Sunday, April 30, 2017

China Trade (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #1)China Trade by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A bright sunny day in Chinatown brings everybody out, even in the cold. [...] [The] music came from the words they spoke: the Cantonese and English I understand, the Mandarin and Fukienese and Spanish and Korean that I don't. The percussion was their footsteps slapping and tapping the pavement in syncopated rhythm."

Having just read S.J. Rozan's Winter and Night, the eighth novel in her Chin-Smith series and having liked it a lot, I was curious about the earlier books in the series. China Trade (1994) is the first installment and - while an entertaining read - it is otherwise completely unremarkable, quite unlike Winter which was the deserved winner of several major mystery/crime drama awards.

Lydia Chin (Ling Wan-ju, really), a young P.I., is hired by her friend, a member of a Chinese community organization, to investigate the theft of two crates of collectible porcelains that were prepared for an exhibition. Naturally, Lydia enlists the help of Bill Smith, another P.I. who is her frequent collaborator and aspiring boyfriend. Right at the beginning of the investigation, they learn about the murder of a young Chinese man with possible connections to the case. Lydia is severely beaten up: members of the Golden Dragons gang want to scare her off the case. In fact, two competing gangs are involved in the plot as well as the staff of a local museum, several art collectors and importers, and rich donors. Another murder occurs and the provenance of the porcelains (the use of the word "provenance" is sort of a running joke) may be the key to the solution.

The elegantly structured criminal plot progresses fast and the obligatory (sigh!) "twists and turns" stretch the limits of believability but luckily do not rise to the idiocy level. In the later part of the plot Lydia and Bill arrange a contract on themselves: the implausible but audacious device is used with some skill. This is quite a well-written novel that does not much rely on padding: as many as 200 of its 260 pages are really needed - a good score!

The colorful portrayal of New York's Chinatown enlivens the novel and the continuous banter between Lydia and Bill provides a counterpoint to the criminal line of the plot. Readers who watch sitcoms may enjoy the repartees: most of them are as inane as the ones on TV but a few are actually witty. Of course, the uncertainty about the actual nature (and the future) of Lydia - Bill relationship provides a sort of backbone for the whole "detective and the sidekick" template: the novelty here is that both PIs are on equal footing.

Alas, clichés abound. Instead of the usual "the hero leaps over tall buildings in a single bound" cliché, we have Mr. Gao, a wise and all-powerful Chinatown patriarch, who could change the trajectory of the moon, if requested, and quote several Chinese proverbs in the meantime. Yet despite the silly banter, the implausibilities, and the clichés, the novel somehow did not manage to irritate me too much. Good writing, I guess, is the secret.

Three stars.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Somebody to Love?: A Rock-and-Roll MemoirSomebody to Love?: A Rock-and-Roll Memoir by Grace Slick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"When the truth is found
To be lies
And all the joy
Within you dies
Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love [...]
"

One of the few vividly remembered scenes from my teenage years: Warsaw, June 1967, I am taping Jefferson Airplane's Somebody To Love off the radio via mike onto my toy portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. I want to be able to listen to Grace Slick's mesmerizing, vibrating, powerful voice day and night. Airplane, a pioneering band from the San Francisco scene, was an important factor in my rock education, one of the first steps in the evolution from simple pop harmonies to progressive rock, and eventually to jazz and classical. And of course it was 1967, the Summer of Love. Music was the most important thing, music was love, music was the rebellion and the beacon of imminent revolutionary changes.

Somebody To Love? (1998) is a rock memoir of Grace Slick, the supremely gifted vocalist of Jefferson Airplane and the author of the groundbreaking song White Rabbit, with its "Feed your head" call to arms. A thorough chronicle, the bio goes over Ms. Slick's childhood and youth, and her association with Jefferson Airplane. It then recounts the pop "maturity" of Jefferson Starship, and finally, the complete sellout of Starship. Ms. Slick tells us a lot about her outsized love of drugs and sex, and about her never-ceasing search for actual love.

The parents' world of the 1960s is crumbling, hippies wear flowers in their hair, Haight Ashbury becomes the center of the Universe, and the memoir manages to convey a little bit - not enough - of the taste of those tumultuous times, despite the overflowing stream of trivia, juicy tidbits, and names of famous artists and performers.

The memoir is ghostwritten by Andrea Cagan: the authorship is obvious in that the prose is well structured, readable, yet kept in utterly sensationalist, name-dropping, gossipy and "cutesy" style. I would like to believe that Ms. Slick's real persona is well hidden beneath the tabloid writing. I would like to hope that one of the heroes of my youth is not as trivial as the book makes her to be. One can always hope.

Amidst the mind-numbing gossipy prattle are some worthwhile passages that elevate the book almost to the three-star ranking. The experimentation with peyote is reported in a dry and objective tone. I hope that the reported attempt to drug President Nixon in the White House is based on fact as the story is hilarious. Ms. Slick's exposition of her lyrics to White Rabbit sounds heartfelt and her recounting of love scene with Jim Morrison happens to be well-written and deeply personal: maybe Ms. Cagan let the singer write herself for a while?

To me the best thing about the book is the juxtaposition of three music festivals: Monterey Pop, when the music really took off, then Woodstock, the absolute peak of the era, followed by Altamont, where everything turned commercial: people wanted to cash on the phenomenon, and thus the phenomenon begin dying. The personal aspect of the stories makes the diagnosis more compelling. I wish the book were less "polished" with the syrupy, superficial varnish because the smooth read hides the potential depth. Still, I marginally recommend it for several worthwhile fragments.

Two and three quarter stars.



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Monday, April 24, 2017

FloatersFloaters by Joseph Wambaugh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"She lay halfway up the steps on her back, her little skirt hiked above her red panties. A coil of intestine, pink as bubble gum, lay on her thin milky thigh."

What an exasperating read! Joseph Wambaugh's Floaters has an interesting and well-constructed plot, a richness of believable technical and procedural detail, and a solid grounding in external events. Yet the pedestrian writing and inferior characterizations prevent from considering this book a worthwhile addition to the crime drama genre.

The plot is located in San Diego in 1995 and revolves around the challenger series to the celebrated America's Cup yachting competition: the winner of the series will gain the right to challenge the American team who are the cup holders. The story is composed of several intertwined threads: the main four plot lines feature the "Keeper of the Cup" - a member of the San Diego Yacht Club who travels with the cup where it is needed, two San Diego prostitutes, a group of officers from the San Diego Police Department, and two "water cops" - members of the San Diego Harbor Unit. The main premise of the story is an attempt to tinker with the regatta to prevent the powerful New Zealand team from winning the challenge. Meanwhile the cops are trying to set up a vile pimp for a fall, there are two murders, and the plot moves fast to keep the reader interested.

While plotwise the novel is a good read there are hardly any real people among the main figures: the characterizations are as thin as paper and most of them are just caricatures. For instance, detective Letch likes garlic in his food, and the odor of his body, mentioned twenty or so times, is almost all that we learn about him as a person. But the worst is the "humor." Crude jokes - like comparing some politicians of the era to the shape of human excrement - would be OK if only they were funny: alas the author fails in this respect. He also seems to be bent on titillating the reader with the "porn of death," as evidenced by the epigraph.

On the positive side the reader will learn a lot about the yachting community: the whole entourage of a major yachting competition and the "cuppie" culture (cuppies are groupies of the Cup) are believably portrayed. Since the author is a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department I hope that the procedural and technical details of police activities are as accurate as they seem in the novel. Having lived in San Diego for over a half of my life I appreciate the location of the plot - and a nice mention of my workplace of 35 years - although I wish the local character of this city came through even stronger.

Good plot, inept psychology, atrocious attempts at humor.

Two and a quarter stars.


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Friday, April 21, 2017

Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. FordWrite It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. Ford by Thomas M. DeFrank
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the simple ground rules we'd already established: nothing he said could be printed until after his death."

Thomas DeFrank, the author of Write It When I'm Gone (2007), was a Newsweek correspondent and journalist when in 1973 he was assigned to cover Vice President Gerald R. Ford. At that time it was gradually becoming clear that Mr. Ford might soon become the 38th President of the United States. The relationship between the author and Mr. Ford - something more than a professional acquaintance, perhaps even friendship - lasted for one third of a century until the politician's death in 2006. The book, based on 16 years of interview sessions that had begun in 1991, is a memoir of Mr. Ford's political career viewed through the prism of his conversations with the author.

To me absolutely the best aspect of the book is that the only unelected Vice-President and the only unelected President of the U.S. comes across the pages as a real person. Not "an accident-prone bumbler" as portrayed in press and comedy (SNL) but indeed a "most remarkably guileless political figure." While not gifted with a commanding intellect, charisma, or communication skills, Mr. Ford appears to be a fundamentally honest and surprisingly warm person of goodwill.

The reader will learn a lot about Mr. Ford's short presidency troubled by his pardon of R.M. Nixon and ended by his defeat to Jimmy Carter in 1976. We also read about Mr. Ford's withdrawal from the 1980 presidential race. One should not expect to find any earth-shattering revelations in the book: for example, I have found only two fragments that surprised me. Mr. Ford makes a strong point to stand by the Warren Commission report (he was a member of the Commission) and seems to claim that all conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination are absurd, yet, at the same time, he "forewarns" that the report, so far unreleased in its entirety, contains "stories" that can be "harmful" to some people. How's that for equivocation? The other surprise is the extreme dislike that Mr. Ford had for Ronald Reagan, moderated only by the decency with which the half-term president talked about the two-term president at the time when the latter was dying of the Alzheimer disease.

Two items of personal interest: several conversations with Mr. Ford occurred when he was over 90 years old. Although physically frail, and perhaps not too eloquent, he was still in full command of facts. This should be a huge source of hope for us geezers. The other tidbit is just a tiny personal connection: at one point the book mentions the 1996 presidential debate which took place in the building that I sometimes lecture in and in preparations to which I participated, albeit in a totally minuscule way.

Well written, interesting book, certainly worth a read. I'm including two strong quotes after the rating.

Three and a half stars.

"He was an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the term, a steady, solid Michigander whose old fashioned virtues were the perfect antidote for a nation desperate for stability and civility."

"He considered Reagan a superficial, disengaged, intellectually lazy showman who didn't do his homework and clung to a naïve, unrealistic, and essentially dangerous worldview."

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

LaBravaLaBrava by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"LaBrava got Nobles down on his spine, head hard against the wall to straddle his legs. Worked free the bluesteel revolver [...] and slipped the blunt end of the barrel into his open mouth. Nobles gagged, trying to twist free.
LaBrava said, 'Suck on it. It'll calm you down.'
"

Not an easy review to write as I am forced to demonstrate my own incompetence. Elmore Leonard's LaBrava received the prestigious Edgar Award for the best novel in 1984 and yet I have been unable to find anything remarkable about the book. While readers are not expected to fully agree with literary critics my disagreement with the Edgars' jury is rather vehement: LaBrava has a moderately interesting story, but then nothing else stands out. Flat characterizations, stereotypes, and uninspired prose. I have always believed that the art of writing should be the most important criterion when judging a book, not whether it tells a good story. Well, I might have been wrong.

The scene is Florida in the early 1980s, much changed for the worse in comparison with the golden times of 40 or 50 years earlier. We meet a once famous movie actress, Jean, her close friend Maurice, a professional photographer, real estate owner and manager, and Joe LaBrava, an ex-government operative with Secret Service experience. Two hustlers round off the set of main characters. The opening scene in a County Crisis Center is quite interesting: all characters appear here and the men are looking for Jean who overindulged in alcohol and caused a street scene. The author then takes about a hundred pages to leisurely build the criminal intrigue. It is only about page 150 that the reader begins to realize what the plot is all about. I did not particularly enjoy the denouement although it is reasonably elegant and not that implausible.

I have a serious problem with characterizations: I don't feel the protagonists of LaBrava are real people - they are just vehicles to move the plot, instances of cliché templates of certain types of people. We have a "big hunk of a man with a tiny brain," a "small hustler short on imagination but long on criminal history" and a "basically good guy torn between his sense of duty and his heart." The plot includes many little side stories that may be interesting to readers who like to learn about how it supposedly is in the real world of crime, yet I fail to grasp how these stories contribute to the novel.

The intrigue - while ingenious - is just a movie plot. The novel reads exactly like a script for a potentially successful crime movie, but is this really enough to make the story a good novel? Let me paraphrase the viciously biting critique of an author (I am substituting Mr. Leonard for Mr. Crichton) offered by Martin Amis in his The War Against Cliché "Story is what Mr. Leonard is good at. People are what he is not so good at. People and prose." On the positive side, I quite like the clever connection of the plot with 1950s movies and the tastefully written love scene. The Florida sense of place comes across a little, certainly better than the psychology stereotypes. The characters talk in a language used by "people in the know", for instance, we hear them talk about "the coast" - only one coast is "the coast" in this country of two coasts.

Worth a read? Certainly, if one reads books solely for the story.

Two and a half stars.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Alfred and GuinevereAlfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Schuyler has a pitch-perfect ear for children's voices, and the story, told entirely through snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere's diary, is a tour de force of comic and poetic invention."
[from an uncredited blurb on the back cover]

James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere (1958), "officially" a novel, but a novella volume-wise, comes highly recommended by several literary critics and many readers as a charming story of a summer spent by two children - a bright window into the magical world of pre-adolescent siblings. Alas I am not as enthusiastic about this novel: probably because I have had the pleasure of reading Amelie Nothomb's masterpiece Loving Sabotage (as well as almost equally good The Character of Rain ). I find Ms. Nothomb's depiction of children's universe more insightful; it is in her books that I can find a little bit of the child that I used to be about 60 years ago. Mr. Schuyler's work, clever and charming as it is, does not come across as wonderfully natural and compelling.

The author never exactly states how old Alfred and Guinevere are, except that the boy is clearly younger than his sister. In fact, I find it one of the best aspects of the novel that we, the readers, may choose the kids' age: I chose Alfred to be seven or eight and Guinevere eleven or twelve. Their father leaves for Europe for business reasons, their mother follows him, and the children are left behind to spend the summer at their grandmother's house in the country. The author lets the reader see the adult world only through the children's eyes: the mechanisms of the grown-ups' universe are obviously opaque to the children. They create their own causal structure of events, which is influenced more by views of other people, adults or kids, than by the actual "facts." Mr. Schuyler succeeds in inducing a sense of some menace that lies underneath the innocent story of one summer, but it is we, the readers, who need to select the menace of our choice.

I like the circular structure of the book: it begins and ends with the bedtime talk between the kids, which sets up the axis of this generally plotless novel. The symmetries seem to go even deeper: I am curious about a mysterious piece of conversation between the children that appears on the sixth page: it is explained by the children's dialogue near the end of the book, exactly six pages from the end. I wonder if this was done on purpose by the author noted for his poetry, a genre that requires precision of literary structures.

However, I tend to disagree with the high praise for the author's "pitch-perfect ear for children's voices." True, many passages are indeed written in the way that children think - some of Guinevere's writing and most conversations between the children - yet other fragments sound awkward and too sophisticated even for precocious pre-adolescents or, in some passages, seem to be artificially infantilized.

Certainly a worthy read but - to me - far from a masterpiece that it is purported to be.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Midnight Sun (Blood on Snow, #2)Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I had to push the barrel of the rifle so deep into my throat that I almost puked [...] Suicide. The first time is the most difficult."
(my own translation of the Polish translation of Norwegian original)

I picked Jo Nesbø's Midnight Sun (2015, the Norwegian title is Mere blod) in hope that in the new series - the Olav Johansen novels - Mr. Nesbø will get away from the degraded quality of the later Harry Hole plots (see for example my review of Phantom . Nesbø is the author of some really good novels, for instance, The Redbreast is a solid four-star book, but quantity seems to have permanently vanquished quality in his work. Alas, despite a relatively interesting beginning, this novel again devolves into completely ridiculous mess.

Jon is on the run from the infamous Fisherman, an Oslo drug-trade boss for whom he has worked as an enforcer. He seeks to hide in Finnmark, the remote northeastern part of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle. It is the land of summer midnight sun, inhabited by indigenous Sami people, many of whom are followers of Laestadianism, a conservative Lutheran movement. Jon meets a young woman, the daughter of one of the elders in the sect. She has just lost her husband and since it had not been a particularly happy marriage and since her son idolizes Jon she is not averse to spending time with him. Alas the Fisherman's people are in pursuit and soon they discover Jon's hideaway.

While the passages about life among the Laestadians, the culture of the Sami people, the nature north of the Arctic Circle are engrossing - I wish there was much more of the good stuff - the mystery plot deteriorates from moderately interesting, to quite silly, and then to outright absurd. When reviewing Phantom I was ridiculing the scene where Harry cuts the throat of someone who is cutting his throat. Mr. Nesbø achieved the impossible in Midnight Sun: he wrote a scene so utterly preposterous that he must either be making fun of his readers or holding their intellect in low regard. Not only is the scene ridiculous, it also caters to amateurs of death porn: the reader quite literally visits a decaying corpse and witnesses the little critters' feeding activity.

In the ending the author attempts to wrap up the story so that the plot holes are not too obvious and that the implausible yet somehow obligatory happy ending can be reached. Yuck! Still, to be honest, Mr. Nesbø's prose reads competent (in Polish translation anyway) and I enjoyed reading about the land beyond the Arctic Circle. The "romantic" thread is not that bad either, if a bit tepid. So the novel is not a complete failure.

One and three quarter stars.


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