Monday, May 28, 2012

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

For once the cover blurb was right--the cover of this fantasy novel said it was "A dark contemporary Alice in Wonderland." That's a good description, except for the "dark" part.

Gaiman's hero, Richard Mayhew, does not fall down the rabbit hole, but through the cracks, so to speak, into the literal underworld of London. It all begins when he and his fiance stumble over a girl on the street, who is covered in blood. Taking her back to his apartment, over the protests of his fiance, Richard finds that he has inadvertently involved himself in the tangled affairs of an alternate London, the one existing in the sewers and abandoned subway tunnels beneath the city. And things get curiouser and curiouser.

Richard becomes involved in a Quest, to find the murderers of the rescued girl's family and to win back his normal life in the London Above. Along the way he meets rats who communicate with humans; the Velvet Lamia, a vampire-like seductress; the Angel Islington, who had once been the overseer of lost Atlantis; the amazon-like Hunter, who specializes in killing the giant beasts in the underworlds of the great cities; and Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, two bloodthirsty hired killers, one learnedly sarcastic and the other a straight-man who likes to eat live animals (the Abbott and Costello of London Below).

All this adventure and mayhem is written in a whimsical style, so that the reader is never actually terrified and always retains confidence that the hero will survive. Its tone is somewhat similar to that of Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide series, but Gaiman is not nearly as clever as Adams. Nevertheless, the book is often very humorous and features many memorable one-liners.

The story itself is interesting, coherent, and somewhat suspenseful. It is almost like a Stephen King alternate-world novel, written in an entirely different tone, which means that character development and that creepy King feeling is absent.

I found this an amusing read, but it is certainly not a classic in the fantasy, alternative-world genre.

By the way, I think Neil Gaiman earns an adequate amount of money, because his writings are quite popular, but if he wants to earn more, I would suggest that he dispense with the imaginative covers, and just put his own author's portrait on the front. He earns my vote as Sexiest Writer Ever. He's even better than Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

The most common type of mystery novel centers around a detective, either professional or amateur, who cleverly deduces the solution by uncovering a variety of clues and by having a knowledge of human nature. This is an uncommon mystery: Its detective is a 12-year-old boy who just happens upon many clues but has no idea how to interpret them and certainly no understanding about the kind of human who would commit the crimes. The novel actually has a great deal of similarity to Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, including the facts that it is Southern (in this case, deep East Texas in the 1930s), highlights racial tensions between blacks and whites, features a young main character in a coming-of-age story, and stresses family bonds.

Harry Collins and his younger sister are lost in the bottom-land along the Sabine River when they make a gruesome discovery--the naked dead body of a black woman, mutilated and bound to a tree with barbed wire. Their father, who is the local constable, does his best to investigate, but he meets with indifference in the white community, because the victim is black, and with a lack of trust in the black community, because he is white. With a complete lack of cooperation and of investigative training, he can find no solution to the identity of the murderer. As for Harry and his sister, they are convinced the crime was committed by the Goat Man, a perhaps-mythical creature they believe they glimpsed on the night of the discovery of the body.

Because this is a mystery, it would be criminal of me to divulge more of the plot. Suffice it to say, more bodies turn up and some really bad things happen before the solution is revealed.

It's the unflinching accuracy in recording a specific time and place which makes this mystery better than the ordinary. The almost universal acceptance of racial bigotry is portrayed, including the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was composed of well-meaning people, along with the sadistic bullies. The narrative voice, that of an old man in a nursing home telling a story of his youth, is absolutely spot-on perfect, folksy and in the local vernacular, but not a caricature in any way. The location is pictured with loving detail, evoking a landscape which has now almost disappeared under concrete and asphalt but which is still recognizable.

I read this book because I am always searching for Texas books to review for TexasLive magazine, and I did not expect to like it nearly as much as I did. If I had never read To Kill a Mockingbird I would have liked it even more. Lansdale did borrow substantially from that plot, making the solution to the mystery fairly easy to figure out. It's the writing, though, which makes this a good read. This won the Edgar Award, the primary mystery book prize. It was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2001.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills

I was struck speechless (typeless?) by this book--I don't know exactly what to write about it. It is absolutely unique in my reading experience (which is substantial)--I have never read another book quite like it.

First the plot: Tam and Richie, two Scots lads, and their unnamed English supervisor, who is the narrator, build fences during the day, trying not to work too hard or go too long without a smoke,and drink pints in the pubs at night. Their routine is recounted of day after day of work, in mind-numbing detail for the reader, much as the fence builders' minds must be numbed by the tedium. Every so often someone is accidentally killed, usually the owner of the land where the fence is being built, and they have to halt their fence building to bury the body under a gate-post. I kid you not; that's the plot.

Then the narrative voice: All this is written in an absolutely deadpan fashion, so that it all becomes darkly funny after a while. Here's an example:
"Tam's just accidentally killed Mr. McCrindle," I explained.
"," he said, and looked at Mr. McCrindle again.
"He must have come see about getting his cows turned out," remarked Tam.
We moved Mr. McCrindle out of the way and leaned him against the truck so that we could get the fence completed properly.

And then the tone: What starts out as rather tedious gradually turns darker and darker, until it morphs into a sense of dread that something REALLY BAD is going to happen. It's like when you meet someone who seems ordinary and actually boring, but then you gradually realize that something is "off," that the person is actually pretty scary. You don't know how you know--you just know.

And finally the ending: which caught me totally by surprise, even though I knew that the book had a surprise ending from hints on the cover. Then I had to rethink the entire book and its purpose. Who or what, exactly, were the beasts that needed to be restrained by the fences? Is this whole book a fable? An indictment of modern business that turns people into "beasts of burden"? An indictment of the working class who allow themselves to degenerate into beings with no motivation other than the herd instinct? What's the significance of the sausages?

Several interpretations are certainly possible, as I believe the author intended. What this book aims to do, it does very well. I'm just not sure what it aims to do. But I really liked it. By the way, it made the short list for England's Booker Prize.

Recommended for those with a very sardonic sense of humor.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

True Women-A Novel of Texas by Janice Woods Windle

The title says it all--this is the story of some of the brave women of Texas who held civilization and family together, working alongside their husbands and carrying on while their men were away fighting to defend their land. The basis for the stories is the family lore of the author's maternal and paternal female ancestors, the King family of Seguin and the Wood family of San Marcos.

The first section tells the story of Euphemia Texas Ashby King (the author's maternal great-great grandmother) and of her sister Sarah, beginning when Euphemia is five years old. Left alone when her husband departs to fight in the Texas War for Independence, a pregnant Sarah has to flee with her little sister Euphemia and her own toddler son from the approach of Santa Anna in the infamous Runaway Scrape. This is the most riveting part of the novel, recounting in some details the ordeals of cold, torrential rains, swollen rivers, and disease as the groups of mainly women and children flee the wrath and "no quarter" policy of the Mexican army. Euphemia's life also includes encounters with the dreaded Comanches, who kidnap her best friend, Matilda Lockhart; and the travail of the Civil War, when her own husband, William King, goes off to war, leaving her to fend for the family.

The second section concerns the author's paternal great grandmother, Georgia Lawshe Woods, beginning when she is nine years old and the family leaves their Georgia home because of the persecution and resettlement of Indians, her mother Cherokee being rumored to be half Creek Indian. After settling in Missippi, Georgia, at fifteen, marries an older man, Dr. Peter Kavanaugh Woods, who takes her to Texas. The biggest challenges of her life are the Civil War, when her husband is away fighting, and Reconstruction, when her husband is away participating in state politics, and a corrupt Yankee officer takes over her house and threatens her family. Let's just say she does what has to be done.

The third section switches back to the maternal side of the author's family, to her other great grandmother, Bettie Moss King, the daughter-in-law of Euphemia Texas King. Her life is less eventful, because the time and circumstances are less precarious, but she, too faces challenges--the loss of loved ones in World War I and in the influenza epidemic of 1918, the shame of the Ku Klux Klan, and the loss of grandchildren in World War II.

The writing in this novel is very uneven, sometimes poetic and assured and sometimes trite. The historic details are fascinating, but sometimes the history is too detailed to maintain interest, and sometimes it is telescoped, leaving important pieces out or glossing over them.

Nevertheless, this partly-fictional account of Texas women is well worth reading. It emphasizes the fact that while men go off to fight and perhaps obtain glory and medals and recognition, their no-less-courageous women are left alone. As one character says, "Why is it men always have to go off to war?...They go off and we stay here where the hard part is."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Winter People by John Ehle

In the 1930s in the mountains of North Carolina lives a young unmarried woman and her baby by an unnamed father. Down off the mountain comes a clock maker and his 14-year-old daughter, lost after leaving their broken-down truck. The woman befriends them and takes the man to meet her father and three brothers, enlisting their help in setting the man up in business. The mountain family appears to be a tiny bit eccentric, with jealousy between the brothers and perhaps some sexual jealousy on the part of the youngest brother about his sister and her mystery lover. Then the clock maker and the young woman fall in love, but one night the mystery lover comes back and all hell breaks loose.

I hope that's not too much of a plot spoiler; I don't think so, because the events have a feeling of inevitability and are easily anticipated. Anyway, it's the characterization, the dialogue, and the tone which make this novel exceptional. Ehle's characters jump off the page, and the conversations read like transcripts of recordings. The tone progresses from a companionable folksiness to one of high tragedy. Quite a writing feat, Mr. Ehle.

This novel reminded me very much of Faulkner, specifically of The Sound and the Fury. The writing style is not nearly as convoluted as Faulkner's, but the sense of hovering tragedy and of barely controlled violence is the same. The plot situation has some similarities, and the people seem to have the same primitive emotions under a veneer of respectability. Perhaps it should be assigned the genre of "Mountain Gothic."

This is an older book, first published in 1982, but I found it and so can you. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Once again I have come upon a book late, after everyone else in the world has already read it. Published in 2006, this was a best seller and a movie was made (which I also missed). Evidently it was first marketed as a children's book (12 and above), but gained a large adult audience, much as The Hunger Games series has done.

It is the story of Bruno, a nine-year-old German boy, whose father becomes the Commandant of Auschwitz. Lonely and separated from all his friends in Berlin, Bruno strikes up a friendship with another nine-year-old boy, a Polish Jew, who lives on the other side of the fence in the prison camp, although Bruno doesn't realize that it is a prison. The results are tragic.

For those 12 and slightly above, this novel is very instructive as a cautionary tale. I plan to give it to my granddaughter to read. It is easy for young people to think of war atrocities as happening to strange people in the olden days. This book makes the situation real and teaches the lesson that people of all persuasions are basically the same. The reading level, tone, and chapter titles all make it attractive to young readers. Previous knowledge of Germany's actions against the Jews and other minorities
in World War II would be necessary for understanding.

For adult readers, I would say that the novel has several shortcomings, the most glaring being that the protagonist is far too naive to be nine years old. Perhaps the author did not know any children and did not remember exactly what he was like at nine, but no child of that age in my experience would be totally unaware of world events and of the prejudices of his parents and the other adults around him. That he would not have perceived that the people beyond the fence were captives is beyond belief. That, at nine, he would not have shared some of the bigotry of his parents is illogical.

I would recommend this book for anyone who needs reinforcement in the idea that people should not be stigmatized and persecuted because of beliefs or cultural heritage. And perhaps that reinforcement is really needed right now.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Connie Ramos has absolutely nothing going for her--she is female, Hispanic, poor, and overweight. She has been declared an unfit mother, and her child has been taken away from her by the state. The only two men she ever loved have both been killed. She has been committed to a mental hospital by her brother to get her out of the way because she has embarrassed the family by attacking her niece's abusive pimp. The hospital staff will not even listen to her explanation of events, instead heavily medicating her. A group of doctors wants to perform an experimental procedure, implanting some sort of device in her brain to improve her "mental health." She feels trapped and powerless, with no way to escape.

Then Luciente comes to her and shows her that a better life is possible if she and others like her are willing to fight for it. However, that utopia exists only in the future--Luciente is a time traveler from 2037. Connie can communicate with Luciente and travel to the future in spirit, so to speak, because her physical body always remains in the hospital even while she experiences idyllic interludes in the future, even making love with a man who reminds her very much of one of her lost loves.

The time travel device can be taken literally--that Connie really experiences the future and sees the solutions that society has evolved to address the economic, social, and racial problems of her time and place. Or the time travel can be taken as an escapist product of Connie's mind, addled by drugs and desperation. Perhaps Luciente is an idealization of Connie, if she could "find the light." Luciente's lovers Jackrabbit and Bee could be stand-ins for Connie's two lost loves. And their daughter Dawn could represent Connie's lost child.

It matters little if the time travel is literal or symbolic, because the purpose of the book is to point out the desperate plight of the disenfranchised--women, minorities, the poor, the different, the less-than-ideal--and to point to a better way of doing things and organizing society.

Connie's life is portrayed as a constant downhill struggle, as her efforts to improve herself are thwarted by one man after another. The two men who don't abuse her are destroyed by the power structure. It seems that the only way for a Hispanic to get ahead is to be male and to pretend to be white. The scenes in the mental hospital are chilling, picturing the humiliation and degradation endured by the powerless at the hands of almost universally non-caring staff.

In contrast, the future is a hippie's dream. Society has adopted a communal, agrarian way of life, each village feeding itself. Everyone is equal, with all taking part in the raising of crops and other labor, giving everyone time, also, to pursue lifelong learning and individual interests and passions. Cultural and racial differences are valued. Both males and females "mother," including breast feeding. Disputes are settled by talking things out. And they drink a little wine and smoke a little grass and practice a good bit of "free love." Who wouldn't want to live there?

Although this book was published in 1976, I had never heard of it until it was recently recommended to me by a friend. I have a feeling it was a cult book back then, perhaps particularly among feminists. I was out of touch at the time, staying home with my baby daughter, so I can't say for sure. It is intriguing, for sure, as to its ideas, but can also be read as an interesting straight-ahead science fiction novel. It is somewhat dated, perhaps, not by the societal problems presented, but by the future solution. Despite some optimism in the late '60s and early '70s, I no longer believe it is possible for people to live communally and unselfishly. Whether because of the fallen nature of man or the fact that man has just devolved into a greedy, self-centered state, I no longer think we can all just get along.

Wow, this is a long review, which means the book give me a lot to think about. That's always a good sign. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Widower's Two-Step by Rick Riordan

Reading is like eating.

It's not good for you to have the same kind of food all the time. A hamburger now and then can be a treat, but if that's all you ate you would start yearning for a meal that requires a knife and fork. Pizza is fun, but if you ate it continually you would start craving a salad. Complex gourmet dishes with interesting sauces and textures are delicious, but a steady diet of such food would make you feel sluggish and bloated. And some foods are just so yucky they shouldn't be eaten at all--potted meat and spray-can "cheese," for example.

I am convinced that if you read the same kind of books all the time you will have similar results. Light, strictly plot-driven books are fun to read, but after too many your mind becomes mushy and craves more substantial fare. Too many complex books which are slow reading and examine serious issues can tire your brain and sometimes make you slightly depressed. And occasionally books come along which shouldn't be read by anyone, ever.

This is a pizza book: It's fun, it's quickly and easily consumed, and it's a bit spicy, but not too much. And not just a cheese pizza either, but one with several toppings and a well-made crust. Not the best pizza you ever ate, but very good all the same.

It's a detective novel in the style of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, with a smart-talking hero, sultry sirens, and violent villains. But Rick Riordan's detective Tres Navarre is a kinder, gentler version of Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Phillip Marlowe. He is also more educated, having a PhD from Berkley in medieval literature, as well as being a private investigator.

Tres is called in to shadow a musician who is suspected of stealing a demo tape of an up-and-coming female country singer in an attempt to sabotage her signing with a major record label. Simple, right? Then the suspect is shot and killed right before his eyes. How can he help himself--he has to continue investigating. Along the way, he encounters many musicians, German-speaking tough guys, two enticing females, multiple murders, several double crosses, surprising twists, and a money-making scheme much more complicated than he ever expected.

Riordan has done a good job, following the standard mystery formula. His hero is interesting and the dialogue is stylish and often quite humorous. The violence, while somewhat graphic, is tastefully handled. The surprise twists are not all surprising, but the plot plays out logically and all the loose ends are tied up.

But it's the details which made the book fascinating to me. Many of the characters must be portraits of people Riordan actually knew, because they are so life-like. His descriptions of various Austin locations and neighborhoods are spot-on perfect (been there, done that), and I suspect the same is true of his descriptions of San Antonio. He is particularly adept at conveying the distinct flavors of the two cities, so close to each other and yet so different in many ways.

Riordan is no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but he writes a good mystery. This one won the Edgar Award from The Mystery Writers of America. Recommended.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Money by Martin Amis

Money is like a rambling standup comic monologue by one of those chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, sarcastic comedians who make you laugh in spite of yourself, even while you cringe at the lack of political correctness and the cruel nature of the humor. Among other things, Amis satirizes Hollywood stars, fast food, life in the fast lane, and mainly money--the pure pornography of it and addiction to it. This is is seriously funny stuff, in the true sense of the words.

The monologue is given by John Self, an ad-man who makes a living creating soft-porn commercials for junk food. As the story begins he has become involved in putting together a movie with a producer he just happens to meet on an airplane. Flying back and forth from London to New York City, he indulges in his various vices in both places--smoking incessantly, drinking alcohol to oblivion, indulging in junk food, having vigorous and inventive sex with whomever, and "pleasuring himself" with the aid of pornography. Along with the rest of society, however, what really turns him on is money, lots and lots of money.

This novel manages to be crude, insightful, ironic, comedic, savage, Freudian, lyrically descriptive, and somewhat post-modern (Amis includes himself as one of the characters), all at once. The writing is dazzling, although verging at times on pretentiousness. The hero has few admirable qualities. The graphic sex scenes are undoubtedly the most non-erotic in literature (but that is intentional). The plot is contrived and non-believable. It's a great book.

Included in the Times Top 100. Recommended for those not easily offended who have a sardonic sense of humor.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling

I first became fascinated with the "survival outside of civilization" plot line when I was about ten years old and read The Swiss Family Robinson. I read it over and over, fascinated with how clever and ingenious the family was in providing for themselves. The implausibility of such inventiveness with supplies that just happened to be on the wrecked ship never entered my mind. So, too, with Robinson Crusoe. I kind of skimmed over the preachy parts but loved the survival bits.

Fast forward to adulthood. Modern books of the survival genre could no longer depend on a small group or an individual being stranded alone on an island, because that was, of course, much less likely to happen. So writers turned to disasters to strand their characters, usually nuclear war. I remember Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, which alerted me to the importance of having a supply of salt in my survival supplies. Later I read The Stand by Stephen King and Swan Song by Robert McCammon, both of which feature a good-versus-evil, supernatural viewpoint, rather skimpy, however, on the details of what the survivors have to do to feed themselves. Then, more recently, came The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It was the most chilling, the most well written, and probably the most realistic of the lot.

Finally getting to the novel being reviewed--this is Stirling's take on the post-apocalypse. His disaster is selective: a bright pulse of light that knocks out all electrical devices, all gas-powered engines, and all guns. The source of the light is unknown (space aliens?), and it is impossible to learn the extent of the coverage. Two separate groups come together in separate places to try to survive, eventually coming together to help each other with their own special talents.

The Bearkiller clan is led by a fierce fighting man, who has trained his followers to battle against the inevitable bad guys. The Mackenzie clan is led by the High Priestess of a Wiccan coven, who has led her group into an agrarian lifestyle, farming, gardening, and stock tending. Happily met, indeed.

The most interesting part of this narrative, for me, was the introduction of Wiccan beliefs and practices, of which I knew next to nothing. Some internet research was in order, of course. That made it possible for me to somewhat accept the abundant coincidences which populate the novel, because in the Wiccan belief, "There are no coincidences." Time after time, the two groups happen upon people who have just the survival skills the group needs--experts in blacksmithing, horse training, archaic sword fighting, tactics for fighting with pre-gun weapons, hang-gliding, and so forth.

The part about survival on the land was fascinating. I was alerted to the importance of having seeds for crops and a reliable source of water. (What would you do if all electricity went out and the grocery stores in your cities ran out of food and the gas stations ran out of fuel?) I resolved to always have cash on hand to use before stores realized that the end had come and paper money would soon have no value. I was clued-in about which supplies I should hoard--not cans (too heavy to carry enough) but dried foods, like rice, beans, jerky, and fruit. And matches, and a couple of pans, and the awareness of somewhere I could buy or steal a horse. Not that I will do any of this, but maybe I should.

The part about fighting the bad guys was not so interesting to me. I know we have predators around us who are kept somewhat in check from widespread mayhem by civilization, but as a somewhat wimpy, old female, I cannot imagine myself fighting them. This part is rather detailed and would be interesting to guys, I would expect.

All-in-all, I would say this is certainly an interesting read, although not a classic in the genre.