Monday, August 12, 2019

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Sacred and Profane

Sacred and Profane
by Faye Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the second of now 25 mysteries featuring police detective Peter Decker and his pious wife Rina Lazarus – well, she'll eventually be his wife (spoiler!) but they're not quite there in this installment. At this point, she's still a widow with two small sons from her marriage to a perfectly lovely Jewish divinity student who, sadly, got brain cancer. And he – well, he's exploring the possibility of converting to Orthodox Judaism, which would enable her to marry him. But things are complicated. Like, for example, the case he catches when one of Rina's boys stumbles on the skeletons of two young women during a camping trip.

Peter doesn't usually do homicide work – juvenile and sex crimes is more his beat – but the genres, as it were, overlap. At least one of the victims was a high school girl who disappeared out of an all but perfect teenage life. The girl strongly reminds Peter of his daughter Cindy, which just adds to the strain that eventually leads him to have a fight with Rina that left me, for one, cringing. At the same time, however, I have to admire a writer who is willing to show her hero in such an unattractive light. What remains to be seen (though the book gently hints at it, toward the end) is how Peter and Rina can possibly mend their relationship after this.

As for the case, well, it just has to do with some creepy old perverts who like to knock kids around (and worse), a chilling reconstruction of one sociopath's path to murder, a raid on a private viewing of a snuff film that takes a doubly gruesome turn, a novel approach to using dental records to identify remains, and some heartbreaking glimpses into the emotional wreckage wrought by child abuse, sexual exploitation and murder. Decker plunges into the moral cesspool of "Hollyweird" to wrest information out of prostitutes, pimps and pornographers. He risks career suicide to go after someone rich and powerful implicated in all this filth. He holds the hand of a dying girl and an emotionally ruined young man. And he draws a bead on a bad guy who's holding a gun to a hostage's head.

All that in the same book in which a secular man wrestles with faith – not only in God or in the power of prayer, but also in his love for a woman whose heart is already his. Amazing, right? While the mystery side of the book is unflinching in its look into the darkest byways of American society – producing plenty of sorrow and mayhem galore – the personal side delves into basic questions of heart and soul, with equal unwillingness to look away from the unpretty parts. This makes the characters seem to stand up out of the page in multi-layered relief, moving and breathing and feeling remarkably real.

Book 3, for those who want to join me in (gradually) working through the whole series, is titled Milk and Honey. Among Faye Kellerman's non-Decker/Lazarus titles are the novels The Quality of Mercy, Moon Music and Straight into Darkness.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors
by Francisco X. Stork
Recommended Ages: 13+

Pancho doesn't plan to live much longer. He comes to St. Anthony's, a home for boys in Las Cruces, N.M., with only one plan: to find out who murdered his mentally vulnerable sister and kill him. After that, he doesn't care what happens. Unluckily for him, from Pancho's point of view, his arrival strikes a chord with a boy named D.Q. who faces another likely death sentence – brain cancer. Aided by a priest whom everyone calls the Panda, D.Q. prevails on Pancho to accompany him to Albuquerque for an experimental course of treatment, followed by a period of recovery at the home of D.Q.'s estranged mother, while D.Q. works on something he calls "The Death Warrior Manifesto." Meantime, a girl named Marisol – an intern at a guesthouse for child cancer patients and their families – fascinates both of them in ways that upset all their plans.

Through Pancho's point of view, this book affords a rewarding opportunity to experience a character's growth as D.Q., Marisol and others do their part to transform his heart. Their feelings come through with moving clarity, from a St. Tony's boy glimpsed sobbing in the rear-view mirror as D.Q.'s ride to Albuquerque departs to the little girl at Casa de Esperanza who becomes passionately attached to Pancho – and she isn't the only one. What he does (and doesn't do) when he finds the man responsible for his sister's death; how he assimilates his share in that responsibility; the extent of his self-destructive feelings and what comes of them; and how he finally proves to be the friend D.Q. needs, all make a difference to the reader's peace of mind – and so, therefore, does this book.

This review is based on hearing the audiobook read by Ryan Gesell. Again, like Marcelo in the Real World, it isn't a very big book; in fact, if there's one thing disappointing about it, it's how quickly it wraps up. I suppose it would qualify as a young adult novel, though I don't recall it being filed in that section at the library. It's an all-ages thing featuring young adults, sketching their journey in a few brief encounters and making economical use of thought-provoking material. For more like it, check out the Massachusetts based author's other titles, such as Disappeared, The Way of the Jaguar and Irises.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 13+

Originally serialized in a science fiction magazine, this mash-up of sci-fi, horror and spy thriller is the first book in a series called "The Laundry Files." It's worth noting that the author dedicated it to Neal Stephenson, Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft, and that it comes with a foreword (by another author) and an afterword by Stross explaining the book's place in literary history. However, with allowances for some references perhaps being over one's head, the novel (together with the accompanying Hugo Award winning novella The Concrete Jungle) speaks for itself. It's a novel novel, exploring the comic, cosmic and creepy possibilities of a world slightly off from ours, in which certain mathematical operations and computer subroutines are loaded with magical potential to open our universe to invasion by horrid things that live beyond the outer darkness.

Call them what you will – demons, aliens, Elder Gods, whatever – you don't want them possessing you or your friends, or sucking all the energy out of the world, or turning live cows into concrete ones. Various countries have their own lines of defense (or defence) against this kind of thing. In the U.K.'s case, it's a covert holdout of the World War II-era SOE that employs agents like Bob Howard – a dorky version of James Bond, who spends 40 percent of his time fixing his co-workers' computers, 50 percent attending mind-numbing meetings and punitively boring training seminars, and the other 10 percent looking existential horrors in the eye.

In his novel-sized debut, for example, Bob travels to California for his first stab at being a field operative. It's supposed to be a simple matter of asking a British scientist why she can't seem to leave the U.S. Before he closes the case, however, he must stop a group of Iraqi occultists from sacrificing the attractive boffin to open a rift in spacetime and whistling up a threat to all humanity. In spite of being an average guy (apart from his weapons rating with Hands of Glory and basilisk guns), everything finally depends on Bob surviving a trip to a version of earth where the atmosphere is gone, the heat death of the universe is almost complete, and an atom bomb is about to go off.

In The Concrete Jungle, Bob follows up his first success with an investigation of a phenomenon concealed by so many code names and levels of classification that at one point he is forced to put a tongue-twisting geas on his police liaison. To try to put it as simply as possible, somebody has highjacked the nation's closed-circuit TV cameras with a software app developed for the day brain-eating creatures arrive from outer space. All the app does is turn whatever the camera is looking at into stone – or rather, it turns part of it into stone, and cooks the rest of it at a temperature akin to the surface of the sun. Following this kind of clue trail is dangerous when Big Brother is watching everything you do, but that's why Bob Howard makes – well, whatever number of bucks a civil service IT guy usually makes. And also, if he goes outside his budget or forgets to file a flex-time request, there will literally be hell to pay.

These stories work on a lot of levels. On their own terms, they are funny, sexy, scary and packed with intrigue. On the level of getting what makes the reader tick and messing with that, it exploits all the insecurities of today's middle-of-the-crowd urban office drudge. Like the one about being paid next to nothing while the world is expected of you. Like the one that tempts you, if you dare, to post on your cubicle wall the cartoon captioned, "The meetings will continue until productivity improves." Like the sense that at some higher echelon of society, the true nature of reality is known but that knowledge is being withheld from you – perhaps for your own good. Like the all too experience-based suspicion that whoever thinks they are doing us favors by pulling our puppet-strings from behind the scenes, doesn't actually know or even necessarily care what is best for us.

If they fumble it and things get out of control, who will save our bacon? Maybe it would be comforting to think that somebody like Bob Howard will be there, to pop his head out of an obscure cubicle and save the world. Maybe the opportunity to laugh, a bit anxiously, at that concept is just the medicine we need.

Other Laundry Files titles include the novels The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart, The Annihilation Score, The Nightmare Stacks, The Delirium Brief and The Labyrinth Index, plus such novellas or short stories as Pimpf, Overtime, Down on the Farm and Equoid. Stross, who lives in Scotland and has work experience as a pharmacist and a software designer, is also the three-time Hugo-winning author of the Singularity Sky trilogy, the Merchant Princes sextet, three Halting State books, two Freyaverse books, three Empire Games books (counting Invisible Sun, due for release in March 2020), Ghost Engine, Glasshouse, Missile Gap, Scratch Monkey, The Rapture of the Nerds (with Cory Doctorow), and more.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Marcelo in the Real World

Marcelo in the Real World
by Francisco X. Stork
Recommended Ages: 13+

Marcelo Sandoval, age 17, has a condition that could be described as similar to a high-functioning form of autism. He wants to spend his senior year at a special school where disabled children feel safe, and where no one will judge him for his special interests – including the study of holy texts, the music that plays in his head and caring for the school's ponies. But Marcelo's father is a high-powered patent attorney who thinks his son is more likely to succeed in life if he spends the next year at a public high school. As a sort of bet between them, Arturo talks Marcelo into spending the summer working at his Boston law firm. If he succeeds in his assignment, he can go back to his beloved Patterson. If he doesn't, it's gen pop for Marcelo.

Ironically, Marcelo kind of proves that his father is right. But he goes about it in a way that could irreversibly change their relationship. Meantime, he explores friendship with a male law clerk who probably isn't worthy of the honor, and romance with an office girl who at first resents having to work with him. He learns a lot about office politics, legal ethics and how to look after himself. He also feels his conscience pierced by a photograph of a girl disfigured by a product made by one of the firm's clients. His journey to figure out what is the right thing to do tests his faith in everything from dear old dad to God himself.

Marcelo is a paradoxically powerful and vulnerable character whose voice elicits affection and protective feelings in the reader's heart. Although his current dilemmas seem to resolve themselves rather quickly – it's not a very long book, at all – the journey he takes is significant, and in a few encounters with each of a handful of important supporting characters, he makes huge strides as an self-contained individual. His unique way of looking at things may also make an all-too-familiar world, indoors and out, really interesting to look at in the mind's eye. Themes of family ties, sexual attraction, love, honor and faith also come into it, but it's the magnetism between the characters – both attracting and repelling – that give this book its unique energy.

This review is based on listening to the audiobook read by Lincoln Hoppe. Mexican-born author Francisco Stork, who apparently based a character in this book on himself (try to guess which), is also the author of Disappeared and its upcoming sequel Illegal, as well as The Way of the Jaguar, Behind the Eyes, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, Irises and The Memory of Light.

Buried on Avenue B

Buried on Avenue B
by Peter de Jonge
Recommended Ages: 14+

Ever since I ran across it, I've been reading aloud the first paragraph of a major structural division in this book to anyone who will listen. It goes like this:
Instead of a shot from a starter's pistol, there's the bing made by a microwave when the soup is warm. O'Hara pushes from her seat in the second-to-last row and with two hundred compressed, vaguely nauseated travelers plods toward the exit. She presses through the malodorous air of coach and the still-warm party debris of business and does that little perp walk past the chipper smiles of the flight crew. When she steps into the rubber hose that connects the plane to the terminal, the crappy seal offers the first inkling of Florida heat.
Isn't that just delicious? I thought so the moment I clapped eyes on it, and I still think so. That's top quality writing, there. It's observant, sensuous, funny, and sizzling with personality. It also cleverly achieves the effect of a picture gradually coming into focus, leading you to understand what the scene is about without hitting you right in the face with it.

Good writing, rich characterization, crisp dialogue and a perplexing mystery are all strong points of a nevertheless imperfect novel – what novel isn't imperfect, though? It starts when a home health care aide tips O'Hara that her client, a career criminal with a touch of dementia, hints that he buried the body of his sometime partner in a public garden off Avenue B. O'Hara manipulates her captain into letting her dig up the body, expecting it to be an easy case to close for a division known throughout the department as Homicide Soft. But the bones that turn up are those of a 9-year-old boy, buried only a couple months ago. Finding out what happened to Johnny Doe becomes an unhealthy obsession for Darlene, leading her to explore the subculture of skateboard punks, high culture kiddie porn, and a network of Gypsy grifters reaching to the Gulf shore of Florida and back. Each twist along the way proves darker, grimmer and grislier.

If I have anything against this book, it is a sense of closure denied by the fact that each time O'Hara seems to be about to catch up to a person of interest in the case, somebody else gets them first. The true face of evil seems always just around the corner but never meets her eye to eye. One nursed on a steady diet of genre thrillers might notice a certain nutrient missing – that direct, violent confrontation between the protagonist and her quarry. But that doesn't make the last twist any less chilling or soften the case's effect on O'Hara's professional and personal wellbeing. The subplots, including O'Hara's enthusiasm for her college-age son's music career, the sex appeal of an elderly man who used to be a boxing champion, and an alliance with a lesbian cop from Sarasota, all flesh out the speaking image of a remarkable and memorable character who could, if she keeps working at it, become a great detective.

This is the second book of the O'Hara & Kerkorian series, featuring a pair of New York Police Department homicide detectives who, by the time this story takes place, are only former partners. Darlene O'Hara - a middle-aged, single mother who drinks too much - is really the central character. I haven't read their first adventure yet; its title is Shadows Still Remain, and it's currently De Jonge's only other novel on which he doesn't share author credit with James Patterson. Their joint titles include the inspirational golf trilogy Miracle on the 17th Green, Miracle at Augusta and Miracle at St. Andrews and the mystery-thrillers The Beach House and Beach Road.