Friday, January 26, 2007

9. The Big Blowdown by George P. Pelecanos

The Space Machine cover pictureI can't remember when George P. Pelecanos' name first hit my consciousness. I think that the Mt. Benson Report might have told me about the "washington quartet" when he was living out there. I saw his name on the credits for The Wire. My interest was definitely sparked when listening to an interview with David Simon, the head writer for the Wire, when he said that he hired writers who were genre writers and wrote about cities in the northeast U.S. rather than TV writers and he specifically mentioned Pelecanos. So he was on my list and how pleasantly surprised was I when Meezly gave me the four of his books that make up the Washington Quartet for my birthday!

I have to admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed getting 4 books, all by the same author. I am obsessed these days with getting my on-deck shelf narrowed down and this just re-widened it! However, once I jumped into The Big Blowdown, my worries went away, because I tore through that book. I could barely put it down. I found myself going to the bathroom unnecessarily in order to get some more reading in.

After, a brief intro during the depression and then the war itself, the rest of Big Blowdown takes place in the poor immigrant section (centered particularly around the Greek community) of Washington, D.C. after the Second World War. It's the story of a young man who has some guts and some character, who gets trapped between the crime community that seems to be his default career path and a more normal life that is also a possibility. It isn't a morality tale, though. The plot careens forward and there isn't a lot of hand-wringing or moralizing. The main character makes his choices and is well aware of them. This is not one of those books where the characters do stupid or weak things and that is used to make the plot move forward.

The setting is so rich and detailed, both at the surface level and the deeper historical trends, that the narrative seems natural and inevitable. The character constantly remarks on how much he loves the city and it is obvious that the author does too. I never considered Washington, D.C. to be interesting but Pelecanos has changed my mind about that. What a world! Nightclubs, diners, butcher shops, all kinds of immigrants making their way, slowly accepting or running away from the growing black community. The characters in these locations are real as is the language they use. Very cool stuff.

I see now that the Big Blowdown is a backstory about, I believe, the father of one of his later regular characters. It's a cool way to start and I am really psyched to see how he writes D.C. in later periods. I'm not worried so much about the impact of these books on my on-deck shelf. Rather, I am going to have to pace myself if the other 3 in the quartet are as interesting as this one.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

8. The Space Machine by Christopher Priest

The Space Machine cover pictureFound this one in a used bookstore in Berkeley. I really enjoyed Fugue for a Darkening Island and always keep my eyes open for anything by Christopher Priest. The Space Machine is a "re-creation of the Victorian scientific romance" (from the back blurb) and Priest's hommage to H.G. Wells. It's about a young salesman in Victorian england who, when trying to sell driving goggles to the female assistant of a well-known inventor, ends up becoming romantically entangled with the woman. This all happens in the very beginning of the book.

The real story starts when they decide to take the inventor's time machine out for a spin. 10 years in the future, the hero sees the woman he has just fallen in love with being burned to death by a flame-ray coming from the sky. In his shock and horror, he tries to prevent them from returning to the past in order to avoid her fate. He messes with the controls on the machine and sends them spinning out of control.

Where they end up totally surprised me. I am not going to get into any spoilers beyond saying this book expertly fits its narrative between The Time Machine and the War of the Worlds. The two protagonists are not the most efficient and sometimes do some really stupid things, but it seems appropriate for their age and upbringing. Christopher Priest is a very talented writer, capturing the late-nineteenth century language with sentences like "The enormity of my situation was without parallel" (referring to being in a woman's room in a traveller's hotel!). The concept and backstory that he comes up with is also really cool. It's interesting because I never considered the War of the Worlds beyond its original presentation but in the last couple of years I re-read the original book and now two novels that go a long ways towards positing explanations for the martian invasions. Good stuff.

Fugue was great, but for some reason it didn't start me on a real interest in Priest's works. I see now that he is capable of a wide range of good writing. Seeing blurbs for some of his other books, with equally intriguing plots, furthers my interest to really start reading his stuff. And then check out this picture here. That's a good look for a British sci-fi author.Christopher Priest picture

Monday, January 22, 2007

7. Spock's World by Diane Duane

Spock's World cover pictureSomewhere in my nerdly wanderings in the digital realm, I gained the recommendation that of all the Star Trek novels, there were two by Diane Duane that were particularly good and worth reading. I had already read and enjoyed Dark Mirror when I found Spock's World for a quarter at the local thrift store. It's been sitting on my on-deck shelf for quite some time now.

I am a huge fan of the original Star Trek series. As a kid, it was the show and, since we didn't have a television of my own, was a motivating factor in many social visits in my life. I would hang out, but I was always plotting to get Star Trek on. I recently watched the first and half of the second seasons of the series on DVD and it holds up. Kirk's delivery has been so lampooned that it is easy to forget how well-written the shows were. The charactarizations were strong and rich. The shows were exciting. Mr. Spock was and remains a role model for me (one that, sadly, I seem to be getting farther and farther away from the older I get).

I give you this info so you can understand that I am a bit sentimental to the Star Trek universe. The first few chapters of Spock's World do a great job of capturing the inner thoughts, the on-deck banter and the personal lives of the characters that I love so well. So I was pretty psyched. I can see how if you were a real geek and didn't want to be away from the Star Trek universe, you would read all the novels (and there are tons, at least 50 concerning the original series alone).

The story starts out with the Enterprise docked in orbit around earth for maintenance and the crew all on vacation. They get called back because of an important vote that is going to happen on planet Vulcan, Spock's homeworld. A majority of Vulcans have called for a vote to secede from the Federation (the UFP, United Federation of Planets, the political entity that governs the Enterprise) and sever their ties with humanity. Kirk and Spock are called to testify (Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan and both of them have a history on Vulcan, particularly the episode Amok Time where Spock is supposed to go back to Vulcan and get married; awesome episode). So the enterprise is sent back into space. This is also an excuse for the reader to get a history of Vulcan. Every other chapter is an important segment of that planet and specie's development, starting from their savage stage to when they first discovered space.

I was hoping more for a episode-like adventure. Spock's Planet is more of an excuse to give us a ton of backstory on Vulcans and their history. That was okay, but it didn't seem very rigourously thought out to me. The history was cool and there were a lot of pseudo-science that explained a lot of things. But at the same time, their development seemed all too human. The main story as well, the plot about the secession, was kind of soft, with it basically being a move by some corrupt Vulcans. I just didn't get a good sense of the mysterious and powerful other as it was so well portrayed by Leonard Nimoy. So overall, despite some good moments, I was dissatisfied with Spock's World and will let the background of the baddest of badasses remain a mystery, with only subtle hints here and there, in my imagination.

[addendum:] I was quite surprised to see the author herself post a comment to this blog (and a funny one). I went back and re-read my review with the thought that it had been read by the author. With this new perspective, I found my review bit dismissive. I still stand to my overall opinion of the book, but I would like to add that there are many very good elements in the book that made it an enjoyable read overall. Sarek's backstory and his relationship with Amanda, his human wife is well done. The structure of the history of Vulcan, which just captured slices of different eras rather than trying to show all the big moments, was very effective and interesting. The explanation of the development of Vulcan attributes (such as their mind meld and the neck pinch) was also well thought out. Dr. McCoy's personality is enrichened and deepeened while maintaining the crusty exerior that we all know from the TV show.

What kept bugging me was the constant suggestions of Vulcan emotion. T'pring's resentment and jealousy didn't seem Vulcan at all. Also, the constant reaction from the audience, during various people's speeches (especially the laughter) seemed very un-Vulcan. This might not be Duane's doing, as the later iterations of the series got mushier and mushier (and lamer and lamer; call it the Guinan infection) and for all I know it could now be canon that the vulcans are actually very emotional. But the Spock I know and love only laughed when some evil flower sprayed its emotion dust in his face.

But I know that the writing and ideas in Spock's World come from a place of love and respect so I don't want to come down super hard on these disagreements of interpretation. I'm glad I read this book and it has given me some depth and insight into Vulcan but I will still keep most of that backstory at some distance from my imagination.

Evil Spock cover picture

"It is only logical that I will kick your ass."

Friday, January 19, 2007

6. The Business by Iain Banks

The Business cover pictureFor those of you who don't know, Iain Banks has a great thing going on. He writes science fiction (generally taking place in the universe of The Culture) under the name Iain M. Banks. He also writes "contemporary" (for lack of a better word) fiction under the name Iain Banks. I believe that The Wasp Factory may be the best known. In Britain, they publish both lines beautifully, each with a distinct look. The non-M books all have very stark, modern black and white covers (like the one pictured here). The M books (the sci-fi ones) are in colour, each one with a specific dominant colour. (Oh, well, going to his website, I see they have updated the line. They still are different, but not so distinctly now. They sure do look cool, though. They know how to make books look cool in England. Check them out: fiction and science fiction).

Anyhow, I'm not sure how I feel about the business. I read the Wasp Factory a long time ago and enjoyed it but it didn't totally grab me. The Business reminded me a lot of a few other sci-fi classics: Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties and Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. The protagonist is a high-powered businesswoman working for a giant, ancient company that is more like a meta-company, so big it is considering taking over a small country so it can get a seat on the United Nations. Most of the book, though, deals with the heroine's personal concerns, her role in the company, her unrequited love and sex life and her travel (every flight and car ride is rated and detailed). Eventually, a large plot comes in to view, involving her being sent to a small himalayan kingdom to see how the people would react to the Business coming in and taking over (their monarch is favorable to the idea and there would be a lot of benefits for the country, but obviously it is a mephistophelean deal).

Banks is a solid writer and a complicated, intelligent person. There are very interesting ideas swimming around under the surface of this novel. The construction of the the Business (as it is known) was interesting, though didn't reach the detail of the Cryptonomicon. There was so much emphasis on the trappings of life at the top (the lear jets, the communication devices, the exotic locales) that I felt I could never really get at what Banks was trying to communicate. I wondered what we were doing, where we were going at several points. In the end, there was a semi-satisfying conclusion, but it came rushed and I feel lacked the power that this story had potential to have.

Does anybody have a particular Iain Banks novel to recommend? I find them all so intriguing, but they just don't blow me away like some of the Iain M. Banks books have done.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

5. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama cover pictureWow. Rendezvous with Rama is one of the few books labelled "sci-fi classic" that I have actually found to deserve the accolade. Jarrett recommended it to me. I found it for a buck and yet I was still wary. It sat on my on-deck shelf for almost a year. But I finally picked it up, with my new resolution to get through some classic sci-fi. I am very glad that I did.

The story takes place late in the 22nd century. Man has colonized several of the planets. One day, a strange object appears in the telescopes. It is a giant cylindrical vessel, heading obliquely towards the sun. Judging by its route, the earth forces decide that there is only a few weeks to study it and the nearest ship is sent. The book is mostly about the exploratory ship and what they learn as they slowly explore this foreign vessel.

A fantastic book that restored my faith in clear, classic science-fiction. Several times I exclaimed out loud, "Cool!"

**WARNING SUBTLE SPOILERS BELOW-If you are planning on reading Rendezvous with Rama, I recommend you don't read any more.**

What first struck me about this book was how clear the physical descriptions were. My nerdy brain is so filled with other worlds that I have very little attention span left to dedicate to a new one. I get distracted easily and completely fail to grasp the fantastic extra-terrestrial image the author is trying to impart to me. Somehow, Clarke describes the ship in such a way and with such plain language that I had a clear image of the structure in my head the whole time.

The second good thing was that about halfway through I started to get the idea that this book was populated with mostly reasonable people. Nobody was going to do anything stupid or crazy or emotional that would cause a "conflict". I am growing more convinced that the necessity of conflict in modern narrative is a false construct created by a divergence of undergrad literary and writing courses and capitalism. Too often, a writer uses arbitrary human frailty to drive a story forward. Clarke is confident enough of the coolness of what he is showing the readers (and the richness and complexity inherent in life and humanity itself) that he doesn't need to rely on any of that.

And Rendezvous with Rama truly delivers a sense of wonder and mystery. Each chapter (and they are quite short) delivers a new wonderful surprise, slowly unravelling the layers of mystery surrounding another life form Behind it all, is a solid internal logic, so that even though very little is actually discovered, the reader is left feeling very satisfied.

A classic.

Monday, January 15, 2007

4. The Closers by Michael Connelly

The Closers cover pictureThis #1 New York Times bestseller was another xmas gift. I've never heard of Michael Connelly, but I'm sure I must have seen his books on some shelves in the airport. I am very suspicious of best-selling american modern crime and mystery novels. The few I have read have been poorly-written at best, stupid and obvious, usually with some form of extreme and titillating violence or a completely preposterous serial killer as the bad guy (James Patterson, Jeffrey Deaver are two prime examples of this). I now avoid them as a rule.

The Closers stars detective Harry Bosch, who retired from the LAPD for two years and then decides to come back again. His old partner uses her connection to the new police chief, who is portrayed as someone who really cares about bringing down crime, to bring Harry back. They are assigned to the newly revitalized unsolved crimes (thus, "the closers") unit and start on a case involving a young girl who was taken from her bed and killed in the forest 17 years before. A DNA match from a bit of flesh on the gun (matches that were not technologically possible when the case was first investigated) is the clue that jump starts the dead case. As they dig deeper, the crime reveals itself to be potentially very complex, involving racial politics and potential police corruption.

The Closers is definitely a step above the books I mentioned above. It is a solid and complex police procedural. Most of the book is the two detectives investigating. Asking questions, going over old evidence, doing research and slowly the layers of the case are revealed. There are a couple of false notes, particularly with the vague antagonist, in the form of a high-ranking officer (though I suspect his character played a bigger role in past Bosch books, if they exist). At the sentence level, it is competently written, though a bit clunky at times. The overall structure is excellently organized, delivering just enough information and pacing to keep you hooked in and able to remember what is going on. The case itself is really interesting, woven tightly into LA city politics and culture, but able to stand on its own. There is lots of great detail and info about police procedure and culture in LA.

I probably won't seek out another Michael Connelly book. But if I'm stuck in the airport with nothing to read, I would go to him before most other bestselling authors.

Monday, January 08, 2007

3. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of Light cover pictureIf you look down the left hand side of this page, you may have noticed that Lord of Light has been on my to read list for quite some time. The only other book by Roger Zelazny I read was Donnerjack, giving to me by a fellow teacher a while back (thanks, Pete!). I loved it and after doing a bit of research, saw that Lord of Light is considered one of Zelazny's best books. Well, I searched far and wide for a used copy of it, but they weren't to be had in any of my bookhunting jungles (Montreal, Toronto, New York, Vancouver and finally the east bay) until I found a used copy of a re-released trade paperback. It was $6, which is more than I had hoped to find it for, but the only other time I had even seen it was a brand new version of the same trade paperback, so I picked it up.

It took me a while to get into it. Partly it's because I was flying and distracted when I started it and partly because the opening tells the story in a very oblique way. It was only due to the blurb at the back that I had an inkling of what was going on. As you get about a quarter of the way through, you start to figure out what the hell is actually going on and then it gets really interesting and really cool.

It is some future far-off planet that humans, escaping their own dying earth, colonized long ago. To colonize it, they used their technology to destroy or contain the existing creatures and then reproduced themselves to create a human population. They had the power to transfer their beings into new bodies and were thus effectively immortal. As their world grew, the first arrivers turned themselves into gods. Their colonization exploits and their internecine struggles become the myths of their human offspring.

Lord of Light follows the half-epic, half-mundane story of one of the first who decides to destroy the gods and allow their powers (i.e. their technology) to be spread to the rest of the world. The book is about his strategies, alliances and battles.

There are a lot of characters and it gets more confusing because when a named god dies, another character may take over his role and thus his name. It also jumps around in time a bit (though actually the structure is fairly straightforward once you figure it out). So I found myself a bit distanced from it all.

Nevertheless, it is a really cool book. The way the gods manifest themselves, their powers and tools is a clever and original blend of technology and magic (it's hard to tell where one begins and the other leaves off) and the world is rich and full of adventure potential. I think it either demands a re-read or careful concentration when you are reading it. It's an easy read and entertaining, but if you take it lightly you will miss some of the depth and connections and get a bit confused. So I recommend it, but read it when you have a chunk of time to dedicate to it.

[note about the rapidity with which I got the first two books down: it's entirely due to me being at the parents house for a couple of days after the new year. One can really focus in that environment. I hope I can keep it up, but as you can see, #3 took a lot longer than the first two!]

[note about my reluctance to pay $6 buck for this book. Yes, it's a decent price and yes I'm a cheap bastard, but as you can see it's just not a very inspiring cover. Take look at some of the other original paperback editions of the book and you can see what I was hoping to find in some dusty sci-fi shelf of a used bookstore.]

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

2. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men cover pictureI got this one from my parents for xmas. I have read All the Pale Horses and while there were elements that I quite liked, the whole thing didn't jibe for me. A major strike against Cormac McCarthy is that he doesn't seem to think that he has to use quotation marks when people speak. I think the goal is to create a more flowing text or something, but it just comes off as pretentious and annoying (at least for me).

The cover of No Country for Old Men has a quote that says "...McCarthy's most acccessible work!" which I guess was a way to try to get it to sell more mainstream. If by accessible, they mean tons of action than that is very true. This is a violent book. Pale Horses had moments of extreme violence, but they were punctuations amidst pages and pages of thoughtfulness and human longing or something. This book is the opposite, brief moments of human exploration that punctuate pages and pages of serious ass-kicking.

The story takes place in Texas around the Mexico border. It's about a hunter who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad in the desert and takes the cash left over. He is hunted. The main protagonist, though, is an old sheriff whose county this all takes place. He represents the voice of the older generation that wondered what the hell happened to the world. The story is great and there are some serious kick-ass characters. The theme of a society falling into chaos and evil is well presented through the voice of the sheriff. It avoids an easy narrative, which seemed right, but at the same time the ending kind of meanders away. Nevertheless, this is a very satisfying and enjoyable read. Quick and intense. I would recommend it.

I'm suspicious of McCarthy, though. I suspect the voice he writes with is not his own and it doesn't quite ring 100% authentic. It's incredible craftsmanship, for sure, but sometimes it has the sound of an extremely talented upper middle class intellectual acting country and with the people. I know nothing about the author as a man, so I could be wrong.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

1. Lemons Never Lie by Richard Stark

Lemons Never Lie cover pictureRichard Stark is now well-known nom de clef of the well-known mystery author Donald E. Westlake. As Stark, In the 70s, he wrote a series of heist books starring an efficient criminal named Parker. These are my favorite books in the world and I've read the entire series three times now and will continue to read them. One of the side characters and heisting allies of Parker was a guy named Grofield. A little more intellectual and less brutal than Parker, Grofield was nonetheless a pro. He had people skills, lockpicking and disguise. His deal is that he's an actor and has his own summer stock theatre, that is constantly running out of money. Stark wrote three side novels about Grofield, The Dame, The Damsel and Lemons Never Lie. The first two were okay, but a bit light and funny and didn't capture the diamond-hard intensity of the Parker books. I could never find Lemons Never Lie (if you ever see it in old paperback, grab it), but fortunately for readers everywhere, Hard Case Crime just re-released it in a nice small paperback with a beautiful painted cover, in the best pulp tradition.

I am very pleased to report that Lemons Never Lie is up there with the better Parker books. It's a straight-up heist, Actually, straight-up is not a good word to describe the jobs that go down because they always end up getting complicated, usually through human foibles. In Lemons, Grofield gets asked to join a job in Vegas, decides the guy who is running it, Myers, is an idiot and backs out. Myers is an idiot, but a ruthless and psychopathic one and he retaliates, causing a chain of events that chase Grofield throughout the novel until it goes too far and Grofield has to start doing the chasing.

Lemons Never Lie is an integral part of the Parker arc. And a great book. There are two heists, tons of fighting and scamming, great underworld locations and characters (the scene where they buy the stolen semi is fantastic) and important advice. Reading the entire Parker line is a requirement for a career in heisting. For example:

"The best driver for anything, including going quickly away from where you no longer want to be, is not the guy who will kick the car across the state, the guy who love speed—the best driver is the guy who loves cars. He'll get more out of the car, and he'll live longer."