7.25.2010

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Persuasion
Persuasion
After what I've been reading lately, reading something like Jane Austen's Persuasion is a bit of a surprise. All I can say is, yeah, you're right.

I've not read Persuasion before. I've always stuck pretty firmly to the trifecta of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Persuasion was written just a year or so before Austen died. It's not as complex as her earlier books. As the back of the book states, "Austen seem[s] to paint on a small canvas." That's a diplomatic statement, I fear. While Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility have multiple plot lines and entire boatloads of characters, Persuasion is told from the perspective of Anne Elliot, an unloved middle daughter of a vain and pretentious country baronet. When she was nineteen, Anne fell in love with a sailor and he with her. Unfortunately, Anne was persuaded not to marry him by her mother's best friend. Eight years passed and Anne always regretted it. Then, like a cliche stolen from Dickens, Anne's lost love reappears. Eventually, they reconcile--because it's an Austen novel and they must end in weddings.

I'm being polite, because this book was written by Austen, and who am I to lob barbs at Austen, for crying out loud? But I have to say, as I read, that I though Anne Elliot was a Mary Sue. I know that Austen died a spinster. I don't know much if Austen had a lost love, but I know there's been speculation. I'm not the only one to think so. In her biography of Austen, Claire Tomalin wrote:
In one light it can be seen as a present to herself...to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring. (256*)
Anne was on the very cusp of spinsterhood before she was "rescued" by her Captain Wentworth, who managed to survive the Napoleonic wars after making a fortune capturing ships. All through the book, Wentworth and Anne barely speak to each other. I knew they had to reconcile. I was waiting for it for 220-odd pages. And then, suddenly, Wentworth writes her a letter that tells her that he never stopped loving her and that his offer of marriage still stands. There's some very minor wrapping up of outstanding plot lines and then...that's it. The book's over.

On top of this, nothing much happens in the book, plot-wise. Anne visits her younger sister, visits Lyme, goes to live in Bath with her father and older sister. Attachments are formed and broken. Jealousies are conceived and resolved. Anne's cousin has a vague plot to marry her and secure his place as heir to the baronetcy and the estate, but that never gets off the ground because Anne suspects him of being up to something from the first. There's none of the passion or any of the plot turns like there were in Austen's earlier novels.

Persuasion is a very mellow book. I didn't dislike it, but it's not one of my favorite books. There's little of Austen's usual wit to liven things up. I did chuckle at a few lines in the book, aimed at Anne's vain and prideful father--an easy target. I'd recommend it to someone who wanted to read a gentle romance.

* Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

7.20.2010

Johannes Cabal the Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard

Johannes Cabal the Detective
Johannes Cabal
the Detective
I've been looking forward Johannes Cabal the Detective since I finished the last book. Jonathan L. Howard's books appeal to me on so many levels. They're wacky. They're ingenious. The characters are shifty and morally ambiguous. But I think what I love most about the books is the writing style. It's erudite and grammatically sophisticated and sidesplittingly hilarious. Howard has the same way with words that my favorite British writers have. For example:
Write a political treatise--not to exceed 250,000 words or 500 sides, whichever is less--detailing your solution to stabilising relations in the region. Military force above brigade level is not permitted, not is divine intervention. You may include diagrams. (15*)
And this bit:
[Cabal had] asked for his [steak] to be cooked medium rare, which in Mirkarvian cuisine meant it had been shown a picture of an oven for moment and then served. A very brief moment, mind. (71)
In the last book, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, we were introduced to Johannes Cabal as he tried to win his soul back from the devil by finding 100 souls to replace it. In this book, we find Cabal in prison after trying to steal a rare book. Once his identity is discover, he gets pulled into the political intrigues of a dangerously nationalist cavalry man. After a daring escape, Cabal boards the dirigible where most of the action takes place. He is in danger of being exposed as a necromancer and arrested at any moment.

Almost immediately after the dirigible takes off, a series of mysterious events takes place: two murders and an attempt to throw Cabal out of the bottom of the dirigible. The facts just don't add up, and Cabal can't leave it alone in spite of his plans to jump ship (metaphorically instead of literally this time) as soon as he gets a chance. The fact that Leonie Barrow, who I suspect Cabal is more than a little in love with, is on board, draws him back. In spite of himself, Cabal does from pretty heroic things before the big finale.

While not quite as fun as the first book, I still very much enjoyed Johannes Cabal the Detective. It's got all the things I love in my favorite books. Few people write like Howard does anymore. I'm eagerly looking forward to the next book. The fact that there was a bonus story included with my copy was a treat. It will go some way to tiding me over until the next Cabal book.

* All quotations from Johannes Cabal the Detective, Doubleday hardcover, 2010.

7.17.2010

The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones

Last Chinese Chef
The Last Chinese Chef
The Last Chinese Chef is a book I would recommend to both fans of Chinese food and to the people who fear it. While there is a plot--and a pretty good one--the book is really about traditional, Imperial Chinese cuisine, the food they used to make before the last emperors. This book shines when Mones talks about food.

The first chapter introduces us to Maggie McEllroy, a widowed food writer who is not dealing with it very well. When she gets a call that her husband may have had a child in China, Maggie takes a job to keep her occupied in her free time. The book starts to pick up once Maggie meets Sam Liang, the grandson of the man who wrote a book called The Last Chinese Chef. I know it's a little confusing, but stick with me. Liang the elder was trained by a chef for the Dowager Empress Ci Xi, and passed down what he learned through his cookbook, The Last Chinese Chef. Sam is trying to open an Imperial-style restaurant in Beijing and is going to compete to in a banquet contest. Mones switches back and forth between Maggie's legal troubles and Sam's preparations for the banquet.

Meals, exquisitely described, punctuate the novel. They were so well done that it was tempting to skip through the book from meal to meal and ignore the parts in the middle. I know that the Chinese food that you get in America is nothing like the food you get in China. The ingredients are different. The preparations are different. The characters in this book make the point that Chinese food had to become familiar to Americans in order to get us to eat it. Mones emphasizes the differences. She talked about so many foods that I'd never heard of that I had to keep looking things up in Wikipedia, like lotus leaves and obscure fish species.

The story is a bit run of the mill. Like I said, the best parts of this book are the food parts. I feel like I understand the cuisine better. I really wish I could have Chinese Chinese food. The story is a slight variation on boy meets girl. It's a sweet love story, but Sam and Maggie are not star crossed lovers by a long shot. It was an enjoyable read, but not gripping.

7.14.2010

Blood Oath, by Christopher Farnsworth

Blood Oath
Blood Oath
Blood Oath, by Christopher Farnsworth, is a novel that desperately wants to be a movie. The story plays out in what I think of as a cinematic way. There's tons of action: explosions, car chases, torture, rescue, etc. The characterization suffers. The villains, particularly, are thinly drawn and their motivations are sketchy. This book had such a promising premise, but I don't think it lived up that promise.

This book is in a similar vein to the National Treasure movies, but with the added bonus of the supernatural. In 1867, a whaling vessel returns from the Indian Ocean with a reduced crew and a newly created vampire. President Andrew Johnson pardons the vampire and has him swear to protect the Union and follow all orders from the President. To make sure the vampire, Cade, follows these orders, Johnson brings in a Madame Laveau to hex him. When I heard about that part, I wondered if Johnson could imagine some of the other men who made it into that office. Hell, Johnson himself was impeached once. Anyway, Cade has faithfully served since that day. Farnsworth constructs an entire alternate history around Cade, complete with evil Nazi scientists, creatures from the Other Side, and Freemasons figuring prominently. The first third of the book, which outlines all this, is the best part of the book. Blood Oath shines here, until the plot starts to derail.

After a Frankstein-inspired terrorist plot is discovered, Cade tracks down his old nemesis, the aforementioned evil Nazi scientist, along with his new Odd Couple partner. Meanwhile, a black ops agent goes off the reservation to try and kill Cade. Confused yet? It got more confusing when I realized that there's no real reason that Holt, the agent, was gunning for Cade. As for the Big Bad, apparently it's enough motivation that he's a mad, evil Nazi scientist. After Cade's extensive set up, no one else gets much of a back story. The book suffers for it, because most of the characters never rise above even one dimensional. Most of them just seem to exist to piss Cade off.

The plot gets somewhat more on track towards the end, when some of the extra plot threads get wrapped up. But it never lives up to the beginning, unfortunately. The writing style, too, is spare. A surprising number of paragraphs in this book are just one sentence long. That's right, just one sentence. Farnsworth appears to be going for a punctuated, staccato effect with his short paragraphs. But the device is overused. Plus, Farnsworth is capable of much better writing. Occasionally, I was pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of his observations and the originality of his phrasing.

Blood Oath had a lot of potential, but I was disappointed by the execution. If there is a second book in this series, I don't know if I'll read it. I'd have to read a lot of good reviews before I read it.

7.11.2010

The Story of Sushi, by Trevor Corson

Story of Sushi
The Story of Sushi
It's probably good timing that I just went to a sushi party a week before I started reading Trevor Corson's The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice. Still, as I read this book, I had more than one urge to head down to my favorite sushi bar for a spicy tuna roll or some unagi maki.

Like other popular histories that have come out in recent years, Corson tries to put a human face on his book while also writing about the development of the cuisine. The book is patterned on a semester at the California Sushi Academy. Corson switches back and forth between the progress of Kate, one of the students, and the history of sushi, the food science involved, and the biology of the most popular species we eat in sushi. At first, I was a little unsure of the author's choices. Because the biology and the food science, the book can bog down here and there if you're not interested.

I was impressed by the bibliography at the end of the book and Corson has a way of simplifying the complex chemistry that happens with salt and vinegar marinate fish or how meat gets softened after the fish dies and why all tastes so damned good. Sushi goes back a long, long time, but it's changed a lot since it was just fermented rice and fish. For one, the preparation has gotten faster and faster. The students at the Academy learn to make nigiri in about 10 seconds.

Corson spares time for the fishing habits that have depleted a lot of popular fish species, too. It makes me feel guilty for enjoying toro so much. I'm going to have to be careful about what I order from now on, knowing what I know now. When I read about overfishing, I always have to wonder why we can't change our ways and try and find more sustainable ways of harvesting seafood. About the only species that doesn't need careful monitoring is squid. (Which I don't care for.)

All this information shares space with Kate's story as she goes from a complete novice to working as a chef at a sushi bar in San Diego. Women face a lot of discrimination when it comes to learning about sushi or trying to work as a a chef. In Japan, being a sushi chef is considered a man's job. On top of this, Kate has to deal with her fear of knives and reluctance to gut fish and the fact that her rolls just won't stay together. After she starts ranking disgusting things, Kate finds that she can deal with tons of gross things like dismembering squid or making fake wasabi.

The book tends to be a little repetitive, especially when Corson talked about the chemicals and enzymes that give us that savory, umami flavor. But I got the impression that this is only because the author is fascinated by them and by food science in general and just can't stop marveling that it's all down to amino acids and the like.

This is a good book, if you're at all interested in the development of sushi. Just be prepared to skim over the parts were Corson gushes about proteins or writes about the migratory habits of salmon and eels.

The Mortal Instruments Series, by Cassandra Clare

I blame a co-worker for getting me started on this series. I don't ordinarily read young adult books, because they're usually unsophisticated and derivative and safe. But the descriptions of the books in the Mortal Instruments series sounded too good to ignore. Unlike other contemporary fantasy series writers, Cassandra Clare writes in trilogies. There are endings, spectacular endings.

City of Bones
City of Bones
The first book, City of Bones, introduces us to the Shadowhunters' world. Clary Fray, the protagonist, sees three teenagers kill a demon in a night club. Clary tags along and gets a quick, brutal introduction to vampires, werewolves, warlocks, and--yes--demons. The teenagers are Shadowhunters, part of a group of humans with special abilities who keep the world safe for mundane humans. Even though it's a young adult novel, Clare isn't afraid to write a dark story that gets darker over the course of the series. In most of the young adult novels I read when I was one, it always seemed like there was a safety net, a spot on the violence spectrum that the author wouldn't cross. This isn't to say that the books are cover-to-cover violence. It's just that the author doesn't pull the punches. There is a palpable sense of danger. When we meet the bad guy--who is bad on a Voldemort scale--he doesn't monologue and give away his big plan until the near the end of the third and last book. All our heroes can do is guess and try and thwart him whenever they get a chance.

City of Ashes
City of Ashes
Book two, City of Ashes, picks up right where the first book left off. And, fortunately, it doesn't suffer from middle book syndrome. This book centers around its own, discreet mystery: a series of child murders. (See what I mean about not pulling punches?) Even though it has the same bad guy, we still don't know what the big plan is. Further complicating things is the interference of the Inquisitor, a representative of the Shadowhunter government. The Inquisitor, who has hated the antagonist since he caused the death of her son years ago, it taking it out on everyone, especially the second protagonist, Jace Wayland. Instead of being a bridge between the beginning and the end of the series, like many middle books, this book deepens the story, makes it more complicated, and raises the stakes.

City of Glass
City of Glass
The last book, City of Glass, is where everything comes together. The other books have had big battles, but the battle at the end of this book approaches the epic level. The first two books take place in New York, but this book takes place in the fictional Shadowhunter homeland. The change of scenery is okay, but I missed New York. Part of the fun of the series was having all this action take place in a major city but without any humans paying attention to this huge story playing out around them. This book also reveals the bad guy's big plan, which is no less than to destroy and remake the Shadowhunter world. This book steamrollers right to the end. Things look utterly hopeless until the protagonists get their individual acts together and cook up their own plans to save the day.

Cassandra Clare's series is very well written. The only thing that took some getting used to was the teenaged protagonist's habit of using English major vocabulary and making cultural and literary allusions that are beyond most fifteen years old in the early twenty first century. Aside from that, these are solid, well constructed adventures. I was hooked right away and I ended up reading all three in about two days. They're great stories and, even though they're written for young adults, I'd recommend them to any fans of contemporary fantasy.

Y: The Last Man, by Brian Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, Jr.

Y: The Last Man
Y: The Last Man
Y: The Last Man is a ten volume series and one of the best graphic novels I've ever read. Created by Brian Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, this series begins with a plague that inexplicably kills everything with a Y chromosome except for Yorick Brown and his capuchin monkey, Ampersand. As the series progresses, Yorick and his unwilling allies--a mysterious government agent and a geneticist, both with very small reserves of patience--try to find out what caused the gendercide, find a cure, and track down Yorick's lost fiancé.

Meanwhile, they have to contend with dwindling food reserves, whacked out Amazons (who think the plague was a good thing), and AWOL Israeli soldiers who were tipped off to the existence of the last males. Throughout the series, Vaughan, et. al. keep the the pressure on. Every time it seems like Yorick's team finds a safe haven, something happens to keep them on the road. Y: The Last Man is a great Apocalyptic road movie, but without (most of) the Mad Max stuff.

Over the course of the first volumes, Yorick and his team travel across the United States, then travel abroad to Australia, Japan, China, Russia, and France. Each volume is built around a smaller adventure, including rescuing stranded astronauts or dealing with the widows of a state militia, that builds into the bigger story. And, along the way, we get to see what might happen in a world without men. Turns out, women aren't much better without men than we are with men. There's war and violence and theft. It's far from a utopia. If nothing else, men and women have in common the fact that we're both human.

Graphic novels have been gaining mainstream acceptance for a while now, ever since books like Maus and Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. I think Y is part of that. Even though there are more pictures that words, Y is a nuanced story. It's not filled with fist fights and inexplicable origin stories. Rather, the characters are strong and well developed and utterly believable. It's engagingly told, too. I was hooked from the first page. Because it's a graphic novel, it's almost cinematic, complete with flashbacks for the principle characters and the odd explosion. It's also a fast read. One of the great things about the format is that the scene setting stuff--which can really bog down a book if not done well--is taken care of by the images. The plot is handled by the dialogue and the action and it's up to the reader to interpret everything, since there's no text to explain the implications of what's said and done. I love that.

7.04.2010

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Passage
The Passage
I just finished reading The Passage, by Justin Cronin, and I have to say that all the good things I've been reading in the reviews are quite true. I've heard this book described as a cross between The Stand and Buffy, and the reviewer wasn't wrong. They just forgot to add the zombie element. For most of the book, the protagonists have hordes of monsters on their trail.

But first things first. The novel begins with a series of introductions to a wide cast of seemingly unrelated characters. Any one who's read mystery novels know that when a writer does this, the plots will converge, sooner or later. In not so short order, Cronin introduces us to a doctor searching the jungle for something, a very young girl with a hard luck life, an intellectually retarded death row inmate, and a world weary FBI agent on loan to the Army for a highly classified medial project. As Cronin starts to weave these characters' stories together, he starts to ratchet up the creepiness factor. It's been a long time since I read an author who could do dread like Cronin can do. Plus, Cronin has the knack for revealing just enough of what's going on for me, the reader, to piece together the story without being spoon fed plot points. The story grows, organically. I know a little more than the characters and the mystery of what I don't know drew me on. A good thing, since the book is well over 700 pages.

A couple of hundred pages in, believe it or not, the main part of the book starts. We leave Amy, the hard luck girl who fell into the hands of the army, somewhere in Oregon with the whole world falling apart around her. With the virus the Army and the doctor cooked up turning people into bloodthirsty vampire-zombies on the loose, we jump forward about 92 years into the future to meet the people of the Colony, located in the San Jacinto Mountains of California. The people are the children and grandchildren of minors sent west in the last days of the United States. After barely two generations, their society looks a lot different than ours even though they're still waiting for the Army to come and relieve them.

Unfortunately, this is where the book bogs down a bit. After some interesting chapters learning about life in the Colony and meeting our next batch of protagonists, the action starts to slow down as the descendants go about their business. It takes a while for Cronin to ratchet up the tension again by having several key members of the colony start to go mad and make disastrous decisions for the Colony. Seeing no other option, Peter (our new hero) and Amy and a motley group of teenagers decide to follow an old Army transmission summoning Amy to Telluride, Colorado. The journey takes up the last half of the book and--gloriously--the action never slows down. It's a bloody amazing read.

Like The Stand, there are supernatural elements to this story. And like The Stand, they felt superfluous to requirements here, too. The Passage has all the hallmarks of a great science gone wrong story: a doctor who doesn't think about the consequences of his actions, an Army that wants to create super soldiers without thinking about the consequences, and a virus that can create some damned scary monsters. Why would you need more than that? But Cronin introduces some telepathy and some hive-mind dreaming and some serious hinting at destinies that feel like there's also something supernatural afoot. I understand the point of the hive-mind stuff, but the rest of it just feels unnecessary when the rest of the book (apart from the slow bit) was so good.

Cronin is ruthless with his characters. He pushes them and scares them all the way until the end. The second half of the book more than makes up for the slowness in the middle and the weird supernatural stuff. I hit page 475 or so and could barely stop reading until I finished it this evening. The ending makes it clear that there will be more books in the series and I am eagerly looking forward to them. I badly want to know what happens with Peter and the rest of the gang.

7.01.2010

Sizzling Sixteen, by Janet Evanovich

Sizzling Sixteen
Sizzling Sixteen
Up 'till this latest entry in the series, I've been more than happy with the Stephanie Plum series. They're hilarious, with wacky characters that I adore. But Janet Evanovich's Sizzling Sixteen is a bit disappointing. Instead of featuring new oddball characters, there's a bunch of cameos by old favorites. I enjoyed seeing Mooner again, but that was probably the high (no pun intended) point of the book.

For a couple of books, Evanovich has been relying on Lula's character too much. Instead of popping in occasionally for a bit of comic relief, Lula is riding along every time Stephanie goes out to do something and then getting in the way. Lula used to make me laugh out loud, but now I'm just tired of her. I wonder if the characters (and the author) are in a bit of a rut.

The mystery doesn't involve a murder or one of Stephanie's bounties. This time, her boss has been kidnapped by a local scammer who turns out to be scamming someone much scarier. Stephanie runs all over Trenton freeing him, losing him, and tracking him down again while trying to pick up a few bounties to try and keep the bonds office solvent. Plots in the previous books have gotten ridiculous before, but the climax of this book just pure silliness for its own sake. As I read it, I wondered what the hell Evanovich had been thinking when she wrote it. I just kept thinking, "Really? Really? This is the best you can do?" I know she's capable of better writing and much better plotting than she's showed in this book.

I really hope the next book sees Stephanie Plum and gang back on track.

The Burning Wire, by Jeffrey Deaver

Burning Wire
The Burning Wire
Jeffrey Deaver's Burning Wire is another solid entry in the series. Deaver seems to have the knack for upping the stakes without going over the top. This time, our paraplegic hero Lincoln Rhyme and his partner Amelia Sachs are after a killer who uses electricity as a murder weapon. I hate to admit it, but a lot of the science I know (and all of the physics I know) comes from fiction. In this book, I learned more about electricity than I ever had before. The most I ever experimented with electricity was to try and light up a bulb with some wire and a potato.

Deaver's books are famous for their whiplash-inducing plot twists and this book was no exception. The author would have you think that Sachs and the rest of Rhyme's squad were in mortal danger every couple of minutes, but then it turns out that they were a step ahead of the bad guy anyway. Still, it's a good, solid mystery. One of the things I've always liked about Deaver's books. Apart from the twists, the reader is right there with the investigators: walking the scene with Sachs, sifting through the evidence with Rhyme, and theorizing what it means with the whole team.

Burning Wire also features one of my favorite side characters, Fred Dellray, a chameleon of an undercover FBI agent. Deaver gets a little philosophical with Dellray's character. His boss keeps going on about data transmissions and the cloud zone to the point where Dellray starts to wonder if he's shortly going to be out a job. Personally, I agree that there's no substitute for human intelligence and, on a side note, go Dellray!

After the rather surprising ending, I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.