Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Echo Park - Michael Connelly

2006; 427 pages. Genre : Murder-Mystery. Overall Rating : B+.

   .In 1993, Marie Gesto disappeared. Her car was found in an abandoned garage, her clothing on the front seat, neatly folded. For thirteen years, it has been Detective Harry Bosch's cold case. Now a psycho killer has come forward and confessed to the abduction and murder, even offering to lead the police to the body, in exchange for escaping the death penalty. So why does Harry feel like someone's blowing smoke across his eyes?
What's To Like...
    In some mysteries, the perp is obvious after 20 pages. In others, it's as if the author just picks the bad guy at random at the end of the book. Echo Park finds the perfect balance. There are plenty of twists to keep you guessing, and Connelly goes easy with the lurid gore.

   .Echo Park is set in the greater Los Angeles area, where I lived for three summers, so it was neat to read about familiar environs. Finally, anyone who names his protagonist Hieronymus Bosch is kewl in my book.

   .There are some weaknesses. While Harry and the baddies are well-done, most of the rest of the good guys are a bit 2-D. Harry's partner is little more than the token gay girl, whose main role apparently is to take a couple bullets so Harry can stress out over catching her assailant.

   .This is my first Harry Bosch book. It started off great and quickly pulled me in. There are those who say it isn't the best in the series. If so, I may have to read a couple more of these.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Twice Upon a Time - Edited by Denise Little

1999; 309 pages. Edited by Denise Little. Genre : Anthology; Fantasy. Overall Rating : D.

.    "Everyone knows that fairy tales, no matter how dark, will always come through with 'happily ever after' resolutions, but are those endings happy for everyone involved? What about the witch, the wolf, the giant, and the other so-called villains who make their homes in the Enchanted Forest?"

.   So goes the prologue to 18 short stories, all fairy tale-themed, and all with a "twist" to them, including several that see how many different FT's they can bring into a single story. Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Prince Charming, and the Seven Dwarves. They're all here and more.

.The Best...
    How I Came To Marry A Herpetologist. Opening line : "When I first spoke in toads and snakes, I hated them and tried to kill them." For every word she speaks, out pops an amphibian or a reptile. A clever concept.

.   Leg Up. A take-0ff of the Tin Soldier tale. Done in Terry Pratchett style, but of course, not quite as good as the Discworld dynamo himself. Still, a nice story, with two endings.
    One Fairy Tale, Hard-Boiled. Rumplestiltskin done in "Detective Sam Spade" fashion. He searches for the melfeasant gnome, and runs into a bunch of other famous fairy-tale peeps along the way.
A "D"?! How could you give this a "D"?!
    For starters, there's a couple of quite unnecessary cuss words. Given that this is a book of fairy-tales, one can expect young readers to pick it up. The F-word is uncalled for. Then there are the twists themselves. Perhaps being forced to warp a known FT is too confining. For instance, if you set out to re-write Hansel & Gretel, there aren't a lot of options available, other than turning the kids into brats or villains.

.    However, my main criticism is reserved for the editor herself. Of the 18 stories, three of them are a re-telling of Jack And The Beanstalk, all with the same twist. Jack's the bad guy, and the giant's the victim. Obvious the first time; royally irksome the third time. Is it too much to ask for 18 different take-offs?
How important is the editor of an anthology?
    I can't recommend this book. I have nothing against Fantasy Anthologies. See here for one I enjoyed reading last month. Notice that Martin Greenberg was involved in both of those. I now have a greater appreciation for the impact he has on a quality compilation.
    Twice Upon A Time seemed to me to be an amateurish effort. Very few of the stories reached out and grabbed me. I never heard of any of the writers. A lot of their "experience" seems to be collaborations. I wonder if this is a rite-of-passage for authors just breaking into the professional field. For one of them (Ms. Lupita Shepard), her submission here was her first published work. I'm sure that was exciting for her, but I kinda get the feeling she happens to be a personal friend of Denise Little.
    Bottom line - there are much better anthologies out there than Twice Upon A Time. For now, I think I'll stick with Martin Greenberg ones.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beloved - Toni Morrison

1987; 324 pages. Genre : Contemproary American Literature. Awards : Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1988; winner of the NY Times "best work of American fiction in the past 25 years in 2008. Overall Rating : B.
This Toni Morrison book is based loosely on the story of Margaret Garner, who unrepentingly killed her 2-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than allow her to be forcibly returned to a life of slavery in 1856.
Beloved is set in 1873, after the Civil War has ended, and superficially centers on the mother-daughter relationship between Sethe and Denver, living at 124 Bluestone in Cincinnati, Ohio. The real theme however, is Toni Morrison dealing with the slavery in her geneaology. You can read Wiki's take on Beloved here. For me, the main motif is the way slavery can dehumanize a person. You can set them free, but the years of being treated as merely a piece of property leave enormous psychological scars. To become fully human, with a focused sense of self-worth, may take generations.
What's To Like...
This is great literature. The characters in Beloved are three-dimensional, and they all evolve in the course of the story. The question of "how can a mother murder her own child" is fully addressed. And there is a ghost to bring a tinge of the paranormal to the story.
OTOH, it is a slow read, and a difficult one. Flashbacks and flashforwards interweave with confusing frequency. It helped me to read the Wiki article to sort out who-was-who and what-was-when. The first 60 pages are especially trying, until Beloved shows up. Even then, there is little plot-advancement until the final 50 pages. Finally, there is the typical Morrison bleakness. Mother and murdered-daughter may come to understand each other, but what is left is two utterly dysfunctional lives.
What does it take to impress the Pulitzer committee? This is my fourth Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The other three were The Bridge At San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder, 1928); The Grapes Of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1940), and A Confederacy Of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole, 1981). The common thread I see in each book is a unique writing style by the authors. Storylines seem to be of small consequence; what counts is the ability to describe daily life and Americana in a fresh, new way.
Beloved is not a book to be read in a hurry, nor would I call it enjoyable. Perseverence is needed to get through the first 60 pages. In the end, I found it to be fully worthy of its Pulitzer Prize. But now I need a "cotton-candy book" to put some sunshine back in my reading

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bloody Mary - J.A. Konrath

2005; 338 pages. Genre : Witty gritty bang bang. Overall Rating : C+..

This is the second in Konrath's Jacqueline 'Jack' Daniels; series. A pair of detached arms show up at the county morgue. In handcuffs. More exactly, in a pair of Jack Daniels' handcuffs.

.Jack and her Viagra-popping partner search for clues to the victim's identity, and try to keep the latest Chicago serial killer's body-count from going too high. Meanwhile, Jack's mom decides to move in with her, and brings along Jack's ex- for company, which not surprisingly leaves her current beau a bit less than enthralled.

What's To Like...
This is similar to James Patterson's Alex Cross detective series, but with more wit and snappy dialogue. There's lots of action, and gratuitous gore. Great literature, it ain't. But it's a quick read and keeps your attention. Wikipedia calls this sort of book an airport novel. While the storyline is typical murder-thriller stuff, you at least get to see how Konrath, a male author, handles his female protagonist and her soap-opera-ish life.

If there's a downside, it's the story's believability. It turns out that Mr. Psycho-killer's been dismembering folks for many years, and getting away with it just fine. Why then does he suddenly feel compelled to leave body parts at the morgue, with purloined police equipment planted on them? Later on, after wiping out half of Chicago's police force, instead of making an easy getaway, he (you guessed it) heads straight for Jack Daniels' home for the epic confrontation. Yeah, that's smart.

Bottom Line...
Read Bloody Mary for its entertainment value only. There's at least five mixed-drink-titled books in this series, and I'll probably end up reading most of them. It's appparent that they all are going to have a standard serial-slayer plot, with Jack's personal life progressing a bit from one book to the next. I suppose that isn't a very ambitious goal, but Konrath is good at it, and hey, that same template is used by the scriptwriters of Cold Case, one of my favorite TV shows.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Light Fantastic - Terry Pratchett

1986; 217 Pages. Genre : Camedic Fantasy. Overall Rating : B..

    As noted here, The Light Fantastic is the conclusion to the story started in The Color Of Magic. That fount of all wisdom (Wikipedia), assures me this won't happen again - all other Discworld books are self-contained.

What's To Like...
    There's just one tale here; not four somewhat unconnected ones like in TCOM. Pratchett apparently took some pains to refine his style for the series, and this is an improvement, even though it resulted in a 3-year wait for TLF to be published.

   .Once again, there's a lovable cast of characters. Rincewind and Twoflower are center-stage of course, and the sickle-wielding Death and the omnivorous Luggage are back as well. TLF introduces Cohen The Barbarian, who reportedly will show up in a number of subsequent books. He's 87 years old, doddering, with matchstick legs and varicose veins. And in desperate need of dentures. Eat your heart out, Arnold.

   .The storyline wraps up nicely, with our inept duo saving the cosmos. As always, there are some deeper, more serious themes interwoven in the Discworld silliness. Here, Pratchett takes on Doomsday Zealots and Blind Religious Fervor. Intelligent Design freaks will probably not like TLF.
.Some Excerpts...You can find everything in Discworld books - philosophy, romance, and for highbrows like me, gut-groaning puns. We'll close with an excerpt in each category.
Philosophy (pg. 36-37)
"I said : what is it that a man may call the greatest things in life?"
The warriors leaned closer. This should be worth hearing.
The guest thought long and hard and then said, with deliberation : "Hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper."

Romance (pg. 81)
"A necromancer!" said Rincewind.
The old woman across the fire shrugged and pulled a pack of greasy cards from some unseen pocket.
Despite the deep frost outside, the atmosphere inside the yurt was like a blacksmith's armpit and the wizard was already sweating heavily. Horse dung made a good fuel, but the Horse People had a lot to learn about air conditioning, starting with what it meant.
Bethan leaned sideways.
"What's neck romance?" she whispered.
"Necromancy. Talking to the dead," he explained.
"Oh," she said, vaguely disappointed.

Plain Old Punnery (pg. 181)
"Yes, yes," said Bethan, sitting down glumly. ... "Rincewind, all the shops have been smashed open; there was a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments; can you believe that?"
"Yeah," said Rincewind, picking up a knife and testing its blade thoughtfully. "Luters, I expect."

   .Even Milton can't write stuff like that. The Light Fantastic is, as usual, highly recommended, but only after first reading The Color Of Magic.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

1980; 394 pages. Author : John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969). Genre : Contemporary Lit. Awards : 1981 Pultizer Prize for Fiction (posthumous). Overall Rating : B..

    After JKT committed suicide by running a garden hose from his car's exhaust to its interior, his mother hawked his unpublished manuscript to various writers. It caught the eye of author Walker Percy in 1976, who in turn touted it, whereupon it became a cult classic, then gained a widespread readership after winning the 1981 Pulitzer.

    ACOD is a slice of life of a group of lower-class characters in New Orleans in the early 1960's. The central figure is Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight, overbearing, manipulative, egotistical, lazy, lying 30-year-old, still living with his mother and content to be going nowhere in life.
    There's a host of supporting characters as well, including the dominating, drama-queen mom; a luckless, picked-on detective; a senile octagenarian woman still working at a pants factory; and a talentless wannabe stripper trying to work a cockatoo into her act.

    PWP? Simon & Schuster had some early interest in the manuscript, but declined it with the note that it "isn't really about anything". Which is kinda true. There are a bunch of loosely-connected threads meandering through the book that make you wonder what Toole intends to do with them. It reminds me of Vonnegut's Breakfast Of Champions, where the "plot" is simply the (first-person) writer manipulating a couple characters to meet up with him at the end.

To Like or Not To Like...
    Judging from other reviewers, this is a love/hate book. Those who love it claim it is the laugh-out-loud funniest book they ever read. While there are some slapstick elements to it, I can't say it is anything more than mildly amusing. But to each his own.
Those who hate it claim Ignatius is without any redeeming qualities and are just revolted about having to read 400 pages about his (lack of) exploits. I can see their point.

   .I give ACOD a "B" because, despite the multitude of flaws in Ignatius, I couldn't help finding him to be a likeable guy. Ditto for the rest of the people around him. They truly are a Confederacy of Dunces, yet I was unable to work up any antipathy towards them. They may be poor, downtrodden, mean, and petty; but I found myself warming to them anyway. Thank goodness I don't know them in real life.

   .Then too, I was impressed with Toole's ability to tie everything together at the end; and in a way that I wasn't expecting. So if you're looking for a book with rock-em/sock-em action, pass by ACOD. Pick this up when you're in the mood for an existential, character-focused look at ordinary Southern life, and see if you end up liking the unlikeable Ignatius.