Martin, George R. R. A Clash of Kings (A Song of Fire and Ice, 2) NY: Bantam, 1999.
I believe this series was originally meant to be a trilogy, and the middle volume of a trilogy is frequently its weakest point. In this case, the action inevitably lags at some points as Martin deals with the necessity of explaining the ever-more-complicated action. About two-thirds of the way through, though, things pick up, as Theon Greyjoy (a Shakespearean tragic character if ever there was one) assaults and captures Winterfell, seat of the Starks for millennia, and as the Brothers of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow among them, discover the wildlings massing for a southward invasion, and as Arya Stark, now on her third or fourth false name, tries to keep her wolflike courage. As in the first volume, the character development is rich and engrossing — especially that of Tyrion, the dwarfish Lannister, now acting as Hand of the King, as he tries to prepare for the assault of King Stannis against King’s Landing. He’s on the wrong side (I guess), but Tyrion is essentially an admirable character. And what a battleground the Blackwater is, too! We don’t see much of Robb Stark this time, except secondhand as he wins battle after battle. And there’s not much of Jaime Lannister, chained in the dungeons of Riverrun. But when I put this volume down, I immediately picked up the next one and turned to the first chapter. The author’s got me for the full ride, obviously. (3/27/06)
Ellis, Warren. The Authority. NY: Wildstorm Productions/DC Comics, 1999.
Since I don’t read actual comic books (who has time?), I only discovered the “Authority” series via the hardcover volume, Absolute Authority, which collects a number of issues from later in the series. The usual pattern is that the early issues of an interesting new comic series are terrific, while the later issues suffer from “sequelitis.” That doesn’t seem to be the case here, though. Later stories in the series are highly original, challenging in their assumptions, and deeply involving in their development of the seven characters. This first collection is bland, blah, dull — and confusing if (like me) you’re not familiar with the “StormWatch” comic series, to which this is apparently a sequel and to which it constantly makes passing reference. Backstory is scarce, so you’re never quite sure about history or motivation. The Bad Guys are mostly formulaic, though the banter is cute. If I had seen this volume first, I probably would not have sought out the later ones. (3/22/06)
Martin, George R. R. The Hedge Knight. Chicago: Devil’s Due Publishing, 2003.
This is the first graphic novel I’ve seen from this publisher, or by the adaptors, Ben Avery and Mike Miller. They certainly do justice to Martin’s story, set a century or so before the events of A Song of Fire and Ice, when Baratheon is just another House and the Targaryens are firmly in control. “Dunk,” tall and strong and not too stupid, is squire to an elderly itinerant knight who inherits the man’s horse, longsword, and armor when he dies on the roadside. He seeks out a tourney, hoping to make some money by defeating a lordling and ransoming him, and perhaps by finding a place in some lord’s guard. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and he finds himself hip-deep in trouble when he defends a puppeteer girl and assaults an arrogant young prince in the process. But he has acquired a squire of his own, who has secrets, too. As always with Martin’s fiction, politics among the great families plays an important part in the plot. There’s also a short story, “Battle on Redgrass Field,” which doesn’t have much of an individual plot; it’s really more of a rumination on the nature of battle. The artwork in this volume is excellent and suits the story admirably. And there’s a four-page “Roll of Arms” at the end depicting the blazons of many of the houses that figure in Martin’s fantasy epic (but the story is set in the south, so you won’t find Stark or any of the northern families represented). (3/16/06)
Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones (A Song of Fire and Ice, 1) NY: Bantam, 1996.
I’m not a big fan of fantasy novels, especially those that spin out a meandering plot line for what seems like dozens of volumes. I’m not even that crazy about Tolkien, though I’ve read all the Lord of the Rings cycle. My tastes run more to “urban fantasy,” like The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, or War for the Oaks, or the “Bordertown” novels. But I’ll make a big exception for at least the first installment of what promises, in this case, to be a fascinating and engrossing story. The setting is a long, narrow island world (not unlike Great Britain), settled and built by successive waves of displacing invaders. More than three centuries of rule by the “dragons” of the House of Targaryen was ended by an uprising and a dynastic shift to the House of Baratheon, in the person of King Robert I. The king’s closest ally and friend is Ned Stark, lord of House Stark, whose predecessors were the Kings in the North, and who still adhere to the old gods. (Think House of York) The Starks’ greatest rivals are the wealthy Lannisters, one of whom is Robert’s queen. (Think House of Lancaster) There are a half-dozen other major families, who ran independent kingdoms before the dragon-lords conquered them, and who are now semi-feudal lords themselves. And there’s the Night’s Watch, manning the great ice wall in the far north, who support no other cause than their own. Things are about to change, though, as the good-guy Starks try (unsuccessfully) to support the king against the Queen and her bad-guy Lannister relations, and as this first volume ends, a “War of the Roses” is just getting under weigh. This could have been just another “wizards and warlocks” yarn, but Martin is more interested in personalities and politics than in magic — which, though it appears to exist, is subtle and very much in the background. He’s very good at constructing intriguing characters, especially Princess Daenerys, last surviving heir of the Targaryens, who has begun weaving her own come-back story among the horselords of the steppes. Tyrion Lannister, the dwarfish youngest son of Lord Tywin Lannister, is also interesting in the way he overcomes his physical limitations with intellect and cunning. And I’m drawn, too, to Arya, Ned Stark’s tomboyish youngest daughter, who, as the book ends, must learn to fend for herself. Martin knows quite well that shit happens, and you never know when one of the good guys will lose a battle, or even die, or when one of the bad guys will turn out to be not wholly bad. It’s no wonder this series of novels has engendered such an avid fan base. (3/14/06)
Jones, Richard. Walking Dickensian London. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2005.
I’m a London junkie and also a Dickens fan of long standing, and this is a perfect armchair-traveling book for someone like me. The author has been leading walking tours for years, and has written a number of other books about the city’s history and haunts, and he’s very knowledgeable about the subject. Dickens, of course, though born in Portsmouth, lived in London for most of his life and is interred in Westminster Abbey. Most of his writing, journalistic and fictional, is set in the city or nearby, and these twenty-five tours, each of them covering a couple of hours of not-difficult walking, will take you through both Dickens’s own life and those of his memorable characters. The site of Marshalsea Prison (where Little Dorrit was born) is here, and Somerset House (where John Dickens worked in the Navy Pay Office), Borough Market (in whose doorway a drunken Bob Sawyer slept, thinking he was home without his key), the Cooking Depot (on whose simple meal of meat and potatoes Dickens gave rave reviews), the old Bow Street Police Court (where the Artful Dodger was forced to appear), and the grotesque door-knockers on Craven Street that gave Dickens the idea for Marley’s ghostly face at Scrooge’s own front door. Nor does Jones ignore other literary associations, whether the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes, the Browning residence on Wimpole Street, the location of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, or the Punch Tavern, where the magazine was conceived. The maps are detailed and most of the tours begin and end at Underground stops, so this volume will also be useful to the traveler on the spot. (3/09/06)
Winchester, Simon. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Winchester is a very good pop nonfiction author whose most popular work to date probably was The Professor and the Madman, about James Murray, editor of the OED, and Dr. W. C. Minor, one of the dictionary’s most prolific and acute contributors of historical and illustrative quotations — while incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane. In this volume, he steps back a pace to trace the whole history of that monumental lexicographic project, from the first call to arms in an address by Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster, before the Philological Society in November 1857, to the commendatory dinner hosted by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin on Derby Day, 1928, to celebrate the dictionary’s completion. Actually, he goes back farther, describing earlier attempts (especially Samuel Johnson’s), and up to the present day, with the recently begun Third Edition (which may not even be published on paper when complete, but only online). Winchester has a reputation for being very careful with his details and his facts, and he also throws in dozens of fascinating discursive footnotes on the wide range of personalities involved over the past century and a half. This book is guaranteed to lead you to seek out the OED at the nearest good library, and to browse the dictionary’s current website. Maybe you’ll even become a “reader.” (3/08/06)
Geary, Rick. The Murder of Abraham Lincoln. (A Treasury of Victorian Murder) NY: NBM Comics Ltd, 2005.
This is the seventh in a very high-quality series that includes Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, H. H. Holmes, and Charles Guiteau. Think of it as “Classics Illustrated” for adults. Geary’s black-and-white crow-quill drawing style fits perfectly his carefully narrated history of the sixty-two days between Lincoln’s second Inauguration and his entombment in Springfield, by way of the assassination plot, the unsuccessful attacks on Johnson and Seward, Booth’s convenient escape, and his death in Garrett’s tobacco barn. I’ve long thought there was more there than meets the eye, with the focus on the peculiar actions of Stanton, both before and after Ford’s Theater, and the author mentions those points in passing, but he sticks pretty close to the official train of events. An excellent piece of work. (3/06/06)
Ford, Marjorie Leet. Do Try to Speak as We Do: The Diary of an American Au Pair. NY: Random House, 2001.
You can often identify “chick lit” by the style of the jacket illustration, and this is definitely one of them. (Not a put-down; I read and enjoy a lot of contemporary light fiction written by, and purportedly for, women.) Melissa is a slightly zaftig young woman, late 20s, from Oregon, who lost her job with a San Francisco ad agency, and then lost her apartment, and then broke her engagement — and decides “what the hell” and takes an offer of short-term employment in Britain as au pair and nanny to the three children of a Member of Parliament. The family hasn’t much money — by British aristocratic standards — and Melissa ends up being bullied into seventy hours a week of housekeeping, cooking, and general dogs-body duties by Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun, who’s a real piece of work. Melissa just can’t say “no,” and she’s almost pathological in her attention to her duties, and even though she hates the way she’s treated — as a servant and a cultureless American — she stays on, month after month. The youngest child, Claire, who’s three, is deaf, and much of Melissa’s job involves spending time with her and developing her vocabulary, at which she’s extremely successful. But Melissa’s pathetic self-image, and her general wimpiness, and her inability to deal with commitment when it comes to guys, and her unbelievable naivete about Britain — an American university graduate who made a living with her writing not knowing that “lorry” is Brit-speak for “truck”? — make her a not very sympathetic character. The story improves in the last third, as she gets involved in serious cooking, gets paid for writing columns about her culinary experiences for the paper back home, and begins to understand herself a bit better. But in the earlier chapters, you just want to shake her. (3/05/06)
Popcorn, Faith & Adam Hanft. Dictionary of the Future. NY: Hyperion, 2001.
I’m a dictionary junkie, especially those that delve into etymologies and usages. Who better to compile a speculative dictionary of terms on the edge of societal evolution than Popcorn — whose name I’ve always loved. As a marketing guru, she has a pretty good record — not perfect, but good — of identifying up-and-coming trends; The Popcorn Report, now more than a decade old, is still a valuable look at a likely future. And there are any number of interesting trends identified in this volume — like “wind farms” and “the death divide” and “starter castles” — that have solidified just in the past few years. Though the actual pop phrases may have turned out differently, like “McMansions” instead of the third example above. Still, this book isn’t as fascinating as it ought to be. It’s rather dry and nerveless with very little of Popcorn’s usual brio. (3/02/06)
Carey, Mike & Leonardo Manco. John Constantine, Hellblazer: All His Engines. NY: DC Comics, 2005.
There’s about a dozen and a half entries now in the gritty series about John Constantine, master black magician of a very non-traditional sort. In this one, a “coma plague” has begun disrupting the world, including the young daughter of one of Constantine’s best mates in London. The highly original cause is a series of “start-up” hells on Earth by lesser demons tired of their place in the satanic hierarchy. In their quest to halt the plague and retrieve the girl’s soul, Constantine and his buddy end up in Los Angeles (where else?) and conflict ensues. This is a very noir graphic novel, better than most, but it’s a little heavy on the British street slang. The art, though, is first-rate. (2/29/06)
Connelly, Michael. The Lincoln Lawyer. Boston: Little, Brown, 2005.
Mickey Haller is a hard-working L.A. defense attorney. He’s not the heroic type and his client list is made up almost entirely of druggies, prostitutes, and other small-time offenders. He’s under illusions that any of them are innocent, but it’s his job — as part of the legal machine — to see that they get their chance to be judged not guilty. Or at least to ameliorate their sentences. Haller doesn’t even maintain a real office, carrying on his practice in the back of his Lincoln Towncar while his driver (an ex-client working off his fee) conveys him from one courthouse or meeting place to another. Then a “franchise” client comes his way, a client with money whose case will keep paying and paying. Or so Mickey hopes. But Louis Roulet, charged with the attempted murder of a hooker, may be more than the lawyer can handle. Then again, Haller has been in the game a long time and no one in his right mind would underestimate him, not even in dealing with the defense attorney’s nightmare — the innocent client. This is a first-rate, thoroughly gripping, entirely convincing story about the law in the real world. This ain’t Perry Mason. But Haller is the kind of lawyer you’d like to have on your side. (2/27/06)
Sterling, Bruce. Globalhead. NY: Bantam, 1994, 1992.
I first met Bruce back in the ‘70s, when he was one of the young Texas SF authors who regularly appeared at IguanaCon in Austin, so he’s been at this awhile. While he has talent, he’s not the best Texas has to offer — that would be Howard Waldrop and the late Chad Oliver. Unfortunately, Sterling’s stories from the 1980s and early ‘90s, of which there are thirteen in this collection, are heavily politics-dependent, and they don’t always wear well ten or fifteen years later. As in “Hollywood Kremlin” and “We See Things Differently,” they postulate a Soviet Russia or a Middle East that really haven’t changed — but things have changed, a lot. He also has a habit of launching into stories brimming with neat ideas, stories that would actually make good novels, and then running out of steam (or becoming bored?) and simply stopping instead of ending. This is the case in “The Moral Bullet” (which, in fact, led to his novel, Holy Fire — sort of) and “The Unthinkable.” The best stories in this collection are those that step entirely outside our world, especially “The Shores of Bohemia” and “Are You for 86?,” and maybe “Dori Bangs.” (2/21/06)
Rendell, Ruth. Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. NY: Crown, 2001.
Rendell is great at creating characters who grab and keep your attention, but she can also bushwhack the reader, sort of. Jerry Leach (or Jock Lewis, or Jeff Leigh, or whatever name he’s using this month) is a user of women, moving in with a series of girlfriends and taking their life savings and credit cards. He starts out as the central character by virtue of his leech-like activities but — surprise — he becomes a victim himself almost exactly halfway through the book. Thereafter, he appears only as a ghost in the mind of Minty Knox, an obsessive-compulsive shirt-ironer for a London dry cleaner. There’s also Michelle and Matthew, the former a sadly obese middle-aged woman, the latter her dangerously anorexic but loving husband. And Zillah, Jerry’s featherbrained not-quite-ex-wife, who enters an ill-advised marriage of convenience with a gay conservative MP. And Minty’s black neighbors, Laf and Sonovia, who don’t realize how much they know. And on and on. Like many of this author’s books, if properly handled, this would make a terrific film. (2/16/06)
Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Vol. 2. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2004.
The first volume, consisting of the content of issues no. 1 and 2 of the comic book series based on the fictional comic book characters from Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, was much more successful than this second installment, taken from nos. 3 and 4. Maybe the “try harder” rule about sequels applies here, too, but the quality of both art and plotting is much lower and the tongue-in-cheek fictional comics history that made the first volume such fun is almost nonexistent in this one. Give it up, guys. (2/09/06)
Smith, Cordwainer. Norstrilia. NY: Ballantine, 1975.
Dr. Paul Linebarger was the son of American diplomats in China (his godfather was President Sun Yat-sen), advisor to Chiang Kai-shek, intelligence analyst in World War II and Korea (he sat out Vietnam), and a linguist and published poet. On top of all that, he wrote science fiction of very high quality under the name “Cordwainer Smith.” All his stories are set some 15,000 years hence, in a perfectly managed world of perfect, long-lived people and their “underpeople” servants. And it’s all become stale, bland, boring, and decadent. So the Lords of the Instrumentality establish the Rediscovery of Man, allowing disease, accident, anger, and multiple languages and cultures back into the world, just to make things interesting. In this, his only novel, the author brings together all those themes and characters — Lord Jestocost, C’mell, D’joan, Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, and all the others — and orbits them around Rod McBan CLI, an enormously wealthy hayseed from the planet of Old North Australia, home of stroon (the drug responsible for near-infinite life), and his leveraged purchase of nearly the whole of Old Earth. Will he find his heart’s desire? Originally published as two separate, hacked-up short novels, the whole story is brought back together here. What made Linebarger’s work so much above average is that he wasn’t so much a story-teller as a myth-maker, creating amazing yarns about larger-than-life characters, telling the history of our maybe-future. (2/08/06)
Heinlein, Robert A. Glory Road. NY: Putnam, 1963.
I began reading RAH’s novels in the early ‘50s, mostly as they appeared. Every decade or so, I go back and reread them, and probably will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Even with his overwriting (which is part of his charm) and the gentle preaching and not-so-gentle opinionating, his stories are always a romp. This is one of the better ones (and Heinlein’s only true fantasy novel), about “Scar” Gordon, mid-20s, just released from the U.S. Army after a run-in with Little Brown Brother in southeast Asia, and now at loose ends in the cheapest corner of the French Riviera he can find — the Île du Levant, where clothing and costs both are very minimal. There he meets “Star,” an Amazonian sort of woman, and loses her, and finds her again — not realizing he’s been selected and set up for a quest in a world on the other side of the looking-glass. He’s now a genuine Hero, like it or not, . . . but he learns to like it, mostly. There’s Good Guys and Bad Guys and monsters and even fire-breathing dragons, but Gordon manages to overcome it all. But what does a retired Hero do? Loads of fun! (02/05/06)
Tiptree, James, Jr. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1990.
Alice Sheldon, a clinical psychologist who wrote science fiction as “James Tiptree Jr.,” was a candle who burned fast and bright. Though she published a couple of comparatively weak novels before her suicide in 1987, all her important short fiction appeared between 1970 and 1977. I read much of it as it appeared, in magazines and original anthologies, and I was as taken as everyone else with the focus and literary richness of her style and with the electric impact produced by the content of what she wrote. Before anyone knew who she really was, Robert Silverberg famously described “Tiptree” as quintessentially male. But it’s flatly impossible to read “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” — in my opinion, the very best piece in this volume and one of the most important SF short stories of the past half-century — and to imagine that the author was anything other than an extremely thoughtful and aware woman. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is more the “standard” sort of story, and very well written, too, but it simply doesn’t carry the weight of “The Women Men Don’t See” or “A Momentary Taste of Being” or the title story. Sheldon was a product of her time, and it’s unlikely a writer like this, with this sort of eye-opening agenda could appear again. Which is all the more reason to read and appreciate her work. (2/04/06)
Busiek, Kurt. Astro City: Confession. La Jolla: Homage Comics, 1997.
I’ve read a number of the “Astro City” graphic novel series by now, and it’s a good thing, because Busiek doesn’t generally bother with back-story. But this one is better than most I’ve seen, probably because it’s a continuous story arc, not a collection of individual short stories. The P.O.V. is that of teenage Brian, newly arrived in the big city, whose busboy job results in his being recruited as a sidekick by the Confessor, a Catholic superhero with deep secrets. Brian’s new role as “Altar Boy” takes him into superhero society, where he learns that things aren’t always as heroic as outsiders think. There’s a theme of distrust of power here, too, that feels very contemporary eight years after the book appeared. Brent Anderson’s artwork is very good and the early scenes, set in a superheroes’ bar, are a hoot. (1/29/06)
Nosé, Michiko Rico & Michael Freeman. Japan Modern: New Ideas for Contemporary Living. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle/Periplus, 2000.
I’ve long been interested in the Japanese approach to design of all sorts, but especially architecture. Coming from a much different tradition, the solutions to problems and needs for shelter are often very different than those arrived at by architects with Euro-American tastes and training. Some of the examples depicted so beautifully and discussed so shrewdly in this volume are rooted strongly in Japan’s history, such as an old farmhouse relocated to Tokyo and fitted into an urban neighborhood. Others are playful, like the house with a lawn on the peaked roof, watered by a sprinkler system on the ridgepole, and with the courtyard floored in clay roof tiles. There’s a two-story “miniature” house with a footprint not much larger than two parking spaces, but which still manages to be a very comfortable environment for actually living in. And, naturally, there are structures *so* experimental, you might not realize they were houses if you weren’t told. There are homes in this collection I would love to live in, and others that would probably give me nightmares, but all of them are fascinating. (1/29/06)
Rabagliati, Michel. Paul Has a Summer Job. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2003.
I’ve read the third volume in this series, of which this is the second; I have yet to see the first one. It’s the sort of non-earth-shaking confusion that young Paul often finds himself trying to cope with. Here he’s seventeen, I think (it’s the late 1970s), having just quit school because his poor grades kept him out of a major school art project he conceived and got a grant for (the principal waiting until he had it sewed up before dumping him), and has been working not very successfully for a few weeks as an apprentice pressman, when a friend recruits him as a counselor for a newly-established summer camp on a lake up in the Laurentians. He has to learn to rock-climb, to handle adolescent kids, to interact with the other counselors, and to overcome his fear of being alone in the deep woods at night. It’s slice-of-life, totally believable, and quite affecting. Rabagliati is winning awards for this series, and he deserves. It’s hard to know how much his work is autobiographical, but Paul is certainly a real person. (1/29/06)
Stall, Sam, et al. The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1,001 Things You Hate to Love. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2004.
Please! Doctor Who, a “guilty pleasure”?! Or anime, which is a genuine art form? And I’m very good at “Trivial Pursuit” — most reference librarians are. It’s also obviously a generational thing; my mother was a Liberace fan in the ‘50s, and I loved Jiffy Pop in the pre-microwave days myself. (I was already too old when MTV debuted in 1981, or for paintball, which appeared that same year.) And is there anyone who doesn’t have a few souvenir T-shirts in the closet? On the other hand, who’s gonna admit to deliberately watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons? Or Leave It to Beaver reruns, or The Gong Show? Or to drinking Big Red? This is the perfect book for a long road trip, for reading aloud to each other and starting arguments. There are some odd omissions, though: How can you talk about “End-of-the-World Movies” without mentioning On the Beach? Or “Elvis Impersonators” without noting Andy Kaufman’s eerily accurate version early in his career? Or, for the ultimate in self-reference, why isn’t there a listing under “Trivia Books”? (1/29/06)
Busiek, Kurt. Shockrockets: We Have Ignition. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 2004.
The cover blurb likens this action yarn to Heinlein’s military-sf adventures, and that’s not too much of a stretch. It’s about a century from now, the Earth has barely survived an alien attack — by learning how to adapt the enemy’s technology and turn it back on them — and now the remaining six shockrocket pilots are trying to defend North America against a rogue general who wants his own country. Alejandro Cruz, a completely untrained young amateur whose family expects him to help out by joining his father and brothers at the recycling plant, wants something different and happenstantially finds himself caught up in the defense team. From there, the story is a combination of politics, air battles, and personal relationships, and it’s generally pretty well done. And just when the Good Guys have beaten the Bad Guys, you discover, on the very last page, that there’s a whole new unsuspected level of complacent oligarchy to deal with. (1/29/06)
Sittenfeld, Curtis. Prep. NY: Random House, 2005.
Everything you think you know about prep schools is right. And everything you think you know about prep schools is wrong. Lee Fiora from South Bend, Indiana, is a scholarship student at Ault School in Massachusetts, having made the choice and written the application by herself at age thirteen. The story begins with her arrival and ends with the post-graduation parties four years later, and it’s apparent that during all that time, she really hasn’t changed much. For most of her time at Ault, she’s acutely anxious and slightly unhappy, completely unsure of herself, appallingly naive about most things (especially boys), and totally lacking in self-esteem. She doesn’t make many friends, though she isn’t really the absolute outsider she believes herself to be — as becomes clear when she has to interact with non-Ault people. She never attends a dance, never gets elected to anything, but she’s a very shrewd observer and we see the preppy life through her eyes. I really don’t understand why so many of the major review media trashed this book. It’s not going to win awards, but it’s a far cry from the chirpy, optimistic feel-good froth the title would suggest — but it’s also a long way from the drugged-out, promiscuous exposé it could have been. In a sad way — recognizable to all those who didn’t fit in in high school, public or private — it’s a very true book. (1/28/06)
Block, Lawrence. Small Town. NY: Morrow, 2003.
Block is a master of narrative style and technique, a first-rate deviser of plots, and a supremely talented inventor of characters. His Matthew Scudder novels simply aren’t to my taste, but I read pretty everything else he writes. And this story of sacrifice, redemption, and personal discovery is one of his best. It’s also, I think, the first novel I’ve read in which the events of 9/11, 2001 are a key factor in the plot, not directly, but in motivating the actions of the Bad Guy — though he’s not really evil, just nuts. “The Carpenter,” as the media call him because of the tools with which he commits his early murders, loves the city and believes it requires periodic blood sacrifice to continue to thrive. And that’s where he comes in. One murder — which we never actually are told was one of his, and there’s a clue pointing elsewhere in the very last chapter — gets pinned, from quite reasonable evidence, on John Blair Creighton, a novelist who is successful but not wildly so. (“You can’t make a living at writing but you can make a fortune,” as they say.) But he’s on the edge of a breakthrough. An acquaintance of that murder victim is Susan Pomerance, proprietor of an art gallery and possessed of a ferocious sexuality. Susan becomes involved with Francis J. Buckram, ex-NYC police commissioner and hot prospect for the next mayoral race. Francis has his own problems, trying to figure out what else to do with his life, but having been a pretty fair detective in his day, he becomes engrossed in the Carpenter murders. Maury Winters, famed defense attorney and a piece of work, takes on Creighton’s defense, has a longstanding relationship with Susan, and also knows the movers and shakers in town, including Buckram. Jerry Pankow, a gay ex-addict, discovers a number of the Carpenter’s victims — not all happenstantially, either — and there goes his business. And there are any number of lesser characters — writers, editors, piercers, bouncers, private detectives, you name it — who seem also to fall in with each other. After all, New York is a very big city but it’s also just a small town. (1/25/06)
Rendell, Ruth. 13 Steps Down. NY: Crown, 2004.
Rendell is one of those multi-award-winning mystery writers I somehow continually overlook, but I really shouldn’t. Her plotting and characterization in this independent novel (i.e., not in the Inspector Wexford series) are first-rate. Mix Cellini, descendant of an Italian POW, product of an unconcerned mother and an abusive temporary stepfather, is very adept at shaping reality to his own desires. In fact, he raises the meaning of “delusional” to a new high. A fan of serial killer Reggie Christie (executed nearly half a century ago), he’s gotten a flat in Christie’s old neighborhood, upstairs in an old house owned by the reclusive, naive, nasty-tempered Gwendolyn Chawcer. And he has begun stalking beautiful black model Narissa Nash, with whom (he has convinced himself) he life is destined to be joined. And that gets him caught up in the affairs of Madame Shoshana, whom he really shouldn’t mess with — but Mix is also pretty ignorant and not too bright, either. Gwen has her own delusions about a doctor she knew fifty years before, who has (obviously) been waiting for her. And Narissa is pining for the son of her parents’ neighbors but, while she has her own problems, she’s more self-aware than many in this book. You can see the whole story gathering speed and rolling faster and faster downhill, like a great bloody snowball. This would make a terrific film, too. (1/20/06)
Varley, John. The John Varley Reader: Thirty Years of Short Fiction. NY: Ace, 2004.
Okay — Christopher Priest is arguably more poetic, and Tim Powers is more literary, when he cares to be. But it’s a proven fact that John Varley is the all-around best SF writer working these days. That’s even more true when it comes to the short form, as this recapitulative collection demonstrates. Varley is a Texan by birth and very close to my own age and, like me, he spent his early adult years in the San Francisco Bay area. As I rediscovered in his biographical introductions to these stories, we share a lot of the same life-shaping milieux. Of course, I’ve read Varley’s stories and novels over the years with great appreciation as they were published, since the first appearance of his first short story, “Picnic on Farside,” in 1974, but reading this volume straight through is like sitting down with a spoon to a quart of caviar. All of his best award-winning work is here: “Press Enter” (still a nerve-wracking read), “The Pusher” (still very unsettling), and “The Persistence of Vision” (still one of the most affecting pieces of writing I’ve ever read, from anyone). There are also five never-before-anthologized stories, of which “The Flying Dutchman” may, as the author says, convince you to take the train the next time you have to travel. Most of these stories are in the “Eight Worlds” series, though the Anna Bach sub-series (sort of police procedurals but really much more than that) are prominent, too. The weakest piece in the book, to me, is “Options,” which s a bit too earnest and cloying for my taste, but it’s still an excellent story. And there’s one that’s entirely new to us: “The Bellman,” originally destined for Harlan Ellison’s third “Dangerous Visions” volume (also something of a flying Dutchman . . .), which doesn’t seem nearly as radical as it would have when it was written in 1978. (1/15/06)
Grafton, Sue. S Is for Silence. NY: Putnam, 2005.
The only thing harder than writing a good, readable procedural murder mystery is setting out to write twenty-six of them. The series so far has had its ups and downs, its strong and comparatively weak entries, but this is — generally — one of the better ones. Violet Sullivan, a small-town easy lay (one part of her personality), disappeared on July 4th, 1953, leaving behind a seven-year-old daughter, a frequently abusive husband, a babysitter who idolized her, and a number of men with whom she had slept. Now it’s 1987 and Kinsey Milhone has been retained to try to find out once and for all whether Violet ran off with another man, disappeared by herself, died in an accident, was murdered, or what. The narrative has a Kurosawa-esque flavor, shifting from 1953 to the present and presenting the events of that last weekend from many different viewpoints while Kinsey conducts interviews and thinks about the results, trying to find a loose end of the string to pull. There are really no good guys here, though the daughter and the babysitter, both now in their forties, come pretty close. To that extent, it’s a good plot and the author gives nothing away until the last chapter, when everything pretty much falls into place. It won’t win awards, I don’t think, but it’s a good read.
HOWEVER: The one thing that has irritated me about most of Grafton’s recent books is the unnecessary sloppiness of her factual research. At one point, late in the story, Kinsey is reading newspapers on microfilm from the summer of 1953 and she notes in passing the price of groceries at that time, the Korean War truce talks — and the rise in first-class postage rates from three to five cents. I thought, “What?” Thirty seconds with the Scott catalogue confirmed my memory that postage stayed three cents until 1958 (when I was in junior high) and then it only went up to four cents; it didn’t hit five cents until 1963. Why make up something like that? We all know high-earning novelists have paid researchers to do that sort of leg-work for them, or they should have. I remember a similar pointless blunder a few titles back in the series, when Dallas is described as being out in the desert, like El Paso. It shows, at the least, a lack of concern for the reader. (1/09/06)