5.30.2009

The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl
The Welsh Girl
Well, Peter Ho Davies The Welsh Girl started out promising, as a sort of grown up Summer of My German Soldier. But it took almost nine-tenths of the book for the three plots to converge. One of which, by the way, I thought Ho Davies had totally forgotten about until the end. When I am as disappointed in a book as I was with the ending of this one, I inevitable wonder if I've missed the point. I have a bad habit of projecting onto a book what I want it to be, and then hating it when it doesn't turn out the way I wanted to. In retrospect, though, I think this novel has a serious structural problem: it ends just when it gets interesting.

The story begins with Plot 1: a German Jewish refugee turned interrogator for the British is sent on a fool's errand to question Rudolph Hess and find out if the guy has amnesia or if he's faking and, more importantly, if he's competent to stand trial for his crimes. To this day, we still don't know. I suspect he was a faker, a really clever faker. This plot line forms the prologue, and we don't hear anything from Rotherham until near the end of the book. So there goes the suspense generated by that plot.

Plot 2 is the story of Esther Evans, a young Welsh woman who gets more involved than she'd like with a visiting English soldier. The rest of her plot covers her life on her family's farm with her father and an evacuee from Liverpool. When the POW camp is built near their town, she only gets close to it because the evacuee she's taking care off can't seem to stay away. A German POW gets infatuated with her (which is what interested me in the book in the first place), and she spends some time thinking about the implications of letting herself help a POW before she decides that she likes him, too. Meanwhile, she discovers that she's pregnant from her encounter with her English soldier.

Plot 3 is the story of the German POW, Karsten. We meet him in Normandy on June 6, shortly before he surrenders in the face of a flamethrower. Most of his story concerns his guilt over surrendering. The captured men who come later blame him as a scapegoat for their defeats. “If he had held out a little longer, the war would be going better for the Germans” sort of thing. He escapes to spend time with Esther and to be free for a bit, before surrendering to the young evacuee to keep Esther from getting into trouble.

Once Karsten goes back to the camp, I felt like I was entering a waiting game like the characters were, waiting for the war to end so that Esther and Karsten to be together. I don't want to totally give away the ending, so I'll stop here. Suffice it to say, I was very disappointed in Karsten. When Rotherham popped back into the story, it just seemed like he was there to tie up loose ends. He changed from a character to a placeholder that exists only to gather information for the reader, like a detective character's sidekick. This could have been a really interesting novel but I think it's literary pretensions messed up the story. Blunt, but accurate in my opinion. You see what happens when you botch an ending?

5.27.2009

Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child

Gone Tomorrow
Gone Tomorrow
Child is a remarkable writer. Thirteen books in a series about the same character—Jack Reacher—and not a dud in the lot. Gone Tomorrow sees Reacher in New York again, on a subway train with a woman displaying all eleven tell-tales of a suicide bomber. Once again, Reacher is in the wrong place at the wrong time. It turns out that the woman worked for the Department of Defense and may have been carrying very sensitive material. Because he was there, Reacher gets questioned by everyone, which makes his attempt to actually find out what happened all the more difficult. The agencies that harass Reacher are more interested in covering it all up rather than solve the case, even to the point of locking our hero up in a secret, make-shift prison in an attempt to find out what he knows.

As always, part of the appeal of these books to me is that Reacher is a serious thinker. People underestimate him, because he looks like a brawler. Reacher, though, has such impeccable logic that it's almost a weapon. Reacher deduces that the woman on the train with him is going to make trouble. He He deduces his way to the bad guys hideout a couple of times. But the most challenging part of this book for him is trying to deduce what the hell is going on. It's all about stolen information, but no one will tell him what precisely was missing. As always, it's fun to see Reacher's mental gears in action.

Along the way, Reacher comments on how the world has become a different place since September 11. For those unfamiliar with the former Military Policeman, Reacher wanders around his country. In the first books, all he carried with him was cash and a folding toothbrush. He's had to add an ATM card—since large wire transfers of cash are now viewed with extreme suspicion—and his passport. His way of life has just gotten harder over the last thirteen books. When he gets involved with the events that drove the woman on the subway to suicide, the alphabet agencies after him constantly use the powers granted in the Patriot Act to question him and otherwise make his life difficult. While this book isn't all that heavy handed about it, I still got the impression that Child may be trying to make a statement about how bad things have gotten in this country.

5.18.2009

The Skull Mantra, by Eliot Pattison

Skull Mantra
The Skull Mantra
After finishing up Blue Poppies, I was still in the mood to read about Tibet so I re-read Eliot Pattison's The Skull Mantra*. This book was so packed with details that, as I read it, I could almost feel the wind and the cold and the hunger that its main character, Shan Tao Yun, felt. I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone who likes mysteries set in exotic places.

Unlike most mystery heroes, Shan is not a cop. He used to be, but now he is serving an indefinite sentence in a gulag in Tibet for the crime of ticking off the wrong Party official. Shan has been in the gulag for about three years before this story begins, and he has learned the ins-and-outs of his new life. Most of his fellow prisoners are Buddhist monks who are (or were just accused) of carrying on a passive protest against the Chinese government. One of the major themes of this series of books is China's systematic attempts to wipe out Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetans' traditional ways of life. Monk are required to get licenses to practice. Traditional modes of trade and farming are replaced with Chinese Communist collectives. Dissidents are imprisoned or worse. The stories of the Tibetans--repeated by Pattison's characters--are just heartbreaking.

One morning, a headless body is discovered in a ravine near the work site of Shan's band of prisoners. Rather than have the local prosecutor investigate (the prosecutor is missing), the governor of Lhadung county calls Shan in. He tells Shan that he needs to investigate this death. After some deal making and some arm twisting, Shan takes on the case. From there, clues and motives and potential suspects all pop on to the scene. Pattison's construction of the mystery is terrific. He feeds you information but unless you're Sherlock Holmes, you don't figure out who done it until the end. Instead, you can feel a huge conspiracy taking shape but the details are just out of your grasp.

Unlike western mysteries, Shan also has to make the case make sense in a "Socialist" context. Crimes like murder are not just crimes against persons. They are crimes against the State. Trials are not just meant to punish the guilty, but also to serve as object lessons for the People. (I always wondered who the People were, when it seems like the most negatively impacted population are the alleged proletariat.)

There are at least four more books featuring Shan Tao Yun after this one, and I am very much looking forward to reading more about him and his Tibet. Not only did I get an intricate and intriguing mystery, but I also got a glimpse into a world that I would never have otherwise learned about. I can't imagine the amount of research that Pattison needed to do in order to get all the facts and the details right. So few books that I read have the level of detail that makes you feel like you're standing right next to the main character that this one did. I really, really enjoyed this book.

___

*I actually finished reading this over a week ago but, for some reason, Wordpress and my Ubuntu distro do not get along all the time.

5.06.2009

Blue Poppies, by Jonathan Falla

Blue Poppies
Blue Poppies
Blue Poppies is the story of two unlikely lovers who get caught in the turmoil of China's invasion of Tibet in 1950. Puton is a young widow who came from Lhasa to a very remote town with her tax collector husband, stayed after he died, and struggles to get along in Jyeko when all the other townspeople think she's bad luck. Jamie is a Scottish WWII veteran who takes a job setting up a radio post in Jyeko to gather news about the Chinese army's intentions.

Through a monk's meddling, Puton and Jamie fall in love. Just in time for the People's Army to come steaming over the border. The last half of the novel is just wrenching, as you root for Jamie and Puton to get back together in spite of the villagers' hatred and fear and the machinations of a vengeful Chinese major.

Though I know a bit about Tibet's situation, I didn't know much about how the invasion and takeover happened. In Falla's novel, the Chinese army are under orders to sooth the Tibetans by paying for goods, respecting local customs (for the time being), and generally trying to avoid violence. At the end of the novel, Jamie gets a glimpse of Tibetans being lectured about the worker's struggle and Communist. Mostly, the Tibetan characters seem confused and annoyed. The Khampas group--whose not to distant ancestors were warriors and bandits--want the Chinese out of their country. One character in particular doesn't open his mouth except to threaten the Chinese. The monks counsel people to just knuckle down and wait for it to all blow over.

The other thing that interested me was how Falla portrayed pre-invasion Tibetan life. I don't think much has changed in the last nearly sixty years in the countryside. It's a hard life. It seems like the only thing that people can grow and eat is barley and most everything else has to be imported or distilled from a yak. It sounds like people are just one bad harvest away from starvation. Plus, there's the wind and the cold and the very short summer. And there's the mountains, which make travel and trade extremely difficult. It's probably no small wonder that the way of like in Jyeko is very insular. Rather than using the radio to call for help, the villagers and the monks just increase the number of prayers they make and plaster prayer flags all over the place.

Blue Poppies also helped remind me how superstitious some varieties of Tibetan Buddhism are. Puton is believed to bring bad luck everywhere she goes. Another widow is told that her husband's fatal eye condition came about because of her harelip, which let in bad luck. Plus the folk remedies and the aforementioned prayer flags. Jamie is constantly pointing out to the more bloodthirsty members of Jyeko that they are up against the Chinese army, the biggest army in the world, and that fighting is pointless.

Unlike a lot of other literary novellas, this book felt richly detailed. I didn't feel like I was having to guess what was going on. Even though the end was sad (I think that's a requirement), I really enjoyed reading it. I do wish it had been a little longer. I would have liked to see what happened to Puton and Jamie. In a genre novel, the 227 pages of this book would have been just an introduction to the story. (In a fantasy novel, the 227 pages would have been a prologue. But I digress.) It could have been an epic love story. Still a satisfying read, though. I would recommend it to people who like to learn about places that don't often feature in fiction.

Dead and Gone, by Charlaine Harris

Dead and Gone
Dead and Gone
I've been waiting for this book since I finished up the previous book in the series last summer, and it didn't disappoint. In Dead and Gone, the further adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, a lot of loose ends are wrapped up and it feels like we're moving into new territory. Rather than dealing with the ongoing Louisiana vamp saga, the Weres decide to come out and, consequently, complicate Sookie's life. Meanwhile, the revelation that her great-grandfather was a fairy (mythologically, not sexually) turns out to be an even bigger complication.

The Were plot thread involves some ghastly anti-were violence that Sookie has to get to the bottom of, as her brother is suspected of being the killer (again.) The fairy thread takes over towards the middle of the book. Even though Sookie is kind of a peripheral character in the struggle between the pro- and anti-human factions, she gets kidnapped and severely injured. The ending of the book is rather spectacular, but I can't help but feel that Harris closed the door on some potentially fertile territory for future novels. But have noticed that, in the contemporary fantasy genre, you either have vampires and werewolves or you have the fae. Generally speaking, they don't do both.

I hate to say too much, for fear of giving away the good parts. But I think this book is worth the wait, especially once a certain couple get back together. The book came out yesterday, and I stayed up last night until I finished it because I wanted to find out what happened next. The downside of this is that I have to wait another twelve months to get the next installment.

5.04.2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Pride and Prejudice
and Zombies
Ever since I first heard rumors of this book I wanted to read it. Pride and Prejudice and zombies? Two of my favorite things. It can't get much better than that. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is exactly what it sounds like: the story of Pride and Prejudice but with zombies added. The undead are swarming around England while Mrs. Bennet is trying to fix her daughters up with eligible. The plot follows the original plot, but with some twists--notably Lady Catherine's ninjas. (Yes, ninjas.)

This book is like the ultimate mashup. Two genres smacked together to create a very weird and silly fusion. It was an absolutely hilarious read. Even though a lot of the subtlety of Austen has been lost, the zombies and martial arts and bloodthirstiness makes up for a lot. It was purely fun to read. I couldn't put it down all this afternoon and evening until I got to the end. Even though I knew roughly how it was going to turn out--because if Grahame-Smith changed much of the ending, he'd have angry Austen fans hunting him down--I want to see how the zombie stuff would all play out.

I think part of the purpose behind this book was a little bit of wish fulfillment, in that a lot of the characters we love to hate get their just desserts (*Lydia*) and a lot of the moaning about "what does he think" and "will he come back" has been replaced by the moaning of zombies. As for the rest, I think this was just a fun project for the Grahame-Smith. I mean, arming the Bennet sisters and letting loose some zombies. How awesome is that? Granted, it's no work of art, but it's one of the funniest things I've read this past year.

The critics haven't been particularly kind to this book. And I can see why. Like I said, a lot of the subtletly is gone and the motivations and emotions are explainined in plain terms. Sometimes it's an uneasy mix of Romantic literature and horror, and you kind of wish that Grahame-Smith had just written an alternative history with zombies and not hobbled himself with the cast of Pride and Prejudice. But then you would lose the charm of the chutzpah of this idea. So, I guess my final verdict is that this is a fun, entertaining read, but don't expect the depth and intelligence of Austen.

Thank You For Smoking, by Christopher Buckley

Thank You for Smoking
Thank You For Smoking
I've been looking forward to reading this book since I watched the movie a couple of years ago. Thank You For Smoking is one of the most cynical, devilishly funny satires I've ever read. It was written over a decade ago, when anti-smoking legislation--banning smoking in restaurants, etc.--rolled through after studies started to definitively prove the link between smoking and a host of physical ailments. The story is narrated by Nick Naylor, a spokesman for the tobacco lobby, as he tries to delay the inevitable.

This book is full of dark humor, and I loved all the meetings between the members of the Mod Squad (Merchants of Death) and when Nick bending facts and half-truths until they scream when he debates with anti-smoking types. The movie was pretty terrific, too. I recommend it to the cynical types out there.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is the way that Nick tries to fight his battles. He keeps framing the debate as personal freedom fighters versus neo-Puritans. To be honest, I kind of see the point. How much can you really protect people from themselves? No matter how many warning labels you put on things or how much you tax them, people will still do things that are bad for their health. And that's part of what I think this book is about: the power of words and ethics. If you have the gift of gab, you can use your powers for good or evil. Nick takes the third route, I think. He does it for the challenge of it. Like he says, "If you can do tobacco [meaning if you can lobby for tobacco], you can do anything."

Another thing that struck me about this book was how much Washington, D.C. is its own little world, spinning around the twenty-four hour news cycle. And apart from the laws that end up being enforced across the country, I don't really pay attention to what happens over there. Maybe I should, considering that the laws that end up affecting me are made by a relatively small bunch of legislators and talking heads. Kind of scary once you get a glimpse of all the wheeling and dealing that goes on.

It Sucked and Then I Cried, by Heather Armstrong

It Sucked and Then I Cried
It Sucked and Then
I Cried
I've been reading Armstrong's blog, dooce.com, for months now and I have fallen in love with how she writes. Almost every post I read makes me laugh out loud at her irreverence and sarcastic wit. Having read It Sucked and Then I Cried, I am even more impressed with Armstrong for the way that she can look back on a very dark time in her life with humor.

This book is a memoir of the months Armstrong was pregnant with her first daughter and the nine months after. Unlike other motherhood memoirs, Armstrong was also off her medication for depression. I'm not a parent, but everything I've heard and seen has led me to believe that it's one of the hardest things in life. Being a depressed person off medication will only make it harder. Armstrong's memoir is brave and funny, and I really enjoyed reading it. Parts of it made me wish that I could retroactively send her hugs and chocolate.