Friday, August 18, 2017

18. Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

Hey, it rhymes (Lehane... Rain, anyhow).

Quick review here as I am running out the door to start a week's vacation (and hopefully some major reading).

I had one more Dennis Lehane book from the drunken stumble haul and decided for completion's sake to give him another chance after my displeasure with my last read of his (Darkness, Take my Hand).  At the halfway point of Prayers for Rain, I was glad I did.  Here we have much more of what I was looking for, a complex investigation with interesting characters and the protagonist investigating.  There is a slight dusting of dark observation on the state of the world and his own mindset, but not pages and pages of mooning. Unfortunately, at about the halfway point, most of the mystery is revealed and once again the antagonist is a highly-skilled total psycho.  He wasn't quite as ridiculous as the one in Darkness, but after a while can we just not have flawed, broken characters who do a crime than over the top conspirators whose sole goal in life is to inflict creative torture and cruelty on good people?  So this one was okay, sort of satisfying, definitely not 100% redemption, but not closing the door altogether either.  I wonder if as the Kenzie-Gennaro novels advance, he matures more and more, gets away from the simplistic stuff and allows the good writer that he is to tell a story that doesn't have to impress you with its excess.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

17. Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer

I've been lamenting my drunken stumbling into a pile of free books because it added an unwanted burden to my already overflowing on-deck shelf.  And yet, since that incident, I have been on a tear, completing 4 of the 7 books in just over two weeks. Is it because they are all sort of new and I don't care about wrecking them so I can carry them with me?  Is it the summer?  Just a coincidence?  I don't know but I am going to ride this wave for as long as I can and try and recapture a teeny bit of the 50 books ground I lost since becoming a father.

Frameshift starts out slowly and a bit blandly.  I find Sawyer's style here generic and it took a while for the story to reveal its depths.  I did like that the main character was a Quebecois and mostly accurate (except when he said "morceau de merde").  It also takes place in the Bay Area with lots of locations I know well.  So that kept me going.  About halfway through the book, though, things get quite interesting and there is a lot going on and from there, it becomes quite a page-turner.

Pierre Tardivel is an associate professor who has Huntington's disease.  He is working at Lawrence Lab in Berkeley and he meets another professor, Molly Bond, and they fall in love.  At the beginning of the book, he is attacked by a neo-nazi mugger, though he and Molly for reasons I won't reveal know that it was actually a planned attack.  This starts him on his own investigation and we get into a story of unethical behaviour of private health insurance companies, hidden nazis, genetic manipulation and murder.  Really, the fun is in figuring out what is going on, so I will be even more spoil-sensitive and leave it at that.  It's an enjoyable summer read.

It does rip into the evil that is private health care, and rightly so.  It focuses specifically on the practice of not ensuring people with pre-existing conditions and what that will mean when we have sophisticated genetic identification technology.  Given the insanity of the times in America today and the incredible indoctrination and self-delusion of many of its citizens towards universal health care, this book, written in 1997, was surprisingly relevant.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

16. Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson

This was the lone outlier (non-Pelecanos, non-Lehane, non-sci-fi) of the drunken stumble giveaway pile of books I found this August in my neighbourhood.  The cover looked cool and I saw it was an A&E series.  It seemed potentially inoffensive to my overly-sensitive genre fiction aesthetic. 

The protagonist is Walt Longmire, a big tough sheriff in Wyoming, in a region dominated by native communities.  This is the 7th in the series and you don't get a strong sense of his connection to the society because the entire book is a chase up a mountain.  I suspect in other books, those relationships are developed much more deeply.  In Hell is Empty, it's pretty much action and a lot of soul-searching/spiritual quest stuff.  The action part was great.  Longmire is part of a team overseeing a prisoner transfer.  There are 5 of them and they are all nasty, but one is one of these superhero serial killers.  His skills were limited to violence, outdoor survival and psychological manipulation, so at least we had some limitations to keep it somewhat realistic.  But still, "he's a genius." says one of the characters who was manipulated into helping him escape.

The prisoners do escape and head up Bighorn mountain just as a major blizzard is moving in.  Longmire is in a position to either wait the storm out, because there really was no exit off the mountain, or go in after them, which he does because they have hostages.  Or at least that's his excuse to himself.

The pursuit up the mountain is tight, creative and entertaining.  It's not just him following them on a trail, a bunch of cool stuff goes down that I won't go into.  As the pursuit narrows and it becomes (of course) Longmire vs the psycho, we get into a more internal narrative, as Longmire struggles to figure out what is motivating the psycho as well as struggle with his own demons.  This was actually kind of cool too, but sort of dragged on a bit at the end, for my tastes.

Still, pretty enjoyable stuff.  I want to read one that deals more specifically with the native communities to see if it is handled realistically and with depth, because that could be quite good as well.  What I'd really love to find is a badass crime writer who writes about the First Nations milieu but who actually is a First Nations person him or herself.  Any recommendations?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

15. A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos

I used to mix up Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane.  I discovered both of them because of The Wire and they are both known as contemporary detective fiction authors with a strong sense of place (Lehane being Boston and Pelecanos DC).  I've read the DC quartet and quite enjoyed it and always kept Pelecanos on my list as a potentially good read, but easy to find so no rush.  Dennis Lehane was also on this list until I read Darkness, Take my Hand and now he has one more chance. 

I approached A Firing Offense with some trepidation, fearing that it might suffer some of the same flaws of Lehane.  The protagonist and the set-up of Pelecanos' NIck Sefanos and Lehane's Patrick Kenzie.  Both are from white working class neighbourhoods in their respective cities with one foot in their rough past and another in the more gentrified present.  Quite quickly, though, Pelecanos stayed out of the kind of trouble that Lehane gets into.  Pelecanos dishes out melancholy and jaded self-reflection sparingly and in small doses.  The scope of the action remains local and much more realistic.  Half of A Firing Offense is more about Stefanos and his buddies just being a bunch of young fuck-ups at their job, with the actual mystery only getting going until later.  It's really an origin story.  While it strays somewhat too far into the white bourgeois fantasy of being a ghetto badass at the end, it mostly remains grounded in the reality Pelecanos constructs.  It's gritty and enjoyable and I am looking forward to stumbling upon another Nick Stefanos novel on the street.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

14. Darkness, Take my Hand by Dennis Lehane

[I stumbled upon this book while walking home late one night. It was among a pile of contemporary mysteries and some sci-fi somebody was giving away.  I got a Pelecanos, 3 Lehanes, a Longmire mystery and a CJ Cherryh book.  I really didn't need more books on my on-deck shelf at this point, but I was drunk and my guard was down.  Do not drink and walk through neighbourhoods where readers with good taste and small library space live!]

Hmmm, I may be out on Dennis Lehane.  I was never a huge fan, but really enjoyed Shutter Island and respected him in general.  Unfortunately, Darkness, Take my Hand undermined a lot of that feeling. First of all, I do not accept serial killers as plot devices for any kind of detective fiction.  They are played out and were never that interesting in the first place.  You get a new one every week now on Criminal Minds and that is about the level of audience they are written for.  Even worse is the phenomenon of the, what I am coining, "superhero serial killer". These are the serial killers that aren't just ruthless psychos but also hyper-intelligent, elite fighters (in hand-to-hand and gun combat) and highly skilled ninjas with elite security and surveillance knowledge.  I guess The Silence of the Lambs started it and it was sort of okay in that over-rated movie.  Now, can we just put to bed this super-villain that if you even go visit him in jail you risk your entire family being raped and tortured before your eyes because you accidently left one of your eyelashes on his leather wrist manacle.  It's fucking stupid.

 My understanding was that Lehane was a slightly higher grade of writer than that, because of his deep understanding of the Boston milieu and the human cost of crime.  That's how he got his gig on The Wire, right?  Things started okay in this book, although even before you learn the plot is centered around a serial killer there are elements that really start to weigh in on this simple reader.  I get that we are painting a dark picture of the world, but is it necessary to have the detective waxing melancholy every single time he runs into another character or goes into a new neighbourhood?  I am not a huge proponent of "show don't tell" but there is a lot of telling here where a little bit of showing would be just as effective and less intrusive.

I have one more of these Kenzie-Genarro novels on deck.  I am debating whether to just give it away or to see if he can do a better novel that deals with a more realistic level of crime.

SPOILERS!

The serial killer here is actually almost worse in the context of Lehane's style. His plots are so far deeply connected to the protagonist's background and the milieu of poor, south Boston.  This is a rich milieu filled with crime potential.  Sticking a superhero serial killer here is incongruous and made worse when it is all actually profoundly connected to the detective's own childhood.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

13. The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. Van Vogt

There is a group of gamers and cool nerds on Google+ who have a roleplayers book club that I keep trying to join but can never find the book or the time.  This time, I found both as this classic was easily found in the library.  We had a lively but short-lived discussion and I am very glad I read the book.

I have since learned that A.E. Van Vogt is an important though sometimes disrespected author in the golden age of sci-fi.  You can go to wikipedia to learn about the critic who dissed him early on in his career and left him with a maligned reputation.  I, for one, enjoyed the book. I particularily appreciated how he wed the space theorizing common to this period with a more aggressive pace than usual, so that just when the wankery was getting a bit too long-winded for my lazy mind, some shit went down (not unlike Raymond Chandler's send in the guns rule) and the narrative moved forward.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle is an episodic tale (technically a "fix-up" being several previously published short stories stitched together to make a novel) about a pioneering ship exploring distant galaxies.  It is high science fiction in the technology, but kind of low in the challenges, which is about a ship full of male scientists battling their own internal conflicts to overcome external ones.  Yes, all men.  And they behave stupidly quite often, which I don't think was intentional, but read today does seem like instead of some meta-philosophy to bring them together, they just could have had a bunch of women (and non white people too).

The meta-philosophy is "Nexialism" and the protagonist is the sole Nexialist on the ship.  His challenge is to use Nexialism to unite all the various disciplines so they can overcome the problems they face, because each discipline alone is too narrowly-focused to see the bigger picture needed to deal with the problem.  Nexialism itself is not entirely thought out, but it's fun and satisfying to see its superiority overcome the petty squabbles of its narrow-minded opponents.  The obstacles themselves are pretty cool as well, space beasts, telepathic societies and the like.  Good stuff.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

12. A Dangerous Energy by John Whitbourn

I picked this up in another dollar bin outside a used bookstore, but I can't remember exactly where, somewhere in Vancouver of Victoria.  It just looked interesting and honestly I don't know if it is my honed instinct or that the Goddess of Reading is just blessing me these days but it was another total winner.  Probably more learned and erudite fans of fantasy and science fiction are well aware of Whitbourn's work.  I hope so.  If not, I hope my review will encourage you to seek him out.

Ostensibly, this is a bildungsroman in an alternate reality where the Reformation never happened.  The setting is the primary interest at first, a world where the Roman Catholic church dominates, there is subtle magic in the world (originally of wilder origins but now harnessed and controlled by the church for the most part), colonization is severely limited compared to our world and technology and commerce advancing at a much slower pace.

The story starts in the late 60s and ends in 2026.  Young Tobias Oakley encounters an elf in the forest outside his village who teaches him the rudiments of magic.  This leads him to be shunned by his village, discovered by a priest whose job it is to discover those with the magical gift and then sent to a magical Catholic college in London.  The rest of the book details his conflicts and rise to power, both in the world and in his use of magic.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, I would suggest you stop reading here and just seek this book out.  Anything more I say here, though not explicitly a spoiler, would ruin the wonderment and pleasure of where Winterbourn is going with this book.  I will add that it is pretty fucked up and super dark. 

Because A Dangerous Energy is really about a descent into evil.  Oakley is understandably driven by ambition, but with a singular focus that makes him worthy of a book but also pushes him farther and farther away from morality and ultimately even humanity.  It is done very subtly and there are many moments in the book where there is an opportunity for him to get back on the right path.  Each time, he chooses (or is not able) to stay on the wrong path.  And slowly it starts to rot out his soul.  The language is rich but not flowery, told in an omniscient almost matter-of-fact way that blindsides the reader into the atrocities Oakley undertakes.  It all makes so much sense in the narrative that you have to step back and remind yourself how horrible he has become. 

There is also a nice touch where each chapter is titled with descriptive phrases along the lines of very early novels:  "In which our hero goes to London and is obliged to remain there", "In which our hero receives help from the friend that he helped, and a problem is solved satisfactorily".  These are absolutely accurate descriptions of what goes on in that chapter, except the details are generally super dark and nasty, which adds to the cold irony of the book's presentation.

A lot of his ambition, as he becomes a more powerful magician, is around the development of his understanding of summoning magic.  The imagery around his attempts to contact demons is evocative and the procedures and details of how it all works really cool.  Things like the demons' names, the locations they appear in, how they come into our world are all novel takes that are super entertaining (and gameable).

Likewise, the alternate history itself is fully thought out, but only revealed as is needed to inform the narrative (with a few bits and pieces of material interspersed to add depth like questions from a history exam, excerpts from books, etc.).  I am not well informed on the religious history of Christianity nor a huge fan of alternate realities and this was delivered in such a way to keep my interest (that's putting it mildy) and allow me to keep it all clear in my head more or less.

A great read, strongly recommended.  It is part of a series, too (not with this character, I assume, but taking place in the same world).  Added to my list!