The Library of Babel: August 2003

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for August of 2003.

Current Book Log

Return to Archive Index

August 30, 2003

The Deader the Better by G. M. Ford. It's sort of strange to look over the last several entries-- for many years, I thought of myself as a fairly exclusive reader of SF and fantasy, but lately,I've been reading more mystery and crime novels than anything else (and, indeed, my most recent SF reading has been SF myteries...). I'm not sure what that means, but it's interesting.

This is the last of the Leo Waterman books currently in existence. I'm not sure if it's intended to be the last, period (he's written three novels since, all featuring Frank Corso, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything) but it could be. Leo passes a couple of major turning points in this one, and some of the ongoing series dynamics would need to change in any future books.

This case finds Leo investigating some weird doings in a small town. A friend of his has purchased some choice land on which he plans to build a fishing camp, and claims to be suffering a level of harassment that frankly seems improbable. Leo writes it off at first, but when the friend turns up dead, he dives into the case, and uncovers a nasty web of small-town corruption, deceit, and murder. At the same time, he's forced to confront some unpleasant facts about his chosen life, and the effect it has on his relationship with his longtime girlfriend.

In a very limited sense, you might call this book Waterman's Teckla, except it isn't excruciatingly painful to read. The book takes a slightly meaner turn than the previous books in the series, and there's very little of the drunken comic relief that was the series' initial hallmark, which probably indicates that Ford would rather not write any of these. Given the strength of the Corso books to date, it doesn't really matter if he does.

| Permanent Link

August 27, 2003

The Score by "Richard Stark," a well-known pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake.

I've been curious about these for quite a while-- Westlake is well known as a writer of comic novels, while also writing a bunch of straight-up crime novels under the Stark pseudonym. These feature a character known only as "Parker," a master criminal who moves through various capers, and doesn't hesitate to kill. I hadn't read them before, as I had heard that they were fairly unpleasant-- a picture supported by a plot summary of the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback (based on a Parker book, though they changed his name to "Porter" in the movie): Parker gets double-crossed by an accomplice, then hunts down and kills a bunch of people in an effort to get his money back.

I caught a bit of the movie in a hotel somewhere, though, and it wasn't without some rough humor. This made me more curious about the books, a feeling which was further reinforced by reading that The Hot Rock started life as an idea for a Parker novel, that kept coming out funny. Put together with some positive comments from Steve Cook back in the day, this all added up to "I need to read one of these." The Score was chosen by the ultra-scientific process of picking the book with the earliest copyright date out of the selection at Borders.

It's actually easy to see how these could evolve into the Dortmunder novels. A lot of the elements are there-- the master planner, a bunch of specialized henchmen, various oddball extras (including an annoying gun dealer who might almost be one of Dortmunder's fences, and a couple of eccentric lockmen), and a grandiose scheme. In this case, the caper is an ambitious one-- to isolate and loot a remote mining town in North Dakota. The plot is clever (though highly dependent on 60's-era telecom technology), the gang is sharp, and things go impressively wrong (of course-- it wouldn't be much of a novel, otherwise). It's a very readable book, and definitely a product of the same mind behind Dortmunder's various escapades.

Better yet, it's not gratuitously unpleasant. There are a few killings, but they're not particularly bloody, and generally not the work of people we're supposed to side with. Parker doesn't balk at the idea of killing people who are a danger to him, but he takes pains to avoid needing to kill anyone, and Westlake does a nice job of drawing attention to this. There are innocent deaths, but they're the work of a guy who is obviously the villain, and justice (of a sort) is served in the end.

It's possible that I happened to blunder into the one "nice" Parker novel, but based on this one sample, I'll definitely read more of these.

| Permanent Link

August 25, 2003

Why Me? by Donald E. Westlake. I went to the library to pick up a few books of our trip to Chicago, and spotted this on the shelves. It's one of the few Dortmunder novels we don't actually own, and I haven't read it in ages, so I grabbed it.

For a Dortmunder novel, this is actually remarkably light on capers. The Byzantine Fire, an absurdly large ruby, is stolen by a bunch of Greek terrorists, who plan to smuggle it out of the country with the aid of a jeweler. Unfortunately for them, they leave the stone in his store on the very night that John Archibald Dortmunder decides to rifle the safe. Being a profoundly oblivious sort of guy, he almost leaves the ruby behind, thinking that it's just too big to be real, but pockets it on a whim, and hijinks, as they say, ensue. Dortmunder has to evade the police (who round up a record 17,000 people in search of the burglar), the FBI (in the person of Agent Malcolm Zachary, a wonderful caricature), a host of international terrorists (who all band together to search for the stone), and his own criminal friends, who set up a sort of Inquisition to locate the poor sap who brought all the extra heat down on them.

There are actually only two capers in the book, but it's still a lot of fun watching Dortmunder stumble along-- he makes it two-thirds of the way through the book before he even knows how much trouble he's in. There are a few sour notes-- Chief Inspector Francis Xavier Mologna (pronounced Maloney) is an unpleasant bigot-- but these bits aren't quite as discordant as the Harlem sections in Dancing Aztecs, and don't come close to spoiling the story.

There are better books in the series, but even middle-of-the-pack Dortmunder is a lot of fun. Which is why this didn't last long enough to be read on the plane...

| Permanent Link

August 21, 2003

Black River by G. M. Ford. The sequel to Fury, following the further adventures of Frank Corso, investigative journalist extraordinaire, and all-around abrasive SOB.

In this one, Corso is covering the murder trial of a Russian gangster when his friend, photographer Meg Dougherty, is attacked by two hit men, and lands in the hospital in a coma. Corso sets out to figure out why she was attacked, and unsurprisingly stumbles into a web of corruption, murder, and deceit that all leads back to the original gangster.

Ford's strength as a mystery writer really lies in a sort of black cynicism-- he's sort of a mellower Carl Hiaasen for the Pacific Northwest-- and Corso really plays to this strength. These are significantly better than most of the Leo Waterman books, a fact that can be directly traced to the lack of the obligatory comic relief bits. The plot is nicely twisted, and Ford kept me guessing about the connection between the attack on Dougherty and the original trial until late in the book. It's a good read, and I'll definitely pick up the third when it comes out in paperback.

| Permanent Link

August 19, 2003

Expendable by James Alan Gardner. The Book Barn has had the sequel to this on the shelves for the past year and a half, but until my last trip there, I hadn't seen the original. I know this because Mike Kozlowski said nice things about this book, and ever since, every time I've seen the sequel sitting there, I've said "I should really find the first of those..."

There's not much to say that Mike didn't. The books follows the adventures of the Explorer Corps, "expendable crew members," who are the first people sent down to explore strange planets. They're basically the Redshirts from Star Trek, with a twist-- all Explorers are either ugly or deformed, because it was found that having popular and good-looking crew members die was bad for morale.

The book is a little more serious than that might suggest, but not much. Our Intrepid Heroine is sent on a mission to the Planet of No Return, which isn't as it seems, and she has to figure out a way to survive and get home. There are some really cheesy bits here, but basically, it's a fun light read.

| Permanent Link

August 17, 2003

Act of God by Jeremiah Healy. I'm rapidly running out of things to say about the John Francis Cuddy books, which is good in the current situation, as I won't feel compelled to write very much.

Another day, another bloody mess of a case, or two cases, really. Cuddy is hired to solve two mysteries simultaneously: The kindly old owner of a furniture store, a man apparently loved by everyone who knew him, was brutally murdered in his office late one night. A week or so later, a young and attractive secretary at the same store goes missing. The owner's window and the girl's brother get together to hire Cuddy to find out who's responsible, and if there's a connection.

Of course, everything quickly turns out to be more complicated than it seems, in a tangle of ulterior motives, sordid relationships, and murder. The resolution both is and isn't what you expect going in, and all together, it adds up to a fairly novel plot.

Explaining how would spoil it, though, so I'll stop there.

| Permanent Link

August 15, 2003

Alien Taste and Tainted Trail by Wen Spencer. I've gotten far enough behind on this that I really don't remember the exact dates, or even the exact order in which I read the books I'm filling in now, so I'm fudging a little. On the other hand, this lets me lump these two books together-- I read them one right after the other (having gotten them from Kate, who read them first), so it's not really cheating, and there's not much to say that would be different.

Alien Taste introduces (and Tainted Trail follows the further adventures of) Ukiah Oregon, a young man who was found as a boy running with wolves near the town that supplied his name, who now works as an ace tracker for a private detective agency specializing in missing-persons cases. He and his partner use some high-tech gadgetry in their work, but most of their success is due to Ukiah's phenomenal tracking abilities. Given a simple track, or a small drop of blood left behind by their quarry, Ukiah can reconstruct the target's entire appearance, blood type, DNA profile, and even their state of mind.

Despite being ace private eyes, our intrepid heroes are also some of the densest people on the planet, because it comes as a great shock to everyone when they learn that Ukiah is actually half alien, a hybrid created by would-be invaders a few hundred years earlier. This is the first of several "Well, duh!" moments in the books, though the rest are largely concerned with the romances that spring up between various characters.

Oddly, that's not as book-destroying as you might think. There are a few moments of this kind of shattering stupidity in the books, but they're so much fun it's easy to forgive the sillier bits of the plot. Having learned his true nature, Ukiah finds himself caught up in a vicious war between two bands of aliens in human form: The Pack, a bunch of ultra-cool sinister biker wolves (their DNA was mingled with wolf DNA in a surpassingly daft bit of technobabble) with little regard for human life, and the Ontongard, vicious soul-destroying aliens with absolutely no regard for human life. They track Bad Guys, get involved in nasty alien smackdowns, and Ukiah gets himself killed about three times a book. He's like an indestructible alien Phillip Marlowe.

These books couldn't contact Great Literature on a satellite phone, but they're fun light reads. There are at least two more (a third book is out, the fourth is on the way), and I'll read those eventually, too.

| Permanent Link

August 13, 2004

Starlight 3, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. The third in PNH's original anthology series.

Each of the first two Starlight collections featured at least one stand-out, blow-you-away story. The first volume had John M. Ford's "Erase/Record/Play," and the second Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," among other excellent stories. With that track record, it's hard to say why I didn't run right out and buy this when it first came out, but a weird combination of cash shortages, job changes, and general distraction kept me from picking it up until recently.

It's a solid anthology, with quite a few good stories, but it lacks the literary "killer ap" that lifted its predecessors to another level. There just isn't a stand-out story to match the Ford or Chiang stories from the earlier volumes. There are a couple of stories that come close-- Ted Chiang's "Hell Is the Absence of God" might be it for some people, but it doesn't really work for me, and Susan Palwick's "Gestella" is marred by being written in the second person, for no apparent reason. I liked Greg van Eekhout's "Wolves Till the World Goes Down," but it doesn't quite work, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, and the Geoffrey Landis and Brenda Clough stories are both very good, but fall short of truly excellent.

The bigger problem, though, is that this volume ends on a wrong note. Two of them, actually, a pair of ham-handed satires from Andy Duncan ("Senator Bilbo") and Terry Bisson ("That Old Rugged Cross"), from whom I'd expect better. Had I read the stories in a different order, I might have a higher opinion of this collection, but ending with those two consecutively left me in a bad mood, and it's hard to keep that from coloring my opinion of the whole anthology. At some point, I may re-read it in reverse order, and see what I think then...

And I do want to emphasize that this isn't a bad collection. To the contrary, it's a very, very good anthology-- Patrick Nielsen Hayden is one of the most reliable editors in the business, when it comes to picking books that I end up liking, and he and Teresa are the two best arguments for Tor's policy of listing the editor on the copyright page of their novels.

This is a very good anthology. It's just not quite as good as the previous two. But then, few books are.

| Permanent Link

August 11, 2003

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson. This is the new hard-SF novel from the author of The Chronoliths. Well, OK, "hard SF" should get scare quotes, because it goes all myffic at the end, but it fits my slightly idiosyncratic use of the term.

The book tells the story of a research outpost at Blind Lake, MN, dedicated to studying the output of a super-high-tech telescope array, which has discovered alien life forms on a planet orbiting a distant star. The telescope is sufficiently powerful to follow a single alien through its day-to-day life, and a whole community of scientists has sprung up to study the Subject and his society. Then, suddenly, the military quarantines Blind Lake-- nothing, no people, and no information, can go in or out. And the citizens of Blind Lake need to figure out what's going on before everything unravels.

I've threatened in the past to write a long essay about what I think magic in fantasy novels should be like, which will bore everyone it doesn't offend. There's a parallel boring essay about what "hard SF" should be like, that will probably get written at about the same time. Rule One, though, is something along the lines of "Don't say anything too specific about your future technology, lest you end up looking like an idiot." Wilson does a good job of this, as this is probably the most technical passage of the book, describing the guts of the super-telescope:

The gallery was constructed like a surgical theater without the student seating, a ring-shaped tiled hallway fitted with sealed glass windows on its inner perimeter. The windows overlooked a circular chamber forty feet deep. At the bottom of the chamber, serviced by columns of supercooled gases and bundles of light pipes and monitoring devices, were the three huge O/BEC platens. Inside each tubular platen were rank upon rank of microscopically thin gallium arsenide wafers, bathed in helium at a temperature of -451 [degrees] Fahrenheit.

Charlie was an engineer, not a physicist. He could maintain the machines that maintained the platens, but his understanding of the fundamental process at work was partial at best. A "Bose Einstein Condensate" was a highly ordered state of matter, and the BEC's created linked electron particles called "excitons," and excitons functioned as quantum gates to form an absurdly fast and subtle computing device. Anything beyond that Reader's Digest sketch he left to the intense and socially awkward young theorists and graduate students who cycled through Eyeball Alley as if it were a summer resort. Charlie's job was more practical: he kept it all working, kept it cool, kept the I/O smooth, fixed little problems before they became big problems.

I like this, and not just because I've done Bose-Einstein Condensation research (in a much different system). The device described is at least vaguely plausible as a quantum computer, and Wilson neatly avoids using any viewpoint characters who ought to know more, and might make glaring technical gaffes. Which works out fine, because the story isn't really about the technical details of how Blind Lake's observatory works.

The actual plot has been unfavorably compared to a Steven King novel, which has a grain of truth in it. The story concerns itself as much with the personal issues of the characters as with the earth-shaking ramifications of what happens at Blind Lake, and there are some amazing coincidences in the climax. But I don't really agree with the description, in large part because I don't generally like King all that much, and I did like this.

If I had to compare this book to something else, I'd probably call it "The Chronoliths crossed with 'The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street'" The weird-science conceit and its handling are similar to the giant monuments from the future in his previous book, and the slow meltdown of the quarantined characters is reminiscent of the Twilight Zone classic.

I said at the end of my previous comments that I'd be interested to see what Wilson did next. That still holds, and I'll probably check out some more of what he's done before.

| Permanent Link

August 9, 2003

The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake. The first Dortmunder novel, and one of the best.

Kate recently bought a bunch of caper movies on DVD, including the 1972 film version of this, starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder. It's not bad, but Redford is too good-looking to be Dortmunder, and they made a bunch of other changes to the structure. Mostly, though, it's just too slow for a modern caper movie. It's only 105 minutes long, but it manages to drag all the same-- particularly in the helicopter-based heist, which goes on way too long, and has a "look, Ma, they rented us a helicopter!" feel. (Creepily, much of the helicopter time is spent on panning shots of the World Trade Center towers, which were still under construction...)

Having seen the movie, Kate and I both wanted to re-read the book. Happily, we have two copies.

If you've read other Dortmunder novels (I've reviewed two of them on this book log, Don't Ask and Bad News), you know what to expect. If you haven't, well, this is the place to start. This book sets up many of the regular characters: John Dortmunder, the hapless "idea man" of this particular crime syndicate; Andy Kelp, the chirpy friend who gets Dortmunder involved in all his various misadventures; and Stan Murch, the alternate-route plotting driver, who listens to records of car noises to relax. It also introduces a number of recurring supporting characters (Rollo, the barman at the O. J. Bar and Grill, who knows patrons by drinks; Roger Chefwick, the first of a long series of deranged lockmen; Alan Greenwood, a ladies man who lands in jail, briefly), who turn up in later books. The plot sets the standard for Dortmunder plots: there are five heists in this book, each more outlandish than the last. And each time, they're trying to steal the same emerald at the behest of an African diplomat. They break into a museum, a prison, a police station, an insane asylum, and finally a bank, and build their heists around cars, trucks, a helicopter, a locomotive. Dortmunder is certainly inventive, but he's also spectacularly unlucky.

Nobody in the comic crime genre comes close to Westlake, and this is one of the books that earned him his reputation. It doesn't disappoint, and later books in the series get even funnier.

| Permanent Link

August 8, 2003

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst. I picked this up because I'm pretty sure I remember Nathan praising his other books (though I can't be botehred to wade through the index-less archives of Lundblog to find it). This appears to be the first of Furst's books, and I like to start at the beginning with a new author, so I grabbed it from the library (where it's now overdue, thanks to Steven Erikson's mammoth Memories of Ice...).

This is a World War II spy thriller, not a genre that I read a lot of. And there are a lot of elements to this that remind me of why it is that I don't read a whole lot of spy novels. Every new character who appears is introduced with a quick biographical sketch describing the slightly improbable path that brought them into whatever political cause they're involved in, and almost every relationship in the book is exploitive in some way. It all gets very tiring after a while-- I was glad for the episodic plot structure, which provided frequent break points (though it did multiply the number of characters introduced with biographical sketches...).

On the other hand, though, the writing here is nicely evocative:

In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.

His brother was fifteen, no more than a blameless fool with a big mouth, and in calmer days his foolishness would have been accomodated in the usual ways-- a slap in the face for humiliation, a few cold words to chill the blood, and a kick in the backside to send him on his way. That much was tradition. But these were political times, and it was important to think before you spoke. Nikko Stoianev spoke without thinking, and so he died.

The book follows Khristo's life from that pivotal moment on, as he moves into and out of the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB), through the run-up to WWII (the Spanish Civil War, Paris before the fall), and the war itself (the French Resistence, and another trek into Eastern Europe. Along the way, we also get the stories of a handful of Khristo's classmates from his NKVD training, and a couple of Americans as well.

The entire book is suffused with the sort of fatalistic approach to politics seen in the passage quoted above. Politics is deadly serious, and everything is political, but the politics that matter for the book are Soviet politics under Stalin, so they're also incredibly arbitrary, and there's nothing you can really do. It doesn't make for easy reading (particularly since I read far too many political weblogs), but it's brilliantly evoked.

Some time ago, when talking about Harry Potter and A.S. Byatt, Kate asked me if the sets of "Books That Are Good" and "Books That I Like" were identical. I'm slightly hesitant to say that, but on the other hand, I couldn't come up with an example of a book that I thought was a Good Book, but that I didn't like. I still can't, but this is probably an example of the closest thing I could find: a book that's very well done, but isn't really my thing. I didn't dislike it-- I read the whole thing, and enjoyed a lot of the writing-- but I can't really say I liked it, either.

| Permanent Link

As I'm not as ambitious or conscientious as Kate is, this isn't using any weblogging software at the moment-- I don't figure it will be updated regularly enough to require automatic archiving and the like.

The comment feature is provided by YACCS, and is dead simple to install. If you're looking to add comments to a weblog, it's a good way to go.

Obligatory silly little counter:

Begun: 7 August, 2001