Saturday, July 17, 2010

Trashy Book Post, 7/16/10

I have spent the week in Washington, DC, doing research at the Archives and at the Library of Congress. This entailed a lengthy train ride each day - about an hour each way - which meant plenty of time to read. The research meant that I didn't really want books which would engage my mind; I wanted books which would help shut down my mind, allowing me to semi-consciously work through the material I had been looking at. Or, you know, fall asleep on the train - I did both. So, a round of trashy books ensued. I picked six, but I didn't get to one of them, so there are only five reviews.

Alex Archer - Rogue Angel: Eternal Journey
Oh my, very formulaic. I mean, the author is a pseudonym. Lots of action, but the whole thing didn't really work, in my mind. Look, you've got a heroine who is wielding Joan of Arc's sword, and she works on a TV show called "Tracking History's Monsters", which is about tracking down evidence of historical monsters, but she ends up fighting deluded human terrorists? I was hoping for a mummy or something.

The premise - Anja Creed is in Australia to film a bit on a recent arcaelogical dig which purports to have uncovered evidence of Egyptians in Australia (there is some tenuous evidence, actually - the same sort of evidence that proves that Egyptians and Romans and etc were in the US before Columbus - hard to explain, but not overwhelming), and then her camera man disappears. And there's some evidence which looks like it might be supernatural - but in the end, no, it's just Arab Terrists (tm). Tanya Huff did it better.

Plus, several references to the fact that Anja eats a lot, but remains skinny through extreme physical exercise - is the author attempting to cover one appetite with another? Because Anja, although described as entirely desirable, has no sex at all in the book, even though sex would be entirely appropriate given the genre. I may have to read another one from the series to see if this holds up for the whole thing, but I bet it does.

I did like that Anja is actually slowed down by injuries, even though she gets on a bus covered in blood, and no one calls the cops. Do people in Australia not HAVE cell phones? Seriously?

Iain Pears - The Titian Committee
I really liked this one, actually. Mystery novel, set in Venice, art historians showing up dead, unconventional detectives trained to deal with art theft rather than murder, but solve the murder anyway. It had a good flavor - it felt Italian, if that makes any sense - the plot made sense, the motive made sense, I didn't feel cheated. Good character development, a believable romance that didn't end up getting consummated, which didn't matter. Some interesting discussions of justice. Was there a formula? Perhaps, but I didn't see it - maybe if I read more Italian inspired art history mysteries, I might have.

Kay Hooper - Blood Sins
I like Kay Hooper. She writes romance, but this was not a romance. This is part of her Special Crimes Unit books - the SCU is a unit of psychics in the FBI who hunt psychic serial killers. This is the second book in a trilogy, I have not read the first book, and it didn't matter much. Hooper has broadly drawn characters, so it's not hard to pick up a book in the stream, as it were. She also does good back story throughout, so you've got enough to hang the plot on - I imagine that it's not enough to feel re-hashed if you have read book 1.

Hooper's psychics are well thought out, she has a good idea of what they can do, and what they can't do, and why they can do the things they can do, without getting bogged down in specific pseudo-science details - the whole process runs on handwavium, basically. Hooper is building up to a big big big finale - this book was pretty big itself, pushing "over the top", so the next book promises to be explosive. She's definitely playing the whole "wheels within wheels" bit, where connections between groups and such are only slowly doled out.

This wasn't a deep book by any stretch, but it did what it did nicely and well. I will probably look for the first and third books.

Ralph McInery - The Third Revelation

The premise is this - a retired CIA spy is called back into service to solve a double murder in the Vatican (actually, a quadruple murder, but two of them don't really count). He had served in the Vatican when he was active, and had written the CIA report on the attempted assassination of John Paul II. So, spy thriller/detective novel, maybe some conspiracy stuff involving the Catholic church - yes, we've seen this before, but I wasn't necessarily looking for good literature this week. Which is good, actually, because in this book, I certainly didn't get good literature. This book was awful - I got about a quarter of the way in, and that was only because I was on the train with nothing else to read.

The characters were flat. Further, McInery introduced characters left and right, leaving me bewildered as to who was important to the plot and who was not. Should I care about the random woman who has discovered Catholicism after college, or is she a chapter long diversion that I should ignore? Indeed, at some point I lost track of the retired spy character who the back material suggested the whole plot revolved around - not a good sign.

The pacing was entirely wrong - a taut mystery/thriller only works if there is a sense that the detective/spy character is constantly in motion, searching for clues and such. I did not get that impression. Characters went off on vacations, on which they did nothing, advanced the plot in no way, and returned to a situation which was entirely unchanged. Further, it was impossible to tell if a scene was supposed to be a flash back or "present" - McInery wandered without a break from a character musing on the past to a current dialog without indicating that there was a shift at all.
Finally, there was at least one gross continuity error - the spy's secretary was first described as not knowing what the spy did when not working at his cover job, and then, later, she did know what he did when not working at his cover job. The author repeated information that didn't need to be repeated, but didn't include information that would have been nice - for instance, a central plot point is the three prophecies of Mary granted at Fatima - it would have been a good idea to, I don't know, tell the reader what they were? Instead of hinting at them?
After Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code hit it big, one of the criticisms was that Umberto Eco had done it better, which was true. Well, Dan Brown did it better than this truly awful book. Bah.

Sandra Hill - Viking Unchained

I learned about these books from Questionable Content, and so when I saw a copy at the library, I just had to grab it. The premise here is ... absurd, frankly. Viking time travelers arrive in the the present day, and become Navy SEALS. That being said, it's no less plausible than a lot of the other stuff I read, as it stands, I suppose.

More specific premise - Thorfinn's wife, Luta, ran off with some Saxon merchant shortly after giving birth to Miklof, Thorfinn's first son. She took Miklaf with him. The ship they were on was lost at sea. When Thorfinn hears reports that suggest that Luta and Miklaf might not be dead, he goes to Baghdad to investigate. All of this is in the 11th century, by the way. (Vikings did, actually, travel that far from Norway in the 11th century - Hill has clearly done research on vikings and on Navy SEALS.) While there, he is beset by some locals who don't like the way he looks at women. In the fight, he is transported to present day Iraq, where he is rescued by Torolf - his cousin, who, it so happens, has also traveled through time, and is now a Navy SEAL, in Iraq to kill generic Arab-type terrorists; 11th century ones are fine by him. Thorfinn is taken back to California, where he resolves to also become a Navy SEAL. At a bar, he meets Lydia Denton. Lydia's husband was a Navy SEAL who died in Iraq 5 years ago. She has a 4 year old son, Michael. Thorfinn reminds Lydia of her dead husband - they have the same eyes - so she picks him upLydia and Thorfinn "hook up", screw like "lustfilled rabbits," and eventually fall in love. Somewhere in the middle, there's a terrorist attack, but noone is killed except the terrorist, so that's ok.

Ok. This wasn't the best book I read all week, but I finished it, and it had some high points. The scenes of Thorfinn struggling to grasp 21st century technology were fun. There were some moments of teasing which I found amusing. There was a great deal of sex, from the beginning of the book all the way through - not a bad thing in a romance novel, I suppose.

There was also a lot that I didn't like. The relationship between Thorfinn and Lydia really didn't work for me all that well - they were clearly sexually compatible, but there didn't seem to be much reason for them to fall in love and get married. I suppose it's asking a bit much for deep, realistic love from a romance novel - although, really, isn't that what these are supposed to be about? Anyway, there was too much dominance/submission game playing for my taste - not in a kinky way, but in a creepy, surely that's not how Ms. Hill sees gender relationships sort of way.

That was my big objection. Smaller ones - I didn't like the generic terrorist, but I suppose the subplot made sense in context. Ms. Hill is not, perhaps, writing ageless prose, but the whole act of tying the book to the Iraq War means that the book will age poorly. There was no really plausible explanation for the whole time travel thing - it wouldn't have taken much, but Hill doesn't even describe any special effects - it just happens. And, clearly, it's been happening a lot, as there is a whole community of vikings living in California and elsewhere in the US. A continuity issue here too - there is a reference, midway through, to a previous book in which the viking SEALS et al travel back to the 11th century and save Thorfinn from some evil villain. And yet, early on, Thorfinn is baffled by the people he is meeting, as if he's never seen them before. It's not a full blown continuity error, but it smacks of poor editing. Also, Hill repeats basic information in a couple of places - reminding us within a chapter or two of character points that really didn't need to be brought up again - slack editing, or sloppy writing.

In the end, I was amused, the plot mostly satisfied, and the characters were at least interesting. I don't know that I'd search out the rest of Ms. Hill's time travelling viking books, but I'd probably read one, given no other choice.