Friday, August 31, 2007

Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues

Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues
Robert Fate, 2007

The second book in a series is probably hard on an author. The first book establishes the characters and readers decide if they care enough to stick with the author. With subsequent books, the author has to develop the characters and find new plots without losing what attracted readers in the first place. I've stopped reading books that had interesting plots because I didn't care about the characters so it isn't a matter of character driven vs plot driven story, it take both.

I loved Baby Shark and consider it one of my top reads of the year. Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues sucked me in right away and the only reason I didn't finish it in one day is because I had to sleep.

Beaumont Blues takes place about two years after the events in Baby Shark. Kristin Van Dijk has become a licensed private investigator and Otis Millett's partner. Together they are a destructive and often lethal team. Though Kristin is not yet twenty-one, Otis doesn't treat her as anything less than a partner he trusts to watch his back. There is no "watch out for the girl" attitude on the part of Otis. He trusts Kristin to shoot when shooting is necessary.

This time they are trying to protect a Texas oil heiress and make sure she is available when her father's will is read. She has to be present or the bulk of the estate goes to a televangelist. What seems like a straight forward assignment gets complicated very quickly. Kristin and Otis are not sure who is doing what to whom all the way to the end of the book. I found the ending very satisfying, by the way. The very bad people are part of a near-by crime lord's crew and if you have read Baby Shark you can predict their fate.

Oh, and I should mention, Baby Shark a love interest enters the picture. Has Kristin healed enough to be able to trust? Fate does a nice job showing that healing can take a long time.

If you like a strong female character - ready with a gun or knife - and plenty of hard-boiled action then you'll enjoy this book. If you are likely to be troubled by characters who don't see anything wrong with dispatching someone who needs to be dispatched without benefit of a trial then you might want to look for a cozy to read.

My only criticism is that Fate doesn't tell how the aftermath of the messy conclusion to Baby Shark was handled. Otis, Kristin, and Henry had a powerful lot of tracks to cover to keep from going to jail.

Fate is currently working on Baby Shark's Panhandle Caravan and I'll be watching for it.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Baby Shark

Robert Fate, 2006

Baby Shark is a revenge and recovery story set in Texas in the 1950s and a terrific story in the hard-boiled school. I rank it as one of my favorite stories this year. I first read about it on The Gumshoe Review. When it didn't show up in local book stores I ordered it. Fortunately, I also ordered the sequel, Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues which I am about halfway through and it will be my next review.

At seventeen, Kristin Van Dijk sees her father murdered in a Texas bar by a motor cycle gang and is then brutally beaten and raped. The owner of the bar, a Chinese-American named Henry Chin is shot and left for dead, He pulls Kristin from a fire set to cover-up the crime. Henry's son was also killed by the bikers. When Henry finds that someone with influence has managed to get the investigation closed, he and Kristen begin planning their private war against the bikers. Along the way they find help from: an ex-cop private eye named Otis who keeps his .45 handy and isn't adverse to taking preemptive action; a psychotic Korean War veteran and small arms expert; and a former military close-quarters combat instructor. You also get really nasty bad guys, a corrupt cop, and a waitress with a heart of gold.

The story and characters are well developed and the pacing pulls you along. I appreciated the care Fate took to set up the action. The narration is written in the first person from Kristin's point of view and has terrific hard-boiled dialog like “Bear took that stunned look of recognition directly to hell – along with two slugs in his heart.” If you like hard-boiled stories you can't help but go "Yea!" when you read a line like that.

I recommend this book to anyone who doesn't mind a lethal teenager with a grudge and much (justified) extra-legal bloodshed.

Shadows over Baker Street

Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror
edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, 2003

“Sherlock Holmes enters the nightmare world of H.P. Lovecraft” says the cover and that pretty much tells you what is going to be in this book - stories that pit Holmes and Watson against the agents of the Great Old Ones. Maybe I am jaded but I wouldn't consider any of the stories particularly horrific. Certainly none generated the delicious anticipation of horror and dread as when I first read Lovecraft many years ago. The pleasure for me was seeing how the styles of Doyle and Lovecraft were blended and I suspect that will be the case for many experienced readers.

Neil Gaiman's A Study in Emerald leads off the collection and is my favorite story. Gaiman writes in the familiar Watsonian first person style we are used to but gives the theme a twist that makes it a fun read. Gaiman won a Hugo for the story.

While many contributors approach the subject as a Watson first person story, there are exceptions. Tiger! Tiger! recounts a story featuring Irene Adler and, briefly, Sebastian Moran( later recognized by Holmes as the second most dangerous man in England) in India. Adler, you might recall, made only one appearance in the Holmes stories in A Scandal in Bohemia. The Drowned Geologist, is a letter to Watson in which a palaeontologist describes a meeting with Holmes during the period when he was believed dead after the events at the Reichenbach Falls. A Case of Royal Blood is narrated by H. G. Wells in which he and Holmes assist the royal family of the Netherlands. The Weeping Masks gives us some back-story on Watson's time in Afghanistan, events he never related to Holmes.

Readers of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes know that he retired to raise bees. Three of the stories reference bees allowing one to deduce that Holmes' interest had more sinister origins.

I would recommend this book to those familiar with the exploits of Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu mythos and who want to expand their collection.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Souls in the Great Machine

Souls in the Great Machine
Sean McMullen

This is an older book review but since I haven't posted much lately, I though I would dust it off.

Souls... is the first in a trilogy. It fits into the post-apocalyptic genre being set in Australia nearly 1,700 years after a cataclysmic war brought upon a nuclear winter. The world has recovered from the Great Winter but society is at a pre-industrial/pre-steam level. This is not your Mad Max Australia where brutality and savagery have replaced civilization.

What astounded me about this book is how many concepts McMullen managed to include. He presents some very interesting ways that the society could compensate for lack of steam power, internal combustion engines, and electricity.

Long distance transportation is through a rail system that uses wind or human power. Think of a train where each passenger pedals and their effort is metered. Pedal hard enough and you can earn credit.

Long distance communication is accomplished using focused light between relay towers. McMullen could have left it at that but the operators of the beamflash network, as it is called, take messages, break them into packets, and calculate check sums for each packet, and relay them to the next tower. The packet is eventually reassembled at the destination. This is an analog version of the packet switching network.

The head librarian of the city-state of Rochester, where much of the action takes place, has designed a computer called the caculor that uses humans as components. These components are slaves captured for their math skills by bounty hunters. They begin to think of themselves in terms of their job within the Great Machine: Multiplier 8, Function 9, Adder 17. The reason Zarvora, the head librarian, gives for designing the computer is that government is too complicated to operate without it. Her unstated reason is to predict the arrival of the next Great Winter and to prepare for it.

I confess, being a librarian myself, I like the roles librarians have in this novel. These are not the librarians you see today. For one thing, their education includes weapons training and it isn't unusual for staff problems to be solved through a duel. You can't get away with that today, as effective as it would be. For another, they have real power in the government. The author convincingly shows the importance of information regardless of the state of civilization. Information is power. McMullen also includes some librarian in-jokes about catalogers that are pretty amusing if you have worked in a library.

And, you have the obligatory political and military strife amongst the various states that make up Australia.

But wait, there is more. Another plot element is a hypnotic force referred to as the Call that sweeps over the land at unpredictable intervals drawing all mammals larger than a cat with it. The source and cause of the Call is a subplot through out the book.

Lastly, there is some remnant of the pre-Great Winter age in orbit around the earth. Could it be the reason that technology hasn't advanced in spite of the high level of knowledge and preservation of ancient books in the libraries?

I've read McMullen's book three or four times now and each time I still enjoy seeing how he creates the society, develops the characters, and convincingly introduces modern technological concepts into a pre-industrial society. It has action, romance, political intrigue, and things that make you say "how did he think of that?"

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Feed, by M. T. Anderson

Feed is a young adult novel. It contains profanity though it is pretty typical profanity from what I hear at the malls.

This is the sort of book that conservatives will hate if they read it. It wants our young people to be anti-consumerism, anti-corporations, and radical environmentalists they would rail. At the end, one of the characters says
We Americans ... are interested only in the consumption of our products. We have no interest in how they they were produced, or what happens to them ... once we discard them, once we throw them away.
In the future nearly everyone has a feed integrated into their brains. The feed is like the entire Internet, entertainment industry (movies, TV), and targeted advertising fed directly into the brain. The feed's main purpose is to get people to buy things and it is constantly updating the purchasing profiles of everyone connected to target the appropriate advertising their way. Titus, the narrator, complains that he needs stuff but doesn't know what to get.

The story follows the decline of Violet, who got her feed after the neuro pathways in her brain were nearly fully formed. Her feed begins to malfunction and, because it is an inseparable part of her brain, her bodily functions begin to shut down. She petitions FeedTech Corp. for "complementary feed repair and/or replacement" but is turned down because of her purchasing history. The AI that delivers the rejection tells her
No one could get what we call a "handle" on your shopping habits, like for example you asking for information about all those wow and brag products and then never buying anything. We have to inform you that our corporate investors were like, "What's doing with this?"
Feed should make the reader very uncomfortable because we seem to be on the road toward what it describes. Because of instantaneous communication through the feed, fashions can change in seconds. A condition called Nostalgia Feedback appears.
People had been getting nostalgia for fashions that were closer and closer to their own time. until finally people became nostalgic for the moment they were actually living in, and the feedback completely froze them.
One fashion trend would be amusing if it didn't seem so plausible considering the heroin chic advertising campaigns that we've seen. This new fashion is called Riot Gear and looks to promote a fashion based on the big twentieth century riots.
"Hey!" said Loga to Quendy, pointing. "Kent State collection, right Great skirt"

"Oh, and omigod!" said Calista. "Are those the Stonewall Clogs? They're so brag."
Tell me you can't see that happening.

The environment is shot, lesions begin to appear on people's bodies. Hair falls out. People begin to lose skin to the point where Titus remarks that "My mom had lost so much skin you could see her teeth even when her mouth was closed." Feed is a grim, dystopian, look at our near future and would be an interesting book to discuss if schools could get away with putting it on the reading list.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Champagne Kisses Cyanide Dreams

Champagne Kisses Cyanide Dreams by Ralph Graves
Published 2001

I'm working on a Second Life project to highlight mysteries set in coastal New England and that is how I happened upon Champagne Kisses Cyanide Dreams (which I will now abbreviate Champagne Kisses). This murder mystery was written by Ralph Graves, a former editor for Time and Life and a part-time resident (as of 2001 anyway) of Martha's Vineyard.

If pressed to categorize this book, I would put it just over the edge into Cozies. It takes place in a small, picturesque community and is narrated in the first person by an amateur crime enthusiast, Jason Arnold. Jason is such an enthusiast that he relishes being a suspect and tries to maintain that status as long as possible. He is now good friends with a retired New York City detective Dirk Schultz who was once the primary on a previous murder case in which Jason figured. Thanks to an inheritance from his grandmother, Jason doesn't have to work and dabbles in writing. Regarding his C-minus average in college he says
My father, whose memory is inferior to mine, used to rail against my failure to "put more effort into it." It was an attituude I could understand but not endorse.
He also lists his occupation as "living." This pretty much summarizes Jason, likable, well-off, and not ambitious.

The plot is simple. Mildred (Milly) Silk is a wealthy, famous, author "known for her acid tongue and general mean-spiritedness" (this from the fly leaf). She is also known for her parties. During the dinner party that starts the story, she reveals that her last book will be a tell-all expose' of Island celebrities and that everyone at the party - with the exception of Jason who isn't important enough - is in the book. The celebrities include an aging actress with two spectacular assets, an opera diva, a TV talk show host, Milly's publisher/editor, a California computer software billionaire, and other celebrity dinner party types. Milly is poisoned in full view of everyone. Over the course of the book, several suspects from the fatal party are dispatched in the same manner and Jason and Dirk investigate.

There is a fair amount of humor in Champagne Kisses, all the result of Jason's wonderfully snarky comments and observations about the celebrities and their invasion of Martha's Vineyard. Much of the blame appears to fall on The Clintons.

Graves also provides a nice sense of place in his descriptions of the Island, its geography, culture, and some history. A map allows the reader to see where events are occurring. I appreciated these details as they helped to keep a mental image of the setting as I read.

Champagne Kisses is a thoroughly enjoyable light read. The story moves along briskly, the red hearing isn't annoying, there is a nice twist in the plot, the murders are not particularly graphic, and the small amount of sexual content is out of sight and reasonably tasteful. Correction: in retrospect,there may be a few bits that could offend those of a conservative nature. Didn't bother me, though.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

I read a review of The Night Ferry and was interested that the author takes a secondary character from one book and makes him or her the main character of the next. I'm also fairly obsessive about reading books that have some sort of continuity in the order they were published. In this case, this book was available and the others were not, so I started with the latest. The Night Ferry is told in the first person by Alisha Barba, a female Sikh detective constable with the Metropolitan Police. I know there is a bias against first person stories in some quarters because you only see the action from restricted viewpoint of the narrator. I don't care. If the author is skillful, it is interesting to try to figure out what is going one with only the information available to the narrator.

Warning, there may be spoilers ahead.

Alisha appeared in Robotham's previous book, Lost, where where she was severely injured while a member of the diplomatic Protection Group. this time, she has recovered from her injuries and waiting to be returned to active duty. She receives a note from a school friend, Cate, from she has been estranged for many years. Cate says she is in trouble and wants to meet Alisha at a school reunion. Before Alisha can find out what Cate wants, Cate and her husband are accidentally run down by a cab driver. Or was it an accident?

Alisha soon finds out that Cate was not pregnant as she led everyone to believe but was involved in some sort of adoption scheme. The clues lead Alisha and Vincent Ruiz (her former boss and now retired) to Amsterdam. There they uncover a baby trafficking ring and forced surrogacy. They also find the woman carrying the babies of Alisha's dead friend. Alisha becomes obsessed with saving the woman and the babies. The action reaches its violent highpoint (though not conclusion) on the night ferry from the Port of Rotterdam to Harwich in the U.K.

The story is well paced and the story unfolds satisfactorily. Along the way reader learns a bit about Sikh family life and and the traffic in babies. I don't know how factual either are but Robotham writes about them in a convincing manner. I like his style of writing and plan to read Suspect and Lost, his previous two books.
In fact, I liked The Night Ferry enough to purchase the paperback edition of Suspect rather than wait for the library's copy to come available.

Michael Robotham's web site.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.