Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Krapp's Last Cassette by Anne Argula * * *

If you've been following the recent posts, I've had a run of books dealing with various forms of child abuse. (Quicksand by Iris Johansen and 24 Hours by Greg Iles) Krapp's Last Cassette by Anne Argula follows a teenage boy, Danny Timpkins, rescued from a family where he was abused by child pornographers and satanists. With his new family he becomes a beacon of love to all those who come in contact with him and the readers of his inspiring memoir.

Beacon of love?

Well, nothing is as it appears in this story, and our protagonist, Quinn, the PI, searches for the reality behind Danny and the other characters in this tale of insanity, loneliness and despair. While Quinn regularly bemoans her single, celibate life, she is revealed as the most socialized and sane person of the crowd.

I found the book engaging until the end when I felt the author tied the plot thread together in an ordinary and disappointing way. I expected more.

LGBT Book Watch: In a world where reality and fiction swirl around each other, intimate and indistinguishable, the sexuality of the characters, straight, gay, or bisexual, is never clear or clearly stated. Certainly, sexual preferences are minor in this tornado of child porn and satanism. In this dark storm, all consenting sexual orientations equally appear at bright sunshine - always welcome in Seattle where this maelstrom takes place.
"There's a gay literature?"
"Yes, and it's a good market. Twenty, twenty-five percent of the population is gay, and they read in greater numbers than the straight population."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Enlightenment for Idiots by Anne Cushman * * * *

Enlightenment for Idiots by Anne Cushman is one of those recursive novels: a story about writing the story. In a light style, Anne Cushman's first novel presents Amanda's three intertwined missions: (1) Write the book Enlightenment for Idiots for which she's already spent the advance, (2) Find her own personal enlightenment for which she is traveling from ashram to sacred cave throughout India (expenses paid by her publisher), and (3) Prepare for the birth of her (fatherless) baby.

In a mixture of travelogue and friends-and-feelings, Amanda's optimism carries her through what is actually a horrific vacation from hell.
Don't worry. If enlightenment doesn't work out, you can always apply to graduate school.
The book is full of yoga references and should be a delight to anyone interested in yoga and the various Indian meditation practices.

LGBT Book Watch: While the book is centered around Amanda's search for enlightenment and finding a father for her baby with some discussion of celibate monk and nuns, there is one mention of lesbians (at a birthing class in San Francisco).
I even envied the lesbian couple, two women in their early forties who held hands throughout the whole class. ... They shopped around for months to find the right anonymous donor, an antinuclear activist with a Mensa-level IQ ... By contrast, my own pregancy seemed randon, as if my baby were a stray kitten that had followed me home.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Crazy Fool Kills Five by Gwen Freeman * * *

Let me see if I can get this straight. Fifi Cutter is a hip Los Angeleno, a LA 6, not great, but not bad. The top of the scale is an LA Asian 10. She has two unrelated half-brothers: Bosco, the fast talker, irresistible to women, and Joe, the detective in the LAPD. Unrelated? Think about. This is a smart book and you're expected to be alert.

When an unhappy, so say crazy, ex-employee of a charter air carrier sneaks onto a plane and shoots the pilot, killing the pilot, co-pilot, two Chinese businessmen, and incidentally himself, plus the poor guy drinking beer in his mobile home when the plane landed on it, Fifi gets involved in the liability trial: widows vs insurance companies.

As the story unfolds, witnesses keep turning up dead and the plot twists and turns. Though the charm of the book is the witty banter and improbable characters, before the story crashes and burn, the body counts doubles and Fifi is kidnapped several times.

While I enjoyed the humor, in the end I couldn't get the story straight. I loved the journey, but was disappointed with the destination.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber * * *

I felt both extremely focused and detached, as if experiencing my life for the first time and without the blurring of worry or regret. Not in the least like hash and the furthest thing from acid.
Chaz Wilmot on drugs. As he explains, not your ordinary drugs, but something exotic that has him living the life of Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. As he flickers between the 17th and 21st centuries, he ponders the big questions: What is art? What is creativity? What is real? Is there a objective reality?
I had no idea who I was. ... I might be Chaz Wilmot, hack artist, forger of a painting now hailed as one of the great works of Velasquez, hiding from criminals. I might be Chaz Wilmot, successful New York painter, now insane ... Or I might be Diego Velasquez, caught in a nightmare. Or some combination. Or someone else entirely. Or maybe this was hell itself. How could I tell?
This existential angst is interwoven with the fascinating world of fine art forgeries.

The book also includes many esoteric art discussions which will be beyond the reach of anyone without a solid background. An art appreciation class and brief visits to the Louvre, Prado and Uffizi is not sufficient.

This is a book of many levels, reminiscent of old science fiction novel with their mixture of technology, fantasy and observation.

For example:
Having talent and not putting it on the line is just like not having it and desperately wanting to be recognized. It's the same kind of pathetic.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif * *

The Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif tells the story of General Zia, the long-time military ruler of Pakistan, General Akhtar, his second in command who wants the top job, and Brigadier TM, the personal bodyguard for Genral Zia. On one level, this is a story of plots (real and imagined), counter-plots (effective and futile), and luck (good and bad).

The story is told by Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, whose father was a famous army officer. His father was murdered, so Ali Shigri is both a participant and victim of these various plots. In the end, only Ali Shigri survives.

On another level the book, written by a Pakistan native, provides an interesting window onto Pakistan. However, while the details of ancient ruins and desert storms are interesting, like many stories of modern dictatorships, it seems as if Franz Kafka said it first and better.

Recommended with anyone with an interest in Pakistani political history.

LGBT Book Watch: This is a story about life in the Pakistan military with few female characters. Allusions to females are as Begums (spoiled wives), widows, prostitutes, and a blind rape victim. There are a few allusions to homosexual encounters and the prevailing condemnation of such activities, but the overall tone accepts the behavior and part of life and less odious that much of life under General Zia's regime.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Murder Melts in Your Mouth by Nancy Martin * * * *

After a string of violent, also sadistic, stories, I found Murder Melts in Your Mouth by Nancy Martin a refreshing and relaxing return to the fashion and food genre. While the tale opens with Hoyt Cavendish, longtime partner in the Paine financial empire and generous philanthropist, falling to his death, the murder is merely a garnish to the lavish spread of interesting characters. Nora Blackbird's boyfriend is a reformed mobster. His sister Emma is pregnant to a banker who's engaged to a cold-fish debutante. The other sister Libby is between husbands; she dumps his five children with Nora while she moves into the Ritz-Carlton with a famous chocolate chef. The list is endless and intriguing, but the food and fashion is not ignored either.

All lush blond hair, perfect lipstick and outre fashion statement, my mother was still a beauty. Tonight her bosom was hoisted into a hot pink halter top, over which she'd thrown a Pucci print chiffon fluttery thing that concealed her fondness for desserts. Her snug Capri pants were strategically beribboned to draw attention to her delicate ankles, trim from hours of ballroom dancing. ... Mama looked ten years younger than her sixty years.
Cuban sandwiches ... Some pork that's been marinated in garlic and citrus, then roasted for hours, add some cheese, pickles and a dash of mustard. Then you press it in a double-sided grill. It's called a midnight sandwich because the Cubans ate them after working all day in the sugar refineries.
Fashion and Food:
I ordered a white omelet with mushrooms and whole wheat toast, then excused myself. In the bathroom, I washed as best I could and reapplied some moisturizer and lip gloss, My Furstenberg dress hadn't wrinkled, despite a half a night spent curled up in the backseat of the car.
A wonderful indulgence.

LGBT Book Watch: While the possibility of outing closeted homosexuals is considered as a murder motive, most of the discussions of sexual orientation are free from judgement or surprise. Ultimately, Hoyt Cavendish is revealed to be a woman living the life of a powerful man, but this has nothing to do with his murder.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Quicksand by Iris Johansen * * *

Quicksand by Iris Johansen is a story about child kidnapping and abuse. The villain, Kistle, controls everyone by threatening the life of a child. If you love that plot idea, it was done much better in A Book for Today: 24 Hours by Greg Iles.

The jacket promises paranormal elements, truly heinous villains, and intriguing multi-dimensional heroes. I figure two out of three is not bad. The characters are flat, over-told, stupid, and predictable. The speak in cliches.
"Seeing her face was almost worth everything."
"Yes, that's how I feel."
I found I rarely believed the character feelings as they were mostly told either be the authorial voice or some other character who had melodramatic insights.
She would go on forever because she could do nothing else. Bonnie was the beloved. She could no more stop searching than she could not draw breath.
Consider another typical example where Kistle calls reporting he has kidnapped another child:
Watch the evening news tonight. Her name is Laura Ann.
Given the alternatives of calling the authorities and the news broadcasters, what will our protagonists/victims do?
Watch the news. Five o'clock. It was going to seem like forever.
My feelings exactly - waiting for some recognizable human behavior seems like forever.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Phantom Prey by John Sandford * * *

Phantom Prey by John Sandford is a murder mystery.

Alyssa Austin returns home to discover blood on her walls and her daughter Frances Austin missing. She puts the two together, but the police do not: no body, no murder, no crime. Eventually, Alyssa reaches out to her friend Weather Davenport, who, in turn, convinces her husband Lucas, a state investigator, to get involved.

Lucas feels there is a connection between Frances' Austins disappearance/murder and the murder of three Goth friends. From here the story twists and turns. In the end, the murders and their motivations turn out to be ordinary. I found it to be a nice read, but the payoff not very satisfying.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Testimony by Anita Shreve * * * * *

A small private high school in Vermont, girls, boys, alcohol, hormones, video cameras, Internet.

Surely you can see where this is going. Testimony by Anita Shreve gets there in the opening chapter when the Avery Academy headmaster views the explicit video record of the incident - a freshman girl and three senior boys.

From this starting point, the story moves forward and flashes back to explore the causes and implications of this fifteen-minutes of fame for these four unfortunate (this is, at it core, a cautionary morality tale) students. The author deftly moves between characters and times to weave a story of small, it seemed like a good idea at the time, decisions that inevitably, inextricably lead to disaster.

A fascinating study of cause and effect, fate and choice.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Blasphemy by Douglas Preston

Blasphemy by Douglas Preston combines a super collider (bigger than the LHC in Europe) built under the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona, with Washington politics, and Christian fundamentalists. The story opens with the scientists attempting to bring the super collider up to fell power only to discover a problem (not unlike the true story at the LHC), and a Washington lobbyist conspiring to have the Christian right protest this atheistic experiment to disprove Genesis.

From this point the action builds, until the metaphor of Armageddon seems like an understatement. A fine mixed of science fiction and political thriller.