Grimes, Martha. The Dirty Duck. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
In this fourth entry in the Superintendent Richard Jury mystery series, a group of American and British tourists is decimated by a “Slasher” (as the tabloids dub him), starting in Stratford-upon-Avon and progressing to London, and a young boy in the group (Grimes seems always to include a precocious child) is kidnapped — sort of. One of the themes this time is the relationship between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. You’re not likely to figure out whodunit — partly because the solution seems just a bit far-fetched. The characterizations, however, are witty and believable and with each volume Jury and his friend, Melrose Plant (who has wealth but no title, not any more), become more three-dimensional. (9/30/08)
Grimes, Martha. The Anodyne Necklace. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
This is the third in the mystery series starring Richard Jury of Scotland Yard, newly promoted to Superintendent (though he seems to spend his time doing the sort of investigative legwork any DC would do, and appears to have no administrative duties at all), and his buddy, ex-earl Melrose Plant. This time the victims (they’re always multiple in this series) include a dead woman found with severed fingers in a wood near a village frequented by birdwatchers, a dealer in antique jewelry from a neighboring town, and a teenage violinist trying to earn a few extra bob playing in a London Underground station. It all ties in to the theft of a valuable emerald necklace — and a treasure map. There’s also a precocious twelve-year-old girl who’s good both with horses and with retailing information for a consideration (precocious kids are also obviously a staple character type in this series), and a whole family of stereotypical East Enders. The mystery itself is well thought out (and not telegraphed by sloppy writing) but much of the enjoyment in the book comes from Grimes’s dry wit and the interplay between Jury and Plant. (9/29/08)
Grimes, Martha. The Old Fox Deceiv’d. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.
This is the second in the Chief Inspector Richard Jury murder mysteries, and this time Scotland Yard sends him off to assist in investigating a murder in the cliffside fishing village of Rackmoor, in darkest Yorkshire. A young woman who might be the returned prodigal ward of a wealthy landowner has been killed on a foggy night and there are way too many suspects. As it happens, Melrose Plant, who developed a taste for detecting last year, and who has becomes friends with Jury, was recently invited to visit said landowner, so he takes the opportunity to involve himself as well. Fortunately for Jury, Plant is a very bright guy with hidden resources and a wry sense of humor, and his assistance is welcome. As in the first book, the roots of at least one of the murders in Rackmoor (you knew there would be more than one) stretch far back into the past. The characters are nicely done, especially young Bertie Makepeace, who has had to do for himself with the aid of his faithful canine companion, Arnold. (9/27/08)
Grimes, Martha. The Man with a Load of Mischief. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.
My wife has been a fan of the Richard Jury mysteries for some time so I finally decided to give them a try, and this is the first in the series. Chief Inspector Jury, a homicide specialist at Scotland Yard who should have been a Superintendent by now but doesn’t want to be relegated to a desk job, is a first-rate detective and something of a loner. He’s called to a village in Northamptonshire to deal with two murders committed a week apart, each in a different pub. The mystery itself is pretty well done — the author doesn’t give anything away and the “whodunit,” when it finally arrives, is perfectly believable — but Grimes’s métier is creating interesting, fully realized characters. There’s Jury himself, there’s Melrose Plant, a very intelligent ex-earl who lives in the village and who involves himself in the investigation, there’s Plant’s Aunt Agatha, who’s lucky no one has strangled her before this, and there’s the hypochondriac Sgt. Wiggins, who sometimes shows a surprising side. Those are the series regulars, or will be. The various suspects — and there’s a lot of them — are also well thought out and Grimes has a nice ear for the ironic turn of phrase. On top of all that, she slips in some fascinating bits about the history of various public house names, one of which supplies the title of each book in the series. My only complaint is that the author has a sloppy grasp of chronology: Jury is supposed to be about forty years old in the present day (1981), so he was born about 1941 — but he also is described as having been seven years old when his mother was killed in the last year of the Blitz, which is also 1941. (9/25/08)
Pressfield, Steven. Killing Rommel. NY: Doubleday, 2008.
I’m an admirer of the author’s five previous books dealing with war and military life in the ancient world — but that’s where my own academic background is and I understand what’s happening perhaps better than most readers. I wasn’t sure about this one, though, which is Pressfield’s first historical set in our own time. For one thing, the technology and strategy of World War II is vastly different from those of the ancient world. But I needn’t have been concerned. Pressfield has the rare knack of dropping strange terminology and unknown place names into the story, often without explanation, and still maintaining a crystal clear narrative. The setting is Libya and Tunisia in 1941 to 1943, the players are the members of the British Long Range Desert Group (the LRDG) and their German and Italian opponents. The plot revolves, at first, around an attempt to trap and kill the charismatic Erwin Rommel, arguably the most brilliant combat general on either side in the war — but the plotline changes as the necessities of war themselves change. The narrator is Lt. Chapman, a twenty-year-old tank officer in Egypt who is seconded to the LRDG to report back to Eighth Army HQ on the “going” of several questionable routes through the desert. He shortly ends up in consensus command of Patrol T3 — almost the only fictional part of the whole novel — where he finds his true nature, rather to his own surprise. You might think this is rather a short novel — it’s less than 300 pages — for such a sprawling subject as the three-year struggle for control of North Africa. But Pressfield never wastes so much as a paragraph. His style is never flowery but straightforward, unadorned storytelling. Every line goes into relating the story, even when he provides the protagonists’ back-stories in the early chapters. And when the characters begin the “ride” around which most of the book revolves, the reader had better hang on tight because the action is unrelenting and builds continually, until near the end your knuckles will be white from gripping the book. And before you begin Chapter 23, make sure you’re someplace where you won’t be disturbed. Lock the door if you have to. You’ll not want even to pause for breath for the duration of those pages. As Chapman himself notes, some of those with whom he serves, while not “professional” soldiers in any sense, were nevertheless warriors in the fullest sense of the word, and would have been quite at home in Alexander’s armies. What’s more, nearly all the heroes of the story — Mayne, Wilder, Tinker, Easonsmith, “Popsky” — were real people. I predict the readers of this extraordinarily deep-feeling book will be searching for additional reading about them and their feats. (9/23/08)
Gravett, Christopher. Hastings 1066: The Fall of Saxon England. London: Osprey Publishing, 1992.
Osprey’s “Men-at-Arms” series and “Campaign” series have been well known among students and buffs of military history for a long time, for their detail and accuracy. This one covers the opening overt act in the conquest of King Harold’s England by Duke William of Normandy in the fall of 1066. It begins with the character and background of the two commanders and describes the geopolitical context, then examines the military machine each had to work with, the Saxon fyrd vs. the Norman cavalry. Then comes the preparations by William for mounting the invasion and by Harold for resisting it — with time out, unfortunately, to deal with Tostig and Hardrada in York, a second front he really didn’t have the forces for. And so we arrive the main event: William’s landing at Pevensey and Harold’s forced march back south to meet it at Hastings. And even then the final battle was a near thing. If Harold had had the men he had lost at Stamford Bridge, or if the northern counties had been able to supply forces themselves, or even if the Saxons had held firm and not gone whooping downhill after the Bretons, there’s every likelihood that we would be speaking a much more Germanic form of English today. The book contains more than ninety drawings and photos, including clothing and weapons, scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry, and battle sites as they appear today. And there maps and notes at the end for the wargamer. (9/19/08)
Niven, Larry. The Draco Tavern. NY: Tor Books, 2006.
Niven has been a major sf author for decades and his work is usually of high quality. Unfortunately, very little of that quality appears in this collection of twenty-seven very short stories, all set in a bar on the edge of a Siberian spaceport that hosts a wide array of alien visitors. These aren’t shaggy dog stories, though, or whimsical character portraits. In fact, it’s hard to tell just what they’re supposed to be. Each story introduces one or more aliens in conversation with (usually) the bartender/owner, Rick Schumann. So they schmooze, and the alien tells a story, and that’s it. I kept wondering whether the end of each story had been omitted, and that was why they were all so short. Sorry, I don’t see the point. (9/17/08)
Watts, Peter. Blindsight. NY: Tor Books, 2006.
This semi-cyberpunk hard-science yarn is pretty interesting for the most part — but it sure isn’t easy to read. It’s close to the end of the 21st century and advances in biotechnology and nano-science have completely rewritten the definitions of life and even existence. Then a horde of small alien artifacts burns up in Earth’s atmosphere and it’s clear First Contact is upon us, in the form of a lurking presence somewhere just outside our solar system. A team is put together to go and investigate and it’s their journey and encounter with the Other that makes up the bulk of the story. Siri, the narrator, is a Synthesist, able to tell what people are really thinking from surface cues, There’s also a linguistics specialist divided into four personalities, a biologist who is more machine than meat, a somewhat pacifist military specialist, and the commander of the expedition — a vampire. He’s the sort of boss you don’t even think about not obeying. The “alien” turns out to be a ship — or lifeform, or other artifact, the human crew is never really sure — that produces its own lifeforms (or whatever they are) and which is a very daunting enemy indeed. If it actually is an enemy. And that’s part of the problem with this book: Nothing is ever resolved. At the end, the expedition’s sole survivor is heading back to Earth with what is probably untrustworthy information, and the alien ship is still out there. Probably. Maybe. Or, maybe Watts is just trying too hard to be cool. (9/15/08)
Flynn, Gillian. Sharp Objects. NY: Crown, 2006.
This is an extremely well-written and forceful book, especially for a first novel. There’s nothing remotely tentative about this story of Chicago reporter Camille Preaker’s return to her little southeast Missouri hometown to do a story on the murder of two local young girls less than a year apart. It may be the work of a serial killer and the local head cop is out of his depth, so they’ve called in a homicide specialist from Kansas City. But the murder investigation is only part of the story. More mesmerizing, and a good deal creepier, is Camille’s re-examination of her own family, which brings new meaning to the description “dysfunctional.” Camille’s younger sister, Marian, died two decades ago at about the same age as the recently murdered girls, having been “cared for” by Adora, their vampiric mother. Then, a few years later, Adora had another daughter, Camille’s half-sister, Amma, who, at thirteen, is extraordinarily pretty, precociously sexual, and who bosses the clique that runs the school with calculated cruelty. She’s very much her mother’s daughter. Stephen King, not noted for gushing endorsements of other people’s work, comments on the jacket that the effect of the narration is cumulative, and that’s exactly right. As you move farther and farther into this horror, you dread what you know is probably coming, but you’re unable to look away, to stop reading. Flynn’s style is both unadorned and exquisitely sharp. The former comes out in Camille’s matter-of-fact description of her own pathology: She’s a “cutter,” having spent most of her life incising words into her body with knives and razors, cultivating the scars until she dare not wear anything but long sleeves and pants legs.
The latter is demonstrated by the fact that this book just leaps with sly, quotable lines: “It was a natural gift for Adora, making other women feel incidental.”
A visiting cop “peeled the label of the empty beer bottle next to him and smoothed it out onto the table. Messy. A sure sign he’d never worked in a bar.”
In describing the way her mother manipulates everyone, Camille relates how the death of her little sister was so useful in that regard. No matter what anyone said, “my mother would not be distracted from her grief. To this day it remains a hobby.”
Or, “Reporters are like vampires. They can’t come into your house without your invitation, but once they’re there, you won’t get them out till they’ve sucked you dry.”
Or, “‘So hard to get good help these days,’ she muttered earnestly, unaware no one really says that who’s not on TV.”
Or, “Like all rural towns, Wind Gap has an obsession with machinery. Most homes own a car and a half for every occupant (the half being an antique collectible, or an old piece of crap on blocks, depending on the income bracket).”
One of my favorites, in describing an acquaintance’s rather bland husband: “He was good-looking if you looked at him long enough.”
Flynn also has the knack of setting an entire mood by describing a single detail. For example, the little town of Wind Gap snaps into focus when Camille notes that she found the police chief “banging the dent out of a stop sign at the corner of Second and Ely, a few blocks from the police station.” Or, of a group of 13-year-old girls passing around a bottle of rum: “The rim of the bottle was ringed with pink lip gloss.”
Damn, that’s good stuff.
This is one of those books you’ll keep thinking about for months. Flynn is definitely going on my list of new authors to watch. (9/10/08)
Dozois, Gardner (ed). The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection. NY: Bluejay Books, 1986.
When I was a lot younger (say, fifty years ago) I regularly read Astounding/Analog, Worlds of If, F&SF, and Galaxy. That was where nearly all the short science fiction was, and there was some terrific stuff among all the inevitable dross. Then, in the mid-1980s, Gardner Dozois began putting out these annual collections of what he regarded as the best published short fiction in the field. Gardner was only a middling author (not bad but never great), but he turned out to be an amazing editor with impeccable literary taste and a golden ear for what the readers really liked, and for a quarter-century I have bought and gobbled down each monster volume as it appeared each year. I have a whole long bookshelf of them now. It’s fun to go back and reread the earlier stories, though, and see who among the younger contributors turned out to be a major new writer and who was only a one-hit wonder. And there are some real winners among the twenty-four stories in this volume. The best, to my mind, are “Fermi and Frost,” a sort of domestic-nuclear war story by the still-working Fred Pohl, Lucius Shepard’s “The Jaguar Hunter” (a jungle fantasy), and the glittering and gorgeous “Sailing to Byzantium,” by Robert Silverberg. “Dogfight” is a cyberpunk story from the incubator, by the team of Michael Swanwick (an excellent writer who has never quite reached the first rank) and the only recently discovered William Gibson. James Patrick Kelly has never really been one of my favorites, but “Solstice,” about drugs and Stonehenge, is pretty good; there’s even a moral. Joe Haldeman has always been a highly moral writer, and “More Than the Sum of His Parts” might make you rethink the useful limits of prosthesis. I like most of Nancy Kress’s work, but “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” a very short (single-scene) story about racism and aliens, I have to confess has always puzzled me; what’s the point? Sometimes you have to really hunt to find the “science fiction” in a story. “Side Effects,” by Walter Jon Williams, is one of those, a warning story about the too-cozy relationship between doctors and the big pharmaceutical companies, and the effect on the patients caught in the middle. Good story, but how is it science fiction? James Tiptree, Jr., is another author most of whose work I’ve really enjoyed, but “The Only Neat Thing to Do,” a space adventure starring a rather smart-ass young girl, just left me with a shrug. Bruce Sterling (late of Austin) has two stories in this collection: “Green Days in Brunei,” one of his best, a cyberpunk exploration of one corner of the Third World; and “Dinner in Audoghast,” a lighter-weight piece, which has something to say about cultural impermanence. George R. R. Martin has become better known for his fat fantasy novels, but “Under Siege” is a nearly traditional time-travel story about Russia and Finland and personal honor. Howard Waldrop (also late of Austin) is widely known among his fans as “The Best Science Fiction Writer You Probably Never Heard Of.” His work is often bizarre (even outlandish, when he’s really on a roll), always highly original, replete with offbeat erudition, and often features dogs of excessive shaggyness. That’s very much the case with “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll,” which is just what the title says it is. Lucius Shepard has a second story in this collection, too: “A Spanish Lesson,” which is an old-fashioned sort of alternate worlds story. Average, really. Pat Cadigan is one of those authors I’ve never quite made up my mind about, but “Roadside Rescue” is a nice little tongue-in-cheek piece about alien sex. Likewise, everyone has always thought that R. A. Lafferty was a marvelously funny guy, but most of his stories seem to fall flat with me. “Magazine Section” falls into that category, I’m afraid. Lew Shiner is yet another ex-Austinite, one of the gang of young writers (plus a few of the older guys, like Chad Oliver) who showed up at every ArmadilloCon in the ‘80s, which always promised a great weekend for those of us in attendance. “The War at Home” is a very short, very unsettling story, especially for those of us in the Vietnam generation. I don’t know of a single other story or novel by S. C. Sykes, but “Rockabye Baby” was her second sale, a highly evocative first-person relation by a young quadriplegic who has finally found some peace with his situation, only to suddenly have a chance at nerve-regeneration — but at the cost of every single memory he possesses. Would you take the deal? Very nicely done. (9/07/08)
Baker, Kage. Gods and Pawns: Stories of the Company. NY: Tor, 2007.
As fans of the series know, Dr. Zeus Incorporated operates out of the 24th century, combining its time travel capabilities and its legion of cyborg near-slaves scattered through time from the Neanderthal era on, in order to make a small number of plutocratic technocrats very, very, very rich. Besides the novels, which began with the award-winning In the Garden of Iden, Baker has written a number of shorter stories set in the same world — most of which probably will be very confusing for any reader not already familiar with the characters and themes. Baker’s work can be somewhat erratic in quality, but the seven short stories and novelettes in this collection are mostly pretty good. “To the Land Beyond the Sunset” is a rather lightweight yarn featuring Mendoza, the flinty-eyed botanist, and Lewis, the literature-preserver who secretly adores her. They go on a short field trip to the Bolivian rain forest where the weather turns around and bites them — and then they get mixed up with a family of down-at-the-heel deities. “The Catch” is a grim little story of what can happen when the not-yet-perfected attempt to produce a cyborg goes badly wrong. The story’s narrator, Security Tech Porfirio, is also the protagonist of “The Angel in the Darkness,” probably the best piece in the book. Set forty years later, it’s mostly a very true-to-life depiction of the desperation of an older daughter who carries all the burdens of the family by herself, and of the “uncle” who watches over things, or perhaps controls them. The character portraits in this one are extremely good. And it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t know who Labenius really is. “Standing in His Light” is about the Company’s entirely cynical use of Jan Vermeer to produce works to order that will be worth billions a few centuries down the line. “A Night on the Barbary Coast” is a rather lightweight romp that mostly just gives Baker an excuse to describe Mendoza’s entry into San Francisco in 1850. “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst,” which starts out lighthearted and funny but eventually turns somewhat darker, involves Joseph the Facilitator and Lewis again paying a visit to San Simeon to close a deal on behalf of the Company and discovering that it doesn’t pay to underestimate certain mere mortals.” Hellfire at Twilight” features the feckless Lewis again in a somewhat sweet story involving Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club, which turns out to be something quite different than its reputation would suggest. As I say, many of the references in these stories will mean nothing to anyone new to the series, but for Baker fans, it’s a pretty good collection. (9/06/08)
Marlowe, Derek. A Dandy in Aspic. NY: Putnam, 1966.
It’s the mid-1960s and Eberlin is a 36-year-old desk-jockey in British Intelligence, a gatherer and analyzer of facts. He’s also a loner who dresses very well and collects porcelain. Recently, a couple of the Ministry’s operatives have been killed by an unknown Soviet agent and Eberlin is recruited by his superiors to try to learn the hitman’s whereabouts. It turns out they even have a name: Krasnevin. This is a problem for Eberlin. He’s Krasnevin, a Russian mole who has been in England since he was eighteen, and who is a very skilled assassin. Essentially, he’s being told to find, identify, and kill himself. And off he goes to divided Berlin without a clue as to what he can do or how. There’s a great deal in this engrossing novel (the author’s first) that will remind the reader of Le Carré, especially the way the characters take on shape and color very gradually and the way in which the author requires the reader to work at following the plot. Don’t think you know how it’s all going to end, though, not even as you read the last chapter, because the final four pages will come up and smack you right in the face. (9/04/08)
Leiber, Fritz. The Wanderer. London: Victor Gollancz, 2000.
Always a master of the language, Leiber, author of the “Grey Mouser” stories, won a Hugo for this quintessential disaster novel when it first appeared in 1964. The set-up is straightforward: A strange, unknown planet, dubbed “The Wanderer,” suddenly appears in Earth’s sky, a quarter-million miles out, and begins dismantling the Moon for fuel. Naturally, something of that mass is going to have an effect on our tides and the stability of our tectonic plates. Multiply tidal rises and drops by eighty and you can say goodbye to nearly all the coastal population centers. Strain the Earth’s crust and you can expect volcanoes and earthquakes without number. If you’re a younger convert to sf than I am (I had just graduated college when this came out), then it may remind you of “Lucifer’s Hammer,” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. While the causes of worldwide panic and geological upset are different, the results are largely the same, and so is the narrative method. Leiber jumps constantly from one narrator or group to another, giving the reader lots of viewpoints to consider. There’s the drunken Welsh poet trying to walk across the suddenly empty Severn Estuary, and the sailor-adventurer singlehandedly crossing the Atlantic in a dory who barely realizes anything unusual is happening, and the soldier of fortune trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, and the young couple holed up in a Manhattan penthouse with the waves lapping at their feet, and several others. Most of the attention, though, is given to a party of “flying saucer students” on a beach near Santa Monica who spend the whole narrative trying to drive up into the coastal mountains and who have to deal with crazed teenagers, gun-happy cops, and an apparent serial killer. Two of the party are the girlfriend of an astronaut on the Moon and said astronaut’s best friend, and they’re trying to reach a nearby Space Force installation. The friend is snatched up by a real saucer and spends the next couple of days having to deal with the feline-like alien piloting it, while the astronaut is barely able to escape the Moon’s destruction in one of the landing group’s three spaceships (no mere landers for them) and is picked up by the Wanderer itself, where he gives the reader an abbreviated tour. The planet is actually a huge ship, filled to the core with intelligent beings of all kinds and bouncing around the several universes via hyperspace. They’re also on the lam from the cops, sort of. Some parts of the book haven’t aged very well, such as Leiber’s concept of how teenagers talk — which wasn’t very accurate even in 1964 — but the basic ways in which people react to unexpectedly disaster still ring true. (9/03/08)
Perry, Thomas. The Face-Changers. NY: Random House, 1998.
Jane Whitefield, half-Seneca “guide” who takes in hand those who, for various reasons, need to disappear, and finds ways for them to escape into the cracks in American society, is naturally secretive about her occupation. Those who need to find her do it through rumor and word-of-mouth. But now someone else presenting herself as “Jane” seems to be encroaching on her territory — and fleecing the helpless, and often killing them as well. One of these, a renowned surgeon who trained Jane’s new husband, has been set up and didn’t quite make it to Jane’s door before being wounded by the police, and Carey — who got his wife to promise she would give up the guide business — has asked her to help his old teacher, to do what she’s so good at just one last time. Jane takes on the job not only for him but because she has to save her own semi-secret reputation — only this time, the FBI is also involved. This fourth novel in the series is rather better than the last two, showcasing the author’s knack for constructing an intriguing and believable back-story and introducing Special Agent Marshall, a thinking man’s Fed, whom I think is likely to show up again. (8/25/08)
Geary, Rick. The Mystery of Mary Rogers. NY: NBM Comics Ltd, 2001.
This is another in Geary’s “Treasury of Victorian Murder” series of graphic documentaries, this time set in New York in 1841 and spilling over onto the rustic shore around Weehawken, New Jersey. Mary Rogers was a “cigar girl” whose mother kept a boardinghouse, and who was either a wide-eyed innocent . . . or a bit of a slut who got herself knocked up by one of her boyfriends. In any case, she turned up floating in the Hudson, apparently murdered — or maybe the victim of a botched abortion. Virtually everyone she knew came under suspicion, and several she probably didn’t know, but the investigation (what there was of it) was dilatory and pretty haphazard. Geary lays out the facts in his usual competent narrative manner, together with some of the prevalent theories. The crime itself was never really solved, but Edgar Allan Poe (who may have met the girl) built one of his Auguste Dupin mystery stories around it. Perhaps the fact that this murder isn’t as well known today as the Lincoln assassination or the Jack the Ripper murders, Geary feels more free to wander wherever the story takes him — but it works. (8/24/08)
Perry, Thomas. Shadow Woman. NY: Random House, 1997.
This is the third novel about Jane Whitefield, half-Seneca “guide” who helps the hunted (who are not always “innocent”) escape their pursuers and disappear into the cracks in modern society. Jane is recently married to a surgeon she’s known all her life, and has promised him she would give up her escort activities (which he never knew about), but she has to renege somewhat when the casino executive who was supposed to be her last project has to holler for help a second time. The first two-thirds of the story really doesn’t live up to Perry’s previous work — possibly because the two hunters/hitmen who are sent by the casino’s owners to kill their errant executive are extremely unlikable. Many of Perry’s professional killers (a frequent theme in his stories) are interesting characters, even sometimes sympathetic ones, as in “The Butcher’s Boy.” Not this time, though. Earl and Linda are psychopathic rednecks who train vicious attack dogs and who have to build themselves up to hate their quarry in order to get the job done. You can be evil and still interesting, but loathsome is just loathsome. More than that, Jane seems only semi-competent this time out, failing to foresee the methods the hunters will use and not really being aware of just how vulnerable her new husband is. However, once Jane and her charge head up into the rugged mountains of Glacier National Park at the beginning of the winter season, the tone of the narrative shifts somewhat and the author does a good job of building the tension and resolving the threads of the plot. (8/22/08)
Geary, Rick. Jack the Ripper. NY: NBM Comics Ltd, 1995.
I’m a great fan of Geary’s “documentary” graphic novels, especially his “Treasury of Victorian Murder” series. That being said, this one, about the preeminent unsolved murder spree of the 19th century, is something of a disappointment. For one thing, it’s shorter than the others, even though the literature about the “Ripper” murders is huge. For another, he sticks pretty much to the public events — the actual murders — and never dips into the vast amount of alternative interpretations and conspiracy theories surrounding them. He could have laid out some of the possibilities without taking sides. And what happened to Aberline and the other principles? The black-and-white crosshatched artwork is first-rate, as always, and there’s nothing at all cartoonish about his rendering of individuals. (8/19/08)
Perry, Thomas. Dance for the Dead. NY: Random House, 1996.
This is second novel about Jane Whitefield, half-Seneca (and half blue-eyed) “guide,” whose specialty is helping those on the run disappear into the cracks in society. Most of these fugitives are innocent — women fleeing from abusive spouses, etc. — but not all of the. Mary Perkins is one of the latter, a successful practitioner of S&L fraud who was caught and served her time in prison. The thing is, she still has a very large amount of stolen money tucked away that she never admitted to, and if that fact becomes known, her parole will be revoked. So she has no one to turn to when the Really Bad Guys go looking for her hidden wealth — except Jane. At the same time, Timothy Phillips, whose parents died and left him a huge trust fund, really is one of the innocents — but he has been targeted by the same Bad Guys. What makes these stories fascinating, at least to me, is the detail Perry brings to the business of convincing society you don’t exist. Many of the things Jane does in the mid-1990s wouldn’t work today, of course, not in our security-happy post-9/11 world, so it will be interesting to see how she updates her methods. As always, Perry is strong on characterization and back story, and the action seems to flow naturally — most of the time, anyway. In this case, he appears to have rushed the ending. Earlier in the story, Barraclough demonstrates that he understands how dangerous Whitefield can be, but he seems to have forgotten this in the climactic scenes. And we’re never actually told how Jane sets up her final encounter, though it’s hinted at. Nor does it seem quite in character for her to coolly take a shotgun to those who are hunting her. Also, Perry seems to think it’s necessary to bring in a boyfriend whose existence was never hinted at before. Why? (8/17/08)
Geary, Rick. The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H. H. Holmes. NY: NBM Comics Ltd,, 2003.
Artist/storyteller Geary does what might be called documentary graphics novels of the macabre and sometimes gory variety. Here he’s concerned with Herman Mudgett of New Hampshire, who, under the name “Dr. H. H. Holmes” (among many others), cut a bloody swath through the crowds of visitors to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He’s often regarded as “America’s first serial killer” — or at least the first we know about. He was married to (at least) three women at one time and often put them up in hotels near each other, he built a “murder factory” in the suburb of Englewood with secret rooms, drop-shafts, and a basement crematory, and he was responsible for the deaths of at least three dozen men, women, and children who can be identified. (The total was probably more like a hundred victims and may have been nearly twice that.) In a day of casual identification, and relatively slow travel and communications, Holmes was able to disappear people without much trouble, and his apparently winning personality convinced others to accept his explanations. Geary has a very precise black-and-white drawing style perfectly suited to the Victorian world of which he writes and his books — and the research behind them — are always fascinating. (8/14/08)
Perry, Thomas. Silence. NY: Harcourt, 2007.
Perry’s more recent novels — he’s been turning this stuff out since the early ‘80s — are somewhat more sophisticated in their details, but his main themes haven’t changed much. Someone has to escape danger, or circumstances, and the protagonist either helps him (or her) accomplish that or has to locate them afterward. That helper, or searcher, might be a killer himself, like the Butcher’s Boy, or he might be an ex-cop turned private investigator like Jack Till, who helped a young woman in fear of her life to disappear six years ago. She wasn’t exactly a witness to a murder, but she certainly knew too much. Now her ex-partner, who suspected she was dead, has been charged with her murder, and Till must reverse his work and relocate her, to prove she’s actually still alive. And at the same time he has to protect her from the professional killers (a tango-dancing couple this time) hired by those who are setting her up. Till, like all Perry’s main characters, is highly ingenious when it comes to finding people and misleading the Bad Guys, which (of course) is much of the fun of his books. I’ve been trying to read his books more or less chronologically, to discover how his skills have developed, and I was also curious to see how both the hunters and the hunted would handle access to what used to be easy-to-obtain information, what with post-9/11 restrictions and heightened awareness of identity theft. Turns out it isn’t much more difficult than it used to be, at least as Perry explains things. As always, his characters come in three fat dimensions and their back stories provide much of their motivation. Nor are any of them superheroes; everyone on both sides makes bad judgments, misinterprets evidence and events, and occasionally does stupid things. The killers in this case escape at the very end, for instance, but it’s evident that jealousy and bad temper is going to drive one of them to eliminate the other in very short order. Most of Perry’s books are cinematic but this one especially would make a terrific movie. (8/12/08)
Perry, Thomas. Dead Aim. NY: Random House, 2002.
At least partly because of my own opinions about the attitudes of people born to too much wealth, I found this novel quite believable. Robert Mallon, retired from the construction and property development business ten years ago, now lives quietly and simply in Santa Barbara, going for long walks on the beach and reading a lot. One day he saves a young woman from drowning herself, loses track of her, and then learns she went off and killed herself anyway. He has to find out why. And that modest quest leads him gradually into a confrontation with a group of hunters who pursue the real sport of kings. And this quarry is more than they expected. As always, Perry does an excellent job on the back stories of his main characters, and even some of the supporting players. At the beginning of the story, he deliberately allows the reader to become a bit confused about what’s happening — in other words, experiencing things mostly from Mallon’s viewpoint. Then, as you meet the others, things become more clear. However, the ending is a bit abrupt and untidy, leaving you to wonder what happens next. A good yarn, though. (8/09/08)
Busiek, Kurt. Astro City: The Tarnished Angel. NY: DC Comics, 2000.
The “Astro City” series of superhero comics (which I prefer to read as graphic novels, eliminating the wait between installments) has varied between Average and Very Good. This arc, which focuses almost entirely on a single antiheroic protagonist, is really quite good. Steeljack, who closely resembles Robert Mitchum, is a would-be superhero from the wrong side of the tracks who ended up becoming a small-time super-villain instead, and then getting himself caught. Through it all, he was always wistfully aware of the “angels,” the Good Guy superheroes passing by overhead. Now, after twenty years in prison, he’s interested only in going as straight as he can manage, but with only an average intellect and no special skills beyond strength and toughness, it’s hard going. Back in the old neighborhood, a number of mostly retired “black masks” (small-time villains like himself) are being killed off, and the survivors hire Steeljack to find out what’s going on and to stop it. Protesting that he’s not a detective, he nevertheless needs the money, so he takes the assignment, but for a considerable time doesn’t really make much of a dent in the case. Then some pieces begin to fall into place, Steeljack puts them together with what he’s learned about a disgraced superhero, and suddenly he finds he needs the help of the “angels.” But will they listen to a lowlife like him? Because the story concentrates on a single character (except for the episode within the story arc dealing with the Mock Turtle, which isn’t entirely successful), Busiek is able to provide much more detail and better thought out motivation and back story. (8/07/08)
Perry, Thomas. Pursuit. NY: Random House, 2001.
Perry has been at this for twenty-five years, and some of the reviewers I’ve read are of the opinion that his more recent books simply aren’t up to the standards set by his early work. If that’s the case, this one has to be an exception. Roy Prescott is not one of the Good Guys, not really. He’s a predator, a hunter-killer. Fortunately for most of us, he’s selective about his targets: He only hunts other killers, especially the professionals. He’s willing to accept a fee for this service — a guy’s gotta live — but there’s obviously much more to it than that. Professor Millikin, ex-cop and nationally known profiler, is consulting on a case in St. Louis involving the shootings of all the patrons at a small restaurant. The father of one of the victims is a very wealthy man who wants vengeance for his son’s death, and he tries to hire Millikin to solve the case. After some hesitation, Millikin refers the grieving father to Prescott, who takes the job. At this point, we meet James Varney, an emotionally crippled but very skillful killer — maybe as good as Prescott — and the rest of the rather lengthy story alternates between their viewpoints, which allows the reader to see how each of them occasionally screws up and misinterprets the other’s actions. At times, the action drags somewhat, as one or the other of the two antagonists tries to deal with things, so the reader will have to practice patience. Well, Prescott and Varney are both extraordinarily patient. Perry goes to great depths with the back stories, developing the characters and motivations not only of the three main characters, but also of a number of the supporting players. The plot is highly inventive and the details are meticulously worked out. And even when you think you have things figured out, Perry will surprise you yet again. (8/06/08)
Perry, Thomas. Big Fish. NY: Scribner, 1985.
This is Perry’s third novel and it’s a bit of a disappointment after his first two. Altmeyer is a Los Angeles “businessman” — if supplying mostly illegal weapons to almost any government, corporation, or individual with the money is a business — and his lovely wife, Rachel, helps out wherever she can. Their friend, Bucky, is a big-deal Hollywood agent whom they help to escape from a dangerous drug deal by killing off the other side. The early parts of the narrative are rather disjointed and episodic; they don’t seem to have much to do with each other, rather than to introduce the characters. Then a shipment of 9-millimeter automatics to Japan goes wrong and it doesn’t look like Altmeyer is going to get paid, but that’s not the half of it. The Really Bad Guys were interested not in Altmeyer’s guns but in his international shipping methods, which they adopt for their own use. And what they’re shipping from one country to another appear to be terrorist-sized nuclear devices. Here the story gets more interesting, the three main characters being joined by a legendary film producer with all the right contacts. The plot is still a bit fuzzy, though, and Perry should have spent more time tidying it up. Not up to his previous work. (8/05/08)
Yadin, Yigael. Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand. NY: Random House, 1966.
A quarter-century after his death, Yadin is still the best-known and probably still the most important archaeologist Israel has produced. (He was also, in his other life, Chief of Staff of the Defense Forces and Assistant Prime Minister under Menachem Begin.) This marvelous book was published when I was a college senior pursuing a degree in Classical Studies, and I happened to be immersed in Josephus — the only written source for the Jewish civil war, of which Masada was the climax — when someone first called my attention to it. Perfect timing! The doomed defense of Masada against Flavius Silva’s siege, and the suicide of the defenders rather than surrendering, was, of course, one of the most dramatic and vividly emotional events in Rome’s history — at least to us, nearly twenty centuries later. But the plateau had been inhabited for generations before that, especially by the Herodians, who built a fortified refuge at the north end. Yadin’s expedition in the early 1960s thoroughly investigated Herod’s three-level palace, complete with wall paintings and floor mosaics (and an enormous horde of First Century coins), as well as the physical remains of the Roman siege and the Jewish defense. Among those remains was a small collection of potsherds, on one of which was written the name “Ben Ya’ir.” I imagine its discovery made the finder’s hair stand up on end, for Eleazar ben Ya’ir was the leader of the Zealots, and these ostraca were almost certainly connected with the very last defenders, those who killed all the others on Masada and then killed each other, until the last survivor killed himself. This is a popular treatment of the expedition’s discoveries, but the level of scholarship is still profound. It’s also heavily illustrated, with nearly a hundred color plates and numerous maps and plans. If you’re interested in Israel’s archaeology (as opposed to “Bible archaeology,” whatever that means), this is a book you will want to own. (8/04/08)
Wells, Peter S. The Battle That Stopped Rome. NY: Norton, 2003.
In September of AD 9, Publius Varus, governor of Germania, led three legions and their attendant auxiliary units into the dense darkness of the Teutoburg Forest thirty miles east of the Rhine, expecting to put down without difficulty a minor uprising among the tribes he governed. The report had come from Arminius, an ex-commander of German auxiliaries in the Roman armies whom Varus trusted — which turned out to be a fatal misjudgment, as Varus had taken no particular defensive measures. In a narrow space between forested hillsides on one side and a huge bog on the other, the Romans were ambushed by the Cherusci and allied tribes. The battle went on for many hours, but in the end more than 16,000 Romans died — one-fourth of all the occupiers — at the cost of only a few hundred Germans. This disaster, the author claims, changed Rome’s imperial policy in the north for all time. That’s an arguable position, but the Rhine became the de facto limit of imperial expansion and is still the border between the Latin-based western Europe and Germanic central Europe. I first read about the massacre in Tacitus in the 1960s while pursuing a classical studies degree. And I wondered if the location of the battle would ever be discovered, because no one knew quite where it had taken place, even after several centuries of research. But that had to wait until a British army officer who was an amateur historian and archaeologist stumbled over what proved to be the site in 1987 while searching for Roman coins in a rural neighborhood called Kalkriese which, fortunately, had never been built over. The first finds were a number of sling-stones, an important Roman auxiliary weapon, but subsequent systematic excavations turned up quantities of spear heads, scraps of Roman armor, skeletons of slaughtered draft animals, personal possessions (including women’s combs), and other items that make it clear that this was the site of a major Roman military engagement. Wells, an anthropologist and a leading archaeologist of the Roman period in northern Europe, carefully lays out the context from the points of view of both the Romans and the Germans, reconstructs the most likely course of the battle in light of recent discoveries, and event describes in detail what sort of wounds were caused by what sort of weapons on both sides. The style is speculative and relatively nonacademic but doesn’t talk down, either. There’s also a very good, very detailed bibliography for those who want to pursue the subject further. (8/03/08)
Wilkinson, Toby. Genesis of the Pharaohs: Dramatic New Discoveries Rewrite the Origins of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
This interesting — but not especially “dramatic” — history by a Cambridge Egyptologist is a prime example of the sins of jacket-copy writers. Because the author, a thoroughgoing academic, actually has nothing whatever to say about refugees from Atlantis or space-aliens, beyond dismissing them as twaddle. There has always been contention between “nativists” and “diffusionists,” no matter which ancient civilization is under discussion, including the Sumerians and the earliest Egyptians, and the arguments on each side can be fascinating. Wilkinson argues that the first kings of the Nile Valley some 6,000 years ago were not, in fact, produced by the local culture in the Delta but by interlopers from the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea — which is not actually a new idea, either. However, he ties his theory convincingly to a series of petroglyphic monuments, first discovered by Arthur Weigall (a student of Flinders Petrie) in the early years of the last century, and later studied and photographed by Hans Winkler in the late 1930s. The sites are still there, relatively undisturbed because of the remoteness of the protected wadis in which they were carved (Winkler’s chalking is still visible), and Wilkinson’s task for nearly a decade has been to publicize them, to bring them to the attention of modern academics as well as the educated public. The parallels between the rock art and classical tomb art in the Valley of the Kings is remarkable. Both feature gods traveling by boat, both depict deities in twin-plumed headdresses. Moreover, the crook and flail — the canonical accoutrement of the pharaohs — were herdsmen’s tools from the eastern lands (which had not yet become desert), not agricultural implements from the Delta. The author strives for a popular style but, given the technical subject matter, he doesn’t always succeed. Still, it’s a well-written treatment of a very interesting subject. Just ignore the jacket copy. (8/02/08)
Shipway, George. The Imperial Governor. NY: Doubleday, 1968.
I read this superior historical novel when it first appeared (shortly after finishing a graduate history degree), and it’s still one of the best I’ve experienced — because that’s the correct word: “experience.” Shipway, himself a product of the old British empire’s “imperial” army in India, grasps not only the economic and military necessities Rome faced in Britain during the early reign of Nero (AD 59-62), he shows a deep understanding of the personality of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus (a real person, like all the other major figures in this narrative), the highly-regarded general whom the emperor sent there to see that the government turned a profit. In the first third of the book, we follow Paulinus as he arrives in Britain, investigates his new responsibilities, and makes judgments regarding his subordinates, as well as the native leaders. Paulinus is an efficient commanding officer without tolerance for corruption or high living by his officials or recalcitrance by the locals. He has a real problem in Decianus Catus, the province’s procurator, who has independent responsibility for tax-gathering and other financial matters, and who is irredeemably greedy. Paulinus also has to balance the needs and abilities of more than a dozen British tribes whose histories and collective personalities differ greatly, as do their rulers, some of whom have prospered under Roman rule while others will never forget their past independence. The governor must make use of the self-interested loyalty of the former while sufficiently cowing the latter to maintain the peace.
The middle section of the book concerns Paulinus’s carefully laid spring campaign to bring the western part of the island (what would become Wales) under Roman control, largely because of the copper and lead mines in the area. There’s a good deal of marching back and forth between Gloucester and Chester, and several surgical military thrusts, followed by the invasion and scourging of Anglesey, last haven of the Druids. All of this is precisely and vividly described and the student (or fan) of classical military history will find a great deal to enjoy.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Among the tribal leaders Paulinus must manage is Prasutagus, aging king of the Iceni in what is now Norfolk. When he dies, Rome decides to strip his people of the developmental grants made to them years before, and Catus descends on the Iceni with a party of third-rate troops raised under his own authority. The late king’s widow, Boudicca, is beaten in the process and her two daughters are raped — and the southeastern half of Britain is suddenly embroiled in bloody revolt. The governor has to get his scattered legions back from the other end of the province to meet this new threat without giving up his new conquests. His efforts aren’t helped by the backpedaling of one of his legion commanders, nor by the questionable loyalties of some of the other tribes, and for awhile it’s not at all certain that Rome will be able to hang on to Britain. Of course, Paulinus eventually prevails in a carefully planned head-to-head battle against considerable odds. By the way, no one knows where the climactic battle that destroyed Boudicca’s army actual took place; Shipway sets is on a heath a little west of Speen, which is as good a choice as any. The aftermath of the revolt, because of which some two hundred thousand Britons died, and following which two entire tribes were obliterated in revenge, leads to the governor’s recall by Rome. And Paulinus never really understands why his appointment has been terminated. The characterizations of both Romans and Britons are first-rate, which is often not the case in a military historical. Shipway doesn’t talk down to the reader, who is expected to work a little bit — and I have no problem with that. His descriptions of the country and of campaign conditions are superlative, and an occasional glance at the maps on the endpapers will keep American readers oriented. And his obvious fascination with the nature of the Roman legion under the early empire will teach you a lot. (8/01/08)
Perry, Thomas. Metzger’s Dog. NY: Scribner, 1983.
This was Perry’s second novel, and I was prepared to be somewhat disappointed; sophomore novels are seldom as good as first novels, especially the first novel was an award-winner. But not this time; it’s a hoot and a half. It’s a caper yarn rather than a mystery and there’s a strong thread of Westlakian bizarre humor woven throughout. Chinese Gordon, ex-military and a master tool and die maker in Los Angeles, organizes a raid on a university drug study and manages opportunistically to grab an extremely secret CIA report as well from another office. The report outlines the Company’s contingency plans for taking over various cities in times of crisis from natural disaster — or by creating its own crises where necessary. Gordon and his two associates (plus his girlfriend, who has most of the brains of the group) note that considerable detail is provided in the case of Mexico City. And they are aware that the Mexican government would not be happy with the American government were such a document to be published. Sounds like a good way to blackmail the CIA, right? The point of view shifts frequently from L.A. to Langley, where several old hands and a couple of high-ranking bozos manage to misinterpret almost everything. Must be a Latin American terrorist group. Or maybe the Russians. The section where Gordon’s gang demonstrates its capabilities by immobilizing all of Los Angeles for a day is highly cinematic and I’m amazed this has never been made into a film. Oh, yeah: The title. Chinese Gordon has a subversive cat named Dr. Henry Metzger, and the dog — a two-hundred-pound junkyard mastiff — belongs to him. To the cat, that is, not to Chinese Gordon. Yeah, it’s that kind of story. (7/26/08)
Perry, Thomas. Vanishing Act. NY: Random House, 1995.
Jane Whitefield, half-Seneca, all original, is a “guide” — and not in the spiritual sense, either. She runs a sort of private Witness Protection Program, helping deserving individuals who are on the run to drop out of the world. Many of them are the wives of powerful and abusive men, or targets of gangland violence they don’t deserve. John Felker is an ex-cop turned accountant who is being set up for reasons unknown by persons unknown, and he known enough about the way things work to understand that there’s no way he’s ever going to prove his innocence. He found out about Jane from one of her previous “clients” (though she doesn’t actually charge for her services) and has come to her for help. She gets him squared away, after an interlude on a reservation in Canada (which is quite fascinating). But she’s barely returned home when things begin to happen that make it clear she’s made a dreadful error in judgment. Perry has done a great deal of research for this unusually, highly original novel and he develops his characters very well indeed. The closing section, which is brilliant and gripping, is set in the North Woods, and could have taken place two centuries ago. A marvelous book. (7/24/08)
Perry, Thomas. Sleeping Dogs. NY: Random House, 1992.
It’s been ten years since the publication of The Butcher’s Boy, Perry’s award-winning debut novel. It’s also been ten years since the title character managed to slip out of the country after laying waste to a number of mafiosi and their minions and he has spent that time in quiet retirement in Bath, England. He’s become mildly involved with a titled young woman and when she talks him into taking her to the races down in Brighton, he has the misfortune to be seen and recognized by a young member of a mafia family from back home. It’s actually pure chance, but our boy can only assume the contract on him of a decade before is still active. After dealing with the immediate threat in his usual lethal manner, he goes back to America to try to convince the “old men” to simply leave him alone. If they do, then he’ll leave them alone. If not, well, . . . he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to do his job. Elizabeth Waring, analyst for the Justice Department, suffered ten years ago, too, but now she’s been called back in to try to deal with the hit man’s return. It’s a marvelous story, with fully realized characters and tightly orchestrated, vividly described action, and I can’t help thinking the two novels would make an excellent film and a sequel. (7/22/08)
Perry, Thomas. The Butcher’s Boy. NY: Scribner, 1982.
I don’t know how I missed knowing about Perry, since he’s been cranking them out for a quarter-century, but somehow I did. I saw a recommendation for Death Benefits, enjoyed that one, and went hunting for his earlier work. This is his first and it won an Edgar. The title character, never given a personal name, is a “specialist,” a highly professional hit man, who began learning his trade in early childhood from Eddie “The Butcher.” He’s now one of the best and he works mostly for various mafia families. This job involves the murder of a member of a union local, and then the assassination of a senior U.S. Senator who has begun investigating in certain tax areas the mob doesn’t want pried into. When our protagonist goes to Las Vegas to pick up his payment, however, he seems to have suddenly become a liability to his employers, who try to remove him from the scene. Big mistake. Taking out a professional, you had better get it right the first time — and they don’t. Pretty soon, mob soldiers, capos, and their underlings begin dropping like flies. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Waring, a smart young crime analyst working for the Justice Department, gets called in on the union hit as her first field assignment and develops her own theories about what’s happening. The interesting thing in this sly and subtly plotted narrative is how often decisions are made on all sides based on erroneous information or misinterpretation of evidence. The characterization is excellent and the pace is frenetic, even though the protagonist is never anything but calm and collected. Finally, the small irony in the last two pages of the book is delicious. (7/20/08)
Abrahams, Peter. End of Story. NY: William Morrow, 2006.
Once upon a time, four guys trying to escape their rural poverty planned the armed robbery of an Indian casino on the New York side of the St. Lawrence River. But they really messed it up; two of the three who went in were killed, as was a casino security guard, and only the third escaped with the money. He apparently double-crossed the fourth man, the brains of the gang, who was waiting with an escape boat —and who ratted him out and later testified against him in court in exchange for a deal and the Witness Protection Program. But they never found the money. Now Vance Harrow, the only one to go to prison for the crime, is doing a minimum quarter-century behind bars in maximum-security. Enter Ivy Seidel, would-be novelist from New York City, who takes a job teaching the writing program at the prison to help make ends meet. She meets the charismatic Harrow, who appears to be a major undiscovered literary talent, and becomes involved in the story of the robbery. And she comes slowly to believe that Harrow is innocent, that Frank Mandrell, the planner and rat, was actually the third man in the casino, not Harrow. The narrative starts out kind of slow but accelerates as Ivy, against all her better judgments, falls for the felon and attempts to prove his innocence, even though he seems not to want her to. Is he really protecting his wife, who also disappeared? Or is Ivy the naive victim of a high-level scam? Abrahams plots a good story, very cinematic, though his usually unadorned style seems a little awkward at times, especially in the dialogues. His characterizations are first-rate, though, and the book is definitely worth a read. This appears to be his fifteenth novel, so I’ll have to take a look at some of the others. (7/18/08)
Perry, Thomas. Death Benefits. NY: Random House, 2001.
I had to take an unexpected trip recently and someone handed me this book to fill the time. I’d never read anything by Perry before, but now I’m going to be seeking out his earlier work and watching for new ones. It’s a thriller that’s big on character as well as action, and I’m amazed it hasn’t already come out as a movie. John Walker is an analyst in the headquarters of a San Francisco insurance company, a small-ish, old fashioned sort of outfit that competes successfully with the conglomerates by concentrating on service. A young woman, a rising sales person in the Pasadena office with whom he had had a brief relationship eighteen months before, seems to have skipped out in the middle of a $12-million-dollar fraud, and Max Stillman, the company’s “security expert,” takes Walker along on his investigation. The case, which now includes a murder, is brought to a not very satisfactory conclusion less than halfway through the book — obviously, there’s more to come. Walker is sent off to the company’s Miami office to help out in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, where he stumbles upon a very similar scam and hollers for help. Stillman quickly arrives in Miami and the chase is on again — and Perry brings new meaning to the phrase “criminal conspiracy.” Along the way, Walker gets involved with a young female hacker whose boss supplies Stillman with illegally obtained information for his work, and she gets caught up in the massive fraud case as well. All three principal characters are nicely developed, with Walker becoming less innocent and more active as he learns from Stillman, and the details of the insurance business and how ingenious insurance fraud can be are interesting as well. The puzzle takes awhile to solve, . . . and I think I’ll just stay the heck away from little New Hampshire towns. (7/15/08)
Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Complete Roman Army. NY: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
The author is an expert in Roman military matters with several previous works to his credit, and even though he’s an academic, his style is exceptionally readable without being oversimplified or talking down to the reader. He begins with the origins of the citizen army under the early Republic, made up of soldiers who volunteered as a matter of patriotism. This worked fine for several centuries, when Rome’s sphere of influence was still relatively small and campaigns were limited in time. As conquests expanded, though, and continuous occupation became necessary, a full-time professional army became necessary, made up of career soldiers receiving pay. The ethnic make-up of the army also shifted, with a large percentage of non-Italians being accepted — though they were still citizens, as the law required — and with a much greater proportion of non-citizen auxiliaries added to the TO. Other sections of the book cover the many aspects of a soldier’s life, both on garrison duty (which might be most of the time) and at war. Great attention is given to weapons and equipment, and the author is careful to note the many competing theories based on scarce evidence. The nearly 250 illustrations even include photos of modern reenactors, whose experiments and field trials have answered many scholarly questions. A lovely book, well written and edited, and very useful as a bridge between casual interest and academic study. (7/12/08)
Barone, Sam. Empire Rising. NY: William Morrow, 2007.
This is one of those rare cases when a pretty good first novel is followed by an even better sequel. In Dawn of Empire, Eskkar, an ex-barbarian nomad turned town-dweller some 5,000 years ago, establishes a base of personal power by taking responsibility for defending the prosperous village of Orak from his erstwhile fellow marauders. He undergoes a major mental and psychological transformation under the tutelage and urging of Trella, a slave girl who was raised to use her brains before she fell onto hard times. The construction of a defensive town wall and the building of a small infantry army consisting mostly of archers does the trick, though not without some very chancy moments. Now, Eskkar has to try to consolidate his hold on Orak — now renamed Akkad — by bringing the surrounding territory under his sway, trading the town’s protection for trading rights. Most of the book, in fact, has Eskkar up north in another village, learning how to take the first steps in building an empire by winning hearts and minds, while Trella looks after things back home. The fly in the ointment is Korthac, an Egyptian who lost his own struggle for power and has fled across the desert to Mesopotamia in search of another opportunity for self-aggrandizement. He runs into Ariamus, the cowardly ex-captain of Orak’s town guard turned bandit whose place Eskkar took at the beginning of the first book. Instead of a frontal assault, Korthac undertakes a stealthy campaign of subversion and fifth-column-building in the town — and then strikes suddenly, taking control and making a prisoner of Trella. When word finally reaches Eskkar, who has been taking a semi-vacation up north, the leader has to hurry back and figure out a way to himself break into the town that he recently defended against attack. There are several artfully intertwined sub-plots that all come together at the end, and the reader is left in no doubt as to Trella’s motivations; she doesn’t seek the expansion of power for its own sake, but because that’s the only way to protect the child she’s carrying, to be sure her progeny will rule after Eskkar. Barone’s writing is much smoother than in his first book, so he seems to be learning the trade. And while the anachronisms from the first book (mounted cavalry and coinage, etc.) are still there, the reader is advised to not worry about it and simply enjoy the story. I’m assuming there will be a third volume, in which young Sargon will start to learn how to rule, and I’ll certainly be watching for it. (7/09/08)
Eldred, Tim. Grease Monkey. NY: Tor, 2006.
The set-up for this episodic graphic novel is that, a very few years from now, a horde of alien spaceships will sweep into our solar system, bent on Earth’s destruction. We’re never told what their motivation is for the attack, but only forty percent of the population survives, vast amounts of the world’s infrastructure is destroyed, and it’s a near thing whether the species can survive. Then the other aliens — the Benefactors — stroll in and offer to help the earth restore itself by enhancing the intelligence and general intellect of other of the planet’s species to replace the dead human population. (No, this really isn’t like David Brin’s “uplift” process.) The dolphins turn down the deal, but the gorillas are more than ready. Cut to another few decades in the future. A humongous space station-slash-battleship orbits Earth as a sentinel and first defense against the possible return of the alien invaders. It’s inhabited by a number of fighter squadrons and all the associated bureaucracy and support personnel, and to keep everyone sharp (and to develop new dogfight tactics) each squadron is regularly pitted against the others. Barbara Brand’s Barbarians have been on top in the scores almost forever, and what keeps them there is Mac Gimbensky, gorilla and ace fighter mechanic. (As his tee-shirt attests, he don’t take no crap.) Robin Plotnik, a young cadet sent to the battleship for a one-year tour, ends up as Mac’s assistant and displays considerable mechanical talent himself. The chapters follow Mac and Robin through their interactions with other squadrons, friction with the gamblers who want inside info on the dogfight competitions, visits by their parents, struggles with the bureaucracy, and the love lives of both of them. Robin learns something about how humans and gorilla live together and gradually transforms into something approaching adulthood.
The stories are pretty good (except for being way too cute), but the artwork is surprising bland and generic. Also, since the destruction on Earth was pretty generally distributed, why are all the inhabitants of the battleship apparently English-speaking Americans? And I kept waiting for the return of the invaders, when all the drills either pay off or not — but it never happens. At the end of the book, the external situation is exactly what it was in the beginning. Either Eldred missed a bet here, of he’s keeping it back until the sequel comes out. But since this book first began to appear as a series of comics in 1992, it make take awhile. (7/06/08)
Moore, Stuart. Para. Houston: Penny-Farthing Press, 2006.
I remember the excitement when the Super-Conducting Super-Collider began construction beneath the plateau south of Dallas — and I remember the bitter disappointment when the feds shut the project down. In this adventureful graphic novel, Moore postulates that the SCSC was, in fact, completed and went into testing — and then an unexplained disaster occurred and killed all those within it, the entire site being shut down for a generation. Now, an investigatory team is going back down into the tunnels, including a hard-ass security chick, the daughter of the original head scientist, and one of the original guy’s assistants, plus a grad student and a paranormal investigator. Gradually, they discover what the government knew all along — that the original tests punched a hole into another reality (or plane of existence, or something) and the energy life-forms on the other side aren’t very friendly. The security agent is highly Bush-ian and really doesn’t care what happens to the others as long as she can keep the whole thing secret. But clues left by the original research team bring it all out into the open. A pretty good story, very good artwork, and an all-round good read. (7/05/08)
Fraction, Matt & Steven Sanders. The Five Fists of Science. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2006.
There’s a lot to like in this graphic yarn of Sam Clemens and his buddy, Nikola Tesla, teaming up against the black magician J. P. Morgan and his scurrilous cohorts, Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, in an attempt to bring about an end to war — or at least a start towards disarmament — via “peace by compulsion.” To do this, they have to market Tesla’s new weapon, an enormous automaton, to the Great Powers by creating terrifying but fake creatures for it to vanquish. Which is where Twain’s natural showmanship comes in. Meanwhile, Morgan is building a great temple in Manhattan, the purpose of which is never quite clear — but it has to be finished quickly, and that requires blood sacrifices. Edison and Marconi are very much the villains here — which is okay by me since I never liked either of them much, myself. Tesla is a bundle of eccentricities to match his genius, and Twain is an egotistical blowhard who is nonetheless quite likeable. Good story, good artwork, and an all-round good read. (7/04/08)
Barone, Sam. Dawn of Empire. NY: William Morow, 2006.
Set in Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago, the overarching theme of this first novel is transformation — of a frequently drunken barbarian warrior fallen on hard times into a innovative and charismatic war leader, and of a modest farming village on the banks of the Tigris (ruled by argument among the five leading families) into the first walled city ruled by a beneficent autocrat. It’s also the story of the beginning of the decline of nomadic marauders in favor of a settled, civilized culture. Thutmose-sin, chief of the Alur Meriki, is determined to conquer and destroy the town of Orak, justifiably fearful that the population explosion among the “dirt-eaters” will threaten the very existence of his own people and their way of life. Eskkar, who was once a member of the tribe but escaped when his clan was destroyed for political reasons, has been a wandering sword-for-hire ever since and has now fetched up at the village. He wants revenge against those who used to be his own people, but by himself he would be unlikely ever to get it. But he acquires a young female slave named Trella, daughter of a local chief in the south, near the Persian Gulf, who has been trained as an advisor to rulers herself, and through passion, love, and cold-blooded manipulation, she begins the make-over of Eskkar until the man doesn’t even recognize himself, until his mode of thought has evolved to something approaching wisdom, until he has learned to plan and organize — until, in fact, his personality has changed into something all the townspeople can follow. Because Orak is going to attempt something no other village has ever managed: It’s going to resist and perhaps even defeat the barbarians when they arrive. To do this requires a tall, thick wall and a much expanded, thoroughly trained fighting force. And Orak will eventually expand to become the city of Akkad. Barone leads the reader (very slowly) through the process in a way that might remind one of Robert Heinlein or Arthur Clarke, and he’s not shy about lusty sex scenes between Eskkar and Trella or about the gory reality of Bronze Age warfare. The style is a bit stilted — common for a first novel — but the action is so well paced and the characters so well developed, you won’t notice that for long.
More questionable are the numerous anachronisms. First, there was no cavalry (in the sense of horse-mounted fighters) in the Bronze Age; horses weren’t yet large enough to carry a man and his armor and equipment far enough or fast enough to matter. Light chariots were the thing — but even they weren’t being invented until roughly the period in which this story is set. Second, coinage didn’t appear for at least another 2,000 years (whether in Lydia, China, or India is immaterial); before then, symbolic-value metals took the form of ingots of different shapes, but which were always of high value for use in inter-tribal trade (think of a $1,000 bill), not the pocket change described here. Eskkar would have been acquiring weapons through barter, not purchase with gold and silver coins. Third, the recurved composite (laminated) bow the author’s horse nomads use also didn’t appear until maybe a thousand years later — being primarily of use only to mounted archers, not foot soldiers. Finally, I have a bit of problem with that name, “Thutmose.” It’s Egyptian, derived from the god Thoth, and especially popular during the 18th Dynasty, around 1,500 BC. Is Barone saying the proto-Egyptians came from Mesopotamia? (No, they didn’t.) Or is he thinking of the Hyksos? (But the Hyksos rulers were defeated by Thutmose III.) At least Barone gets the beginning of the Bronze Age more or less right. Actually, you shouldn’t let the anachronisms get in the way of your enjoyment of the story. If it helps, think of this as an “alternate history,” or as a fantasy novel. However you approach it, it’s a lot of adventurous fun superficially, but it also has something to say at several deeper levels. (7/02/08)