Friday, April 18, 2014


Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


Dennis Lehane won a Shamus Award for A Drink Before the War, his first book about working-class Boston detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. His second in the series, Darkness, Take My Hand, got the kind of high octane reviews that careers are made of. Now Lehane not only survives the dreaded third-book curse, he beats it to death with a stick.Sacred is a dark and dangerous updating of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, as dying billionaire Trevor Stone hires Kenzie and Gennaro to find his daughter, Desiree. Patrick's mentor, a wonderfully devious detective named Jay Becker, has already disappeared in St. Petersburg, Florida, while working the case, so the two head there to pick up a trail. Desiree, of course, is nothing like the sweet and simple beauty described by her father, and even Chandler would have been amazed by the plot twists that Lehane manages to keep coming.

My Review

In the third book of the Kenzie/Gennaro series, Patrick and Angie are hired to find a dying billionaire’s missing daughter. They learn that the detective he previously hired and who trained Patrick, has also disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

There are lots of twists and turns in this case, a grieving daughter, people who are not what they appear to be, a cult that exploits the grief and vulnerabilities of its recruits, a family who behaves badly, and a lot of missing money.

I was beginning to tire of the dreary and gray streets of Boston and was thrilled that the trail eventually led the intrepid detectives to hot and sunny Florida. Patrick and Angie are still recovering from their pain and losses from the previous two novels and have an opportunity to explore the friendship, love and tenderness that is growing between them.

While this story lacked the intensity and pace of the first two books, it was still very satisfying.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sorry, Leonidas, But THIS is Sparta

by Roxana Robinson
Published by Sarah Crichton Books

4 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda

Inspired by the romanticized accounts of war in the ancient world, classics major Conrad Farrell joins the Marines in an attempt to enter into the venerable brotherhood of honor, sacrifice, and courage forged in the heat of combat.  Explaining his decision to enlist, Conrad naively tells his parents, "The classical writers love war, that's their main subject.  Being a soldier was the whole deal, the central experience . . . It seems like it's the great thing.  The great challenge" (22).  And so Conrad goes to Sparta--the nickname for the Marine military base in Haditha, Iraq.  However, he also goes to Sparta in the figurative sense, learning that what gave greatness to the ancient Greek city-state famous for its military might was also the chink in its armor:  when you surrender everything to war, you lose something intrinsic and necessary for the survival of the human spirit.

Sparta is not about Conrad's time in Iraq, although there are several well-written flashback sequences that give us insight into what Conrad endured as a soldier.  Instead, it is a powerful novel focusing on what happens when a warrior returns home.  What is his place when his service is done, when the mission is complete, and when what he found in war was not glory or purpose or righteousness, but waste and hypocrisy?  Roxana Robinson does a superb job of delineating Conrad's slow descent into existential darkness, finding it increasingly impossible to reconnect to an America and a family so materially comfortable and willfully insular that it knows nothing of what his time in Iraq was like.  As he tells his father, "It's hard to describe.  It's like I can't get in here.  It's as though I'm standing outside.  I can see everyone in here, rushing around and doing things, and I can't get in" (240).

Conrad's training as a Marine defines him, leading to a single-minded determination to fight against the anxiety, the fear, and the rage on his own; to seek outside help would be a sign of weakness and failure.  He begins to see himself as a man divided:  there is the Conrad who existed before the war, the one everyone expects him to be, and the soldier who is so defined by combat that he cannot exist in a world without it.  As it becomes more evident that he is losing the battle within himself, Conrad's plight is made all the more distressing when he begins to seek help from a disinterested and unforgivably slow VA.  While I know that many VA clinics are run by compassionate, engaged medical professionals, it is just as true that many are indifferent or ill-equipped to handle the task of treating our veterans.  That any man or woman who has been willing to sacrifice for our nation should have to wait months for needed medical treatment or tolerate a slow-moving bureaucracy is a shameful condemnation of our society's refusal to respect and honor the human cost of war.

Robinson's creation of a soldier's struggle is certainly admirable and, for the most part, surprisingly convincing given that it's written by a female author outside of the military.  Her real strength lies in depicting the complexity of the relationships:  the silent agony of his family, the confusion of his girlfriend, the awkward interactions with former friends, and the painful communications with his fellow Marines (many of whom are also struggling, but valiantly trying to hide it from their former lieutenant).  In particular, the sibling bond between Conrad and his younger brother and sister (a bond forged of shared experience and damaged by Conrad's isolated time outside of that bond) struck me as genuine and authentic.  Robinson is certainly to be commended for the beauty of the writing, as well as the light she sheds on the emotional toll of war.  Despite this, it does sometimes feel a bit too studied, too researched; it doesn't (brace yourselves for what you should have known would be the inevitable Tim O'Brien comparison) make me feel the effects in the way that The Things They Carried does.  And while Robinson is an impressive chronicler of the minutiae of daily life--the ever changing earrings worn by Conrad's sister, the flotsam and jetsam that inevitably end up on the kitchen refrigerator, the festive decor of a Christmas table--such details strike me as decidedly feminine; granted, Conrad's training has taught him to hone in on details, but these still seem like the things that make up the lives of women and might be briefly noted and then discarded as irrelevant by a masculine mind.

A brief history lesson on the Iraq War and on military life in Sparta are awkwardly shoe-horned into the narrative in the beginning, but once Sparta finds its focus in the mind of Conrad, it is a powerful and necessary reminder that not every soldier who comes home without injury is, in fact, whole.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”There is no such thing as a secret--not really, not in the modern world, not with photography and telegraphy and railways and newspaper presses. The old days of an inner circle of like-minded souls communicating with parchment and quill pens are gone. Sooner or later most things will be revealed.”

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Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s mugshot

Georges Picquart was as convinced of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s guilt as anyone else in 1894. In fact for the invaluable service he provided during the affair he becomes the youngest Lieutenant Colonel in the French military. He is also promoted to head the Intelligence department, not the most prestigious appointment given that spying was considered rather unseemly, rather ungentlemanly.

”The air warms up and very soon Paris starts to reek of shit. The stench rises out of the sewers and settles over the city like a putrid gas…. In the newspapers the experts are unanimous that it isn’t as bad as the original ‘great stink’ of 1880…. ‘It is impossible to stand on one’s balcony,’ complains Le Figaro, ‘impossible to sit on the terrace of one of the busy, joyful cafes that are the pride of our boulevards, without thinking that one must be downwind from some uncouth, invisible giant.’ The smell infiltrates one’s hair and clothes and settles in one’s nostrils, even on one’s tongue, so that everything tastes of corruption. Such is the atmosphere on the day I take charge of the Statistical Section.”

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Major Esterhazy. “His head in profile is flattish and tapers like a vulture’s to a great beak of a nose. His moustache is large and swept back. His eyes are round and protuberant: not natural, but crazy, like glass balls pressed into the skull of a skeleton in a medical school.”

The stench becomes all consuming when Picquart sees a photocopy of the famous Bordereau Letter that was so pivotal in the conviction of Dreyfus. The problem is Picquart recognizes the handwriting, an almost exact match to a Major Ferdinand Esterhazy. A man he suspects of trying to sell secrets to the Germans. In the course of convicting Dreyfus several handwriting experts were consulting until finally they found one that said that Dreyfus was “the probable author” of the letter.

You might be downwind of that uncouth Giant yourself about right now.
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The famous Bordereau Letter that “incriminated” Dreyfus, but should have exonerated him. The original copy of the letter mysteriously disappeared in the 1940s.

So what is this really all about? The evidence against Dreyfus is built on such a tissue of lies that it is impossible to believe that any reasonable person could have found him guilty.

Did I happen to mention that Dreyfus was Jewish?

This all really begins back in 1870 when Germany started a unification program. Two regions Alsace and Moselle were annexed by the Germans. The result of this German aggression is the Franco-Prussian War that was disastrous for the French. They are soundly defeated despite having a large standing army and a jump start on mobilization. The Germans moved quickly, had a better understanding of the current technologies, and how to best deploy them in war. Their troops, to the surprise of the French, turned out to be better trained and were lead by more competent commanders. This defeat leads to a time of zealous nationalism and riding along in the sidecar right along with nationalism is a rise of antisemitism. When word spreads that there is a spy in the French army it only makes sense that it must be a Jew.

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Dreyfus as a rabbit about to be stewed.

Down with the Jews. Death to the Jews. The anger of the population is boiling, misplaced though it may be, they are convinced that the Jews in some way, some mystical fashion, contributed to the defeat in 1870.

As Picquart continues to investigate Esterhazy, finding more and more evidence that he is a much better candidate to be the German spy than Dreyfus, it becomes apparent that his commanding officers, a covey of white haired generals, are not interested in reopening the Dreyfus case.

Picquart is inexplicably reassigned to a unit in Tunisia. The Siberia of French outposts.

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Georges Picquart in his Tunisian Uniform.

Finally after months of idleness with no word on when he can return to Paris, he requests a weeks leave and returns to Paris to turn over all his information to his lawyer who then takes that information to the man of impeccable character who also happens to be wealthy enough to withstand bribes or threats, Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.

The French generals start to act guilty. Strange, potentially incriminating cables are sent to Picquart. He is arrested and brought up on a series of charges. Emile Zola, a great advocate of Dreyfus and Picquart, is arrested and imprisoned. The truth proves to be such a dangerous thing to know.

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Emile Zola was imprisoned for the zeal in which he called for Dreyfus to be released.

Picquart, when he discovers a mounting level of evidence that more than pokes holes in the flimsy conviction of Dreyfus, but actually completely destroys the case against Dreyfus, his first thought is that all of it needed to be brought into the light of day and dealt with before the newspapers get wind of the incongruities infesting the evidence against Dreyfus. After all a secret never remains a secret.

There is little one can do especially in this time period when the power of an organization as formidable as the army decides to fabricate charges against a citizen, backed by a population who wants to see a Jew convicted and wants to see Picquart broken for trying to defend a Jew. Imprisoned Picquart feels a strange sense of relief. The secrets are no longer just his secrets. His needs are simple. He merely needs to feed the mind.

”If my enemies on the General Staff imagine that this represents some kind of hardship for me, they are mistaken. I have a bed and a chair, pen and paper, and plenty of books---Goethe, Heine, Ibsen, Proust kindly sends me his collected writings, Les Plaisirs et les Jours; my sister a new French-Russian dictionary. What more does a man want? I am imprisoned and liberated.”

As a reader, if I have access to books, I’m almost impossible to imprison. Books allow me to be anywhere I want to be. Gray damp walls may surround me, iron bars might grid my vision, but my mind can always fly.

Picquart as a way to relax translates Fyodor Dostoyevsky into French. I liked and respected Picquart, but when I learned that nugget of information I came close to having a man crush.

Robert Harris and I have a long relationship going back to his first novel Fatherland, where he explored the idea of what the world would have been like if Hitler had won WW2. Picking up a Harris book for me has always been a sure thing. In this book he puts us in the mind of Picquart we see his fallacies, his doubts, his courage, his outrage, and ultimately his determination to find justice. His expectations for France are idealistic. No one would have faulted him for losing faith in the country and the army he loves. He never falters in his desire to remind them of how a man of honor and valor is expected to conduct himself.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Life in the Gulag

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." -- Fyodor Dostoevsky

This book was a good way to take my mind off of my own problems. Reading about the grueling conditions of a Soviet gulag made my daily worries seem trivial.

The novel is set in Stalin's Russia of the 1950s and follows the prisoner Shukhov from the moment he wakes up at 5 a.m. to when he finally goes to bed after laboring all day. Shukhov was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor, even though he was innocent. While fighting for Russia in World War II, he was captured by the Germans. He managed to escape and return to his own lines, but then he was accused of being a spy. Faced with being shot or doing hard labor, he signed a confession to spare his life.

Shukhov has already served eight years and knows how to survive in prison. He stays out of trouble and tries to do small favors for people who can get him a little extra food each day. He is a hard worker and believes that prisoners have to help each other to stay alive. He learned this lesson from his first squad leader, who told the new inmates: "Here, men, we live by the law of the taiga. But even here people manage to live. The ones that don't make it are those who lick other men's leftovers, those who count on the doctors to pull them through, and those who squeal on their buddies."

The prisoners are forced to work in brutally cold weather and have very little food. This book makes you appreciate being warm and well-fed, to be sure. When Shukhov is refused a favor from a guard who works indoors and who sits near a heater, he wonders, "How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?"

In other sections, we see how important it is to eat slowly and to treasure each bite: "More than once during his life in the camps, Shukhov had recalled the way they used to eat in his village: whole pots full of potatoes, pans of oatmeal, and, in the early days, big chunks of meat. And milk enough to bust their guts. That wasn't the way to eat, he learned in camp. You had to eat with all your mind on the food -- like now, nibbling the bread bit by bit, working the crumbs up into a paste with your tongue and sucking it into your cheeks. And how good it tasted -- that soggy black bread!"

While reading "One Day," I was reminded of some other great books about work camps, such as "Escape from Camp 14," which was about a North Korean prison, and several about the Holocaust: Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," Elie Wiesel's "Night" and Art Spiegelman's "Maus." Each of those books has their own insights into how people survive in subhuman conditions. 

I appreciated the spare, straightforward language of Solzhenitsyn. According to the introduction, Solzhenitsyn himself had served eight years in a Russian concentration camp, reportedly for making a derogatory remark about Stalin. The book was published in 1962 during Khrushchev's reign, and was considered an attack on Stalin's human rights violations. I admired Solzhenitsyn for having the courage to tell this story.

Mike and Psmith

Mike and Psmith (Psmith, #1)Mike and Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When ace cricketer Mike Jackson is pulled from Wrykyn by his father for a bad report, Mike has the misfortune of being sent to Sedleigh. Fortunately for him, this is where he meets Psmith...

Some days, you just want to read about a guy wearing a monocle that calls everyone "Comrade" and generally stirs the pot.

Mike and Psmith is an early P.G. Wodehouse novel about Mike Jackson's tenure at Sedleigh and his befriending of one Rupert Eustace Psmith. The P is silent, as in Psychotic and Pteradactyl. Since it's an early Wodehouse, it feels more akin to the school stories that were popular in Britain in the early 20th century than Wodehouse's "musicals without the music" comedies later on in his career, when he was in mid-season form.

While he was clearly still finding his footing, Wodehouse still supplied some comedic gold in Mike and Psmith, chiefly in Psmith, the whole reason I nabbed this book in the first place. It was here that Wodehouse saw the potential he had in Psmith, who would later go on to overshadow Mike Jackson time and time again in Psmith, Journalist, Psmith in the City, and Leave It to Psmith.

Mike and Psmith was originally written as a serial and the book feels that way. Mike and Psmith go from one episode to another, involving secretly playing cricket, a painted dog, the Archaeology club, making enemies, etc.

The parts featuring Psmith were by far the most interesting but it's hard to look away when that monocle-wearing socialist is on stage. Psmith makes me want to call everyone Comrade and tell outrageous lies with a straight face. He's the spiritual ancestor of Wodehouse's other smooth operators like Galahad Threepwood and the Earl of Ickenham, Uncle Fred.

For historical significance and all the fine Psmithery, I'm giving it a three but it lacks some of the fun of later Wodehouse novels.

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12 Questions with the Peacemaker Maker

Today's guest is Marianne de Pierres, author of Peacemaker.

How did you hook up with Angry Robot for Peacemaker?
My agent met Marc Gascoigne when he was in Australia for Conflux. She was really impressed by what they were publishing. We hoped that PEACEMAKER might work for them, and subbed it through the normal channels.

What would you say the big inspirations behind Peacemaker are?
I was destined to write a “Western” flavoured story at some stage. I grew up on a diet of Zane Grey, and have a deep respect for wild and hostile landscapes, having lived in the Pilbara for ten years. I would say that the setting definitely came first in this novel. Then I set about finding out who exactly would populate it. I’d written a short story a fair while back, with Virgin Jackson as the protagonist. It was a futuristic Australian outback tale with post-cyberpunk overtones. I revisited that character and knew she would be perfect in this freshly realised world. In fact, it’s kind of like she’d been waiting patiently in my files for me to come and get her.

Any more books featuring Virgin Jackson in the works?
Yes. Book two is due out next year and has a working title of DEALBREAKER. It delves deeply into the supernatural side of the story, as Virgin and Nate learn more about the Korax. The fun bit for me, will be comparing the politics of the slums and the politics of the university (a featured location) – and seeing how little they actually differ from each other. Oh, and the Gods! There’ll be mythological mayhem.

Who would you cast in a Peacemaker movie?
I’m always a fan of the unknown actor, so I’m not really sure. But maybe Chaske Spencer for Nate Sixkiller.

Who is your favorite author?
Unfair! I can’t possibly pick one. Also, my reading tastes have varied so spectacularly over the years, it’s hard to compare the kinds of writing. However, I will always have a very special place for Ballard’s Vermillion Sands collection, and Terry Dowling’s Twilight Beach collection. Both have a languid romanticism about them that really appeals to me.

What is your favorite book?
See above! I don’t think there is one favourite. At different times, particular novels have meant a lot to me. I remember being totally seduced by Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality, hooked by Charles Sheffield’s Heritage Universe series  and fascinated by Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Real Time.  Then there was the Endymion series by Dan Simmons and Chaga by Ian McDonald… I really could go on forever.

What are you reading now?
The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly. I’m not finding it as compelling as earlier Mickey Haller stories, but Connelly is always readable.

Is there a book that made you want to be a writer?
Books! Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five series, without a doubt. Empowering kids to solve mysteries - I so wanted in. Oh, and all that homemade lemonade! After that, came The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, followed by every Zane Grey, and then later Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence.  

Peacemaker isn't your first trip to the dance.  What was your first published work?
Nylon Angel back in 2004 was my first novel and my first outing in science fiction. Action, adrenalin-fuelled and raw. I still get fan mail about that series. It seemed to touch a lot of people.

Name an Australian author the rest of the world needs to know about?
 Some of my favourites include Trent Jamison, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Margo Lanagan, Jo Anderton and Lucy Sussex among many, MANY others. Kylie Chan is also huge over here, and I expect will be so internationally soon. But may I refer you to the Skiffy and Fanty podcast about Australian spec fic for a comprehensive answer to that question.

What's next for Marianne de Pierres?
 I’ve got a list of my upcoming projects up on my website. Firstly though, I’m writing DEALBREAKER, followed by a SF near-future thriller with the working title PHARMAKON. I also have a couple of crime novels in the pipeline and will be doing some game writing for a prototype. I love having a number of creative projects brewing.

Any advice for aspiring writers?
 Finish what you start! Best advice anyone ever gave me in writing.  You can find the rest of my writing tips on my website.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Great Tale from Early in the "War on Drugs"

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is an excellent thriller set in the early days of the "War on Drugs." It's the Bicentennial year of 1976, and the cocaine epidemic that would soon sweep over the U.S. is looming just over the horizon. For the moment, at least, the drug business here is still a relatively laid-back industry, dominated by relatively small-timers most of whom are growing and selling pot.

The narrator, who remains unnamed for a good long time, is a Vietnam vet. He and his partner, Colt Freeman, have a small marijuana patch in northern California and have been making a comfortable living for several years. But they now face increased scrutiny from the law and worse, violent elements, tied to the Columbian drug cartels, are moving into the area, attempting to take over the marijuana business by force. Colt and his partner see the handwriting on the wall and are anxious to get in one last crop before closing up shop. But that will prove to be much easier said than done.

Far to the south, on the Mexican/California border, a couple of bent border patrol cops are in league with a Mexican drug kingpin who's been moving illegal aliens across the border. But the drug lord is now moving into cocaine, and he's anxious to begin shipping large amounts into the U.S. along with the illegals.

The drug lord, Miguel Zamora, is the local "King" of a small rural area that he dominates like a feudal lord. He holds his subjects in complete subservience and in partnership with corrupt Mexican government officials, he has opened business with the Columbians to move white powder through Mexico and into the U.S.

But Zamora has become a little too enamored of his own product and is becoming increasingly unstable. This poses problems for his partners, for his "subjects" and for his aristocratic wife who, in effect, has become his hostage.

Much of the book moves along parallel tracks, moving back and forth between the developments in northern California and those along the border and in Mexico, until both threads of the story converge in a brilliant climax. This is a great and often violent story with lots of interesting and well-drawn characters, and it's virtually guaranteed to hold your interest from the first page to the very last.

Super Long Title For A Review About A Book On Trees With A Super Long Title

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region  National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region by Elbert L. Little
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love myself a tree now and again, but I wouldn't classify myself as a dendrophiliac. I enjoy trees enough to make flipping through this book a real pleasure.

National Audubon's series on North American wildlife and nature is a great resource for enthusiasts. Within, the reader will find hundreds of color photos with close-ups on bark and leaf. There are sketches and diagrams. Maps for every tree show its habitation range. Descriptions come with average sizes, soil preference, as well as details on each individual's twig, flower and fruit.

Reading this I even came to understand how trees can affect our emotions. Drooping willows make us sad, while trees with up-lifted branches give us a hopeful feeling.

Though the wealth of information is so valuable, just as important is the handy way in which its been laid out. Finding a fir or identifying an Ironwood couldn't be easier!

More Laughs With A Funny Lady

Bonkers: My Life in LaughsBonkers: My Life in Laughs by Jennifer Saunders
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was like receiving a moneyshot facial of closure for me and I loved it! Perhaps I should explain...

For years, nay, decades now I've been a fan of Jennifer Saunders, her hit show Absolutely Fabulous and the myriad of satellite projects revolving about her. I enjoyed the work she did with her comedy partner Dawn French. Before that I was a fan of the '80s British tv series The Young Ones, and when I realized both women had appeared in episodes of that show I wanted to know how that came about. Later I would discover the show Girls On Top and wonder where that fit in, it being so very much like The Young Ones, and how was it Tracy Ullman was a part of that project. I'd heard through the grapevine that Saunders and Young Ones star Adrian Edmondson were married. Was that before, during or after they met in the '80s? Did they meet in the '80s or was there prior history? These are all inconsequential questions that only a fan would give a shit about, and that's the target of Bonkers: My Life in Laughs.

The first half of the book is about those early days, when Saunders was scrounging about for something to do with her life and Dawn French fell into her lap. They were fortunate enough to come along at a time when a comedy troupe was in need of a female act, and thus they met The Young Ones gang. In these glorious pages, illuminated with the help of a good many photographs, many of my questions were answered. Wonderful coincidences abound. Familiar faces pop up left and right. Hilarious anecdotes explode across the page at regular intervals. It was this first half of the book that had me ready and willing to hand over a 5 star rating to Bonkers.

The second half had me reeling that rating back in. I wasn't surprised. Right at the start Saunders admits she might not have the necessary baggage and skeletons in the closet that would bring her memoir up to the rollercoaster ride, tear-jerker level of autobios often churned out by celebrities and such these days. Hers is actually a fairly normal life. She prefers things a bit low-key. Not a terrible lot of terrible things have happened to her. This is not to say she hasn't had her share of trials, but either they aren't that dramatic or she does an excellent job of under-dramatizing them. The second half isn't bad, it's just that it didn't have me all wrapped up in it as the first half did. I was a little worried though, because at one point Saunders actually begins talking about writing this book. You know you've run out of things to say when that happens. Thankfully, she jumps off that wayward wagon before it flies over the cliff edge and crashes in the canyon below.

Guilt-ridden admission: This was my "Homer" bowling ball gift to my wife this Christmas. Not that she isn't a big Saunders fan, but I bought this book for her for selfish reasons. I wanted to read it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Minority Council by Kate Griffin

The Minority Council by Kate Griffin
Orbit, 2012

Reviewed by Carol
★   ★   ★   ★  1/2

 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

Well, sort of. Take two dislikeable tropes, refrigerator females and the drug scourge, and put them in the hands of a fine storyteller, set it a city with a millennia of history, and fill it with fascinating characters, particularly a reincarnated schizophrenic sorcerer, and you get something pretty amazing with a little side helping of ambivalence.  

The Minority Council is the fourth (and last?) book in the Matthew Swift series; however, he does guest appearances in the Magicals Anonymous series. Charmingly, the next book, Stray Souls, is hinted at in a couple of places. At any rate, Matthew Swift is a former sorcerer, reincarnated along with the electric blue angels who escaped from the phone lines. He becomes the reluctant hero, the Midnight Mayor of the city, charged with protecting London from magical destruction. Matthew, however, has a problem caring about the larger issues, and does much better on the concrete, individual level. He only ends up managing the Big Concerns when individuals he comes to care about are affected. The Minority Council doesn’t break this trend; in the first few pages, he meets Meena, a magic user of stunning power, and when she calls him for help, he finds himself involved in London’s underground magical drug trade. At the same time, a local council worker, Nabeela, is trying to storm into the Mayor’s office, intending to bring her cause to his attention. Little does she know that the scuffily dressed man sneaking in the service entrance is, in fact, the Mayor. She convinces Matthew he needs to see one of the teen hooligans who has been somehow changed and the investigation gains momentum.

I continue to love Griffin’s voice. She uses a first person narrative starring Matthew/the electric angels (he switches from ‘I’ to ‘we’ regularly), which does fascinating things with characterization. But it is the overall voice, a mixture of pensive and resolute, wonderment and observant that I enjoy, a voice that perfectly fits with Matthew’s split character.  I found myself wondering if Matthew the sorcerer is indeed ‘there’ at all, or if his personality is merely the electric angels impersonating humanity. It could be because I’ve been reading Richard K Morgan’s downloaded personalities, but I can’t help but see the electric angels as the same sort of phenomenon.

Then there’s the writing itself. Griffin uses words well, specific, slightly unusual choices that highlight and play with meaning. At times, shades of Douglas Adams. At times, flat out great. “At first I hadn’t realised that the voice had been addressed to me, but when I felt an expectation next to me, I looked round, and there she stood.

The overt plot of the book largely surrounds the relationship between Matthew and his Alders. Having been on the receiving end of the Alders’ willingness to use lethal force, Matthew isn’t inclined to cut them any slack. Matthew sums up the problems between himself and his Alders early on: “In theory they serve the Midnight Mayor, soldiers in his army… They were magical, they were dangerous, a lot of them were dabblers in high finance, and if all of this wasn’t enough, they liked to wear black and talk in short sentences to let you know just how mean they were. They were the banes of my life and it was of only some small satisfaction to think that we were, in our own quaint way, the bane of theirs.

A note of levity was introduced with Kelly, Matthew’s new Alder P.A. I’m afraid I’m becoming quite fond of her, always dangerous in a Swift book. But she of the eternal optimism made me laugh out loud when she points out: “‘You say that, Mr. Mayor!’ she exclaimed. ‘But you say it in your special brave voice and, you know, I’m really not sure if I can trust your special brave voice these days because, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Mayor, there’s a very thin line between being brave and six months of physiotherapy and liquid foods.‘”

My problems with the series are hard to describe. As much as I wish it wasn’t true, bookaneer’s observation of Griffin’s use of the refrigerator female is sadly apparent. I admit to disappointment, particularly in a female author who ought to be aware that she’s killing off most (all?) of the strong women characters, good or bad. My other challenge centers around Matthew’s naivete. This is book four in Matthew’s reincarnation, and I started to feel like it is entirely too easy to use him as a cat’s paw in a larger scheme. He may feel like he is an actor, but remains largely an agent. Realizing that was one of the moments that made me question whether a sorcerer of Swift’s knowledge and experience was actually in the body at all, or if it was only the electric angels believing they are Swift–what other excuse explains the simplistic way they react with only shreds of intuition and little information?

However, Griffin does an excellent job balancing the drama of the story with humorous touches, one reason the series stands out among urban fantasy. There’s sophistication in the moral issues, and it isn’t always entirely clear that Matthew is right, however understandable his thirst for vengeance might be. The magic and magical creatures continue to impress, updated to a modern recognizable version–the magic of crime scene tape, bus passes, fairy dust, the vestments of the homeless. Overall, highly recommended, but this is one series I strongly suggest be read in order.

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