Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft. But slowly. Oh-so-slowly.

Read April 2017
Recommended for fans of The Orphan’s Tales
★    ★    1/2 

This was one of the most lovely books I almost didn’t finish. To certain library books I must ask certain questions: are they worth overdue fines? Perhaps more importantly, are they worth negative karma when late? To both of these questions, Senlin Ascends is an empathetic ‘no.’ And yet, on the strength of dear Milda’s love for the tale and encouragement, I find myself disregarding my earlier decision to return it.

“You have no idea what the Tower will turn you into!” Tarrou laughed and swatted the air trying to dispel Senlin’s sudden piety.”

Though the writing is truly gorgeous, the plotting is purposefully meandering. Headmaster Senlin is on a journey with his newly-wed wife to see the famous Tower of Babel. Within minutes of arrival, he loses her in the marketplace, and the rest of the story is a journey upward through the levels of Babel as he searches for the lovely, vivacious Marya. What follows is his experiences through the first four levels of the tower.

I suspect if you mix The Pilgrim’s Progress with Arabian Nights, using the language of Valente’s In the Night Garden, you’ll probably have a good idea what you are getting into. Senlin is forced to reconsider ideas about Tower of Babel, his priorities, his identity, his relationship with Marya, even his conceptions about how the world operates and how he should relate to other people. It is as much a story of the internal self as one of external events.

Senlin loved nothing more in the world than a warm hearth to set his feet upon and a good book to pour his whole mind into. While an evening storm rattled the shutters and a glass of port wine warmed in his hand, Senlin would read into the wee hours of the night. He especially delighted in the old tales, the epiccs in which heroes set out on some impossible and noble errand, confronting the dangers in their path with fatalistic bravery. Men often died along the way, killed in brutal and unnatural ways… Their deaths were boastful and lyrical and always, always more romantic than real. Death was not an end. It was an ellipsis” (page 23).

My barrier and sticking point was the idea that Senlin’s journey centered on looking for his wife, Marya. Literally by page eight she has disappeared, so the rest of the story is about her from other perspectives. As a feminist, I find this type of structure deeply disturbing. Given that the story is from Senlin’s third-person perspective, one may argue that’s completely appropriate, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is her placeholder status–replace her with ‘ring,’ or ‘Grail,’ or ‘silver cow-shaped creamer’ and the agency would be the same. She acts in Senlin’s memories of their interactions, she appears as a hallucination, Senlin thinks about her in relation to him, we learn of her actions from third parties, but beyond that there are only the barest paragraphs–in flashback, strangely, of Senlin’s memories–of Marya being anything other than an Object. She is a mirage, a holding place for the character’s own thoughts and emotions. A telling quote, I think, from page 1:

“Thomas Senlin and Marya, his new bride, peered at the human menagerie through the open window of their sunny sleeper car. Her china white hand lay weightlessly atop his long fingers.”

Though that, perhaps, is part of the underlying motif of the story: the absence of women and the fickleness of love/relationships. Early on Senlin is told, “women get sucked up the Tower like embers up a flue,” and we begin to get the picture that the destruction will be along gender lines. Outside the Tower, Senlin meets Adam, a young man who is missing his sister. On level three, we encounter another significant male character who will ‘one day’ return to his wife.

Of course, the search for the Other inspires in Senlin reflections on his own character, and his relationship with Marya. The challenge for me is that Senlin is someone I have trouble liking. It could be because Senlin hits too close to teen-Carol., and I don’t mean in the hormonal sense, I mean the sense one has when one is young, overly book-smart, and color-blind to shades of grey. He is the headmaster in his small fishing village and he considers himself a leader of the community, although I strongly suspect the feeling is not mutual. He has harped on the wonders of Babel to his students and fellow citizens, which is no doubt supposed to play into the irony as he discovers the reality of Babel has little in common with his conceptions or his much-thumbed Guide to the Wonders of Babel.

In fact, I found myself wondering about the parallels with my most favorite and sometimes wildly inaccurate guidebook, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur too finds himself at a loss, forced to confront wonders and misconceptions. However, Hitchhiker’s does it with absurdity and humor, while Senlin does it with gorgeous prose and Victorian sexism. If you’d like beautiful language and imagery without a plot, give The Night Circus a try.

I absolutely enjoyed the writing, but Woman as Object coupled with the perspective of a man who is difficult to connect to means it was a struggle to read. It did pick up a great deal as Senlin reached level four (page 200/350) and started to embrace more duplicitous planing for the future, but it was too little, too late. The fact that most of the character actions were telegraphed in advance means there wasn’t that much surprise. I wouldn’t rule out Bancroft in the future, but I’d likely enter into it with suspicion, and that’s no way to read a book.

 

*Many thanks to Milda for her encouragement in getting me to completion!

 

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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Read April 2017
Recommended for Americans
★    ★    ★   ★    ★  

It is no surprise that “Evicted” was the University Wisconsin-Madison’s Go Big Red book read for 2016, a book chosen by the chancellor and worked into campus-wide discussions and events. Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it examines the lives of a number of people who deal with eviction and the property owners. To those outside the state, it might be less obvious how state politics have played into the background of many of the people in Evicted but suffice to say, the once-independent State of Wisconsin has fallen on conservative and judgemental times.

At any rate, for non-fiction book littered with references, it is extremely readable. Done in a more ethnographic style, it reminds me of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Read these two back-to-back and I will guarantee you will go to bed thankful. Like Enrich, Desmond tried to ‘walk the talk’ by living in the trailer park he writes about by renting and living close to the subjects of the book, and by tailing the landlords as much as possible.

The last chapter of the book before the footnotes is an ‘About the Project’ section that details his own history, his goals and his structure in writing the book. I actually think it should be the first chapter, as it lends explanation and context to his sources and the style of writing. For those who might be scared off by the voluminous footnotes, I recommend peeking at them-many are actually commentary or elaborations on some of the personal details. Definitely not one I would have wanted to read on Kindle.

Unlike Nickel and Dimed, much of Desmond’s material will be controversial, perhaps only serving to reinforce stereotypes about poor people. In some ways, perhaps, this might be one of those books that says just about as much about the reviewer as the subject. Being entirely honest with ourselves is hard, right?, and it’s easy to judge many of the people in the book.

Issue one, the simple one: people without resources have high stakes and no cushion when they indulge or make mistakes–as we all do. For instance, I have a fat pile of COBRA paperwork waiting for me to read through it, and recently I spent $50 on chocolates for gifts for my personal references. If I didn’t deal with the COBRA paperwork, I’d probably be fine (unless I got in a traumatic car wreck), because I have prescriptions stocked, generally good health, financial resources and a job that will cover me in a month. If a person in Evicted forgets to attend a caseworker appointment or forgets to file a change-of-address, they’re screwed, because they will get no food stamps that month and have no saved resources to cushion them (how can you save money when you only have $40 extra dollars a month) Desmond does a decent job of making the costs of human indulgences clear, showing that the disabled, dishonorably discharged vet has exactly $40 dollars a month after rent, or that eating a lobster tail dinner means a month of ramen noodles.

Issue two, the complex one: One of the most BRILLIANT and amazing things I’ve read this year was an interview with Bruce Perry, psychologist about the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma. Read it: here The essay talks quite a bit about what kind of constant physiological stress that does to the human brain, and how it changes learning and relationships. Physiological stress can result in more (or even less) reactive brain than one that has only smaller, more intermittent amounts of stress (leading to the million-dollar question of how to we teach resilience?) A body that is always on alert because of safety issues, or a body that is always hungry is not one that will be in an environment of optimal function.

You see where I’m going with this? A majority of people in this story sprung from poverty. They were born into it, had their brains wired by it, their coping skills and expectations structured by it. They were set up to ‘fail’ by traditional society. Patricia’s kids, the ones who are sharing a mattress on the floor in the living room? Probably not going to be doctors and own the latest McMansion. Not because they aren’t capable of it, but their ongoing circumstances are going to continue to set them up to fail (changing schools every time they move, missing school due to issues with housing/resources, stress caused by having to find new housing every six months, the violence in the places they live, the lack of trustworthy relationships built where they live–because how can you build them when you keep moving?), and thus the cycle continues. Desmond actually demonstrates impaired coping from ongoing stress when he shows how Arleen initially tries to deal with Crystal’s generous but irrational moods and how Arleen eventually responds from a place of stress, anger and pride that makes the housing situation even worse. I’d even argue that Arleen was never set up to succeed in the first place from her childhood.

Issue three, the other complex one: addiction, that ongoing, ever-present itch. People will argue that heroin is a ‘worse’ addiction. I don’t know; you live long enough, you see addictions come in waves, like fads. Meth was the rage in Wisconsin about ten years back. Heroin is the hot drug these days. Scott is the poster child for addiction in this book, a former nurse who got caught using and spiraled down. You know how many sanctions are applied quarterly to nurses who use some kind of substance? I’d say over a hundred, at least. WI Department of Regulation publishes a list of nurse sanctions and addiction-related issues are by far the most common (alcohol and drugs). This is a horribly complex issue, and though Scott manages to rally after eviction, he falls again. Now he’s straight (at the moment), thanks to a supportive recovering-addicts residential housing program that also employs him.

You want to know about the homeless I meet? Frequently addicts of some sort. There are housing programs and shelters, but you have to be sober to get in, or stay sober for long-term housing, and many addicts aren’t willing to leave their addiction. There aren’t good answers for this one. The trailer park Desmond lives in shows a little what a group of addicts living together must be like, how one of the residents goes door to door looking for a fix and knows he’ll find it.

Issue four, the last complex one: mental illness. Way back in Reagan era (haha, I know you kids don’t remember that), there was a huge movement to ‘de-institutionalize’ people with severe mental illness. There are reasons for and against, but the upshot is that each community has to deal with how to care for a population that may not be able to adequately care for itself. An excellent article gives some of the facts and figures that my own experience has demonstrated. I’d say about half of the people I’ve had to take care of with schizophrenia have stopped taking their medication, which is part of what lands them in the hospital. It’s a well-known and vicious cycle (for people who are able to get access to medication): meds make people feel better and in control, so they decide to stop the meds because they are feeling so great. OR, the medications make people feel shittier, so they stop taking them. Either way, the result is uncontrolled mental illness. Desmond has a poster-child for this one too, Crystal, who despite a consistent SSDI check and support from her faith community, frequently ends up evicted due to fighting with other tenants.

What is less easy to see is how many of the people in the book are political pawns. Newly imposed trailer park management and local police response to ‘nuisance’ properties show how political stances have real and unintended consequences contributing to eviction. The City of Madison was dealing with this in the past several years as well, finally forcing one of the local ‘slumlords’ into cleaning up his properties that resulted in many being placed on the market. He–like landlords in the book–argued he was providing housing for people too poor to rent elsewhere, unable to get housing due to criminal history or prior evictions latest story. All of that said, somehow the slumlords have squeezed hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their properties (I think the Madison one has a portfolio of over SIX million dollars, much like the trailer park owner in Evicted) while letting the tenants live in conditions you’d be furious to see at the local shelter.

Desmond has a few suggestions. First, is more research, because good policies should be informed by reality. His studies were one of the few looking at eviction and poverty. More documentation should be done on it’s effects in the neighborhood and on longer lasting effects. He mentions people who are evicted end up having higher levels of material hardships for up to two years after eviction. His immediate suggestion is better court advocates and legal aid (which is being cut) for those facing eviction so that they can help prevent evictions and further needless homelessness.

His ethical suggestion is that we recognize housing as a basic human right, not a mechanism of exploitation. As I mentioned in my own Madison example, while the slumlords may claim they are providing at least some kind of housing, they aren’t doing it as a public service. His solution is expanding housing vouchers for all low-income families, not just a small number–are eligible for a voucher that can be used for anywhere that is “decent, modest and fairly priced.”

I’m not sure Desmond is recognizing the things he experienced with Sherrena the landlord commenting on how taking voucher families was a pain because the buildings had to be up to code. This is the part where I also think he is ignoring the roles that addiction and mental illness play in housing as well. Still, he’s offering something as a solution, and in an area that has the potential to negatively impact both individuals and communities, it’s worth trying a solution or three or twenty til we can get it right. Overall, an excellent book that provides much information for consideration and discussion. Highly recommended.

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Hexed by Andrews, Galenorn, James and Stein

Read April 2017
Recommended for The Fans
★    ★    1/2

I don’t normally say this, but… People! Aim higher! Not the authors, although that goes for them too. No, I’m talking readers. Ilona Andrews, as always, has an interesting blog post about the ‘Cheap, Fast, and Good’ phenomenon in publishing. You should read it, as I think she offers some excellent insight, particularly the comment, “Research has shown that if a person wants a particular movie or book, they would rather settle for a mediocre book on their preferred topic than buy a better quality book in a different genre.” (April 12, 2017). The jacket copy on Hexed claims that all four authors are ‘bestselling,’ two of them from the NYT Bestseller list. Which leads me back to my point, that readers need to demand better, not more, because if this is bestselling, these short-form writers really need to read more Peter S. Beagle or Roger Zelazny.

The first story ‘Magic Dreams’ is set in Andrews’ Kate Daniels universe, about Dali, a brilliant Indonesian woman who is called upon when her crush is exposed to deadly magic. It’s a solid story, although I feel like Dali’s personality doesn’t come through well; she mostly seems like a young, awkward girl with a giant crush on a powerful man. This is in contrast with the confident woman of the Daniels’ series, who volunteers for death matches and pretends she’s a professional race-car driver. Still, it has fun mythology and gives a little more insight into another corner of Atlanta. Three stars.

The second story, ‘Ice Shards‘ by Yasmine Galenorn is utterly incomprehensible, over-wrought, over-written drivel of the sort a clever fifteen-year-old who reads too much Juliet Marillier might write. Twenty pages was enough to make me swear off reading for the evening, poisoned by the language sinking into my brain. In an effort to purge it, I’ll share: “I stared at Grandmother Coyote’s portal. We were standing in the middle of a snow-shrouded wood, in the Belles-Faire district of Seattle, a few miles from home. But we were about to travel through the veil, to the Otherworld, the land of Camille’s birth. From there we would journey to the Northlands, the world I’d left behind so long ago, when I’d been branded a murderer, stripped of my strongest powers, and cast out of the order of Undutar, the Goddess of the Mist and Snow.” That’s on page three, in case you were wondering. No, you don’t get more explanation that makes sense.

How about our heroine? “Most people thought I was a pushover, an easy mark, since I was so short and petite. Some assumed I was mild and delicate; others thought I was a cozy maid. But I’d seen too much to ever be mild or cozy or an easy mark. I hid my memories well, but they were always there to fuel the need to fight.” Gack. What is a ‘cozy maid?’ Why are we bringing memories into it? And believe me, in twenty pages, there wasn’t any fighting, just a tear or two, a meeting in a bar and etc., etc., yawners. One star.

The third story, ‘Double Hexed,‘ by Allyson James, is a fun urban fantasy and will probably appeal to fans of Kate Daniels. Another no-nonsense heroine with a straight-forward writing style. Interesting magical-being building, although I could pass on the tantric magic. Interesting integration of Southwest Native mythology with conceptions of withcraft, vampires and black magic. Three stars.

The final story, ‘Blood Debt,‘ by Jeanne C. Stein feels a little knock-off-ish and unfinished, but with potentially interesting bones. A woman who was recently made a vampire is called to account for killing a murderous witch by powers from the other world. Straight-forward prose. Choppy with partial sentences. (See what I did there?). Two stars.

Overall, definitely don’t buy. Worth picking up only if you want to see a novella by one of the authors you enjoy.

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Consumed by Jason Brant. Or, Snack-Time Lite.

Read April 2017
Recommended for fans of The Walking Dead
★    ★    ★ 

I used the lure of this book to drag my bootie to the gym and the reclining bike after the non-stop excitement of book one, Devoured. It certainly worked in terms of heart rate elevation and distraction. However, in terms of brain-stimulation, I was a little disappointed it focused more on the human threat from fascists militia-types. It’s pretty freaking obvious that people are the real threat (just listen to the news!), so for me, this wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped.

As our troupe of merry misfits seeks to provide for themselves, they debate whether or not they should head to a safe camp. I felt some of the dialogue and action was overdone from the more personal balance of the first book. You like that banter from book one? We have mohr! You want militants? We have even mohr! You want blood-sucking monsters? We’ve got mohr, mohr, mohr! It worked out, I suppose, especially when balanced by a peaceful interlude, but still, I am generally annoyed by the amped-up phenomenon. Yeah, I know I’m reading a monster book. Shuddup.

Speaking of, we have monsters, which is absolutely fine and scary, but then we also have srsly Too Stupid To Live Moments. The heroes are self-referential enough to acknowledge the “don’t go into the basement by yourself” phenomenon, but then split up to search an armed encampment. They refuse help from someone more prepared then they are, which will clearly lead to them ending up in a disastrous situation. Later, they take someone new to them, high, stupid and literally unaware of the apocalypse into a monster lair.  Of course that provides the match strike for the metaphorical firestorm. Of course. Because why write it as if our heroes had any sense and normal bad luck provides the trigger? Then there’s the personality overhaul of the doctor, who goes from dedicated, disbelieving, cringing helper to Massive Spoiler. I’m all in favor of spontaneous personality overhauls–I wish a certain President would undergo one–but I kind of like to have reasons, you know? I know–monster book. Shuddup.

On a personal note, I think I dislocated my eye when –mild spoiler– a certain character ended up pregnant after a huge deal was made about Lance’s infertility in book one.  Serious eyerolling. I don’t even know why we went there, because the reasons for striking back at the monsters were always in the making, and foreshadowed frequently. So why? Why must you torture me with these Lifetime drama moments in a monster book??

It did have a fast-n-furious pace, with a steady and predictable variety of conflicts. In short, it was basically a good, solid Walking Dead episode where we discover people are the real assholes (of course).

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Devoured by Jason Brant. Or, Snack time!

Read April 2017
Recommended for fans of The Walking Dead
★    ★    ★   ★  

Fresh off my Vietnam fictional-autobiography The Things They Carried and Pulitzer Prize winner Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, I really needed to rest my brain. Actually–let’s be honest–I really needed to see humanity destroyed a little faster than we seem to be doing it ourselves. Brant–and I might turn into a genuine fan of this non-genuine Bigfoot hunter–serves up almost exactly what I was looking for in an apocalypse-monster novel. For all you who wanted to like The Passage and didn’t, I’d strongly suggest this little action-fest. Competently written (and I’m not damning it with faint praise), I just could not put it down.

We’re set up with a character who is having a bit of a life-crisis but ends up discovering his personal strengths in an external one. He’s ill-prepared in physical skill sets but not in mental ones, once he overcomes self-doubt. I thought the characters all behaved rather realistically, from initial rationalization of the ‘illness’ to depression to to attempting to strategize through the disaster, albeit somewhat ineffectively (of course). Focus is tightly on Lance, with important secondary characters. I appreciated that Lance did not overly demonize his soon-to-be-ex-wife, often a tempting crutch to make a character seem more likeable.

Although it goes quickly, the story allows for information-sharing through television and social media, giving the chance to witness some of the societal breakdown as systems and their back-ups gradually fail. I always wish this part was longer in survival stories, but Brant gives me more than many books. Plotting was tension-filled, feeling a great deal like a survival video game. Immediate conflict, re-group/strategize, next conflict. There’s a part near the end that sounded scarily prescient with some people’s political response to the virus. I found it almost impossible to stop reading.

Beginning paragraph:

“The tie around Lance’s neck might as well have been a noose.
Yet another job interview went horribly as his career circled the drain. He looped a finger over the knot by his throat and pulled it down, letting out a long, depressed sigh. Fourteen years of hard work, certifications, and experience meant nothing anymore.”

What fun foreshadowing! Not only true for Lance’s own life, but about to be true for the world.

I have perhaps only two quibbles. One, overall conflict escalated quickly. I don’t mind the escalation in terms of human destruction scenario, but in terms of the monster scenario, it straddles the line between believability and pure fiction. I’m a little ambivalent about that, because then I feel the story loses its chance to explore the breakdown, and not head straight into survivalist territory. Two, (mild mid-book character spoiler—a female character that comes along is just about perfect, not in the stereotypical kind of way, but in the everything-I-need kind of way. She’s Xena, Warrior Princess. But what the hell–I kind of enjoy a good warrior princess.)

Dialogue was solid, although I did eyeroll a couple of times at the flirtation-type banter. I suppose it provides some humor. There is a little bit of humor edging into description which I appreciated. Certainly not enough to distract from the seriousness of the situation. “He considered breaking in to his neighbors’ apartments to scrounge for food, but he feared some of them might be hiding inside, armed with shotguns. Getting shot was low on Lance’s list of priorities.”

This was a freebie at Amazon when I picked it up. No worries, though–unlike the last self-pub apocalypse I picked up (L.A. Dark), this one had adequate closure, much like an arc in a television series. That said, the reader will undoubtedly want to go on to the next book. I certainly did. I just won’t start it tonight, because I need to sleep sometime and I have doubts about putting it down.

This is a straight-forward apocalypse, solidly written with no literary pretensions involved (as opposed to The Reapers are the Angels, The Girl with All the Gifts or Station Eleven). Reminding me a little of Rhiannon Frater’s As the World Dies series, I found it much better written. Recommend for people who want an apocalypse-monster fix with likeable heroes and grip-your-seat pacing.

Solid four genre stars

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A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Read April 2017
Recommended for fans of character-driven stories, sci-fi
★    ★    ★   ★    ★  

I understand that some people weren’t fans of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Personally, in my heart of hearts, I kind of suspected they might be suffering from Grinch syndrome,* but I respected it, because there were indeed a few flaws.

*

This time, I won’t keep my suspicions to myself: if you do not find this book enjoyable, you need to witness a little village of Whos holding hands and singing even though you just stole their Christmas Beast.** Or, just possibly, it is completely not your style of book. I’m fairly certain those are the only two choices here.

**

Don’t get me wrong as this by no means a sugary-sweet, singing festival: there is a lot more edginess, with subsistence living and even a touch of horror, but there’s something equally wonderful–or better–in the story as a whole. It isn’t at all a direct sequel to A Long Way, although the ending of that book does go a long way (I couldn’t help myself) towards explaining the premise of this story. No matter, as Chambers is kind enough to start just twenty-eight minutes after the last book, although without the Wayfarer crew.

It begins with Lovelace the AI program, fresh in her new synthetic body, which she continually refers to as her ‘kit.’ It’s a brilliant little device that constantly distances both the former Lovelace and the reader from her new housing. Eventually she picks a name, Sidra. Narrative then jumps into the story of Jane 23, a young female who works first cleaning then repairing parts with her clone-sisters. Chapters go back and forth between the two, but are occasionally interrupted by a type of underground message boards where less-than-law-abiding citizens talk shop. Often I dislike this narrative technique, but there’s solid continuity as well as thematic parallels. As both were written well but with different plotting tensions, I found myself both eager and reluctant at the end of each chapter to resume the other story. In a way, both are stories of survival and of identity, and they dovetail beautifully.

I do have a lingering question or two, primarily Sidra’s solution (spoiler)–of installing herself in the walls of a bar. I thought it was reasonably clear from the AI manual that she might grow bored being in one place, and that a variety of customers does not seem adequate stimulus, Linking available or not. Like A Long Way, there was a couple of very rapid plot developments near the end (spoiler)–particularly the installation of Owl and the use of the pet-bots as extended networks. While they do serve to nicely wrap things up, the pacing and resolution felt pressured. I felt a little like, once again, someone told Chambers to get a move on and finish up. Not that I would have said that, mind you. But that’s the impression I was left with in both books.

Well, whatever; I’m no Grinch*** to quibble the minor details. I’m very glad I added this one to my own physical library, as I think it will hold up well to a re-read. I strongly recommend it.

 

***At least with books

 

 

*

 

 

**

 

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Necropolis by Tim Waggoner. Or, P.I. Mad-Libs, Magickal Edition

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans Simon Green
★    ★  

Mostly, I have only Past Carol. to blame. You see, I realized my TBR list had over 600 books, over four years of reading if I ever tried to get through it. As I try to actually make these things functional, I was going through removing books that no longer appealed. I don’t know what I was up to in 2011, but I sure was frivolous about adding books. Necropolis was one of those 2011 reads, and one I could have done without. While I’m often looking for a new take on urban fantasy, this was MadLibs: Magickal Private Eye edition. You want regular edition, use noir private eye words (Mafia, mansion, gun, babe, etc). Magic edition, use supernatural ones (Lord, castle, holy water, vampire, etc).

_____ (Plain name) Richter has just finished his latest case successfully but with some damage to his _____(body part). ___ (name) stops by his _____ (health practitioner) for repairs and discovers he has limited time remaining. As he’s dragging himself home, a beautiful ____(description) woman requests his help recovering _____(lost object). The woman’s father is a powerful member of the _____ (social group) and she wants to return the ____(lost object) without him being any the wiser. Initially skeptical, ___ (plain name) agrees, hoping he can use her connections to repair his own situation.  Together they sneak into her father’s _____ (opulent dwelling) to investigate where the _____(lost object) was stored. There is no sign of forced entry, leading ___ (plain name) to suspect that someone related to the family is responsible. There are also some fine grains of white crystal left at the scene, leading them to suspect a ____(illegal drug) user. They head to a ____(occupation) informant, then a nightclub the user is known to frequent, only to be violently accosted by ____(group of people) en route. At the nightclub, they conveniently get information from a friend, who just happens to ___ (activity) at that club. They will also have to go to a ___ (drinking establishment) and a ___ (place for sex acts) in order to further their search.

The plot was boilerplate noir with more deus ex machina than a game of Sims. At virtually every point, there is a device/conversation/person that provides the couple with the next step. Most frequently, it is people who Matt has helped before, who decided to provide extra assistance strictly because they all appreciate what a great ol’ guy Matt is (this is used at least four times–generalized spoilers–driver, information, information, driver, entrance to the palace). There’s an arbitrary attack on Matt and Devona that serves as a neon ‘bad-guy-HERE’ sign.

What makes this ‘original’ is the setting of an alternate-dimension world where Earth-dwelling ‘Darkfolk’ decided to make their home. Necropolis as a city is hazily imagined, more along political lines than anything else. The most detail is lavished on our zombie P.I.’s undead state (but not how it happened), followed by vampire habits. Otherwise there are shifters, known as ‘lycs,’ and a variety of beings that may or may not have four limbs and involve gene manipulation. While sentient bugs, a bartender with only a skull on a corpulent human body, and a preying-mantis type bug that can’t wait to have sex with a human-looking female sound potentially interesting, mostly it isn’t. They all act like normal people in monstrous avatar forms. It’s all very weird, especially when these various beings are oogling and pinching Devona’s butt. It really does have a Mad-Libs sensibility of using one noun in place of another without much world-building or integration behind it.

Add a somewhat sophomoric writing style, and it just wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. Note that for some odd reason an area library decided to shelve this as ‘horror.’ Most empathetically not. Straight up private-eye fantasy. It most reminded me of Simon Green’s Nightside series and Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. series; if you enjoy those works, this may work for you. I honestly have no idea what 2011 Carol. was thinking, but I wish she’d stop wasting my time.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Mystery | Tagged , | 10 Comments

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, read by Bryan Cranston

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of war stories
★    ★    ★   1/2

This is quite the book, and Cranston is quite the reader. Well suited with gravely voice, solemn tones, perfect diction and flow that draws me in. I’m left with a few thoughts:

Part One, carrying a burden

The first chapter, ‘The Things They Carried’ was one of the longer chapters, at 47 minutes. As read by Cranston, it is a moving and primitive ballad, the grown-up version of a repetitive narrative structure (think ‘The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,’ or more likely Gilgamesh or one of those tales) that builds a rhythm leading to a powerful end. It was one of the most moving things I’ve heard in a long time, a kind of spoken word poetry, a sermon from an endless hike, culminating in a too-familiar longing to fly.

“Because you could die so quickly, each man also carried at least one large compress  bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access.

“For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly…

“At night, on guard, staring into the dark, they were carried away by jumbo jets. They felt the rush of takeoff. Gone! they yelled. And then velocity–wings and engines–a smiling stewardess–but it was more than a plane, it was a real bird, a big sleek silver bird with feathers and talons and high screeching. They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. They laughed and held on tight, feeling the cold slap of wind and altiude, soaring, thinking It’s over, I’m gone!–they were naked, they were light and free–it was all lightness, bright and fast and buoyant, light as light…”

Part two: unreliable narrators

Tim O’Brien is fooling himself.  There’s no judgement attached to that statement; I’m not calling it good or bad or anything else. But if he thinks that he’s left the war behind and that he’s not one of ‘those’ vets with post-traumatic stress disorder, he is absolutely wrong.

Part three: truthiness

O’Brien takes time in many of his tales to talk about the value of tales, about the veracity of the stories he is telling, about how he might make something up so that it feels true to the reader. This is where I disagree with him both as a reader and as a writer. In ‘How to Tell a True War Story,’ he eventually expounds on this idea, but first he has some powerful thoughts about war stories in general.

If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

This feels sadly, honestly true; there is very little that is redeemable in war, in large scale violence, in the purposeful and anonymous killing of people to make a political or moral point, and any sort of stories that try to find it are like putting a Snoopy band-aid on a gunshot wound.

I adored his acknowledgement of the memory of moments, which made me think of nothing so much as Dali’s Persistence of Memory, and relativism.

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

That is a perfect description of the non-linearity of memory, recalling that accident scene in the middle of the night in Deerfield so long ago: the kid in the cornfield, the white and red and blue flashing lights, the circle of light around us and the strange elongated shadows outside our perimeter as I knelt by the kid’s head and held his spine straight. I remember it as a cubist painting and not a sequence of events.

All of that said, I believe that I disagree with him, that “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” I think a story can be absolutely true, and that with adequate craft, the writer will lead the reader to the conclusion, the sentiment–the moral, as Mitchell Sanders would claim. I believe that the occurrence itself is significant enough, and that with well-chosen words, the reader will be able to feel it, to understand the meaning of the event. But I could be wrong, and we’re both deluding ourselves that the authors has control of the story.

Particularly in a book about war, in which the purposeful and routine killing of people takes place, I believe the horror of it is a cultural burden we should all own, and that fabricating an incident in hopes of eliciting a response takes away from the responsibility we share. It hides the emotional weight under the softening fluff of ‘this may or may not be true.’

Part four: an overview

All of that said, the collection itself is a mix. It’s more about the experience of war than the actual war. It reminded me of when I was in high school and a plethora of Vietnam movies came out, including Platoon and the more lighthearted take, Good Morning Vietnam, and I suddenly found myself wanting to understand my dad’s experience there.

I’ve heard that this is a book that some kids now read in high school. I don’t know that this is a collection that can help someone unfamiliar with the Vietnam war understand; the darkness of the jungle, the tunnels, the antipathy of the public, the absence of soldiers’ conviction in a ‘good’ war, the absolute isolation and the adolescent technology, all in contrast to the more modern ‘conflicts’ that soldiers have participated in since 2001.

Despite protestations to the contrary, there is much here that is not specific, and there is much that is too specific (the water buffalo, the girl dancing, the puppy, the sewage field) and much that is apocryphal (the water buffalo, the girl dancing, the puppy, the sewage field). This is where I find myself arguing with O’Brien again, that the specifics only matter for the feeling of truthiness. This book relies on concepts associated with war to fill in the details, and thus the impact would likely be lessened for someone unfamiliar with the real details.

The rating? Cranston, a solid five stars. The titular story? A solid 42 stars. The collection as a whole? Interesting, fraught, unhappy, deceiving, monotonous, provoking.

No doubt, much like war.

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A Curious Indian Cadaver (Inspector Singh Investigates #5) by Shamini Flint

Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of detective mysteries
★    ★    ★   1/2

Yikes! So close to the end of the Inspector Singh series, and stalking checking out the website for Ms. Flint makes it clear that self-promotion isn’t in her wheelhouse. Hope that means she’s busy writing the next Singh mystery, a series that is a more modern and culturally aware take of a Piroit-style investigation.

I found this to be one of the more solid entries in the Inspector Singh series. Poor Inspector: forced to take a medical leave of absence after the calamitous ending of the last book, his wife has the perfect activity to prevent him from rattling around the house–attending a family wedding in India. Not close family, mind you, so the reader is introduced in bits and pieces to some of the concepts of family in India and acceptable social roles. Alas, by the time they arrive, the bride has disappeared during her traditional pre-wedding house arrest seclusion. When her elder brother Tanvir identifies a badly burned body as his sister, it looks like she committed suicide. But her grandfather would like to know why, so Inspector Singh is placed on the case.

As in the other Singh books, Flint deftly weaves in bits of social and cultural commentary, giving the reader the flavor of the setting, and the ways it plays into Inspector Singh’s investigation. Really, it’s a fascinating concept for a series–what is ‘crime’ in each country, and what does policing and ‘justice’ look like? I thought this story was nicely fleshed out, and slightly less farcical in regards to the Inspector’s bursting shirt buttons and his skinny, bossy wife. There’s a fascinating juxtaposition between one of the local slums and the pristine nearby factory. I appreciate that Flint doesn’t hit her readers over the head with moral judgements, although this book comes close when it looks at life in the slum.

There was somewhat of a surprise with the ultimate solution, but the set-up behind it was obvious from the beginning. One thing about the series that continues to puzzle me is how Singh is referred to as an amazing detective, yet execution of the investigation usually seems haphazard and more subject to circumstance than the little grey cells or leaving no stone unturned. Plotting here was a little smoother. Overall, it’s a series I enjoy, certainly worthy of borrowing from my library friends. I’ll be sad to see the series end.

A solid three and a half rupees.

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bellwether by Connie Willis

Re-Read March 2017
Recommended for fans of light romantic comedy
★    ★    ★    ★     ★   

I owe bellwether a review.

 

Bellwether is a book that I inevitably turn to when I want something that is light, clever, literate and sweet.

Sandra Foster has been studying fads, specifically trying to identify what started the bobbed hair crazy at some time in the 1920s.

The company administrative assistant, Flip, is pretty much the worst ever, and one day when she mis-delivers a ‘perishable’ (not ‘fragile,’ as Pip says) to Sandra, Sandra finds herself taking the package down to the Biology Department, where she meets Bennett O’Rielly, a chaos researcher who seems to be entirely immune to fashion fads.

What happens is a more than a bit of gradually escalating chaos as they each try to work on their respective projects, turn in the annual funding request to the Hi-Tek Corporation, dodge team-building meetings, and avoid Flip’s oblivious tendencies towards destruction.

Each chapter begins with a description of a fad, much like certain books begin chapters with aphorisms. I actually learned a little bit about a number of fun things, including hula hoops (1958-59), hair dioramas (1750-60) and mah-jongg (1922-24). There are numerous references to scientific discoveries, fascinating if you know your scientific history. There’s a mention of Fleming leaving a Petri dish cracked as he headed out to golf, and a researcher hiring a Polish woman named Marie Curie to help him with radiation research. It’s one of the things that elevates this beyond your average rom-com. I’ll also note there’s a definite feel of verisimilitude about this; on this reading I noted Sandra referencing SPSS software, classic software that I’ve used myself in statistics class.

As in To Say Nothing of the Dog, there are a number of running gags, including corporate insensibility (“Tell them any number of scientific breakthroughs have been made by scientists working together. Crick and Watson, Penzias and Wilson, Gilbert and Sullivan–“), bigotry against smokers, personal ads, where rivers begin, and the unrelenting cheer of Browning’s Pippa. In a nod to having a life outside of work, she weaves in her adventures at the local (trendy) cafe and her regular visits to the library.

While I understand this isn’t highbrow literature, it is one of those reads that make one feel delightfully entertained, resulting in a lingering feeling of happy once it’s over. It’s my go to read when I need something light and clever to cleanse my palate in between those nail-biters. In view of my recent review of The Trespasser, I absolutely give this five stars.

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