Friday, May 29, 2020

Dead As A Doornail - Charlaine Harris


   2005; 295 pages.  Book 5 (out of 13) in the “Sookie Stackhouse” series.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Paranormal Mystery; Gothic Romance; Vampires.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    There’s a sniper shooting the Weres in Bon Temps, Louisiana!  Last week it was Heather Kinman, the first one shot, and the first fatality.  Then it was Calvin Norris’s turn.  Now Sookie’s boss, Sam Merlotte, has just become the third and latest victim.  Fortunately, both Calvin and Sam survived, but not without losing a lot of blood.

    All three were “weres”, aka “shifters”, aka “shape shifters”.  Humans tend to refer to them as "werewolves", but that’s not totally accurate, since a lot of them turn into other animals when there’s a full moon.  For instance, there’s a whole pack of werepanthers in Bon Temps.

    Needless to say, the local Shifter community wants the sniper found and disposed of as quickly as possible.  But who is it?

    Well, any vampire is under suspicion, since shifters and vamps have never gotten along well.  Humans are less suspect because most of them don’t even know that shifters exist, let alone live in Bon Temps.  Sookie’s brother Jason has just been “turned” into a shifter though, so perhaps he’s holding a grudge against the were community.  There are some weres who think he should be eliminated, guilty or not, simply as a precaution.  Some even think Sookie could’ve done it, since she’s one of the few local humans who knows all about shifters and might hold a grudge about Jason being turned into one.

    So everybody watch their step and stay alert!  There’s a mystery to solve, and were-lives depend on it!

What’s To Like...
    Dead as a Doornail is the fifth book in Charlaine Harris’s incredibly popular “Sookie Stackhouse” series.  I’ve been reading these in order, and it’s fun to watch Sookie gradually develop from a young and innocent bar waitress into a valuable go-between betwixt our world and the paranormal.

    The series' storytelling seems also to be evolving.  This time there’s more emphasis on solving the sniper mystery, and less emphasis on Sookie’s romantic escapades.  Male and female readers might have different views on whether that's a plus or a minus.  The vampires here play second fiddle to the shifters, which is a nice change of pace, plus I think Sookie is growing a tad bit less sassy.

    There are a slew of characters to keep track of, some recurring, others new.  The number of “regulars” keeps growing, and Charlaine Harris  does a nice and thorough job of getting new readers acquainted with them within the first couple of chapters.  I didn’t note any new paranormal critters to deal with; just vampires, fairies, and shifters.

    As with any good mystery, there are multiple plot threads to solve.  Who’s killing the shifters?  Why’s Tara with Mickey instead of Franklin?  Who’s going to be the “Leader of the Pack”?  Why is someone trying to kill Sookie (after all, she’s not a shifter)?  Will Sookie ever be free of the inquiries about Debbie Pelt’s disappearance?  That last one is a carryover from the previous book, in which Sookie learned what it feels like to kill someone.

    There’s a pair of literary nods: one to Tami Hoag (whom I’ve read and liked), one to Carolyn Haines (whom I’d never heard of, but is real).  The ritual for choosing the Leader of the Pack was neat to witness, and my favorite vamp, Bubba, makes a cameo appearance near the end of the book.  The story is written in the first-person POV (Sookie’s), and I counted about 20 instances of cussing, which averages out to about one every fifteen pages or so.  Sookie doesn’t get to visit any new places; everything takes place either in Shreveport or in the greater Bon Temps area.

    The ending is stutter-step, exciting, and surprising, thanks to a couple of twists that I didn’t see coming.  If you guess the identity of the sniper before Sookie figures it out, you did better than me.  There’s a vague teaser for the next book in the series, as well as a 12-page preview of it, although personally I never read those previews.

Excerpts...
    “Eric’s provided you with a bodyguard?  You need a bodyguard?”
    “Listen, bozo,” I said through clenched jaws, “my life goes on while you’re gone.  So does the town.  People are getting shot around here, among them Sam.  We needed a substitute bartender, and Charles was volunteered to help us out.”  That may not have been entirely accurate, but I was not in the accuracy business at the moment.  I was in the Make My Point business.  (pg. 107)

    “Sookie, you have to understand that for hundreds, thousands, of years we have considered ourselves better than humans, separate from humans.”  He thought for a second.  “Very much in the same relationship to humans as humans have to, say, cows.  Edible like cows, but cute, too.”
    I was knocked speechless.  I had sensed this, of course, but to have it spelled out was just … nauseating.  Food that walked and talked, that was us.  McPeople.  (pg. 214)

You can take the man out of the Viking era, but you can’t take the Viking out of the man.  (pg. 212 )
    I can’t think of anything to quibble about in Dead as a Doornail.  The pacing was moderate over the first half of the book, but picked up nicely in the second half.  Keeping all the characters straight might prove a challenge to readers new to the series, but it wasn’t one for me.

    Dead as a Doornail is both a standalone novel and a part of a completed 13-book series.  It will be interesting to see if this shift towards murder-mystery solving is a one-off thing or the start of a new trend.

    8 Stars.  I think Charlaine Harris’s main aspiration in writing this series is to keep the reader entertained.  That may not sound very ambitious, but Dead as a Doornail achieved that goal nicely for me, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a book.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

One Step Behind - Henning Mankell


   1997 (Swedish), 2002 (English); 409 pages.  Translator: Ebba Segerberg.  Book 7 (out of 11) in the “Kurt Wallander” series.  New Author? : No, but it’s been a while.  Genre : Police Procedural; Murder-Mystery; Swedish Crime Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The three young people were last seen in southern Sweden on Saturday, June 12th, which coincidentally was Midsummer’s Eve.  On a lark, they apparently decided to spend the rest of the summer traveling around continental Europe, and once or twice they even sent postcards of their wanderings back to their parents.

    But the mother of one of them is sure that’s not her daughter’s handwriting on the postcards, and fears she’s been murdered.  She’s adamant that Detective Kurt Wallander and his staff begin an investigation.  After all, her daughter has been gone more than a month now.

    Wallander would normally oblige – the mother’s becoming quite the pest by now – but he’s got a more important case to work on.  One of his fellow detectives, who’s been missing from work the last couple days without calling in, has just been located.  At the apartment where he lived.  Dead.  With half his head blown off from a pair of close-range shotgun blasts.

    Shotguns don’t come equipped with silencers.  So how come none of his neighbors heard the shots?

What’s To Like...
    One Step Behind is another great Police Procedural by Henning Mankell.  Kurt Wallander and his fellow detectives essentially start from scratch as they try to figure out why someone blew one of their colleagues away, and the reader gets to tag along and attempt to solve the case before the cops do.  The same game is played with the three missing kids, who, thanks to the prologue, the reader already knows are dead, while the detectives still think they’re gadding around Europe.

    There are plenty of plot threads to try to solve: a.) who killed the detective, and why?, b.) where are (the bodies of) those missing kids?, c.) is there some sort of connection between those two cases?, d.) why did the detective, just back from vacation, tell his coworkers he felt “overworked”?, e.) how come the neighbors didn’t hear those shotgun blasts?, f.) why did the killer leave the shotgun at the crime scene?, g.) who is Louise?, h.) where’s the telescope?  A couple more plot threads arise as the investigation progresses, but this is a spoiler-free review.

    There was a very “realistic” feel to the investigation, as should be true of any police procedural.  There are lots of people to question, and most of the inquiries will of course turn out to be dead ends.  Yet somehow Henning Mankell keeps everything interesting.  The detectives work round the clock, and the fatigue causes all of them, including Wallander, to occasionally overlook things and reach the wrong conclusions.

    I liked the setting: southern Sweden (the Ystad area) during a summer heat spell that just seems to go on and on.  There are some nice twists along the trail, and over the course of the book, my guess at the identity of the perpetrator(s) jumped around a bunch.  Not surprisingly, my final guess was wrong.  The book’s title references Wallander and his cohorts’ feeling that they were always one step behind the both killer(s)’ (jeez, how do you properly punctuate that?) plans and the deceased detective’s own investigations.

    The ending is suitably tense, exciting, and plausible.  There is the obligatory chase scene, but even that is done in a realistic fashion - on foot and at night.  I thought the epilogue was also deftly done.  It resolves a couple remaining plot threads, and features two interviews involving Wallander.  He fields questions from a colleague’s teen-aged son, who is considering becoming a policeman, to which Wallander does his best to be both honest and upbeat, which isn’t easy for him.  The second interview involves questioning the perp(s), where both Wallander and the reader learn that serial killers are not always depraved monsters.

Kewlest New Word ...
Kick-sled (n.) : a sled popular in Scandinavia that consists usually of a low seat on runners and that is propelled usually by one holding the back of the seat, standing on a runner with one foot, and pushing with the other. (Wikipedia it.)

Excerpts...
    Wallander and Gertrud would go through the last few boxes of his father’s belongings.  They had finished packing the week before.  His colleague Martinsson came out with a trailer and they made several trips to the dump outside Hedeskoga.  It occurred to Wallander, who was experiencing a growing sense of unease, that what remained of a person’s life inevitably ended up at the nearest dump.
    All that was left of his father now – aside from the memories – were some photographs, five paintings, and some boxes of old letters and papers.  Nothing more.  (loc. 206)

    “It’s just strange that the perpetrator would leave his weapon behind.”
    Wallander nodded.  That had been one of his first thoughts.
    “Have you noticed anything else strange around here?” he asked.
    Nyberg narrowed his eyes.
    He said, “Isn’t everything about a colleague having his head blown off strange?”  (loc. 1121)

Kindle Details…
    One Step Behind is priced at $9.99 right now at Amazon.  The other books in the series range in price from $7.19 to $11.99, except for Book 2, The Dogs of Riga, which apparently is not available as an e-book.  There are another dozen or so Henning Mankell e-books for the Kindle; those are in the $8.99-$13.01 range.

“All houses have ghosts,” she said.  “Except the newest ones.”  (loc. 363 )
    There’s not much to gripe about in One Step Behind.  If you can't stand cusswords in the books you read, please note that there are 16 instances of that here, 10 of which are the word “hell”.  For a gritty police procedural novel, that’s actually quite clean.

    Kurt Wallander’s persona is pretty much a downer throughout the whole series, and One Step Behind is no exception.  Here his usual “burnt-out cop” demeanor is uncharacteristically low-key here, but he’s approaching 50, and has just found out he’s developed diabetes and needs to change his diet and exercise habits.  He does not react well to this new reality.  I am not diabetic, but I gained some new insight into how deeply that impacts a person’s life: always being tired, always being thirsty, always having to go to the bathroom, etc.  I now have a greater respect for those who have to deal with diabetes.

    That’s about it.  As a writer of police procedurals, Henning Mankell (1948-2015) is in a class by himself, and One Step Beyond is another superb effort by him.  This was a real page-turner for me, and that's not something I say about many books.

    9 Stars.  One last note:  on page 79 there's a brief mention of a Baroque composer named Dieterich Buxtehude.  I’m a classical musical enthusiast, and I was surprised that I’d never heard of him.  He’s real, there’s a Wikipedia page for him, and it turns out he was Johann Sebastian Bach’s teacher.  I listened to some of his music via YouTube, and he’s impressive.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Milk! - Mark Kurlansky


   2018; 343 pages.  Full Title: Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Food History; Cookbooks; Non-Fiction; Farming; Dairy Science.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Once upon a time, you didn’t go to the supermarket for your milk, it was delivered to your doorstep on a daily basis, and it came in a glass bottle, not a carton.  There was a thick-papered cap on top, sealed with a twist, with a circular sticker in its middle bearing the milk company’s logo or name.

    Every morning, the milkman put your order in a small box (capacity was about 6 bottles) that was on your front porch.  You let him know what you wanted the next time he delivered by sticking a note in one of the empty, washed bottles that you put in the box.  Recycling was fashionable way back then.

    Because the bottles were clear glass, you could actually see the milk you received.  It had two phases – mostly “regular” milk on the bottom, and a bit of thicker cream on top.  Nowadays, milk is “homogenized”, meaning it only has one phase.  Back then, you could do your own  homogenizing (i.e., shaking it well before opening it), but occasionally your mom would scoop the cream out and use it in some recipe she was making.

    If you lived in a cold-weather place, like Pennsylvania for instance, you’d occasionally step out the door on a winter’s day to get your morning milk delivery, and find that it had frozen.  You’d know this because the solids at the top had expanded and pushed the paper cap upwards, leaving a weird-looking white “collar”.  This was no big deal, you still used the milk without any concern about contamination.

    This may sound like 19th-century history to you, and it is, but it still was true into the 1950’s, and Mark Kurlansky’s recounting of it in Milk – A 10,000-Year Food Fracas triggered a Proustian reaction (a what?!  see below) in my long-term memory banks.

What’s To Like...
    Mark Kurlansky divides the 20 chapters of Milk! (we’ll dispense with the subtitle for the sake of brevity) into three parts, namely:
    Part 1 : The Safety of Curds (Chapters 1-9)
        The history of milk and other dairy products.
    Part 2 : Drinking Dangerously  (Chapters 10-14)
        Science and technology make milk safe to drink.
    Part 3 : Cows and Truth  (Chapters 15-20)
        Current and recent hot-topic dairy debates, and the answers.

    My favorite chapters (YMMV) were:
    Ch 01 : The Taste of Sweetness
        The ancient history of milk-drinking.
    Ch 03 : Cheesy Civilization
        The history of chess-making.
    Ch 09 : Everyone’s Favorite Milk
        The history of ice cream.
   Ch 16 : China’s Growing Tolerance
        The changing Chinese milk and dairy products tastes.
    Chs 19 & 20 : The Search for Consensus & Risky Initializations
        The author’s views on the topics listed in the first excerpt below.

    I was surprised at the number of foods that are derived from milk and its byproducts: curds, whey, pancakes, sillabubs (huh?), possets (huh?), cheese butter, shortbreads, griddle cakes, mysa & syra (wha?), yogurt, sour cream, dodines (wha?), porridge, custards, powdered milk, applesauce (really?), cottage cheese, pudding (yum!), ice cream (double yum!), crème brûlée, ices, fudge, marshmallow fluff, cream sauces, chowders, and many more.  The origins and history of each are detailed in this book.

    I also learned several "dairy" pejoratives along the way.  “Kaaskoppen” is Flemish for “cheese heads”, which was their insult word for the Dutch.  Once upon a time the Japanese referred to us Westerners as “bata  dasaku”, meaning “butter stinker”, due to our disgusting dairy tastes.  And the Persians have an expression, “boro mastetobezan”, which translates to “go beat your own yogurt”, an idiom meaning “mind your own business”.

    I was amazed to learn that the majority of humans (60%) are lactose-intolerant, and saddened to read about the terrible impact “swill milk” had on infant mortality rates.  There are some Roman Empire era recipes included, which are surprisingly "modern-sounding" and at times doubled as medicinal advice.  More importantly, I learned how to make booze from dairy products if I am ever stuck in Iceland.

    My buddy, Moses Maimonides, makes a cameo appearance, so does Velveeta cheese, which was a mainstay in my collegiate cuisine options.  If you have trouble remembering whether it’s “Welsh rabbit”, or “Welsh rarebit”, you can find the answer here, and it might surprise you, and it was enlightening to read what Mark Kurlansky has to say about the GMO fracas.  The drawings and pictures were a nice touch, including a mind-blowing painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (ca. 1311-1348) depicting the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Christ.

Kewlest New Word ...
Proustian (adj.) : relating to or characteristic of the French writer Marcel Proust or his works, particularly with reference to the recovery of the lost past and the stimulation of unconscious memory.

Excerpts...
    Milk is a food with a history – it has been argued about for at least the past ten thousand years.  It is the most argued-over food in human history, which is why it was the first food to find its way into a modern scientific laboratory and why it is the most regulated of all foods.
    People have argued over the importance of breastfeeding, the proper role of mothers, the healthful versus unhealthful qualities of milk, the best sources of milk, farming practices, animal rights, raw versus pasteurized milk, the safety of raw milk cheese, the proper role of government, the organic food movement, hormones, genetically modified crops, and more.  (pg. 3)

    People do not want to live near a dairy anymore.  Cows defecate and they are extremely flatulent.  This was never an issue with the charming forty-cow farm with the little red barn.  But when a few thousand cows live next door, farting and producing mountains of manure that the farm endeavors to dry out and convert to fertilizer, they are very strong-smelling neighbors.
    Farmers with large herds usually have more manure than their pastureland can absorb.  The total annual waste in the United States is one hundred times more than what is taken in by human sewage treatment plants.  (pg. 319)

“A dessert without cheese is like a lovely lady with only one eye.”  (Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin).  (pg. 278 )
    There’s not much to nitpick about Milk!.  The black-&-white pencil drawings of the various cow breeds didn’t impress me; I would have much rather had color photographs/paintings of them.  It was a slow read, but that’s because I was fascinated by all the technical details therein, so that's not really a criticism.  

    It should be noted that there are 126 recipes (by Mark Kurlansky’s count, and I’ll take his word for it) interspersed throughout the book, some from as far back as the first-century A.D. by a cook named Apicius.  Reading though these recipes got tedious after a while, but that’s probably because my culinary skills are legendary, and not in a good way.  I once destroyed my kitchen when trying to make tomato soup from the can.  People with "normal" cooking skills will most likely find these recipes interesting, even to the point of trying some out.

    But overall I found Milk! to be a informative and interesting read, even if I skipped over those pesky recipes.  Milk! is my third Mark Kurlansky book (the other two are reviewed here and here), and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three.  So if you’re into reading history and science, or concerned about food safety, or want to be well-versed when topics like GMO’s and breastfeeding come up at your next social engagement, or just want to try making some strange new dishes, Milk! is bound to be your cup of tea.

    8½ Stars.  Fur more Mark Kurlansky books are on my Kindle or my TBR shelf: Salt, Cod, The Basque History, and The Big Oyster.  I suspect all the food-themed ones will also have recipes in them.  We shall see.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

H2O - Irving Belateche


   2012; 191 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Post-Apocalyptic; Dystopian; Sci-Fi; Coming-of-Age.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    Decades ago, the world got zapped by something called the Passim Virus.  It killed almost everyone, and was especially deadly in densely-populated big cities.  Those places are all "lost" now, only the dead and the Virus are still there.

    Yet humanity still survives, mostly in rural areas and in small towns that have sprung up after the plague passed through.  And if you live in a town that still has “old technology” capable of producing gasoline or clean water, or it has surrounding farmland that can produce virus-free fresh food, well, then you have a something valuable to sell to other nearby towns.  Further, if you have someone among you who knows how to keep “The Line” up and running (in the old days, they called it the Internet), you can even keep communicate with those other towns.

    This is vital, because traveling outside your own little village is risky.  There are some who live out in the wilds, preying upon fools who venture into the wilderness between towns.  They’re called “marauders” and they’re just as deadly as the Passim Virus.

    Roy works for the Corolaqua water purification plant, and as low man on the totem pole, he has just been charged to go out to one of the company’s remote pumping stations to see why the pumping capacity there has suddenly fallen off, and of course fix the problem.  He’ll be alone, and running into the Virus and/or marauders is a distinct possibility.

    Roy expects to die.  It’s just a matter of whether it’s before or after he fixes the pump.

What’s To Like...
    H2O is set in the US Pacific Northwest, with humanity trying to recover from a devastating pandemic.  It reminds me of S.M. Stirling’s “Emberverse” series, but Stirling posits a world with a complete electronic and fuel power outages but relatively few deaths to begin with.  Here, Irving Belateche goes the opposite direction – lots of deaths, but cars and trucks and even a very-limited internet are still functional.

    I liked the world-building.  Our protagonist hails from Clearview, a small town located on the Oregon coast.  Subsequent events take him southward, even down through coastal California.  But traveling eastward any great distance is dicey.  Outside this strip of settlements along the Pacific, no other survivors are known to exist.

    Being a scientist by trade, I loved the emphasis on Chemistry and Chemical Processing.  In a post-apocalyptic era, it’s a godsend to live next to an endless water supply like the Pacific Ocean, but only if you have a way to remove the salt from it.  And while the chemistry to do this won't ever change, things like transfer pumps will wear out, so you better know how to fix all things mechanical.

    I also liked the “hive mentality” hypothesized here: when the colony is threatened, you live and die for it (just like a worker ant or a drone bee), and you do it without question.  This is the second book I’ve read recently that examines this mankind-saving strategy, the other one is reviewed here.

    There are a bunch of plot threads, but they’re easy to keep track of, including: a.) why did the pump fail, b.) why are some people (including Roy’s deceased dad) fixated on shooting stars, c.) where’s all the extra water (the titular “H2O”) going; and d.) who drew the salamander?  You also get hit with a major plot twist in Chapter 22, and another one in Chapter 32.

    Everything builds to a suitably exciting ending.  All of the plot threads in the previous paragraph are addressed, although a couple of them are answered a bit hazily.  The book stops at a logical point.  There’s only about a half-dozen instances of cussing, and I think it says something about an author’s writing skills when he doesn’t have to overuse cusswords to amp up the intensity.

Excerpts...
    “What about food?” I asked.
    “We steal a little of the trucker’s food when he’s sleeping,” Lily said.  “He’ll think it’s a marauder.”
    “Sounds like you know the drill.”
    “Yeah.  And sometimes it even works.”
    “And what happens when it doesn’t?”
    “You go hungry.”  (loc. 1204)

    “I didn’t want this job,” he said.  “Who wants to be light years away from home and alone?  But I couldn’t complain too much.  I got a mining colony that was easy to manipulate.  None of you wants to know anything.  You like being stupid.”  His gray skin was turning white.  “We’ll set it up again.”
    “But this time we’ll know,” I said.  “It won’t be so easy.”
    “It’ll always be easy,” he said.  “You can’t change what you are.”  (loc. 2769)

Kindle Details…
    H2O goes for $3.99 right now at Amazon.  Irving Belateche has four other novels to offer, each priced either $3.99 or $4.99; plus two short stories at $0.99 apiece.
  
Everyone in the Territory did their jobs and nothing more.  That was the key to order, and order was the key to survival.  (loc. 962 )
    There are a couple quibbles, most of them minor.  I liked the use of flashbacks to develop the backstory, but they seemed to come at the cost of a pause in the action.  The writing style is what I call “storytelling”, which means there’s not much emphasis on character development and waxing philosophical, the story itself is all that matters.  These are personal tastes, however; you might find the flashbacks enlightening and be thrilled that telling the story is of paramount importance.

    The editing is above-average, but as a chemist, I winced at a key chemical, “Isopropanol”, being misspelled, 4 out of 5 times, as “Isoproponal”.  You’d think it would be all one way or the other.  The same thing happens with “Preserve” and “Perserve”: one time, each way.  But other than these, the typos were few and far between.

    My biggest issue is that, ANAICT there is no sequel.  The book may end at a logical spot, but it screams for a follow-up.  A spark of rebellion has at long last been lit.  Roy and Lily have a future to experience.  A push-back by the bad guys is sure to occur, quickly and in full force.  There are a couple characters who seem to be dead, but I’m not so certain of that.  And how many other places in the world is mankind clinging tenaciously to life?

    In summary, if you don’t tie up all the major plot threads by the end of a novel, aren’t you kinda obligated to write a “Book Two”?

    6½ Stars.  Don’t let my quibbling dissuade you from reading H2O.  The plot twists kept me on my toes, and I didn’t feel like I was reading yet another cookie-cutter "find true love in a post-apocalyptic global-disaster" tale.  Indeed, as our world today struggles to cope with the Coronavirus, it’s a bit eerie to read something penned in 2012 about vast numbers of people dying in a plague.

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Spy in the Ointment - Donald E. Westlake


   1966; 207 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Satire; Amateur Secret Agent Thriller; Intrigue, Pulp Fiction.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    Acronyms can be confusing.  Sometimes a single letter can make a huge difference.

    For instance, Gene Raxford is the National Chairman of the organization CIU, which stands for Citizens’ Independence Union.  That’s not as impressive as it sounds: because although they boasted 1400 members in 1952, that number's now shrunk to only 17, and 12 of those are on the “inactive” list.  CIU-ers are confirmed pacifists.  Mahatma Gandhi would pick a fight you sooner any of them would.

    Then there’s the WCIU, which stands for World Citizens’ Independence Union, which has a radically different philosophy.  They like to bomb things, mostly people and places.  They’re just one of a bunch of small like-minded extremist groups in the greater New York City area.

    Gene has just been invited to a tip-top super-secret meeting for violent subversive groups.  The people who invited him are confusing the WCIU and the CIU.  They’ve given him the time and place for the meeting, and Gene probably should skip it and let them know of their mix-up.

    But then what?  Maybe the bad guys will see him as a security threat and send someone to kill him.  If only someone could tell Gene the safest thing to do.

    Like the FBI agents that have bugged his phone, his table lamps, and his toilet tank.  Or the one hiding out in his basement.  Or the ones that empty his wastebaskets every day, in hopes of finding incriminating evidence.

What’s To Like...
    The Spy in the Ointment was published in 1966, and can perhaps be best described as an “amateur secret agent satire”.  The story is told in the first-person POV, Gene’s, as he muddles through the training and execution of an undercover sting on behalf of the FBI.   He’s accompanied by his current squeeze, Angela, who’s blonde, rich, and said by Gene to be “as healthy as a horse.  But better-looking.  But not quite as bright”.

    It was fun to be immersed in pre-computer technology again.  Your copier is a mimeograph machine, presentations are done with an easel and big poster cards, and telephone numbers are given as 7-character alphanumeric combinations such as: “CHelsea 2-2598”.

    I liked Donald Westlake’s portrayal of 1960’s radicals.  The bad guys want to merge all the extremist groups (whether radical left or radical right; it doesn't matter) for strength in numbers, but their squabbling at the kick-off meeting is simultaneously hilarious, self-defeating, and sad.  I sat in a couple such meetings in the early 70’s, and watched each group wanting its own personal agenda to take precedence over everybody else’s.  It’s a wonder any demonstration was ever successfully carried out.

    The plotline is sustained by Gene’s caustic wit and the mutual ineptitude of all involved parties: the FBI, the radicals, and even Gene and his friends.  You can put Gene through a grueling training program (but only for five days), and give him lots of super-neato spy gadgets (like James Bond gets at the start of each mission), but in the end you still have in incompetent civilian and a plan that has no chance of succeeding.

    The ending is a mixed bag.  Donald Westlake throws in a couple twists, and our protagonist has to decide whether his self-proclaimed pacifist philosophy is worth compromising for the greater good.  Disaster is averted (well, you knew that was going to happen so it's not a spoiler), but not without some over-the-top action to make it so.  And just when you think everything's about to settle down, the Epilogue shows up with a fresh round of unexpected mayhem.

Kewlest New Word ...
Cess (n.) : luck, usually used in the phrase “bad cess to you”.
Others: lagniappe (n.); hortatory (adj.); patroon (n.).

Excerpts...
    “Take this.”
    I said, “Why?”
    “Bottoms up,” he said.  “We’ve still got lots to do.”
    So I put the capsule in my mouth, downed it with water, gave him the glass back, and said, “Is it all right if I know what that was?”
    “Certainly,” he said.  “A microphone.”
    “A who?”
    “You will excrete it,” he said, “in approximately three days.  In the interim, you will be able to record and broadcast all conversations held in your presence.”  (loc. 1521)

    “Try to relax.”
    “Sure.  The cops are after me, I’m on my way to join an organization of lunatics and bombers, I’m wired for sound, my necktie turns into a smokescreen, my handkerchief will make you throw up, my Diner’s Club card explodes, I’m the leader of a subversive terrorist organization composed entirely of undercover federal agents, newspapers all over the country are saying I killed my girl, and I’m on my way to meet a twenty-five-year-old Nazi built like Bronco Nagurski.  If relaxed means limp, don’t worry about it.  I’m relaxed.  I’m relaxed all over.  (loc. 1803)

“The thought of a lot of pacifists protecting me from a lot of terrorists … just somehow doesn’t fill me with confidence.”  (loc. 581 )
    Not everything about returning to the 60’s is positive.  Racial pejoratives were both common and acceptable back then, and several of them show up here.  I recognize that Donald Westlake can’t be blamed for using such words in The Spy In The Ointment, but it’s still feels like fingernails-on-a-chalkboard when I read it.

    Also, in 1966, Women’s Lib was either barely around or nonexistent.  Angela’s role is basically to be a ditzy dumb blonde female sidekick, and Gene is thoroughly happy with this.

    Finally, as intriguing as the overall storyline is – hapless Gene infiltrates a terrorist cell and thwarts their evil plans – there really isn’t a lot of action.  If not for Donald Westlake’s writing skills, this book might have been a trudge.

    But the Westlake wit saves the day, and since I grew up in the 1960’s, none of these quibbles were surprising.  Indeed, the book gives me an appreciation for just how far we’ve come in the last 50 years in race-relations, feminism, and satire novels.  I am a big Donald Westlake fan, mostly due to his Dortmunder books, but it’s a nice change-of-pace to read some of his other stuff every so often.

    6½ Stars.  Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was a prolific writer whose career spanned a jaw-dropping 50 years (1959-2009, plus three more books published posthumously)A Spy In The Ointment is #35 out of 115 books, if I counted right at Wikipedia and if their list is comprehensive.  It would be another four years before the first Dortmunder novel was published, and IMO that’s when he really began to hit his stride.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs


   2011; 352 pages.  Book 1 (out of 5) in the “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : YA; Dark Fantasy; Time-Travel; Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    “Find the bird.  In the loop.  On the other side of the old man’s grave.  September third, 1940.  Emerson – the letter.  Tell them what happened, Yakob.”

    Those were Grandpa Portman’s dying words to Jacob, so they must be important.  Even if they don’t make a lot of sense.  Of course lots of things that Grandpa said recently were weird.  Strange stories about his youth, like fleeing from his native Poland during World War 2 to a children’s home in Wales, where there were a bunch of odd kids.  One was invisible, another had bees in his mouth, a third could rise off the ground like a balloon.  Jacob thinks Grandpa was trying to see how gullible he was.

    And he had photos, too.  He showed a couple of them to Jacob once.  The picture of the levitating girl is on the book's front cover.  It's obvious the photos were staged, of course, and not very skillfully.

    But now Grandpa’s bleeding to death – attacked by some weird being with tentacles coming out of his mouth.  Jacob saw him hiding in the bushes, yet strangely enough, Jacob’s friend Ricky says he didn’t see any such monster, and he was right there too.  And Jacob is a troubled teen, plagued by nightmares, so maybe his subconscious is imagining things.

    Maybe he should see a shrink.

What’s To Like...
    Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is the first book in Ransom Riggs’ mega-popular Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series.  Sam’s Club promoted the heck out of it for a long time, and I always wondered what kind of stories would go with the weird photo-shopped pictures on the covers.  Now I know: YA Dark Fantasy.

    The book is written in the first-person POV (Jacob’s), and I found it to be an easy, straightforward read, which is the norm for YA.  The story is 352 pages long, plus some “extras” in the back, including Photo Credits, Acknowledgements, a “Conversation with Ransom Riggs (wherein the blending of old-&-odd photographs with storytelling is discussed), plus some photographs that weren’t used (those were really interesting), and the first couple pages of Book 2.

    Besides having to deal with monsters, magic, and murderous mayhem, our protagonist Jacob also has to cope with an unhappy home life, including an alcoholic father.  Most of the book is set on Cairnholm Island, just off the coast of past-and-present Wales, and I thought Ransom Riggs, born and raised in the USA, captured the mystique of the Welsh culture quite nicely.  There are some quaint local expressions to figure out, such as “taking the piss” and “right bomper”, but the book is unmistakably written in “American”.  There’s a brief impromptu “Welsh rapping” session, which is not to be missed

    Cairnholm Island is both fascinating and fictitious, and I liked the quite-real “bog bodies” (the Wikipedia link is here) being worked into the plotline,.  There's a British TV show I’d never heard of called “Father Ted”, and even a brief tie-in to America’s poster-boy cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer.  Eerie critters abound, such as syndrigasts (better known as crypto-sapiens), wights, hollowgasts, flashlight fish, shadow beasts, and utterly intriguing “ymbrynes”.  Ransom Riggs handles the time-travel aspect in a most innovative way.

    I liked the way the main story thread – trying to make sense out of Grandpa Portman’s last words – unfolds gradually.  For every answer that Jacob uncovers, several new questions arise, and this keeps the reader turning the pages.

    The ending is suitably exciting, with Jacob and his newfound peculiar friends having to save the day, which is accomplished, albeit not without some losses.  The story stops at a logical point – Jacob finally grasps what is going on and has to choose a difficult path forward.  I wouldn’t call it a cliffhanger ending (I despise those), but there are a couple major unresolved threads, which presumably act as motivation to read the next book, Hollow City.  The story closes with a bittersweet epilogue, which I thought was particularly well crafted.

Kewlest New Word ...
Right bomper (adj., phrase.) : big.  (a South Welshism)
Others: Scabrous (adj.).

Excerpts...
    “In some corners of the world we were regarded as shamans and mystics, consulted in times of trouble.  A few cultures have retained this harmonious relationship with our people, though only in places where both modernity and the major religions have failed to gain a foothold, such as the black-magic island of Ambrym in the New Hebrides.  But the larger world turned against us long ago.  The Muslims drove us out.  The Christians burned us as witches.  Even the pagans of Wales and Ireland eventually decided that we were all malevolent faeries and shape-shifting ghosts.”  (pg. 154)

    “You’re right, Dad.  Dr. Golan did help me.  But that doesn’t mean he has to control every aspect of my life.  I mean, Jesus, you and mom might as well buy me one of those little bracelets that says What Would Golan Do?  That way I can ask myself before I do anything.  Before I take a dump.  How would Dr. Golan want me to take this dump?  Should I bank it off the side or go straight down the middle?  What would be the most psychologically beneficial dump I could take?”  (pg. 179)

“How many times must I tell you … polite persons do not take their supper in the nude!”  (pg. 165 )
    Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is marketed as “YA fiction”, which gave some Amazon and Goodreads reviewers a bit of heartburn.  But what exactly is the YA age-range?  Well, Wikipedia defines is as “12 to 18 years of age”, with subject matter that correlates “with the age and experience of the protagonist”, and based on that, I’d call this book entirely appropriate for YA readers.

    There was more cussing in it than what I’d expect in a YA book, but nothing that a teenager hasn’t heard in the hallways at school.  Jacob experiences “first love”, another common YA theme, but it doesn’t progress beyond some kisses.  There are no drugs, and the only booze around is consumed by Jacob’s alcoholic father.  There is some violence and bloodshed, too much to label the book a “cozy”, but not enough to call it “R-Rated”.

    For me, the book started a bit slow, but that’s not uncommon in a “Book One” in any series, since it’s necessary to build a new world, introduce the main characters, and provide a backstory.  I’d recommend MPHFPC to any teen or adult looking for something just a tad bit darker than the Harry Potter series.  Just keep in mind you’re in it for five books’ worth, and should probably read them in order.

    8½ Stars.  In the “Conversation with Ransom Riggs” section, the author describes this first book as “opening a door and discovering a world”, and the next one as “exploring that world”.  Books 2-4 are on my Kindle, and I’m looking forward to exploring this brave new world alongside Jacob.