Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wicked Prey by John Sandford *****

Wicked Prey by John Sanford is a richer and more complex thriller written from several points-of-view and with sympathetic characters on both sides of the law. In fact, the good guys seem to be on both sides of the law all by themselves. This is a novel of grays and subtleties, and a welcome respite from many thrillers that are so black and white that they seem to be written as partisan polemics and propaganda. This is especially remarkable since the narrative centers around politicians the the political process.

Set in Minneapolis/St. Paul during the 2008 Republican convention, the story intertwines revenge, stealing illegal campaign dollars, and a good old fashion heist. While the body count seems high (though under a dozen), the violence happens very quickly and doesn't detract from the story.

My favorite character is Letty, a young teenager who has seen plenty of violence in her short life. But she rises above her hardships to confront life strongly and decisively. While she does not shy away from violence, her confidence and attitude are excellent role models.

Any teenager who is already watching R-rated movies might enjoy and benefit from this story. I certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a fast read and several hours of pleasant diversion.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

What can I say about the work of a Nobel-prize-winning writer? Toni Morison, author of A Mercy reminds me of another Nobel prize winner: William Faulkner. Both present their characters with distinctive voices: integrating syntax and vocabulary with assumptions and philosophies. A Mercy is told from the points of view of several women coping with the realities of late 17th century America: slavery, indentured servitude, and subjugation of women.

In a style, reminiscent of William Faulkner, the story unfolds with a minimum of exposition, as each character narrates their experiences in stream of consciousness.

From the book jacket:
Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved. There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who's spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Floren's mother.
What can I say about the work of a Nobel-prize-winning writer?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Where I Must Go by Angela Jackson *****

How many more novel of the 1960s do we need? Now that we have Angela Jackson's Where I Must Go, we're all set.

Where I Must Go is an autobiographical journey through Magdalena Grace's freshwoman year at Northwestern (fictionalized as Eden) University. Maggie's family is from Mississippi, but she was raised in Chicago. This is a story of Motown music, Vietnam war protests, college activists, and social unrest - a lyrical (after all Angela Jackson is a poet) tale that will stir up proud and fond memories for the baby-boomers who lived through these tumultuous years.

But beyond nostalgia, this is a novel of the black experience from perspective of the "Obama era" - forty years later. Gone is the anger and violent rhetoric of the Black Panthers. With this novel, history is commandeered by the victors: the women. Reading between the lines, this story is as much about breakthroughs for feminism as blacks.

From the perspective of three black roommates, much is revealed from fashions, food and family to brutality, murder and rape. In language, sometimes stark, but often poetic, Angela Jackson's poetess vision brings to life a human ecology of predators and prey, life and death, but somehow all is presented in a great cycle of life.

If you read only one more book of the 1960s, this should be it, even if you weren't born at the time.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Max by James Patterson **

Imagine Clancy, Crichton, and Flemming with characters by Judy Blume. What a strange chimeric novel would result! Max, a YA offering by James Patterson, is just that and so much less. Max, short for Maximum Ride, is a teenage girl with wings and other super powers, who together with her kid friends fights off incredible foes worthy of Bond or a super-hero comic book.

Thrown into this mix is a cute little girl who talks to animals, a dog who is a gourmet and intellectual, and a boy whose super-power is deadly farts. Regardless, they all have wings. You get the idea, or maybe you can't.

In between unbelievable battles, Max obsesses about her insecurities and emerging sexual feelings with an intensity comparable to any romance heroine. Of course, as a YA offering (special care has been taken with the language and content of Max), Max never gets beyond kissing, but still there is way too much sex for the elementary school crowd.

The fact that the author's adult offerings are excellent (A Book for Today: Alex Cross's Trial by James Patterson) only makes this mash-up all the more disappointing. There must be some teenagers reading this stuff (this is #5 in the series), but I believe there are lots better YA offerings available.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Murder Takes the Stage by Amy Myers **

In Murder Takes the Stage by Amy Myers, father and daughter solve a 50-year-old murder with a mixture of mysticism, technology, and luck - all in a quaint British seaside resort once frequented by Dickens.

In the Marsh and Daughter series, they solve mysteries through the use of Google, their web site, and an AI program called suspects anonymous. This technology is compliment by a premonition they feel when visiting crime scenes, possibly due to ghosts or spirits.

If you like the classic whodunit, where the detective's interview suspects and witnesses, and ponder the possibilities, this is the book for you. The self-described complicated tale has little action beyond the interrogations and analyses. Much of the narrative could have happened in a locked building where the different characters were confined to interrogation rooms.

After reading this book, I thought about the different character motivations used by novelists. I think the two most popular might be pride (Greek Tragedies, Crime and Punishment, and Pride and Prejudices) and love (The Gift of the Maji by O Henry, Romeo and Juliet, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Mistress). On the other hand, a couple of revealed motives that drive me crazy (usual in mystery novel) are: insanity and covering up a minor transgression.

If you're a hardcore mystery reader, I'd love to hear your impression, as I found the parade of characters and rehashes of possibilities tedious.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Lori D Ginzberg ***

In 1850, Elizabeth Cady Stanton established the basis for same-sex marriage when "in one swift gesture, she demoted marriage from a sacred act to a civil function and raised divorce from an offense against God to a civil, contractual right." While the popular culture remembers Susan B Anthony, in fact the two women worked side-by-side for over fifty years.

While Susan B Anthony managed the political and organizational demands of the campaign for Women's suffrage, that began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, until her death in 1906 - more than a decade short of the 19th amendment that finally granted women the vote. On the other hand, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton also dedicated herself to women's suffrage, she also wrote and spoke on a wide range of other radical and controversial topics.

For example she wrote a The Woman's Bible, a non-sexist reinterpretation of the traditional Judeo-Christian Bible - certainly years (if not centuries) ahead of its time. In a more successful campaign, she advocated divorce reform; interestingly, in the 19th century fathers automatically received custody of the children.

She was not beyond ideas that did not support women's suffrage. As she saw success looming (she was a very positive person), she felt more anxious about how the women would vote, then in hastening the day when they should vote. She went so far to state "she would prefer to live under a government of man along with religious liberty than under a mixed government without it." Think about that! and it was written over 100 years ago.

The book, written by historian and women's studies professor Lori D Ginzberg, is both a little slow and a lot fascinating. As the author admits:
The book offers a view of Elizabeth Cady Stanton that is more critical and, I think, more complicated
If you are serious about the history of women's rights, you definitely want to read this one.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard **

Jack Foley robbed 127 banks. Cundo Rey was released from a Cuban jail. Dawn Navarro is spiritualist con-artist. FBI Agent Lou Adams is writing a novel. Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard is a novel of characters - Jack, Cundo, and Dawn are all recycled from earlier books.

They are all introspective, spending a lot of time talking to themselves and reminiscing. They're neurotic without any motives or emotions I could identify. Jack thinks he might retire to Costa Rica, but mostly he can't make up him mind about anything, expect for the few opportunities he gets to kill or main. In these cases he act decisively.

Cundo Rey wants everyone to love, honor and obey him, but none of his actions, mostly interrogations and threats, forward this goal. Mostly he tells people how they should behave, reinforcing the reality that he has no connection or empathy with anyone.

All this not with standing, the title Road Dogs refers to a hypothetical (ironic) bond between Jack and Cundo as two cons who met in prison. The title is a classic example of the writerly sin of telling, not showing.

In a similar mold, Dawn is also lost in a fog of vague dreams and ill-formed plans. She waits eight years for Cundo to be released from prison, so she can rob him with no idea how to do it. Like Jack, her actions rarely relate to her aspirations or make much sense, except when she gets an opportunity to kill.

While billed as a thriller, Road Dogs is more a character study of those criminals that provide material for the Dumb Criminal blogs. If that is your interest, this is your book.