Saturday, October 1, 2011

Friday Reviews, one day late, 10/1/2011

It's still Friday somewhere, right? No? That's no how that works? Ok, sorry, I'm late. There was this disc of Hustle, see, and ... never mind.

Three books this week.

Adrian Burgos, Jr - Cuban Star

This is the story of Alejandro "Alex" Pompez, owner of the New York Cubans, one of the founding teams in the Eastern Negro League of baseball. Burgos is trying to do a couple of things with the book. On the one hand, he is trying to tell the story of a deeply complex individual. Pompez was, in addition to being a team owner and promoter, a moderately big wheel in the Harlem numbers game - an illegal lottery which was hugely popular in the 1910s and 20s (and beyond, no doubt.) Pompez was also a big supporter of Latino rights in an era before Latino rights (or Latinos, as such) existed. He crossed boundaries of race, class, and legality, and operated in a number of different worlds with a high level of comfort and skill. He was, in short, a fascinating guy, well deserving of having his story told.

At the same time, Burgos is attempting to redeem Pompez. When Pompez was inducted into the Hall of Fame, there was a huge outcry, because of his involvement in illegal gambling. Burgos argues that most of the Negro league teams were founded on some sort of illegal gambling, because they couldn't have made a profit otherwise. If what Burgos says is true (and I have no reason to doubt it), then denying Pompez entry into the Hall of Fame on the grounds that he engaged in gambling (unrelated to the game of baseball, it should be noted) is tantamount to denying the entire Negro League entry into the Hall of Fame. Which would be wrong on a number of levels. Defending Pompez, then, is a noble goal, and well worth doing.

The problem is, Burgos doesn't do a good job of either thing. The book is poorly organized. Each chapter covers a specific time period, but within each chapter, Burgos wanders from period to period. In one paragraph, he'll be writing about Pompez' childhood; in the next, Burgos will be discussing the views of a Cuban patriot from a decade earlier, and in the next paragraph, Burgos will be recounting Pompez' involvement in Cuban identity politics from a decade on. The whole thing doesn't hang together well. It's like Burgos did a lot of research on his topic, and is so excited about sharing it with his readers that he can't get his facts in a proper row. It's very disappointing.

I got two chapters into the book, and started the third. I announced that I would give it a last chapter to get into some sort of rhythm. And then, the book got left in the car, and I was too apathetic about it to go and find it. (The car was in the driveway, so finding the book wouldn't have been a big deal.) When I discovered that I had, in fact, brought the book inside, I couldn't be bothered to continue with it. Not a good sign.

Cherie Priest - Hellbent

This is the sequel to Bloodshot, Priest's new series of vampire caper novels. In the last book, Raylene was hired to steal some medical records, and ended up with a huge mess involving the US government. The book ended with a lot of loose ends. Raylene ended up with an interesting group of folks living in and around her Seattle warehouse (full of ill gotten goods).

This book tells a pair of stories, linked only by Raylene's involvement. The stories are told concurrently. On the one hand, Raylene has been asked by one of her regular clients (an aquisitions guy at an auction house in New York) to "acquire" a box of very rare baccula - penis bones. These baccula are from extremely rare creatures - werewolves, djinn, griffins, etc. They will fetch a very high price from the right client, as they are useful for amplifying magic. As is often the case in a caper novel, the acquisition of these baccula becomes exceedingly complicated, with a mentally ill sorceress getting involved.

The other story is a somewhat more straightforward story of vampire politics. Ian, one of the cast of characters acquired by Raylene in the last book, gets a call from his old House in San Francisco. They need him back; the "judge" has died (head of the House), and Ian is next in line. For reasons that I won't go into (because they would spoil the first book), Ian can't got back to San Francisco, and so Raylene goes instead to see if she can't sort things out. It turns out that the Atlanta House (known for its random and sudden violence, and considered quite powerful) is involved. Which is interesting - the ex-Navy SEAL drag queen's sister was involved with the Atlanta House, and is now missing.

Priest does a good job of not letting one story get in the way of the other, and weaves them together into a satisfying whole by the end of the book. Everyone comes away from the experience with part of what they wanted going into the experience, and noone is entirely happy with their cut - this is also typical of a caper novel. The humor in the novel (most caper novels, in my experience, have a strong dose of humor) comes largely from Raylene's self-deprecating snark. I can see how some readers might find this a little off putting, actually. I don't think I could read several of these books in quick succession - Raylene's voice could easily become grating. In single book doses, however, it's amusing.

Priest has become very good at working deep ideas into typically shallow genre novels, and this book is no different. Priest explores ideas of mental illness in our society, contrasting Raylene's self-diagnosed OCD with the schizophrenia of the sorceress, and considering how their mental issues have affected who they are and the lives they live. Priest suggests, as always, that it is possible to tell a good story AND have a strong social conscience. More - she shows that by combining story and social conscience, both become stronger and more effective. It's this sensibility which makes Priest a must-read, regardless of what she's writing. More, please!

Eoin Colfer - Plugged

This is Colfer's debut adult novel. It's billed as a crime caper novel, and I think that's actually a false billing. A caper novel should involve some sort of overly complicated scheme to steal something. It should involve some sort of "crew" organized to engage in this theft. At some point, the plot should go off the rails. Everyone should finish the novel with a piece of what they went in looking for. Potentially, humor should feature. This is not a caper novel. It is a light noir novel, and it's a very good light noir novel.

The book tells the story of Daniel McEvoy, formerly of the Irish Army. McEvoy saw service as peace keeper in Lebanon, two tours of duty which leave him with some interesting neurosis. He has since found himself in Cloisters, New Jersey, where he works as a bouncer/door man for a sleazy nightclub/casino. McEvoy finds himself trapped in a horrible mess when the club hostess he has a tendre for is found dead outside the club. As he attempts to find out what happened, he is quickly embroiled in several plots involving a small time mobster, a dirty cop, a clean cop, a lawyer with pretensions of criminality, and his upstairs neighbor, who things McEvoy is her husband.

So, what makes something noir? As far as I'm concerned, a noir story (stoiry?) features a character, almost always male, who finds himself increasingly in over his head in a situation not under his control. The hero will have a tendency to use violence to move the plot forward. The principle character is often a detective (not in this case), trying to get to the bottom of a mystery so that people will stop trying to kill him. His investigative style tends to be "bust some heads, ask some questions, then go looking for more heads to bust." Sort of the "What Would Batman Do?" approach to solving a mystery. The hero should spend at least a little time unconscious. In the end, the protagonist might solve the mystery (or have it solved for him), he might end up in a better situation than he began in, or he might be dead. This book definitely qualifies. It's "light" noir because there is a heavy dose of humor here - noir fiction is often fairly unrelenting in its gloom, and this is not. There's plenty of blood and violence, but McEvoy maintains a fairly light tone throughout.

The only problem with this book is the marketing, frankly. The cover tag is "If you loved Artemis Fowl ... It's Time to Grow Up." I think that was a mistake. The less attention called to Artimis Fowl, the better. I think, if your previous experience with Colfer is his Artemis Fowl (which are YA) books, and you expect this to be like those, you will be shocked and disappointed. The jacket matter suggests that the book has "extreme raunchiness" (from the Kirkus Review) - and I think that's probably only true if you are expecting it to be like Artemis Fowl. For a noir novel, the raunchiness is entirely appropriate, and not extreme in the slightest. Ideally, perhaps, Colfer should have published this under a different name (perhaps "Eoin Colfer, writing as Serious McNoir", or something of that nature, to both use the known name and distance the novel from it). In the end, it's a good book, and well worth a look - but it's neither Artemis Fowl, nor is it raunchy.