Saturday, September 22, 2018

Jane, Unlimited

Jane, Unlimited
by Kristin Cashore
Recommended Ages: 13+

Jane is a college dropout who is still shaken by the death of her Aunt Magnolia, an undersea wildlife photographer who got caught in a blizzard in Antarctica. The last time Magnolia came back from a photo shoot, she made Jane promise to accept any invitation to visit Tu Reviens, a lavish, cobbled-together mansion on an island off the coast of New York. When she gets just such an invitation from her former tutor Kiran, who grew up there, Jane packs up her umbrella-making supplies and allows herself to get swept into...

Well, what she gets swept into depends on which of five options she chooses at a critical point in this story. Somewhere between a "choose your own adventure" book and an exploration of a multiverse layered with parallel realities, Jane's adventures - depending on which character she decides to follow at that crucial moment - include an art heist investigation, a secret agent caper, a case of paranormal creepy-crawlies, a visit to a dimension in which a convoy of spaceships is all that remains of the Earth, and a fantasy world that I don't dare to describe for fear of blowing the surprise.

At times, while pursuing one path or another, Jane picks up faint echoes of the other might-have-beens. Some versions of her visit to Tu Reviens reflect better on her character than others. Some of them lead to a reasonably good fate, some to a pretty bad one, and only one ties up everything for her in just the way she needs.

It comes together as a uniquely structured book, something like five books in one. It seems to explore a variety of possible stories that could grow wild in the same earth, while leaving the impression that there could have been even more to tell about that weird house with mismatched rooms and the unhappy eccentrics who live there. Grief, loneliness, disillusionment, artistic creativity, feelings of belonging, feelings of being trapped, and fits of dread and shock all come into expressive focus in this one book, which dares to let the curtain drop and let the reader see an author's choices steering the course of a ship-like house, an island, a world. And yet, despite being up-front about its own fictionalness, this book is also an immersive experience.

Adult Content Advisory: Parents who like to keep tabs on what is going into their kids' heads should be advised that this book features some profanity and sexuality, including same-sex attraction and a post-intercourse bedroom scene. It seems to be marketed for teens, but I would advise specifying older teens. On the other hand, a book that invites young readers to wrap their heads around a mash-up of five different fiction genres may both expect and foster a certain maturity of mind.

Kristin Cashore is also the author of the "Seven Kingdoms" books Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. Her forte seems to be fantasy that challenges genre conventions and develops powerful emotions in its reader. It is interesting to see her striking out into an even more unusual direction. I plan to try to keep up with where she goes from here.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Predator

So, I guess this is the fourth installment in the film franchise that started in 1987 with the "alien hunter stalks commandos in the jungle" movie Predator, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers and gave former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura his signature line, "I ain't got time to bleed." That was followed up by the 1990 "alien hunter stalks cops in L.A." feature Predator 2, starring Danny Glover, Gary Busey and Bill Paxton. The third one, in 2010, was Predators and it starred Adrien Brody and a bunch of TV-grade talent and, let's face it, I didn't see it. Not numbered in this list is the "Alien vs. Predator" franchise (2004's Alien vs. Predator, starring Lance Henriksen, and 2007's Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, starring nobody in particular), which I suppose is a separate series, or a two-film stunt mashing up the "Predator" and "Alien" series. I haven't seen either of them. I kind of feel that I have to say all this, though, because the titles of the movies are somewhat similar and I, for one, haven't seen them all. I'm missing at least half of the "Predator" mythology, so I can't say anything intelligent about series continuity or whatnot. But if you're like me, you'll probably approach movies with titles like "Predators" with a bit of skittishness, not knowing where it fits into the whole confusing mess.

This one, directed by original movie cast member Shane Black, was a fun diversion on the night of my 46th birthday, when I had nothing else in particular to do. Forgive my ignorance of three out of the previous five movies, but if Movie 1 was "commandos meet Predator in jungle" and Movie 2 was "L.A. cops meet Predator in the big city," I reckon Movie 4 (or 6, if you insist) would have to be "Ragtag group of mentally damaged military misfits go after Predator in the suburbs." Actually, there are two Predators in this one. It's not that there's a good Predator and a bad Predator, so much as that one of them is on the lam and the other one is kind of a bounty hunter going after him, and both of them are bad news for humans. The one being chased is big and bad enough, but the one chasing him is bigger and badder, harder to kill, and he seems to mark the main character (an Army Ranger sniper) as his particular prey. Actually, of course, it's not the sniper himself but his autistic son (played by Auggie from Wonder, not that you'd notice without the Auggie makeup), whom the Predator identifies as his nemesis. Funnily enough, the kid has the goods to fight him. But having a heavily armed dad and a squad of "Loonies" at his back doesn't hurt, much.

There's a lot of carnage and gore and explosive, fast-moving action, almost from the beginning of the movie to the end. Character development is done in broad strokes and seems pretty effective, if you don't notice how heavily it relies on stereotypes about certain psychiatric conditions. A more or less non-stop humorous patter gives a perhaps disturbingly light tone to a movie in which most of the characters die horribly and in which death (including by suicide) is portrayed so calmly, casually, one might even say callously. By now there doesn't seem to be much point in concealing the Predator's appearance, so only a handful of scenes are played for suspense. The adrenaline flow in this outing shows a definite preference toward fight as opposed to flight. What seems to me to be an interesting development is the amount of screen devoted to the Predators' technology, which is pretty spiffy and can actually come in useful, if you have a high-functioning savant along for the gore-fest. Also appearing are government bad guys willing to kill their fellow Americans - sometimes almost as threatening as the alien baddies.

The cast is effective, though only somewhat familiar to me. I know from Thomas Jane, who plays a Loony with Tourette's syndrome. Jake Busey, son of Gary, was in one of my favorite paranormal slasher flicks, Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. Trevante Rhodes, whose character puts the "suicide" into this movie's version of the Suicide Squad, was in 12 Strong, which I saw not too long ago. A couple of the other faces look familiar, but their film and TV credits are pretty much stuff I haven't been watching. So, it's a pretty good ensemble without being headlined by a big star. And it's an entertaining enough movie to suggest that some members of the ensemble might get a shot, in the near future, at becoming a big star. It would be interesting to be able to say you were there to see it happen, the magic moment when someone went from nobody in particular to somebody big. If that happens to anyone in this movie, I'll go out on a limb and predict that it will be Boyd Holbrook, who plays the sniper with the autistic son. He proves in this movie that he can pull off an inwardly tortured but tough and super-capable type, with a vulnerable spot hidden somewhere about him (in this case, his son), and with the strange combination of the ability to be an authority figure and a habitual disregard of authority. That's a mouthful. But it's also a good money-making character type. John Krasinski just recently proved he can pull it off (cf. 13 Hours) and where is he now? Playing Jack Ryan. If the makers of Jack Ryan had waited a beat or two before casting the role, they might have discovered Holbrook. Next time, dude.

The Spaceship Next Door

The Spaceship Next Door
by Gene Doucette
Recommended Ages: 13+

Annie Collins, age 16, is the life of Sorrow Falls, Mass. A short bicycle ride from where she lives with her cancer-afflicted mother and without, repeat, without her father, a UFO landed three years ago and hasn't done anything since then. At least, nothing anybody knows about. No little green men came out and asked to meet the planet's leader. No killer robots rampaged through town, shooting lasers out of their eyes. In fact, nothing has changed in Sorrow Falls at all - which is really spooky, when you think about it. But so far, the only person who has managed to think about it is a government researcher named Ed, who hires Annie to serve has his translator because his cover (being a journalist looking to write a story about Sorrow Falls) isn't standing up to local folks' scrutiny.

Together, Annie and Ed visit the RV encampment across the road from the army-guarded gate to the field where the UFO stands. They talk to a local leader of industry. They look at a mural at the public library depicting the founding of Sorrow Falls. They explore the vague hints that the alien ship really is doing something that may threaten all life on Earth. They become a bit concerned when a couple of people start to exhibit what may be a tendency to have violent episodes while sleepwalking, followed immediately by death, or (gulp) the first awakenings of a zombie apocalypse. But really, what Ed would like to know is who managed to put a handprint on the alien ship, in spite of a force field around it that forces horrible thoughts into the mind of anyone who comes close. And it's just when Ed and Annie are starting to realize that the solution to the mystery is closer than they would ever have guessed, everything goes crazy. Bombs. Zombies. Heavily armed conspiracy nuts driving a camper like it's a tank. An intelligence so alien that it really does threaten the survival of the whole planet. And between us and doomsday, one 16-year-old girl with guts, brains, and people skills enough for 20 people.

This is a weird, woolly, wild and wonderful book, full of science fiction in-joke chapter titles, intelligent dialogue, humor, romance, action/suspense jeopardy heavy enough to bend starlight, and characters and relationships that pop up in three or more dimensions before the mind's eye. It's a book full of genre stereotype-breaking surprises, excruciating honesty, compassion for flawed people and lovable whimsy. Every move is unexpected in the moment, while somehow, at the same time, the story coalesces together with a sense of inevitability.

I am really interested, now, to look at some of Gene Doucette's other works, which include an indeterminate number of "Immortal" books (Fantastic Fiction is strangely vague about this), stand-alone novels Fixer and Unfiction, and the sequel to this book, The Frequency of Aliens. His non-fiction titles include Beating Up Daddy: A Year in the Life of an Amateur Father and Vacations and Other Errors in Judgment.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
by David Grann
Recommended Ages: 14+

My birthday was this past Saturday, but it didn't get celebrated much on the day itself - mostly because both of my parents had their 50th high school reunion that day. Nevertheless, my mom and her husband took me out for barbecued ribs the day before, and my dad and stepmom had me over for a delicious home-cooked meal a few days later, and I'm too old for cake and balloons, so it's all right. When both of my parents asked me what I did on my birthday, my answer was: I went out for shrimp egg foo young and splurged on myself at the local bookstore. This book was one of my birthday presents to myself, and I devoured it hungrily in spite of the weight of three Chinese omelets with gravy in my stomach.

This non-fiction book generates the kind of atmosphere of suffocating dread and tension that would do credit to a novel of mystery and suspense. It follows the investigation and prosecution, involving an early team of FBI special agents led by a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, of some of the key figures in a widespread conspiracy that was killing off the wealthy Osage Indians in an oil-rich area of Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Members of this well-to-do community were dying at a rate well above the national average, in spite of their high standard of living; meantime, the government did not allow them to handle their own affairs as they saw fit, treating them as incompetent and denying them the full rights of citizenship. This put them in a position that influential people could, and did, take advantage of. Basically, the Osage were dropping like flies, while their money and mineral rights filtered into the hands of the dishonest guardians and relatives of their white loved ones. In one particular family, the main focus of this book, an Osage woman saw virtually her entire family taken down by poison, bullets and a bomb, and her own health was failing until she was taken out of the care of doctors who seemed to be involved in the conspiracy. But then, who wasn't? Who could you trust when detectives hired to investigate the crimes were themselves in on them, along with the sheriff, local police, the county prosecutor, the governor, the state's top investigator, and lawyers and medical personnel? How do you, supposing you're Tom White, get to the truth when you can't trust any official in the entire state, because a word breathed to the wrong person leads, time after time, to a suspect or witness being murdered, evidence disappearing, a cooperative defendant suddenly deciding not to cooperate, etc.?

The mystery in this book isn't just engaging; it's disturbing. Tom White and his team solved just one tiny corner of a huge and complex web of mystery. Other culprits apparently got away with wholesale murder and fraud, some in spite of their involvement being known to law enforcement, because there was not enough solid evidence to convict them. The death toll was staggering. That's what makes me choose the word "disturbing" to describe it - the apparent fact that the murder for money of Osage Indians was not just the act of a few people, but a systemic activity in which Oklahoman society was generally complicit. It's a chilling tale of husbands conspiring to kill their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children, and so on, and the few white people who raised a finger to stop it promptly turned up as horribly murdered corpses. The deeper author Grann delves into this case, the more unnervingly awful it becomes, until disgust with the human race finishes in a tie with feelings of intrigue and appreciation of the triumph of justice in the story's central case.

Killers of the Flower Moon is an example of the kind of investigative journalism, sometimes just a tad fictionalized, structured in the form of a novel, that Truman Capote is sometimes credited with inventing in his book In Cold Blood. From time to time - mostly before I started this series of book reviews - I have hugely enjoyed an example of this genre, such as Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Dava Sobel's Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, Robert M. Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Ross King's Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling and my personal favorite, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss. I'm just mentioning books that I haven't reviewed, or of which my review is now lost; others, like a recent book by M.T. Anderson about Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, are also on that favored shelf of my mental library: great pieces of non-fiction entertainment. In many cases, they're as gripping as a thriller novel, to which the knowledge that they're a true story just adds zest. This book hits that nail on the head, and countersinks it with a bibliography and end-notes that document the meticulous research that lies behind the chilling tale.

David Grann is a New Yorker magazine writer whose other book-length works of investigative journalism include The Lost City of Z, a book about an ill-fated expedition into the Amazon jungle which was made into a movie starring Charlie Hunnam last year; The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, an anthology of previously published essays about real-life mysteries; and this year's The White Darkness, about an expedition to Antarctica.

Crime Scene

Crime Scene
by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This first book in the Clay Edison series focuses on a heretofore untapped area of mystery novel sleuthery: coroners' deputies. In the Bay Area county depicted in this novel, that means a group of sworn sheriff's deputies who specialize in photographing the scene of a suspicious death, collecting the body to take back to the morgue, and (after the pathologist submits an autopsy report) deciding whether the corpse's manner of death was natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined. The Clay Edison of whom I have made mention is one of these guys. It might sound fishy to viewers of TV mystery shows, but I recently wrote a newspaper story about a woman who retired from a similar position with the Minnesota BCA, and around this time last year (when I was still living in Missouri) I read about the BCA in a crime novel and thought it was a fictional agency. So, don't write it off as far-fetched. Somewhere between the cops who interview witnesses and suspects and the scientists who analyze crime-scene evidence, there are, in some jurisdictions, cops with guns who serve on the crime scene detail but who aren't tasked with solving the crime. So, if he's that type of cop, how does Clay Edison manage to solve the crime in this novel? Well, that would be telling. But I'll give you a couple hints: (1) he does it mostly on his days off, and (2) he gets in trouble for it.

So, there you go. Clay Edison is a former college basketball star and with an "all but dissertation" doctorate in psychology, the younger of two sons who when asked whether he has any siblings says "none to speak of," and a cop who sees dead people everywhere, but mostly because he remembers securing the scene where they died. His job isn't to close cases; it's just to "manner" people's deaths and help their loved ones find closure. Nevertheless, once he gets his teeth into the death of a disgraced psychology professor whose daughter is convinced it was murder, he just can't let go. Even with all the evidence indicating that the man died of a heart attack, something about the the psychologist's past niggles at Clay. The latest death may be natural, but the prof's former research assistant came to a similar end several years earlier, and that death seems somehow related to the brutal slaying of another member of the research team years before that, and the disturbed young man who went to prison for her murder was not only out of jail in plenty of time to kill both men, but he's also missing. And Clay thinks he saw the guy at the scene of the prof's death. And Clay is increasingly drawn to the professor's daughter. And so on.

You know how it goes. Law enforcement officer begins to cross a professional line with one of the witnesses, and there's a psycho out there, and so of course, they're both in danger... Except, none of that happens in this book. In fact, it goes in a surprisingly different direction, though one that is richly stocked with spookiness, regret, intrigue, and other emotional revelations. The story is tightly plotted, yet at the same time it increasingly invites the reader to invest emotionally in Clay as a character. Also, it is rife with hardboiled-style zingers such as the following description of a witness:
He wore a broadcloth button-down shirt tucked into Levi's. Both belt and suspenders had been enlisted in the battle between pants and gut. I liked the gut's chances. It had gravity on its side.
Among other bits that I liked so much that I promised myself at the time that I would quote them here are the statement, "I make it my business not to make other people's business my business," and the observation, "(She) crossed her legs, a maneuver that took a long time and ought to have involved the FAA." There are lots of examples like this in Clay's narrative of smart remarks that reminded me fondly of Philip Marlowe and his ilk.

Believe it or not, I have never read anything by Jonathan Kellerman before. He is the author of approximately 34 crime thrillers featuring a child psychologist named Alex Delaware, who makes a cameo appearance in this book, as well as a couple "Petra Connor" novels (Billy Straight and Twisted), several other novels, short story collections, non-fiction (mostly about abnormal child psychology, but also a book about guitars), and a couple of books for children. With his wife Faye Kellerman, he wrote Double Homicide and Capital Crimes. With his son Jesse, he has also written two "Jacob Lev" novels (The Golem of Hollywood and The Golem of Paris) and a sequel to this book, A Measure of Darkness. On his own, Jesse Kellerman has published the novels Sunstroke, Trouble, The Genius, The Executor and Potboiler, and the play Things Beyond Our Control.

Temptation Bangs Forever

Temptation Bangs Forever: The Worst Church Signs You've Ever Seen
by Robert Kroese and Joel Bezaire
Recommended Ages: 12+

Remember the Tackiness on Holy Ground thread on my blog? It hasn't been very active lately. But it's been over four years since I moved away from the St. Louis neighborhood served by a Lutheran church whose pastor literally wrote the book about what to put on your church's sign if you have really bad judgment. Now, to steal the thunder from my rants about tacky church signs is this book by the author of the "Mercury" novels (Kroese), whom I first encountered through his hilarious but now defunct blog "Mattress Police," and another humor blogger (Bezaire) who specialized in, well, tacky church signs.

This book is basically a photo album of the best, I mean the worst, of the church signs Bezaire collected, with snappy comebacks by both of them and section intros by some guest contributors whom I will not name here. It would probably be a sufficient review of this book if I were to say, simply, that I am envious of their opportunity to contribute to a book like that. I think it would have been a gas to be part of that crowd. But reading the book was reasonably gaseous as it is. It amply documents the fact that authors of church sign sentiments often lack not only good taste or a sense of the proper tone for their subject matter and medium, but also have trouble with spelling and grammar, a blind spot to breathtakingly inappropriate ways a person of average or below-average piety may interpret what they wrote, and a tendency to try so hard to seem "with it" that they only prove how out of touch they are. For example, take the sign that lends its punchline to the title of this book: OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS 1X - TEMPTATION BANGS FOREVER. Yeah, it really said that. The book has photographic evidence.

It's such a ridiculously short book, and even more quickly read than its length would suggest, that I almost feel guilty about writing a review of it. But it was fun, and the fun was about something I actually care about. Like Kroese and (I think even more so) Bezaire, I poke fun at bad church signs not to be blasphemous, but in a sort of cathartic way, because if I didn't laugh I would perhaps have to cry. In a similar way, I go after church music that I think is tacky in the context of Lutheran worship, not because I want to run nice religious people down but because I think what is taught and confessed in the sung portions of the Divine Service is too important to leave in the hands of people who haven't the least sensibility about it. For a better witness to the outside world and a stronger grasp of our own faith, we owe it to ourselves as churchgoing people to learn from, and turn from, mistakes like the ones laughed at in this book. And if we laugh at them in fun, well, that's gravy.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Gotham Season 3

This is the season of the Batman prequel show in which Ivy (who will presumably become Poison Ivy) gets fast-forwarded to adulthood via particularly acute case of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome (which also involves recasting the role); it introduces Jervis Tetch/The Mad Hatter, whose sister carries a virus, later used as a bio-weapon, that brings out the worst in people; it introduces Alexander Siddig (sometime "Dr. Bashir" on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as lord of assassins Ra's al Ghul; it also recasts the roles of Bridgit Pike/Firefly and Kathryn of the Court of Owls; introduces and then kills off a grown-up son of Don Falcone, as a love interest for Jim Gordon's love interest; moves both Gordon and young Bruce Wayne into their darkest place yet, from which it hardly seems possible they can be redeemed; and pits villains Penguin, the Riddler, Butch Gilzean, Tabitha Galivan and Barbara Kean against each other in continuously shifting configurations of alliance and betrayal.

In this season, we see Police Capt. Barnes become the Executioner, Penguin become the mayor of Gotham, Ed Nygma totally lose his cool when Penguin declares his romantic feelings for him (though, in all fairness, Penguin also happens to murder the love of Nygma's life), Lucius Fox start acting like a principal character, and in the final shot of the season, Batman in action for the first time ever.

So, there's a lot to pack into this serialized story. I can't possibly do it justice. Just what happens as a result of the Alice Tetch virus is enough to turn the status quo upside-down and inside out. Gordon shoots Lee Thompkins' husband dead on their wedding day; Barnes becomes obsessed with destroying Gordon; Gordon has to infect himself in order to survive being buried alive; meantime Bruce gets caught up in the conspiracy to destroy Gotham City with a virus bomb. Lured into a plot that ultimately has Ra's al Ghul behind it, he gets brainwashed into becoming something poor Alfred doesn't recognize. The good guys get put through the wringer, but the bad guys aren't exempted, either. Butch first loses a limb, then survives being shot in the head only to be revealed to be someone else entirely. Love, hate, jealousy and revenge come between Penguin and the Riddler. Barbara claws her way to the top of the city's criminal underworld. Harvey Bullock spends a lot of time acting as police captain. Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze finds his way to an alpine climate where he can take his shirt off, supplying the first overt moment of male sex appeal in the series so far (that is, if you like bluish skin).

A cute journalist named Valerie Vale catches Gordon on the rebound from Lee, then dumps him when the Mad Hatter forces him to choose which of the two of them must die and he says, "Kill Vale" - though, perhaps ironically, Jim was actually applying reverse psychology at that moment. The guest cast also includes a Tweedledee/Tweedledum pair of heavies, a doppelganger of the girl Ed Nygma loved and killed in a previous season, an anti-Court of Owls group called the Whisper Gang that turns out to be particularly good at getting killed, Selena/Cat's estranged mother who comes back into her daughter's life solely to use her to con money out of Bruce, an uncle of Gordon's who literally kills himself to get his nephew into the Court of Owls, and a cult (led by David Dastmalchian, who played a villain from the future on Flash) that worships, then resurrects, the late Jerome Valeska, who I previously said looked like a good candidate to become the Joker someday. So, yeah, lots of stuff.

Out of all this stuff, however, I think the Three Scenes That Made It For Me (it being Season 3 as a whole) were: (1) Penguin begging for his life when Nygma takes him out to the harbor to kill him. (2) Bruce telling Alfred that his first rule, going forward, is "I will not kill" - a resolution that I think will haunt him after events later in the season. (3) What Tabitha does when Nygma forces her to choose between killing Butch and losing her own right hand. For what it's worth.

It may be a while before I see Season 4, but as I said before, each successive season of this show seems to top all with its relentless exploration of darker, dangerouser, bat-guano-crazier visions of the criminal and crime-fighting lifestyles of Gotham City. Also, it just keeps exhibiting its own unique look - retro-present day, industrial gothic, shadowy urban decay - that goes perfectly with the concept of a city where the only thing that gives people hope amid an apocalyptic cocktail of chaos, corruption, and over-the-top villainy is a flamboyantly costumed vigilante who, at his most effective moments, is almost a villain himself. And what keeps you guessing is how, after all the dark places their journey has led them already, Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne are going to get their act together on time to be the heroes they will someday become.