Sweet, Fay. Home Work: Setting Up an Office at Home. London: Conran Octopus, 2000.
It’s interesting to compare this treatment of the subject with Neal Zimmerman’s At Work at Home, which I also read recently. While Zimmerman concentrates on creating “livable” working spaces at home, which are not always elaborate or expensive, either, Sweet seems to have a thing for cold, bare, “industrial” environments with square, hard-looking chairs, exposed rivets, and shiny metal gooseneck lamps. Is this a British design thing, I wonder? It’s an interesting take, I suppose, but if I could afford a professional designer to set up my own office at home, I’d pick Zimmerman in a second. (12/26/01)
Powers, Tim. Night Moves and Other Stories. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2001.
Powers is best known for his “secret history” novels and, unlike most sf authors who started in the ‘70s, he actually hasn’t written all that many short stories — maybe a dozen, total. He says he takes him as long to outline a short story as it does a novel. But the seven he’s published are (naturally) far above average. This small limited-edition volume includes all of them, two in collaboration with his close friend, James Blaylock (who also contributes an Introduction). Not all of them really work for me, but I like “Night Moves,” “The Better Boy,” and “Where They Are Hid” very much indeed. (The first two were finalists for the World Fantasy Award.) And there’s a very welcome Bibliography at the end of the book, listing all of Powers’s publications, in all languages. (12/23/01)
Zimmerman, Neal. At Work at Home: Design Ideas for Your Home Workplace. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 2001.
Like Powers’s Living with Books and Ellis’s At Home with Books, which I’ve reviewed in the past, this is the sort of lushly illustrated volume anyone with similar interests will sit and drool over. If you work at home, or if you need a second space at home for the overspill from your office job, you have a number of options: Claim a corner of an existing space in your house or apartment (living room, kitchen, even a niche off a hallway), convert a spare bedroom or even a walk-in closet, move into the attic or the basement (if you live in the part of the country that has attics and basements), make a separate dedicated space out of a garage or other outbuilding, or even construct a new space on your property, either attached to your house or semi-isolated in a handy patch of woods. (My own home office, like many others, used to be a kid’s bedroom, and I haven’t done much to it; it still has the Winnie-the-Pooh ceiling fixture.) The author walks you through all these possibilities and has you think about zoning and property-line setbacks, and floor and ceiling materials, and light sources and plumbing, and active storage and bookshelving. He also points out the need to control your workspace, to separate work from home life, and to identify “swing spaces.” How much space do you really need? Maybe not as much as you think. Consider as a guide the acronym “CAMP,” which stands for Computer station, Administrative station, Meeting station, and Project station. The need may be minimal (I never have clients in my home) and some of the others may be combined (I do admin work at the same work table where I do projects), but looking at it this way will lead you to reconsider your own SoHo. The pictures in this book, naturally, will make you jealous of those with the design talent and the money to establish such luscious work areas. The nicest and most unusual, not surprisingly, belong to architects working at home. Nevertheless, even with my own relatively simple needs, I picked up a number of ideas on how to optimize my own space. (12/20/01)
Banks, T. F. The Thief-Taker: Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner. NY: Delacorte, 2001.
Historical mysteries seem to be all the rage these days, but this is one of the best I’ve seen lately. Set in London during the summer of 1815 — Waterloo summer — it’s the story of Henry Morton, a constable with the king’s warrant, working as a semi-independent policeman out of the Magistrate’s office at No. 4, Bow Street. I know something about the time and the place, and Banks seems to have made no false steps at all in his depiction of the people of a London which had a very low opinion of professional cops (who worked on commission for each felon hanged). The plot is also very well done, involving several murders, theft of antiquities, and deep corruption among the Runners of Bow Street. The principal characters — Arabella, the actress with whom Morton has a nonexclusive arrangement, and Lord Arthur Darley, Arabella’s other interest, whose open friendliness Morton isn’t entirely at ease with, and young Jimmy Presley, who seems likely to make a good Runner himself if he’s careful, and Sir Nathaniel Conant, the Chief Magistrate — are introduced in such a way as to make you look forward to their future interaction. The story does not begin with the beginning of Morton’s career, for he makes numerous references to events in his own past, and the author is already at work on the second volume in the series — which I look forward to reading. (12/15/01)
Cowley, Robert (ed). What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. NY: Putnam, 2001.
To a long-time fan of alternate history, both fiction and scholarly counterfactuals, this book is a real disappointment, especially compared to the excellent first volume. Most of the “what ifs” the contributors posit are interesting enough. What if Pilate had heeded his wife’s dreams and Jesus had been sent back to Galilee uncrucified to die of old age? What if Harold Godwinson hadn’t been killed at Hastings and the English had fought the Normans to a standstill? What if Charles V and the Church had had enough of Luther right off the bat and had consigned him to the stake at Worms? And more than twenty others by authors whose work I respect, especially Thomas Fleming, William H. McNeill, and Cecelia Holland (though she’s a novelist and not in any way an “historian”). But my complaint is the same in every single case: Where’s the beef? Each chapter is an historical essay laying out the real-world situation, but none of them actually elaborate on the changes they suggest! It’s as if a “real” historian can’t be seen actually playing with a counterfactual. What they have to say is interesting, perhaps, but we’ve seen it all before. I sat down with this book in expectation of a series of challenging mind-experiments in cause and effect — and I didn’t get any. There’s a third volume in the works, I believe, and I hope Cowley pays attention to his critics. (12/11/01)
Gores. Joe. Cons, Scams, & Grifts. NY: Mysterious Press, 2001.
The latest in Gores’s DKA series combines the Gypsy characters from 32 Cadillacs with the homicide cops Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern from Contract Null and Void, plus a delightful Dutch Rom zoologist and an orangutan named Freddie. Larry Ballard finds himself sweatily involved with the Japanese exchange student he lusted over in the last book and Trin Morales has to find his courage again after having been beaten to a pulp by the brother of one of his conquests. Yana, the beautiful (and nearly shape-changing) Gypsy is wanted for murder and the king of the Muchwaya tribe decides to hire Daniel Kearny to get her out of it; if Daniel Kearny Associates could successfully repo all those cars from Staley Zlachi and his people, he knows they’re good! And then there are the seven outstanding classic cars from the dealer raid that opens the book: You know the guys are going to get them all, but how? Some of the plot points, especially those involving the ape, threw me a little — and Gores obviously has a thing for Gypsy crime syndicates — but it’s still a good yarn. I’ve said it before — any of the DKA series would make a terrific film (and I would cast Bob Hoskins as Kearny). (12/01/01)
Dodson, Bert. Keys to Drawing. Cincinnati: North Light Books, 1985.
In high school, my best friends were the Artist and the Musician (I was the Writer), and while I learned to produce something approaching music, I was never able to draw anything recognizable. I never wanted to paint in oils or acrylics, or anything that advanced; I just wanted to be able to create good representational drawings and sketches. This apparent artistic inability has been a deep annoyance to me for more than thirty years — aggravated by all the people who insisted that “anyone can learn to draw.” Unable to find a class for adult beginners anywhere, and being the autodidact type anyway, I’ve tried to teach myself from how-to books. I’ve read through dozens of them and have spent serious time trying to learn the art of art from at least five or six, but none of them turned out to be very useful, at least not to me. Then I happened across Dodson’s book and everything changed. He doesn’t spend the whole first chapter describing the tools you need. He doesn’t launch into a zen discussion of the “is-ness” of art or play amateur psychologist. He just tells you to sit down, cross your legs, and draw your feet — and he explains, in very simple terms, just how to go through the process. Look, hold, draw. Look, hold, draw. And it works, it really does. I’m sure all this is old hat to you artists out there, but Dodson is exactly the sort of teacher I’ve been looking for all these years! There are about fifty exercises on methods and techniques throughout the book and I’m taking my time with them. After three months, I’m about a quarter of way through the book, and my sketch book is looking pretty good. I’ve learned to restate rather than erase, and I’m getting along just fine with two pencils (HB and 4B) and a Micron pen. I cannot recommend Dodson’s methods too highly to anyone who, like me, just wants to learn to draw! (12/30/01
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. NY: Harper & Row, 1974.
This was one of LeGuin’s earlier works and still one of her best — second only, in my opinion, to The Left Hand of Darkness. Shevek is a once-in-a-century theoretical physicist and also an Odonion — an anarcho-syndicalist on the world of Anarres, which is a satellite of the thoroughly capitalist-imperialist planet of Urras, from which the Odonians had removed themselves two centuries before. But Anarrian society is becoming infected with egoism and bureaucratic attitudes, and Shevek finds himself to deal any longer with the jealous resistance his theories have created among his scientific colleagues. Shevek and his friends undertake the necessity of rebelling against the permanent anarchist rebellion, and this involves Shevek making the journey to Urras, both to pursue his research and to attempt to communicate with the anarchist underground there. It’s a fascinating story with very fully realized characters, both in their human personalities and in their sociopolitical attitudes. The Urras-Anarres dichotomy, of course, is a straw man LeGuin has set up for the purposes of exploring how a true anarchist society might function, and she succeeds admirably. This book won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and for good reasons! (11/27/01)
Wood, Michael. In Search of England: Journeys into the English Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
I always pick up Wood’s newest work in English history with high anticipation and I’ve never been disappointed yet. This volume is a collection of semi-independent chapters collected under three themes. “Myth and History” includes essays that discuss the historical notion of the “Norman yoke,” an exceptional piece on the meaning of “Englishness,” and three good summary updates on the status of research into King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Glastonbury as Avalon. “Manuscripts and Mysteries” is a fascinating series of paleographical and bibliological essays on John Leland’s visit to the library of Glastonbury Abbey on the eve of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, a re-examination of the authenticity of Asser’s life of King Alfred, a reconstitution of the lost “Life of Athelstan,” and an investigation of the peregrinations of a little psalter now in the British Library. “Landscapes and People” covers the artifactual side of English history, with the stories of the last bowl-turner in England (using pre-Conquest technology well into the 20th century), Tinsley Wood in South Yorkshire as the possibly location of the key Battle of Brunanburh, Bury Barton in north Devon as a probable surviving Roman/Anglo-Saxon farmstead, the resistence by the villagers of Peatling Magna in 1265 against the king following the Battle of Evesham (the peasants took the king’s Marshal to court!), the story of Bede’s tenure at Jarrow and what has happened to the site since, and a thoroughly fascinating genealogical story involving the exact origins of the ex-slaves of Barbuda. To anyone with the slightest interest in English medieval history and society, this book will be a rich and very satisfying experience. (11/24/01)
Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. NY: Bantam, 1992.
I read this one when it first came out, but after getting through Gibson’s newest, and since I found I didn’t remember many of the details of Snow Crash, it seemed time for a re-read. There are some interesting parallels between the world-setting and even the characters: Gibson and Stephenson both posit semi-anarchic worlds (Stephenson more so), both have teenage main characters who are couriers/messengers (Chevette on a bike, Y.T. on a skateboard), both have adult main characters who are out of the ordinary even in their native societies (Rydell is a rent-a-cop, Hiro is a freelance everything). But where Gibson has a quiet sort of delivery, almost like background music, Stephenson is often no-brakes, over the top. Neal brings in a lot of other very interesting narrative threads, too — especially Sumerian mythology and neurolinguistic theory. And not to forget the notion of franchised mini-nations and the Mafia as a force for (relatively speaking) good. Hafta to make a note to re-read this one again in ten years. . . . (11/20/01)
Gibson, William. All Tomorrow’s Parties. NY: Putnam, 1999.
Bruce Sterling is good and Neal Stephenson is better, but still no one does cyberpunk like its inventor, William Gibson. This is the conclusion of the trilogy that started with Virtual Light and Idoru, and it very handily brings together all the strands and characters of those novels. Colin Laney is back, living in a cardboard box in a Tokyo subway, and Chevette, who’s busy staying out of the way of an abusive ex-boyfriend, and Berry Rydell, who’s been working security for a Lucky Dragon franchise convenience store. And the Bridge figures big again, too — probably one of Gibson’s best “characters” ever. There’s also some new and interesting types, including the Gray Man, who carries a very special knife and lives resolutely in the moment, and Tessa, the film arts student, who will go anywhere and do almost anything without fear, as long as she can shoot footage. Even the minor characters are neat, my favorite being Boomzilla, a small, black kid on the Bridge with street savvy and a strong entrepreneurial sense. Gibson is also expert with the throwaway telling detail that snaps a scene into bright focus. I’m waiting anxiously to see which way he goes next! (11/15/01)
Carnes, Mark C. (ed). Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. NY: Henry Holt, 1995.
When you’re both a student of history and a movie buff, as I am, it can be difficult to sit and watch a film that presumes to have an accurate historical context without fighting the urge to evaluate it and pick holes in it. And I’m not the only one. This is a collection of analytical essays, most of high quality, by experts (not all of them historians) analyzing and critiquing individual films: Stephen Jay Gould on Jurassic Park, Antonia Fraser on Anne of the Thousand Days, Thomas Fleming on 1776, Dee Brown on Fort Apache, William Manchester on Young Winston, and numerous others. Sticking to those films about which I have some knowledge of the historical events they claim to portray, most are right on the money. James McPherson, commenting on Glory, points out that while the context and general atmosphere are very well done, and the costuming and so on are exact, there are still deliberate historical errors for the sake of drama; none of the soldiers in Col. Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts were ex-slaves, for instance, all of them having been recruited from among the state’s free black population. And Catherine Clinton does an excellent job taking the wind out of Gone with the Wind’s mythical sails. There’s a great deal of good information and criticism here and it’s a compliment to say that nearly any of these essays will start an argument. (11/08/01)
Colapinto, John. About the Author. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
Wow, talk about a weird book! But impossible to put down! Cal Cunningham is a novelist wannabe, sharing a cheap studio apartment in New York and working as a bookstore shipping clerk. He lives a wild, womanizing life and glibly retails all his sexual adventures to his roommate, Stewart — but he’s totally unable to put a single word on paper. Stewart, a Columbia law student, has a secret life: He’s been writing his own novel, based on Cal’s own life. And then, just as a horrified and enraged Cal discovers the manuscript, Stewart dies in an accident. Obviously, since the life lived in the manuscript belonged to Cal, the book itself must also belong to Cal. Right? Any struggling, self-doubting, would-be novelist will wince knowingly at Cal’s pouring out of his soul in this supposed memoir of how he deals with the complications of stealing Stewart’s work, and then his semi-girlfriend, and will sympathize with him more than one would probably care to admit. The pace is headlong, the characterization is very good, the plot twists are ingenious, and this story would make one hell of a movie! (11/04/01)
Dornenburg, Andrew & Karen Page. Chef’s Night Out. NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.
This is sort of a “busman’s holiday” guide to interesting restaurants in major U.S. cities. Where does Stephan Pyles of Dallas’s Star Canyon restaurant go when he wants to eat out? How about Jamie Shannon of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans? As it happens, Pyles is a devotee both of The Mansion on Turtle Creek (a hyper-expensive yuppie haven) and Mia’s Tex-Mex on Lemmon Avenue, where I used to go myself occasionally for the terrific pork tamales. Likewise, Shannon loves both Bayona and Brigtsen’s, at the high end of the eco-culinary scale, and the classic muffulettas at Central Grocery at the lower end. Which tells you that good chefs like a nice cholesterol-wallow, just like the rest of us. My main problems with this book are that I’m not familiar enough with restaurants in Atlanta and Los Angeles and Boston for the too-brief blurbs to really mean anything to me, and — the down-market comfort food spots notwithstanding — most of these chefs tend to heavily recommend each other’s establishments. Still, it’s a great browse, worth picking up at the library to check the professionals’ ratings against your own opinions. (11/02/01)
Trapido, Barbara. Temples of Delight. NY: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
I confess that at the halfway point in this generally absorbing and certainly thought-provoking story, I was becoming rather pissed at young Alice for being such a doormat, especially regarding men. She’s very much the sort of person whom things happen to, rather than taking the lead in her own life. She seems to live in the objective tense. And the sudden advent of her neurotic personality has not very convincing roots. In fact, none of the characters are particularly likeable: Jem is certainly a tragic figure, but she’s unreliable and mendacious and seems to make the worst of her life. Flora is also rather tragic, but she’s a cold fish, ungrateful for Alice’s friendship and self-absorbed. Roland is a polite bigot, unshakeable in his assumed superiority to practically everyone. Matthew is opportunistic and shallow. Giovanni is extremely demanding and manipulative, regardless of the fact that the author portrays him as being sincerely in love with Alice. Alice’s parents — possibly the least objectionable people in the book — are nevertheless bigoted in their own way and assume that money can buy anything. Iona is the most annoying sort of ignorant adolescent and an intellectual thief as well. But despite all this, Trapido succeeds yet again in involving you in the story. I don’t think this one is anything like as good as Brother of the More Famous Jack or The Travelling Hornplayer, but even so it’s worth reading. (11/01/01)
Trapido, Barbara. Brother of the More Famous Jack. NY: Viking, 1982.
This slender epic is by way of being the prequel to The Travelling Hornplayer, which I unknowingly read first. This one centers on Katherine Browne and her affair with the entire Goldman family: Jake, the Jewish cockney philosophy professor and semi-radical Bohemian; Jane, his wife and supporter of his soul; Roger, the older son, his mother’s favorite, and a neurotic math genius; and Jonathan, his father’s favorite, all-round bloke and decent sort. Katherine, a very naive and very sweet young girl, first meets Jacob when he interviews her for a university fellowship and later the same afternoon falls under the sway of John Millet, a bisexual aesthete to whom she loses her virginity. John takes her to visit his old friends in the country, who turn out to be the Goldmans. She falls for the beautiful Roger, who turns out to be something of a bastard; when he dumps her four years later during graduation week, she departs for Italy and doesn’t return for ten years, having had and lost a baby. Then she rediscovers Jonathan. The book divides neatly into two parts, separated by the Italian interlude: Young-and-Vulnerable Katherine and Older-and-Sometimes-Wiser Katherine. The Goldmans have changed a lot during her decade away, but in the essentials they haven’t really changed at all. This is a lovely book and it’s amazing Trapido could cram so much story into only 218 pages. The scintilating dialogue makes me want to see and hear it on the stage. And the characters, as in Hornplayer, are absolutely believeable. (10/29/01)
Trapido, Barbara. The Travelling Hornplayer. NY: Viking, 1999, c1998.
This is the first of Trapido’s novels I’ve read and I confess to being thoroughly smitten. It is, to put it oddly, the most beautifully structured novel I’ve read in many years. There’s sixteen-year-old Lydia Dent, who is very close to her one-year-older sister, Ellen. There’s Jonathan the Novelist, on whom Lydia develops a serious crush . . . and outside whose flat she is run over by an automobile. There’s Jonathan’s daughter, Stella the Nuisance Chip, who grows from a very unpromising childhood into an astonishingly beautiful and talented musician. Ellen, Jonathan, and Stella take turns telling the story, each from a quite different viewpoint, and being interrupted occasionally by an omniscient narrator who makes sure the reader is aware of certain things. These key characters are extremely well developed and you’ll know them intimately by the end of the book, but even the supporting cast are multi-dimensional: Pen Massingham, the wealthy young Catholic schoolmate of Ellen’s and Stella’s; Izzy, the thoroughly disgusting young artist of genius; Ellen’s and Lydia’s stepmother (known to them as The Stepmother); Jonathan’s wife, Katherine, who has dedicated her life to her daughter; Sonia, the brilliant and vivacious lover-turned friend — even Jonathan’s younger siblings are drawn believably and with great care. And the final chapter, by the way, is a stunner. I often imagine how a novel I enjoy could be redone as a film script — since novels and scripts are very different forms of literature — but this is one time I’ll take a pass. There’s absolutely nothing in this very funny, very touching novel that could be excised without fatally damaging all the rest of it. Trapido goes on my permanent “watch” list. (10/26/01)
Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: Macmillan, 1970.
In classical dramatic theory (Davies started out as an actor), there are four principal roles: Hero, Heroine, Confidante (the Hero’s sidekick), and Villain (who tries to separate the Hero and Heroine). But something more is needed: The supporting players who serve as catalysts in the actions of the major roles, and that composite role is known as “Fifth Business.” Dunstable Ramsey is the lifelong catalyst between Percy Boyd Staunton and his inept wife, Leola Cruikshank, and also between the tragic Mrs. Dempster and her son, Paul. All are originally residents of the small rural Ontario community of Deptford, but the rational and decent Ramsey (who changes his first name to “Dunstan”), and the money-driven but also usually decent Percy (who changes his name to “Boy”), and the success-driven but also eventually decent Paul (who changes his name to “Magnus”) rise greatly in the world, though in very different ways. There are any number of parallel themes, but the major one involves Ramsey’s search for the supernatural in a merely real world. Davies is a master of in-depth characterization and also exhibits a delightfully droll sense of humor, both of which together will hold your attention to the last page. Happily, this is only the first volume of a terrific trilogy! (10/24/01)
Lodge, David. The British Museum Is Falling Down. London: MacGibbon & McKee, 1965; NY: Penguin, 1981.
This is Lodge’s third novel and first comedy, written while he was a young lecturer on a fellowship in the U.S.; while it’s much more narrow and not nearly as subtle as his later work, it’s still pretty good. There’s a good deal of slapstick but more pastiche and sly satire, and Lodge’s ear for hilarious dialogue is very evident. The subject matter, however, is now rather outdated, as it concerns the trials and tribulations of a young English Catholic couple who can’t quite bring themselves to rebel against the Church’s teachings regarding birth control. With three young children in four years of marriage, and now the threat of a fourth pregnancy, both of them are economically and psychologically despondent and sexually frustrated from trying to follow the Rhythm Method. The author himself is Catholic, and one has to wonder if he still believes as he apparently did then. Still, this story of Adam and Barbara Appleby, which spans a single day of Adam’s attempts to carry on his thesis research in the Reading Room of the British Museum, raises all the questions of authority vs. conscience that concerned Vatican II. Lodge even manages to bring about a classic comedic denouement without it seeming contrived. Good “historical” reading for the Lodge afficionado. The Penguin edition also includes a revealing introduction by the author discussing the story behind the novel and the themes he was attempting to address. (1020/01)
Clark, Robert. Mr. White’s Confession. NY: Picador, 1998.
At first you think this is going to be a noir crime story. Then it becomes a character study of four very different people and their interactions. And then it becomes a sort of philosophical/psychological investigation of the meaning of “past” and “future.” Actually, it’s all those things, written in a way that will make you lie in bed and think about what you’ve read each time you quit for the night. The setting is St. Paul, Minnesota, August 1939 to April 1940, more or less — a nine-month period in which at least two dime-a-dance girls are murdered, in which Lt. Wesley Horner of Homicide tries to convince himself he has solved the crimes, in which Wesley (whose wife has died after their daughter left home) also falls in love with a wise sixteen-year-old vagrant girl who saves him from despair, and in which Herbert White goes from being an large but inoffensive middle-aged man with a very poor memory and a fondness for amateur photography to being a lifer at Stillwater State Prison. You keep waiting for things to turn out “right,” for Lt. Horner to turn up the bit of evidence that will get Herbert off. But, as Lt. Welshinger, a vice cop who believes in evil (and he should know) says to a number of characters, “That’s not how the world is.” I sort of expected to be depressed when I finished the book, but I wasn’t. And I’m very impressed with Clark’s writing. (10/19/01)
Ellis, Estelle; Caroline Seerbohm, & Christopher Simon Sykes. At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries. NY: Carol Southern Books (Clarkson N. Potter), 1995.
Like Alan Powers’s Living with Books, this beautifully illustrated volume shows you some of the solutions that people obsessed with books have arrived at to house and care for them. Many of the bibliophiles included here are artists, designers, or architects, and they can be counted on to come up with original and striking ideas for the shape and location of book shelves, arrangement of the books themselves. David Hicks has a thing for books bound in red. The Duke of Devonshire has the sort of 19th century English-country-house library you might expect. Loren Rothschild houses his books in a specially castle — in California. Jack Lenor Larsen has to keep his books out of direct view because he finds them too stimulating otherwise. And who would have guessed that Keith Richards was a dedicated booklover? A number of large and small libraries are included, and there are also sections on bookbinding and restoration, bookplates, how to start a collection, library lighting, and other related topics. A sizeable “Resource Directory” provides lists of book fairs and book dealers and suggests suppliers of library furnishings and equipment. (10/14/01)
Gores, Joe. Contract Null & Void. NY: Mysterious Press, 1996.
Joe Gores is one of the most entertaining mystery authors around, no argument. He can write really tough, noir stories, but my favorites have always been his “DKA” novels, featuring Daniel Kearny, king of the San Francisco repo men, and his crew of talented and slightly strange operatives: Larry Ballard, good-looking white-bread and black belt in assorted martial arts; Bart Heslip, black ex-boxer and Larry’s best friend; Giselle Marc, beauty combined with brains and organizational smarts; O’Bannon, elder statesman of repo artists and inveterate lush; Ken Warren, Vietnam veteran with a serious speech impediment; and numerous others who come and go throughout the series. Gores’s specialty is to combine this retinue of fascinating people with complex — but reasonable and logical — multiple plots, an eye for telling detail and description, and a droll style of delivery that will have you laughing out loud on the bus. This time, the overlapping plots include Bart going undercover in the Tenderloin District, Giselle talking Dan (who’s been thrown out of his house by his wife) into taking on a personal security job for a young computer geek who is about to become a semi-billionaire, Ken becoming the sexual target of the geek’s aging society mom, Jacques Daniel trying to uncover union corruption and being run off a Marin cliff on his racing bike, Trin Morales trying to balance his repo load with his desire to become both a Latino godfather and the bane of underage chicas, and Larry getting involved with a gorgeous, feisty Italian labor union official who just may be more than he can handle. And then there’s the two cops who have been a team so long they’re known as Rozenkrantz and Guildenstern, automatically dressing alike and keeping up an endless stream of off-color jokes and patter. The pace is fast and steady, and ten pages from the end of the book, you’ll shake your head and wonder how Gores can ever bring all the threads to a conclusion. But he does, and very tidily, too. This would make a wonderful film! (10/12/01)
Blume, Judy. Smart Women. NY: Putnam, 1983.
I suppose Judy Blume is mostly thought of as a “young people’s author” and a “woman’s novelist,” but I’ve always liked her stuff and I’ve read a large part of it. Her narrative style is simple and straightforward; no fancy vocabulary, no scintillating imagery, just excellent storytelling. And she has a marvelous knack for characterization. This one is about two quite different women who have fled bad marriages for quite different reasons and ended up with new lives in Boulder, Colorado. Margo is the generally sensible one, the mother of two teenagers. B.B. (as Francine is known in her new home) is the brittle one, the perfectionist, mother of an adolescent daughter — and also of a son who was killed in an auto accident at the age of ten, . . . which none of her friends in Boulder know about. And then Andrew, Francine’s ex, comes to town to try to spend more time with his daughter, and Francine sees his arrival as a plot to disturb her carefully managed life. And then Andrew meets Margo, and things begin to get really complicated. Margo is a very likeable character, and so are her two kids, and so is Sara, the uneasy and very vulnerable girl whom B.B. so dominates. And so is Andrew, for all his occasional blue-sky daydreaming, which sets Margo’s teeth on edge. B.B., a real piece of work who has pretended about everything all her life, is much less easy to sympathize with, even when she has a breakdown — which Blume describes in a completely convincing series of scenes. This book would make a terrific film! (10/09/01)
Piper, H. Beam. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. NY: Ace Books, 1965.
As a lifelong fan of time travel and alternate timeline stories, I first read this yarn when it was serialized in ANALOG about 1964. I came across it recently at a university book sale and decided it was time to reread it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Calvin Morrison, a Korean War veteran and the son of a minister, is a corporal in the Pennsylvania State Police (an organization for which Piper evidently had a high regard). While preparing to rush a bad guy holed up in a farmhouse, he’s sideswiped by a passing Paratime Patrol transtemporal vehicle and gets bounced into an alternate Pennsylvania countryside where the Aryans of India went east instead of west, occupying what did not become China and then crossing the Pacific. Morrison is extremely adaptable — it apparently takes him only an hour or so to accept what’s happened to him and that he’s not going back to his own world — and quickly finds himself “Lord Kalvan,” chief advisor and war leader to Ptosphes, Prince of Hostigos. All in all, this is a delightful exercise in military and geopolitical fantasizing . . . though it seems odd that people who get scooped up willy-nilly and dumped in ancient Rome, or wherever, always seem to possess all the political, historical, and technical knowledge to set themselves up nicely. Of course, if the displaced person were an overweight fries-cooker at Burger King, or a Mary Kay saleswoman, there wouldn’t be much of a story! This is by far the best (and longest) of Piper’s Paratime stories. (10/08/01)
Grafton, Sue. P Is for Peril. NY: Putnam, 2001.
I began following the adventures of Kinsey Millhone when A Is for Alibi came out in 1982 and I’ve stuck with the series ever since. I’m not generally a fan of procedurals, but I make an exception for Grafton. By now, Kinsey is a fully realized personality — as are her landlord, the octogenarian Henry, Rosie the Hungarian tavernkeeper, her acquaintances on the police force, and all the other repeating characters. This time, she has to unravel another missing persons case, the subject of the investigation being a prominent doctor (on his second wife, but she’s been hired by the first wife) who seems to have been involved in a Medicare scam. And just to keep things interesting, there’s a secondary plot involving two brothers from whom Kinsey is considering renting new office space — which leads to a couple of fairly unnerving scenes. The plot develops logically and Grafton is adept at letting you (and Kinsey) stray off on dead-end paths. Nothing important was telegraphed — not to me, anyway. My only real complaint is probably picky (except that I’m an editor, so it doesn’t seem picky to me), and that’s the poor job of editing from which the last few books in the series have suffered. For instance, though one of the supporting characters is named Harvey Broadus, when Kinsey finally meets him, he introduces himself as “Harry” Broadus. And the rear entrance to a building is consistently spelled as one word, “backdoor.” Very sloppy. But I’ll forgive that for a really good story. Along about the middle of the alphabet, though, Grafton seemed to flag. “L,” “M,” and “N,” were pretty mediocre; in one of those, she used the verb “to tuck” at least once every three pages, making me want to scream every time I read it. They also showed a lot of laziness in the research. (She obviously had never personally bothered to check out the area around Dallas!) So I was beginning to worry that the series might never be completed. But “O” was a great improvement, and I’m happy to say that “P” is the best one yet. (10/05/01)
Shetterly, Will. Chimera. NY: Tor, 2000.
A chimera is a being produced by gene-splicing human genes with those of assorted mammals, the result being an intelligent “critter” who’s not quite a slave — but who doesn’t have much in the way of civil rights, either. Having found that much in the flap copy, I thought immediately of one of my favorite stories: “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell,” by Cordwainer Smith. Well, Zoe Domingo isn’t C’Mell and Shetterly isn’t Smith, but it’s still a pretty good yarn, though a little heavy on the moralizing. What makes it fun is the mix of noir crime fiction style (think Philip Marlowe as a vegetarian PI) and a semi-cyberpunk vision of the future (everyday teleportation, space-warping as a personal “pocket,” and Libertarian terrorists). Two-thirds of the way through, I began to wonder how Shetterly was going to tie up all the narrative threads, but he manages it in quite well — though I shall be waiting with greater interest for the next “Bordertown” book. (10/03/01)
Cross, Amanda. Death in a Tenured Position. NY: Random House, 1981.
Generally speaking, there are two sorts of mystery novels. One gives most of its attention to the complexities of the crime and the ingenuity of its solution. The other gives much more space to development of the characters and commentary on the setting. (Ideally, in my opinion, the perfect mystery, like those of Sue Grafton, gives nearly equal weight to both threads of the story.) “Amanda Cross” is the nom de plume of Dr. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, who, like her protagonist, Kate Fansler, is a university professor of English in New York. This time Kate is called to Cambridge to help Janet Mandelbaum, an old acquaintance (but not really a friend) who has been named the first tenured female professor of English at Harvard. As difficult as it may be to remember, this was a really big deal in 1978, as Harvard was almost the last hold-out among prestigious American universities to develop a coed faculty as well as admitting women to the student body. Kate’s somewhat manipulative friend, Sylvia Farnum, is in the story, as is her own niece, Leighton, and her old semi-lover, the laid back Moon Mandelbaum (who was also married to the late Janet twenty years before). The plot all seems a bit disconnected, not to say haphazard, and the solution is a bit of a cop-out — or maybe not, I haven’t decided. But the author certainly does a job on Harvard! This isn’t Amanda Cross’s best work, but it’s certainly worth reading. (10/01/01)