25 July 2014

Books: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie By Alan Bradley (2009)




In the spring of 2006, author Alan Bradley had been working on a book set in the 1950s when the plot developed to include a detective character arriving at a country house to find a little girl in the driveway, sitting "on a camp stool doing something with a notebook and a pencil.” Bradley explains "she walked onto the page of another book I was writing, and simply hijacked the story. I can't take any credit for Flavia at all, she just materialized."

Flavia Sabina de Luce is a precious 11 year-old girl living in a huge house called Buckshaw in the English village of Bishop Lacey. It’s 1950 and beyond getting tortured by her two older sisters, and then plotting revenge against them, nothing much actually happens. Their mother, Harriet, vanished in Tibet 10 years earlier and is presumed dead (Flavia was a baby and has no memories or her) and their father, Colonel Haviland "Jacko" de Luce, still has not overcome the loss and spends most of his time with his stamps, as he is a philatelist. Trying to stave off boredom, Flavia has turned herself into a brilliant, amateur chemist, with a specialty in poisons and has a fully equipped, personal laboratory on the top floor of her home. It is here that she strategies against her sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. 

But then, mysterious events begin to occur when Mrs. Mullet, Buckshaw's housekeeper and cook, discovers a dead jack snipe on the porch with a Penny Black stamp pierced through its beak. Then, Flavia and Dogger (the family gardener who saved the Colonel’s life during the war, but who also suffers from postromantic distress disorder) overhears a heated argument between Colonel de Luce and a red-headed stranger who shortly turns up dead in the family cucumber patch. When Colonel de Luce is arrested for the crime, Flavia takes to her bicycle, Gladys, and begins an investigation in the village of Bishop's Lacey.

I can see what Bradley means about Flavia, as she is certainly one of the most original and brilliant heroines to come along in a long time. She is adorable, unique, witty, bold and irascible. Her relationship with her two sisters is believable –anyone with siblings will wish they were as smart as Flavia. The book sags a bit in the middle, and the killer is easily spotted, but Bradley is still able to keep your attention.  There is five books in the series, so now I have something else to read for the rest of 2014.

20 July 2014

Books: Last Call By Tim Powers (1996)




Tim Powers is a great writer, even though I’ve only read a few of his books. He has a brilliant mind and wonderful, twisted imagination. He’s like the Philip K Dick of fantasy writers, taking the reader on a wild and warped journey into a world of dark fantasy, but instead of what some might consider the traditional tropes of the genre –wizards, warriors, sword and damsels in distress- we get a very real world where things like magic really exists.

One of the pleasures, of course for me, in reading Powers is that he sets his books in SoCal, mostly in Santa Anna and Anaheim where he grew up. So he uses a lot of landmarks and freeways in his tale, which makes his fantasy world a little more realistic.

But that being said, what drives me nuts about him is how he explains very little about the workings of his universe. Yes, his universe is ours, but one slight eschew, I guess. I’m given the impression he thinks his readers are clever enough to figure out what he’s writing about without giving a backstory on every aspect.

Which is why I borrowed this to explain the premise of Last Call:

“The basic premise is that Bugsy Siegel built Las Vegas in order to become a living avatar of the Fisher King, but that he was prevented by doing this when a French mystic named Georges Leon assassinated him, stole his head from the morgue, tossed it into Lake Mead, and set about turning his sons into mindless soldiers in his mystic army by conducting dark rituals involving a handpainted Tarot deck that could drive you mad. One of Leon's sons survives, though he loses his eye to his father's violence, and his dying mother smuggles him away from his father and tosses him, blindly, over the transom of a passing yacht on a trailer. He is found by a professional gambler, Ozzie Crane, who raises Scott as his foster son, and later adopts another girl, Diana, and raises her as his foster sister. From Ozzie, Scott learns of the gambler's mysticisms and superstitions: fold out your hand when the smoke gathers in the middle of the table or the drinks in the glass start to sit off-level, lest you buy or sell more than what is in the pot. Twenty years later, Scott -- now a professional gambler -- ignores Ozzie's pleas to stay clear of a game played on a houseboat on Lake Mead ("You want to play on tame water? Are you crazy?") and finds himself playing a queer sort of poker with 13 players and a deck of Tarot cards, playing (he later learns) against his own biological father, who has taken over the body of the game's host, and who is using the game to steal the bodies of more people so that he can attain true immortality.”

Yeah, but the book is not told that straight forwardly. It also features everyday superstitions, with Sumerian and Egyptian religious doctrine, the Tarot and Carl Jung's archetypes, and the Arthurian mythos, so you can see he does not tell a simple story of the Fisher King. It’s frustrating at times, but because never sure who is the madman and who is the sage in his books, the reader is dragged along on a bizarre, at times terrifying and often hilarious ride. You end up not being able to put the book down. 

While I was searching to see if Powers had a Twitter feed, I stumbled upon a Youtube audio of the author talking about his relationship with Lester Del Rey, and how Powers kept confounding the publisher because he wasn’t complying with wishes of Del Rey to produce books that were, I guess, marketable. In listening to it, you get the sense that Tim Powers has tapped into some weird and wonderful aspect of the human condition that most other author never seem to see. 

In one final note, I had acquired Last Call at a Goodwill Bookstore in Upland about 2 or three months ago, and then about a week ago I found Powers Earthquake Weather at The Book Shelf here in La Verne. I’ve discovered finding a Tim Powers book used is pretty rare, so I grabbed it, not realizing that Earthquake Weather is the third book in a loose trilogy in which Last Call is the first book. This sent me on a search for Expiration Date, the second book in what is called The Fault Line series.

Like I said, finding a used version is hard. Even as hard as finding a brand new edition, as Barnes & Noble does not carry his backlist anymore (at least at the Glendora or Montclair locations). And while the LA Library system carried Last Call and Earthquake Weather, it does not have Expiration Date with in it. So, after a futile search for it locally, I’ve ordered a used version through Alibris. 

And this, my friends, is why I have no more adventures.  

09 July 2014

Books: In The Woods By Tana French (2007)




I like old fashion whodunits, especially ones set in small towns and villages. Part of the appeal, I guess, is that as cliché as it may seem, there is always an underbelly to small town life, a darkness that is usually covered up or ignored by the folks that live within its limits.

That was part of the appeal for me to finally get around to Irish author Tana French’s debut 2007 novel In the Woods

“As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours. 

“Twenty years later, the found boy, Adam Rob Ryan (and now using his middle name), is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.”

There is a lot of darkness here, and French’s prose is strong, descriptive and well executed. Rob and Cassie are fully realized, three dimensional humans who feel familiar, yet remain cagey and eccentric. But the book also features an unreliable narrator, ("What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this - two things: I crave truth. And I lie") which takes getting used to. 

Most of the time, I felt that Rob’s memory lapses of his childhood (especially since he tells the reader repeatedly he has excellent recollection of things) was a red herring, but at least by the books end, we get some revelation into what happened in 1984. But that turned out be more of a disappointing “maguffin” as the books murder mystery (with its lurid, Law & Order, ripped from the headlines ending) took over the last 60 pages or so of the novel. Plus, by then, Rob had become an annoying, very whiny, very pedantic, inept detective. 

Plus, why does no one recognize him? Sure he and his family moved away from Knocknaree, and he’s 32 instead of 12, and has changed, but he could’ve not changed that much where the folks (99% whom still live there) would not catch on (which also begs the question of how even his commanding officer, an stereotypical Irish cop who shouts and hates complicated things like a murder that has shades of gray versus the good old black and white, would not know his background either) that Rob Ryan was indeed Adam Ryan. 

I agree that book is gorgeously written, and the characters are very well crafted and sympathetic, but I felt cheated in the end. I dislike authors who do this because there is no indication that this was the start of a new series –at least in 2007- when it was released State side.  I’m guessing in her follow up novel, The Likeness, we get another look into Rob’s past. But from what I read, it focuses on Cassie mostly.

05 July 2014

Books: Cibola Burn by James S. A. Corey (2014)




For the most part, Cibola Burn –the fourth volume in the Expanse series- the book plays out like America’s Manifest Destiny where hardy folks from generations long past ventured from the safe confines of the East Coast and went west young man into great unknown.

Set a few years after the last volume, Abaddon’s Gate, the solar system we currently know has now been opened by whatever created the protomolecule (which, through each successive novel, has becomes more and more of a Macguffin) and through those gates lies thousands of habitable planets, and, like a better and uglier version of Far and Away, a land rush has begun. 

Much like the settlers of that bygone era, some have taken up residence that others have claimed as theirs. The future political version of the UN, its charter and its security claim one planet in particular as theirs and have sent a security team (who are outnumbered by the scientist assigned to explore this new world) to get the settler’s or squatters off the planet. But violence has already claimed lives -both sides will stop at nothing to defend what they believe is theirs, so to prevent any escalation, OPA and the UN agree to send James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to keep the peace.

Of course, things don’t go as plan. Things go from bad to worse rather quickly, or as Holden wryly puts it “apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet. We should not have come here.”

And then there is the ghostly Detective Miller who needs Holden to travel to place where some answers may lay. The problem is it may kill them all.

I liked this volume much more than the last two. Yeah, it’s a slow start (Holden & crew take their sweet time appearing), but the then it starts to really pick up.  The authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, have a great grasp on the science, and they borrow heavily from Western movies and TV series motifs (and, at times, I felt I was reading a lost script from Joss Whedon’s Firefly show) but the reader can’t help but notice the love they have for Captain Jim Holden. He’s like Han Solo or even Malcom Reynolds from that late Whedon series, or most of characters John Wayne ever played, Holden has the unique ability to keep a sense of perspective when all hell is breaking loose around him. And like those heroes of yesteryear, he doesn’t even realize he doing it. 

And for fans of space opera, this series really delivers (even if, at times, the villains are a bit cartoon like) as readers, who might feel the premise will lead to a lot of talking that diplomatic missions seem to do on TV shows like Star Trek, at least here we get chases, explosions, rescues, explosions, gun play, death-slugs and a lot of stuff getting blown up.  

This may not be the same science fiction we grew up on, but since this series of books is already heading to TV as series, it fits perfectly for the fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (and in which the two authors are his assistants), in which this seems molded on. A lot of violence, quirky, snarky characters with more spaceships than horses.

29 June 2014

Books: Mr. Mercedes By Stephen King (2014)




Much like last year’s Joyland (and even 2005's The Colorado Kid), Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes lies more with the mystery genre than horror one he is known for.

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in some unknown, distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair (“1000 JOBS GUARANTEED!"). Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

Months later, retired cop named Kermit “Bill” Hodges is still haunted by that unsolved crime. But realizing he can’t do much about, he now spends his life sitting in the La-Z-Boy watching Daytime TV and wondering when he’ll have the courage to pick-up the .38 Smith & Wesson he keeps next to the remote and blow his brains out.  But a salvation of a sort comes to his rescue when the man responsible for the murders at the City Center sends him a letter. In the letter, Mr. Mercedes not only confesses to the crime but gloats over the accomplishment and reveals information only the killer would know. He even invites Hodges to join him on a social media site called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella where killer further goads the retired detective and promises even more bloodshed.

The book is not a whodunit, because the reader is introduced to the killer, whose name is Brady Hartfield, a man in his late twenties who lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. On the outside, Brady seems normal, he holds down two jobs - at a local electronics store and a driver of the neighborhood ice cream truck. But the outside betrays a darker man inside, one filled with hate for almost everyone. Hartfield slowly draws Bill Hodges into his cat-and-mouse game, but the one thing Mr. Mercedes forgot was once a cop, always a cop and Bill is very capable of using what limited resources he has –like the neighbor boy Jerome and (eventually) Holly, who is a middle-aged, emotionally stunted woman. Together, the three make a highly unlikely bunch of heroes who must stop at nothing to prevent the slaughter of thousands.

Mr. Mercedes is billed as his first “hard-boiled detective tale” and just like the horror genre that made him famous, he does well here. He clearly understands what he’s doing, filling the novel with the hallmarks that make the genre appealing to many. But he updates it with modern technology all while winking at the audience that Hodges (and the fedora given him to by a friendly female) could be time shifted detective from the 1940’s nior of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to 21st Century of Michael Connolly and John Sanford.

As with all of King’s work, the characters come before the story and his ability to create some mean (a lot of the women here are a bit self-centered witches) characters with modern, identifiable problems continues to unabated. Not only do you feel for the man heroes and villain, but also the few souls lost at the beginning, which come to life fully realized and very three dimensional.