Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bittersweet account of NBC's hit heyday

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TOP of the Rock (Anchor, 326 pages, $19), by former NBC president of entertainment Warren Littlefield, is an entertaining oral history of NBC's 1990s-era Thursday-night lineup of must-see shows, which included Seinfeld, Cheers, E.R., Friends, The Cosby Show, Frasier, Mad About You and Law & Order.

Featuring commentary from many actors, writers, director and network execs, the book is full of memories, stories and some very surprising revelations. NBC can't seem to buy a hit these days, and the book has a sort of bittersweet feel to it (hey, guys, remember how great we once were?). If you're a fan of books about television, this one's a must-have.

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Nearly a century ago, J. Frank Norfleet, a Texas rancher, was swindled out of a lot of money -- not once, but twice. You might think he'd want to keep that to himself, but actually he went in another direction, setting out, armed with disguises and a gun, to get the goods on the con men and bring them to justice.

The Mark Inside (Vintage, 290 pages, $19), by Amy Reading, is the exciting story of Norfleet's quest for justice. But it's not just Norfleet's story; Reading, who lives in upstate New York, also offers a history of the confidence man (the term was coined in 1849, but the profession, if you want to call it that, dates back a lot further), and a close-up look at the mechanics of the so-called big con (which usually, like a movie production, involves many players, props, sets, and a script). Thrilling and suspenseful.

-- -- --

If you're a science-fiction fan, and you haven't yet met Welsh author Alastair Reynolds, now's the perfect opportunity. In Blue Remembered Earth (Gollancz, 550 pages, $16), he tells the story of a brother and sister who, after the death of their grandmother, uncover a secret that threatens to tear the family and its financial empire -- which spans multiple worlds -- to shreds.

Reynolds is an elegant storyteller with a vivid imagination. He doesn't just tell a story, he builds an entire world, immersing us in a future that seems as real as the present.

This is the first volume of a projected trilogy that will span about 11,000 years -- this should give you some idea of how ambitious a writer he is -- and, if you're a fan of the kind of fiction that's populated by new cultures and new variations on the standard-model human being, this is the book for you.

-- -- --

The Martin Beck series of crimes novels, written by the Swedish team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, is pretty well known. Much less well known are two novels Wahloo wrote on his own, featuring Chief Inspector Jensen, a police detective in an unnamed (but presumably European) city in an unspecified year in the near future. Thankfully, they've been reprinted, and they're well worth a look.

In 1964's Murder on the Thirty-First Floor (Vintage, 214 pages, $17), Jensen investigates threats made against a publishing conglomerate, and uncovers a dark secret. In 1968's The Steel Spring (Vintage, 200 pages, $17), having been away from his country for several months, Jensen discovers that some sort of plague has wiped out much of the population, and society is collapsing; but can he possibly find out what's happened, with nearly the entire law enforcement community in disarray.

Wahloo's near-future society is a totalitarian state very much in the mould of Orwell's 1984 -- a nice place to visit, as a reader, but you wouldn't want to live there. Wahloo is rightly considered one of the early greats of Scandinavian crime fiction, and these are brilliant and haunting novels.


Halifax writer David Pitt's column appears the first weekend of the month.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 J9

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