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immediate thoughts on the ephemeral environment I've been reading books since the early 70s and writing about them since the 80s.

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts - Louis de Bernières In the 80's, there was a fun independent board game that we would sometimes play called Junta. You played a corrupt power elite family member who gets assigned a stereotypical role (General, guerrilla leader, etc.) in an anonymous banana republic. For all its light-hearted fun of its subject, the underlying assumptions of the game were quite stark if you started to match things up to some of the news of the day. The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts is similarly troubling. Louis de Bernieres took the real history of several Latin American countries and merged them together to create the unnamed country featured herein. On top of that he also works in stories of the campisinos and peasants, native indians and colonial landowners, left-wing revolutionaries and patriotic army careerists. The characters are almost impossible to keep straight without a game card in front of you, and many over the course of the novel change their affiliation and beliefs.

This book truly covers the range of human activity and emotion--the good, the bad and the ugly--but I never felt that it was out of place, especially in comparison with the last "modern" novel that I finished, wherein the author seemed to strain to find something shocking. des Bernieres shocks you sometimes by the simple off-handed nature in which life is so cheaply valued by some of these characters or the ease by which a perceived insult can lead to some real consequences.

I must also mention that this novel, while not abstaining from the ultra-realistic (the description of the torture techniques of the secret police being the most disturbing), is also a work of fantasy (but then, "aren't they all?" to quote Alan Moore). des Bernieres incorporates some of the magic realist tropes to give his novel a bit of the flavor of that tradition, and while I think doing so was mostly unnecessary, it didn't distract from the pleasures of the rest of the book.

This is probably the best book I've read in recent years and I highly recommend it.


Bliss - Peter Carey My favorite novel, [author: Ken Grimwood]'s [book: Replay] begins with the main character dying of a heart attack, then returning to life which forces him to examine what his past life had been and what he should do given this second chance. In Bliss, Harry Joy also dies at the very first page, but when he returns to life, he doesn't dwell on his past but thinks that he has moved on to Hell and all these people posing as his family are but Actors used to torture him. At the end of Replay, you are left with a new respect for life; at the end of Bliss, if you make it that far, you may see life differently, but not necessarily in affirmation.

I hate to think of myself as prudish, but this novel (termed darkly comic) had me squirming uncomfortably in several sections, from the graphic description within the first fifty pages of his wife's adultery and its aftermath to the scene in which Harry Joy's 17-year-old son trades his teen sister some drugs for a blowjob. It was a measure of the quality of Carey's writing itself that I didn't quit after that.

There are resolutions here that help redeem most of these characters, whose ugliness to each other is only leavened by the karmic twist that their author holds in store for them. And the most positive thing about the novel is that it doesn't fail to surprise the reader, never taking the tried and true road but moving in a new direction that remains consistent with how the author has described the characters.

But at the end, I wasn't moved by Joy's plight, or the path by which his life is changed, and in fact wondered if the time I had spent with the book had been worthwhile.

The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate

The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate - Nancy Mitford Having had this book recommended to me from a list of the 100 best comedic novels in the English language, I was somewhat disappointed that the amusement provided herein was of the limited, bring-the-edges-of-one's-mouth-upwards type, rather than laughs that burrow up from the diaphragm. Mitford's novels, which are connected via the narrator and which has characters reappear from one novel in the other, are about English society between the wars and focus on the foibility of the landed gentry (while mentioned in passing, the poor are simply here to be servants, as the focus on the books remains on those with at least 800 pounds per year). It contrasts the Aconleigh household, with its country squire, his all-too-forgiving wife and their passel of children, to that of both the financial classes (in The Pursuit of Love, one of the children chooses to marry a banker's son) and that of the ultra-rich (the Montdores, in Love in a Cold Climate, where the daughter chooses someone equally inappropriate as a life-partner). The narrator, Fanny, is set apart from both families, as her mother is reviled as the "Bolter," a woman who flits from partner to partner, and left her daughter to be raised by her sister and relations.

The humor comes as much from the situations that these girls get into in their pursuit of love as it does from Mitford's writing, which sometimes hides a sharp criticism for both the frivolous nature of these girls who have nothing whatsoever to do with their selves other than society as well as those for whom politics or money is the only thing to live for. If anything, Mitford's compassion translates across all the characters, and it is this that makes the novels something more than full of spite for its subjects. Reading this 50 years removed, the life and times of these families seems as alien to me as any science fiction novel, so my interest didn't wane, although I was never captivated by the books.

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure - Michael Chabon This "serial" novel (it was originally published in installments) by Michael Chabon is a great adventure tale (it says so right there in the subtitle), but is a bit light for Chabon, whom has taken some light themes before and worked them into something much much more (the best being The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). I get the feeling that this was as much of a writing experiment for Chabon as anything, to prove to himself that he had the skills to match Charles Dickens (most of whose novels were published in installments). The original title of this book, "Jews with Swords," gives you a bit more of an insight into it, as in his other books, Chabon provides insight into a bit of history that most are unaware of (this time, 1000 AD) and also gets to enjoy a slight parody of the old "Road" movies of Bob Hope/Bing Crosby as well as the swashbuckling adventures of Errol Flynn. I kept wanting something a little different--something more fantastical or comic, something like Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, for instance--and this one never quite pulled me in.

Gods Behaving Badly: A Novel

Gods Behaving Badly: A Novel - Marie Phillips This is a quite amusing novel, although it runs the gamut from being childishly comical to randily risque in a kind of strange schizophrenia that is sometimes typical of first novels. The concept is simple: the gods of Olympus have fallen onto hard times because no one worships them anymore (their strength, like Tinkerbell's in Peter Pan, seems to be directly proportional to how many people believe in them), and are now living in a run-down flat in London. Because none of them are actually useful, they run an advert for a maid and give her strict instructions about her duties, thinking to avoid the awkward questions of what this strange household actually is. A long running feud between Apollo and Venus gets out of hand, involves the poor maid and her would-be boyfriend, and before you know it, things are going so badly that a trip to the underworld is necessary to save the world.

While this kind of thing has been done before (and better; see, for example, Thorne Smith's The Night Life of the Gods or some of the novels by Tom Holt), Phillips does an admirable job of keeping all the hijinks rolling along without too much exposition bogging the comedy down. And there's enough set pieces that make this novel memorable (like Diana's way with animals). Enjoyable.

Meat is Murder

Meat is Murder - Joe Pernice I've been reading the Thirty-Three-and-a-Third series of books, which are like extended liner notes to albums for people who don't think the originals had enough liner notes to begin with. So far, the series has been hit and miss. Didn't care must for Dusty in Memphis, but the book about Love's Forever Changes and the Kink's The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society really helped me have an appreciation for those two albums.

Unfortunately, Joe Pernice's book on The Smiths' album, Meat is Murder, is a miss...as far as helping you understand or appreciate the album more. For one thing, as he writes in an author's note underneath the acknowledgements, "If you think of the 33 1/3 series of books as a kind of extended family...then my book is the black sheep: it's fiction." It's more than likely fiction of the "write about what you know" type, too, as it purports to be a memoir of Pernice (or the narrator, if you will) and his discovery of the album. I generally despise this kind of memoir, fictional or not, as I read enough of the white-suburban-my-childhood-really-sucked genre when I was going to graduate school in creative writing. Sorry, but if you want to read about a horrible childhood, read [author: Frank McCourt]'s [book: Angela's Ashes]; privileged white kids who think Morrissey speaks to them because he feels their pain just sound whiny.

But halfway through the story (which, although is presented as a standalone book here, is more of a novella or novelette), I started to kind of like the narrator, asthma and all. I didn't necessarily sympathize with him, but I did start to cheer for him and hope that he was going to be able to achieve the little victories: be able to ask the girl for a date, form the band, survive another school day. And just when I thought the book was going get somewhere, it ended. Which is another problem with the stories I read in graduate school: no sense of completion.

So I don't recommend this book for Smiths fans or would-be learners regarding their album, and I hesitate to suggest it on its own as fiction either. Thankfully it was short.

The Best American Comics 2006

The Best American Comics 2006 - Harvey Pekar, Anne Elizabeth Moore It's true that the graphic story medium remains a ghetto, even though successes in the last couple of decades such as Alan Moore's Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus I did a lot to renovate it. The majority of American comics, and the graphic novels collected from them, are filled with what Cory Doctorow calls underwear perverts, otherwise known as superheroes. Japanese comics, while exhibiting a wider variety, have a similar issue in that much manga simply repeats what has been successful in the past, and a lot of what is now being brought to our shores reflects only the lowest-common-demoninator. Which means that a collection such as this new one from The Best American series should be able to highlight the exciting and important work that is being overshadowed by the claptrap. Unfortunately, it falls victim of a different problem: pushing graphic work as the best simply because of its level of being outre, rather than being good.

There's some interesting comics in this collection, but a lot of it just leaves me with a feeling of "bleah," even those comics from creators I had previously enjoyed such as Chris Ware and Lynda Barry. The best of this best of collection are the longer pieces, such as the Joe Sacco embedded reporter in Iraq, the autobiographical piece by Robert Crumb (although does he ever not do autobiographical?), the stranded in the dessert short by Anders Nilson, and the fascinating story of the bus trip in Mexico with the crazy lady by Justin Hall. I also was intrigued, although still confused, by the non-verbal piece from Rebecca Dart that lived by its own rules and was probably the most successful of the experimental work collected here. In page count, that was probably half of the book, and made the price worthwhile, but I still felt slighted somehow, because of the stuff I didn't like, I really didn't like it. This is in contrast to my experience with other Best American collections, which usually have enough variety that you're not going to be "wowed" by everything, but rarely contain stuff that is just dreadful.

One of the most glaring omissions, which unlike the superhero comics isn't even mentioned by Harvey Pekar in his mea culpa of an introduction, is no material published in mainstream newspapers such as examples of daily humor strips or editorial cartoons. You could make a case against the latter, I suppose, as they are more "set pieces" than short stories, but many daily strips have a storyline that would lead to excerpted collection. Even the restriction against editorial cartoons seems fragile compared to some of the inclusions herein.

While I do not fault the editors (Harvey Pekar is the guest editor for this inaugural volume) for not selecting anything from a mainstream publisher, given the selections that they did make I wonder about the criteria that they used. The collection was interesting, but I'm not sure I'll pick up the 2007 edition based on my experience with this book.

The Areas of My Expertise

The Areas of My Expertise - John Hodgman I acquired this book through our book club gift exchange and, although I had never heard of it before, thought it would be an interesting read, and it came recommended by some of the members of the club. I tended to read it before going to sleep every night, and perhaps that affected my opinion of it, but in comparison to the other book I was currently reading, the latest novel by Joe Keenan, its humor felt to me either so understated as to be missing or so forced as to be strained. The list of 700 hobos was probably the best "bit" in the book, and it suffered from what I term Saturday Night Live Syndrome 1: that is, not knowing when or how to end a skit. (For the record, SNL Syndrome 2 is having the people in every skit talk to the camera, typically as if they were on a cable TV talk show. Both of these are more true of 1990s-2000s SNL than the original years. Today's SNL would have John Belushi as the host of a cable TV show called Samurai Fill-in-the-Blank every week. But I digress.) Some would say that the very excess of the hobo names are what makes it humorous, and maybe it's better in the audiobook version, but simply reading the names ad nauseum was more soporific than tickling.

What I did find amusing, however, was the "voice" of the book, as Hodgman chose to be the ultimate voice of authority, but for some parallel world in which only he lives. Like Borges's classic short story, "Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius," some of what Hodgman describes here is verging so close to the truth, but not quite there, that it doesn't seem too hard to believe, and thus make real. Hodgman seems an ambitious enough humorist, and while I didn't care for this book so much, I'd be willing to give him another try in the future.

A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley When this book was chosen by our book club for this month's theme of "tragedy," I approached reading it with some trepidation. There are a number of things that I don't care for in literature, and one of them is the family drama which centers on the drama as drama for its own sake, rather than to say something more about the world. Part of my bias against this kind of writing comes from having cut my eyeteeth on science fiction, the literature of ideas which, at its best, is about today as much as it is about a future. I also spent three years in a creative writing program where, god bless them, my fellow students seemed to spend a lot of time writing autobiographical stories that didn't have much to say beyond it sucks to grow up in fill-in-the-blank. The book had won a Pulitzer, and if there's anything I learned in my MFA classes on literature, an award was often a signal that a book was not for the reader but written for the critics. A Thousand Acres screamed to me from its cover that it was that kind of book, that focused on the dissolution of the family as seen through a retelling of the King Lear story. I shuddered.

But, really, I shouldn't have. Having previously read two books by Jane Smiley (the quite amusing MOO and the intelligent and thoughtful Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel), I should have given her the benefit of the doubt. Within the first fifty pages, I was surprised that Smiley had drawn me into her story, and while it was still fairly mundane (the family dog wasn't going to start talking on page 100, to my dismay), I found the voice of the narrator intriguing and wondered just how much of King Lear Smiley was going to be able to transpose to 1970s Iowa. Turns out, quite a bit, in a wondrously deft way that I would have termed a 'tour de force' if I used that phrase anymore.

The narrator is the eldest of the three daughters, and instead of a king dividing up his kingdom, the family farm is to be divided among the daughters somewhat early by forming a corporation in which he gives control of the farm to the children, in a sudden move that delights the older daughters and their husbands and alarms the youngest, who no longer lives on the farm nor has much to do with it. Her concern about the alacrity of his decision infuriates the father, so much that he cuts her out of the paperwork process and thus the land itself. Pretty much every plot point in the Shakespearean play is touched upon in some manner, but never so roughly that the connections feel strained. If anything, Smiley's version is much, much more subtle in its understanding of the characters' motivations, giving both a sympathetic portrait of the older two sisters that is entirely missing in the play, as well as making the Lear figure less of a madman and more of a stubborn one, such that when his stubbornness leads him into the rain, his madness becomes if not sensible, at least reasonable. You don't necessarily take any one character's side in this fight, but none seems such a villain.

What Smiley does that, I think, one-ups Shakespeare even more than making the female characters sympathetic is that she truly makes the tragedy about the land as about the people. In the background, and infusing everything the character's do to a point, is the thousand acres of the title. Perhaps it is because it is hard for us to imagine a kingdom as something one can own and pass to your children, for it's very easy to grasp the concept of these thousand acres, how much they mean to the family, and how tragic it is that this family cannot hold on to that land. In the past, I've been less than sympathetic to the concept of the family farm, but even my cold heart can't read what Smiley has described here and see it as anything but a tragedy.

What this novel has over the modern literature that I feared it would be is not only a plot (people die here, not to mention being maimed and insulted and cruelly treated) but a larger meaning, and that big picture of this being more than just a personal tragedy, is what makes this worthwhile reading. Out of the group who read this for book club, I turned out to rate this book the highest, and that is to say, I recommend it strongly.

Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction

Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction - Brian Wilson Aldiss;David Wingrove It's no easy task to write a history of science fiction, as amorphous a publishing category as there is, so I hesitate to call this book a failure on those terms alone. What it attempts to do, it does handily and usefully: it brings to light a strand that stretches from [author: Mary Shelley]'s [book: Frankenstein] to [author: William Gibson]'s [book: Neuromancer], the darling of the 1980s (when this book was published). Along the way it pauses long enough to note certain knots in the strand that have made it stronger (woah, I'm really stretching that metaphor out-a-kilter, aren't I!). Aldiss (who wrote the original version of this book, [book: Billion Year Spree]) and Wingrove smartly spend most of the book before the 1960s, focusing on the twin progenitors of modern SF: the intellectual, philosophical style that came from the U.K. from writers like [author: H.G. Wells] and [author: Aldous Huxley] with the pulp, mechanistic format favored by America and championed by [author: Hugo Gernsback].

However, and likely due to the fact that both authors here are also creators, this is not necessarily the most objective critical treatise on the field. Aldiss comes across as someone miffed by the American ascendency in a field that was born with an English authoress, in a kind of literary reflection of the change in world hegemony after the second world war. He shoots a fish in a barrel when he rightly points out that [author: Harlan Ellison]'s introduction to [book: Dangerous Visions] was marketing controversy, counterpointing it with a quite understated and humble editorial by [author: Michael Moorcock] from New Worlds. But this one example doesn't mean that Moorcock wasn't himself involved in flaunting convention for attention, nor the true power behind some of the stories championed by Ellison (including some of Ellison's own writing). That is, Aldiss's obvious bias, likely stemming from where his own publications appeared, is this huge mote that sticks in the reader's eye once he hits the 1960s, and it's hard to remove it for the rest of the book. It's unfortunately, because I think he's not too far off in his analysis of many of the (at the time of writing) more recent authors, including noting that Gibson was more style than substance. (The funny thing about the latter opinion is that he had just spent the entire chapter on New Worlds praising the New Wave's addition of style to what had been a gee-whiz-gizmo literature beforehand.) Perhaps if Aldiss had confronted his bias head-on (in no section does he remind the reader that he is, himself, the Aldiss that he mentions in passing in several chapters), it might have been more palatable, or maybe I'm just used to [author: Gardner Dozois]' method of commentary that appears in the introduction to his Year's Best volumes where, once he comes to the magazine which he himself edited, he simply lists the authors there "without comment." Trouble is, for Aldiss not to comment on that section of the book would have made for a much shorter work. A conundrum indeed.

What I enjoyed most here was learning a bit more about authors whom I may have read, but didn't know as much about their history, such as [author: H.G. Wells], [author: Edgar Rice Burroughs], [author: A.E. Van Vogt], and [author: Michael Moorcock]. As a voracious reader of SF in the 70s and 80s, I thought I had a fairly good grounding in the "classics," but this book revealed some of my deficiencies, albeit none that I'm necessarily interested in correcting at this late date. It did remind me of why I was attracted to science fiction in the first place, and given me an idea of what I've been finding missing in the few titles I've read recently. Finally, this is the first book that I've read in a long time that has ever tempted me to re-read novels and stories, to view them with new critical eyes having obtained a new perspective from Aldiss on them, such as [author: Tim Powers]'s [book: The Anubis Gates], [author: Frederick Pohl]'s [book: Gateway], and [author: Gene Wolfe]'s [book: The Shadow of the Torturer].

A final note: I ordered this book from Mark Ziesing, whom I used to order books from regularly not to mention briefly writing a book review column for his print catalog, which he still produces. When I received this book, it had a tipped in review slip from the publisher and Mark had written on a post-it note, "Hi, Glen--I thought you'd enjoy knowing this was [author: Damon Knight]'s copy." It's a silly thing, but that little bit of knowledge made me feel a part of that science fictional strand that Aldiss wrote about here.

The Algebraist

The Algebraist - Iain M. Banks A science fiction "space opera," but one that's not set in (as far as I could tell) Banks's Culture universe, The Algebraist is interesting and enjoyable, more for the little details that Banks throws in from time to time than the overall plot or characters. There's a central mystery here that the lead character is striving to solve, and I figured it out about two-thirds of the way through, although I wasn't totally sure and so was captured enough to make sure. Of course, by the time I'm two-thirds through a book, I'm likely going to finish it anyway.

This is a book that was written after 9/11 by someone who attempts to work out in fiction some of the dilemmas of our lives. It's buried in the adventure plot, but Banks riffs a bit on the ideas of cruelty, horrifying acts of war/terrorism (the small section describing the destruction of a space habitat that was being used as an example to get the overall resistance to surrender was quite harrowing), and what constitutes martial defense and offense. It's fairly even-handed treatment (i.e., no culture is directly analagous to the U.S. or Iran or even vague terrorists), and Banks supplies no solutions, just fodder for thought.

On the science fiction front, the afore-mentioned main plot device is a fairly interesting idea, and his portrayal of the Dwellers, long-lived creatures that inhabit gas giant planets (think Jupiter) was actually one of the more interesting alien creations, resembling a bit Michael Moorcock's hedonistic dancers at the end of time in their games, their attitudes, and their relative power as compared to the other races. They are the Slow, while the humans are the Quick--quick to live, quick to be extinct, while the Dwellers remain for eons.

But the best part of the book for me was Banks's description of the Truth, the largest religion in the galaxy portrayed. Followers of the Truth believe that everyone is living in a ultra-realistic virtual reality that is some kind of psychology test, and the only way to break free of the computer is for everyone to truly believe--without any doubt--that this is true, with the idea that if at least half of the people believe that they are in a virtual reality, it will invalidate the test and cease operation. As a religion, it's insidious, as much as its reliance in the idea of faith--that is, is the program still running because you don't believe, or maybe it's your fellow believers who don't believe strongly enough, or maybe you need to do more recruitment--as the idea that one way to help bring about the end of the program is not only to convince more people of the Truth, but to get rid of some of those who refuse to believe (thus reducing the ratio of believers to non-believers).

The novel as a whole isn't as cohesive as some of his past ones, as he weaves in various side plots that take away from the main storyline. As long as those remain interesting and are the only flaw, I'll forgive Banks for that.

Top Ten - Irreverent Guide to Music

Top Ten - Irreverent Guide to Music - Alex Ogg I bought this from a used book store in England to read on the flight back. It's what we in the States would call a "bathroom book," i.e., a collection of short entries that can be read on an intermittent basis, depending on one's available time and inclination, as opposed to a normal book that you give your full attention too. Typically I'll read the latter on an airplane, but my attention span's been a bit short recently, so I thought this would fill in the gaps when I wanted it to. Turns out that I read it pretty much straight through, instead, although I'm not sure my attention was totally focused on it at times.

This is basically a book of lists that Ogg annotates with some facts and even more anecdotes. The mp3 revolution has totally revitalized my interest in music, both new and old, and this book helped me to fill in some gaps on my musical education of some of the more popular (at least in the U.K., as determined by the listeners of BBC Radio). It's a bit like reading the transcripts of a VH1 show, like Living in the 80s, as the lists are grouped by music style (Boy Bands, Eighties Soul, Punk) or format (Duets, One-Hit Wonders). I was only familiar with 25 percent or so of what's in the book. The other three-quarters was about bands I had never heard of or little details of obscure bands that I might have heard a song or two by.

It's probably better as a bathroom book, but it was interesting enough to lead me with a few notes about some music artists to look out for.

Blast From The Past

Blast From The Past - Ben Elton I've long meant to read the novels by Ben Elton, a writer whom I have admired for his movie and television work of comic genius such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Blackadder, and Love Actually. This is his fourth or fifth novel, and I figured that me must have been able to shift into a new medium with some success, not to mention that I had seen some recommendations for his novels in places that I usually trust.

Unfortunately, this book didn't work for me. I did finish it, but I think that was due in part to my not wanting to start another book so near to my recent vacation and that I was actually reading it quite quickly. The problem here stems from Elton's choice of comedic material: the juxtaposition of an ultra lefty in the person of Polly, who once protested the American presence on British soil by chaining herself along with a group of other female peaceniks to the gates of the military base, and Jack Kent, an ultra righty who was one of those American soldiers, now risen to the rank of General and on the precipice of becoming the next head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Neither Polly or Jack are believeable characters, which usually isn't a problem in a comedy novel, as believability often takes a back seat to exaggeration. But by making them opposite sides of the political coin, some of their aspects are not so much exaggerated as inconsistent, especially in the use Elton puts them into service of the thin plot. They are, instead, means by which Elton proceeds to skewer both political persuasions and this might work if they weren't each so full of straw that his darting arrows not only pierce but proceed to explode the propped up dummies, to extend and exaggerate the metaphor. He also is exceedingly graphic, especially in his portrayal of the physical attraction of these opposites in the backflashes to their initial meeting, which is more squirm-inducing than arousing. As the book works inevitably to the climax, and as Elton has his characters move around to the spots where everything will proceed as he wants, he has to have them repeat themselves to the point of annoyance. Halfway through the book, I debated if you could make a drinking game out of every time Polly demanded that Jack answer why he had returned after 30 years and then revealing that she was still attracted to him. It's the kind of thing that might have worked in a screenplay, because it could have been excised by the director or editor.

Compared to books by other British TV alumni such as Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie, this was a major disappointment. I'm hoping that this was just an off-book, and that Elton's others are much better. It may be some time for me to try one of those after this book, though.

Black and Blue

Black and Blue - Ian Rankin I used to be quite the mystery reader, having cut my teeth on the Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes stories while still in grade school, then progressing through Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, and Dashiell Hammett in high school, to Rex Stout, James Ellroy, James Crumley, Robert Parker, Sue Grafton, and Andrew Vachss in college. But sometime in the early 90s I jumped off the mystery train, as well as curtailing my science fiction and fantasy reading, largely in favor of jumping around from new interest to new interest. While there would be an occassional genre book, it was usually due to a choice of authors (I tend to read every new Iain Banks, Pat Cadigan, or Jonathan Carroll book that comes my way).

And this is why I had missed Ian Rankin's series of Scotland police procedurals featuring John Rebus, which I've discovered has quite the following, and after trying this novel from the middle of the series, I can easily see why. Perhaps it was my lack of mystery reading for awhile, but this book sucked me in about 30 pages into it, and I kept looking forward to reading more--which is something I can't say about too many recent books I've read. I picked it up because we're traveling to Scotland for holiday next month and we try to read the literature recommended by the guide books before we go. Rankin's Edinburgh and Aberdeen, as described in this book, is not likely any place that we'd want to visit, the general feel for Scotland as a place different from the States does come through.

The majority of this book concerns oil platforms out in the North Sea, and Rebus does get to visit the Shetlands, which we won't get to see, even though we'd like to. Rankin also, like James Ellroy in The Black Dahlia, uses an actual murder case as the core of the book, then layers on additional mysteries that both inform and interact with the facts as generally known. And, because it's a police procedural, a quarter of the book is concerned with how Rebus is shafted into an ugly assignment as well as hounded by a news magazine for a previous conviction that might have sent an innocent man to jail, that ends up opening an internal police investigation into his and his partner's methods. This is the kind of thing that Ed McBain made popular, but Rankin's take on it is slightly less by-the-numbers and, as such, seems a little more real.

I enjoyed this tremendously and am seriously considering reading the whole Rebus series from the beginning--I'm just not sure I can do that in the next month before we leave to visit Rebus's stomping grounds.

Indelible Acts: Stories

Indelible Acts: Stories - A.L. Kennedy I picked this up on the recommendation of a travel guide book, as an example of good writing by a Scottish author. The writing is very good, but the Scottish nature of these stories is near to non-existent. What connects these stories together is their theme of adultery, a theme that is fairly common to mainstream literature these days (I've an aunt-in-law who used to complain that it was a criteria for Oprah's Book Club), but one that I had heretofore avoided in my own reading diet. Unfortunately, the saliciousness of these short stories was fairly mild, and while I found Kennedy's writing quite admirably, at the end of each story I found myself saying, "So what," a common complaint I have with modern short stories, which tend to be heavy in style and character and light in plot or substance. I did end up reading every story, so that's something of a recommendation, in the sense that if plot isn't necessary for you, you might find this book quite worthwhile.

The Penguin Book of British Comic Stories: An Anthology Humorous Stories from Kipling Wodehouse Beryl Bainbridge Julian Bar

The Penguin Book of British Comic Stories: An Anthology Humorous Stories from Kipling Wodehouse Beryl Bainbridge Julian Bar - Patricia Craig, Various In this case, comic means humor (or humour, since this is a collection of British stories) rather than sequential art. Although, given the low laugh quotient, the definition of comic as humorous may not be exact either. It is a problem with any anthology of this type--that is, trying to cover such a broad range in both time and style--that the reader isn't going to find every story to their liking, but this one for me didn't even come close. I'd hesitate to actually term more than a third of these stories as smile-inducing, and only about a tenth actually had me laugh out loud.

I picked this up mainly to see if there were an author or two that I wasn't aware of who wrote the kind of thing I liked; I knew that I would enjoy the stories by Kipling, Wodehouse, and Kingsley Amis. To my surprise, I didn't like the story by Amis. The big surprise was the story by Saki, which I laughed the loudest at, and had to read a section out to my partner:

"Dullness I could overlook," said the aunt of Clovis: "what I cannot forgive is his making love to my maid."
"My dear Mrs Troyle," gasped the hostess, "what an extraordinary idea! I assure you Mr Brope would not dream of doing such a thing."
"His dreams are a matter of indifference to me; for all I care his slumbers may be one long indiscretion of unsuitable erotic advances, in which the entire servants' hall may be involved. But in his waking hours he shall not make love to my maid. It's no use arguing about it, I'm firm on the point."
"But you must be mistaken," persisted Mrs Riversedge; "Mr Brope would be the last person to do such a thing."
"He is the first person to so such a thing, as far as my information goes, and if I have any voice in the matter he certainly shall be the last."

I enjoyed just a few of the other stories, including Julian Barnes' "The Stowaway," about some animals that you don't think of as being on Noah's Ark, not to mention some of the other details that got left out of the official version; V.S. Naipaul's "The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book," about what goes on overnight in a tourist hotel in India; and "Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch," where the dullest member of a cocktail party gets something of a comeupance.

I paid less than $10 for a hardback version of this, so I regret more of the time spent with the stories that I didn't care for as much more than my monetary outlay. On the whole, I'd suggest a pass on this. Even if your tastes are opposite mine, I don't think this will likely fill what you expect from the title.