25 August 2014

Books: The Likeness By Tana French (2009)

The Likeness is Irish author Tana French’s follow-up to her debut bestseller, In the Woods. While I actually think this is a better novel, it still seems a bit overlong and slow. 

It’s been six months since the events of the previous book and Detective Cassie Maddox is still trying to recover and to put her life right. She has moved out of Murder Squad into the Domestic Violence, and is hoping that this switch will make her life quieter and make her burgeoning relationship with Detective Sam O'Neill go a bit smoother –even if she can’t fully make a commitment to him or her new career.

But in the end, it’s Sam who gets her back involved in a murder case, one involving the stabbing death of a female college student. And while she’s puzzled at first why Sam called her, it becomes clear to Cassie when she sees the girl, her past is about to return in a most unwelcome sort of way. The young dead women’s name is Lexie Madison, which turns out to be a name Cassie used when she was an undercover cop years before joining the Murder Squad. Plus she also bears a striking resemblance to Maddox.

With no leads, no suspects, and no clue to Lexie's real identity, Cassie's old undercover boss, Frank Mackey, spots the opportunity of a lifetime. They can say that the stab wound wasn't fatal and send Cassie undercover in her place to find out information that the police never would and to tempt the killer out of hiding. At first Cassie thinks the idea is crazy, but she is seduced by the prospect of working on a murder investigation again and by the idea of assuming the victim's identity as a graduate student with a cozy group of friends.

As she is drawn into Lexie's world, Cassie realizes that the girl's secrets run deeper than anyone imagined. Her friends are becoming suspicious, Sam has discovered a generations-old feud involving the old house the students live in, and Frank is starting to suspect that Cassie's growing emotional involvement could put the whole investigation at risk.

The first part of the book, and arguably the slowest chunk, details Cassie preparing to go undercover at Whitethorn House, a manor outside Dublin and close to town called Glenskehy (and in most procedural shows these days would be quickly taken care of in a montage scene). The folks who live around the manor and the town don’t like the five people who’ve taken up residence there:  paternal Daniel (who inherited the house from his uncle, who equally was not liked by the folks), handsome Rafe, the oddball Abby, and easily rattled Justin. 

While the books plays out like an elongated episode of the Sarah Michelle Geller series The Ringer married with today’s TV procedural with a dash of Agatha Christie (every one of the four have stereotypical quirks and dark past, they’re also generally unlikeable as well, which is a Christie cliché) added for good measure, it’s dull pace undermines the plot –which while hyper-realistic, still stretches the credibility factor. While French appears to focus more on character development over plot manipulation (there is certainly no surprises here), it could’ve been more successful if The Likeness was a tighter ship –mostly the first hundred pages could’ve been trimmed to a few chapters. 

Still, her prose is strong and you end up liking Cassie more than In the Woods. Her dialogue is strong, and very realistic (I like characters who act like everyday folks instead speaking and doing things like they are characters in a book) and that really saves this book.

11 August 2014

Books: Earthquake Weather By Tim Powers (1997)

Since this is a double sequel to Last Call (1992) and Expiration Date (1996), Earthquake Weather further enmeshes the reader into the multiple genres that make up the unique universe that Tim Powers has superimposed on the real world –many different ethnic folklores, Egyptian mythology, ghost stories,  a bit of nior detective here and there- and mix them up with a bunch of different story threads that somehow get connected towards the end.
Scott Crane (from Last Call) is the Fisher King and has somehow failed his land, allowing a new outbreak of the dreaded phylloxera louse to ravage the vineyards of California. There is not a lot that Crane can do about this, owing to his having been murdered. Worse, he was killed in the wrong way -- that is, not by a potential successor. The possible heir is young Kootie (from Expiration Date) who actually has the requisite unhealing wound in his side. Crane's chief acolyte brings the late King's family and decay-proof corpse in a partly miraculous pick-up truck to the magic consultancy run by Kootie's adoptive parents: Pete, who has Houdini's hands, and Angelica, formerly a psychiatrist and now an initiate into brujeria.

Also along for the ride is Janis Plumtree, who has a cadre of personalities that shifts like the sand in the desert when dealing with the unpleasant knowledge that one of her “voices” actually killed Crane. There’s the c on artist Cody, the nymphomaniac Tiffany, and several more and a ghostly outsider that was the cause of her problems to begin with, her own murderous father. Accompanying Janis is Ed Cochran, whom ever since a strange boyhood epiphany has had a special empathy with viniculture, which will prove to be of immense importance in this story. And then there is Dr Armentrout, a comic, albeit, sinister psychiatrist who has a nasty fondness for ECT or Edison Medicine prior to splitting off and consuming, like those sniffers of ghosts, the disordered parts of his patients' or victims' souls.

While Powers is never boring, the whole effort to resurrect Crane or transfer his rule to Kootie drags and slows the book down (plus, based on the pages left to read, you knew their first attempt was to fail). But even the plot is thin and the characters remain unlikeable as ever. And he spends, from my point of view, investing time in supporting characters and ideas that while creative and interesting, are sort of dropped in with little or no reason. In the end, I found the book plodding and unengaging, which may explain why it took so long for me to get through it.

31 July 2014

Books: Expiration Date By Tim Powers (1996)

Koot Hoomie "Kootie" Parganas is an eleven-year old boy who is growing up in Los Angeles in the 1992, but his parents won't let him do anything normal, as the parents worship the spirits of the dead Mahatmas and believe Kootie to be a great spiritual leader. As far as the boy is concerned, they’re crazy. So he decides to run away, but not before purposely breaking a plaster bust of Dante just to show his parents how angry he was. This one act of defiance will unintentionally set in motion major events that will change not only his own life, but everyone else's. 

Because within the bust was a box that contains a glass vial, and when the seal is broken on it, Kootie unwittingly ingests the ghost of Thomas Edison. However, because Kootie hasn't yet reached puberty, he isn't able to digest it. In its undigested state, the ghost of Edison will function as a helper to Kootie.

For Los Angeles is filled with ghosts who are basically just the moronic shells of the dead; fascinated by coins, palindromes, and chalk-drawn circles, and sometimes substantial enough to eat bottle caps and stones, they're easily trapped by acquisitive ghost-sensitives, who snort them to augment their own lives. There is a magical system surrounding these ghosts - their behavior, how they are ingested, how to catch them so that they may be ingested, and even a mysterious market where the bottled ghosts are bought and sold. In their ready-to-be digested state, they are known as "smokes" or "cigars".

Elsewhere, electrical engineer Pete Sullivan, pursued by ghost-sniffer/filmmaker Loretta deLarava, conceals himself behind Houdini's ``mask''; and a psychiatrist named Angelica Elizalde, having in a bungled séance, killed a patient by accident, and is seeking the ghost's forgiveness; and ex-child actor Nicholas Bradshaw's ghost continues to reanimate his own corpse.  Because of Edison's powerful personality, his ghost is particularly sought after by filmmaker deLarava (who is also pursuing the ghost of Pete Sullivan's father and Bradshaw, who “lives” under the name of Solomon Shadroe) and a one-armed ghost hunter named Sherman Oaks (who could be in the range of 130 plus years old).

As with previous books I’ve read by Powers, Expiration Date it is a characteristically weird ghost fantasy. It’s highly original with an often amusing scenario, which seems painstakingly researched, but also seems to be a bit overlong and totters off its wheels when dealing with some of its internal logic. Mostly, though, the book takes way too long to connect all the characters –even though it’s brilliantly executed in the way he does it. Yes the characters are interesting, but none of them, including Kootie (who sometimes acts like the eleven year old, and then acts like an adult. Even though the 84 year-old Edison ghost resides in the boy, I feel the ghost can’t account for everything), seem likable. Put the pacing kept me interested, even if I didn’t completely understand everything that was going on here.

Expiration Date is also the second book in Powers Fault Line series, even though this book is barely connected to Last Call –the only connection seems to the characters desires for immortality. Earthquake Weather is next, and supposedly will feature characters from the previous two.

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 (1992)

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.