The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

The Sword Edged Blonde

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of fantasy and noir
 ★    ★    ★    

Well, that was a surprise.

by Justin Sweet

(Cover) + (title) = Pass.  Except that too many book-world friends read and enjoyed it, so I thought it was worth a try. Still, I cringed: this is a cover made for the e-reader. You know, the picture you don’t want any of your friends to see, because then they’d ask the obvious, and you’d have to explain how the blonde woman with the large bosom and missing legs was witnessing three mysterious men with swords hover around her (obvious much?) were clearly debating which one of them was going to cut off their own legs so that the mad doctor could suture them to her knees instead.

That’s my interpretation, at least.

The cover might have put me in a bad place, because I think around chapter two, I wondered if I was even in the mood to finish. It turns out, the first three chapters are somewhat of a blind, a prelude to the character of Eddie and his cases. Thankfully, the real story takes off after Eddie completes the current commission.

A mix of noir and fantasy, I feel like Bledscoe is still finding his stride, a sort of Terry Pratchett style of noir. Initially, plot, characters, dialogue–all written straight noir trope, plopped down into a generic but well-described fantasy setting. Characters named “Eddie,” “Kenny,” “Rachel,” and “Mike Anders,” talking about military school, oogling a waitress’ nametag–it’s more than a bit disconcerting after coming from writers who craft fantasy worlds like travel guides. At least, I assumed it was a tongue-in-cheek style until we start digging into Eddie’s emotional history. As Eddie tracks down the solution to a grisly murder, he winds through his own troubled history.

As an aside: must Bledscoe have named towns Neceda (real name: Necedah), Muscodia (real name: Muscoda) and Boscobel (real name: Boscobel)? These are real places in Wisconsin, and are infinitely distracting to the one twentieth of the U.S. population that lives there. The first two likely reflect corrupted Native American place names, so they don’t particularly set well with the Eddies and Mikes of the naming world. But hey–I guess I can admire the commitment to copying from the modern world.

What saved it for me was the emotional core of the story, the gooey center of self discovery and a sort of wistful romance.  There’s also an element of mythology which I rather enjoyed but is incompletely explained for those who like a lot of detail. Taking pains to not spoil, I’ll note that the mythology component explained a lot of me that made potentially problematic females characterization and action more acceptable. The villain was ominous and a decent foil.

When I picked this one up from the library, I thought I was reading a fantasy. It turned into a noir mystery, and then evolved into a hero’s quest for redemption and discovery. And not a legless woman in the bunch. Just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Mystery | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie.

After the Funeral

March 2015
Recommended for fans of Poirot, Christie
four stars, three-and-a-half stars, who can tell the third time around?

Goodness, but I’m a reading disaster when it comes to Christie books. At one point in After the Funeral, I felt I knew who the murderer was, and when I flipped to check if I was right (oh, the horror!)–yes, I did that—I was. But I got no pleasure out of my powers of deduction, as I’m almost positive I’ve read this at least once before. Possibly twice. So that’s a sad statement of my mental affairs that I’m almost pleased by solving the murderer of a book I’ve read twice before. Sigh–if it doesn’t pertain to biology, it likely doesn’t stick in my brain. So I find I’m unable to advise if it was a ‘fair’ or ‘solvable’ mystery, for those who look for that sort of thing. I rather think it wasn’t. But at any rate, murderer identified, I was able to settle down and concentrate on Christie’s fine storytelling. That Dame sure can tell a tale, because it remained no less suspenseful.

I’m working on a theory that Christie was a master mystery writer. Oh, I know; the British Empire already figured that out in 1971. But really, the woman could write. I am so amazed, sometimes, how she created so much character in a handful of words. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s something that bears examining. Why is it that Rothfuss and Sanderson get heaps of accolades when they describe every single jewel someone is wearing, taking 700 pages to tell their story about a journey of a thousand steps? I think–and now that I spell this out, I think there’s something really quite valid to my instinct here–that I prefer the character of a story, the sense of it. I don’t need the high-def, cinematic version–I want the emotion of it, the presence of it. Max Gladstone recently wrote a fascinating post about action scenes (Fighting Words,”), and at the very bottom, in the comments section, Kameron Hurley comments: “Yup, this is how I think about it: it’s not my job to give the literal then this, then that, then this, but to infer enough of the scene through the emotion I convey for the reader to *fill in the gaps.*

^This.

Willem Claesz Heda; Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie

If I may move from the discussion of writing action to the concept of writing, period, Christie doesn’t (exhaustively) describe how each person walks, the sound of their voice, their dress, their mannerisms; she picks out the part that identifies them most, includes that description in an action, and lets the reader draw the conclusion. For me, to mix my metaphors again, it’s the difference between 17th century Dutch paintings and cubism, particularly Braque, one of my favorite painters (although not this one):

Georges Braque; Plate and Fruit Dish

I think that’s why Christie works for me. There’s a combination of specificity and ambiguity that gives an impression, with out the need to delineate every shadow. She allows my own interpretation, and yet every single time, I end up exactly where she wants me.  More or less.

In After the Funeral, everyone gathers at the estate for the funeral of Richard Abernethie, and imagine the surprise among the clan when dotty, arty Aunt Cora says, “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” Elderly solicitor Entwistle remains bothered, her remark nagging at him, and imagine his surprise when he receives a phone call the next day from the police. I won’t spoil any more, but Christie does trot in her favorites: the ancient family butler, the motherly wife, the gambler, the hypochondriac, the actress, the scatty matron, the stockbroker of questionable values. And, of course, the Monsieur himself:

‘Hercule Poirot–at your service.’
Poirot bowed.
There were no gasps of astonishment or of apprehension.

And such a snicker we all had at Poirot’s expense, did we not? And with virtually no set-up, we laughed. Now try this brief character appearance on for size:

”     Mr. Entwistle passed a very restless night. He felt so tired and so unwell in the morning that he did not get up.
      His sister who kept house for him brought up his breakfast on a tray and explained to him severely how wrong he had been to go gadding off to the North of England at his age and in his frail state of health.
      Mr. Entwistle contented himself with saying that Richard Abernethie had been a very old friend.
‘Funerals!’ said his sister with deep disapproval. ‘Funerals are absolutely fatal for a man your age!

In four very brief paragraphs, we have the entire sense of Mr. Entwistle’s sister, do we not? And their decades of interaction? And had another little snicker at his sister’s comment? Even more surprising: there were three more paragraphs to follow, all on a chapter heading page. Eat your heart out, Way of Kings!

This book? I recommend it, for fans of both Christie and Poirot. It feels a little routine for her at this point, but it is a well-polished routine, with a nice twist. Even more, I recommend Dame Christie. Period.

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert L. Wolke. Probably “get out.”

What Einstein Told his Cook

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of David Sedaris’ writing who don’t know much about cooking
 ★    ★    1/2

Q: What book do you remember from your childhood as irritating?

When I was somewhere around seven years old, I was given Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and AnswersCharlie_Brown's_Super_Book_of_Questions_and_AnswersAlthough I’ve never been a question-and-answer type of reader (the questions asked never seemed to be the ones I wanted to know more about), I eventually came to enjoy the book for its information bites and colorful pictures of favorite comic friends. What Einstein Told His Cook follows the question and answer format, and once again, many of the questions aren’t ones I ask, in or out of the kitchen.

Q: What kinds of questions does the author answer?

Frequently, very basic ones (“What does the ‘prime’ really mean in ‘prime rib’?). Or very obscure ones (“Why does caviar have to be served with a special, fancy spoon?”). Sometimes even stupid ones (“I like my steaks and roast beef rare. But often there’ll be someone at the table who makes a nasty crack about my eating ‘bloody’ meat. What can I say in my defense?“). Buried in the last few chapters of the book are actually, rather interesting ones that no one else has ever explained to me (“why does my tea made from water boiled in the microwave leave more sediment?”)

Q: You mean the whole book is like ‘Dear Abby’ for people unfamiliar with cooking?

Yes. It really is all questions, with generally page-long answers. He throws in recipes that vaguely relate to the the questions for added interest. Chapters are divided into ‘Sweet Talk,’ ‘The Salt of the Earth,’ ‘The Fat of the Land,’ ‘Chemicals in the Kitchen,’ ‘Turf and Surf,’ ‘Fire and Ice,’ ‘Liquid Refreshment,’ ‘Those Mysterious Microwaves,’ and ‘Tools and Technology.’ You can tell by the titles that Wolke places more emphasis on attempting to be funny with his language over providing clear information. Unfortunately, the same thing happens with his answers.

Q: So why the ‘it was okay’ rating?

One problem I had is that Wolke pretends he is simplifying information by putting his ‘techspeak’ in parenthesis. However, he usually doesn’t elaborate or contextualize it, so it is actually more confusing. As a lifelong baker and someone with two years of college chemistry (including a year of organic, thank you very much), I don’t think I should have to furrow my brow at his ‘techspeak.’  An example of the lack of clarity: “The most common use for cream of tartar in the kitchen is for stabilizing beaten egg whites. It accomplishes this trick because it is somewhat acidic, even though it is a salt. (Techspeak: It lowers the pH of the mixture.)

You’ll note that in his original explanation, he didn’t state why an acid would stabilize the egg whites. All his ‘techspeak’ did was explain what an ‘acid’ was (after first confusing the reader about what a ‘salt’ is). And, as a petty aside, I’ll note it isn’t really ‘techspeak.’ It’s science-speak. Save the ‘techspeak’ for the section on microwaves.

Q: C’mon, it wasn’t that bad, was it?

At times it was funny. For instance, in answering the question “After I roast a chicken, there are all these ooky drippings in the pan. Can I use them for anything?” he begins his answer with: “No. If you have to ask, you don’t deserve them. Pour off the fat, scrape the rest of the ‘ook’ into a jar, and ship it to me by overnight express.

I’ll note he does do a good job with the physics part of cooking questions, particularly microwaves.

I did learn some things:

  1. The connection between sulfites and oxidation (sulfites are used in preserving foods–particularly ‘raw’ type foods like dried apples, bear, wine, baked goods, processed seafood, vinegar and so forth) and a reminder they can trigger asthma symptoms as well as headaches and allergic reactions. Thus sulfites require a FDA label.
  2. Pasteurization and ultra pasteurization (pasteurization is old-school heat and hold at 150 degrees, but fails to kill off Lactobacillus and Streptococcus, so you still need to refrigerate the milk. Ultra does a process of flash heating and then rapid chilling, and if aseptically packaged, could last up to a year—take note, doomsday preppers).
  3. Why some recipes will call for both baking soda and baking powder (baking soda is a single chemical that reacts with liquid acids to neutralize them, in the process releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide gas–I should have remembered this, given Suzanne’ and my experiences in basic chemistry–while baking powder is baking soda plus a salt that acts as a dry acid. Thus it uses a two step process to react and produce carbon dioxide)
  4. Why some recipes call for unsalted butter (different brands use different amounts of salt in their ‘salted butter;’ when chefs are making a recipe with a lot of butter, for taste reasons, it pays to be precise).
  5. And, for about five minutes, I understood all the differences between copper, iron, stainless steel, aluminum pans and all the variations thereof. Can’t remember it, except that copper is where its at for cooks, due to heating properties.

Q: Do you recommend it?

I’m upgrading my recommendation to a ‘sort of.’ He really is best when he sticks to the physics in the kitchen and avoids the politics of food. You definitely have to like the format, know a bit about cooking and want something you can pick up and put down without losing any momentum. Like Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers, this isn’t a format that engages me. Q&A lacks the details and context that elevates information from trivia to learning. And, much like Charlie Brown, Wolke prefers to avoid the politics of food, or even, on the occasions they intrude into questions, dismiss them. For instance, a question on why refined sugar is ‘bad, ‘ he gives an explanation of how sugar is refined, and then says, “when the molasses components are removed, will someone please explain to me how the remaining pure sucrose suddenly becomes evil and unhealthful?” Its the kind of answer that dismisses the question as it pretends to answer. Any dietitian can give you a dissertation on why refined sugar is bad (as opposed to fruit and dairy ‘sugars’). I really am all about context, which is why these Q&A formats don’t work for me. But if you enjoy it, he has a sequel out and waiting for you.

Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse, celebrity-gazing
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

 “One of the great scientific questions of Galileo’s time was whether the Milky Way was made up of individual stars. Impossible to imagine this ever having been in question in the age of electricity, but the night sky was a wash of light in Galileo’s age, and it was a wash of light now. The era of light pollution had come to an end. The increasing brilliance meant the grid was falling, darkness pooling over the earth. I was here for the end of electricity.

Full of beautiful language and vivid imagery, Station Eleven is a Shakespeare play in novel form. Like a theater performance, it is a bit self-conscious, a bit dramatic; it comes complete with character soliloquies and a complicated chain of coincidences woven together at the end. Mind you, that isn’t a negative criticism: I trek out to American Players Theater for a Shakespeare play under the stars every summer. There’s just many moments where the story seems staged, a carefully selected tableau of character and action. I liked Station Eleven a great deal, finishing it in two sittings (that the time reading was weeks apart in no way reflects on the book. It was from my desire to give full attention to the story and an obligation to read fifteen chapters of Community/Public Health Nursing).

The story begins with a performance of King Lear. Lead actor Arthur collapses on stage and a member of the audience, Jeevan, fruitlessly attempts CPR while the cast looks on. The narrative begins to hint that things are about to change for everyone, commenting as the cast processes Arthur’s tragedy that in three weeks the majority of them will be dead.

The snow was falling faster now. He felt extravagantly, guiltily alive. The unfairness of it, his heart pumping faultlessly while somewhere Arthur lay cold and still.

Narration shifts from Arthur’s death scene to Jeevan walking home and then on to Arthur’s now-ex-wife Miranda. From there, it will leap forward to the future, twenty years after the ‘Georgia flu’ has decimated the world’s population. In the future, we largely follow Kirsten, a member of The Traveling Symphony, a theater and orchestra troupe. The story continues moving gently between Arthur’s past and Kirsten’s present, occasionally dipping into the moments around the influenza outbreak and the struggle afterwards. 

“…and this collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, traveled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour. But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy

One of the motifs of the book is the grief survivors have over loss of industrialized society. There’s a curious parallel embedded within the story, through a graphic novel Miranda is creating, called “Station Eleven.”  Interestingly, although St. John Mandel is not planning a sequel to the book, she is writing the text for a Station Eleven comic (author Q&A).

On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

For me, the characters and plotting that rested on Arthur’s social network felt more than a bit constructed. Quite possibly, the elaborate links weren’t worth the payoff. Possibly, they were, again lending the story a Shakespeare-like feel. Hard to decide, but I revised my opinion of St. John Mandel’s writing upwards when I learned additional scenes surrounding Jeevan were included at the request of the editor/publisher (see Q&A link).

I’m also not sure how I feel about the mix of character viewpoints and how they move through time. In some cases the result was interesting; a series of beautifully written character studies. In other cases, I was conscious of feeling “this is going to lead to something” instead of an intrinsic interest in the scene.  To further compound the pacing issue, after a long, languorous build is a very rapid denouement and conclusion. The result feels a little less than satisfying.

Overall, though, it is a lovely book, filled with beautiful language, vivid scenes and insightful social commentary that feels more like literary fiction than science-fiction. And as a bonus for those who prefer not to dabble in the apocalypse genre, it presents a more hopeful version of a world post devastation.

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, genre-bender, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism. Recommended.

bitchfest

Mostly read
Recommended for thoughtful cultural commentary
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

To be honest, I haven’t read this particular compilation. I’ve actually been a subscriber to Bitch Magazine (site) since I first learned about it in 2003, so I assume I’ve read most of these articles. I recommend this–but especially the magazine–to all my feminist friends who want to engage their brains in their cultural consumption.

What’s in it?

Cultural deconstruction. Interviews with interesting people who usually have contributed some kind of outsider voice to culture/art, ranging from young artists to ones who have been contributing in their field for decades. What kind of art? Film, fashion, music, visual, written, performance, video and all their sub-genres. (In other words, all the various ways people express themselves). Occasional rants. A profile of an activist and some of the organizations they recommend. Letters to the editor. A book, movie and music section that focuses on indies and has led me in directions I would not have found on my own (Little Jackie was an especially awesome find). A two page smorgasbord of cool stuff staff members want to bring to readers’ attention in every issue, which usually means woman-generated cultural projects. A full-page comic.

I love the way it celebrates as much as it deconstructs. I long ago dropped my Ms. subscription because it was more depressing than uplifting, loved its theory a bit too much and had trouble staying relevant. Bust was a bit too DIY and indie-band fangirl, a definitely lacked the analytical angle I wanted with my cultural commentary. Bitch manages to overcome the tendency of outsider commentary to overwhelm when acknowledging and discussing the multitudes of challenges we face. I highly recommend it.

Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Angelmaker

Read August 2013
Recommended for fans of absurdist thrillers
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

I opened Angelmaker with high expectations. I enjoyed The Gone-Away World a great deal, and admired the blend of characterization, humor, and social commentary with a solid underlying concept. While those elements are in place for Angelmaker, it was a struggle to read until it gained momentum halfway through.

It has been a challenge to figure out why, but I think at heart, the beginning reads a little like a collection of short stories or vignettes, which makes the thriller plotting drag. There is an ominous situation; Joe, the clockmaker/restorer of mechanical odds and ends is visited by some very suspicious people. He is unnerved, and resolves to find out more. After phoning a friend, it’s quick trip through underground London (literally and figuratively), which segues from the the current situation to three days ago and then deeper into Joe’s past. The narrative jumps to Edie, an elderly lady of suspicious skill sets, who earlier had Joe repairing various mechanical oddities. As she leaves the apartment, we are treated to a long walk down Edie’s memory lane. It does gestalt together at the end, but quite honestly, it’s a bit more patchwork quilt than pointallist painting. The time shifts remind me a little of The Rook, only in that case, O’Malley’s time jumps were strictly between the same character, maintained a linear tracking and were therefore significantly more cohesive: two parallel plotlines that dovetailed together. Angelmaker is more like a complicated weaving, but instead of being enraptured, I find myself wandering away.

****

There’s some great bits:
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ari is reticent on the poison issue. Ari regards cats as lessons in the journey through life. Cats, he explains are divine messengers of patience. Joe, one shoulder still sore from a near miss two weeks ago, says they are Satanic messengers of discord and pruritus. Ari says this is possible, but by the working of the ineffable divinity, even if they are Satanic messengers of discord and pruritus, they are also tutors sent by the Cosmic All.
‘They are of themselves,’ Ari says, clutching this morning’s consignment of organic milk, some of which is leaking through the plastic, ‘an opportunity for self-education.’
‘In first aid and disease,’ mutters Joe Spork.
‘And in more spiritual things. The universe teaches us about God, Joseph.’
“Not cats. Or, not that cat.’
‘All things are lessons.’
And this is so close to something Grandpa Spork once said that Joe Spork, even after a sleepless night and a bad cat morning, finds himself nodding.
‘Thanks, Ari.’
‘You are welcome.’
‘I still want cat poison.’
‘Good! Then we have much to teach one another!'”

******

Does that cat have anything to do with the story? No. Does Ari? Not really. This elaborate conversation exactly demonstrates the fun, the challenge and the problem in Harkaway’s writing. Necessary? No. Fun, yes. Convoluted and elaborate? Yes.

Harkaway is very good at the small scale work of combining incongruities to create an absurd whole, which is perhaps why people acclaim Angelmaker as absurdly humorist story. But absurd and thriller are a tricky mix; like a black bean and corn salad (one of my recent attempts), it can be a delightful taste mix. It can also be a mushy mess.

He has a head shaped almost exactly like a pear. His brain must be squeezed into the narrow place at the top. His cheeks are wide and fatty, so that, if Mr. Cummerbund were a deer or a halibut, they would excite pleasurable anticipation in those fond of rich foods and delicacies.

He does capture elderly dogs well:
They have long ago settled between them that he is to be disturbed between three and nine only in the direst of emergencies or if there is steak. The steak should be meltingly soft and warmed over in the pan. The emergencies are more exigent: fire, earthquake, rains of frogs, the arrival of a cat in the building.

I notice some readers squirmed at the violence, but I found it usually understated:
The revolver makes an absolutely huge noise. To her relief, the back of Mr. Biglandry’s head stays on, although it’s clearly a close-run thing.

He often starts with standard dialog and then sparks it up with absurdist social commentary:
Mr. Pritchard! What are you doing?… My grandfather is weeping in Heaven, or he would be if there were such a place, which there is not because religion is a mystification contrived by monarchists! Again! Again, and this time do it properly!

His convoluted writing often conceals clever references:
From the back of Polly Cradle’s car and disguised like Mr. Toad escaping from the clink, Joe Spork stares at his home.”

He has an Adams-esque way with thoughts:
“‘Well,’ Mercer says after a moment, ‘that was insane. But apparently it was also a good idea. I find the combination unsettling. Please try not to have any more good ideas until I get to measure them against the possibility that you have gone entirely off your rocker.'”

And pieced in, oh-so-delicately, is some heartfelt philosophy:
Love causes people to do stupid things. That does not, she realizes now, make them the wrong things.

*****

I like Harkaway’s writing, I really do, and yet I’m struck by just how often I was willing to set it down to go to sleep, about the exact opposite my reaction to thrillers and mysteries (which normally falls in the “one more chapter” category). It’s a little more like reading bon mots by a philosopher or humorist, and a little less like reading a single yarn from a fine storyteller. Great ideas, challenging philosophy, nice characterization–all good reasons to read it. Gripping, cohesive action? Not so much.

I will note, especially in contrast to a number of other recently read books that pour on the cultural-referencing humor, that Harkaway manages to stay true to the emotion of the book and the family drama at its heart. He also does some interesting things with sexuality, which rather bothered me at first, until I realized he seemed to be turning an unusual character into James Bond.

After finishing, I realized that Harkaway has rewritten The Gone-Away World for a different milieu. Read it if you like more literary, humorist works, likely Breakfast of Champions, Catch-22 or A Confederacy of Dunces, and not so much if you are looking for a mystery/thriller/steampunk focus.

Posted in Book reviews, Fiction, genre-bender, Mystery, Thriller | Tagged , | 4 Comments

They Do It with Mirrors by Agatha Christie. Or with phones.

They Do It With Mirrors

March 2015
Recommended for fans of Miss Marple
 ★    ★    ★   

Sure, they do it with mirrors. Apparently in 1952, they could even do it by telephone. By which I refer to phoning it in, because this isn’t Christie at her best. It isn’t even Marple at her best. Still, They Do It with Mirrors is a diverting read, a quick Christie satisfier.

We begin with Miss Marple enjoying a few moments with a dear friend from boarding school days. Ruth now lives in America, but her sister lives in England, and after visiting her, Ruth has a suspicion something isn’t right–something besides the 200 criminals living on the property. Ruth’s sister Carrie Louise and her current husband are running a school for juvenile delinquents, hoping to reform the youth through applied psychology. Also in residence are Carrie Louise’s attendant, her two step-sons, her grand-daughter and her American husband, and Carrie’s widowed daughter.  Ruth can’t tell Jane any concrete reason why she feels anxious about her sister, but would like Miss Marple to put her gentle investigatory skills to work.

I love the few moments we have Miss Marple’s backstory as she shares reminiscences with Ruth and Carrie Louise. Despite her fondness for the universals of human nature, Miss Marple so rarely draws stories from herself–she finds most parallels in neighbors and acquaintances. Now that I think about it, I suspect that is one of the reasons I was always so fond of Miss Marple: she’s the antithesis of the attention-seeking narcissist, an all-too-familiar figure (ahem, Poirot). Moreover, Miss Marple is self-aware and is at peace with it: “Everyone’s life has a tempo. Ruth’s was presto whereas Miss Marple’s was content to be adagio.

The setting is a country estate in shabby condition, and revolves more around gossiping conversation than fact-finding. I didn’t note Miss Marple displaying her usual acumen, and thought she appeared to be led astray rather easily. Christie seemed to be telegraphing as well, but that is a tricky call for me–I’ve read most of her works decades ago so I can never tell what I’m remembering from reading, and what I might be deciphering.

Interestingly, I don’t remember noticing Christie’s subtle humor when I was younger, but I’m enjoying her sly asides now. Here it generally plays out in discussions with the police:
“‘I shouldn’t think anybody else,’ said Miss Marple…’I just happened to be looking out of my window–at some birds.’
‘Birds?’
‘Birds.’ Miss Marple added after a moment or two: ‘I thought, perhaps, they might be siskins.’
Inspector Curry was uninterested in siskins.”

Characterization was largely straightforward, following general character stereotypes with one or two developed above the rest. Again, the police provide some amusement. Watch Dame Christie get a jab or two in:

She looked, Inspector Curry reflected, exactly as the relict of a Canon of the Established Church should look–which was almost odd, because so few people ever did look like what they really were.

Even the tight line of her lips had an ascetic Ecclesiatical flavour. She expressed Christian Endurance, and possibly Christian Fortitude. But not, Curry thought, Christian Charity.

The rather slow build of the beginning has a nicely murderous payoff, then followed by even more disaster. The culmination, however, seemed hasty and morally simplified and borrowed (or heralded?) another Christie ending. Overall, it was fun, if not particularly suspenseful or logical. Entertaining and quick, perfect for a break between projects.

 

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Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines.

Ex-Heroes

January 2013
Recommended for fans of zombies and superheroees
 ★    ★    

Ex-Heroes, or a novel about a graphic novel about a comic soon to be a movie coming to a theater near you!

I have only two problems with Ex-Heroes.

Characterization and theme.

I understand that this is a book about superheroes, which lend themselves to stereotypes. Except in a genre full of them, Cline seems determined to use them all. There is the ‘Boy Scout,’ who is working for the greater good; the ‘Anti-hero,’ who is the bad boy that flaunts authority; the ‘Radioactive,’ who developed powers after being exposed to radiation (actually, Cline explains a couple superheroes this way); the ‘Gifted Female,’ whose sexuality is her dominant image; the ‘Demon,’ who has bonded with evil; the ‘Teenager,’ the normal kid who develops superpowers; the ‘Bestial,’ who has part animal in his nature. In a nod to Ironman, there is a female engineer in an iron suit. Whoops–I almost forgot the ‘Woman in Refrigerator’ character–the dead woman that moves the superhero’s plot forward through grief/guilt/etc.(1) Oh, and for those who are aggravated by such things, at least two Supers are Mary Sues.

Extra negative points for stereotypes–first, the bitchy Asian council-woman; second, transforming a Korean girl into a Japanese hero; and third, making a Latino gang into the antagonists. What, you couldn’t find any Nazis or Russians from 1960? Oh wait–the nickname of the Latino gang was abbreviated ‘S.S.,’ which almost counts. (For mark’s insightful commentary, see (2))

Faint attempt to give cookie-cutter superheroes depth by giving introducing a ‘past’ and a ‘present’ narrative were insufficient. ‘Nuff said.

**************************************

The zombie apocalypse is about a loss of organized society as the individual struggles against the horrific; they become about survival, transformation and the meaning of humanity. The best apocalypse stories focus on rebuilding order out of chaos while struggling to survive. Ex-Heroes is pretty much the exact opposite.

After retreating to a movie studio, the supers essentially form their own oligarchy, or perhaps dictatorship, since Stealth makes all the decisions. The supers don’t call it that, of course. But they are the ones strategizing, setting goals, deciding, protecting, and leading. Sure, normal humans help in some of these roles. But you don’t hear humans participating in the process, except to fulfill the stereotypical role of antagonistic-suspicion-of-well-intentioned-superhero. The humans are the mirrors for the heroes, the pets, the sheep to lead and direct; the only agency they have is that of poor decision-making. Ultimately, while that may be a prevalent theme in superhero mediums, it is the antithesis of zombie apocalypse fiction.

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What did I like? It was quick and readable. While the language was not ornate, it was coherent and focused. The “Then” narratives that gave background on the heroes were interesting and told well, even if they weren’t particularly unique stories (ah, to be a beautiful genius–the troubles I would have!). The section I enjoyed the most is the one few zombie books concentrate on–recognizing the outbreak and attempting to curtail the viral invasion. Cline’s analysis was likely spot on in the official reaction, and was creative when Stealth was sending Zzzap out on a mission to locate the living dead. Although some of the explanation of the virus was eye-rolling pseudo-science, but at the end it was combined with an impressive twist that made it worth the effort.

On the borderlands of my normal reading material, I appreciated the challenge. In regards to rating, it hits squarely in my 2.5 zone, but I imagine it is decently done for its genre.

Interesting but spelling-challenged analysis of superheroes:
(1) http://www.comicvine.com/comicbook-st…
mark monday’s thoughtful review:
(2) http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/…

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, Urban fantasy | Tagged | 5 Comments

Interior Desecrations by James Lileks. Love the words, not the patterns.

Interior Desecrations

March 2015
Recommended for fans of design and humor
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

I picked this up after a friend’s review, not because I have any great interest in interior design, but because I was sort of hoping to see an echo of my parents’ kitchen when we first moved in, a hideous display of avocado green–the appliances to the carpet–and dark brown wood accents on cabinets and paneling.
But Interior Descecrations is a level above the common 1970s ranch house. It contains pictures from designer-level showrooms and appropriately snarky commentary alongside. Apparently the book’s genesis sprung from a website devoted to the visual atrocities of the period.

Amusing, to be sure, but these are hardly the more common visual manifestations that so wounded the senses. Although I do seem to remember a friend’s kitchen that resembled this:

description

Honestly, who was the brain trust that convinced people to carpet their kitchens?!? Did they not have children in the 70s?

Commentary is meant only to amuse, not inform, with witty observations:

“To understand the full visual horror of this era, you have to visualize a man in plaid pants sitting on the sofa. Or any patterned pants, for that matter: this was a sofa designed to clash with humans. Nude people would clash with this sofa. Albino nude people would clash with this sofa. The Invisible Man would clash with this sofa. It is one of those perfectly rare pieces of furniture that clashes with itself. Just looking at it makes you feel as if you’ve bounced down the stairs in a box of cymbals.”

“Fighting centipedes? A close-up of one’s intestinal lining Difficult to say. But you can be sure the designer chose this scheme because it ‘drew the eye upward.’ Of course, one could say the same thing about the Hindenburg disaster.”

“Here we have a mix of old green crap, new green crap and some stunning green transitional crap, all of which serve to give this room the exhausted, mealy flavor of overcooked vegetables.”

That’s the one!

These are horrifying photos with commentary worth of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It is a combination guaranteed to amuse–in small doses, as it will surely overwhelm in larger ones–much like these rooms.

description

My eyes!

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Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Afterparty

March 2015
Recommended for fans of The Matrix, The Rook, The Gone-Away World, A Madness of Angels, Daryl Gregory
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★  

I turned the last page of Afterparty in a daze. It was dark outside; the sun had set while I was reading, and all the curtains were still open. The dogs realized I was interactive again and came over to beg for (more) dinner. With a start, I realized swim practice started in five minutes, and there was no way I was going to be on time. I had rushed the end of the book, knowing time was passing, but unwilling to stop reading. I gave the dogs an extra treat, grabbed my swim bag and keys, and headed to the car, unable to organize my thoughts enough to be sure I remembered everything, still only partly in the physical world.

It was that good.

I’ll admit it: I judged a book by it’s cover. I wasn’t excited to read Afterparty; I’ve been less than impressed with books revolving around drug culture (I’m talking to you, A Scanner Darkly and Less Than Zero). But a recent run at Harrison Squared encouraged me to trust Gregory. It was a leap well worth taking.

It begins with the story of a young woman that quickly segues into the story of another inmate at the mental hospital. Lyda is a brilliant scientist and one of the co-creators of a drug developed to treat schizophrenics. The issue is particularly dear to her as her mother suffered from schizophrenia. Lyda and her co-creators are celebrating its sale to a pharmaceutical company when they overdose on the drug and Lyda’s wife ends up dead. The rest of them are left with residual effects–the perception that a divine personality is appearing to each of them as a personal guide. It’s clear to Lyda that the drug is back on the street. She sets out to find the drug’s co-creators and stop its production.

Simultaneously a thriller and a meditation on personality, biology and the divine, Afterparty had me riveted. The balance between the two was perfect for me, lending meaning to the search, and giving philosophical musings concrete movement forward. What does it mean to have an angel on one’s shoulder guiding one’s actions?

“Behind him, Dr. G drifted along the perimeter of the room, taking in the mini-shrines. I got an impression of Aztec gods, clouds of cotton swabs, black-and-white photo collages. It was an Anti-Science Fair.”

Characterization is up to Gregory’s usual fine standard. Lyda, in particular, shines. Part of her personal arc involves trusting others with her history. She’s been pretty honest with the inmates of the ward about her crimes, but it is constructed setting, and she’ll be held more accountable in the real world.

This is where Bobby lived. We’d spent three months together on the ward, and in that time I learned what he was most afraid of, and the kind of person he wanted to be, and how he felt about me. I understood, for lack of a better word, his heart. But I didn’t know what his job was now, if he had a job at all, or who his friends were, where his parents lived, or what he liked on his pizza. That was the nature of bubble relationships. Prison, army, hospital, reality show–they were all pocket universes with their own physics. Bobby and I were close friends who hardly knew each other.

It is not a romantic story, but relationships are part of the equation and the solution, much like The Bourne Identity. I like that Gregory put a twist on the sexuality without making it a Major Issue. I admit, I harbored a soft spot for Dr. G–I appreciate a clever retort no matter who it is from.

‘When the mast is high, it’s any port in a storm.’
‘I don’t think he knows how metaphors work,’ Dr. G. said.”

The emotion of the story felt very real. The action pulled me along, and the near-futuristic setting was fun, and familiar enough to not need much world-building. I appreciated the evocative descriptions. Overall, I might have some small quibbles–I think the villains could have been treated with more sophistication–but anything that pulls me in that solidly and gives me book hangover deserves five stars.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Science fiction, Urban fantasy | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments