Andreas Kaldis is sent to Mykonos to get him out of Athens, but instead of supervising drunk tourists and handing out parking tickets he stumbles upon what may be Greece's first ever serial killer. Obviously, having a killer on the loose who favors tall, blonde foreign women would not be great for tourism, the lifeblood not only of Mykonos but of all the islands. So there is considerable pressure on Kaldis  to track down the killer quickly, and to do so without notifying anyone he exists.

Siger not only enables you to see, taste and smell Mykonos, he is a master at whipping around veils of deception that tease the reader with false conclusions -- about the identity of the victims, the possible murder suspects and the motives of Kaldis's law enforcement allies. He also does an admirable job of building the suspense, so that by the last third of the book you are clicking away at the "next page" button almost faster than you can read.

I went to Mykonos many years ago, perhaps in the simpler, less frenetic time that Kaldis himself recalls. The crass tourism depicted here might repel some readers, though Siger, who apparently lives in Mykonos himself, clearly is taken with its natural beauty. I'm sure the off-season is wonderful. The author also shows great insight into the Greek character, as well as the assortment of expats, dissipates, and tourists you find in great resort areas.

Siger makes great use of the local scenery -- the little churches with rounded tops (that you will never view with the same eyes again!), the old mining tunnels that evidently crisscross the island, the beautiful beaches where a young tourist realizes she will be more conspicuous if she leaves on her bathing suit. The author is adept at shifting the point of view between Andreas, our intrepid detective, and, for long passages, Annika, the engaging Dutch woman who is likely to become the killer's next victim. Less successful, perhaps because the author wants to keep as many suspects as possible, are the times we view the action from the killer's point of view.

There are several suspects, and it's an object lesson in how suspicion bordering on paranoia can cast even ordinary, innocent actions in a bad light. In a final tease, the author reveals the identity of the killer only in the last paragraph, and this may be a tease too many. Readers appreciate a little anticlimax, time to think back to the clues along the way, perhaps a reprise of how normal the other suspects look now that they are in the clear.

Siger has written two further Andreas Kaldis mysteries in the meantime, which I look forward to reading. He is published by Poisoned Pen Press, which has become a model for how a small, independent press can flourish in the new world of digital publishing.