2003: 2nd Quarter [24]

Katcher, Philip. The Civil War Source Book. NY: Facts on File, 1992.

Anyone seriously interested in the American Civil War ends up with a sizable shelf of reference volumes, and this one should be on that shelf. After an introductory year-by-year summary of campaigns and major battles (easily found in many other sources), he discusses the organization, weapons, formal tactics, and actual practices for each branch of the service. This includes such uncommon units as the Mississippi Marine Brigade and the Indian Home Guards. Where else are you going to find the details of each state militia’s formation and organization, both North and South, not to mention the standard uniform? Everything here is exemplified in hundreds of period photos with excellent captions (especially useful for militia uniforms), and there are numerous excerpts from personal reports, diaries, memoirs, and regimental histories. Katcher also includes short biographies of major military figures, each accompanied by a portrait (not the same ones you’ll find in Generals in Blue and Generals in Gray, either). And there are footnotes and short bibliographies throughout. An excellent ready-reference tool. (6/30/03)

Baker, Kage. Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers. Urbana, IL: Golden Gryphon Press, 2002.

I’ve enjoyed the author’s four “Dr. Zeus, Inc.” novels — well, the first three considerably more than the most recent one — but this volume is an example of the truism that short stories often don’t work as well as novel-length on the same subject. First, you definitely have to have read the novels to make head or tail of some of these stories, so I’m not sure what the readers made of them in their original magazine appearances. Second, there actually are only ten Company stories in this collection, the other four being what seem to be the first installments (first I’ve seen, anyway) in a new series about an apparent non-homo sapiens named Alec Checkerfield — which really are pretty good, though Baker leaves a lot of unanswered questions. (I think “Monster Story” is the best of the four.) Having said all that, though, I’ll admit that when Baker gets in the groove, she can really tear up the page! “The Queen in Yellow,” which is new for this volume and may be the best thing here, is a mile-a-minute semi-slapstick piece featuring Literature Preservationist Lewis and his attempt to recover ancient Egyptian manuscripts out from under the nose of Flinders Petrie, who is almost too much for him. “Studio Dick Drowns Near Malibu,” which is also pretty good, is a more romantic story about Facilitator Joseph’s latest faked death and the way in which he deals with a young woman’s attempted suicide (though she seems awfully naive). “The Hotel at Harlan’s Landing” has a nice Twilight Zone flavor. On the other hand, “The Wreck of the Gladstone” is rather weak — and why is it dedicated to Harlan Ellison, when it seems to bear no resemblance to any of his work? And “Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin,” which features all new characters, is just confusing. Well, I’ll be waiting with curiosity for the next book in the novel series. (6/29/03)

McCafferty, Megan. Sloppy Firsts. NY: Three Rivers Press/Random House, 2001.

As a career librarian, I’ve been reading YA fiction for many years, and with considerable appreciation when it’s well done. This is McCafferty’s first published novel, and the field obviously has a new rising star. Jessica Darling (sometimes referred to as “Jes’ Darlin’,” to her irritation) is a fifteen-year-old New Jersey sophomore, a straight-A (and Type-A) student, a track star, insufficiently physically developed in her own critical opinion, and without a boyfriend. She’s also minus her best friend, who has moved to small-town Tennessee, leaving Jess without allies in the struggles of adolescence. Her three other longtime friends are shallow, skanky, and socially calculating; she loathes them but still hangs out with them, in preference to being even lonelier than she already is. Her computer-professional, bicycle-addicted father seems to be interested only in her athletic performance, while her twin-setted Mom can think only of her eldest daughter’s impending wedding. She worries insomniacally about everything, including the fact that her period is five months late — and she’s not even sexually active. Should she follow her cautious attraction to Marcus Flutie, a “Dreg” who is intelligent but always in substance-abuse trouble? (In a weak moment, she pees into a cup for him.) Can she deal with her hormonal fixation on senior knockout Paul Parlipiano? Will Hyacinth, apparent hip refugee from “the City,” become a new friend — or just another one of Them? McCafferty seems to have turn-of-the-century teenspeak nailed (I’m taking my granddaughter’s word for that . . .) and she certainly knows how to create characters about whom the reader will care. And, given the obvious strengths at the core of Jessica’s personality, I have the feeling she’s going to be all right. (6/27/03)

Geier, Clarence R., Jr. & Susan E. Winter (eds). Look to the Earth: Historical Archaeology and the American Civil War. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

This volume of essays is a delight for anyone (like me) with overlapping interests in American material culture and the American Civil War. Following two general introductory essays, there are ten case studies on specific sites, each by the local expert. These include Maryland Heights at Harpers Ferry, naval wrecks in the James River, Camp Nelson in Tennessee, Cheat Summit Fort in West Virginia, the Hatcher-Cheatham family site near Richmond (including Drewry’s Bluff), and the Parrott Foundry at West Point. There’s also a discussion of how Civil War sites are to be best memorialized. All the authors make it clear that trophy-collectors with metal detectors are not archaeologists! Interpretation is more important than mere digging. Recording where spent bullets tended to cluster at a battlefield, for instance, helps make clear the position of specific units and aids our understanding of the sequence of the action. There’s also an implied warning regarding the social vulnerability of many recently excavated sites as a result of unencumbered development. I know Geier has a new volume of essays out, and it’s on my to-read list, . . . but I do wish he’d do an up-to-date overall survey of Civil War archaeology. (6/25/03)

Kipfer, Barbara Ann. The Order of Things: How Everything in the World Is Organized into Hierarchies, Structures, and Pecking Orders. Rev. & updated ed. NY: Random House, 2001.

In theory, this is a terrific idea for a library ready-reference book: pages and pages of lists of every kind and classification of things you can imagine. The design and execution is a good deal more problematic, however. Some of the selected topics are obvious — Roman and Japanese emperors, weights and measures, the Ten Commandments, Newton’s Laws of Motion — but many others (I’m tempted to say “most others”) are not in any way hierarchical and are seldom naturally structured. In fact, they often seem artificial and arbitrary, meant only to fill up space to produce a book large enough to market. At the least, they strain the rubric. For example: “Circus attractions” is just a incomplete collection of types of acts; “Employee benefits” is merely one sample list; “Motion picture genres” includes an apparently arbitrary forty-one types of films (who says?); likewise the “areas” of the performing arts; likewise the topics in a household budget. And why is the list of topics used in the Macmillan Visual Dictionary a valid universal list? Finally, even some topics I personally would have considered obvious are omitted, like a list of the traditional logical fallacies. If you remember the Wallaces’ highly idiosyncratic and very browsable Book of Lists series from the 1970s, . . . well this is nothing like that. Finally, it pains me to observe that the book’s designer saw fit to commit the amateurish font-sin of setting the titles of publications in the blurbs on the back cover in ALL SWASH. (6/24/03)

Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. NY: Ballantine, 1996.

To put it very simply, this first novel is an extraordinary piece of work, a true tour de force. It’s about a Jesuit expedition to the first inhabited world other than our own, newly discovered — but that’s not really what it’s about. Russell is a highly trained anthropologist, cross-educated in many other related disciplines, all of which she draws upon masterfully to tell the story of Father Emilio Sandoz, S.J., and the other members of the exploratory party. The two societies of Rakhat are very, very well thought out and depicted and that world is entirely consistent and believable — because she also knows when more detail would be too much — but it’s the party from Earth that holds our attention, the beautifully developed complexities of their personalities and interrelationships, the humane ways in which they learn to function as a group, to love each other. And the reader cares very much when things happen to them — and things do indeed happen. But even they are not the most important concern of the story, which is the nature of belief in God, the search for and acceptance of God, and what happens when that acceptance is betrayed by God. And, on top of all that, Russell is a very highly accomplished stylist, a master of plot and pacing, a poet of considerable talent. There’s a sequel, but I almost hesitate to pick it up. Could she possibly produce something so marvelous twice? (6/23/03)

Poundstone, William. How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.

I’m now in my late 50s and it’s probably just as well that the last job interview I underwent was in the mid-1960s. I hate those things. It’s probably also a good thing that I never had to interview somewhere like Microsoft, because I hate solving puzzles under threat of a stopwatch. And yet I have a couple of advanced degrees (not easy ones), I’m intellectually curious and very well read, and I’m generally regarded as intelligent and reasonably successful — whatever those two words mean. Ah, well. I guess Bill is never going to invite me to dinner (and make me draw a map of the United States on the back of my place mat). Poundstone is an extremely interesting and accessible writer with a knack for the best possible word-choice, and I’ve read and enjoyed most of his previous books. This time, he uses the now-classic Microsoft “brain teaser” job interview as the launching pad for an exploration of the history of intelligence testing and its deep, early connection to the culture of Silicon Valley — but also for a discussion of just what it is that a job interview is supposed to accomplish. Or, given our scientifically demonstrated tendency to make snap judgments about people, are interviews a waste of everyone’s time? He has some cogent thoughts about that, too. Nearly half the book is given over to answering and explaining the puzzles themselves and, of course, many readers (presumably including those who want to become Microserfs) will grab it for that reason alone. But Poundstone has some very pointed and pertinent things to say. (6/21/03)

Schlein, Alan M. Find It Online: The Complete Guide to Online Research. 3d ed. Tempe, AZ: Facts on Demand Press, 2002.

It used to be that a good reference librarian had only to keep up with the new books being published, and perhaps keep one eye on the newspapers and learned journals. Nowadays, one has to keep track of where best to find the answers to questions on the Web, as well. And it ain’t easy! Massive printed volumes of Web addresses weren’t much help even a decade ago because they were indiscriminate and seldom included annotations. What we needed — and still need — are a few collections of a (relatively) few carefully selected germane Web sites with the reasons given for their inclusion. And this discriminating and well thought out guide is the best one I’ve seen yet. It’s intended mostly for the professional information broker or commercial researcher-for-hire, but librarians in any large public or academic library system do much the same sort of thing and will profit enormously by reading it. After an excellent introduction to the principles of online research, it’s divided into topical sections: government resources, public records, news sites, business tools, and international (i.e., non-U.S.) research. Then there are several sections on managing and filtering what you find, how to evaluate its credibility and utility, and privacy concerns. Schlein spends considerable time on fee-based and “hidden” resources, too, not just the freebies on the public Web. Some of the sites he recommends I was already aware of, but there are many others I hadn’t run across before. And I have been recommending his advice on search strategies and information massaging to my colleagues. There are a couple of annoying things about this otherwise superior book, however. One is the need for much, much tighter copyediting — like saying “the software can be moderated” when they meant “modified,” and the sometimes eccentric punctuation, and the tendency to break Web addresses in peculiar places (letting only the last character of “.html” fall to the next line gives you a quite different address). The other annoyance is a tendency by the author to laud (frequently) any book published by his editors, associates, or advisors — so much so that it becomes embarrassing. But given the high quality of the book’s actual content, I suppose I can live with that. (6/19/03)

Moore, Alan & Kevin O’Neill. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Vol. 1. La Jolla, CA: America’s Best Comics, 2000.

I was never much of a comic-book reader as a kid (back in the fifties), but I’ve developed a fondness for graphic novels in the past decade or so. Not super hero stuff (except for The Watchmen, of course) but “real” stories set in the present or past. Reasonably real, anyway. This one is a high-Victorian adventure involving such literary greats as Alan Quartermain (fallen on hard times as a result of drug-dependence), Capt. Nemo (here interpreted as a renegade from the Subcontinent), the Invisible Man (a deeply sociopathic character), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (suffering from a bipolar disorder of some magnitude), all of whom are collected Wilhelmina Murray, who has reverted to her maiden name following an unnamed horrible experience the previous year. She working under the instructions of Mr. Bond and “M” (who is suspected of being Mycroft Holmes, . . . but that initial can stand for a number of things), who are trying to save the world from the criminal use of cavorite. I often find that in even the best graphic novel, the story is not nearly as well produced as the artwork, and that’s also the case here — but the discrepancy is rather small this time. And the art is very well done indeed, especially the flow from one panel to the next and the use of slight changes in facial expression or body language to make a point. There are some really lovely details, too, like the bad guys in corsets. I shall be waiting with anticipation for the next volume. (6/14/03)

Sherman, Chris & Gary Price. The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can’t See. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2001.

I retired five years ago after thirty years in a very large public library system, and recently found it necessary to return to the trenches for awhile, in a rather smaller system. In that half-decade, of course, the Internet changed drastically and, even though I’m constantly online and intimately familiar with the major search engines (and many of the minor ones), there was a large number of new reference information sources with which I was not at all familiar. So I went looking for professional tools to remedy my ignorance. This is the first book I’ve seen in the publisher’s “CyberAge” series, and medthodologically, it’s quite good. As others have noted, the static nature of print-on-paper means rapidly outdated material, but Sherman and Price show you how to attack the problem, so, even though I came across several (unfortunately) extinct databases, I was able to locate several new ones, too. This is a terrific instructional work for reference librarians, and the accompanying web site is near the top of my bookmarks at work. (6/11/03)

Finney, Jack. About Time: 12 Short Stories. NY: Simon & Schuster/Fireside, 1986.

Finney is sort of the Clifford Simak of time travel, as best expressed in his classic novel, Time and Again. The shorter pieces in this volume originally appeared in The Third Level and I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, and have been reprinted many times elsewhere, as well, but they’re still perfect reading for that warm summer Sunday afternoon in the hammock. The “furniture” of these stories — the social commentary, the cultural backdrop of the 1950s — may seem rather dated, but all of them share a wistfulness that transcends the period in which they were written. In “The Coin Collector” (also previously published as “The Woodrow Wilson Dime”), a man finds an odd bit of coinage in his pocket change, an artifact of a closely parallel world, in which he married a different girl and took a different job, and in which Mark Twain wrote another Huck Finn novel. He finds it all very exciting — for a while. “Of Missing Persons” is about the opportunity to really get away from it all, and how to blow your only chance. “The Third Level” is about being able to catch a train back into a quieter, happier past. One definitely gets the impression that Finney would rather have been anywhere else than the mid-20th century — a feeling most of us probably share from time to time, but we forget that the Good Old Days never really happened. So these stories might be considered naïve — but still, they’re very pleasant reading. (6/09/03)

Bull, Emma. War for the Oaks. NY: Ace, 1987.

I first read this lovely, lyrical invention of urban rock ‘n’ roll fantasy when Emma was pretty much an unknown quantity, a California transplant in Minnesota, writing and singing with Cats Laughing. While she has (unfortunately) never quite hit the Big Time, she spawned a number of imitators. But she still does it better than anyone. Eddi is a full-time rocker, a rhythm guitarist with the gift of musical poetry. She’s also just the mortal the forces of Faerie need to bring death to their hidden wars, fought in the parks and by the streams of Minneapolis. To protect her between battles from their equally magical opponents, the Seelie Court sends her a phouka, a tricksy sprite who moves into her life and eventually into her heart. But this is more than just a fairy tale: It’s a story of art and the people who create it, the band Eddi builds with the help of two fey musicians, and the magical power she herself acquires. The characters are richly drawn and fully realized and Emma’s ability to put the reader into the process of making music is truly spine-tingling. (6/07/03)

Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. NY: Avon, 1997.

Richard Mayhew, a young Scot recently moved to London, was only doing what he thought was right when he picked up a girl literally off the street, bruised and bloody and frightened, and took her home. But his good deed gets him sucked down into London Below, which is not a nice place. That’s where people live who have fallen through the cracks of society, and some of them have been down there for centuries, moving through the sewers, living in abandoned Underground stations, doing business at the Floating Market, and generally being invisible to London Above. The girl, whose name is Door, is an Opener, like all her family — but all of them, except Door, were killed by Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, as viciously evil a pair as you’ll ever find Above or Below. Door is looking for an explanation, and maybe vengeance, with the assistance of Hunter, her bodyguard, and the thoroughly dodgy Marquis de Carabas, and with Richard (who finds he also has ceased to exist in the upper world) tagging along simply because he has no choice. Gaiman is a master of odd and very original characters and slightly off-center dialogue, and his prose is a delight to read. (6/01/03)

Ferguson, Valerie. Chicken: A Cook’s Collection of 500 Fabulous Chicken, Turkey, and Game Dishes. NY: Lorenz Books, 2000.

The author is both an experienced editor and past operator for many years of a cooking school — a good combination for someone wanting to produce cookbooks, and she’s done a couple of dozen of them. Four or five have been collections of chicken recipes, all very handsome, and this one is no exception. I admit to a preference for cookbooks that include glossy, high-quality photos of the dishes; it whets your appetite and gives you some idea what the outcome will (or should) be. Almost every one of these 500 recipes includes a photo and many of them had me drooling on the page before I ever got the book home! After a useful introductory section on choosing and cutting up a chicken — not one of my favorite chores — she groups the recipes into “Soups, Appetizers & Salads,” “Midweek Dishes” (i.e., not too complicated), “Roasts, Casseroles & Pies,” “Hot & Spicy,” “Low-Fat,” and “Special Occasion.” (Nope — no chicken desserts.) I eat a lot of chicken, both for health reasons and because I like chicken, and I’ve already tried several of these. The Teriyaki Chicken Wings, with sherry, was quite good, and the simmered Chicken & Olives was very interesting (my wife is an olive junky). The Chicken Jambalaya wasn’t too far from the way we do it here in south Louisiana, but pretty good on its own account. There’s a creamy Sweet-&-Sour Chicken that was unusual (to me) and very good. There also are quite a few Middle Eastern dishes, not usually a cuisine I care for, but some of these look pretty good. I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of this book. (5/26/03)

McEwan, Ian. Amsterdam. NY: Doubleday, 1998.

This isn’t a very long novel, only 193 small-sized pages — but McEwan certainly packs a lot of character into it. Clive Linley is a famous composer who has been commissioned to write Britain’s Millennial Symphony. He lives well and secretly considers himself to be probably a genius. Vernon Halliday is editor-in-chief of a newspaper whose readership is declining and who is noted among his colleagues for not filling up much space in his environment. Both men are past lovers of the marvelous Molly Lane, recently deceased, and probably would never have become such friends were it not for her. Now George, the late Molly’s quietly jealous husband, has found in her effects a set of cross-dressing photos of the ambitious, right-wing Foreign Minister whom both Clive and Vernon abhor, and which they all expect will be the political end of him. Vernon wants to publish them, which will also boost his paper’s (and his own) fortunes; Clive regards that as a betrayal of Molly’s memory. But Clive has his own moral dilemma: While hiking in the Lake District to try to get his creative juices flowing again, he happens upon what he later learns is an impending rape — but he dreads the interruption of his composing fit and leaves the scene unnoticed. And Vernon (to whom Clive has confided his experience) threatens to tell the police himself. What happens afterward, what results from the two men’s outrage and personal disasters, draws the reader attentively along until the final ironic, frightening events in Amsterdam. McEwan’s dryly witty style and his ear for nuanced dialogue is, as always, marvelous, and the book deserves its Booker Prize. (5/25/03)

De Grummond, Jane Lucas & Ronald R. Morazan. The Baratarians and the Battle of New Orleans, with Biographical Sketches of the Veterans of the Battalion of Orleans, 1814-1815. Baton Rouge: Legacy Publishing Co, 1979.

I first got interested in the Lafitte brothers when I was based in Dallas and learned of their activities in Texas for the Spanish government — and now I live in south Louisiana, their principal stomping grounds. As with all semi-mythical historical figures, there’s a lot of fantasy (to put it politely) that has been published about them. Not to mention all the obfuscatory tales Jean spread himself. Documentable evidence is much, much harder to come by. De Grummond concentrates here on the Lafittes’ much celebrated role in the defense of New Orleans against the invasion of British General Pakenham, but she provides some very iffy background information as well. Then, unfortunately, she spoils everything by buying into the completely unproven story, promulgated by one of his supposed sons (living in Alton, Illinois, no less), that “later Jean changed his name to John Lafflin and dropped out of sight,” turning up eventually in St. Louis, where his brother, Pierre, also was buried in 1844. If she had stuck to the battle itself — which she describes and documents pretty well — everything would have been okay. The Biographical Sketches by Morazan is a far more useful source, giving details wherever available about the members of the Battalion and including an excellent bibliography. (De Grummond’s “Essay on Authorities” is far less useful.) (5/24/03)

Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Indianapolis: New Riders, 2000.

The only website design I’ve done is for two sites of my own (one small-business, one for hobbies and such), plus family-photo-type sites for a couple for my relatives. (The fact that I learned to do this stuff in late middle age seems to astonish people, especially those much younger than me.) But I’m a heavy web-surfer and I’m always interested in design issues generally. Krug has a knack for pointing out things that seem obvious in retrospect, and the wit to keep your attention even while you’re making mental notes. He takes you through the process of figuring out what people want in a website — and then discovering what they really want — but he doesn’t take sides in religious arguments (pull-downs, Flash, top vs. side navigation bars). Rather, he advocates looking at the possibilities and discovering what works best when. The book itself is also very “usable” — short enough to read on a plane trip, filled with real world examples, amusingly but helpfully illustrated. And I already have a list of changes I plan to make to my own little covey of websites. (5/22/03)

Colfer, Eoin. Artemis Fowl. NY: Hyperion Books for Children, 2001.

I only discovered this marvelous fantasy series recently, on hearing an interview with the author on NPR, and went straight to the library in search of a copy of this first volume. Artemis Fowl is the twelve-year-old scion of a centuries-old — and very successful — Irish family of criminal masterminds. He’s a genius and he’s dangerous, though there are still touches of the adolescent about him. His bodyguard-butler, a huge but sensitive character named Butler (and the only human ever to have taken on a full-grown bull troll and lived), descends from another family whose members have been in service to the Fowls for so long, they gave their surname to the profession. Artemis is determined to restore the family’s sagging financial status by acquiring a very large amount of gold. And where better to obtain gold than from the Little Folk? Enter Holly Short, a fairy, and more specifically, an elf. Also a leprechaun, but that’s just her job description: Captain in the Recon section of the Lower Elements Police. The Little People now live far under the Earth, having lost control of the surface long ago to the Mud People (that’s us), but have compensated with technological developments far in advance of our own. How Holly becomes the main element in Artemis’s kidnapping and extortion plot, . . . ah, that would be telling. But it’s a huge amount of fun and the film will be out before long — and adolescent boys are going to love Mulch the mining dwarf. (5/17/03)

Westlake, Donald E. Put a Lid on It. NY: Warner, 2002.

Westlake is a master of both the comic crime novel and the caper story, and here he combines both to great effect. Francis Xavier Meehan (known always as “Meehan”) is a felon and a recidivist. (“That’s what they’ll put on my tombstone, ‘Francis Meehan, Recidivist’.”) He’s also very bright and an autodidact, mostly because there’s lots of time to read in jail. This time, he’s awaiting federal changes for having highjacked a truck he didn’t know was carrying the U.S. Mail, and he’s definitely not looking forward to federal time. So he’s cautiously interested when a politician from the president’s reelection campaign committee comes to see him about engaging his professional burglary skills to recover a “package” that could damage the president’s chances and which is presently in the possession of the Other Side. The problem is, as Meehan lays his plans and tries to set up a team to do the job, nobody in Washington can keep their mouths shut. Jeffords, the political contact, is a hoot. Goldfarb, Meehan’s lawyer, is another one. And Meehan himself is a trove of highly quotable dialogue and observations, espeically when it comes to the Ten Thousand Rules. Like many (perhaps most) of Westlake’s yarns, this would make a pretty good film, too. (5/15/03)

Cherryh, C. J. Cyteen. NY: Warner Books, 1988.

When I first read this fat, extraordinary novel a decade ago, I concluded it was one of the best science fiction novels produced in (at least) the past half-century, and, having now re-read it, I still believe that. It’s set in Cherryh’s Merchanter universe (a couple of generations after the concluding war, the story of which she told in Downbelow Station), but that’s really only the distant backdrop. (You’ll also find here the back-story to Forty Thousand in Gehenna.) This is a very detailed, very in-depth, very carefully worked-out, very thought-provoking study of power and the claustrophobic effects of its mis-management, of the relationship of “natural born” psychology to manufactured and tailored minds, of the effects on a society of an artificial underclass (the “azi”) that is both more and less than chattel slavery, . . . and along with all that, a satisfying and very affecting story of a cold, slightly inhuman genius and the mystery of her death (which was possibly a murder), and the replicate who is intended to replace her — and who succeeds more completely, perhaps, than her creators ever anticipated. At 680 pages, there are, of course, several other plots moving full-tilt, also filled with detail and nuance, but they all interrelate nearly seamlessly. Her ability to play off one character’s collection of concerns against another’s is amazing, and she shows a considerable (and very speculative) understanding of the depths of psychological intervention. She’s also a master of precise prose . . . when she wants to be. I have never doubted that this book did indeed deserve the Hugo it was awarded. And now I shall put it back on its shelf for another decade. (5/07/03)

Sawyer, Robert J. Humans. (The Neanderthal Paralax, vol. 2) NY: Tor, 2003.

All writers of trilogies are aware of the prevalence of “middle volume” syndrome, but Sawyer seems mostly to have escaped its effects. Ponter Boddit, Neanderthal physicist in a world parallel to our own, returns to the world ruled by Homo sapiens in this sequel to Hominids, this time in a more organized manner and as one of his culture’s envoys. He re-establishes his tentative relationship with psychologically damaged geneticist Mary Vaughan and Sawyer explores all the possibilities of interspecies romance — though Mary often comes off as surprisingly naive for so well-educated a person. The Neanderthals generally turn out to have made better choices than we did (Sawyer’s opinions are undoubtedly much of the reason he wrote the story in the first place), though their reproductive pattern lacks some of our own high points. The one comparison that irritates me, actually, is that Canada generally is shown to be culturally and socially superior to the U.S., . . . though I admit isn’t a difficult argument to make. And I think Sawyer may be a bit naive himself in expecting the two national governments in North America to allow visiting Neanderthals so much liberty of movement — especially given our present Administration. However, that’s his style in most of his novels. It’s a good, highly readable yarn, though, with a nice bit of poetic irony at the end, and I look forward to the conclusion. (4/21/03)

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. NY: Putnam, 2003.

In my opinion, Bill Gibson has never written a bad book — but even so, this is his best work in a long time. He sets his story in the present this time instead of the near future, but the feel of it is much the same. Which, I suppose is part of the point he wants to make; the future is now. Cayce Pollard is a thirty-something freelance marketing consultant with an unusual specialty: By applying her “allergy” to trademarks, she can predict very accurately whether corporate logos and branding will be successful in the marketplace. (Tommy Hilfiger and the Michelin Man are especially toxic.) She’s also a “footagehead,” one of an international group of avid afficionados who study and endlessly analyze a series of short and highly affecting video clips discovered on the Internet. The two come together when the head of an important London ad agency (with his own agenda, naturally) hires her to uncover the creators of the footage. The third major thread in her life is contemplating the disappearance of her father, a retired CIA-connected security specialist in New York on the morning of September 11th. All these themes and plots weave themselves together in intriguing ways, and in Gibson’s classic narrative style. But, aside from the story itself, much of the enjoyment one gets from Gibson’s books is a result of his skill at description and simile, all of it highly quotable. (4/14/03)

Perry, Anne. Resurrection Row. NY: Fawcett, 1981.

This is the fourth novel in the Charlotte and Inspector Thomas Pitt series of high Victorian mysteries, though I’ve read several others out of order. All of them seem to be a mix of police procedural and social commentary, in which Pitt has to delve into the depths of London’s underclass while Charlotte wades through the unpleasantnesses of Society’s drawing rooms. Sometimes the latter is better written and more interesting than the former, but in this case the mystery is interesting and also funny in an oddball way. The recently buried keep turning up out of their coffins — sitting in hansom cabs, or in church pews, or leaning against their own tombstones. All were apparently natural deaths, so Thomas isn’t even quite sure for much of the book whether any serious crime actually has been committed. Meanwhile, Mr. Carlisle, an avid and politically astute social reformer, is making converts to his cause of reforming the workhouses by dragooning his social acquaintances into visiting the slums and rookeries. Charlotte (who married down) is a likeable enough character, and her sister, Lady Ashworth (who married up), is well done, but Thomas himself seems to emote too much. Aunt Vespasia, on the other hand, is a marvelous depiction of a grand and starchy old lady who’s smarter and more socially aware than most of her contemporaries. Although Perry repeats her bad habit of nearly blowing off the solution to the mystery in favor of sociological commentary, this is a pretty good read. (4/09/03)

Perry, Anne. Bluegate Fields. NY: Fawcett, 1984.

This is the sixth novel in the series and Inspector Pitt has to deal with the naked body of a young gentleman found in the sewers in a very bad part of town. The trail leads him into a web of deceit involving homosexual prostitution — quite a different matter among Society than the usual sort of prostitution — and accusations leveled against the tutor of the deceased, who is tried and condemned to hang. With Charlotte’s help in the drawing rooms, Pitt must try to sort out who did what to whom and then overcome the protectiveness of the families involved in order to prove it. As with the others in this series, Perry has a good deal to say about life in Victorian London away from the realm of polite society. (4/03/03)

Published on 22 November 2009 at 12:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

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