2007: 1st Quarter [32]

Dunning, John. The Bookwoman’s Last Fling. NY: Scribner, 2006.

Cliff Janeway is an ex-Denver cop, now a rare book dealer, who still gets caught up in homicide investigations. He’s not licensed as a private investigator, but he carries around a gun even when traveling interstate, gets information out of people by being menacing, and considers a good hunch as actionable as actual evidence. The narrative this time is set in the world of horse racing — not on the track but behind it, in the shedrow world of trainers, ginneys, and hot walkers. This cocooned existence is obviously another of the author’s loves (look at the picture on the back of the jacket) and he gives the reader a fascinating inside look at it. The plot involves the death of a very wealthy young woman twenty years earlier (the book seems to be set c.1995). She was the wife of a much older man who raised and raced thoroughbreds and was herself a book collector of extraordinary taste and talent. Did the deceased die accidentally of her peanut allergy? Or was she a suicide? Or was she murdered? (Well, you know it has to be Door Number Three, right?) Anyway, some of her fabulous library is missing, having been stolen over the years, so Cliff goes undercover in the racing world to try to identify and find both the killer and the thief. I admit it, the plot develops nicely and I didn’t figure out whodunit until a dozen pages before the reveal. And in his book business, Janeway’s in partnership with a lady lawyer whose affections he’s beginning to be unsure he can keep. They’re being driven apart by the sort of person he is. Because Janeway seems to be gradually descending into a darker place. In my review of his previous biblio-adventure, I said “Dunning seems to think behavior that would be criminal in a cop is okay in a private citizen, especially when he is, by definition, wearing the white hat.” That’s explicit now. Janeway says as much. I can’t say I have a high regard for an ex-cop who says he wants to be a cop again, . . . but who also thinks the great thing about investigating crimes all on his own is that he’s not hampered by the legal niceties. This fifth novel in the series isn’t as good as his first two, but it’s definitely better than the third and fourth installments. Let’s just hope Janeway doesn’t lose all control. (3/30/07)

Clowes, Daniel. Ice Haven. NY: Pantheon, 2005.

I read a lot of graphic novels and enjoy the majority of them, but some just don’t make a lot of sense. This, for me, is one of the latter. I know, I know — Clowes is one of the stars of the genre, and I actually very much enjoyed the award-winning Ghost World, but this one isn’t in that league at all. In structure, it’s a series of very brief, semi-connected vignettes centered on a variety of residents of the town of Ice Haven, most of them teenage or younger. (I gather this is also just a slightly rewritten remake of the original comic book.) The interrelationships are unclear, the motivations are puzzling, and the dialogues and monologues are mostly overwritten. I guess even award-winners have bad days. (3/28/07)

Finder, Joseph. Killer Instinct. NY: St. Martin, 2006.

This is the first of Finder’s novels I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Jason Steadman is a reasonably talented salesman for a high-tech consumer electronics firm in Boston who has risen to mid-level management — but probably won’t be going any farther. He’s too easygoing, relatively speaking, lacking the taste for blood that his superiors expect. Also, his wife, who comes from an ex-wealthy background (her father drank away the family fortune), seems to think she’s entitled to the lifestyle she used to have. So how far will Jason go in breaking through the promotion ceiling? Then he gets in a one-car accident and becomes acquainted with the ex-Special Forces sergeant who’s driving the tow truck. Kurt Semko was bounced out of the service with a Dishonorable Discharge, which is keeping him from being hired for a better job, but Steadman foolishly recommends him for a corporate security position. And Semko intends to return the favor by supporting Jason’s career in every way possible, even when that means underhanded tactics and breaking the law. Worse, Semko makes it clear that while he can be a valuable friend, he can also be a dangerous enemy. Finder does a good job setting the scene — although what he intends as satire of the sales “personality” is often much closer to the truth, in my experience — and his characters are fully developed. This is another novel with the potential to be a good film. (3/27/07)

Collier, Marsha. eBay Business All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies. Indianpolis: Wylie, 2005.

This author is one of the current gurus in the area of making a ton by selling stuff on eBay. I’ve been registered there for almost a decade myself, buying books and stamps at first, and then selling them. I was never out to amass a fortune, the way Collier and so many others seems to be, but I’ve made a slow and steady income and I’ve been happy with that. Since I taught myself how to do all that stuff back when eBay was still a relatively site, I’ve never felt the need of a how-to book, but a colleague recommended this one so I decided to take a look at it. Not bad, not bad at all. While enthusiastic (because it’s required by the publisher of this series), Collier manages not to get carried away too often. For instance, she will suggest good online business practices, then confess that she seldom follows this one or that one herself. I didn’t find anything I didn’t already know in the “Basics” section (which was kind of a relief), but she has some interesting things to say about researching goods on the Web, whether you’re buying or selling, and some subtle points about the way PayPal works which I hadn’t really thought about, and so on. The author also has a strong background in marketing and sales and what she has a number of thoughtful things to say regarding the application of that experience to eBay, things that us humanities majors have never had to learn. So, while I won’t follow her advice on using QuickBooks, and I don’t expect to open an eBay Store, I certainly put a lot of bookmarks in this fat volume for future reference and rereading. (3/26/07)

Bayard, Louis. The Pale Blue Eye. NY: HarperCollins, 2006.

It probably would come as a surprise to high school students writing their book reports on “The Tell-Tale Heart” that its author, Edgar Allan Poe, had risen to the rank of sergeant in the U.S. Army back in the 1820s, and then spent a little time as a plebe at West Point — before orchestrating his own dismissal in disgust. This engrossing novel takes that odd connection and casts the twenty-one-year-old Poe as a sort of assistant detective, helping a retired New York City constable investigate a series of highly gothic murders at the Military Academy. Augustus Landor, the aging cop, is called in to conduct a quiet investigation by Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer and Commandant Ethan Allen Hitchcock, because the Academy is already in danger of being shut down by President Jackson and a hostile Congress. While acting as Landor’s eyes and ears in the corps of cadets, Poe falls heavily for Lea Marquis, daughter of the school’s physician. But Lea (who appears in Poe’s poems as “Leonore” . . .) and her brother, Artemus — a firstclassman — have their own problems and Landor and his Romantic helper, naturally, get caught up in them. Even without its riveting plot, however, this book would fascinate if only because of its style. Landor comes across as an intelligent but plain-spoken, almost artless man — until the last chapter, anyway. But no one would ever call Poe “artless.” Bayard’s masterful use of language brings out the young poet’s personality beautifully, showing us just how profoundly literate a person he was. The supporting characters are all fully realized, as well — my favorite being Benny Havens, the legendary innkeeper and bartender, and his principle helper, Patsy. And I guarantee you will never be able to predict the ending! (3/24/07)

Asimov, Isaac & Robert Silverberg. Nightfall. NY: Bantam, 1990.

The original short story version of Asimov’s “Nightfall” is on everyone’s short list of true “classics,” and with good reason. (Myself, I’ve always linked it mentally with Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God”; in one, the stars come in, in the other, the stars go out. . . .) Anyway, there are two ways of converting a short story to a novel: You can treat the short story as a single episode in a longer narrative, which generally requires only minimal rewrite. That’s the most common method and the author usually had the novel percolating in his mind all along. The other way is to treat the beginning, middle, and end of the short story as the beginning, middle, and end of the longer work. That’s much more difficult. What Asimov and Silverberg have done here is kind of a mix of the two methods, and I wasn’t at all sure at first that it was going to work out, but it did — most of the time. The premise, of course, is that there’s a world lit by six suns of varying sizes and magnitudes, so that the sky is never really dark. One element of evolution on that world, therefore, is that people (who are human, for the convenience of narration) naturally fear the dark. Even the intelligent and strong-willed can be driven at least temporarily insane by several hours of the complete absence of light. But another result of that world’s situation is that astronomy has grown very slowly and scientists have no idea of the existence of other suns . . . and they just happen to be located inside an enormous star cluster. There are various naive attitudes among supposedly sophisticated adults, various questions the authors leave unanswered, but this is, by and large, a diverting afternoon’s entertainment. (3/18/07)

Barry, Max. Jennifer Government. NY: Doubleday, 2003.

This is the sizzling-est satire I’ve read in a long time; what Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants was for to the early ‘50s, this is to the early ‘00s. Barry’s highly imaginative story of justice and revenge and love and sales is set in a Reaganite near future where Government and the Police are just corporations like any other, the NRA is a private armed forces, and assassination is just a marketing ploy. The U.S. has taken over most of the world as franchises and employees take their surnames from their employers. The title character, a very determined agent, has been on the trail of all-around bad guy John Nike for years, but their relationship is more complicated than that. John is determined to do away with the last restraints on free trade, believing that “a criminal is just someone the government disagrees with.” And he doesn’t much care how he does it, including missle strikes on competitors like Burger King. The dialogue is great, the characters — good and evil alike — are fully developed, and the irony smokes. I kept thinking what a great action movie this would be — but product placement would be a bitch. (3/15/07)

Medley, Linda. Castle Waiting. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2006.

It’s unusual to be able to read a graphic novel and not have others be immediately aware of the book’s nature, but this one is different — hard cover, no “comic book” cover illustration, octavo-size pages (457 of them!), and even a sewn-in ribbon bookmark. It starts out with a revised Sleeping Beauty plot, which leads into a Chaucerian collection of stories that are vaguely medieval in nature (though the dialogue is often pretty modern), all of it set in a bramble-guarded castle that has become a refuge for those trying to escape the so-called real world. It’s a community of diversity and tolerance and the main character, at first, is Lady Jain, pregnant by an obvious nonhuman, but her tale gets lost about halfway through and we never do find out what the story is. Then Sister Peace (born “Peace Warren” . . .) takes over the narration with what becomes an almost interminable story of the founding of the Solicitine Sisters (all of whom are bearded women) and what led her to join the order. (Which, personally, I didn’t find nearly as interesting.) There are also numerous other characters, each of whom could carry the whole book by themselves, including Sir Chess (who’s half horse) and Rackham Adjutant, steward of the castle (who is half stork), and Iron Henry, and the two professional thief-entertainers (who resemble hobbits, right down to the hairy feet). Medley’s style is crisp and clean, and her characterizations are aided by her way with facial expression. Except for the wandering plotline, I enjoyed her work a great deal. (3/13/07)

Block, Lawrence. Hit Parade. NY: William Morrow, 2006.

Keller, whose third outing this is, is one of Block’s more personable inventions. He’s a New York businessman, a loner, ordinary in appearance, a philatelist, of a rather forgiving nature, and thoroughly inoffensive — as long as you aren’t next up on his To-Do list. Because Keller’s business is killing people on contract, usually through his broker, a somewhat acerbic woman named Dot who lives in a big granny-house in White Plains. Most of the sections in this book were originally published as short stories, but Keller’s life is generally episodic in nature, so that’s okay. Block also has his protagonist (if you can call him that) spend more time in introspective self-examination — partly because, in the wake of 9/11 and the increase in airport security, Keller finds it necessary to drive to other parts of the country more often than flying, and there’s not much else one can do while driving long distances alone except think. And talk to a stuffed toy dog. Keller regards his career are simply a way to make a living and support his stamp collection, but he also at times has a nicely ironic sense of justice, as witness the dominatrix pit-bull-owner and the lawsuit-bringing hedge-fund-operator. And he’s not without empathy. The black humor is dry, the conversation between Keller and Dot is quietly amusing, and if the country has to include hit men, this is the type of killer most of us would prefer to have on the job, even though he may (or may not) be a sociopath. (3/12/07)

Ingstad, Helge & Anne Stine Ingstad. The Viking Discovery of America. NY: Facts on file/Checkmark Books, 2001.

Until Ingstad came along in the late 1950s, there was a principle operating among most U.S. historians which Charles Michael Boland called NEBC: “No Europeans Before Columbus.” Then Ingstad, a trained lawyer and natural outdoors and explorer with a wife who was a professional archaeologist, looked again at his astute analysis of the Greenlanders’ Saga and Erik’s Saga, combined that with his extensive travels in the Arctic, and came to the conclusion that Helluland had to be Baffin Island, Markland had to be the mid-Atlantic coast of Labrador, and Vinland therefore had to be somewhere in the upper part of Newfoundland. To top it off, he was convinced that “Vinland” referred to meadows (“Vin” with a short “I”), not grapevines (“Vin” with a long “I”). In this popular but very informative treatment, he takes the reader step-by-step through his thought processes and explains in an entirely convincing manner why all this had to be so. Then, of course, he went out in a small boat, retraced the path Leif had taken (which itself was the reverse of the path Bjarni had taken), and when he got to the tiny, isolated village of L’Anse aux Meadows on the Strait of Belle Isle, he stopped and asked the local fishermen if they knew of any ruins in the area. “Sure do,” they replied and the Ingstads spent the next eight years platting and excavating the foundations of a cluster of turf houses, plus a smithy, a kiln, and a row of boathouses on the creek that ran through the meadow. It’s a fascinating story and this edition is beautifully illustrated. If you’re interested in the Norse, or the history of discovery, or Newfoundland, or archaeology, you’ll want to read this book. (3/11/07)

Wilford, John Noble. The Mysterious History of Columbus: an Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy. NY: Knopf, 1991.

The best-known biography of Columbus has long been Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean-Sea, published in 1942, which I remember reading with great enjoyment back in the late 1950s. However, the magisterial Morison tended to hero-worship and besides, fashions in history change. Historians nowadays generally give Columbus his share of the blame for helping to institute a imperial Spanish reign of terror in the New World that last for nearly four centuries. Wilford is a science writer who became interested in the subject when he discovered just how little was actually known about Columbus’s ships — how little agreement there was, in fact, on anything about the four voyages. Columbus is almost the archetype of the extremely human man converted to heroic legend and myth, and that’s what Wilford investigates. He’s an excellent and judicious writer and while he doesn’t presume to draw “final” conclusions about such puzzles as the Admiral’s first landing place or last resting place, he neatly summarizes the arguments of others. He also does an excellent job of describing Columbus’s history in the five hundred years since his physical death. (3/09/07)

Pohl, Frederik. Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories. NY: Tor, 2005.

Fred Pohl has been writing and/or editing science fiction since 1939, and he’s still at it. That’s a career of 68 years — so far. This collection shows why he was voted the title “Grand Master.” Most of these thirty stories, actually, were first published in the 1970s or later; the most recent in 1996. And among his later stories are some of his best. Keeping the best for last is the Hugo-winning “Fermi and Frost,” a somberly realistic and very engrossing nuclear war story. (Who else would have thought to point out that Iceland is the best equipped place in the world to survive a nuclear winter?) Also very, very good is “The Gold at the Starbow’s End,” about politics and the basic mechanism of intellectual creativity, and “The Greening of Bed-Stuy,” about a future New York City. Just below those, in my opinion, is “Saucery,” a rather gentle yarn about two con men dealing with an interplanetary threat to their livelihoods. On the other hand, “The Day the Icicle Works Closed” has always been popular but I don’t regard it as one of Pohl’s stronger efforts. “Some Joys Under the Star” is another swipe by the politically astute Pohl at American political realities — very on-topic when it first appeared at the end of the Nixon Administration and getting that way again. Pohl does great adventures, too, and one of the best of those is “The Merchants of Venus,” an early Heechee story. Of course, some stories don’t age as well as others, and foremost among those — in this collection, anyway — are “The Celebrated No-Hit Inning,” “The Middle of Nowhere,” and “Servant of the People,” all of them affected badly by the ways in which the world actually has changed since they were published. By and large, though, this is a collection of very high quality, showing off the author’s stylistic elegance and ingenious plotting. Nor does he worry overmuch about whether something he wants to say is technically “science fiction” or not. Younger readers especially, those who didn’t grow up with Pohl’s stuff in the 1950s and ‘60s (I remember first reading The Space Merchants just a few years after it appeared in 1954), will profit from it. (3/09/07)

Rankin, Robert. The Toyminator. London: Gollancz, 2006.

The cover copy says this is the “longed-for sequel to The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse.” That’s a bit of publisher’s hyperbole, but after four years, Rankin has indeed produced a sequel. Eddie Bear, Toytown PI (he used to be the bear of the late Bill Winkie), has been removed from the position of Mayor by the kindly, white-haired old toymaker who put him in that job at the end of the first book. Eddie, it appears, is a reformer and his efforts didn’t go over too well. So he gets back together with Jack, his human partner (or, possibly, his “comedy sidekick”), who has been washing dishes in a diner (part of Nadine Sprat’s franchise operation). At this point, you can see where Rankin’s peculiarly English sense of humor is going, if you didn’t already know. Anyway, the two get caught up in the investigation of the simultaneous murder of every cymbal-playing wind-up monkey in Toytown, followed by the abduction by chicken-aliens of a club band and the opera’s orchestra, followed by an incursion into the meat-head world Beyond the Second Big O. Frankly, Rankin’s idiosyncratic narrative style is more fun than the plot itself. (He not infrequently tries too hard.) Myself, I still prefer Terry Pratchett, but this isn’t bad. (3/02/07)

Rankin, Ian. Bleeding Hearts. Boston: Little, Brown, 2006, 1994.

Michael Weston — if that’s really his name — is a craftsman at his job, which is killing people. Only once did he shoot the wrong person (a young girl) and that was a regrettable accident, but it’s come back to haunt him. His current commission involves taking out a London journalist on the steps of her hotel, which he accomplishes, but the police are there suspiciously fast. Who sicced them on him? As he begins trying to track back to his employer for his own protection, he runs afoul of what appears to be a cult group with access to too much money and connections to the American spook underground. And then there’s the publicity-hungry private detective who’s been tracking him for years. The plot is nicely complicated and its resolution is based on a real occurrence. The characters are well drawn and the author maintains a frenetic pace that would make a good film. (2/26/07)

Sittenfeld, Curtis. The Man of My Dreams. NY: Random House, 2006.

There’s a limit, really, to how understanding you should be with people in whom you are seriously, romantically interested, but it’s a lesson that Hannah never learns. Like Lee Fiora in Prep, the author’s first novel, Hannah doesn’t change much between ages of fourteen and twenty-eight, even as life changes around her. She suffers from low self-esteem, over-analyzes everything and everybody, and can be terribly, almost unbelievably naive. Her sister, her parents, her cousin, her college roommate, . . . all of them evolve as they grow up, but not Hannah. Or not much. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did. Sittenfeld is a close observer and talented painter of character portraits. But I hope she broadens her scope in her next effort. (2/20/07)

Baker, Kage. The Children of the Company. NY: Tor, 2005.

Baker is a very uneven writer, bouncing between prose that nails you to your chair and meandering plotlines that can only puzzle the reader. This one is not another novel in the series about Dr. Zeus, Inc., but a collection of short stories with (apparently) new frame material. The first section is set in 1863, sort of, but there are several sections within that set in very early Sumer and in Second Dynasty Egypt (before the pyramids). The second section, set in 1906, focuses on the San Francisco Earthquake (though it, too, has a flashback story about 16th century Amsterdam), and the final section is late in the 21st century. Through all of it, though, run the threads of Labienus and Aegeus, both Facilitators General, and rivals to take over the world after whatever happens in 2355. Both are highly manipulative users, casually killing off those who get in their way, twisting other immortals to their own ends. While some parts of this volume are fascinating — the author is an excellent writer when she cares to be — as a whole it’s kind of a mess. (2/17/07)

Harris, Thomas. Hannibal Rising. NY: Delacorte, 2006.

This is the fourth book about Hannibal Lector (“Hannibal the Cannibal”) and it’s the best since The Silence of the Lambs. What it is, essentially, is the backstory to the earlier novels, describing in Harris’s elegant, slightly harrowing prose the wartime experiences that made Dr. Lector, a very broadly educated near-genius, the psychopathic monster he became. His father was Count Lector, with an estate and grand house in Lithuania, his mother was a Sforza of Milan, and Mischa was the baby sister on whom he doted. Then the Blitzkrieg came, closely followed by the gangs of extremely unpleasant fascist partisans who collaborated with the nazis. And in the depths of a Lithuanian winter, what do you do when you run out of food? And you have a couple of small children handily chained up in the barn? No, it wasn’t all Hannibal’s fault. All in all, this is a very satisfying story of the protagonist’s rise from the depths of a very personal Hell and his quest for very personal vengeance.

I note that many other reviewers have roasted both the book and the author, and I simply don’t understand it. Contrary to some of the complaints, Harris never says — or even implies — that it was all the fascists’ fault Hannibal became a psychopath. Quite the opposite: His experiences have awakened him to the person he always was. Having very much enjoyed the earlier investigations of Hannibal’s psyche, I think the story of his early life helps explain his later mental state quite well. (2/11/07)

Bull, Emma. Finder. NY: Tor, 1994.

I’ve been a fan of Emma’s since War for the Oaks, and I’m enamored of the Borderlands stories, which are urban fantasy set in the uneasy crease between the human world and Faerie, which has returned suddenly to our plane of existence. Any city has teenage runaways who start their lives over among their own kind (their “kind” being, basically, “not parents”), but Bordertown gets both human and elvish runaways, plus “halfies” (a human-elf mix) and your occasional unique oddity like Wolfboy, who appears here in a supporting role. Orient is a finder. That’s his talent: If something is known to exist, he can find it. He can’t just tell you where it is, though (like “your keys are behind the couch”) — he has to actually follow his internal compass and go and find it personally. That’s fine if someone is looking for a place to buy, say, heirloom tomato plant seeds, but suppose they’re looking for a particular explosive device? In this case, he’s asked by the police — such as they are in Bordertown — to locate the source of a new and extremely dangerous drug plaguing the city. Orient’s very best friend and sort-of partner is Tick-Tick, an elvish girl his age in self-imposed exile from the storied lands beyond the Border, where humans literally cannot go. And when she takes ill, the search for the drug turns into something very much more. Besides having a knack for Chandler-esque dialogue, the author is terrific at constructing unusual characters and all of hers fit very nicely within the shared universe of the Borderlands. This is the third time I’ve read this book in the past twelve years and I expect to enjoy it yet again in the future. (2/09/07)

Biber, Tammy & Theresa Howell. Southwest Slow Cooking. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing, 2004.

Like a lot of people, I use my slow cooker regularly because it means I don’t have to spend a lot of time in the evening, after work, cooking from scratch. You let something spend the day cooking by itself and when you come home, it takes only a few minutes to make a salad or a side dish and then you can get down to eating. And because I’m an afficionado of Tex-Mex and New Mex, this nicely illustrated volume caught my eye. Well, there are a number of interesting recipes here, but very few of them were designed with slow-cooking in mind. The authors seem mostly to have taken standard dishes, like Chicken & Chile Enchiladas and Pork Adobada, and substituted a crockpot for a stove top pot. That is, after you remove the contents of the crockpot, you still often have a fair amount of work to do. That’s not why I use a slow cooker. I also have to wonder why they think simply tossing in some chipotle powder makes spareribs (or whatever) “southwestern.” So it’s not a bad book, but neither is it what the title seems to advertise. (2/07/07)

Hirahara, Naomi. Snakeskin Shamisen. NY: Random House, 2006.

This is the third outing for Los Angeles gardener Mas Arai and Hirahara generally maintains her high standards in delineating the characters of both the people of the Japanese-American subculture and their city. One of Mas’s friends has won a half-million dollar jackpot on a slot machine — which Mas, an inveterate horse and card player, ordinarily considers a sucker bet — and the celebration thrown by another of his friends ends with the murder of the winner. Mas gets sucked into things against his will and soon is trying to figure out how an antique Okinawan musical instrument became involved, and what the crime might have to do with another death fifty years before. And then the Department of Homeland Security gets into the act. The plot doesn’t seem quite as well thought out as in the first two books, but I enjoyed the interplay among the characters, . . . especially Mas’s interest in a female African-Okinawan detective. (2/03/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Chanur’s Legacy. NY: DAW, 1992.

This is the last installment in the Chanur saga, but, unlike the first four volumes, which are actually just a single long novel, this one is a separate story of the “next generation” and theoretically can be read by itself — although you won’t pick up on a lot of the references and themes if you do that. Hilfy Chanur, niece of the captain, Pyanfar Chanur, was the youngest and most inexperienced crew member of The Pride of Chanur. During the course of that story, however, she went from utter novice to experienced spacer and from sometimes giddy “teenager” to rather cold-blooded young adult. The present story is set a few years later, following Hilfy’s failed marriage (in Hani terms), a falling out with her aunt, and her assignment as captain of the trader Chanur’s Legacy. She’s generally competent but she lacks Pyanfar’s vast experience, and she knows it. Likewise, her crew is nothing like as thoroughly intermeshed as The Pride’s crew, but they’re all trying hard. The plot, which is somewhat confusing, involves a contract from the stsho to deliver a ceremonial art object to another star system — the fee involved is so large, it could put Hilfy’s ship in the black all by itself — but the intended recipient has fled, and the Legacy must follow or default on the contract. A second plotline revolves around Hallan Meras, a young man who longs to be a spacer, which is completely against Hani tradition and culture — but a state of affairs which Pyanfar herself has already begun to change. But the ship he had signed onto has dumped him, leading Hilfy and her crew to rescue him against their better judgment. Cherryh uses the situation to explore in great detail the very different psychology of the Hani in matters of sexual politics, matters that were much less explicit in the earlier books of the series. She also gives us a more detailed look at what makes the stsho tick. And the Bad Guy this time is a Mahendo-sat, a species that generally supplied the Good Guys in the earlier volumes. It all makes for a pretty good yarn, though all the strings aren’t tied up very well at the end; the story just sort of stops. I wonder if Cherryh had intended a sequel and just never got around to it? (1/30/07)

Bill Bryson. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. NY: William Morrow, 1994.

This popular history of the American version of the language is better written than most of his other books — even though, as usual, he spends half his time in digressions. First, there are several chapters about the early history of North American settlement, with language covered almost as an afterthought, then several chapters on our early national history, then on the westward movement, then on the effects of immigration on the development of English, and so on. Later chapters cover the influences of politics and war, of technological change, and of advertising and the movies. All this is interesting, in a anecdotal way, but those reviewers who touted this book as “scholarly” are dead wrong. He scatters lots of words through each chapter but seldom discusses their provenance. There are a great many footnotes and a lengthy bibliography, but not one bit of originality. (1/28/07)

Edginton, Ian. H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2006.

Generally speaking, I’m a thoroughgoing fan of graphic novels (as opposed to comic books or hardcover superhero anthologies), and anything by H.G. Wells would seem a natural for adaptation, but Edginton has kind of missed the boat. He skips over many of the more interesting parts of the story, and then brings in flying machines that suspiciously resemble those in the Hollywood film. The result is a rather bland rendition of an exciting story, not unlike a Classics Illustrated. (1/26/07)

Varley, John. Red Thunder. NY: Ace, 2003.

Think, as the characters themselves say, “The Little Rascals Go to Mars,” and you’ll be close to the flavor of this engaging book. There’s also a fair amount of Heinlein juvenile (especially Rocket Ship Galileo), which is understandable since Varley is a deep fan of Heinlein. The setting is Daytona, Florida, where Manny Garcia, twenty-year-old heir to a crumbling motel, and his best friend, Dak, and his girl, Kelly, and Dak’s girl, Alicia, nearly run over a drunken ex-astronaut on the beach one night. (Lots of Heinleinian names, there, too.) The astronaut is Travis Broussard, one of a large clan of Cajuns from the Florida panhandle, and cousin of Jubal, a mildly autistic Einstein-class genius, who has invented (he’s not quite sure how) a “squeezer” — a device whose nature is never really explained, but which is the potential source of nearly unlimited energy. But Manny and Dak are both space nuts and to them and the girls, the Squeezer means a way of getting to Mars, where American and Chinese spaceships are now headed. With the power source taken care of it, would it really be possible to build — in the course of one summer and with a budget of only one million dollars — a privately-owned vehicle capable of getting them to the Red Planet and back? Varley shows you how it might, maybe, possibly, be done. With NASA having done most of the research and testing over the years, and with computers so small and cheap, and with many of the necessary parts purchased off-the-shelf (like a food freezer from Sears), and with vital specialized hardware like space suits available for a little dickering from Russia, and with Travis’s extensive experience as a space pilot, . . . well, why not? I’m sure there are plenty of implausibilities, but who cares? It’s all great fun, in any case. (1/25/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Chanur’s Homecoming. NY: DAW, 1987.

This is the fourth volume of the Chanur saga and an impressive conclusion it is, too. Again, you cannot — repeat cannot — read the four volumes out of order. It’s not just a series of stories set in the same universe, it’s a single huge novel sliced into four chunks for the publisher’s convenience. This one opens immediately following the pause at the end of The Kif Strike Back, with Pyanfar Chanur and her Hani crew having been coopted by one side in the struggle between two kiffish factions, which also has swept up the Mahendo-sat (who, in their traditional and methodical way, are supporting both sides) and the newly-discovered humans (who appear to control a volume of space vaster than the entire Compact in which the Hani, the Kif, the Mahendo-sat, the Stsho (extremely wealthy but extremely xenophobic and physiologically incapable of violence), and a couple of usually incomprehensible methane-breathing species co-exist more or less successfully. Only now it appears the entire Hani home world may be devastated in a war that the “groundling” majority of Hani couldn’t begun to understand. The half-dozen members of the crew (all of them cousins) come across very much as individuals, as do the other non-human characters. There are no stereotyped BEMs here. In fact, since you’re seeing everything through Pyanfar’s eyes, the least-clear character is that of Tully, the adopted derelict human, simply because he’s extremely alien to all the others and his psychology and motivations are never really clear. Cherryh does a remarkable job with the complex plot, the almost archaeological detail in the back-story, the multidimensional characters, and the themes of progress and change. (1/22/07)

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. NY: Morrow, 1990.

Bryson can be a witty writer . . . sometimes. But he’s a journalist, not a linguist — and certainly not a “language scholar” as some of the reviews claim. In fact, this book reads like a longer version of the sort of term paper a college freshman might put together, all from secondary sources, and with no sense of critical construction and no insight whatever. First, he spends several chapters explaining how language in general works, how it originated, what “Indo-European” means, and so on; he doesn’t get down to discussing English in any detail until Chapter 7. He repeats folktales like the Eskimos having thirty words for snow, . . . which was shown several decades ago to have been invented by some other journalist in need of a pithy factoid. As a longtime genealogist, I turned to the chapter on names with interest, but found nothing at all new. In fact, Bryson seems to spend most of his time listing interesting examples instead of extending his discussion of the principles they are intended to illuminate. There are a fair number of readable anecdotes here, but not much else. (1/19/07)

Cherryh, C. J. The Kif Strike Back. NY: DAW, 1986.

Despite the Star Wars-like title, this is the third in the four-volume Chanur saga and it’s basically more of the same, picking up immediately where Chanur’s Venture ended — or stopped. (The division between the two is pretty artificial and may have been ordered by the publisher for budgetary reasons.) Again, Pyanfar Chanur and her intensely loyal crew, all of them her cousins, are trying desperately to survive in the midst of a far-ranging political struggle among half a dozen disparate races over vast distances. Pyanfar and her trading ship got sucked into the plans of her Mahendo-sat allies (except maybe they’re not such good allies after all) and now she finds herself hooked up with a very ambitious Kif — who, although unpredictable and extremely dangerous, is almost the only one who hasn’t played her false. Even Tully, the semi-derelict human whom she rescued in the first book, an action that largely set off this four-volume saga, seems to have withheld vital information regarding humanity’s pending incursion into the volume of space governed by the Compact. Cherryh continues to explicate alien society and psychology without stinting on an action-filled plot. In fact, the last section, with two dockside battle scenes developing pell mell and in parallel and described in alternating chunks, will have you crouched on the edge of your chair. Again, the end of the book is merely a pause; you will want to have the concluding volume handy so you can segue to it immediately. (1/17/07)

Cherryh, C. J. Chanur’s Venture. NY: DAW, 1985.

First of all: Have you read The Pride of Chanur? If not, stop immediately and go and do it, because this one is the second part of a four-decker and if you attempt them out of order you will have no idea what’s going on. Now, then. The story picks up a year or two after Pyanfar Chanur and her crew of cousins have gotten straight with the Han government and with their trading rivals after almost singlehandedly bringing humanity into contact with the more civilized parts of the Compact. However, there are deeply conservative, xenophobic elements among the Hani who would just as soon they had never entered galactic society and that challenge becomes clearer as the plot progresses. The Mahendo-sat, who themselves were the first aliens to contact the Hani a few centuries earlier — and who also want a piece of the new trade-pie but who aren’t as bloody minded about control as the Kif — are trying to manipulate the situation, even going so far as to use the totally unpredictable, methane-breathing T’ca and Knnn as pawns, and nobody understands them. If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But, if you read from the beginning of the saga through to the end, and if you pay attention, you’ll witness one of the most fascinating psycho-political struggles you’ve ever read. It takes considerable talent to get the reader to understand the internal and external political mindsets and social structures of several very alien races — and to do it from the point of view of yet another alien race. This is extraordinary stuff — but start at the beginning. And be aware that the story doesn’t end here, not even with a traditional cliffhanger. No, it simply pauses — and you want to have the third volume ready to hand. (1/15/07)

Cherryh, C. J. The Pride of Chanur. NY: DAW, 1982.

Not many writers can do aliens as well as Cherryh — bilateral, oxygen-breathing, most of them, but with minds and emotions and evolved biologies that are very, very different indeed from human. Pyanfar Chanur is the successful, wealthy captain of a Hani trading ship, a powerful figure in the powerful Chanur family, leading a crew composed all of family members, like all Hani ships. And then she’s suddenly saddled with Tully, a refugee human escaped from the Kif, an opportunistically piratical race that evolved by blood feud. Humans are newly arrived on the edge of the space occupied by the member races of the Compact and trading rights with them will be worth a lot, but Pyanfar will have to risk everything. And the profoundly untrustworthy Kif aren’t going to make things easier. Cherryh does a terrific job of gradually introducing the reader to the intricacies of the vaguely lion-like Hani society, in which females do the work and tend to the psychologically unstable, world-bound males, who are lords of the estates — until they’re challenged by younger males and finally lose. You’ll come to know Pyanfar and her crew as individuals, too. The plot gallops, the characterizations are intriguing, and the dialogue is snappy. Yet the book is much denser than it appears. What more could you want — except the three following volumes in this saga? (1/12/07)

Lethem, Jonathan. Amnesia Moon. Orlando: Harcourt, 1995.

I’ve read most of Lethem’s novels and all of them are completely different from each other, so you never know what to expect. And most of them are pretty good, especially Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. Lethem is obviously getting better and better as he goes along — which may explain some of my dissatisfaction with this one, which was his second effort. It’s a post-holocaust story, though it never becomes clear what the holocaust actually consisted of; various characters have differing memories of what happened. Chaos — whose real name may, or may not, be Everett — is living in an abandoned multiplex in a small desert town, dividing his time between drinking and dreaming contagious dreams. Circumstances lead him to leave, taking with him a thirteen-year fur-covered girl named Melinda. Their subsequent travels lead them to a settlement high in the mountains that is blinded by some sort of green fog, then to Vacaville, California, where the survivors change houses twice a week and maintain order and curb antisocial behavior by writing each other tickets. They end up in San Francisco, where Chaos/Everett apparently came from originally. Through all of it, his dreams impinge on the sleep of those around him. And at that point, a little over halfway through, I have to confess I lost what little interest I had been able to maintain and withdrew my bookmark. I hate not finishing a book. More than that, I resent it. Especially when the author, like Lethem, has proved his bona fides. (1/10/07)

Bryson, Bill. Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe. NY: Morrow, 1992.

In the early 1970s, when he was twenty, Bryson left Iowa for a summer of wandering around Europe. He enjoyed it so much, he did it again the next summer. Then he actually moved to England and took up residence in his career as a journalist, though he somehow didn’t manage to see much more of the Continent. Twenty years after his first wanderjahr, he had a hankering to do it yet again, hitting as many of the original sights as possible, just to compare notes with his earlier self. The result is a sometimes witty, sometimes annoying tale of a middle-aged monolingual American’s impressions of what happened to the Europe he first fell in love with, but which was discovered by U.S. capitalism in the interim. Starting in Hammerfest, the northernmost town in Europe (he wanted to view the northern lights), he makes his way in fits and starts through Scandinavia in the early Spring (which he doesn’t much like), Paris (which he loves though he doesn’t much care for the people who actually live there), the Low Countries (Amsterdam isn’t what it was), back to Copenhagen and Stockholm (mostly expensively disappointing), and finally to Rome by plane because he missed the sun. He loves the Eternal City, Capri, and Italy generally, with the exception of Milan (which apparently isn’t Italian enough). He loves the scenery in Switzerland but doesn’t care much for the Swiss. He doesn’t particularly approve of Zurich or Geneva, either. And he makes it clear several times that German is a funny-sounding language and that German menus are dangerous to order from because you never know what weird dish you might get. He seems to like Yugoslavia, mostly because of its primitiveness and because it isn’t crammed with tourists — and he really dotes on Sofia, which is just strange. On the other hand, he doesn’t like Istanbul at all.

Bryson is the sort of traveler who actually enjoys wandering by himself through a strange town, not understanding a word anyone says, not knowing the local mores. Apparently, he likes being a stranger — The Other. I prefer knowing what I’m doing, understanding what’s happening, appreciating what I’m looking at. I hate discovering, six months after returning home, that there was someplace I would have made every effort to visit, had I only known it was there. Anyway. Though he can be amusing, Bryson comes across as a bit of an Ugly American. Or Ugly Adopted Yorkshireman, or whatever. He tends to make wisecracks based on ignorance, such as making fun of the fact that Norway (in 1991) required motorists to drive with their headlights on, even in the sunniest weather. He considers this not only pointless but “surreal” — although the practice now, fifteen years later, is widely recommended in the U.S. and (yes) required by law in some areas. So much for European backwardness. (1/07/07)

Niven, Larry & Jerry Pournelle. The Mote in God’s Eye. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1974.

Niven and Pournelle have long been one of the more marketable sf writing teams and this is undoubtedly their most highly regarded effort. It’s several thousand years in the future and a New Empire of Man has spread through most of our part of the galaxy (the Old Empire having imploded and been followed by a series of Secession Wars and accompanying dark ages). Science is catching us up to where we once were, a new aristocracy is managing things for the emperor on Sparta, and so on. Think of it as sort of a Victorian Age, but with spaceships and FTL. Then the first alien probe arrives from a very isolated star system in the Coalsack and the Imperial Navy has to go and investigate. The Mote (inhabited by “Moties”) is a very alien world indeed in terms of psychology and anthropology, and the authors have a lot of fun constructing an internally consistent society around an entirely different set of cyclical biological imperatives. At the same time, however, the book suffers — as do many sf novels written thirty years ago — from social and technological shortsightedness. The empire’s flag features the combined eagle and hammer-and-sickle of a Co-Dominium that subsumed Communism, personal computers seem to be about the size of cell phones (still?), the Imperial Viceroy talks like an upper class Brit circa 1930, and so on. The characterization is generally good, especially in depicting Sailing Master Renner and the three midshipmen. Lady Sally, on the other hand, is a bit much — although Niven probably would say social attitudes are also cyclical. It’s a good read. (1/03/07)

Published on 21 November 2009 at 4:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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