Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Evil Eye, by Jason Goodwin

An Evil Eye, by Jason Goodwin

My mother gave me a signed copy of this for Christmas, and I'm glad she did. Set in the 19th century Ottoman empire, An Evil Eye has an unlikely hero: a eunuch detective named Yashim in the Sultan's court. The plot revolves around the defection of an admiral and the unlikely deaths of women in the seraglio. The story meanders a bit, but I found it held my interest throughout. Where Goodwin truly shines, though, is in his scenic descriptions: "In snow, Istanbul transformed itself from a city of half a million people into a fantastic forest running down to an icy shore: its domes were the earthworks of a vanished race of giants, its minarets gaunt boles of shattered trees, its roofs, blanketed under a rippling veneer of snow, terraced fields marked only by the arrowed tracks of birds and the dimpled pawprints of hungry cats." This is but one of the many passages that make this part of the world seem unique and fantastic. Turns out An Evil Eye is the fourth in a series; I look forward to the others.

First Sentence:
The yali is made of wood silvered by the sun, dry as tinder.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Firefly, by P. T. Deutermann

The Firefly, by P. T. Deutermann

This novel is truly awful. The Firefly is a cookie-cutter thriller that finds a retired Secret Service agent trying to prevent a tragedy that no one else believes is real. Written in 2003 the author clearly had the 9/11 attacks firmly in mind, as our government goes to unbelievable lengths to combat the "cancer of international Muslim terrorism."

Unbelievable is an excellent word to describe this tripe as the plot barely holds together as the one-dimensional characters pinball from chapter to chapter. The main villain has plastic surgery that not only changes his looks, but gives him inflatable breasts and an internal pouch for his genitals so he can transform into a woman and back again. He tries to kill everyone that worked on him, but one nurse escapes; she goes to great lengths to explain to the cops and agents investigating that she couldn't possibly identify anyone as the clinic had strict protocols for insuring privacy but the terrorist spends over half the book trying to kill her anyway. Coincidences abound; what luck that the Washington D.C. car lot where the terrorist is buying a vehicle happened to be right across the street from the auto mechanic at which the nurse is having her car serviced—and of course they were there at the same time! His luck also held when neither neighbors nor federal agents noticed he sawed a three-foot-square hole in the roof of a duplex in a dense neighborhood a mile from Capitol Hill the day before a presidential inauguration. The inauguration ceremony is at the heart of the plot, but the security measures put in place by the Secret Service are ludicrous even for a fiction book: the stock markets were closed, all government workers were furloughed for the day, the airports and train stations were shuttered, public cell phone networks disabled, cable and satellite television was shut down, and over 300 "people of interest" were sent to Guantanamo Bay for the duration. While I can certainly see the presidential detail liking these measures, believing they could actually happen is laughable. The resolution of the novel is as ridiculous as the rest, with the United States creating a massive deception (that was kept completely secret from the world despite massive troop movements and expansive special effect filming) that would justify every stereotype of American aggression during the height of the Bush era.

The Firefly is somewhere between silly and preposterous, one of the worst books I've read in a long time.

First Sentence:
The man who calls himself Jäger Heismann awakes in the dimly lighted recovery room of the private cosmetic surgery clinic in northwest Washington, D.C.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

The author was nine years old when imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp in 1977. For ten years he lived a brutal and terrifying life simply because his grandfather was suspected of being disloyal to North Korea. There was schooling of a sort for the first six years, but it consisted mainly of studying Kim Il-sung at the expense of anything else, coupled with harsh punishments for simple mistakes. School would seem a luxury when he "graduated" to the dangerous and draining work details. The hard-labor zone was the worst. "The work was conceived solely for the purpose of driving prisoners to their graves. ... Three months was the longest we had ever heard of anyone surviving under these conditions." The work itself was as unforgiving as the camp with prisoners being forced to work outside in rags as long as temperature was above -13°F performing seemingly thankless tasks like chopping down trees or digging mine shafts. If that isn't horrific enough the inmates were forced to augment their meager food with rats and snakes simply to build up enough energy to make it through the forced workday. Public executions and severe beatings were a way of life as well; hard to believe this all is currently happening and not in a past lifetime.

Choi-hwan is eventually released and tries to make a life as a free man, but under constant surveillance. When he is (accurately) accused of listening to forbidden radio stations he decides to escape to South Korea via China rather than risk going back to the gulag. Never knowing who to trust or which bribes would work and which would be lost was a very different kind of stress than the camp. The camp was brutal and oppressive, but there was little doubt where you stood. Trying to escape North Korea was entirely different. When boarding the boat that would eventually take him to safety, "one of the policemen bent forward, apparently trying to get a better look. I almost passed out. I knew I was wavering between life and death. I no longer saw the turnstile ahead, and I felt like I had entered a movie that was in slow motion." The officer lost interest and Choi-hwan made it to safety, but it was clearly a harrowing trip.

Part biography and part horror story, this was a difficult but rewarding read. Genuine insight into an oppressive dictatorship is rare, making this a valuable historical tool as well as a political exposé. The Aquariums of Pyongyang is certainly not beach reading, but certainly worth your time.

First Sentence:
In the 1960s, North Korea's disaster was not yet on the horizon.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

World Without End, by Ken Follett

World Without End, by Ken Follett

I quite liked The Pillars of the Earth but it still took me over four years to pick up the sequel, World Without End. Big mistake; I liked it even more than the first! This isn't a direct sequel—it is set two centuries later and shares a setting rather than the more typical characters. Other things the two tomes share are a plot (political intrigue contrasted with a revolution in building and a mix of noble and low-born people) and a rich historical backdrop where fiction and reality mix; here, the reign of Edward III and the bubonic plague is the stage against which the novel plays out.

In The Pillars of the Earth Follett poured his voluminous research into page after page of ancillary description, often resulting in extended passages only tangentially related to the plot. World Without End is equally in depth, but the author does a much better job of staying on point and keeping his knowledge flowing with the surrounding story. Besides an excellent description of 14th century warfare, the role of women in society in this era is made horrifyingly clear. A mentally-ill woman is publicly stoned, another is traded into prostitution by her father for a cow, still another trades her body for political favors which are then reneged upon, and many other are raped or forced into unhappy marriages. While the masses—men and women—all view these acts as simply a part of life and that a woman's place is to be subservient to man, the antagonists all look on this with a modern disdain. Compare this with the many monks, bishops, and friars that play integral parts of the play—with only a very few exceptions all these men are of low moral and ethical character and yet are looked upon with high regard by the community. An interesting juxtaposition to say the least.

As depressing as that is, I did enjoy the novel. Solid storytelling and interesting plot twists keep the pages (all 1200+ in my copy!) turning quickly. The sex is much more graphic than I remember in the original and the violence is often excessive, but the look into life in the late medieval ages is fascinating. World Without End is a great book for airline trips, waiting rooms, or rainy Saturday afternoons.

First Sentence:
Gwenda was eight years old, but she was not afraid of the dark.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Bend in the Sky, by D.S. Morgan

The Bend in the Sky, by D.S. Morgan

Odd. The Bend in the Sky tells several parallel stories that—of course—converge at the end. The conceit here is that there are many, many dimensions and they are informally ranked with each higher level possessing a higher form of consciousness and advancement. Each of the parallel narratives begins on a different one of these levels, and each level seems stranger than the last. One told of a truly alien rock concert, one of a schizophrenic tyrant wanting to destroy other dimensions, a world where living vehicles are raced and battle, and towards the bottom of the hierarchy, Earth. Morgan uses odd language to impart the alienness of the various worlds to great effect, although this same oddness made the book often difficult to follow. "The alert that Shloomger had set was playing his improvised version of 'The Crescent Dustcloud of Cludnarp' from a point somewhere in the small screen-space that K*rargxtko allowed security staff of his grade."

There is a fair bit of humor here, but I felt most of the book was a setup for the last joke:

"Yes, I heard people on Earth, did get an offer [of upgrading to immortality]."
"Where from?"
Ora pointed upwards silently for a moment, then looked at her boss straight in the eyes. "From The Top Of The Very Top Level, and I'm not talking about the outfit we work for here."
"You mean...?"
"Yup. And I heard that the One who took the offer down to them got treated appallingly, and executed, as if He was some kind of criminal."
Proyn looked at her in amazement. "What happened then?"
"He came alive again, said goodbye, and went back home."
"And is the offer still open?"
"I heard it is."
While God-is-an-alien isn't exactly new ground for a science-fiction novel, I still found this amusing. Overall this was almost too weird to be enjoyable, but once the first quarter or so passes and some of the separate threads start to coalesce it becomes much more interesting. Hard to truly recommend, but if you are looking for something different this will certainly fit the bill.

First Sentence:
Scents jostled in the warm night, like the creatures moving among them, billions of beings in wild shapes and shades, groping, crashing past — or through — one another.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Night Over Water, by Ken Follett

Night Over Water, by Ken Follett

Set largely aboard the Pan Am Clipper, the legendary aircraft that launched commercial transatlantic service, Night Over Water is a somewhat entertaining, if far-fetched, read. The multiple plots follow the passengers and crew of a flight from the UK to the US immediately after war broke out between England and Nazi Germany, intertwining when they all board and begin interacting with each other. The descriptions of the plane were captivating and it often seems almost another character rather than the setting; as a reasonably frequent overseas traveler the luxury in which people traveled back then is virtually unrecognizable to the state of air transportation today. Of course, having three stops between Southampton and New York taking over 27 hours to make the journey is also hard to imagine today! Unfortunately, the people aren't as compelling; most are shallow caricatures—the lucky thief, the whiny teenager, the English fascist, the forthright engineer, the evil sibling, and so on—and more than one appears in a scene or two and then simply vanishes from the book. The multiple plots vary enough that they hold your interest, though; if it wasn't for the somewhat graphic sex scenes I'd say this was a good novel to give to a younger reader making the switch to adult fiction. While I won't recommend this book to anyone, I won't dissuade anyone from reading it either. Very average, which is disappointing for Follett.

First Sentence:
It was the most romantic plane ever made.

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