Monday, June 27, 2011

Much Belated Friday Review Post, 6/27/2011, more trashy books AND a Library Monday Post.

So, I got back home yesterday evening, after a return trip turned much longer than expected by an exploding tire. No injuries, although we had not really budgeted for a pair of new tires right now - we were thinking we might buy a full set of 4 closer to Christmas. Oh well. Anyway, I was in no fit state to make a post last night, so here it is now. I'm going to stick the Library Post on the end, too. Also, expect TWO chapters of Hickey of the Beast on Wednesday - ooo!

Two Sundays ago was, of course, Father's Day.  My family gave me a tie, and a desk toy, and a book -

Thomas Ayres, That's Not in my American History Book

This is a cute book of off beat history.  It presents seldom heard stories of historical figures, and of people who ought to be historical figures, from American history. Clearly well researched, Ayres contends (quite rightly) that the way that history is presented throughout most of our educational lives is a) dry and b) leaves out a lot of important people who happen not to be white, or male, or either. Ayres argues for a broader history, rather than an equally narrow history which presents the stories of non-white, male protagonists at the expense of the standard narrative.  I'm inclined to agree - certainly at the elementary and high school level, it should not be assumed that students already know the "standard" narrative.  However, my job at the college level would be a lot easier if students came in with a sense that history was exciting, and inclusive. I think books like Ayres' work are valuable, if a little informal. A fun book, designed to trigger a desire to read more into the historical record - I recommend it for anyone struggling with a dry textbook, or desirous of shocking a boring history teacher.

Now, onto the trashy books!

This time out, I was much more successful in my trashy book selection. Over the course of the week, my books became increasingly less trashy, however - I started out strong, but couldn't sustain. Oh well.

Alex Archer - Rogue Angel: Footprints

These books, the Rogue Angel books, have, over the past year or so, become my go-to books for trash. They are the definition of trash - utterly disposable, with very little in the way of redeeming qualities. They're written by a committee - there is no Alex Archer, each book is written by someone else (this one was by John Merz - there's a note on the copyright page thanking him for his contributions to the work). There doesn't appear to be a strong style guide for the series, either.  Annja Creed is the recipient of Joan of Arc's sword (which, I thought, was Detective Sara Pezzini's weapon of choice, but who knows) which ought to grant her some sort of mystical powers, but really doesn't. Well, beyond the fact that she can pull this sword out of the "otherness" when she needs a sword. She works as the host of the TV show Chasing History's Monsters, which sends her to remote places of the planet to investigate strange reports of things like mummies, or yetis, or the spear of Gengis Khan. In this capacity, or entirely separate from it (as in this book) Annja encounters a far more mundane monster - drug smugglers, or human traffickers, or whathaveyou - which she deals with by chopping the villain up with her sword. Beyond that, details are fairly loose.

The books seem to allude to some sort of story arc in which Annja learns of her destiny and the nature of the sword. It's possible that this unifying story arc takes place in some of the books I haven't read - it certainly isn't in the ones I have read. Also missing - any sense of coherent motivation for the villain of the book, much respect for the cultural trappings in the book's background, or a realistic approach to life and/or mystical objects on the part on Annja. This book was particularly egregious - the villains are all over the place (is it money? is it power? Why are you doing what you're doing? Never mind - we'll just shoot you, or chop you up, or smother you in your own cocaine). Mysticism is provided courtesy of a couple of Native Americans - plains Indians transplanted to the Pacific Northwest specifically so that Annja has a Tonto to do her dirty work for free. Annja travels to the wilds of Oregon without a change of clothes or a tent or a cell phone or anything. Consequently, she spends several scenes in the nude, while clothes are drying, or being washed or whatever. She does not have sex, but this probably has a lot to do with the fact that none of the males in the book are sexually available. She does not consume inhuman quantities of food; something earlier books had suggested she did - no style guide. Ultimately, these are just not very good books, and perhaps there is no point in thinking about them beyond that.

Annette Blair - The Kitchen Witch

My wife described this as so fluffy it would probably blow away, and she's right. This was a cute little book. Logan Kilgarven is a single dad with a new job as the television producer for the local channel in Salem, MA. Melody Seabright is his downstairs neighbor - a "raven haired beauty" rumored to be a witch. Kilgarven arranges for her to interview for the position of the chef on his station's cooking show - despite the fact that there is no evidence that she can cook at all. Everything works out ok in the end, naturally.

I loved Blair's characters - they were hesitant and passionate and mostly real. I think, perhaps, it took to long for them to sleep with each other, but not alarmingly so. The ending was a little too pat, but you want a nice happy ending in a romance novel, so no real complaint there. The book was witty and bubbly and fun, but didn't have a whole lot of substance. Fluffy, and largely disposable. It appears that this is the first book in a trilogy of "accidental witches" - I might have to look up the rest of them.

Dan Vining - The Quick

For the most part, this was a straight forward hard-boiled detective novel. Jimmy Miles is a detective in Hollywood, hired by Jean Kantke to investigate the murder of her mother, more than a decade ago. Her father, a promising assistant DA, was convicted of and executed for the murder - Kantke wants to know if he was innocent.

In true hard-boiled form, Miles looks into the mystery by using brute force; following leads to their bitter end, and realizing that he's getting close to something true when people start threatening his life. The mystery is solved as much by Miles' judicious use of violence as it is by investigation in a classic sense, although Miles is a smart character; not all fists and pistol whipping.

Additionally, Miles is a Sailor - part of some sort of shadowy group of folks in and around the Hollywood area. The Sailors, we learn, are people who discovered, at the point of their own death, that they cannot die. That is, an event occurs which should kill them, and which results in a body (Miles suggests that this is so the family has something to bury), but someone walks away as well. That someone - the Sailor - cannot die, although the body can be hurt rather extremely (it is implied.) It becomes clear that the Sailors are, in some way, involved in this case, which complicates things rather a lot.

The mystery part of the novel was excellent, I enjoyed it a great deal. I think it works without the whole Sailor bit. The Sailor thing has considerable potential, but I don't think Vining lives up to that potential. Too much about the Sailors is left unexplained, and, indeed, unexamined. When did the phenomenon begin? To what extent has it been investigated? How extensive is the network of mutual aid? Are there Sailors elsewhere, or only in Hollywood? What else do they do? All lovely questions that demand answers that Vining doesn't offer. And since the Sailors are presented as a fairly central element of the novel, well. Frankly, I want more. I liked the characters, I liked the writing, I'd read another, if there were another to read, but this is only just a cut above trash - and it doesn't need to be. It's a self inflicted wound!

Jules Bass - Headhunters

I think Mr. Bass writes movie scripts at least part of the time. This book reads, delightfully, as a movie. Four women from New Jersey decide to up their game in an effort to find love and marriage and fortune. They rent some glitzy dresses and head for Monte Carlo, pretending to be four of the richest women in the world. They plan to put the hotel expenses on their credit cards and deal with the consequences later - their goal is to attract rich men, with the idea that the rich men will either marry them, or at least cover their expenses while in Monte Carlo.

They attract the attention of four gentlemen of leisure, one of whom is a professional escort, and the other three who have joined him in escorting rich, unattached women in the past. None of them are themselves rich (for a variety of reasons) but they can pretend. Their goal - to attract the attention of these four clearly wealthy women, with the hopes that the women will either marry them, or at least cover their expenses for a little while.

You can see where this is going to get complicated, right? Both sides of the group are desperately trying to con the other side of the group. It would be easy for Bass to set up one group as the "bad" group and have the reader root for the "good" group. Instead, Bass creates two groups of sympathetic characters, striving to get out of the mess with their dignity intact. Add to the mix an over worked and understaffed police officer, his over worked and over sexed assistant, and a hapless jewel thief... Yeah. It has all the bits that a great rom com movie requires. Bass manages to make it work as a novel - I loved the characters, I loved the plot, I loved the resolution - but it would be better on the screen.Oh, and look! It may, sort of, end up there - Monte Carlo began filming last year, and may come out later this year. It's not quite the plot, but it's based on the novel.

J.D. Robb - Holiday in Death

J.D. Robb is, of course, romance writer Nora Roberts. She has a whole spinner rack to herself at my library, what with the romance novels and the mystery novels. Clearly, she is what trashy novelists aspire to.

This is from her "in Death" mystery novels. Set in the New York of 2035, these novels follow the exploits of Lieutenant Eve Dallas. This is the earliest of the series available when  I was looking - I've been wanting to read these, but I wanted to start at the beginning. This time, I said "frell it," and grabbed the book closest to the beginning, on the grounds that it probably wouldn't matter. I was mostly right.

It's Christmas. Dallas is recently married to Roarke (no last name), who is sort of a romance novel cliche, I think - he's Irish, he's gorgeous, he's a rogue, he's rich, his love-making takes Dallas' breath away routinely. Never mind. Dallas responds to a domestic disturbance call and discovers a rape-murder, which looks like it's the first of a series of serial murders. It is, of course - there are several, they are somewhat graphic, you may consider this a trigger warning for the novel. The connection between the murders seems to be a computer dating service, Personally Yours. 

As a mystery novel, this is a fantastic police procedural, full of gritty realism, fights with forensic experts, hard nosed cops who've seen it all, wet behind the ear rookies who haven't had the idealism beaten out of them yet, and the mystery is solved by dogged tracking of clues, while the cops are restrained by their need to get evidence legally for a court case. Lovely stuff, I eat it up with a spoon. Mixed into it, Robb reminds us that she's a romance novelist in her day job, so Dallas and Roarke have lots and lots of really steamy sex - seems like every other chapter. It gets distracting. I found myself skipping the sex to get to the plot. No, really. On the other hand, I think Robb is also setting things up to balance the unhealthy sex of the murderer with the healthy sex of the detective, which is nicely done.

The future stuff is a little dated, because the book was published in 1998 - this is the 2035 of more than a decade ago. Some of the gadgets are old hat now - the future ain't what it used to be, I guess. Also, I expected a further twist at the end, and it didn't come, so the denouement takes longer than I had expected - a quick, punchy ending would have been ... well, it would have been different, anyway. Still, a good novel. I really liked Dallas, and I'll pick up more of these at another time.   

Jim Butcher, Simon Green, Kat Richardson, Thomas Sniegoski, Mean Streets

I finished the week out with this collection of four novellas, featuring mystical detectives Harry Dresden, John Taylor, Harper Blaine, and Remy Chandler. I've mentioned Dresden and Chandler before - Blaine died for a minute or two, and since then she can see and speak with ghosts, for all the help they provide. John Taylor is the best PI in the Nightside, the mystical heart of London where dreams and nightmares rub shoulders.

In Butcher's contribution, Harry Dresden tries to protect his friend, Michael Carpenter, former Knight of the Cross. The story, which opens the collection, sparkles delightfully, and, as always, shows that Butcher is writing smart, witty, and surprisingly deep novels which masquerade as trashy paperbacks. There's a lot of heart in this novella, and it really makes the collection worth the effort entirely on its own.

I don't really like Simon Green - he tries way too hard, and packs cliches on top of cliches. His novels are quirky, and they should be right up my alley - all the sort of "secret world behind the real world" stuff, but, meh - they just rub me the wrong way. Anyway, John Tyler, who can find anything, given a little time, helps a young woman find her husband who she suspects is having an affair. He is - with a computer. This is all presented as shocking, but somehow it doesn't work.

Kat Richardson gives us a quirky novella as well, but this one is sweet. Blaine sets off to fulfill a "last will and testament" job - you know, "stay in this house overnight and inherit everything" type thing - she has to transport a small clay dog to a specific gravestone in Mexico on Dios de la Muerto. As you might imagine, ghosts feature. A delightful little story of justice and vengeance. I'm not sure why I haven't read more than the first of the Harper Blaine novels - I'll have to look into that.

Sniegoski writes mystery novels about fallen angel Remy Chandler. In this novella, Remy investigates the murder of Noah. Yes, that Noah, with the ark. I like Remy. I really like Marlowe, Remy's Labrador - Sniegoski really captures the stupid glee of a large dog. Not unlike Doug, from Up - "I have just met you, and I love you!".

With the Butcher and the Sniegoski as bookends, and Kat Richardson to fill out the roster, you can easily skip the Simon Green, and suddenly this isn't all that trashy at all. A nice way to end the week.

Monday Library Post:

Patrick Rothfuss - The Wise Man's Fear

Sequel, finally, to The Name of the Wind. I fear this book will eat most of a week. I've been putting it off for that reason. Also, I hoped to grab the first book to remind me of the story so far (spoilers for the first book at that link) - alas, it was checked out. I grabbed this anyway; it's a hot property, and if I don't take it now, I don't know when I'll see it again - the cover is already cracking, and the spine threatens to loose pages. (Not on MY watch, though.)