Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Update: In a conversation on Facebook, someone said she thought La Belle Sauvage more of a child's book. I can see why someone might think that but consider that this is the first in a trilogy and it ends in a dark place. You can safely say that Malcom won't be the same boy going forward in the trilogy so I expect a turn in direction from the happy Malcom we saw at the beginning.

Also, I forgot to mention that Pullman sets the stage for the anit-religion, anti-fascism tones that infuse subsequent books. The these are elements increasingly seem like metaphors for our times.

Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy grabbed me like few books have and 17 years after The Amber Spyglass it still resonates. When I learned the author was writing a prequel trilogy, The Book of Dust, I was thrilled in anticipation. Now that I have read the first volume, La Belle Sauvage, I am happy to report that is does not disappoint. It is different in tone and scope  than the books in His Dark Materials but it is an excellent lead in to Lyra's world.

This isn't so much a review as observations about the book. I have a link to a much more detailed look at The Book of Dust below.

I have thought carefully how I would feel reading this book had I not first read The Golden Compass. For me, much of the pleasure reading La Belle Sauvage came from knowing what is to follow and I can't say that I would have been pulled into this world as immediately as I was with the original trilogy. If anyone has read this book without first reading His Dark Materials I'd like to hear your reaction.

The protagonist here is eleven year old Malcom Polstead, the son of innkeepers,. He is a bright, inquisitive, helpful, and considerate young man. He takes in everything he hears from customers while serving them in the inn and is thus exposed to the thoughts and opinions of scholars and working men alike. Here is one major difference: Malcom is not like Lyra Belacqua. Malcom listens, reads, and enjoys taking his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, out on the Thames.

When he is not helping out at home, Malcom is frequently at the Priory of St. Rosamund, helping the nuns there. One evening he is asked to serve some strangers in a private room and they quiz Malcom about the priory and whether he has heard anything about a baby there. At the Priory the next day, Malcom learns that here is indeed a baby in residence. Malcom develops a bond with the baby, Lyra, and become fiercely devoted to her. He would protect her with his life which is soon put to the test.

The first half of the book moves at a slow pace as it sets up the world in which Malcom lives. As with His Dark Materials, daemons, the physical manifestations of the human soul, are promenant. For the first time we get to see a baby daemon, Lyra's Pantalaimon and how they interact. Daimons are probably the aspect of these books that stick with readers. I can't imagine anyone reading these books and not wishing that they were real. We learn about the Magisterium, the conservative and fundamentalist religious entity that looms over society ,and it's enforcement arm, the CCD, the Consistorial Court of Discipline. The baby Lyra appears to be an object of political importance with different factions having a stake in her existence. For The Magisterium, she is of concern both because of her parentage as well her destiny that has grave implications for The Holy Church. Maclom finds himself pulled into this struggle and allied with a secret resistance organization,

The second half is a full on action adventure as Malcom and Alice, a kitchen helper from the inn, try to protect Lyra from forces they fear mean her harm and get her to a place of safety. Where I strolled though the first part of the book, I found myself racing through the second half. I hadn't intended to read it at one go but before I knew it it was late at night and I was turning the last page. There is lots of action, tension, and one odd detour into something close to high fantasy.

La Belle has several scenes of staggering brutality that I wasn't expecting and Malcom's and Alice's mettle is well tested. Even a hardboiled such as myself was affected but I think these scenes are necessary to the story. Those plus some scenes that have (not graphic) sexual content make me feel that this is a book for mature young adults. Cute daemons aside, a parent would have challenging explanations to explore with a child.

The Book of Dust, Volume One: La belle Sauvage is available from Amazon.

Additional Sources

Mother Jones has a good discussion of this book, 'Philip Pullman's Masterful Prequel to "His Dark Materials" Takes Us Back to Lyra's World'.

The wiki, His Dark Materials Wiki, has a lot of information about Lyra's world and is particularly helpful if you need a refresher.

Monday, November 6, 2017

My Life in Scans, Part 2: At Play

Here is another post from the "... and stuff" feature of my blog. If you're only here for the book reviews I won't be offended if you skip reading.

When I scanned batch 26 of my father's negatives I discovered more photos to match the 2 in batch 10.  There are 10 images in the sequence.  Out of nearly 700 negatives scanned so far, this is the only sequence of images that actually tells a story. The setting is Montana, probably in 1950. My father was stationed at the Air Force Base in Great Falls and we lived in Black Eagle.

Several friends and I are playing in a field behind my house (I think). We seem to be interested in something in the distance. Several shots show a little girl pointing. I'm the one in the white t-shirt, blond hair, and suspenders. I'm probably around 4 and have no memory of any of this. I need to look back through the scans but I think this is the only set of photos that show me playing in the wild with other kids though there are photos from birthday parties.

Pointing at the area of interest.
More pointing.
 Found something
 I appear to have a jar in my hand.
What are we looking at?
 Digging away
 Top of jar secured
Examing our find. The girl on the right appears to be holding a potato peeler. Not sure it that was used in the capture.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: Control Freak by Christa Faust

Control Freak is an erotic crime thriller set in the BDSM world of early 90s New York City. It is not ordinarily a subject I would have chosen but I've enjoyed Christa's more recent novels so much I wanted to go back and read her earlier work.

Caitlin McCullough inherited some money which has allowed her to write hard-boiled crime stories without requiring her to have a job to live. Her money is starting to run low and she is thinking that she needs to find something that pays better. She is seeing a NYPD detective, Mike Kiernan, who is considerably older than she. They have great sexual chemistry but she is not looking for love. Mike might be.

Wilson, a hacker friend, tells her about a gruesome murder, including sexual mutilation, that happened in the meat packing district. Her friend Mike has just started investigating the same crime. True crime might turn out to be her ticket and with information supplied by her friend, Caitlin figures she can get the jump on any competitors.

Caitlin learns that the victim was involved in the sadomasochistic culture. Caitlin begins her investigation at the House of Absinthe, a BDSM club. Unexpectedly, Caitlin finds herself pulled —not unwillingly— into the culture and she appears to be a natural Domina.

Control Freak is explicit about SM and the people who embrace the culture. I would not recommend it for anyone not comfortable exploring different lifestyles. I did enjoy the the book even if I'm not personally attracted to the culture. Faust created interesting characters, situations, and story lines. I'm not going to have myself fitted ball gag and rubbber suit but I like a good story and it doesn't matter if the subject is outside my comfort zone.

Faust does get a bit carried away with her similes and descriptions at times but this, her first novel, holds together quite well. You can see that she was a talented writer exploring those outside of the mainstream from the start. Her second book was Hoodtown (reviewed here) which is set in society where people wear lucha libre Mexican wrestling masks 24 hrs a day. Money Shot and Choke Hold have a woman in the porn trade as the protagonist. Butch Fatale, her most recent as of this writing, features a hardboiled lesbian private investigator.

Computers play a significan part in the story but the book was written mostly between 1993 and 1995 before the Internet as we currently know it existed. This is the age of pagers, dial-up modems, and bulletin boards. I wonder if millennials even know about BBSs which predate web sites and blogs. I broached the idea with Christa that, with a minor bit of editing, Control Freak could be easily modernized but she said that she would rather it stand as an artifact of the time rather than bring it forward.

Control Freak is available from Amazon. No Kindle version, just print and audio.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Review: Hoodtown, Christa Faust

Hoodtown is a terrific crime thriller with a hardboiled female investigator and one of the most interesting hooks of any crime story I've read. The setting is Hoodtown, a neighborhood of Angel City where the culture is based on lucha libre (Mexican masked wrestling) and the inhabitants of the area wear masks all the time, literally from birth. Legally. Residents are known by the gimmicks (style) of their hoods. Wearing a hood (or m├íscara) is such a part of their lives and identity that being hoodless is the worst possible thing that could happen to someone. As you might expect, this makes them third-class outside of their neighborhood where the non-hooded are callled Skins. As a metaphor for acceptance I don't think it is particularly heavy-handed. I think it's pretty clever.

The hero is X, a former luchadora (female wrestler) with a dark past that removed her from the ring. She makes her living giving private wrestling sessions to Skins. When a hood prostitute is found murdered in one of her aunt's buildings, she gets involved. The prostitute was peeled, left hoodless, an unthinkable desecration of the body. Since the Skin police are not particularly committed to solving the murder of a Hood prostitute, X takes it upon herself to avenge the victim. As other hoodless victims turn up, the need to find the murderer becomes more urgent.

Faust's skill in describing a culture where everyone wears a hood, where identity and social status are defined by the hood they wear, is remarkable and includes details that explain how a person could be hooded 24 hours a day (eg sleeping and washing their hair). I finished the book wishing that there was a real Hoodtown and that I could buy X an icy Tiniebla but I would stay out of the ring with her Note: in addition to being a beer, Tiniebla is also the name of a famous wrestler who had a comic book series as well as a film career.

Faust writes Micky Spillane tough and Hoodtown is a hardboiled story with snappy dialog and fights built on wrestling techniques. Here is the first paragraph:
Name's X. I'm a wrestler, at least I used to be. They used to call me the Ice Queen, on account of my ice-colored eyes and emotionless persona in the ring. I'm a ruda, a stone cold bitch and no kinda hero, but I still have a story that needs telling. Oh, right, and in case you couldn't tell by this mask on my head, I'm a hood.
Great stuff and a fun read. Highly recommended if you like a hardboiled protagonist willing to apply Mike Hammer justice and are up for a culture most of us could never have imagined before this book. Well written, paced, and plotted.

Faust includes a glossary that includes descriptions of wrestling moves and translations of "interesting" Spanish words. This allows her to keep the narrative flowing without having to explain terms, which I appreciated.

Hoodtown is available in Kindle format from Amazon.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

I think The White Road is Lotz's strongest book so far and I've read all of her novels but one (the first). It centers on two extreme sports, caving and high altitude climbing. I expect nearly everyone knows about, has read about, seen videos of, or participated in these activities. It is in the very commonness of these elements that makes the fear and horror more real.  It isn't quiet...quiet...SHOUT horror, it's worse. It is the kind that settles in your gut and gnaws at you while you read. The caving bits are especially terrifying. Have you ever had a nightmare where you can't move and something menacing is coming? It's like that. The book gave me a very visceral feeling of claustrophobia and the realization that I'll never be a caver, or high altitude climber for that matter.

Summmary: Simon Newman gets a sketchy guide named Ed to take him into the Welsh cave system, Cwm Pot, on a tasteless mission to boost traffic to the website he co-owns, Journey to The Darkside. The expedition goes tragically wrong and Simon is the only survivor and he experience leaves him traumatized. Simon's website partner, Thierry, puts video from the cave on their website and it gets the reaction they hoped. Wanting to follow up on the success from Cwm Pot, Thierry convinces Simon to tackle Everest with an equally tasteless goal. The action then shifts between Simon on Everest and a previous expedition. Simon comes off the mountain with a severe case of PTSD and the unsettling feeling that events on Everest are related to his near-death experience in the cave. 
This is a excellent book and I recommend it, particularly if you like intense suspense mixed with fear ahd horror. 

The White Road is available for Kindle and in print at Amazon.

One last thing. Lotz went to impressive lengths to understand the technical details in her book. She traveled to Nepal and Tibet and to Everest Base Camp. She also went caving. There is a video of her caving experience on YouTube— Sarah Lotz Caving. Bonus: that's her husband Charlie standing behind her at the beginning of the video. Now that is support.
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