Thomas, Barrie. The Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop. Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles, 2004.
In my experience, when it comes to Adobe software, there are “print” people (who are most comfortable with PageMaker and InDesign) and there are “image” people (who are happiest using Photoshop). I’m one of the former and while most layout programs seem perfectly intuitive to me, I’ve had to struggle to make sense of the last few versions of Photoshop. Thomas is a photographer (rather than a printer) but he seems to be entirely a self-taught techie, as am I; he’s obviously old enough to have learned his photography long before there were personal computers. He had to work at this stuff to figure things out, and he’s pretty good at passing on the results of that learning process to the reader. There’s only a brief introduction on the theoretical basics — pixels and equipment choices, bitmaps vs. vectors, RGB vs. CYMK, and so on. After that, he sticks pretty much to explaining in plain language what the principal groups of Photoshop tools are for (the names Adobe gives them are not always intuitive), how to carry out basic processes (like masking and selecting), and how to avoid making dreadful mistakes. The section on the Pen Tool is less well done, though, because he demonstrates how a Bezier system works without ever explaining why it works; he seems to think just experimenting with it will be sufficient. And maybe he’s right. His discussion of layers and channels, though, is quite good. The book is crammed with well-rendered photos, usually shown in various stages of editing and modification. This is not a reference manual, and it’s certainly far from being the only Photoshop book you will ever need, but it’s an excellent place to start. (6/30/04)
Brown, Alton. Gear for Your Kitchen. NY: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003.
I’m a hobby cook and also a gadget-junkie, so I was delighted to discover this book by one of my favorite people on the Food Network. Brown covers much more than simply can-openers and veggie-peelers, though. His topical chapters cover pots and pans, storage containers, small miscellaneous utensils, safety items, “sharp things,” and “small things with plugs,” and perhaps the best way to read the book is to browse from the beginning and then read his descriptions, comments, and opinions on certain items as they come to mind. I’m a regular reader of the consumer tests in Cook’s Illustrated, too, and I think Brown and Christopher Kimball would agree in many ways on what makes a particular tool useful and what features to look for among the products available. Brown’s judgments are admittedly personal but he explains them very clearly. Not everything must be specially purchased, either; he recommends a length of dental floss for cutting slices of soft cheese, and he boils eggs in an electric kettle that automatically turns itself off when it reaches a boil. (Great idea!) The book’s page design is also quite nice, with good photos and drawings of the tools he discusses, side discussions and tips highlighted in color, and lots of open space. All his sources appear at the back of the book. I certainly hope he does a revised and updated edition in about five years. (6/29/04)
Lambdin, Dewey. King’s Captain. NY: St. Martin, 2000.
It’s Valentine’s Day, 1797, and the Jester sloop under Commander Alan Lewrie is prowling behind the line-of-battle ships as Admiral Jervis seeks to close with the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent. And when Captain Horatio Nelson goes against orders in breaking out to pursue his own instincts against an enemy division, Lewrie gets sucked into the action against his much better judgment. But Nelson’s success gets him promoted Rear Admiral and Lewrie, from pure dumb luck combined with a willingness to take a chance when necessary, ends up being made post and is given Proteus, a spanking-new frigate — with a perhaps mystical personality. And that’s just about all the naval action you’ll find in this ninth in the series, but that’s because history has once again caught Lewrie up, in the form of the widespread mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. Lambdin does an excellent job of placing these close-to-revolutionary events in the context of the times: High taxation, soaring prices for consumer goods, industrial revolution and continued low wages for those not involved in it, and an increasingly repressive Tory government. Denied by circumstances the usual privilege of taking a core of favored crewmen from his last command to his new one, he must learn his way around not only a new ship and new responsibilities but an entirely new group of subordinates. And cope with the mutiny when it comes to him. And deal with his wife and family. And cope with the notion of his rapscallion father living next door. Not to mention all those women in his past! I suspect this installment may disappoint those who merely want blood and action and don’t care about “real” history, but I enjoyed it a great deal. (6/28/04)
Lambdin, Dewey. Jester’s Fortune. NY: Dutton, 1999.
This is the eighth novel in the “Alan Lewrie” Royal Navy series set during the Napoleonic wars, and we’re up to 1796 and the beginnings of Bonaparte’s conquest of most of Western Europe. The dashing and rakehell Lewie is in his early 30s now, has attained the rank of commander, and is beginning to mellow just a little as he gains experience and responsibility — and children. Admiral Sir John Jervis, one of the most cold-blooded disciplinarians the Royal Navy ever produced but an excellent theatre commander, has been given the responsibility of cutting the French off at the knees in the Mediterranean. But the Coalition is falling apart and Great Britain is becoming isolated, the Austrian army — supposedly “the greatest army in Europe” — has turned out a paper tiger, and the Venetian Republic just can’t be bothered to save itself. Jervis has created a small squadron to work the Adriatic, led by Capt. Thomas Charlton and including a second frigate under Capt. Benjamin Rodgers (whom Lewrie knew in the Bahamas). And there’s another sloop under an aristocratic little pissant named Fillebrowne who is likely to be a burr under Lewrie’s saddle for some time to come. The author takes the opportunity to display the nature of Venetian and Austro-Hungarian decadence (compared to the English Way, at any rate) and to let the reader share his intense, dramatically demonstrated disdain for anything to do with the Balkans and the region’s long, long history of ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance, and tendency to torture as a tool of revenge. (Kossovo’s prominence in the news didn’t begin in the 1990s.) My favorite character in the book, though, is the Hungarian Lieut. Kolodzcy, seconded to the squadron as a translator and political advisor, and who turns out to be quite different from Lewrie’s and Rodgers’s first impression. This one is talkier than most, except for the horrific scene at the pirate encampment near the end, but I enjoyed the Brits’ attempts to deal with the original of Byzantine politics. (6/23/04)
Lambdin, Dewey. A King’s Commander. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1997.
Just as Alan Lewrie has gotten much better at this Royal Navy thing, Lambdin has gotten better and better at writing novels about him. From a feckless 17-year-old midshipman, Lewrie has advanced in this seventh in the series to an experienced, competent commander of his own ship-sloop, . . . though he’s sometimes equally feckless. If only he could keep his breeches buttoned, his life would have a lot fewer problems in it. But even with a loving wife and three kids back home, he still finds himself involved, willy-nilly, with the lovely young Phoebe Aretino from the previous installment. He won’t keep her, though, which is just as well for him. On the professional front, having been posted off to the Med, Lewrie finds himself participating in a small way in that spectacular victory over the Republican French navy known as the Glorious First of June. Then he’s off to join Hood’s fleet and to participate in the conquest of Corsica as a colleague of Capt. Horatio Nelson — and to be caught up in the machinations of Mr. Twigg, the spy from his time in the Far East, as well as Choundas, the French captain and pirate who has good reason to hate him, . . . and of whom Lewrie admits well-justified fear. The author seems to have gotten under control his penchant for over-writing and over-reliance on period slang, and his ability to clearly describe naval actions and ship-handling have progressed from occasionally shaky to considerably above average. But most important, Alan Lewrie, filled with self-doubts and a full realization of his own shortcomings even while he repeatedly proves his courage and his worth to the navy, is a fully realized human being of whom the reader can develop some understanding and about whom one cares — even when he does something personally stupid. (6/11/04)
Poynter, Dan. The Self-Publishing Manual. 14th ed. Santa Barbara, CA: Para Publishing, 2003.
Poynter is the guru of a certain type of self-publishing author: The writer/hustler who is interested, first and foremost, in making money — lots and lots of money — not merely in making information available and earning enough back to make the effort worthwhile. I’ve done a certain amount of self-publishing over the past couple of decades (mostly genealogical research materials and volumes of local history), and while I’m always interested in what he has to say, I’ve frankly never found a lot of useful material here. All the way through, especially in the early chapters where he’s trying to hook you (and remember that his background is in marketing), he insists this writing-publishing thing is easy. All you do is get an idea, read everything about it, put it all in a notebook (rather quirkily for a technophile, he seems to believe in first-draft writing on paper), edit it into a new shape, and Presto! You have a new book, and it’s gonna make you rich! Or something. Among other problems, he seems to have only a hazy idea of how the acquisitions process actually works in a large library system. Not to mention comments like “library loans may hurt sales of fiction,” and “libraries tend to do most of their ordering around the beginning or end of their fiscal year.” Puh-leez. Then there’s this, regarding the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998: “Now, anything printed prior to 1922 is safe.” Say what? (Even Cotton Mather?) He also seems to think book-indexing need involve only the “indexing” feature in Microsoft Word. (A fatal assumption.) Finally, on the very last page (before the omnipresent order form, that is), he says it doesn’t matter who the publisher is: “Who is the author? Is she a credible person? No one ever asks, ‘Who is the publisher’?” Au contraire, Dan, the credibility of the publisher can be very important, especially in technical books. Would you rather buy, unseen, a computer book from O’Reilly & Associates, or from Joe Blow Kitchen Table Press? However, even very narrowly market-specific titles (like genealogy) require some advertising and notification of potential purchasers, so his chapters on publicity and marketing are worth reading, as is the material on cutting-edge electronic publishing, both via CD and online. (6/07/04)
Jackson, Jeremy. Desserts That Have Killed Better Men Than Me. NY: Morrow, 2004.
Chocolate-Dipped Ranger Cookies? Three-Lemon Cheesecake? Yikes! Rather than, as he says, produce a book with 1,000 recipes, of which only a couple of hundred are slightly better than average, Jackson, author of The Cornbread Book, decided to limit himself to 60-odd lethal desserts, all of which are fantastic. Some of these are original (Black Walnut and Dried Blueberry Tart, which is new to me, anyway, and which is now on my to-do list), some are variations on old standbys (like banana smoothies, or clafouti with raspberries instead of cherries), but all of them are at least interesting. The style is light and chatty but always informational, and there are some serious droolers in this little volume — but I wish there were pictures. (6/05/04)
Lambdin, Dewey. H.M.S. Cockerel. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1995.
Lieutenant Alan Lewrie seems to be getting good at this navy thing. In this sixth in the series, it’s January 1793 and four years have passed since Lewrie returned home to his wife and kiddies (three of them now); the matrimonial state, as well as playing the almost-squire, is beginning to wear on him just a bit. The French Revolution is under way, though, and renewed war with a very different sort of France is in the air. Lewrie is called up by the Admiralty (he debates whether to accept for, oh, . . . two minutes), but his enemies see to it that he gets shunted to the Impress Service. But that provides an opportunity to get his own back with his detestable half-brother, Gerald, so it’s not all wasted time. Then he gets posted to Cockerel, a 5th Rate frigate under the hard hand of Capt. Braxton, an ultra-nepotistical near-psychopath who is determined that this last opportunity in his career to make his mark will go absolutely perfectly — even if he has to flog every member of the crew and bully every officer to do it. Lewrie is between the proverbial rock and hard place, between a micro-managing captain who is impossible to please but whose will he must enforce, and a crew nearing mutiny. But all that, while a very well painted portrait of a ship on its way to disaster, is still only the background for the set-piece of this book, which is the disastrous Allied capture and occupation of, and final rout from, the Royalist Mediterranean city of Toulon — the victim of divisive party politics back in London. Of course, no matter how much Lewrie might truly love his wife, he still can’t keep his breeches zipped. First, there’s Lady Emma Hamilton in Naples (and he gets there before Nelson), and then there’s the adorable little French whore, Zoe, whom he rescues from death at the hands of the Republicans. But Lewrie’s big discovery is just how loud a bang a naval mortar can make. And there’s also an encounter on the beach with an artillery colonel named Buonaparte, just to keep things interesting. And, by the end of the story, our lieutenant — now over the hill (in his opinion) at age thirty — makes his next jump up the ladder of success. An excellent episode in the series. (And Waterloo is still twenty-two years away!) (5/30/04)
Morgan, Richard K. Broken Angels. NY: Ballantine, 2003.
Morgan came out of nowhere in 2002 with Altered Carbon, the first novel about Takeshi Kovacs, overstressed, dangerously empathic diplomat/soldier trying to stay alive (more or less) four centuries into a future in which the mind lives in a bit of metal housed at the top of the spine and can be re-installed in any convenient “sleeve.” This time out, a disgusted Kovacs is recruited by a deserter from the other side to set up an expedition to check out a major find left by the long-disappeared Martians — who are the only reason humans are out in space to begin with. It’s a quest tale, and a very good one, but the real pleasure, for me, is in the author’s masterful portrayal and development of the characters. You don’t necessarily have to like Kovacs, and you certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable around him, but after two excellent novels, you would probably begin to understand him. There’s some great quotable passages here, too, about the nature of war, and government, and loyalty, and the human situation in the universe. If Broken Angels doesn’t win the Hugo or the Nebula, or both, there is no justice. But, then, Kovacs knows that already. (5/26/04)
Lambdin, Dewey. The Gun Ketch. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1993.
Lieutenant Alan Lewrie is enjoying a few weeks in England, in between the completion of his anti-pirate adventures in the Far East (as recounted in The King’s Privateer) and taking up his new assignment in command of the gun ketch Alacrity as part of the Bahamas Squadron. Such a small vessel doesn’t ordinarily rate more than one commissioned officer, but on the Navy’s books it’s a “sloop,” so Capt. Lewrie finds himself with a first officer, the rather prim but engaging Arthur Ballard, who actually is Lewrie’s senior in terms of naval experience but seems to harbor no jealousy about their relationship. (In fact, the two soon become friends as well as trusting colleagues and it’s apparent Ballard is destined to become “Bush” to Lewrie’s “Hornblower.”) Alan spends much of his time ashore with the Chiswicks in Surrey (the family he helped rescue in The French Admiral) and is dismayed to find that Caroline Chiswick, for whom he has a soft spot, is being matched off by her uncle to the swinish heir of the local baronet. Suddenly, Lewrie finds himself doing what he never expected: getting married. And, rather than leave his bride in Plymouth, he allows her to talk him into taking her to Nassau with him. Naval novels set in peacetime sometimes have to go far afield to find an entertaining plot, and Lewrie’s domestic adjustments, together with a struggle against another set of pirates (and the corrupt civil and naval officials with whom they are in league) make for an engaging yarn.
However: The author seems not to understand the distinction between an exclamation mark properly used in dialog (“Kill them!”) and its thoroughly annoying, rather gushing use in narrative (He killed them!). Though perhaps that’s just sloppiness after the initial success of the series. And while he has become quite good at descriptive passages, especially those of the sea around the Bahamas (where he obviously has spent some time sailing himself), he also seems too willing to limit most of his principal characters’ conversations to the same period slang, used over and over again. Lewrie is brighter than that. (I’m getting awfully tired of “ram-cat” and “caulk” and “putting the leg over” and “buttock-brokering” and “heel-taps” — that last one always in quotes, for some reason.) I don’t much care for the smugness of Lambdin’s Introductions and Afterwards, either. Still, it’s a good series with good plotting and (mostly) good character development and excellent detail on ship operations and tactics of the period, and I shall certainly keep reading. (5/19/04)
Smith, Courtenay & Sean Topham. Xtreme Houses. NY: Prestel, 2002.
Even though I have no background whatever in architecture, I’ve always enjoyed the subject, especially when it comes to the unusual. In the past couple of decades, as a result of the computer revolution, the environmental movement, and the shift in the balance of power from urban/rural to suburban, home design has changed at a tremendous pace. Many of the resulting living spaces are innovative, some of fascinating — and some are shocking. I like the large, open barnlike structures that can be divided up as needed, rather like a ground-level loft, and the idea of “microflats” (only 350 square feet) is an interesting solution to overcrowding (as long as you don’t have any kids). But the coffin-like fold-up “living units” are simply weird, and the “house of cars” is a decidedly ugly bit of performance art. Personally, I have no use for a house if I can’t imagine how anyone could live in it. On the other hand, the homes in Lesotho, created very inexpensively with walls of empty, wired-together aluminum cans, are an ingenious solution to that country’s poverty and housing shortage. Some very interesting notions here, beautifully rendered. (5/17/04)
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. NY: Knopf (Everyman’s Library), 1992; orig. publ. 1955.
“Lolita” entered the cultural vocabulary almost immediately upon the book’s first appearance, as did the term the author invented to describe certain “bewitching” girls between the ages of nine and fourteen: nymphet. Many readers, I expect, pick this up expecting pornography. Of course, it’s nothing of the kind. Shocking in many ways, yes, but not dirty. Even though Nabokov had a hell of a time getting it published at all. But American society in the early 21st century has become far more straitlaced, more puritanical than even in the mythically more idyllic 1950s, and I suspect this book shocks more readers now than it even did then. Humbert Humbert (the narrator’s adopted nom-de-perversion) is perfectly aware of his socially unacceptable sexual appetites. He tries, unsuccessfully, to control his perversion through marriage, attempts to identify its origins in a near love affair at the age of thirteen, calmly describes his series of breakdowns and bouts of insanity. But he so often seems to be the victim himself, it’s hard to hate him. Given his predilections, Humbert is terribly naive about children, especially the psychology of adolescent girls, while Lo can be both endearingly innocent and shockingly slutty, “swearing at me,” he says, “in a language that I never dreamed little girls could know, let alone use.” But he learns just what he has taken on. “A combination of naivete and deception, of charm and vulgarity, . . . Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat.” And there follows a description of her mercurial temperament that any parent of teenagers will recognize instantly. Humbert’s early adventures are nothing if not varied. His involvement with an Arctic scientific expedition, however, was not a success, if only because there were no desirable young girls to observe. “Nymphets do not occur in polar regions.” Throughout the book, Nabokov is a master of delightful and witty word-play, delivered in gorgeous style. Humbert searches for a small New England town in which he can hide out to pursue his academic research and writing. But Charlotte Haze, who offers him a rented room, turns out to have a luscious twelve-year-old daughter named Dolores — Lo, Lola, Dolly, . . . but always Lolita to him — and Humbert finds the focus for his unhappy life. He actually marries Charlotte just to gain access to the girl, and a few weeks later the mother is struck and killed by a car shortly after discovering just what it is her new husband is after. Lots of ironies here. The precocious Lolita actually seduces middle-aged Humbert as much as the other way around, but for her it’s just a lark, a test of her sexuality, a temporary adventure. For him, it’s the fulfillment of all his desires. His fantasies are more than fulfilled, but in the process, and especially during their year-long drive around the country, she becomes psychologically warped not only by his physical demands but by his manic possessiveness. And before she’s fifteen, Lo has found a way to disappear. Humbert is crushed and spends the next several years searching for her, and for Quilty, the equally perverse playwright whom she allowed to spirit her away. And by the time he has found her again (married and pregnant), and takes bloody revenge on Quilty, Humbert has come to realize just what he has done to his beloved Lolita — because, he discovers, he truly does love her. Throughout, believe it or not, this is a very funny book. There’s this, during their first long journey: “I deplore the Mann Act as lending itself to a dreadful pun, the revenge that the Gods of Semantics take against tight-zippered Philistines.” Or, in the midst of a long, long list of tourist sites visited, “Mission Dolores: good title for book.” There are also plenty of purely literary jokes — to which the college student must pay attention but the ordinary reader need not — including character-doubling (a parody of the traditional German doppelganger theme), the repeating of minor themes (the house/hotel room number, the dog in the street), and Humbert’s playing with his own name (Hum, Humble Humbert, Humbug/Homburg). Even the irony that nearly everyone in the story dies, is funny in a slightly warped sort of way. The opening paragraph of this marvelous novel, by the way, is one of my favorites. Also by the way, the Introduction by Martin Amis to the “Everyman’s Library” edition is excellent. (5/15/04)
Whissen, Thomas Reed. Classic Cult Fiction: A Companion to Popular Cult Literature. NY: Greenwood Press, 1992.
The author defines “cult” novels as those that speak “not only to the reader but for him” — not a bad description. As a college student in the early 1960s, I was swept up (along with everyone else) by the cult authors of the day, especially Burgess, Tolkien, Heinlein, Kesey, Brautigan, and Vonnegut. (I managed to avoid Castenada and Hesse, I’m relieved to say. . . .) All of them are included among the fifty authors profiled and analyzed in this essay collection, though the author apparently whittled his original list down considerably. While I don’t agree with all of his observations — I think Hunter Thompson has long been vastly overrated, for instance — he’s so often right on the money, I found myself jotting down those titles I hadn’t read in decades, plus a few I had missed entirely. For an avid reader who is always looking for other people’s thoughtful suggestions of what to read, this is a first-rate volume. (5/12/04)
Lambdin, Dewey. The King’s Privateer. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1992.
This fourth novel in the “Alan Lewrie” series is something of a departure, its heavily political (rather than simply naval) plot dictated by the end of the American Revolution in 1783. Lewrie finds himself back in London on a lieutenant’s half-pay, subsisting comfortably (as long as he watches his expenses) and indulging his taste for sex with as many women as he can, of any age or marital status. But he’s caught en flagrante by an elderly husband — once his patron, but no longer — who wants his blood. Just as he’s packing for his escape from the city, timely orders arrive from the Admiralty to report immediately to Plymouth, . . . and he’s off on another adventure, this time as junior officer on a semi-secret mission to India and Canton, fighting Malay pirates who are in league with a French-backed privateer. The political leader of the mission, Mr. Twigg, is as bloody-minded a secret agent as you will find, perfectly willing to torture and murder surrendered prisoners to get the information he wants. Definitely not a nice person. And in India, Lewrie meets up again with his father, who had stolen from him, set him up with his supposed half-sister, had him essentially shanghaied into the navy, and then decamped to escape his creditors. But now we get the other side of his father’s story and, while Sir Hugo retains nearly all his faults, he certainly becomes a more rounded character. Captain Choundas, on the other hand, is vicious, sexually perverted, and one-hundred-percent evil — and since he survives the final fight with Lewrie, I would be very surprised if he did not return in future installments, probably as an agent of the French revolutionary government. Not as successful as the previous book, but I’ll certainly keep reading — though I hope the author will reduce his use of exclamation points!!! (5/11/04)
Lambdin, Dewey. The King’s Commission. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1991.
Alan Lewrie, now an experienced seaman and junior watch-stander despite only a couple of years in the Royal Navy, is a refreshingly Corinthian your rake, dividing his attentions pretty much evenly between increasing his growing competence in his profession and topping every female he can find. Here he parts company from the unpredictable Capt. Treghues and from his friend and mentor, Lt. Railsford. Then he receives, as a reward for bravery and demonstrated abilities, an early appointment as 1st Lieutenant into a small brig commanded by the superannuated Lt. Lilycrop — one of the most delightful and fully developed supporting characters Lambdin has yet come up with. Of course, Alan later learns his being given such a post was a clerical error, . . . but he manages to keep his job nevertheless. (As a more senior officer later remarks, sheer luck and the ability to land on one’s feet is probably as important a factor in naval success as seamanship.) Then comes a galloping but adventure among the Creeks of the West Florida coast — including Lewrie’s temporary acquisition of a lovely young Indian wife. The character of Desmond McGilliveray is based on the real Alexander McGillivray, a Creek-Scot half-breed raised white but still well-connected among the tribes. Lambdin paints him as a superior, rather prim sort, which doesn’t really fit with the historical McGillivray’s character (with which I am familiar from rersearch on the Panton and Leslie trading companies during that period). Nothing really goes quite right for Our Hero in this volume, but that’s the way real life often is. An increasingly enjoyable series. (5/07/04)
Lambdin, Dewey. The French Admiral. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1990.
This is the second installment in what is developing into quite an enjoyable naval series. In The King’s Coat, Alan Lewrie, an illegitimate sixteen-year-old London rakehell, was essentially forced into going to sea in 1779 as a midshipman after being framed by his moneygrubbing father and his two half-siblings. He had a very rocky start in his new career but was beginning to learn his trade and had made a few friends, as well as more than a few enemies. He had also managed to come to the notice of at least two men of note, and well-place interest was always paramount in advancing one’s naval future. And there was the gorgeous young Lucy Beauman in Antiqua to whom he began paying court. Now it’s two years since he left England and the rebellion in America is drawing to a close, buoyed by incompetence on the part of the British army and navy. And in the process, Alan finds himself trapped like a rat with Cornwallis at Yorktown. He escapes the disaster, partly through chance, partly through the aid of some Loyalist militia, and partly through his own intelligence and unexpected competence. By the end of the book, his future has improved in several important ways, both professionally and personally, and he has become a harder sort of person than he was at the beginning. And there’s a new love interest, whether he wants to think so or not. Lambdin offers a welcome antidote to the rather proper style of Hornblower and even Audrey — his sailors swear fulsomely, his protagonists can be just as narrowminded as anyone else in their society — but he certainly knows his naval lore. And just when you’re settling in to an adventurous episode, something horrible happens to remind you of just how bloody a true civil war the glorious American Revolution really was. (5/01/04)
Bourdain, Anthony. Gone Bamboo. NY: Villard, 1997.
Henry Denard is an American ex-pat living with his wife, Frances, in a nice hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. They hang around with friends, eat barbequed chicken, and drink a lot. And every so often, Henry gets paid to kill someone. It’s a good living and they’re happy. Then Henry messes up an assignment by only wounding the target, which irritates the customer — a cross-dressing New York wiseguy, whom you may find amusing in the first chapter but who quickly becomes more menacing and a lot scarier. At the same time, “Donnie Wicks” Balistieri, an elderly capo and the target whom Henry failed to quite kill, has agreed to testify for the feds and is stashed away on the same island with a guard of U.S. marshals. This could be a problem for Henry and Frances. Then there’s Mickey and Rachel, more recent escapees from New York (and who are perhaps the main characters from Bourdain’s first novel), who live in Donnie’s palatial home, and whom Henry hopes can be his conduit to old Donnie. Then there’s Paulie the good soldier, and Kevin the hitman who finds love in a bordello, and Monsieur Ribiere, the French cop on the island. It sounds confusing, but the author is very good at laying out the plot clearly, pacing the action properly, and developing the characters in a way that hold your attention. He never lets you forget what these people really are, either. Just when you’re smiling at the adolescent sexual antics of the middle-aged Henry and Frances, a bit of violence will remind you of the realities. If Bourdain cooks half as well as he writes, I’ll have to make a reservation at his restaurant. (4/28/04)
Jaffe, Michelle. Bad Girl. NY: Ballantine, 2003.
As a rule, I absolutely hate it when I get halfway into a novel and it suddenly changes into something else. This one starts as a very good police procedural murder mystery — but at almost exactly the midpoint, the author suddenly tells you whodunit, and it becomes a thriller instead. Chicago “Windy” Thomas is an almost excessively competent young woman who has just left her job as a sheriff in Virginia to run the forensics lab in Las Vegas. She’s trying to track down a particularly gruesome serial killer who wipes out whole families (except for the fathers) and, of course, she becomes a target herself. She has a cute six-year-old daughter and a control-freak boyfriend, but she’s also drawn to Ash Laughton, head of the Metro Violent Crime Unit — who just happens to also be a computer-software-millionaire. (I’m told there are a lot of similarities between this set-up and a top TV series, but I’ve never seen it.) Jaffe generally does a good job with the characters, except that I find it hard to believe that Windy was ever able to pass the FBI’s personality screens. The pace is breathless, the level of detail is almost clinical, and the ending somewhat redeems the plot giveaway. (4/25/04)
Harris, Robert. Pompeii. NY: Random House, 2003.
This is a terrific novel for the geek-at-heart, a historical set in the two days in AD 79 just before the explosion of Vesuvius that destroyed several of the towns set like jewels along the Bay of Naples. The protagonist is the young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus, newly appointed aquarius, or manager, of the sixty-mile-long Aqua Augusta aqueduct. He’s only been on the job a few days when the water supply fails and he has to find and fix the problem or face an inquiry and the probable failure of his career. That means dealing with corrupt local officials — especially Numerus Popidius Ampliatus, a freed slave who has become the main political power in Pompeii — and also with Pliny, the great naturalist who is serving as admiral of the Roman fleet harbored at one end of the Bay. He’s not getting much cooperation from his own subordinates, either, but they have their own agendas. Of course, we know what caused the buckling that shut off the aquaduct, and we know why the water smells of sulphur, and why the fish in the offshore pens have died, but Harris does an excellent job building the suspense. Will Attilius be able to do his job? Will he survive the plotting of Ampliatus, and get together with his daughter? Will any of them survive the eruption? The plot is a dead run from the first page, the writing is plain and straightforward (no need to invent drama here), and even though we know how it will end, we don’t know all the details. (4/20/04)
Garner, Alan. The Owl Service. NY: Henry Z. Walck, 1967.
This novel won the British Library Association’s Carnegie Medal in 1967 — but like all “young adult” fiction of exceptional quality, it’s a very good book, period. Teenaged Roger’s father, Clive, has recently married Margaret, whose likewise teenaged daughter, Alison, is the legal inheritor of a house in a brooding Welsh valley, where all of them have gone for a summer break. Old Nancy grew up in the valley but left years ago; now she has been persuaded to return to work as housekeeper, and she’s brought along her son, Gwynn, who wants only to get away from the world in which he finds himself stuck. And there’s Huw Halfbacon, the strange, almost mystical laborer who is much more to the residents of the valley than his English employers could imagine. It all begins when the three young people discover a complete dinner service in the attic decorated with floral owls, and Alison becomes almost possessed by them. And Roger discovers a streamside stone with a hole bored clear through it, which he is told was made by a anciently thrown spear that killed the man standing behind the stone. It all has to do with stories from the Mabinogion, with traditions that insist on being followed, and with the inescapable patterns of life. And the ending is not what you might expect! (4/16/04)
Bourdain, Anthony. Bone in the Throat. NY: Villard, 1995.
As the NYTBR said, this is a “deliciously depraved” novel. Tommy Pagana is a young sous-chef in an okay Manhattan restaurant. He likes his work, he hopes he has a future both with his career and with Cheryl the waitress, and he has tried for years to distance himself from his mobster relatives and their friends — especially his Uncle Salvatore, a mid-level wiseguy who yearns to be “straightened out” by the higher-ups. The restaurant is run by Harvey, a Jewish ex-dentist who’s into the local mob for serious money, plus he has another loan from a turf-encroaching bunch from Brooklyn. Only Harvey is also an informant for the FBI, which is trying to stir things up just to see what shakes loose. Then there’s Michael the junkie chef, Tommy’s friend and boss, who is also put to work by the feds, and there’s Al the special agent, who really doesn’t care what happens to any of them as long as they bring him something to make a case out of. Then Uncle Sally pushes the reluctant Tommy into allowing him to use the restaurant for a secret meeting — which turns into a homicide, witnessed by Tommy, . . . who is now also a person of interest to law enforcement. What to do? How to stay both alive and out of prison, yet not have to rat out his uncle, which would break his mother’s heart? These hoods aren’t Donald Westlake’s comic bumblers, either. In fact, their workaday attitude toward what they do, including murder, is what makes them decidedly scary. (The NYPD detectives, on the other hand, hardly come off as Lenny Brisco. . . .) Bourdain has a real ear for the nuances of New York style and conversation, plus a gift for describing life in the kitchen, that make the whole thing ring true. So why hasn’t this terrific book been made into a film? (4/14/04)
Pratchett, Terry. Monstrous Regiment. NY: HarperCollins, 2003.
This twenty-ninth novel in the Discworld series is much more subtle and less “ha-ha” than his earlier efforts, and there are far fewer footnotes. But Pratchett is just as funny as ever — and, more important, he has something serious to say along the way regarding the nature of war, the insidiousness and stupidity of theocracy, and the imposibility of repressing the supposed lesser of the sexes with any success or for very long. Polly Perks, whose father runs a very nice inn in a small town in the socially backward country of Borogravia, cuts off her hair and joins the army in order to find her soldier brother (since women are not allowed to own or inherit property). She’s taken in hand by Sergeant Jackrum, the archetype of the knowledgeable and efficient noncom who knows better than to allow the officers to actually run the war. The latest (and last) batch of recruits includes several other strange young men, plus a vampire who has taken The Pledge, a troll, and an Igor with talent as a medic. Then there’s Lieutenant Blouse, who hopes only to become so famous a soldier that an article of clothing will be named after him. Borogravia, which has had a tradition of beating up on her neighbors, has finally irritated the other states in the region beyond endurance, and they’ve joined in an Alliance and are beating the crap out of her. Not that any patriotic Borogravian would admit to such a possibility, of course. But they’re down to their last forces, they’re trapped in the Valley of the Kneck, and their enemies hold The Keep. If you’re a Borogravian, life is also complicated by the constantly updated list of Abominations promulgated by the god Nuggan, including rocks, oysters, accordians, babies, and the color blue. Most people have simply given up and pray instead to the Duchess, who may or may not be dead. Pratchett just keeps turning them out and they just keep getting better and better. (4/10/04)