Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Scaredy Cat - Mark Billingham

2002; 419 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #2 in the "Tom Thorne" series (out of 10).  Genre : Psycho Killer.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    In London, two women are strangled, one in the presence of her three-year-old son.  The twin crimes are separated by only a couple hours and a couple miles.  What murderer would have so much rage in him that he would strike twice in a single day?  Unless...

What's To Like...
This is not so much a "who-dun-it", as it is a "howie-gonna-findim".  The pacing is good, and every time you grit your teeth in anticipation of a clichéd event, Billingham twists the story in a new direction.

    Even better, Scaredy Cat is a well-constructed murder-mystery.  The denouement is neither too obvious nor too arbitrary.  The case-breaking clue was logical, and overlooked by both Detective Tom Thorne and myself for far too long.

    Mark Billingham's handling of Tom Thorne has improved from the first book, Sleepyhead, reviewed here.  Yes, he's still the stereotyped burnt-out cop, but it's played down here.  And at least the psycho killer doesn't try to take out our hero.

Kewlest New Word...
Swotty : Studious; given to studying hard  (British slang)

    He'd seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of photos like these.  He'd stared at them over the years with the same dispassionate eye that a dentist might cast over X rays, or an accountant across a tax return.  He'd lost count of the pale limbs, twisted or torn or missing altogether in black-and-white ten-by-eights.  Then there were the color prints.  Pale bodies lying on green carpets.  A ring of purple bruises around a chalk-white neck.  The garish patterned wallpaper against which the blood spatter is barely discernible.
    An ever expanding exhibition with a simple message: emotions are powerful things, bodies are not. (pgs. 11-12)

    Forced laughter and instant guilt.
    It was usually the joke that came first.  "Tom, what is ET short for?"
    "Go on, Dad..."
    "Because he's only got little legs."  (pg. 86)

"Let us drink beer and talk of death."  (pg. 33)
    Wikipedia gives an interesting anecdote about Scaredy Cat.  It is apparently based on a personal experience of Mark Billingham's.  While staying at a hotel with a writing partner, three masked men burst into their room, bound and gagged the pair, and stole various items and credit cards.  Their brazenness and absolute control of the situation totally terrified Billingham.  And he resolved to work that feeling (and some of the details of the incident) into his next novel, Scaredy Cat.

    He succeeded nicely.  8 Stars.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On A Pale Horse - Piers Anthony

1983; 232 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #1 of the "Incarnations of Immortality" series.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Zane is Death.  He has some cool accoutrements to go with the job - the obligatory scythe, some Batman-esque body armor, and a pale horse named Morits who can morph into being a boat or a car at the push of a button.  He's also invisible to most people.

     Zane didn't ask for this newly-acquired job.  He was trying to kill himself and accidentally shot the previous Death instead.  And hey, you know what they say - if you slay 'em, you gotta play 'em.

What's To Like...
    Piers Anthony develpos a neat alternate universe; one where Magic and Science are on equal footing.  So you are just as likely to take a car as you are a flying carpet.  Hunting dragons is way fun, but try not to run into any ghosts along the way.

    He also creates a fascinating cosmology - with a Heaven, a Hell, and a Purgatory; God and Satan (who is heavily into advertising); demons and (presumably) angels; and seven offices in between mortals and gods - Time, Fate, War, Nature, Good, Evil, and of course, Death.

    The story is well-structured, but frankly not compelling.  But that's okay; the main raison d'être of On A Pale Horse is to allow the author to offer insight and opinions on various Death-related topics, such as : crack babies, children with cancer, atheists, suicide, death in combat,  assisted suicide, and the Afterlife and Eternity.  We follow Zane, a reluctant hero, as he learns his new job, meets and interplays with the other Incarnations, falls in love, and ultimately has a showdown with Satan hmself.

Kewlest New Word...
Effulgence : A brilliant radiance; the sending out of bright rays of light.

    "What happens now?" he asked Fate,  His body was shaking, and he felt unpleasantly faint.
    "You fold the soul, pack it in your pouch, and go on to the next client," she answered.  "When you have a break in the schedule, you will analyze the soul, to determine to which sphere it should be relegated."
    "Which sphere?"  His mind refused to focus, as if his very thoughts were blinded by the client's blood.
    "Heaven or Hell."
    "But I'm no judge of souls!" he protested.
    "Yes, you are - now.  Try not to make too many mistakes."  Fate turned and walked away (pg. 34)

    "What refuge do these dead soldiers have," Zane asked, discomfited.  "How did this battle help them?"
     "They have glory," Mars explained.  "All men must die sometime, and most go ignominiously from age or illness or mishap.  Only in war do large numbers get to expire in decent glory."
    "Glory?"  Zane thought of his recent client, impaled agonizingly on a wooden stake.  "Seems more like gory to me."
    Mars bellowed out his laughter.  "Cute, Death!  You perceive only the instant of discomfort; I perceive the eternal reputation.  A moment of pain for eternal fame!  These men are sacrificing their blood on the altar of righteousness.  This is the termination that renders their entire mundane lives sublime."
    "But what about those who die fighting for the wrong cause?"
    "There is no wrong cause!  There are only alternate avenues to glory and honor."  (pg. 100)

"Circumstance makes puppets of us all".  (pg. 188)
    There are some negatives.  The women in OAPH are weak, with little purpose other than to look pretty and be available for sex.  The 16-page "Author's Note" at the back is boring, self-serving, and eminently skippable.  And there is some obsessive "padding" of the Amazon review scores, presumably by the author himself.

    On A Pale Horse is in a different vein than the other Piers Anthony books I've read, which were all from the Xanth series.  Things are more somber and serious here, appropriate, I suppose, when dealing with such a topic.  There still is wit, but don't read this when you want Xanth humor.

    The concept of this series is excellent, as is the storyline in On A Pale Horse.  But the execution could have been done better, and the negatives pull it down.  We'll give it 7 Stars, but still read a couple more books in the series to see if things improve.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thank You For Smoking - Christopher Buckley

1994; 272 pages.  New Author? : No, but it's been a while.  Genre : Fiction; Satire.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Wouldn't it be nice if you pulled down a 6-figure salary simply for being a spokesperson for some organization?  Probably.  Except, what if that organization was the Tobacco Industry, and they sent you out to do verbal battle with do-gooders on programs like Oprah and The Larry King Show?

    That's Nick Naylor's job, and frankly, he's very good at it.  But if you p*ss off enough people, sooner or later someone's going to come after you with bad intent.

What's To Like...
    Whether you smoke or not, if you like anti-heroes, Nick's your guy.  He hangs out with two people with similar jobs.  Polly's a spokesperson for the Alcohol Industry, and Bobby Jay speaks for the Gun Lobby.  Collectively, they call themselves the Mod Squad, which stands for Merchants Of Death.

    The storyline of Thank You For Smoking is a bit thin, and very similar to the other Christopher Buckley book I've read, Little Green Men, reviewed here.  But that's okay; the plot is somewhat secondary.  TY4S is superficially a satire, but on a deeper level, it's a scathing exposé on the tactics used by the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms industries (hereafter shortened to "ATF") to keep the public accepting of, and voraciously buying their lethal products.

Kewlest New Word...
Oleaginous : marked by an offensively ingratiating manner or quality.

    Budd Rohrabacher raised his eyebrows in greeting.  He was leaning back in his big chair reading Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, standard reading matter around the Academy.  BR was forty-nine years old, but exuded the energy of a younger man.  His eyes, light green, intense and joyless and looking at life as a spreadsheet, might strike some as belonging to an older man who had been fundamentally disappointed early on and who had therefore decided to make life unpleasant for those around him.  (pgs. 12-13)

    When their eyes connected for the third, embarrassing time, he smiled at her.  She said, "Aren't you the tobacco person who was kidnapped?"
    "Yes," Nick said, flattered at being approached by a celebrity.  He was about to reciprocate when she set her jaw and said, "I know a lot of people who died of lung cancer.  Good people."
    Nick said to her, "No bad people?"
    She gave him a fierce look, craned about to see if there was an empty seat, and finding none, went back to angrily marking up the script on her large lap with a big, angry red pen.  Some screenwriter would pay for Nick's insolence.  (pg. 159)

"Well Katie, you can't spell tolerance without the t in tobacco."  (pg. 116)
    The persuasion tactics used by the ATF industries are varied, well-funded, pervasive, subtle, and astoundingly effective.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the "puffers" detailed on pages 149-155 bear an uncanny resemblance to the modern-day Tea Baggers, who are ostensibly a grass-roots movement, but are in fact bankrolled by some unsavory special interest groups.  The tricks that worked in the 90's still work today.

    Your eyes will be opened from reading Thank You For Smoking.  You memories of Joe The Camel and the Marlboro Man will turn sour, and you will develop a strong distaste for the Alcohol Industry's present-day seemingly magnaminous gesture of telling viewers of their ads to "Drink Responsibly"9 Stars, and if reading is not your shtick, I'm told the movie of the same title is quite good.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pirate Latitudes - Michael Crichton

2009; 384 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Adventure.  Overall Rating :  8*/10.

    In 1665, Port Royal on the island of Jamaica is one of the few places in the Caribbean where the Union Jack proudly flies.  A sensible British subject living there might view that as a precarious situation.  But an optimistic British privateer would see it as lots of opportunities to "liberate" good from Spanish galleons.  And Captain Charles Hunter is definitely opportunistic.

What's To Like...
    The action is non-stop.  The plot twists are many.  The setting is vividly real, even if Crichton added a couple imaginary islands (and a critter) to the story.  The women are all strong characters.  Do not mess with them.  Especially the gay one.

    This is an early Crichton effort that was never published until its manuscript was found on his computer after his death.  Anecdotal evidence (see Wikipedia) indicates it was already around, at least as a rough draft, in 1979.

    As such, there are some things (such as the critter) that strain the limits of believability.  Also, the pacing is erratic - it seems to take longer to scale a not-indispensible cliff than to carry out the boffo ending.

Kewlest New Word...
None, really.  There were some technical terms, mostly about cannons.  That's about it.

    Port Royal, in 1665, was a boomtown.  In the decade since Cromwell's expedition had captured the island of Jamaica from the Spanish, Port Royal had grown from a miserable, deserted, disease-ridden spit of sand into a miserable, overcrowded, cutthroat-infested town of eight thousand.  (pg. 9)

    "You are nothing," she sputtered, "but a bastard, a rogue, a cutthroat vicious rascally whore-son scoundrel."
    "At your service," Hunter said, and kissed her.
    She broke away.  "And forward."
    "And forward," he agreed, and kissed her again.
    "I suppose you intend to rape me like a common street woman."
    "I doubt," Hunter said, stripping off his wet clothing, "that it will be necessary."
    And it was not.
    "In daylight?" she said, in a horrified voice, and those were her last intelligble words.  (pgs. 91-92)

Jamaica ... "was not a region burdened by moral excesses."  (pg. 6)
    Keep in mind that Michael Crichton never intended for Pirate Latitudes to be published in its present form.  To bring it up to "Jurassic Park standards" would require some significant time and rewriting.  Perhaps he intended to do this "someday".

    It isn't "Cri-Fi", although the meticulous attention to detail brings the story to life and presages Crichton's later, polished works.   Pirate Latitudes is purely and simply a swashbuckling action story, with every pirate cliché possible woven into the plot.

    Therefore the occasional technical clunkiness is forgiven.  Michael Crichton is shown to be a master storyteller, even in the early days of his career.  If you liked Pirates of the Caribbean, but wished it had been a sconch less zany, Pirate Latitudes may be just your cup of grog.  8 Stars.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Five Red Herrings - Dorothy L. Sayers

    1931; 322 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Murder-Mystery.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

       In a little artists' enclave in Scotland called Kirkcudbright, someone has murdered a landscape painter named Campbell.  Who would do such a dastardly deed?  Actually, any number of people, since Campbell was an irritating, combative sort.

    Suspicion falls upon six fellow painters in the enclave.  All have equally (im)plausible alibis.  If one of them did it, then that means the others are Five Red Herrings.

What's To Like...
   The setting - the 1930's Scotland - is neat.  The characters are interesting, and even the technical bits about landscape painting are enlightening.

    This was my introduction to the literary sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.  Like any successful (amateur) detective, he asks lots of questions, sees clues that others miss, and becomes a pest to suspects and policemen alike.  He's sorta like Columbo, and that's kewl.

    Dorothy L. Sayers does a nice job of unfolding the murder investigation.  It's fun to watch how each suspect's alibi starts off being "air tight", then crumbles into "highly suspicious".  The six storylines do become interconnected, making it a complex investigation.

    This is more of a "how-done-it" than a "who-done-it".  The details of the key clue are kept secret from the reader (but not from Wimsey) until close to the end,

Kewlest New Word...
Bathos : an unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace or from the sublime to the trivial; producing a ludicrous effect.

    Waters was an Englishman of good yeoman stock, and, like all Englishmen, was ready enough to admire and praise all foreigners, but, like all Englishmen, he did not like to hear them praise themselves.  To boast loudly in public of one's own country seemed to him indecent - like enlarging on the physical perfections of one's own wife in a smoking room.  (pg. 3)

    "I'll tak' ma aith," said Dalziel to himself, "she kens fine there is some importance tae be attached tae the bicycle, and she disna ken whether tae say her man had it or no.  Whae could ha' tell't her?   It's no that Lord Peter, for he's clever, wi' a' his bletherin' talk.  And it's no Macpherson, he'd never let oot a word.  There's some yin is expectin' yon bicycle tae be found in a queer place, I reckon."  (pg. 89, and an example of the Scottish dialogue in Five Red Herrings.)

"(I)t doesn't do to murder people, however offensive they may be."  (pg. 23)
    The book does drag at times.  Establishing and debunking an alibi takes time.  When there are six alibis involved, it can get a bit tedious.

    The Scottish dialogue (see above excerpt) used by the natives gets old fast; and it is compounded at one point by a lisper, who the author contrives to uthe ath many "eth" wordth ath pothible.  Argh!

    Still, the measure of any mystery novel is the investigating/solving itself, not the peripheral goings-on.  And that's what saves The Five Red Herrings.  It's well-constructed, well-written, and Ms. Sayers keeps you switching from one person to the next as your prime suspect.  It would've been nice to know what the key clue was early on, but I'll settle for trying to work out just how the perpetrator pulled it off.   6 Stars.