Showing posts with label Akashic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Akashic. Show all posts

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sure Thing, by David Rich

"Sure Thing," by David Rich, in New Haven Noir, edited by Amy Bloom, Akashic Press, 2017.

If a leopard had strolled up the stairs and into the big room, or a giggling leprechaun had slid down a light beam, the reactions of the patrons at Sports Haven could not have been any stronger.  

Nice writing, that.  The cause of the shock was a beautiful actress named Addie walking into the sports bar.  Not a very classy place, apparently.

"What kind of wine do you have?"

"The kind that used to be red when I opened it three weeks ago and the kind that used to be white."

The bartender delivering that bad news is Pete, and Pete has a secret or two.  He helps Addie out of a messy situation and some secrets are revealed.  The result puts both of their lives in danger.   

Very satisfactory story.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Crossing Harry, by Chris Knopf

"Crossing Harry," by Chris Knopf, in New Haven Noir, edited by Amy Bloom, Akashic Press, 2017.

Knopf is making his second appearance here.

I am very fond of what I call heightened language, which simply means that the words do something more than get us from the beginning of the story to the end.  It doesn't have to been high-falutin' fancy words.  Hemingway's monosyllabic language told us a lot about the world he was describing.

This story has a good plot but it is the language that puts it over the top.  Here is our nameless protagonist, a homeless man, explaining his love of biology.

I'd loved it since I was a kid.  I'd absolutely be hunched over a lab counter right now if I hadn't had that little hiccup with the voices in my head and the collusion of the Yale Board of Trustees, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the Satanic Monks of Aquitaine to deprive me of my undergraduate position.

Yeah, I hate it when that happens.

But our hero is pretty cheerful.  He likes his "house [which] is this nice little spot under the railroad tracks that mostly keeps out the rain and snow."

Of course, some conflict must occur even in this paradise, and it takes the form of a very strange man at Union Station whom no one notices except the homeless man and Harry.  Did I mention Harry?  No one can see him except our narrator, because he's from another dimension.  But Harry isn't the problem.  It's the elegantly dressed man with a canvas bag full of-- well, nothing nice.

Don't worry, though.  Our guy and Harry are on the case.  And a terrific case it is.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Bubble, by Jennifer Harlow

"The Bubble," by Jennifer Harlow, in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.

I have started reading the Akashic Press Noir City volumes for 2017, so it must be time for my annual rant: Noir does not mean gloomy.  Noir fiction must involve crime or the threat of crime.  Okay?

That's essential, but we can expand.  Ideally, noir involves this: A nobody tries to become somebody.  For this effrontery they are curb stomped by the universe.  Crime in involved.   Often the nobody is led to disaster by a love/lust interest.

Jennifer Harlow certainly understands all of that.  Her story involves not only noir but another French term: femme fatale.  That would be Maddie, a teenager in Peachtree City, who is sick to death of her privileged life among snobs, absentee parents, and the self-medicated.  She decides to commit murder, just for excitement, and power, and, let's face it, because she is evil.

But she isn't working alone.  Her reluctant partner in crime is Emma, who is not as smart, not as pretty, and desperately in  love with Maddie.  Is Maddie willing to use her sexuality to manipulate Emma into crime?  Oh, yes.

Does our tale of thrill killers meet the definition of classic noir?  To some degree that depends on whether you think Emma has interpreted events correctly. I'll let you decide.  But I'll tell you for free that it's a very good story.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Wait, by Flávio Carneiro

"The Wait,"  by Flávio Carneiro, in Rio Noir, edited by Tony Bellotto, Akashic Books, 2016.

Bear with me.  This may get a little philosophical at the start.  We will get to the story.

 I would like to suggest that some fiction really is genre fiction and some uses genre fiction.  Wears it like a cloak to cover what is really going on.  And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Jorge Luis Borges' brilliant story "The Garden of Forking Paths" is about a spy doing spy things.  But is it a spy story?  Not exactly.  Is George Orwell's Animal Farm a fable or a political satire that uses the fable form?

Okay.  Getting to this week's favorite.  A beautiful woman walks into the office of a private eye.  Sound familiar?

Detective Andre has an office in downtown Rio.  Marina wants him to find a man.  Again, still familiar.

But now the ground shifts under us a bit.  All she knows about the man is that he has been following her every day for weeks. Now he has stopped and she wants him to start again.

Andre and his sidekick, Fats - or is Fats the brains of the operation? - set out to find the guy.  Much philosphizing occurs.  Roland Barthes is invoked.

The place where what we might call experimental fiction - those cloaked-in-genre things - tend to fall apart is the ending.  Some of these authors seem to take pride in not writing the last page, leaving you wondering what happened and why you bothered to read the damned thing.

Carniero is not guilty of that.  I found his ending quite satisfactory, as was the whole story.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Toned Cougars, by Tony Bellotto

"Toned Cougars," by Tony Bellotto, in Rio Noir, edited by Tony Bellotto, Akashic Books, 2016.

I have been known to complain about these Akashic Press books, specifically that the editors sometimes don't seem to know what noir is.  No complaints about this story (which happens to be written by the book's editor).  It follows the formula perfectly.

Our protagonist is a fortyish beach bum who makes his living romancing older women.  His latest conquest, if that's the word, is older than his mother, but he finds himself falling in love, much to his discomfort.

Turns out she has a wealthy husband she doesn't much care for.  Turns out she thinks our hero could solve that problem for her.

And if you have read any noir you may suspect it won't end with champagne and wedding cakes.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Lord of Madison County, by Jimmy Cajoleas

"The Lord of Madison County," by Jimmy Cajoleas, in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin. Akashic Press, 2016.

What do you find at the corner of Noir and Southern Gothic?  Wicked young ladies, for one thing.

Douglas is a teenager who has come up with the perfect place to sell drugs: his church's youth group.  Pastor Jerry loves the kids' ecstatic enthusiasm and doesn't have a clue as to what's going on.  He also doesn't know what's going on between his young daughter and Douglas.

But another adult gets Douglas  into trouble with his dealer and things, in fine Noir fashion, go to hell.  What I love about this story is that it is full of classic Noir characters but you can't predict what will happen based on the standard stereotypes.  Some of them go off in surprising directions.  Very nice piece of work.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Paler Shade of Death, by Laura Benedict

"A Paler Shade of Death," by Laura Benedict, in St. Louis Noir, edited by Scott Akashic Press, 2016.

This may the grimmest story I ever chose as my best of the week.  Nothing jolly here, folks.

Becca is moving to a duplex because her husband has a restraining order out against her.  Seems she threw some tea cups at him, among other things.

Their son died a few years ago and they have recovered at different paces, which leads to tension.  That can happen after a tragedy.

But there are rumors flying around the neighborhood that the child's death was not an accident.  And Becca is drinking a lot.  Plus there is a little boy who keeps following her around, a few years older than her own son would have been.  What's that all about?

I sometimes complain that the editors of the Akashic Noir series forget that it isn't enough just to be depressing; the stories need crime as well.  No worries here; Benedict is not afraid to get her characters' hands dirty.  If you like your fiction grim, I recommend it.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Bastard, by Tarek Abi Samra

"The Bastard," by Tarek Abi Samra, in Beirut Noir, edited by Iman Humaydan, Akashic Press, 2015.

They were born on the same night, of the same father but different mothers.

A nice opening sentence, that, with a lovely fairy tale feel.  Samra keeps this up in his story, set in contemporary times, partly by leaving all the characters nameless.  And then there is the plot, which has a timeless feel.

You see, the half-brothers were born in the same hospital, and there was some confusion, so no one is sure which brother is which.  The father makes an arbitrary choice,  setting their destinies forever in place.

The two boys grow up next door to each other.  The so-called bastard envies his brother his legitimacy and wealth.  The heir envies the other one his freedom, a loving mother (his own died in childbirth), and his strength and confidence.

Clearly their fates are tangled up and the story tells us the stories of their lives, with an appropriately noirish ending.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Good Neighbors, by Gary Earl Ross

"Good Neighbors," by Gary Earl Ross, in Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, Akashic Press, 2015.

By the time the Washingtons moved into the house two doors away late last summer, Loukas and Athena Demopoulos had lived next to Helen Schildkraut for nearly five years.

Dang, that is a good opening sentence.  Clear, a bit complex, and instantly predicting the conflict that is to come.

Lou and Athena have retired after running their Greek restaurant for decades.  Lou's hobby is antiques.  He doesn't collect them, he just wants to buy low and sell high.  But then he discovers that his elderly neighbor Helen has a house full of them.  And Helen has no relatives, no favorite charities, no one to leave her precious belongings to. So Lou and Athena set out to become really good neighbors and wait for Helen to pass away.

But then the Washingtons -- remember them?  They appear in that crucial first sentence and then disappear for most of the story -- move in on the other side, and they are good neighbors too.

This is one of those rare stories I reread as soon as I finished it, because there was so much in it I wanted to see what I had missed.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Bubble Man of Allentown, by Dimitri Anastasopoulos

"The Bubble Man of Allentown," by Dimitri Anastasopoulos, in Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, Akashic Press, 2015.

I'm not a big fan of experimental or even mainstream literary fiction (sometimes defined as "stories with the last page missing.")  So this story had to be extra good to top my weekly list.

I'm going to tell you about some of the characters and you are going to think it's a funny story.  It isn't.  The key word is actually creepy.  Not horror, but it will get under your skin.

Okay, characters.  Tippett is a sixty-year-old cop, on suspension because of his fascination with contaminating crime scenes with chalk outlines.  He considers it a form of artistic expression.  And then there's the Bubble Man, who sits in his fourth floor apartment all day blowing large bubbles down into the street below.  And a middle-aged woman named Lora Gastineau who left her house in a slip and sneakers and never returned.

Tippett is called back to work when a fresh corpse is found and he rushes to prove himself and then -- well, weird things happen.

The artist had tinkered with the body's appearance after the person had died, Tippett guessed -- a new-age sketch artist, judging by the aura of the total work on the ground.  it betrayed the artist's faith in symmetry and harmony, in the reconstruction of the whole figure.  Techniques popularized in the early 1980s, Tippett thought...

A wild ride.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Gold Leaf, by Luanne Rice

"Gold Leaf," by Luanne Rice, in Providence Noir, edited by Ann Hood, Akashic Press, 2015.

"The women of Fox Point wore black because someone was always dying."

Nice opening line for a noir story, or a book of the same, true?

This is a tale about making a deal with the devil.  Not literally, but about setting a cat to catch a rat, which always leaves you with a cat to cope with.

The narrator is an artist.  "I worked in shorts and my bra, making portraits with the bodies of angels and the heads of local politicians.  I received good commissions but it didn't matter because my boyfriend was a lobbyist.  He paid my rent."

But when she gets jealous of her lover's wife, she  starts plotting a murder.  And that involves finding someone willing to kill.  If you have read any noir at all, you know this ain't gonna end well...

Very nice writing in a clever story. 
 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Stolen Lives, by Johanna Holmstrom

"Stolen Lives," by Johanna Holmstrom, in Helsinki Noir, edited by James Thompson, Akashic Press, 2015.

This is a complex story, told in multiple flashbacks.  I had to go back and read parts of it a second time to see exactly what happened.  But the ending made it worthwhile.

Carin is a new mother and she blogs a lot about her joy in the experience, and her brilliance  at the task.  Also she hands down her dictates as to what is and isn't fashionable.  And writes about her handsome husband.

Sounds insufferable, huh?  But she isn't the main character.  Celestine lives nearby, and she watches Carin, online in real life.  But mostly Celestine obsesses over the death of her little brother when she was a child, for which she was partly responsible.

Did I mention that Carin leaves her baby, Gabriel, snoozing in his perfect stroller in the lovely fresh air outside her charming window while "Carin, with her shades drawn, is advising clueless mothers on how to best take care of their offspring.  And Celestine is standing on her balcony right across the street..."

Celestine has plans for Gabriel.  They don't go exactly right.  But what happens is quite astonishing, and worth a read.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Stoning Before Breakfast, by Azardokht Bahrami

"A Stoning Before Breakfast," by Azardokht Bahrami, in Tehran Noir, edited by Salar Abdoh, Akashic Books, 2014.

If I were picking the best story titles of 2014, a big chunk would come of this book.  "Fear is the Best Keeper of Secrets."  "A Woman's Geography is Sacred."  "The Shelf Life of Revenge."  "The Whitest Set of Teeth in Tehran."

And today's entry. 

The narrator is a prostitute.  Her friend Elika is being stoned to death for adultery - although the actual reasons are more complicated than that.  While this story makes no reference to the obvious Christian analog - "let he who is without sin..." - Elika's customers are in the crowd, very reluctant to participate.

This is not a standard crime story, more a slice-of-death piece, but powerfully written.

One of the women asks out loud why they haven't covered her face.  she insists that this is the law.  It's as if she's some kind of Minister of Stoning.

Kati insisted there was not a man on earth who would stay faithful for long.  Except maybe the prophet Adam, and that was only because in his particular sad case there wasn't a second option.

This boy's a natural.  They should bring him to every stoning within driving distance.

Another fine story in the collection is "Not Every Bullet is Meant for a King," (another great title) by Hossein Arkenar, a sort of textual Pulp Fiction about people who get involved in a bank robbery.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Swirl, by Siljie Bekeng


"Swirl," by Siljie Bekeng, in Tel Aviv Noir, edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron, Akashic Press, 2014.

Hmm.  You need to sue a spoiler warning if you reveal the plot, but do you need one if you reveal there is no plot? 

This story is so light on the plot side that it could pass for mainstream, but there is crime in it, and excellent writing, which is how it happened to end up being my best-of-the-week. 

When I read a story on my tablet I mark interesting passages that I might want to quote on this page.  In this story I marked seven which is a record, I think.  But we will get to that.

The narrator describes herself as an expat.  Her husband is an executive of an international corporation and they live on Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv.  She is isolated in many ways, including having no knowledge of Hebrew.  But worse, there are protests going on in the city and the corporation keeps urging employees to avoid a certain area -- the place where she lives. 

But that's not the scary part.  When she does go out she sometimes comes back to find evidence that someone has been in the apartment.  Apparently Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, has a habit of leaving these little reminders for expats: we are watching you.  But our narrator suspects that this is more personal, that the watcher has taken a particular interest in her.

If this were a straight crime story you know how it would go, but as I said already, it isn't.  And the ending, well, it descends into mainstream coyness, but the rest is very good. And here are a few of those lines I highlighted:

Those single socks that never return from the washing machine?  Shin Bet has a storage room full of socks lifted from diplomats, lobbyists, and international aid workers.  On casual Fridays the Shin Bet people wear the mismatched socks themselves, for fun.

There is something embarrassing about listening in to someone else's social protest, like getting stuck at the table during someone else's family argument.

We are the kind of people they send in helicopters for.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Milk and Tea, by Linda Michelle Marquardt

"Milk and Tea," by Linda Michelle Marquardt, in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

We are back for a second helping of Prison Noir.  Last week was about a clever concept, skillfully executed.  This week is all about heightened language.  One advantage of using an e-reader is you can mark interesting passages, and in this story I highlighted too many to review here.

The story begins with a description of a suicide in the prison.  Then:  Damn!  I was jealous.

That's our first indication that the story is in first person.  The protagonist is a woman who killed her abusive partner.  (And I should say that the abuse is described pretty graphically; this is the most violent tale I have read so far in this book.)

Love of her children keeps her from reaching for death, although I crave it like iced tea on a summer day.  See what I mean about heightened language?

Here she deals with the ever-recurring question: why does a woman stay with a bad man?

Apparently, if you're an educated person, this can be held against you, as if there is some Abuse 101 course in college that prepares you to recognize the waring signs.  There isn't.


This is a powerful piece of writing.

Ms. Marquardt, like her protagonist, is incarcerated at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Michigan.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Message In The Breath Of Allah, by Ali F. Sareini

"A Message In The Breath Of Allah," by Ali F. Sareini, in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.

My problem with thematic anthologies is that I usually like the theme better than most of the stories.  Take, for instance, this book which has a brilliant plan: invite current or former guests of the American correctional system to write fiction about it.  Great idea.  And some of the stories are fine.

But so far, most of the ones I have read aren't crime stories.

Yes, I know.  Prison implies crime.  But if your subject is surviving in a hostile environment, the fact that a felony got you into the place doesn't by itself make it a crime story.

And then there is the whole noir thing.  Merely being violent and gloomy does not qualify a piece of fiction as noir.  As I have said here, too often, a noir story ideally has three elements: 1) a nobody, who 2) tries to be somebody, and 3) gets stomped on by fate.  Why are those the elements of noir?  For the same reason a sonnet has fourteen lines.

Having whined sufficiently for one day, let me address this masterful story by Ali F. Sareini, who recently finished a term for second degree homicide.

Ali (the character, not the author, I hope), has been praying to Allah for decades to be released from prison.  A weaker spirit might feel a twinge of doubt after all that time, but Ali concludes that his prayers are simply  the wrong media to get his message across.

He decides he needs to send a messenger directly to Allah.  Fortunately, he is working as a helper in the part of the prison full of elderly and ill inmates. "I reverently called the unit 'the messengers' home.'" So all he has to do is explain clearly the plea he wants delivered and then, immediately, send the astonished courier off to the afterlife.

That's the creepiest motive for murder I have run across in a long time.

(By the way, should I have included a spoiler alert?  No, because this isn't the plot of the story: it's the premise.)

So, does this story have crime?  Check.  Does it have a nobody trying to be somebody?  I would say trying to negotiate directly with Allah counts.  As for whether the ending counts as noir, telling that would need a spoiler alert.

By the way, this is a story with its theme showing.  (The theme is what the story is about, other than the plot and character.  Some people like it visible and some don't.)  The theme, repeated in several contexts is this: Why do we take care of each other?

Much to ponder in this great story.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Murder on Orchard Road, by Nury Vittachi

"Murder on Orchard Road," by Nury Vittachi, in Singapore Noir, edited by Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan, Akashic Press, 2014.

The term "political correctness" or PC has become an epithet.  It is seen as a form of censorship or advocacy of wimpiness.

Wasn't always that way.  As I recall someone asked the folksinger Fred Small if he was ever "not PC."  He replied "Do you mean am I ever intentionally rude?"

I bring this up because most of the stories in Singapore Noir use dialect, by which I mean attempting to indicate on the page the non-standard language and pronunciation of the characters.  Dialect has been out of favor for a long time, for a lot of good reasons: it can be amazingly annoying to read and, it can seem insulting to the people whose language is being mimicked.

On the other hand, a lot of the people in these stories set in Singapore are not going to speak like they went to Harvard or Oxford.  What's an author to do?

The usual thinking these days is that less is more.  Put in just enough dialect to indicate the speech patterns, without driving the ready crazy.  (By the way, if you want to hear my attempt at a dialect story, here is a free podcast.)

Mr. Vittachi's is about an older Chinese may named C.F. Wong.  And here is one of his longer speeches: "Slow race no good.  Makes bad TV.  Sponsors very angry.  Race organizer very angry."

Gives you a sense of how Wong speaks.  Whether it accurately reflects Chinese speech in Singapore is beyond me.

And I suppose that tells you a bit of what the story is about.  But there is more.  Here is the opening:

His New Year's resolution was to give up murders.  Murders were horrible, messy, smelly, difficult, heart-rending things.  And not nearly as profitable as they used to be.

Mr. Wong is a feng shui master and his specialty has been spiritually cleansing murder scenes.  But today he hopes to only deal with a car race (which as you see above, seems to be going wrong).  And then there is the case of the food taster accused of poisoning his clients...


Not noir, but entertaining. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Full Moon, by Lauren Davis

"Full Moon," by Lauren Davis, in Dallas Noir, edited by David Hale Smith, Akashic Press, 2013.

For those who came late, here's what noir is:  A loser tries to be more, gets involved in crime (on one side or the other) and gets screwed.

This is a pretty good one.

Danny Contreras is an investment broker, but not destined to be one long.  He is using drugs like they were dental floss and giving his Rolex to the dealer in lieu of payment.  On the way back to his apartment he has an accident and winds up with a ton of money.  He also has some bad guys following him.  And possibly another companion: a giant owl out of Mexican legend .  Whether the owl is real or in his head, it doesn't mean anything good. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hole-Man, by Matt Bondurant

"Hole-Man," by Matt Bondurant, in Dallas Noir, edited by David Hale Smith, Akashic Press, 2013.

A nice, gloomy tale about the isolation of suburbia, especially in a hot climate where everyone stays locked up in their air-conditioned palaces.  Anders lives in the White Rock section of Dallas with his wife, young daughter, and a million mosquitoes.  When he realizes the skeeters are breeding in his neighbor's swampy swimming pool - and this is druing a West Nile outbreak -- he starts taking an interest in what's going on in the houses around him.  Maybe too much interest, according to the scary men who claim to be there to do roof and yard work...

Very satisfying story.  



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Acting Lessons, by Amanda Stern

"Acting Lessons," by Amanda Stern, in The Marijuana Chronicles, edited by Jonathan
Santlofer, Akashic Press, 2013.

So: what's a mystery story? 

People who don't read them think they know.  A mystery is a story in which someone gets murdered and a detective looks for clues, talks to suspects, and reveals the killers.  Easy-peasy.

People who actually read mysteries know that that was a pretty good description of the field in 1922.  Since then it got a little more complicated.

Otto Penzler describes a mystery (and I am paraphrasing)  as a astory in which crime or the threat of crime, is a major element.  And that indeed covers P.I. stories, suspense, inverted detective stories, and other tales that don't fit the first description.

Unfortunately, it also covers The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, and The Brothers Karamazov,  none of which most people would consider mysteries.  So there is something missing, maybe an attitude thing, that separates crime stories.

All of which is my way of explaining that this week's story barely qualifies for my field.  After all, this book doesn't promise stories about crime; just stories about pot.  I suppose you could argue that if drugs are illegal then all stories about drugs are crime stories, but then we get into that attitude problem again.

So why am I reviewing this story?  Because it is so good, that's why.  Here's the opening.

The initial quantum fluctuation that burst forwrd to create this universe implanted particles prgrammed, in years nine to fourteen of a human girl's life, to flood the neural regions and saturate her suggestible self with one single, rabid desire: to become an actress.

Okay, I loved that.

The narrator  describes her experiences at age fourteen taking lessons from Ian and Caroline a perfect Californai-style couple in New York who specialize in drama lessons for teenagers.  They want to know what deep-secret agonies their students are concealing, so that they may build their acting skills out of them.  And our heroine finds herself lacking: "I was furious that my parents didn't pull out my hair or toss me from windows."

Of course, she has a deepset problem and that is the insecure need to please Ian and Caroline.  Especially Ian.  And Ian figures she can reveal her deep secrets if she only tries some pot.  Or how about cocaine?

So if there is a crime here it is an adult man giving drugs to a fourteen year old girl.  And certainly there is the not-so-hidden reason he wants to get close to her.  If this was a standard crime story something nastier would happen.  But I am happy with the way it turns out.