6.29.2009

The Language of Bees, by Laurie R. King

Language of Bees
The Language of Bees
The Language of Bees is King's ninth book featuring Mary Russell's partnership with the legendary Sherlock Holmes. The mystery begins almost before Russel and Holmes can settle back into their Sussex home after traveling around the world (see The Game and Locked Rooms). Holmes gets a visit from his son, Damian Adler, who is also the son of Irene Adler--famous as the only woman to get the best of Holmes.

Damian's wife and child have gone missing, and he wants Holmes' help tracking them down. After solving the mystery of Holmes' dead hive, Russell tracks her husband and step-son down in London and tries to pick up the trail of Yolanda Adler among the Bohemians and fuzzy-headed religious seekers in that city. On top of all this, Russell has to find out if Damian--who's been arrested before for murder--is responsible for the disappearance or if it's the responsibility of a cult leader on the loose in London. And then, Damian disappears and Yolanda turns up dead. Their daughter is sill missing.

Not only is the mystery intriguing, but King pulls in her theological expertise to create a convincing cult of celestial light worshippers, complete with rituals and holy texts. Even Aleister Crowley gets name dropped a couple of times. King shines during the sections where Russell tries to psychoanalyze the author of Testimony, the Children of Lights' holy book. Readers of a less academic stripe might think these parts bog down the plot, but I was completely hooked.

***SPOILERS AHEAD.***

You've been warned.

The only downside to this book is the cliffhanger at the end. I hate it when books end, but don't really end. And it just ticks me off when I read a good mystery only to find out that I have to wait a year (or more) to see how it all plays out. Especially when the last three words of the book are "to be continued." Just make the book longer! I'm willing to stick with an author for another couple of hundred pages. Or, if the author is creating a Big Bad, just end the first book and start a second with a clean break. I have no problem with episodic series. For the record, I had it when TV series pull the same sort of shenanigans.

The Forsaken, by Tim Tzouliadis

The Forsaken
The Forsaken
The Forsaken: The American Emigration to Soviet Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis, is one of the saddest books I've read in a long time. Tzouliadis uncovered a forgotten migration and wrote this moving account of these Americans' story. It's easy to scoff at its premise; after all, we have the hindsight of history to prove us right. During the depths of the Great Depression, a group of several thousand Americans bought into the Soviets' propaganda that there were jobs and opportunities in the Soviet Union for those willing to take the trip. The Americans weren't wrong. There were jobs to be had, at a cost. The cost was that they were moving to a country ruled by Joseph Stalin and the NKVD (grandfather to the KGB), right before one of the longest and most comprehensive periods of state terror the world has seen. To this day, historians still don't know how many people were killed by Stalin and his polices. Estimates put the number of executed political prisoners and the dead in the gulags near twenty million. Tzouliadis remarked at one point that statisticians reported a massive drop in the Soviet population in 1938. (The first wave of arrests began in 1937). Stalin had them shot, and the next group "fixed" their numbers to reflect what the General Secretary wanted to see.

The Americans did find jobs. Surprisingly enough, many found jobs at the automobile factories that Stalin bought from Henry Ford. I was surprised to learn that bit of trivia, considering how far to the right Ford was. Its further proof that capitalism trumps ideals every time. But as early as 1934, people started to disappear. It just got worse from there. The NKVD encouraged people to inform on each other. Teachers taught their students to inform on their parents. Tzouliadis remarks that there were some people who denounced others for not making denunciations. It was a weird, dangerous world. The Americans were marked because they were foreigners. If you were a foreigner in Russia in the 1930s and you didn't have diplomatic or journalistic credentials you were, frankly, screwed. It was just a matter of time before someone came knocking at your door in the wee hours of the morning.

The fact that there was an American embassy in Moscow was no help to the immigrants since the first ambassador, Joseph Davies, totally bought into the persona Stalin presented to the outside world. He even believed that the show trials were real, and not political theater. The majority of immigrants were forced or talked into giving up their American passports and becoming Soviet citizens. In addition to the attitude that "they made their bed, they should lie in it," was the attitude that it was more expedient to placate the Soviets; especially during World War II, when the Soviets were our allies. Even when American diplomats heard eyewitness report that American soldiers captured by the Russians at the end of the war were being held in the gulags, nothing was done. Even in the 1990s, when an American-Russian committee convened to find out what happened to those guys, bureaucrats with secrets to hide locked up relevant archives and cast doubts on the eyewitness accounts. To this day, we still don't know what happened.

And neither were the children of the immigrants safe. The book uses the story of Thomas Sgovio as an exemplar of what happened to so many immigrants and their children. First arrested in 1938, Sgovio ended up spending over a decade in the gulags over the next two decades. Sgovio only managed to get out of Russia in 1960 when he got his hands on an Italian passport. I feel the most pity for the kids, who had no choice. Granted their parents thought they were doing what was best for their families, but those poor kids were doomed after about 1934. It's a bit like what happened to German Jews in the 1930s. No one thought it would ever get that bad; they lived in civilized nations. The problem was that they didn't realize the depth of the Great Leader's psychosis. Not only were Hitler and Stalin genocidal paranoids, but their cabinets were full of other genocidal paranoids. Hitler had Himmler and Heydrich. Stalin had Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrentiy Beria.

As I read through the accounts of what happened in the Lubyanka and in Kolyma, where most of the gulags were, I wondered how the hell Stalin got into power. I read his Wikipedia article and even before the 1905 revolution, Stalin was bandit and criminal. He left the party at one point because they wouldn't let him rob banks. I know how Hitler came to power: political cunning and making the right promises to the right people. But Stalin was a mystery. It seems to be that Stalin used his position as the editor of Pravda to become one of the Communist Party's leaders. Then it was just a matter of being more ruthless than everyone else. After Lenin died, Stalin edged out everyone else to become the General Secretary of the party. In the 1930s, he consolidated his power by sending the NKVD after Old Bolsheviks--members of the Party before 1917--and rewriting history to give himself a more prominent role during the Revolution. Stalin died in 1953, just as he was beginning to round up Jews. His death saved their lives and there were strong rumors that Stalin was murdered.

Just like when I read novels and books about the Holocaust, I just want to tell the characters or people involved to hold on, to survive until it's over. But Stalin's terrors and the whole corrupt, psychopathic system lasted so long that was a miracle that people survived it. And just like the Holocaust, there are still so many people who died in unknown places and their families don't know what happened to them.

The other thing that I thought about when I read this book was why am I so interested in the history of the Soviet Union? And I think my answer is that it fascinates me to see this idea, this revolution, go so very, very wrong. Communism has failed to achieve its goals everywhere it's been tried and has spawned extremely repressive states where saying the wrong thing or believing the wrong thing or even talking to the wrong person could land you in prison, or worse. I don't know why this happens. Which is why I keep reading about Russia, I suppose.

6.23.2009

Finger Lickin' Fifteen, by Janet Evanovich

Finger Lickin Fifteen
Finger Lickin' Fifteen
I know this book only came out today, but all I did after I got home was read the latest installation of the Stephanie Plum series: Finger Lickin' Fifteen. Almost three hours of reading and I was done. I haven't laughed so hard while reading a book since the last Terry Pratchett novel. I laughed so hard when I hit page 243 that it took me a good five minutes to stop giggling enough that I could finish the page.

I don't know how she does it, but Evanovich is one of the few authors I know who can pull off visual comedy in a book. For obvious reasons, humor in books is usually limited to word play or absurdity. But Evanovich can create such wacky situations for her outrageous characters, and describes them so vividly, that you can't help but see the scenes in your head and laugh.

I know that one person who will read this post hasn't read the book yet, so I don't want to describe the plot. The thing about funny is that it's so much better when you don't know the punchline. Plus, I know it drives her crazy when I won't tell her how it ends, or even much about the mystery. Also, there's the fact that the purpose of this book is just to entertain. It's brain candy and apart from the fact that I really, really enjoyed it, there's not much else to say. If you need a good laugh and some fairly mindless entertainment, run, do not walk, to pick this one up.

Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In
Last month, I got Let the Right One In (link to film) from Netflix and was intrigued so much that I ordered a copy of the original book through interlibrary loan. Well, almost original. Since I don't read Swedish, I got the translated version of the story.

First of, let me say that the movie and the book are very different animals. The movie is a little dark. We're talking about child vampires, after all. But the book is much, much darker. The movie is like a Grimm story. The book is out and out horror. I read the book because I wanted to know more about Eli, the androgynous allegedly twelve year old vampire. And boy, did the book ever fill in the details. The movie is basically the story striped down to its essentials. Characters that provide extra details are gone in the film. To be honest, I think I liked the movie a little more than the book because of the editing job.

Let the Right One In is about two outcast kids who build an odd little friendship. Oskar is one of those skinny kind of weird boys who gets bullied in class. He never finds the will to stand up to them and stop it. Eli is a two-hundred year old vampire that seems constantly on the edge of starvation. She has a Renfield-like character (but much more disturbing) who tries to help, but not very successfully. This book--and the movie--is really more about Oskar than the vampire. I think it's about growing up and realizing that you have to take care of yourself sooner or later.

The book is very atmospheric. I've never been to Sweden, but I could almost feel the cold and the dark as I read the book. The story is set during the winter, in a modern suburb. The characters trudge through the snow so much that you could almost believe the global warming hasn't arrived in Scandinavia yet. The story is built as you get pieces of information and conjecture from the various characters. It's fairly obvious who's responsible for the deaths and what Eli really is. The tension and what keeps you interested in the book is watching Oskar and Eli's friendship develop, watching Oskar get stronger and learn to stand up for himself, and watching all the other characters try and figure out what's going on.

It's a good book, if not quite what I expected. I got interested in other books as I was reading it, and I had to nudge myself to finish it before I sent it back to the other library. It wasn't a bad read, it's just that I felt that I had had a better version of the story in the movie version. I read somewhere that they're thinking of redoing it. My thought was why? The movie is just about perfect.

6.16.2009

Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker
Warbreaker
Just picked this one up on Sunday, based on the glowing reviews that I'd read online. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed by Warbreaker, Brandon Sanderson's latest novel. For those of you who haven't read anything by him, Sanderson is known for two things. First, he ends his series; something rather unusual for fantasy writers. Second, Sanderson invents completely new systems of magic, based on geometry, metals, and in Warbreaker, color and a person's anima along with some simple "magic words." It's impossible not to appreciate the sheer amount of thought that went into this book. What intrigued me here was that the magic wasn't ancient. It was new, and the characters were still figuring out how it worked and what its applications could be. The history of this world, for the most part, is only about three hundred years old. Another unusual development in a genre where everything began a thousand years ago, according to the prologues.

Warbreaker features an ensemble cast of mercenaries, shady do-gooders, gods who may not be gods, princesses, and priests. Everyone's got a motive, but the challenge is figuring out what they are. There were so many double-crosses and betrayals in this book that you start to wonder if you can even trust the narrators. Sanderson's characters were brilliant actors; I didn't see a one of those betrayals coming. In one plot thread, we follow Vivenna, a princess whose purpose is taken away from her. In another, we follow her sister, Siri, who has that purpose thrust on to her. And in a third, we tag along with Vasher, a mysterious figure who I didn't figure out until the last chapter. And in the fourth, we follow Lightsong the Bold, a so-called god who doubts his divinity and spends most of his time trying to appear as a lazy, unimportant, lay-about despite the best efforts of his chief priest.

The plot threads twist around each other as the four main characters learn more about each other, motivations are revealed, and plans are made and re-made. They don't completely converge until near the end when all the loose ends are wrapped up. The way it's written is very natural and I loved that the main characters all had to act independently. It made for a very tense climax and conclusion. Would Vivenna learn who was really begin the plot to invade her country? Would Siri find the chutzpah to stand up to her enemies? Would Vasher survive to become a hero? Would Lightsong find his purpose? Sanderson keep me in suspense all the way to the end. Have I mentioned how much I like writers who can keep me guessing?

Sanderson really thinks about the details and the structure of his books. They are all very intelligent and present issues in such a way that you end up thinking about them, too, without feeling like you've been preached to. In Warbreaker, I have to wonder about the religion. It serves a purpose, like all religions should. But it seems like the faithful are wiser than the people who're supposed to be their gods. The gods in this book are complicated, sure, but they are kept so sheltered and ignorant that they have to devote a lot of energy to finding things out.

Warbreaker is a surprisingly complex novel for a stand-alone. If he wished, Sanderson could no doubt build on this world. But like I said earlier, Sanderson ends his series. Elantris is a standalone, for now, and the Hero of Ages ended definitively in the third book. Considering how many three-foot fantasy series there are out there, the brevity is refreshing.

6.05.2009

Skin Trade, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Skin Trade
Skin Trade
So yeah, I'm still reading the Anita Blake series. I keep bitching about them, but I keep reading them anyway to find out what happens next. The summaries on Wikipedia just aren't enough, apparently. I'm kind of glad I did, because Skin Trade really is a return to form for Hamilton, a return to what made me pick the books up in the first place. There's a mystery. There's fighting. Anita waited until after page 300 to have sex with someone.

In this book, Anita answers a serial killer's invitation to Las Vegas. She joins up with her fellow U.S. marshals: Edward, Bernardo, and Olaf the serial murderer. When Edward shows up, you know it's going to be a good book. Unfortunately, she immediate gets into a pissing match with the local law enforcement and local weretiger clan. Everywhere she goes, it always seems like someone wants to test Anita's powers. At least, Anita gets some time to do some investigation, just like the old days in the early books.

The conclusion to the book is a little muddled, because a whole bunch of things happen at once. Things ended so quickly that I'm not sure that the Mother of Darkness plot line is really over. It seemed too easy to be finished. On the other hand, it was nice to have something wrapped up. The last few books have been like soap operas in that--among other things--nothing really ends. It just gets carried over to the next book.

What I really would like to see resolved is the multiple-lycanthropy strains thing. Anita has come so close to shifting her shape that I just want it to happen already. It would be cool! After a while, having all the magic happen inside of Anita's get gets frustrating and repetitive. After a while, you just want something concrete and physical to happen instead of some nebulous mojo that no one knows how to use or control. This is probably what keeps me coming back for more. I want to see how it plays out.

The only major problem I had with this book was the dialogue. It's kind of a shame, now that the sex problem seems to have been fixed. For the last dozen books, almost every conversation seems to be an argument between two or more people who refused to bend. So, every conversation seems to be a circle were person a wants something, person b won't let them have it, so person a repeats their demand in slightly different words, and person b repeats their refusal. Repeat every few pages. It's almost like hitting a brick wall every time the characters open their mouths.

The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith

The Secret Speech
The Secret Speech
I was excited when I heard that there would be a sequel to Child 44 and have been waiting--somewhat impatiently--for this one to finally be published. The Secret Speech sees the return of Leo Demidov, former MGB man and Moscow homicide investigator. This book takes place three years after the events of Child 44, and is set after Stalin's death. The speech referred to in the title was given by Nikita Krushchev during a closed meeting of a Party conference. In it, Krushchev not only states that some of Stalin's polices--the gulags, the arrests, the tortures--were not only wrong; they were criminal. Many members of the groups that carried out those "investigations" and arrests are, in this book, every nervous. Are they going to be punished for following orders?

In this book, we learn that Leo used his political cachet after solving a series of murders to create a homicide investigative group in Moscow. It's kept secret because the authorities want people to believe that their society is improving under Communism and that the crime rate is going down. (It isn't. It's getting worse.) A pair of suicides and the unofficial publication of Krushchev's speech leads Leo to a plot hatched by a vengeful member of the vory. The vory are gangs of prisoners from the gulags, made up of violent criminals, not political "criminals. The vory tattoo their life stories onto their skins. If you've seen Eastern Promises, you've seen the vory. Unusually, though, the head of this gang is female. She was married to a former Orthodox priest that Leo investigated while undercover. The priest was eventually sent to the gulags. Oh, and she was pregnant at the time. Hence the revenge.

As the story goes on, the revenge plot turns into a huge conspiracy. I don't want to give away to much, but it involves the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Ordinarily, my problem is that books I enjoy end to quickly and I'm left wanting more. The Secret Speech has a last act tacked on to the resolution of the mystery. After the end of the mystery, I was surprised to find that I still had about a quarter of an inch of book left. That never happens to me. I was glad of it though, because that last quarter of an inch was a fantastic read. I was rooted to the couch until I finished the book.

I am already looking forward to the next Tom Rob Smith book.