Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Punishment She Deserves, by Elizabeth George

The Punishment She Deserves (Inspector Lynley #20)

Occasionally Elizabeth George is determined to put at least one insufferable character in the forefront of each of her Lynley novels. In Believing the Lie it was Deborah St. James, and here it is DCS Isabelle Ardery. Luckily for the reader, Ardery is given an interesting (if depressing) character arc: her alcoholism as demonstrated in the last few novels escalates and George does a brilliant job of depicting both the downward spiral and the desperate self-justification that accompanies it. "She calculated that a mere few shots of Grey Goose would not lead to another day of oblivion. So she had them." Coupled with the bizarre subplot of Barbara Havers learning to tap dance and a (unusual for George) throwaway pop culture reference to Luther, this depiction saves a rather mundane plot that seemingly paints every university student as a sex-crazed partier. Not a great entry in the series, but better than recent efforts for sure.

First Sentence:
The snow began falling on Ludlow town in the evening, while most people were doing their post-dinner washing-up as a prelude to sitting down in front of the television.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001), by Don Felder

Heaven And Hell: My Life In The Eagles (1974 2001)

I've always loved the Eagles; they are one of the few bands that I regret not getting to hear in person. (I'd dearly like to find a time machine and go back to a show in 1977 when Jimmy Buffet was the opening act!) They are still touring, but not with the same members that created the magic in the 1970's. One of those former members is Don Felder, guitarist and the primary writer of (among others) "Hotel California"—one of the greatest Eagles songs ever.

This biography comes across as fairly honest; Felder doesn't gloss over how poorly he treated his father or first wife, although he does try and justify the behavior a bit. The highlight, of course, is the history of the Eagles that is included along the way. Don Henley and Glenn Frey have terrible reputations (sadly not uncommon with talented musicians; see Eddie Van Halen, Ike Turner, Morrissey, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, ...) and Felder does nothing to clear their names. In 2001 he was fired from the band and subsequently filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination and breach of fiduciary duty. Unfortunately the book only lightly covers this, unlike the great amount of detail that went into the time leading up to the acrimonious split. It isn't clear if the lack of substance here is due to a confidentiality agreement or not wanting to relive uncomfortable memories, but it hurt the overall story quite a bit—almost like reading a mystery with the last chapter missing. Despite being one-sided, I found this to be a compelling read and had me listening to the Eagles on repeat on Spotify.

First Sentence:
We could hear the rumble of the crowd in the dressing room.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Still Life, by Louise Penny

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #1)

I hadn't ever heard of Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache before my mother mentioned him, even though there are 16 books (so far) in the series dating back to 2005. I'm glad she did! This modern-day (and male) Miss Marple is thoroughly entertaining. "I watch. I'm very good at observing. Noticing things. And listening. Actively listening to what people are saying, their choice of words, their tone. What they aren't saying. ... It's as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful. So when I'm observing, that's what I'm watching for. The choices people make." A good match for a character driven mystery.

Set in Quebec, Still Life reflects Canadian values quite well. Nature, politeness, and outdoor sports abound, although I suppose the murder does run counter to good manners a bit. In keeping with the gentler mood, there is no sex and very little violence—not at all like the Reacher series. It was kind of nice to read a mystery that didn't feel as if it were being crafted for a major motion picture, but instead unfolded at a leisurely pace; satisfying but not suspenseful. It is the kind of a book that is great to read on a rainy afternoon sitting in a big window seat; more cozy and less beach-read.

The mystery wasn't as interesting as the characters, but all the clues were there for the reader to follow. I thought I knew what happened at one point, but a well-done red herring convinced me I was wrong. Turns out I wasn't, and the misleading clue was explained away quite nicely. I like plots that surprise me and characters that actually change, so I certainly look forward to reading the next entry in this series.

First Sentence:
Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Terminal Uprising, by Jim C. Hines

Terminal Uprising  (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse, #2)

A sequel to Terminal Alliance, Terminal Uprising picks up just a few months after the first left off. The plot here wasn't as engaging as the original, but the humor is still spot on. “"The true origins of McDonald's have been lost," said Khatami. "From what we've pieced together, we believe it was founded by an old circus clown named Willard Scott."” The highlight here is the time spent on a decimated Earth with a group of surviving librarians. Yes, that's right: the heroes of the book are janitors and librarians! Something seemed a bit off to me about the entire book, but hard to put my finger on what. Maybe the pacing was uneven, maybe the serious nature of the agenda contrasted with the humor, or maybe reading a book about a plague that nearly wiped out the human race was just a bit disturbing with a worsening pandemic causing so much uncertainty and havoc. Good book, bad timing.

First Sentence:
In human chronology, it has been four months and eight days since the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team of the EMCS Pufferfish went rogue.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Bonk, by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

If you are shy or uncomfortable with the topic of sex, then this is not the book for you. The title of the introduction is "Foreplay" and it ramps up from there. Bonk is subtitled The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and this is not an exaggeration. From scientific examinations of the penis, testicles, and clitoris to coital imaging to sex toys to genital transplants and implants, this book has it all. Oh, and it is funny as hell, too!

Roach has an amazing writing style that allows the reader to delve deeply into the mechanics, psychology, and science of intercourse while maintaining a laugh-out-loud approach to the topic at hand. For instance, by taking MRIs of people in flagrante delicto scientists learned that after penetration the penis has the shape of a boomerang. Roach helpfully adds, "But not the precise dynamics. If you hurl an uprooted penis into the air, it will not come back to you. It will most likely, and who can blame it, want nothing to do with you." We also learn that sex hormones "make individuals perceive other individuals as more attractive than they'd normally perceive them. Hormones are nature's three bottles of beer." Even the footnotes are hilarious: "Nasal congestion is an erection inside your nose." "Who clubs a hamster? What would you even use to deliver “a blow” to a head that small?" "The Anal Pad should not be confused with a prior invention called the Anal Napkin, which, in turn, should not be confused with the dinner napkin." "Nominations for a Nobel Prize ... remain secret for fifty years. You make the claim, and nobody can prove otherwise until after you're dead. Add one to your résumé today!"

I enjoyed her earlier book Stiff (about cadavers, not erections) and this one was just as entertaining. If you are interested in how scientific research about sex is conducted or the physiology of the reproductive system (or simply want to laugh a lot), Bonk is a good choice. If, however, you are less interested learning in what an orgasm scientifically is and would rather learn how to cause an orgasm, maybe check out Ian Kerner's She Comes First.

First Sentence:
Albert R. Shadle was the world's foremost expert on the sexuality of small woodland creatures.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Three Californias, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Three Californias: The Wild Shore, the Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge

This is a collection of three novels depicting three radically different futures of Orange County, California. None of these futures is particularly appealing, but each shows fairly effectively that no matter what, life goes on. Besides the setting, the only commonalities are an archeological dig giving a quick look at how we get from our world to theirs, a severe reduction in nudity taboos, and a man named Tom Barnard, a wise elder serving as a mentor to each of the three young protagonists.

The Wild Shore is set after a Russian terrorist attack that saw thousands of neutron bombs all set off at once in major cities across the US. Life wasn't exterminated in North America, but Russia and Japan keep the survivors isolated and restrict any serious recovery. The plot mainly follows three groups of people: a community of peaceful farmers and fishermen, a somewhat militant group that wants to restore the United States, and a group of scavengers that collaborate with the foreign oppressors for their own gain. The most disturbing group here was the militants (living in the shockingly large city of San Diego, almost 2000 people strong); the book was written in 1984 but these jingoist patriots want to "make America great again" which has a very uncomfortable ring to it today.

The Gold Coast describes a world where our current culture of hedonistic sprawl continues on, resulting in widespread casual drugs, self-driving cars, multi-level freeways, and an ever-growing military-industrial complex. Unlike the first and third novels, nature here has basically vanished. "The county was crowded, they needed that 66,000 acres [of national forest] for more homes, more jobs, more profits, more cars, more money, more weapons, more drugs, more real estate, more freeways! And so that land was sold too." Fairly sobering, as that sadly seems the path we are following as a country.

The last book, Pacific Edge, describes what happens when the world suddenly takes climate change very seriously and transforms into an ecology-first society. It seems like a utopia at first, but as the tale progresses an oppressive socialistic government starts to be revealed, with politics and corporate greed still alive and well. The main conflict is over the potential commercial development of the last remaining bit of wilderness in the area; contrasted with the multi-level freeways and near-total lack of vegetation of the previous novel it makes the protective group seem hugely entitled.

All three were fairly interesting, but if they hadn't been bundled into the same physical book I'm not sure I'd have read them all. The Wild Shore was easily my favorite, showing how quickly history and culture are mangled and forgotten: Shakespeare being a great American from the state of England, for instance. Pacific Edge was probably intended to be a brighter future after the darker path of the first two, but a zoning fight in a liberal tree-hugging utopia simply doesn't make for a believable or compelling story. Taken together, though, they make for thought-provoking reading, and one can easily see the germs of what became the wonderful Mars Trilogy in Robinson's writing.

First Sentence (from the forward):
Triptych: a medieval painting made of three separate panels hinged together, so that as well as sharing a subject or a theme, the pictures can be turned to face each other, to start a silent conversation with each other.

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