Scalzi, John. Zoë’s Tale. NY: Tor Books, 2008.
I stopped only a few pages into Scalzi’s latest, thinking to myself, “I’ve read this story before.” But I knew it was also a brand-new book. Only one thing to do: Cheat and read the author’s Afterword first. Where I discovered I was both right and wrong. This is indeed the same story that was told in The Last Colony — but from a different perspective and with some essential information added. John Perry and Jane Sagan, late of the Colonial Union’s military forces and now semi-retired low-level bureaucrats on a bucolic colony planet, have adopted young Zoë Boutin, biological daughter of the man who provided artificial consciousness to the Obin, one of the many hundreds of species filling our part of the galaxy. This makes Zoë very special indeed to all the Obin; in fact, her welfare is a significant part of the peace treaty between the Obin and humanity, and she has two Obin bodyguards whose job is to keep her safe. Then John and Jane are recruited to lead the settlement of a new colony of a special character, and Zoë, now fifteen (I think) has to set about making new friends and dealing with a new home. Of course, the Colonial Union, being controlled as it is by the worst sort of politicians, hasn’t told the settlers of Roanoke anything about the real reasons they were sent there, nor why they’re being set up as bait, nor why they’re worth more as dead symbols than as live settlers. And it’s eventually down to Zoë to upset the CU’s applecart and save her family and friends. Because this is Zoë telling the story in first person (the same story, more or less, that was told by her parents in the previous book),we learn a lot more about certain events and gloss over certain other things that we witnessed in much more detail from her parents’ point of view. We also hear it all in Zoë’s intelligent and precocious, but still adolescent voice, so that the whole thing comes across somewhat like a very well written Heinlein-style juvenile. Can’t say fairer than that. Reading the two books a year apart allows you to forget and then re-learn much of the detail, which is why I would not recommend reading them back to back. But Scalzi is one of the best sf writers working these days and you definitely should read both of them. (12/30/08)
Lodge, David. Deaf Sentence. NY: Viking, 2008.
I’ve been a fan of Lodge’s fiction ever since his second novel, Ginger, You’re Barmy, came out in 1962. His first few books were considered amusing but nothing special by the critics, but he hit his stride with Changing Places in 1975. This latest work of fiction (because, as a professor of English, now retired, Lodge has also written dense works on critical theory) is his fourteenth and it’s an excellent example of how his early propensity for domestic comedy has evolved into commedia in almost the Dantean sense. Lodge is from southeast London but has spent all his adult academic life in Birmingham, and the present narrative, like several of his others, is set in both places. It’s difficult to know how much of the detail of his books derives from his personal experiences but Desmond Bates, a retired professor of linguistics (not languages — “it’s a common mistake”), who is becoming more and more deaf, is certainly based on Lodge’s own situation. In fact, the narrator’s explicit puns on deafness (including the title) and the implicit frustration it causes him are very much the focus of the story. Though he’s helped by high-tech hearing aids, and though more theaters are making wi-fi headphones available for deaf patrons, deafness makes social intercourse extremely difficult — and yet it’s not as dramatic and sympathy-drawing as blindness. It’s hardly worth it to Desmond to try to teach, or to attend public functions or even dinner parties, since he misses so much now of what’s going on. And since his somewhat younger second wife is becoming very successful with an upscale home decor business even as Desmond is entering the downside of his life, he feels even more isolated and frustrated. Then he’s approached by a personable and blondely attractive American graduate student seeking advice (apparently) on her doctoral dissertation, the focus of which is a textual analysis of suicide notes. Desmond was a teacher for too long not to be aware of the pitfalls of becoming involved — or even appearing to become involved — with female students, and he doesn’t even have official standing with the university any longer, but his loneliness seduces him into going beyond what his good sense warns him about. Still, he never does anything that quite stoops to B-movie farce, though he worries that he might have. Especially as he realizes that the girl is even weirder than he at first thought. Lodge is a master of the British art of drollery and wry self-observation and Desmond’s interior monologues — the only sort of conversation he’s really comfortable with these days — are smoothly developed in a complex way that seems effortless. That’s the mark of a first-rate writer. Two of his novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Lodge himself chaired the committee one year), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this one were as well. (12/28/08)
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000.
The author is a born storyteller — what the book itself would call a Salesman — and even the points he makes that are the most contrary to “common sense” are well documented. Suppose you want to effect a significant change in society of some kind — reducing teenage smoking, or lowering the crime rate in New York City? Or suppose you simply want to sell more of your company’s cool athletic shoes? What you want to do is to start an “epidemic,” in the non-biological sense. And you do that by paying close attention to only three psychosocial rules or factors, and to only a few quite small groups of quite specific people. The rules are the Law of the Few (the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen among us have a vastly disproportionate effect on our tastes and social decisions), the Stickiness Factor (the fact that some external forces, like Sesame Street, can have surprisingly long-lasting effects), and the Power of Context (the realization that the circumstances in which something occurs can make all the difference in what actually happens). Gladwell brings many case studies to bear, whether it’s the “degrees of separation” game, or Bernard Goetz’s experience on the New York subway, or the teen suicide epidemic in Micronesia, or the 150-person limit in organizations, or why Paul Revere was successful in rousing the countryside but William Dawes wasn’t. It’s a fascinating volume, the first of what is now a series of three — with, I hope, more to come. (12/19/08)
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink:The Power of Thinking without Thinking. NY: Little, Brown, 2005.
One of the main reasons, I think, that Gladwell is such a popular author in a field like business psychology is that he’s a terrific storyteller. This study of the way our minds create first impressions, the way we “thin-slice” in just a few seconds, or even fractions of a second, to draw conclusions about people and situations, especially in times of stress, is thoroughly fascinating, largely because of the case studies he describes in making his point. For instance, a thoroughly trained, deeply experienced art historian can look at a painting or statue and know almost instantly whether it’s a fake or not — even if he can’t describe how he knows. It’s this ability that has enabled the species to survive. But it also sometimes gets in the way of rational, preferred behavior. An autistic, for another example, lacks this ability to “read minds” from instant, authomatic analysis of facial expressions, a skill learned in infancy, and is dependent on explanations by others. Gladwell also gives us the real history behind the Pepsi Challenge and how the Coca Cola Company managed to fail so badly with New Coke. (It was confusion between the “sip test” vs. the “drink the whole can test.”) And he examines the reasons for the killing of Amadou Diallo by a car full of New York City cops. (Not innate racism so much as complete failure of the cops’ training.) And, finally, he describes in considerable detail “Millenium Challenge,” the vastly expensive war game conducted in 2002, how and why the Blue Team (representing the U.S.) was savaged by a retired Marine Corps general heading the Red Team — and how the results were were then refused and perverted by the Bush Pentagon for its own ends in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. This is the author’s second book and he continues to both fascinate and educate. (12/08/08)
Dietrich, William. The Scourge of God. NY: HarperCollins, 2005.
The Battle of Châlons in the summer of AD 451, also called the Battle of Nations for the wide variety of peoples and cultures that fought to a standstill there, was one of the most important defining moments in the history of the West. Because if the other side had won that day, our world would be a very, very different place. Attila, the kagan of the Huns, after a number of years of bloody raids against the eastern regions of the declining Roman Empire, and also against the other Romanized and Christianized “barbarian” nations that had largely replaced Italian-Roman authority in much of the West, was seeking the “final battle,” the climactic encounter that would give him control of most of the world and end Rome’s authority forever. Aetius, the Roman general whose brilliance both in making war and in diplomacy had kept Rome from oblivion, was trying his best to prevent that from happening. Dietrich, author of four previous historical novels, sets his story right in the middle of this maelstrom. Young Jonas Alabanda, from a high-ranking Byzantine family, is attached to an embassy sent by Constantinople to the camp of Attila in present-day Hungary — not knowing it’s intended to be an assassination attempt. There he meets Ilana, refugee from one of the hundreds of Roman cities sacked and razed by the Huns, and now a slave in the camp. And he meets Skilla, not much older than himself, the son of one of the kagan’s generals and a skilled and brave warrior himself. Skilla has fallen in love with Ilana and Jonas is quickly doing the same — and that three-way tension becomes the driving force of the personal, more focused plotline within the larger story of Attila’s invasion of the West. Jonas spends time as a Hun hostage, escapes, serves Aetius as aide and envoy, travels to the Visigothic capital of Toulouse to convince King Theodoric to support the Roman cause, takes part in the siege of Orléans (then called Aurelia), joins the larger army, and finally fights to the end at Châlons. “Never before had so many died so quickly.” It’s his own pivotal, and perfectly believable, role in events that the author employs to guide the reader through that fateful period in our history. The characters are deftly constructed and the descriptions of battle are powerful and convincing. This is one of the best historicals I’ve read in a long time. In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was Dietrich’s habit of switching from Jonas’s first-person narrative to an omniscient third-person describing what Jonas (and the others) are doing. Perhaps most readers wouldn’t even notice this, but I’ve been a freelance editor for a couple of decades and I found it grating and annoying. But, as I say, that’s just me. (11/29/08)
O’Nan, Stewart. Last Night at the Lobster. NY: Viking, 2007.
This is a classic of the “slice of life” genre relating the events of a nearly ordinary day in the working life of a small group of ordinary people. But the author’s skill in making us care about what happens is anything but ordinary. Manny DeLeon, apparently in his 30s, is the manager of a Red Lobster located on the periphery of a decaying shopping center in (I think) Connecticut. He’s been doing the job for some years and he seems to be pretty good at it, at least partly because he’s conscientious and takes his responsibilities seriously. He has occasionally made judgment errors by hiring people who didn’t work out, but he tries hard to give his people every chance to prove themselves. But now it’s four days before Christmas and the home office has decided that Manny’s restaurant, despite its not-terrible receipts, is to be one of those they will close down. Except for Manny himself and the four or five employees he will be allowed to take with him to the company’s Olive Garden location in a nearby town, this is the staff’s last shift before unemployment kicks in. Manny is determined to keep things going right to the end, though, despite the loss of several of his people who immediately walked off the job in disgust at hearing the news, and despite the heavy snowstorm moving into the area. But for tonight, Manny is going to see to it that the set-up for lunch is done properly, that the health and hygeine rules are followed, that the day’s specials are ready, and that the waitresses don’t fight each other for tips. Anyone who has worked in food service will recognize the routine as Manny prepares the Lobster for its last opening, and as his skeleton staff arrive and work out how to cover all the necessary bases in the kitchen and in the front of the house. When an unexpected party of fourteen shows up from a nearby office to celebrate a retirement, Manny is ready to make it happen. When a snowbound casino bus filled with elderly Chinese stops just to use his restrooms, he’s a welcoming host. Ty, his principal chef, and Roz, his oldest and most experienced waitress, are his bulwark. Dom, the bartender has always been a reliable rock, but he will betray Manny before the night is out. Eddie, who is developmentally challenged and lives in a group home, is also dependable, unlike several of the other, younger staff. And then there’s Jacquie, the waitress with whom he had a relationship last spring that fell apart over personal issues. But Manny is still in love with her, though she’s now living with Rodney, who (unfortunately) is a perfectly nice guy. And there’s Manny’s own new girl, Deena, who is pregnant. As I said, ordinary people you wouldn’t look twice at, in ordinary stressful relationships, with ordinary employment problems. But in this brief novel — only 146 pages — O’Nan paints a telling portrait of their collective existence and what they mean to each other. The narrative is simple and straightforward, and the descriptions seem ordinary while being anything but. The dialogue is largely the sort of shorthand that develops among people who have worked closely together and have depended on each other for years. People with a mutual history. And if Manny showed up in HR office, I’d hire him in a minute. If you have friends (as I do) who are longtime food servers or cooks, this would make a terrific Christmas gift. And I certainly hope this gets made into a film, perhaps by a small indy operation. Properly handled, it could be a festival-winner. (11/24/08)
Bennett, Alan. The Uncommon Reader. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007.
Bennett is one of the very best comic writers presently working in the English language, and this short book — only 120 pages — will keep you thoroughly entertained for the few hours it takes to read it. The set-up is simple. Queen Elizabeth II, pursuing a corgi around the corner of Buckingham Palace one afternoon, encounters the bookmobile that supplies her staff with its reading on a weekly basis. Looking inside from curiosity, and startling the librarian and the young man from the kitchen staff patronizing the collection, her natural politeness drives her to check out a book. Having done so, she feels duty-bound (duty being something Her Majesty understands thoroughly) to actually read it. And the experience is transformative. So begins her amazed discovery of an entirely new world she never really knew existed — the world of literature. And Norman, the young kitchen skivvy (well, he is gay), becomes her guide and amanuensis. Her first approach to reading is omnivorous and her tastes, as she begins to develop them, are highly eclectic. Many of the more modern authors are people she has actually met, in her capacity as monarch — a few of them she has even knighted — but she never knew what to say to them before. Her enthusiasm for opening fire stations and attending youth concerts, which she has done for half a century, begins to wane. She’d rather be reading. The Prime Minister and the various equerries who surround her worry about this tendency and try to stave off what they fear is a signal of the queen’s decline, but she’s been in this business far longer than any of them and manages without much difficulty to follow her own desires. And after a few years, the time comes when she realizes that to read is essentially to be a spectator — and Her Majesty has always been a doer. And what should one “do” in regard to books? Why, become a writer, of course. The narrative flows effortlessly and the sly and dry humor will keep you smiling. Bennett is also paying the queen quite a compliment by assuming she possesses the intellect to discover (given the opportunity) that there’s more to life than horses and corgis. One sincerely hopes the Sovereign acquires a copy of the book. One never knows. (11/20/08)
Pearl, Matthew. The Dante Club. NY: Random House, 2003.
This is the best plotted and most intellectually fascinating mystery novel I have read in years. The scene is Boston and Cambridge in the fall of 1865, a city filled with soldiers returned from the War — not all of them in the best psychological shape — and the site of Harvard College. The characters bear names recognizable to anyone with the slightest literary education: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes (the latter two members of the Harvard faculty), plus James T. Fields of Ticknor & Fields, at that time the most important publishing firm in the country. Longfellow has organized a translating society with the aim of making Dante’s Comedy accessible to Americans. The Harvard Corporation, however, is determined not only to prevent publication of the translation but to terminate Lowell’s Dante classes at the college, in an effort to maintain the “purity” of American literary morals. And then a series of murders begins taking place among the Boston Brahmin (a term coined by Holmes), with distinctly Dantean overtones. The three poets and their publisher colleague decide it’s up to them to discover the culprit, since between them they know far more about Dante than anyone else. Add Patrolman Nicholas Rey, the first black cop in New England, a veteran of the War himself and possessing more intellect than most of those on the force, and they just might bring it off. But first they must recognize that the motivation behind the murders isn’t quite what they thought it was. The writing is first-rate, especially for a first novel, and the principle characters are drawn in a way that is both accurate and intriguing — Longfellow’s winthdrawn gentleness, Holmes’s insecurity and self-criticism, Lowell’s tendency to act without sufficient forethought, and Fields’s attention to protecting the others at least partly for the sake of his own pocketbook. Pearl is himself a Harvard grad and a Dante expert and the often boisterous discussions in Longfellow’s study teem with erudition. But more than all that, Pearl creates a world in which it’s believable that the little group known as the Fireside Poets could also be men of action (within limits, anyway) in hunting down and capturing a deranged murderer. (11/16/08)
Grimes, Martha. The Horse You Came in On. NY: Knopf, 1993.
I began reading this series at the beginning, intending to work my way straight through to the end. It started out okay, and I enjoyed the characters the author developed — not only Detective Superintendent Richard Jury and his wealthy, once-titled buddy, Melrose Plant, but also the recurring villagers of Plant’s acquaintance and Jury’s apartment house neighbors and colleagues at work. Often they were better done than the actual plot, which are mostly getting sloppier and less thoughtful. This time, Jury is prevailed upon to undertake the investigation of an odd murder in Philadelphia — at the same time Plant decides to journey to Baltimore to visit a young novelist in whom he developed a semi-romantic interest in the last book (. . . and who has now suddenly morphed into a full-fledged faculty member at Johns Hopkins), so it’s off to America for both of them, plus the hypochondriac Sgt. Wiggins. And there, the book begins to fall apart. Both of the mysteries, naturally, coincidentally, turn out to be involved with each other and both are connected to a newly-discovered manuscript which might turn out to be an unknown Edgar Allan Poe story — or it might be a fake. But Grimes appears driven, for some reason, to churn out pages and pages and pages of truly dreadful pseudo-Poe. And even though Grimes is an American, her account of the Brits’ experiences reads like an insular British mystery writer’s conception of what America is like. Also, time passes at the normal rate in this series, so the main characters, who were in their 40s at the beginning, are now nearly sixty years old. And yet they behave like guys in their late twenties. (It’s been fifteen years since this book was published, and Grimes is still cranking them out, so I hate to think what her seventy-year-old cop is getting up to.) Anyway, I found I couldn’t make myself finish this one, and I won’t be hunting out the next one. (10/31/08)
Grimes, Martha. The Old Contemptibles. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991
In most regards, this 11th volume in the Supt. Richard Jury mystery series is perhaps the best so far. Jury has gotten involved with Jane Holdsworth, a young woman he met at the Camden street market and after only a few weeks, he’s seriously considering proposing marriage. Then she turns up dead on her sofa, an apparent suicide, and Jury is one of the suspects.The body was discovered by her 16-year-old son, Alex, who is something of a genius when it comes to scamming bookies and other gamblers. And Alex is convinced his mother must have been murdered. Because Jury is under suspicion, Melrose goes off to investigate the victim’s family in the Lake District, and it’s he who actually is the focus of most of the book, not Jury. Several other questionable deaths have been connected to the family is a short period of time. Alex’s great-grandfather, Adam, who prefers to spend most of his time at a plush retirement home down the road rather than with his avaricious family, has his own thoughts about the various deaths. So does Lady Cray, Adam’s astute and steely-eyed friend. And so, especially, does Milly, the Holdsworth family’s twelve-year-old cook, whose mother was yet another suicide (or murder) tied to the Holdsworth family. There’s a good deal of Grimes’s wry humor here, and much better plotting than usual, but the author still has a penchant for killing off the villain at the end of the book instead of letting the law take its course. But there are still a few holes. For instance, who the devil paid for Jury’s expensive attorney, if it wasn’t Vivian? (10/28/08)
Grimes, Martha. The Old Silent. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.
This is the tenth murder mystery featuring Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard and his wealthy, highborn friend, Melrose Plant. But this time, Jury actually witnesses the murder he subsequently investigates when a woman shoots her husband in an inn in the wilds of West Yorkshire. But then there’s another murder, out on the moor. As usual, both the victims, the perpetrator (but perhaps not the only one), and the other characters all are connected with a large country house owned by a wealthy family. And, also as usual, one of the characters (and a potential victim) is a precocious adolescent with an affinity for animals. And it all connects with a kidnapping and probable murder nearly a decade before. The writing is smooth and the characters (as usual) are probably the best part of the book. On the other hand, the added theme this time is serious rock ‘n’ roll, of which Grimes seems not to have a broad personal knowledge but is only parroting notions and judgments she has read or been told. (At least, that’s how it comes out.) (10/18/08)
Grimes, Martha. The Five Bells and Bladebone. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.
This is the ninth outing for Superintendent Richard Jury of the Scotland Yard CID, and it’s one of the better ones lately in terms of actual plot, in my opinion — something Grimes doesn’t always pay enough attention to, in favor of interesting characters and dry humor. Marshall Trueblood, astute village antiques dealer and good friend of ex-earl Melrose Plant, takes delivery of a rosewood desk from a nearby country estate only to have the dead body of the estate owner’s philandering husband tumble out of it. Jury investigates the widow and finds evidence tying her unexpectedly to a woman killed at about the same time and in a similar way in London’s East End. The plot deepens as more connections between the two surface and possible motives come to light. And, as in real life, the final solution isn’t entirely satisfactory to all those involved. (To balance out all this complexity, there’s also the lawsuit by Plant’s Aunt Agatha, involving an assault against her person by a parked bicycle and a plaster butcher’s pig.) (10/15/08)
Hall, Loretta. Underground Buildings: More than Meets the Eye. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2004.
I have no training whatever in architecture or engineering, but I’ve always been interested, often fascinated, by unique and unusual buildings. Hall, a technical writer with a slightly groan-producing sense of humor, has put together a survey of below-ground-level structures in the United States, including private homes (whether bunkered and bermed or converted from old missile silos), schools, libraries (such as the Bradley Wing of the Los Angeles Public Library, which I was familiar with), museums, government emergency shelters (Mt. Weather and Cheyenne Mountain are both here), and corporate facilities (Kansas City is full of them). The information provided is just technical enough to make the author’s point about the utility and efficiency of building below ground, and there are loads of color photos and architectural drawings. I only wish the book had been several times as thick so it could include non-U.S. structures. Maybe she’ll do another volume. (10/12/08)
Grimes, Martha. I Am the Only Running Footman. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.
Eye-catching title — though, like most in the Superintendent Richard Jury mystery series, it has sod-all to do with the story. This time, a young female hitchhiker is strangled with her own scarf in a layby in Devon; ten months later, another young woman is strangled in a similar manner near the titular pub in Mayfair. Devon is the fearsome DCS Macalvie’s turf, and he (who was first seen in Help the Poor Struggler) is here again, but in a relatively minor role. The action takes Jury — and his wealthy, ex-titled friend, Melrose Plant — to the country homes of two families, one struck by tragedy a couple years before, the other simply pathetic. I had to reread the denouement chapter, trying to figure out just why the guilty party was guilty; I’m still not sure. This isn’t really one of Grimes’s better efforts. (10/10/08)
Grimes, Martha. The Deer Leap. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.
This seventh outing for Detective Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard CID and his recently un-titled friend, Melrose Plant, seems a little confused in its plot and in the back-story of the characters. An adolescent girl with amnesia and a predilection for needy animals has been taken in by a widowed baroness in a small town who has a fondness for gin. Polly Praed, semi-successful mystery novelist and longtime friend of Plant, has a dead body fall on her out of a call box in the village during a rain storm. And there’s been a rash of pet deaths, plus a couple of humans. All this somehow brings Jury down from London (not very realistic, that) and the plot, as they say, thickens. The conversations are witty, the characterizations deft, but Grimes has always been good at those; it’s the storyline itself that needs work. And I was frustrated by the equivocal events on the very last page; what finally happened to the girl, for pete’s sake? Well, at least Plant finally has a reason for carrying a sword cane. (10/08/08)
Grimes, Martha. Help the Poor Struggler. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.
This sixth novel in the series about Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard and his friend, the ex-titled Melrose Plant (is he ever going to tell us why he gave up his earldom?), is rather darker than the others. It features Chief Superintendent Macalvie of Dartmoor, a fearsome character with American roots who likes to talk like Sam Spade, and whose only unsolved case to date was the murder of a young mother in a village on the moor twenty years earlier. He’s always believed in the innocence of the medical student who went to prison for it, and he’s never forgotten the two daughters in the case, one of whom, after finding the bloody body, went into a permanent fugue state. Now a series of murders of children has the county up in arms and Jury, with Plant’s undercover assistance, has to figure out what they have in common. Because the next victim might be the orphaned ten-year-old Lady Jessica Mary Allen-Ashcroft, whose guardian uncle may also be one of the leading suspects. This is perhaps the best in the series and the whodunit solution is a perfectly justified surprise resulting from subtle misdirection. (10/06/08)
Grimes, Martha. Jerusalem Inn. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard CID is off to the north to visit his cousin over the holidays in this fifth novel in the series when he runs into a young women making notes in a graveyard. They chat and have coffee and Jury, whom she fascinates, plans to stop in again for another visit on his way home. But when he arrives, she’s already dead, apparently of an overdose of prescription drugs — and he’s not buying it. The plot progresses to an Agatha-Christie-like stately home filled with snowed-in aristocrats and the odd artist, where another murder occurs, which Jury is sure is tied to the first one. Add in an adolescent earl with an amazing talent for snooker, and you’ve got a pretty good story, . . . even if the maguffin is a little too pat. (10/03/08)