Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Pegasus Secret - Gregg Loomis

2006; 369 pages. Genre : Cri-Fi (Crichton Fiction). Book #1 of the Langford Reilly series. Ballyhooed like crazy at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago. Overall Rating : C-.
After an explosion in Paris kills his sister and her son, ex-CIA and now-lawyer Langdon Reilly vows to find the perpetrators and take his revenge. But his investigation uncovers a much deeper mystery (of course), involving an ancient mystical order, the Holy Grail, and a hidden message in a painting, a jpeg of which is at the end of this review.
What's To Like...
TPS has the standard Crichton formula - start out with a bang (okay, it's more of a "boom"), and deliver non-stop action from then on. There actually is a lot of speculation about a hidden meaning in this painting (see Wiki's article here), and Loomis puts a novel spin on it..The flashbacks to the 1300's offer a nice contrast to the storyline, and Loomis refrains from getting "preachy" (take note, Dan Brown). Finally, the Gnostics are in it, which is always a plus for me.
Goodness me. Then why the low rating?
Because there were a lot of irritations and plot weaknesses. Here are the major ones :
Footnotes. Loomis uses them abundantly in the flashback chapters. But he puts them at the end of the chapter, so you're constantly flipping back and forth to read them. They ought to be at the bottom of each page. Critical? No. Annoying? Yes.
Castigation versus Castration. Reilly's GF is a sexy German who constantly misuses English words. At one point she means to say "castration", but comes up with "castigation" instead. Folks, castigation is not a common word. If you're fluent enough in a foreign language to know this verb, you're not going to confuse it with castration. I'm sure this is supposed to be comic relief, but after 50 of these mix-ups, it gets old. You get the tip. I mean 'point'. Yeah, she used that one, too.
Sniper Gender. For some reason, Reilly hides the sniper's gender (via ixnay on the pronouns), so that you're supposed to be in the dark about the identity. But it serves no purpose and it's obvious who he/she/it really is.
T&I. (Torture & Interrogation). The bad guys are going to T&I our hero. But clever Reilly is really clever - he asks them questions instead. And they answer him. Then they give him an electro-shock to scare him into telling all. But after one jolt, they leave to go do some chanting for a couple hours before renewing the T&I. Didn't they watch those Austin Powers movies?
Paging Dr. Moriarty. The UE (Ultimate Evil) guy isn't developed at all. He makes a late entrance, blows it for the whole mystical order, and is disappointingly incompetent. Sorry, I like it better when the UE is a worthy opponent.
The ending is clunky. The fact is, Reilly doesn't have any bargaining chips, but the bad guys acquiesce anyway. "Hey, I know where the Grail is!" (So we'll move it.) "I'll expose your secret organization." (Sorry, the blaring police raid last night did that already) "I'll blackmail you about your blackmailing operation." (Do you realize you have no evidence of that?).
Finally, there's a superfluous epilogue, unless Reilly is going to give up lawyering to become a tent revivalist.
Bottom line - I just couldn't buy into the story, and that meant it wasn't exciting to read. Interestingly, the first four killings all took place off-screen, and for a while I thought Loomis was going to write this in "cozy" style. Now that would've been something. But then the bodies start dropping on-screen, so there went that possibility.
Maybe I'm expecting too much for a debut novel to be equal to Jurassic Park or The Da Vinci Code. There are 4 or 5 books in the series now, and it's quite possible that Loomis hits his stride with time. The Amazon reviews are more or less evenly split from 5* to 1* (the overall rating is 3½ stars). The few Book Blogs that review it are mostly positive. So while I don't personally recommend The Pegasus Secret, it should be noted that there are other fans of this genre who rate it higher.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

2008; 274 pages. Genre : Modern Literature; Historical Fiction. Overall Rating : A-.

  .It's 1946 and World War 2 has recently ended. Juliet Ashton is a one-hit author (of an Erma Bombeck style of book) trying to adjust to a normal life after her London flat was flattened in the war by a V-2 bomb. She crosses paths with some of the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey (a British protectorate, located in the English Channel just off the coast of France) who are trying to adjust to a normal life after having been subject to German occupation for five years. To cover their curfew violation one night, they invented the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, which had the unforeseen benefit of introducing a bunch of the islanders to Classic Literature.

What's To Like...
It's a great epistolary novel. There's a slew of engaging characters, none of whom are entirely black or white (not even the Germans), and most of whom evolve as the book progresses. There's wit throughout and even a subtle thread of humor underpinning the storyline.
I liked the first half (where everyone is making acquaintances with one another) better than the second (after Juliet arrives on Guernsey). I had trouble keeping track of who's who. Especially the Londoners, all of whom seemed to have S's (how does one correctly write that?) for initials. There was Sophie and Sidney and Susan; there was Stark and Stephens and Strachan. Sheesh.
It's an ambitious book in that it combines the themes of the horrors of war, reading the classics, and ...oog... relationships (romantic and otherwise) into one story. It's hard to say who the target audience is. But I enjoyed it, I give it a high recommendation and an "A-" rating.
Oh icky-ewwww! It has romance in it.
True, but the main romance is between Juliet and the island of Guernsey.
Yeah, there's the secondary one, where Juliet agonizes whether to choose "wealth, high society, and a life of ease in America" (but with a controlling husband) or "writing & reading, a farmer's small income, and an instant kid in Guernsey" (but with contentedness). Fortunately, not too many letters are devoted to this, so even I could get into the story. And FWIW, any guy could reason his way through Juliet's quandary in about 5 minutes. ;-)
On the afternoon before our wedding, Rob was moving in the last of his clothes and belongings while I delivered my Izzy article to the Spectator. When I was through, I tore home, flew up the stairs, and threw open the door to find Rob sitting on a low stool in front of my bookcase, surrounded by cartons. He was sealing the last one up with gummed tape and string. There were eight boxes - eight boxes of my books bound up and ready for the basement!
He looked up and said, "Hello, darling. Don't mind the mess, the porter said he'd help me carry these down to the basement." He nodded to the bookshelves and said, "Don't they look wonderful?"
(pg 24)
"I never want to see you again."
"Juliet?". He really had no idea what I was talking about.
So I explained. Feeling better by the minute, I told him that I would never marry him or anyone else who didn't love Kit and Guernsey and Charles Lamb.
"What the hell does Charles Lamb have to do with anything?" he yelped (as well he might).
I declined to elucidate.
(pgs 213-214)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dave Barry's Greatest Hits - Dave Barry

1988; 289 pages. Genre : Waiting Room Filler. Overall Rating : B-..

    I've had occasion to spend a lot of time in doctors' waiting rooms these past three months. I learned quickly to take something to read with me, as waiting rooms have the worst magazines : Belly-Button Lint Illustrated; Oil Filter Digest; Healthy Yawning; etc. You get the idea.

.I never knew if my wait was going to be 2 minutes or 2 hours, so Dave Barry's Greatest Hits was an ideal book to take with me. Consisting of 81 of his 1980's newspaper columns for the Miami Herald, and at an average of 2 pages in length; there was always a convenient place to stop when finally called.

What's To Like...
Dave Barry is kind of an urbanized Bill Bryson. He is laugh-out-loud funny, and covers all sort of themes - current events, sports, politics, TV, history, etc. If you think he can only write about humorous absurdisms, think again. His column about the loss of his father ("A Million Words") will put a lump in your throat.
The only drawback to this book is that it's dated. If you remember the 80's it's NBD. But if you don't, then his cracks about people like Gary Hart, Liberace, Caspar Weinberger, Chuck Colson, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band may have you scratching your head. I recommend DBGH for the next time you have to get a physical. Everybody else in the waiting room will be jealous of you when you keep chuckling as you read.
As far as I can tell, our second basewoman is a pretty good baseball player, better than I am anyway, but there's no way to know for sure because if the ball gets anywhere near her, a male comes barging over from, say, right field, to deal with it. She's been on the team for three seasons now, but the males still don't trust her. They know that if she had to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, deep in her soul, she would probably elect to save the infant's life, without even considering whether there were men on base. (218-19)

.So I go in for my last words, because I have to go back home, and my mother and I agree I probably won't see him again. I sit next to him on the bed, hoping he can't see that I'm crying. "I love you, Dad," I say. He says : "I love you too. I'd like some oatmeal."
So I go back out to the living room. where my mother and my wife and my son are sitting on the sofa, in a line, waiting for the outcome, and I say, "He wants some oatmeal." I am laughing and crying about this, My mother thinks maybe I should go back in and have a more meaningful last talk, but I don't.
Driving home, I'm glad I didn't. I think : He and I have been talking ever since I learned how. A million words. All of them final, now. I don't need to make him give me any more, like souvenirs. I think : Let me not define his death on my terms. Let him have his oatmeal. I can hardly see the road.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bloodsucking Fiends - Christopher Moore

1995; 290 pages. Full Title : Bloodsucking Fiends - A Love Story. Genre : Vampire Satire. Overall Rating : A.

    At last a vampire story I can sink my teeth into. It's set in San Francisco, and look, it's even got the words "A Love Story" on the cover!

Jody is a newly-turned vampire, but somebody forgot to give her an instruction manual. Some things she learns quickly - like stay out of sunlight and go to sleep at dawn. Those hours make doing certain chores - like getting her impounded car back and picking up her severance check from her former place of employment - nigh near impossible. She is looking for love, willing blood donors, and a gofer.

Tommy (more literarily formal C. Thomas Smith) is a 17-year-old wannabee writer newly-arrived from the midwest. He is looking for a money, a job, and wild sex. You can figure out the romance plot-line from there.

What's To Like...
    I found this to be a laugh-out-loud book with some great characters. In addition to our romantic duo, there's a street-person who calls himself The Emperor of San Francisco and Protector of Mexico. His two armor-wearing dogs, Lazarus and Bummer (great names for dogs, eh?) are as street-wise as he is. There's a gay cop/straight cop team investigating the blood-draining slayings. And seven socially-inept co-workers of Tommy's who call themselves The Animals.
There are copper-plated snapping turtles; a frozen cadaver in a living room freezer; the great sport of turkey-bowling; and some outrageously funny Lestat-spawned research into what parts of Vampire Lore are true and what parts are myths.

.A word of caution - there is some profanity, and the sex scenes can be somewhat lurid. Attempted (but failed) necrophilia, anyone? So this isn't a book for the kiddies. And there is a sequel to this ("You Suck - A Love Story"), so there are some loose ends.

.Still, I personally thought it had a good ending. I give Bloodsucking Fiends an "A", because it was a delight to read. Will you find it funny? Well, the best description I can give of the humor here is "one part Charles Bukowski, one part Tim Burton, and two parts Kurt Vonnegut". Highly recommended. I suspect I'm about to go on a Christoper Moore reading kick.

An Excerpt...
She had fifteen minutes before she was supposed to meet Tommy at Enrico's. Allowing for another bus ride and a short walk, she had about seven minutes to find an outfit. She walked into the Gap on the corner of Van Ness and Vallejo with a stack of hundred-dollar bills in her hand and announced, "I need help. Now!"
Ten salespeople, all young, all dressed in generic cotton casual, looked up from their conversations, spotted the money in her hand, and simultaneously stopped breathing - their brains shutting down bodily functions and rerouting the needed energy to calculate the projected commissions contained in Jody's cash. One by one they resumed breathing and marched toward her, a look of dazed hunger in their eyes : a pack of zombies from the perky, youthful version of
The Night Of The Living Dead.
"'I wear a size four and I've got a date in fifteen minutes," Jody said. "Dress me."
They descended on her like an evil khaki wave.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dirty Martini - J.A. Konrath

2007; 324 pages. Book #4 (out of 6 now) in Konrath's Jacqueline 'Jack' Daniels series. Genre : Psycho-killer thriller. Overall Rating : B.

  .Chicago cuisine is to die for. Literally, because someone calling himself 'The Chemist' is poisoning food in all sorts of restaurants and supermarkets. The Chicago Police Department tries to keep things calm by not announcing all the deaths. They appoint our hero, Detective Jacqueline Daniels, to head the crime team, and give her two choices. Solve it and be a hero; don't solve it and be demoted to traffic cop.

What's To Like...
    The story is formulaic, but it works. A smug, psychotic killer committing gruesome murders as part of a larger plan; eventually taking on Jack herself. In the meantime, anyone knowing Jack is also a target, including her BF Latham, who seems to end up in the ICU in every book.

  .The action is non-stop. The humor will make you chuckle - especially the repartee between Jackie and her former partner, Harry McGlade. You gotta love any bad guy who goes by the moniker "The Chemist".

  .OTOH, Dirty Martini is the polar opposite of a police procedural story. Clues are routinely ignored, so don't try to solve the case alongside Jack. The Chemist brazenly invades two precinct houses to destroy old records, and the cops somehow don't find that worth looking into. When he releases thousands of cockroaches into a police station, no one stops to ask themselves why. The case-cracking clue comes out of nowhere, and with no explanation as to why the normally meticulously cautious Chemist suddenly gets sloppy.
    Read this book for what it is - a page-turner. Turn off the analytical half of your brain and enjoy a story with a strong female lead (with more lives than a cat) and lots of thrills, spills, and chuckles. Ignore the implausibilities and rejoice in the fact that in the end, Jackie won't be directing traffic. Konrath isn't trying to give you a feel for what it's like to be a police detective; he just wants to entertain you for a few hours. He gets a "B" from me for his efforts.

A couple of trivia tidbits...
    Despite several dozen people dying in a variety of ways, not one drop of blood is spilled in Dirty Martini. This is a pleasant change-of-pace from the previous book in this series.
.After Book #3, Rusty Nail, Konrath went on a 3-month promotion tour, visiting 600+ bookstores in 27 states and driving more than 13,500 miles. He met over 1100 booksellers, and takes time at the end of Dirty Martini to thank them all by name. Kewlness.
    Finally, if you read the hyping blurbs in the front of this book (OCD readers do), you will note that two of them are David Ellis and Jim Munchel. By strange coincidence, one of the characters in Dirty Martini is named Davy Ellis, and one of the characters in the sneak-preview of Book #5 (Fuzzy Navel) at the end of Dirty Martini is named Jim Munchel. So be sure to write Konrath and let him know how much you enjoy his books. You just might end up seeing your name in the 7th book in this series.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wicked - Gregory Maguire

1995; 519 pages. Full Title : Wicked - The Life & Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Genre : Revisionist fiction. Overall Rating : B.

  .In The Wizard of Oz, the nasty old Wicked Witch of the West is done in by Dorothy and water. Maguire postulates that L. Frank Baum's story is a slanted account; Wicked tells the story from Elphaba, the WWofW's point of view.

What's To Like...
    Maguire creates a wonderful fantasy world of Oz. There are munchkins, dwarves and elves; and rumors even of dragons. There are various competing religions - unionists (with their Unnamed God), pleasure faithists (with their Clock of the Time Dragon) and Lurlinists (waiting for the Fairy Queen Lurline to return) being the most interesting. There are some great political, spiritual, and philosophical ponderings in the book, the main one being how the world determines what is wicked and what isn't.
    Kewl stuff, but as a story, Wicked leaves something to be desired. Most notable are the annoying gaps in the tale. First we are introduced to Elphaba as a toddler. Then "poof", it's years later and she's heading off to college. "Poof" again, and it's years later, and Elphaba's now a revolutionary. "Poof" once more and she's leaving a nunnery after seven years to become a recluse in a castle in Vinkus. The final "poof" jumps us years ahead again to the fateful encounter with Dorothy.
.Also, the issues Maguire presents (such as Animal/animal rights) are provocative, but never answered. Ditto for the plot details. We never really know why Elphaba came out green; who killed Porfessor Dillamond (he's a Goat, not a goat); whether Fiyiero is really dead; and what happened to Sarima and her sisters.
    Moreover, while we're introduced to some well-developed and fascinating secondary characters (such as Elphaba's mom Melena, Boq, Glinda, and the flaming twosome of Crope and Tibbett), it's best not to get too attached to them, because most of them don't make the jump across the gaps.
.Finally the sex scenes and cuss words felt ill-fitting and unnecessary. I don't mind such things when they enhance the story (they certainly fit well in anything written by Bukowski), but here they detract. TMI.

.An excerpt...
"You're not wicked," said Boq.
"How do you know. It's been so long," said the Witch, but she smiled at him.
Boq returned the smile, warmly. "Glinda used her glitter beads, and you used your exotic looks and background, but weren't you just doing the same thing, trying to maximize what you had in order to get what you wanted? People who claim that they're evil are usually no worse than the rest of us." He sighed. "It's people who claim that they're good , or anyway better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of."
(pg. 457)
We're off to see that no-good Wizard...
    Wicked had the potential to be either a superb fantasy story or a superb philosophical treatise. But by trying to be both, it failed to be great at either. It dragged at times, especially the first half. Yet it's still a good book, and there's no denying it's well-written. Perhaps some of the unanswered questions and plot details are addressed in the sequels. Ditto for the engaging, but short-lived characters. So we'll give it a "B", plus kudos to whoever managed to turn this into a highly-successful musical.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Fifth Woman - Henning Mankell

438 pages. 1996 (Swedish); 2000 (English translation). #6 in the Kurt Wallander series. Genre : Swedish noir police procedure (sounds a lot fancier than just saying it's a Murder Mystery, eh?). Overall Rating : B+.

   .An elderly bird-watcher steps out one night to watch a migration, and is impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes under his booby-trapped bridge. Shortly thereafter, the owner of an orchid shop disappears on his way to the airport. He is found a couple weeks later emaciated, tied to a tree, strangled, and quite dead. Detective Kurt Wallander and his team have the daunting task of tracking down a myriad of clues and leads and trying to see if there is a serial killer on the loose.

What's To Like...
    As with all Kurt Wallander novels, the story takes place in southern Sweden, around Ystad. If you have Google Earth, find it and look at the photos posted there. It's absolutely gorgeous.

.    Detective Wallander, who was totally burnt out in the previous Mankell book I read ("Dogs of Riga", reviewed here), has improved significantly. His drinking problem is now under control, he has a better relationship with his family, and he's no longer thinking about quitting the force. He even has a girlfriend, in Latvia, who he calls every couple weeks or so when he thinks about her.
    The Fifth Woman has a feel of being how a team of police detectives would really go about investigating a string of murders. There are lots of meetings, lots of legwork, and lots of reporters and politicians clamoring for a quick solution. You plod along with the detectives, keeping on keeping on, and hope that something eventually leads to a break in the case(s).

.    I liked this book because of its true-to-life feel. OTOH, if you're looking for excitement, 438 pages of "real detective work" can get a bit tedious. Also, Mankell seems to set all of his novels in the dreary autumn and winter months of Sweden. Gray skies, freezing temperatures, and persistent dampness abound. Hmmm. That sounds kinda nice right now sitting here in Phoenix.

   .All Whodunit books are the same, right?I used to think that. Plop down a corpse early on, sprinkle a few clues here and there along the way (with an option of a couple red herrings), and somehow have the perpetrator get his/her just desserts at the end. But as I read more murder-mysteries, I'm becoming aware that there are sub-genres.
    First of all, there are the Cozies, with which I've only recently become acquainted No cussing, no sex, and all of the killing is done off-stage. One of these days, I'm going to have to find a suitable "starting out" Cozy. Any suggestions?

   .Then there are the "Thrills & Spills" murder-mysteries. Lots of car-chases and close encounters with the bad guy. You know you're reading one of these when the killer invariably decides to go after the protagonist.

   .Third are the "Needle In The Haystack" stories. Somebody gets killed; the good guys/gals spend most of the book talking with suspects and getting nowhere, until a case-breaking clue magically falls out of the sky and into their lap.
    And finally we have the "Police Procedural" type, such as The Fifth Woman. Not a lot of excitement, but eminently believable. I'm developing quite a taste for these. I imagine there are still more sub-genres to discover, which makes reading murder-mysteries fun.

    Bottom line - if you're tired of raising your eyebrows and hanging out on the Suspension Bridge of Belief (yeah, I admit it, I plagiarized that phrase), you may find a Kurt Wallander book to be a pleasant change-of-pace.