Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Poison Study by Maria V Snyder *****

Yelana is an orphan. (Thus continuing the tradition of many child protagonists, e.g., David Copperfield, Harry Potter, Violet Baudelaire, Anne of Green Gables, the list goes on and on, as the easiest way to give a child protagonist room to grow and act is to kill off their parents. The other perennially popular choice, since before Elizabeth Bennet, it to make the parents silly and ineffective.) Yelana, with no one to help her, is rotting in a dungeon for murdering the prince - she slit his throat - no denying that. On the day she is to be hung, Valek, advisor to the Commander, propositions her.
Yelana, I'm offering you a choice. You can either be executed, or you can be Commander Ambrose's new food taster. His last taster died recently.
Yelana replied,
A fool would refuse the job.
Ultimately she admitted to being no fool and her adventures into magic intrigue, self-defense, and murder blossomed into a story that moved so quickly that the book ended long before I was ready.

As with many science fiction novels these days, this is the first of a series, but it still manages to deliver a satisfying resolution while still leaving room for the obligatory sequel. Note: This is a romantic SF story, published by an imprint of Harlequin. However, it seems to ignore the normal romance requirement for silly sex scenes. I suspect this is intended to be a YA novel as the sex doesn't go beyond adolescent yearnings and fantasies and a chaste kiss or two.

Poison Study by Maria V Snyder is a great read.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Being Elizabeth by Barbara Taylor Bradford **

Elizabeth Deravenal Turner becomes the Managing Director of a private international trading company that her family has been running for centuries at the young age of twenty-five. What follows are her idyllic adventures in business land fraught with challenges, threats and near disasters. Through this all she is supported by the love of her life, Richard (Robin) Dunley.

The key to understanding this superbly written novel is that it is a romance. Nothing ever happens bad to Elizabeth and most crises are solved in the following chapter, if not immediately. The author takes an omniscient point-of-view showing that everyone has only beautiful, happy, and loving thoughts. It is a fairy tale in the guise of a novel with a few very silly sex scenes (his strength in her core) thrown in for no apparent reason.

While the details of the super-rich of England (clothes, food, jewels, homes, gardens, etc.) were very interesting, the simplistic fantasy did not hold my interest.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Future of Love by Shirley Abbott **

The Future of Love by Shirley Abbott is a literary novel with more erudite introspection than action, more literary references than feelings. This is a genre where self-obsession passes for characterization and quiet desperation passes for conflict. The novel, in three parts is centered around New York City on September 11, 2001.

Part I sketches the unhappy lives of eight New Yorkers. Part II recounts the day, September 11, that changes everything. Part III is an extended post script. In the end, the book self-summarizes like this:
Two gay men, two women about to be married to whatever extent the law allowed, Maggie and Mark in therapy, probably for life, Toni and Ashley content with each other and with the day. A true American family, archetypical not in spite of but because of terminal illness, adultery, sexual nonconformity, a not-too-merry widow, and a newly orphaned child. Would it play in Kansas? China? Kenya? In Saudi Arabia? In Congress? The White House? Definitely not. Still, here they all were. Bush and Cheney did not always win. The Taliban did not always win.
Except for Part II, I found the going slow and tedious.

LGBT Book Watch: The novel includes two gay couples as important characters though the book is not about them. As a literary novel, it has plenty of time to discuss all sides every issue, especially same-sex marriage. I particularly appreciated that when one of the gay men died of a terminal disease, its was cancer, not AIDS.

The Future of Love - Characters

The Future of Love by Shirley Abbott reminded me of that summer in high school when I read War and Peace. Before I could concentrate on the story I had to draw a diagram of the characters. Leo Tolstoy introduced too many characters for me to keep them all straight when I came back to the book on another day. Shirley Abbott left me in the same predicament. Here is a crib sheet for the main characters.
  • Sam and Edith Mendel: unhappily married; Sam is in love with Antonia Blass.
Their three children:
  1. Anna: married, Baptist.
  2. Rachel: Orthodox Jew.
  3. Stephen: married to Camilla.
The granddaughter: Alison Mendel is engaged to Candace Johnson.
  • Antonio Blass: widow of Fred Blass; in love with Sam Mendel
Her daughter is Maggie, married to Mark Adler.
The daughter is Toni Adler; her best friend (from Montessori school) is Ashley Parker.
Mark Adler is in love with the Sophie to Montessori school teacher.
  • Arthur and Gregory live on Antonia's building in NYC and are old friends
Gregory is Candace's uncle.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Resolution by Robert B Parker *****

Resolution by Robert B Parker is a western about gunfighters, ranchers, saloons, and crooks in the lawless west. It might be a book of cliches, but Robert B Parker's clear crisp style of simple declarative sentences and crisp dialogue makes it a pleasure to read. The protagonists are two gunfighters, Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole, who wander into a lawless western town and become stuck in the middle between the ranchers, mine owner, lumber mill owner, and Wolfson who own everything else and will not be happy until he owns everything. Virgil's world is black and white.
"I been a lawman," Virgil said. "Never shot nobody 'cept according to the law."
"You always had rules, Virgil."
"Why you shot Bragg for me," Virgil said.
"So you wouldn't have to break your rules," [Everett Hitch] said. "I didn't mind."
"I appreciate it," Virgil said.
But Virgil also had his share of gunfighter's angst.
"Virgil," [Everett Hitch] said as the horses walked towards home, "I get killed while you figure out what you are, I'm gonna resent it."
Virgil nodded.
"Don't blame you," he said.
Fast read. Great story. Get a copy. Read it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

High Wind in Java by Peter Tonkin *

High Wind in Java by Peter Tonkin might not have been so sleep inducing had not the writing been so completely devoid of simple declarative sentences, but rather replete with double negatives and tortured syntax making even the more exciting parts of the story not only difficult to follow, but also slow and daunting to decode, preventing the building of suspense or characters from rising above their verbose and pedantic, double thinking selves.

Huh? What dya say?

That's how I felt as I chopped my way through this tropical jungle of words. Exhausted, I gave up be for I reached the end of this story of natural (sharks cause attacks of flocks of flying fish - imagine a scene from The Birds) and man-made disasters (land slides caused by logging). The jacket even promises pirates, but I didn't get that far and I don't recommend you even try.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich ****

Ostensibly about a successful bank heist with one of the gang jailed and everyone scrambling to get the loot for themselves, Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich is reminiscent of the movie A Fish Called Wanda. Beyond the plot similarities, both stories use the plot as an excuse to introduce a stream of quirky characters, throw them into improbable situations, and watch them interact.

The book includes an aging pop star in her sixties, but refusing to act her age, a feisty, video gaming grandma, a psychic stalker, a muscular detective baffled by his girlfriend who informed him one morning that he had proposed and they were to be married next month. Potato guns, pizzas, an edible underwear all play a role in this story of fun and folly.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper *****

Helene Cooper, black, African, princess, is not some primitive native living in the jungle. She is from Liberia, settled in the early 19th century by freed slaves from the United States. She can trace both sides of her family back to the 1820s when Liberia was founded.
Those two men [Helene's distant grandfathers] handed down to me a one-in-a-million lottery ticket: birth into what passed for the landed gentry upper-class of Africa's first independent country. None of that American post-civil war/civil rights movement baggage to bog me down with any inferiority complex. ... No European garbage to have me wondering whether some British colonial master was better than me. Who needs to struggle for equality? Let everybody else try to be equal to me.
This is her story: part Liberian history and part memoir. The story opens with her idyllic childhood: extended families, European vacations, private schools, and lots of servants. All this changed when she was in high school with the Rice Riots in 1979 followed by more than a decade of brutal civil war - executions, rapes, and chaos as competing tribal groups terrorized each other and the civilian population.

Much like the Diary of Anne Frank, Helene illuminates a horrific period through the eyes of a single girl. This is a story of pathos, irony, humor and humanity. Excellent.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Hold Tight by Harlen Coben ****

Start with the sons: Spenser Hill (Ron+Betsy) commits suicide. Adam Baye (Tia+Mike) runs away. Lucas Loriman (Susan+Dante) has cancer and needs a transplant to have any chance of survival.

Add the daughters: Yasmin Novak (Guy) is mercilessly teased for a comments about facial hair by her fifth-grade teacher Joe Lewiston (Dolly). Jill Hill, Yasmin's last friend in school, protects and befriends both Yasmin and her brother Spenser well beyond what might be expected of an eleven-year old.

The murders: Marianne Gillespie (Yasmin's mother and Guy Novak's ex-wife). Reba Cordova (Marianne's only friend in the area).

What else? Drugs, blackmail, rape, torture, divorce, mobsters, insanity.

Hold Tight by Harlen Coben is a novel of family violence and jeopardy. It intricately and expertly plotted, none of the dozens of characters appear without a critical role in the plot. When even the apparently secondary characters are introduced, you can be assured they will return for a plot point that only they can resolve. The characters are well developed and sympathetic; much of the tension comes from the readers identification for their risks and pains.

As a parent, I found the book disturbing, but like many horror novels, the world is set right by the end.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Outliers, The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell ******

What determines success?

In a discussion with my daughter, we considered three factors that contributed to individual success: intelligence, money, and persistence. I suggested that any one of these was sufficient to graduate from college. In Outliers, The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell considered achievements well beyond college graduation. He asked the What leads to success question about the people who were the best of the best? What factors contributed to the success of Bill Gates, The Beatles, Gordie Howe, J P Morgan, Robert Oppenheimer etc?

Malcom Gladwell searches beyond the traditional factors I listed above to uncover a new list of precedents to success: culture, generation, and luck. Convincingly, he argues that to be the best of the best, you need to be born in the right place, at the right time, and be lucky. These are required in addition to the traditional factors of intelligence, persistence, and hard work.

Who should read this book?

If you or your child or someone you advise or mentor has a career ahead of them, this book provides valuable directions for success. In particular, success is as much the timely choice of career as the effort applied to reach it.

If you, as I, are retired or at the end of your career, and want to understand What happened? this book provides some interesting insights into the ecology of success.

If you just like interesting (analytical, human) stories. This book is a great read.

I would place this in the top three recent nonfiction books, along with and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond and Freakonomics by Steven Levitt.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Shadow of Power by Steve Martini ***

Perpetual Slaves is a book within a book that wonders about the racist implications of counting African-American slaves as three-fifth of a person during the founding of the United States, and the continuing implications of this language still being preserved in the US Constitution. Incredibly, Shadow of Power by Steve Martini suggests that when Perpetual Slaves dramatizes the fact that this language is still part of the US Constitution, race riots ensue across the country.

This bit of fantasy is the backdrop for a murder mystery. The Perpetual Slaves author is brutally murdered and a hotel room service employee/white supremacist, Nazi wannabe is charged with the deed.

In the end, a plot, every bit as incredible as the race riots, is revealed.

Regardless, of the events which demand inhuman suspension of disbelief, the book is engaging and exciting - truly a page turner. As with many best sellers, each of the chapters is excellent while the overall story arc is unbelievable. Fortunately the surprise ending only mars the final chapters and is otherwise ignored.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rules of Deception by Christopher Reich ****

Do you remember the movie The Long Kiss Goodnight that built its complex plot around an internecine feud within the United States intelligence communities? Well, Christopher Reich returns to this fantasy for his wonderful thriller set in Switzerland. The hero is a doctor who unwittingly married a spy and didn't figure it out for eight years, until people started to try to kill him. I really enjoyed Dr Jonathan Ransom as a smart guy thrown into the middle of multiple plots of murder and mayhem. Often without realizing his impact on the situation, he out smarts everyone and solves the mystery.

The other nice point was how the various antagonists misinterpret Dr Ransom's behavior simply because they cannot believe that he is the innocent and his wife is the spy. Often this leads to a comedy of pride and prejudice reminiscent of Jane Austen's finest. Rules of Deception is an enjoyable mixture of mistaken identity and suspense.