Thursday, September 24, 2015

(No.295) "E.L. Doctorow, J.K.Rowling, Charles Bukowski, Dennis Lehane & Lee Child": some end of summer reading"

"Some enjoyable end of summer reading in five novels: the forgotten, the underestimated, the unusual, the surprising and the addictive ---  by E.L. Doctorow, J.K. Rowling, Charles Bukowski, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child"

by Alastair Rickard

The recent death at 84 of the American literary novelist E.L. Doctorow generated numerous reflections and tributes by peers and critics and readers. Many people have read one or more of Doctorow's best-known novels such as "Ragtime" and "Billy Bathgate".

I was prompted to read Doctorow's first novel from 1960 (still in print) "Welcome To Hard Times". Ostensibly it is a western tale set in a small town ca. the 1880s in an unnamed territory not far from the Dakotas.

In fact this tale is really a literary work of fiction as far removed from the typical novels in the American genre of 'westerns' like those by Louis L'Amour as one can imagine. It is a dark tale of the negative effect on the small settlement and its leading characters of a truly sociopathic individual.

The novel was made into a movie Doctorow understandably disliked but Hollywood then as now was unlikely to produce a version of a complex novel pleasing to its author. "Welcome To Hard Times" is worth reading if only to see the point at which Doctorow's novel writing started.

Charles Bukowski was a German born (1920) poet and novelist who came to the U.S. at the age of three. He was raised in Los Angeles and lived there for fifty years. He died in San Pedro California in 1994.

During his often tough and rough life he wrote 45 books of poetry and prose including 5 novels. He gradually developed -- and still has -- a loyal rather than a "best selling" readership.

I recently read his 1982 autobiographical novel "Ham On Rye"(still in print). The novel follows the hardscrabble youth in LA of his alter ego in the book -- Henry Chinaski -- from childhood through to the post-Pearl Harbor American entry into WWII. It is not only an absorbing story but conveys much feeling and impact in its straightforward prose.

Dennis Lehane, a very successful American novelist, may be best known for "Mystic River" which was turned into a successful movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

"Live By Night"(2012) is a tale that unfolds in Boston, Tampa Florida and Cuba during the 1920s and early 1930s. It follows the criminal activity and prison time of Joe Coughlin, the son of a senior but corrupt Boston cop, who makes his money and his reputation in organized crime. It is very well told, a novel that is hard to put down

Lehane continues Coughlin's story in "World Gone By" (2015), a novel set in Tampa and Cuba in the 1940s  For maximum enjoyment the two novels should be read in the order in which they were published. They are very interesting tales.

When J.K. Rowling, the hugely successful creator of the Harry Potter novels, wrote her first non-Potter novel, one for adults called "The Casual Vacancy" (2012), it was as if some book reviewers had been waiting eagerly for the chance to bring down a literary notch or two the world's most commercially successful novelist. Indeed Rowling came to believe that she would receive unbiased reviews from the literary paparazzi for a non-Potter novel written for adults only if critics did not know they were reviewing a novel she had written.

Hence the use by Rowling of the pseudonym Robert Galbraith for the first novel "The Cuckoo's Calling"(her second 'adult' novel after the "The Casual Vacancy") in what by now has turned out to be a series featuring a London private detective and one-legged ex-soldier named Cormoran Strike.

Her identity as its author was leaked but not before a number of critics had given 'Galbraith's first novel' favourable reviews. As I indicated previously in RickardsRead I regard Rowling's detective novels as very good indeed.

"The Casual Vacancy" title refers to a legal/administrative reference to the death of a sitting member of a parish council. The novel's plot is kicked off by and subsequently intertwined with the unexpected death of a 'progressive' member of the parish council of the small English town of Pagford  in contemporary Britain.

Rowling wrote a very good novel indeed, a penetrating story of the various conflicts which surface after the councillor's death among a cast of characters, conflicts related to age, class, gender, politics, incomes and race.  The novel has elements that remind me of both Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

Lee Child is an Englishman and a former director who worked in British television. He is today a famous New York City-based novelist and best selling American writer.

His current fame derives from the huge commercial success of a series of novels featuring an adventure-seeking ex-U.S. Army military police officer named Jack Reacher, a physically fit and imposing man who is violence prone and wanders the country carrying not much more than his toothbrush.

Child has just put out his latest Reacher novel, the twentieth, titled "Make Me" (2015). The Reacher novels are very successful and, while hardly great fiction, they are addictive for many people including me. The publication of a new Reacher novel is a guaranteed fix for addicts. For us "Make Me" has a plot as absorbing and action-filled as any Reacher fan could desire.




previous columns & blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead website, go to
a recent column and use the links

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in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to, go to


Saturday, September 5, 2015

(No.294) Part 3 of "Two Macdonalds & several other crime novelists"

Part 3 of "Two Macdonalds (Ross and John D.) and
several other crime novelists"

by Alastair Rickard

In my two previous columns (Nos. 292 amd 293) I offered some comments about new or republished novels I have enjoyed by a number of current writers as well as the accumulated works of the late Ross Macdonald and John D. Macdonald.

This column concludes the series.


The American author Joseph Kanon is a talented writer. His novels are set in different cities and mainly but not entirely at or shortly after the end of world War II. The novels do not repeat characters or plot lines.

"The Prodigal Spy" (1999) takes place in Washington and Prague and involves an American insider who spied for the Russians. "The Alibi" (2009) involves an American officer in Europe at war's end and his involvement with a Jewish-Italian survivor of war crimes. Both are well written -- as one expects from Kanon.

There is hardly a more reliable writer when it comes to each of his novels ascending the American bestseller lists than Michael Connelly. A former journalist, Connelly is the real deal: a certified producer of 'top 10' novels. His longest running character is the Los Angeles Police Dept. detective Harry Bosch. Because his Bosch novels are not frozen in time Connelly reached a point chronologically when Bosch retired.

However, like Ian Rankin's Detective Inspector John Rebus in Edinburgh who was also retired by his creator, Bosch came out of retirement. "The Burning Room" (2014) is the latest published in the series with another (the 20th,"The Crossing") scheduled for publication in November this year.

Vermont state detective Joe Gunther is the central character in more than two dozen crime novels by Archer Mayor. Gunther is surrounded by a continuing cast of police and non-police characters (especially female friends), a pattern continued in "Proof Positive" (2014), the 25th in the series. The next Joe Gunther novel "The Company She kept" will be out this month.

Lee Child is, like Michael Connelly, the creator of a character -- Jack Reacher -- whose appearance in another new story guarantees that novel bestseller standing. Child, an Englishman who once worked in British television, created an American character who is not only an ex-military policeman, large and very tough, but also a wanderer around the U.S. thus facilitating his encountering of all manner of eccentric people and circumstances.

"Personal" (2014) features rather more than usual of Reacher's biographical details but is just as violent as well as difficult for a reader to put down. The 18 Reacher novels are very successful for good reason: they are absorbing. The next Reacher novel, "Make Me", will be out in Sept. this year.

The American novelist John Sandford has created two long running characters: Lucas Davenport, a senior detective in a Minnesota state policy agency and Virgil Flowers, one of his subordinates, For the most part their respectives cases do not overlap.

There are 25 "Prey" novels featuring Davenport; all his stories have "Prey" in the title: and 8 so far featuring Virgil Flowers. The latest from Sandford are "Gathering Prey" (2015) and (with Flowers) "Deadline" (2014). They are well plotted and told in a fashion as interesting as their predecessors in the two series.

Like Joseph Kanon novels, the historical espionage genre of fiction by Alan Furst, a particular favourite of mine, form a series of novels without continuing characters. In "Midnight in Europe" (2014) Furst again shows that he is a master at setting up the mood and creating the atmosphere of Europe in the years between the two world wars and leading up to WWII.

Finally Rebecca Cantrell, like Furst an American writer who has lived in Europe, began the story of her lead character Hannah Vogel in pre-war Europe in "A Trace of Smoke" (2009). It is the first in a series of novels and a good start, one that has been followed by three more.

Vogel is revealed to be a newspaper crime beat reporter living a hand-to-mouth existence in 1931 Berlin who unintentionally becomes involved with the affairs of a senior Nazi. The story embraces aspects of both the Nazi rise to power in Germany and the corresponding decline in the pre-1933
Berlin/Weimar lifestyles since depicted in books like Christopher Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories"and various movies and plays such as "Cabaret".




previous columns and blog archive:
to access previous columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the RickardsRead website, go to
a recent column and use the links

to set a "Google alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to, go to


/Weimar era