Monday, September 30, 2019

The Other Two Movies

Abominable – The night after I went to see Ad Astra, I went back to the cinema for this DreamWorks animated feature. By the end, I felt that I had corrected my error of the night before. It's a warm-hearted, visually beautiful, funny and magical movie about a teenage girl from an unnamed Chinese city (we only know that it's not Beijing) who discovers a yeti living on the roof of her apartment building. Armed with her dead father's violin, a heartful of steely determination and some postcards of places her dad would have taken her if he had lived, she travels thousands of miles to restore the creature, whom she calls Everest, to his home environment, also called Everest. Accompanying her are two cousins from the next floor down – a social media addict whose attractiveness to girls, not to mention his college plans, threaten to tear their friendship apart, and a plump little kid who aspires to basketball stardom.

Chasing them, meanwhile, are an obsessed rare animal collector and his henchpeople, who surprisingly turn out to be more villainous than the at first unpleasant old man. The pursuit leads up rivers, over mountains, across grassy plains and deserts, and finally into the high snows. But the magic of music – especially hummed by a yeti – provides faster modes of movement that keep them just ahead of the bad guys until a climactic standoff on a Himalayan bridge.

The scenery in this movie is awesome. The music, mainly showcasing the solo violin and/or basso profundo humming, is frequently moving and sometimes elicits beautiful displays of visual magic. The characters work out an entertaining interplay between them, of which the unexpected plays an important part. The voice cast is pretty effective, including a kid whose grandfather (ironically?) was the first man to summit Mount Everest, Chloe Bennet of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., British comic Eddie Izzard, and a certain Sarah Paulson who will soon be seen in a TV miniseries playing Nurse Ratched.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) I like the moment when Jin, the older boy, realizes that the tame white rat previously depicted as a female scientist's pet would actually be better off perched on the shoulder of the character who, up to that point, seemed to be the boss villain. The move, and the boy's line (something like "I think you're better off with him"), helps the viewer through one of those moments where everything seen up to that point changes meaning. (2) The scene in which Everest tries to pass as a yak. (3) When Yi, the hero girl, realizes that their journey has taken them to all the places in her dad's postcards.

The Peanut Butter Falcon – This off-road road trip movie stars the unspellable Shia LaBeouf (I looked it up) as a screw-up on the run from some hard guys he screwed over in the outer banks of the Carolinas. He inadvertently picks up a Down syndrome person, played by a certain Zack Gottsagen, who is running away from a nursing home and dreams of being a professional wrestler. Later joined by a kind nurse from the facility played by Dakota Johnson, they make their way to the last known address of Zak's idol, the Salt Water Redneck, played by Thomas Haden Church. But as the trio grows together as a found family, the bad guys find them, too, threatening the sweet future that seems just tantalizingly possible for the three of them.

Also appearing are Bruce Dern (last seen in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as Zak's nursing home roommate, LaBeouf's Fury co-star Jon Bernthal as the memory of Tyler's dead brother (an actor who makes a vivid impression in a handful of brief appearances in which his voice is never heard), and former real-life pro wrestler Jake "The Snake" Roberts as the former pro wrestler who gets in the ring with Zak at the climax of the movie. The climax hits, swift and hard, and the movie resolves for good or ill in very short order, and with almost no dialogue from there to the end. But it's a powerful moment, and you only realize how invested you are in these flawed characters when you experience the emotions at the end of the film.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) That time the shrimp boat almost runs Zak over while Tyler (LaBeouf) tries to tow him across a channel. (2) The scene in which Tyler and Eleanor (Johnson) make Zak dunk his head underwater so they can talk about him without being heard – which culminates in Zak catching a fish with his bare hands. The audience I saw it with roared with appreciation. (3) How Zak's bout with "The Snake" winds up.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Ad Astra

Last night, for the first time since I don't know when, three out of three films playing at the local movie theater were things I was interested in seeing. Initially, I was inclined to see The Peanut Butter Falcon. As I approached the ticket booth, I was leaning toward Abominable. But in the moment, I chose Ad Astra, a picture I knew nothing about except that the poster shows Brad Pitt wearing a space suit.

Well, it was a beautiful movie. Nevertheless, I didn't care for it. One-sentence synopsis: A man travels 2.7 billion miles to find his absentee father, only to learn that the old man doesn't care to have a relationship with him. Cast: Brad Pitt as an astronaut who, the way the story is structured, almost comes across as the only person in the world; Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler and Loren Dean in roles that only occupy the screen for a handful of minutes each. In Jones' case (playing the father), at least half of his time on-screen is depicted as archival footage. Tyler, playing the next most important person in Pitt's character's life, has a duration best measured in seconds to make her impression on the viewer.

Verily, most of the acting in this film is done by Pitt, which is all right (he's improved a lot in that department) except that the way his role is written, he undergoes a 180-degree change in character, which seems very unlikely under any circumstances and, in my opinion, is not earned by the particular circumstances the character undergoes in this movie. In terms of breathtaking majesty or wonder of science fiction conceit, the film is a bit of a let-down: in spite of nice visuals involving Jupiter, Saturn and especially Neptune, the main "too long, didn't read" takeaway is that Jones sacrifices years, lives and relationships to prove that there is intelligent life out there, beyond the solar system ... and inadvertently proves the opposite. We're all alone! No little green men! As for Pitt, he sets out either to rescue or destroy his alienated (ha) parental unit, only to arrive at a significantly less satisfying outcome than both. And finally, the future of space exploration gets a depressing look, with everything revolving (ha) around psychology and managing the optics of a militarized space force, while the moon is crawling with pirates.

I came away depressed, in part because the one-sentence synopsis that I composed in my head during the film really turned all the jazzy sci-fi bits into non-essential window dressing. Shall I stir myself to compose Three Scenes That Made It For Me? Must I? All right, since you insist: (1) The main character fits himself with a feeding tube in zero gravity, making this movie overall the least sexy depiction of shirtless Brad Pitt ever recorded. I daresay that record will stand for a long time. (2) Buggy chase on the moon, with pirates. Best part: the seats on the moon buggies are apparently folding lawn chairs. (3) Space-suited Pitt, clutching a detached bulkhead in front of him, performs the longest standing long jump in human history, survives passing through one of the rings of Neptune (don't try this at home) and somehow, by dead reckoning, doesn't miss the spaceship he's trying to hitch a ride on. Bonus: that ride is fueled primarily by the explosion of an atomic bomb that he left armed on the other spaceship behind him. The thing that amazed me most was that the movie didn't overtly make much out of how nearly impossible that feat of navigation was, of the vast likelihood that he would end up drifting in space forever. It seemed like the sort of thing Brad Pitt's astronaut character (I remember his name; it was Roy McBride) can do any given morning between waking up and having his first cup of coffee.

I'm not saying don't go to see this movie. What I'm saying is, don't worry about taking a prophylactic pee before it starts. If you have to miss a few minutes of Brad Pitt Broods In Space For Two Hours That Feel Like Three, don't sweat it.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Fuller Memorandum

The Fuller Memorandum
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third Laundry Files novel, British secret agent-slash-computational demonologist Bob Howard is sent insufficiently briefed (as usual) to what he thinks is just a minor exorcism of the residual mathemagical energies surrounding a mothballed spy plane. But thanks to a bit of bad luck, a slightly senile museum tea lady gets zapped to dust. If only Bob knew it, this is just the first act of an all-around disaster for the secret government agency he works for, the one that protects mankind (or at least, British subjects) from brain-eating horrors beyond spacetime.

Bob is on suspension, but at the same time, he is expected to pick up the slack of his immediate boss, the enigmatic Angleton. Also, he and his wife Mo (Dr. Dominique O’Brien, who wields an assault violin and is classified as a combat epistemologist) are repeatedly threatened by a series of attacks that suggest that the Laundry has a serious security leak. A cult, whose practices include baby blood drinking and preschool teacher face eating, is trying to trigger the end of the world ahead of schedule, and there are signs that it might be coming sooner than expected anyway. And somewhere – perhaps buried in the stacks of the Laundry’s deepest archives, which are guarded by zombies – there is a document that Bob isn’t cleared to know about, but that he needs in order to stop bad things from happening.

Before it’s all over, Bob will find himself in the clutches of a screwy group of cultists who intend to perform evil rites, so that an ancient soul-eating demon will take control of his body. The dead will rise. Secrets will be revealed. A traitor will step forward out of the shadows. Once again, Charles Stross weaves a distinctive counterpoint of subversive humor, cosmic horror, workplace satire, secret agent action and brainy hipness (or maybe culture-referencing nerdiness). It’s weird, funny, smart, spooky and not altogether unsexy, all wrapped up in a concept whose time is now – occult iPhone apps! In my opinion, the only false note in the piece is its excessively hostile treatment of religion, which may alienate a lot of readers who would otherwise enjoy Stross’s work.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Gideon Emery. The next installment is the Laundry Files The Apocalypse Codex; the ninth addition to the series, due to be released Oct. 30, 2019, is The Labyrinth Index. A few of Stross more intriguing titles include Iron Sunrise, Accelerando, The Revolution Business, Saturn’s Children, Ghost Engine, Scratch Monkey, a short story collection titled Toast and, in collaboration with Cory Doctorow, The Rapture of the Nerds.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Did You Hear: An Adult Contemporary Lyric

I sang a song to remember,
Sang a song to forget,
A song to make memories by:
Did you hear?

I told a heartbreaking story,
Told a tale to heal,
A tale that I believed in:
Did you hear?

Did you hear when I was crying,
Calling out your name?
Smile when I was laughing?
Does it matter?

I drew a beautiful picture,
A face that seemed to speak
Just what I wanted to tell you:
Did you hear?

More "Is THAT How You Say?"

I reckon this is the eighth installment of this thread, in which admit to all the words I thought I knew how to pronounce, but then I listened to an audiobook reader (usually British), or the dialogue in a BBC teleseries, and came away with an entirely unguessed-at pronunciation. Some of these were simply scribbled in the notebook I keep in the center island of my car, and they seem to have been in there for quite some time, so I can't say exactly who put me onto these pronunciations, or when and in what piece of spoken-word or video entertainment.

Grimacing, making a face expressive of pain. I would have thought it went "GRIM-us-ing." But according to some Brit in an audio book, it can apparently be pronounced as "grim-ACE-ing."

Circulatory, as in the system that pumps blood around your body. I had always heard and said it as "SIR-cue-lə-tor-y," with a secondary accent on "tor." But I guess the Brits have it as "sir-cue-LAY-tə-ry," with the secondary accent on "sir" and with the schwa in the penultimate syllable apt to reduce to almost nothing.

Magister, a master. Experience has led me to think of this word as being pronounced "MAJ-iss-ter," but some fantasy novel that defined it a bit differently (some kind of wizard, I guess) had it, in the audiobook, as "mə-GISS-ter," with a hard G.

Geas, a magical binding. I learned this word from reading fantasy novels, and I seem to remember establishing my notion of how to pronounce it from a Diana Wynne Jones book that made wordplay between it and "geese." However, according to a recent consultation with an audiobook reading of a Charles Stross novel, it can also be pronounced "gesh."

Skeletally, down to the bare bones. American pronunciation: "SKEL-ə-tə-ly." British pronunciation, per the same Stross audiobook: "skə-LEE-tə-ly." Far out, eh?

Ensign, as in the lowest commissioned rank in the navy. American pronunciation: "EN-sən." British pronunciation, per the same Stross audiobook: "EN-sign," with a silent G. Huh.

Gaseous, as in the state of matter. My pronunciation: "GAS-i-us." But according to at least two characters in an episode of Doctor Who that I recently watched (The 10th Doctor – I'm just starting to watch this show after years of dragging my feet), it's "GAY-shəs." Which, in my opinion, is a gas.

BONUS FEATURE: How about these English idioms I didn't know existed until the other day, when I read The Portable Door by Tom Holt? I had to look up what they meant on the internet, just to be sure – though I accurately guessed a couple of them from context.

You don't know you're born – You don't know how lucky you are. (Apparently derived from the thought "You don't know how hard life was before you were born.")

It's up the pictures – It's broken. (I have no idea what this is derived from.)

Did it hell as like – NOT! Or, The hell you did! The British version actually reminds me of the expression, "The hell you say!"

Not my line of country – Not my area of expertise. I would have expected a word like "business" in place of "country."

The Portable Door

The Portable Door
by Tom Holt
Recommended Ages: 14+

I was reading this book during a weekend at my parents' house when I just had to read an excerpt aloud to my dad. After hearing it, and snatching the book out of my hand to read a bit more with his own eyes, he demanded that when I was done with it, I should give it to him. So, he's got it now, and as a result, I'm unable to quote verbatim from any of the passages that made me snicker, chuckle, giggle, snort and, at least a couple times, throw my head back in a roar of laughter.

Tom Holt is a new revelation to my dad, but not to me. I've even read one of the books in the series (J.W. Wells & Co.) of which this book is the first installment. So, I'm hardly surprised to find that he mixes magic with modern, everyday, urban life in a way that elicits both an occasional belly-laugh and a steady glow of amused appreciation. As this book begins, a young bloke named Paul Carpenter is facing a hopeless job interview for a company so mysterious, he's afraid to ask what they do. In spite of all the other applicants being better looking, well-rounded young professionals, he gets hired as a clerk along with a skinny girl named Sophie, whose personal habits are so repulsive that he instantly falls in love with her.

As they do boring, meaningless work together, Paul struggles to cope with his feelings for Sophie, while continuing to be completely hopeless at making love to a girl. Also, he learns that J.W. Wells & Co. is a firm that deals in magic. Business magic. Magic business. You get the drift. At first it's all harmless fun, dousing for bauxite deposits in aerial photos of the Australian outback. But things start to get crazy when the pair get locked in the office after hours and realize that the building is overrun – or rather, owned – by goblins. In an accelerating pace of wacky adventures, they use a magical door (the type that rolls up and fits in your inside pocket) to carry out a caper on which lives, not to mention the business, depend.

So, this is actually the first of seven novels featuring the J.W. Wells firm, of which I previously and unknowingly read Book 7, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages. The second book in the series is In Your Dreams, followed in order by Earth, Air, Fire and Custard; You Don't Have to Be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps; The Better Mousetrap and May Contain Traces of Magic. Other Tom Holt titles include Goatsong, The Walled Orchard, four YouSpace novels, Expecting Someone Taller, Who's Afraid of Beowulf?, Grailblazers, Faust Among Equals, Djinn Rummy, Paint Your Dragon, Snow White and the Seven Samurai, Falling Sideways, Little People, Barking, The Management Style of the Supreme Beings and, released as recently as Sept. 10, 2019, An Orc on the Wild Side. That's only a partial list, there. But I think the titles are representative of Holt's genre-mashing sense of humor. I look forward to reading many more of them.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Computer that Did Everything Twice

“I see everything twice!” the soldier who saw everything twice shouted in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He was in the throes of delirium and died soon afterward.

I’m not seeing everything twice. But thanks to my computer, I’m having to do a lot of things twice and that has, at times, given me feelings ranging from “going mildly crazy” to “presentiment of doom.”

I’m happy to report that the shenanigans Google Mail got up to about a year ago, which I wrote about here, are no longer troubling me. So, I don’t have to type my gmail password twice to login once; I don’t have to watch the progress bar ooze across the screen twice before arriving at my inbox. That’s one mercy.

However, I’ve picked up on a number of other issues demanding repetition of tasks that I would just as soon not have to repeat. They may be unique to my own personal computer (I mean to say, the PC I use at work). Or they may be signs that Microsoft, Adobe and their ilk are having a bad day this year. I’d give them a pat on the head for reassurance, but that would require me to reach up their … never mind.

First, there’s the background image settings on my Windows desktop. Earlier this year, I shot a nice, scenic photo and asked the computer nicely to make it my background image, set to fill the screen. Every time my computer restarts, however, it shows me a tantalizing glimpse of my desired background photo, then switches as if by default to a detail image from the same photo, set on tile. Every. Time. Would it be unreasonable to expect Windows to save my preference and not make me do this every time I restart the machine? I’d like to say no. But this is Microsoft we’re talking about.

When I stick my camera’s memory card in the card reader slot on the computer, I have to be careful what I do in what order. Say I’m dragging photos off the card into a folder on the harddrive. I have to have that folder ready before I insert the card, open the relevant folder on it and attempt to click and drag, or else the computer will likely freeze and I’ll have to restart and go through the whole process again.

When it comes time to remove the card, I try to be scrupulous about opening a context menu and asking the computer to eject it, so I can safely remove it from the slot. But I find that every time – again, every time – I get an error message saying something went wrong, and I have to click “Try Again” at least once before it will eject properly. Occasionally, if I’ve already Photoshopped a copy of some of the pictures that I pulled over to my computer, the cycle of “Something’s wrong, want to try again?” will continue until I close Photoshop. It’s as if there’s a file still open on the card, even though there isn’t.

While I’m mentioning Photoshop, let me also kvetch about the process of printing a JPEG. You go to the print dialog box and find, naturally, that the image is bigger than the printable area of the page. That’s no surprise. What’s weird is that it’s trying to squeeze the landscape-oriented image onto a portrait-oriented page, even though the portrait/landscape selector is, by default, set on landscape. So, I have to click portrait, wait a moment for the program to process the action (which has no effect whatsoever), then click landscape to get what it should have been showing me in the first place – and then check the “scale to fit media” box, etc. Not only is this frankly stupid to start with, but the next time I try to print a JPEG (sometimes I’m doing several in a row), I have to go through all these steps again.

Lately, I’ve become hip to a site called Scribd that allows me to upload a document – say, a PDF of a multi-page legal decision or a press release – then copy the embed code so that I can paste it into an embed on my newspaper’s web platform and include the original copy in the online version of my story. Ideally, the embed should display across the full width of the body text in the online story. But what actually happens is, on the first go around, what displays is a shrunken-down version that only goes across about a third of the column. Strangely, my computer seems to be the only one this happens to, and when I go back to Scribd, look up the existing upload and recopy the embed code, then paste the updated embed into the story, it works fine. It’s one of those things that just doesn’t work on the first try. Ever. But it works correctly when you go back into the upload and do it over. Always.

Weird, huh? Maybe this could be an early sign that my computer is fixing to go the way of the soldier who saw everything twice. I hope not. But who knows? I say, who knows?

Inadequacy Dreams

I spent a couple of days sick this past week. I took an afternoon off one day, and a couple of hours out of the next afternoon, to get a little extra sleep during the day. I think it did me good. But it also did a number on my head, to judge by the weird dreams I had, both during those naps and toward the end of both nights’ sleep.

I’ve referred to some of my past, recurring types of dreams as frustration dreams, job stress dreams, embarrassment dreams and so on. There were the entertaining dreams, inspired by whatever I’ve been reading or watching onscreen. There were the “get up and pee, stupid” dreams, in which I find myself searching in vain for bladder relief. But these last few dreams are in a class by themselves. Let’s call them inadequacy dreams.

They’re the sort of plot-heavy scenarios in which everything I do falls short of the expectation. They’re full of characters who are continually turning to look at me with pity, exasperation or (my least favorite of all) a smug little smile. Triumph. Schadenfreude. You name it, eyefuls of it were hurled my way, often because of mistakes I could only have avoided if someone had given me better information before I acted.

Literally everything I did, large or small, was inadequate. In some episodes, it might be merely reaching for the wrong taco on a platterful of them and taking a bite out of it before anyone told me that, on the side of the wrappers facing away from me, they had specific people’s names written on them. At other times, it was due to my capacity for getting lost in a weirdly laid out four-story building in which, for some reason, I was supposed to run a line of garden hose up from the ground floor to the roof – possibly (but don’t quote me on this) to fight off a dragon attack. Nobody was there to guide me through floorplans that were different on each level, and no stairwell went straight up all four levels, and one stairwell ended in thin air, and by the time I got there the show was over because some other guy with a line of hose had come up the other end of the building and did the job himself. Is it not enough that I must endure a dream about being lost in a labyrinthine building, but I must then go on to dream about people staring at me incredulously, clearly amazed at my uselessness, and (in one guy’s case) even lying about where he saw me and when?

Another vignette I remember from those dreams is one where I come home to find my front door wide open. Someone has been inside and looked around, but nothing has been taken. The house is a mess, but only its usual mess. I feel judged, ashamed, exposed, caught in the act of being an abject slob who couldn’t decorate an interior if his eternal soul depended on it. Upon waking, it actually takes me a few moments to sort out the dream from real life – the last indignity.

Maybe inadequacy is on my mind. Disappointment with my life. Unease about the future. But really – can’t a guy get some rest from these things, at least in sleep? What ever happened to those dreams where I was Jack Aubrey on the quarterdeck of the H.M.S. Surprise? Fighting off dragon attacks might be good – if only I got there on time to see the dragon! But sneering looks, eye-rolls and a little blond girl giving me that “you’re in for it now” smirk? Not my thing!

These dreams seem designed to crush the spirit out of me. I don’t know why my subconscious chose those sick-day naptimes and morning lie-ins to afflict me this way. Maybe it was a combination of the drugs I was on. Or maybe I was having a premonition of a book I started reading after the illness broke, which is totally about the kind of hopeless bloke I kept dreaming I was. Or am. It can be funny when it’s somebody else, someone fictional. But boy, does that kind of storyline take the fun out of being sick.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Reliquary

Reliquary
by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the second of 18 Agent Pendergast novels, of which the first was The Relic and which I read way back in the mid '90s when it was brand new, and there wasn't a huge franchise trailing after it. I also saw the movie version of The Relic that came out around that time, and which (as I recall) took serious liberties with the book. Since I'm all about moving forward, I'm not going to go back and re-read Book 1 so that I can add it to my canon of book reviews, which dates back to about the turn of the century. I'll just say that as far as I remember, with a little help from Book 2, The Relic was a grisly, creepy novel about a creature prowling the bowels of the New York Museum of Natural History, slavering over a certain species of lily that was used as packing material for a plundered relic of an extinct Amazonian tribe. Cut off from its drug of choice, the subhuman addict goes after the next best thing: a gland tucked inside the human brain. The outcome is a paroxysm of hideous violence. Dozens of victims, brains sucked out of a hole in the back of their heads. Icky in the extreme, and terrifying to boot. The city is made safe thanks only to a handful of scientists working at the museum, a dumpy city cop, a debonair FBI agent and a crusading journalist. But as the monster's corpse disappears into the back of a government van, mysteries remain unresolved, and now in Book 2, they break out again.

What museum curator Margo Green, Police Lt. Vincent D'Agosta, journalist Bill Smithback and Agent Pendergast know, as the sequel kicks off, is only that some unholy horror with a combination of human and reptile DNA, known as the mbwun, wreaked havoc before they as a group were able to kill it. What they only find out by degrees is that the mbwun lily is making more mbwuns (if that's the plural form), spreading an addiction into the literal underbelly of the city and, with the addiction to the plant, certain physical and mental transformations. People who live in the underground recesses of Manhattan are disappearing, but the authorities only take notice when a beautiful socialite turns up headless and skeletonized, in the embrace of a headless mutant skeleton, in one of the city's nasty rivers of mud. This sets two segments of the city's population on a collision course, with white privilege on the march from one direction and the Mole People, who dwell on a level of civic development aptly known as Route 666, from the other.

In the pinch point is a police department with crappy leadership, but some outstanding individuals doing their best to control the damage. The book does a good job of making the reader angry about a lot of bad decisions that don't fall very wide of the line between fiction and non. But it doesn't content itself with that. Instead, it brings up horrors from the depths – like, 30-odd stories down, in an abandoned rail line for the wealthy elite known today as the Devil's Attic – where a cult practicing a ritual involving polished skulls prepares it's next victim.

It doesn't stop at creeping horrors, either, building up a frenzy of excitement about a plot to drown the Wrinklers, as this deadly cult becomes known, followed by an even more urgent race to stop the reservoir dump from flushing the mbwun lily out into the ocean where, activated by the salt in the water, the gene-rewriting reovirus it carries will transform the world into a monster apocalypse. Suspense, fast-paced action, violence, gore, and a razor-thin margin between life and death make this book, degree by thrilling degree, the type of thing your fingernails will leave dents in.

Next in line after this, in the Pendergast canon, is The Cabinet of Curiosities. A 19th book in the series, Crooked River, is expected in February 2020. The writing team of Preston and Child are also responsible for the five-book Gideon's Crew series and the novels Mount Dragon, Riptide, Thunderhead, The Ice Limit, and Old Bones. Since I've already reviewed some of Lincoln Child's solo novels, I'd better mention that Douglas Preston also has a solo career, with such titles as Jennie, The Codex and four Wyman Ford novels under his belt. Cryptids and paranormal creepy-crawlies, investigated in the light of present-day science and law enforcement, seem to be their m├ętier. I was going to say "forte," but sometimes it's the pianissimo parts that make the hair stand up on your neck. I look forward to more of those experiences, if for no better reason than my neck can stand to be aired out now and again.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Jennifer Morgue

The Jennifer Morgue
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the second novel of the Laundry Files, U.K. government secret agent Bob Howard – who identifies as an applied computational demonologist and is also his office's IT guy – goes on a field assignment in the steamy Caribbean that showcases all the ways he isn't James Bond. Ironically, it does this by entangling him in a geas that compels him to act a part in an Ian Fleming novel, or perhaps an Albert Broccoli movie. This is the fiendish villain's way of ensuring that nobody can stop him before he achieves world domination – unless that person performs 007's role without missing a step. Hampering Bob in doing that is his essential nerdiness, the fact that his department's budget only allows him to rent a Smart Fortwo (a world away from an Aston Martin), and a bit of jiggery pokery that has linked him psychically with a not-entirely-human agent named Ramona Random, whose sex appeal is barbed with death.

Let's not even talk about what Bob's girlfriend will do when she catches up to them, or the betrayal of the local station chief, or the fact that the island of St. Martin is crawling with zombies, black beret-wearing goons, and cosmetics saleswomen whose products give them young looking skin at the cost of their souls. What's really of concern is a sunken piece of alien weaponry whose location, far below the ocean's surface, means that it belongs to the Deep Ones and, under the terms of the Benthic Treaty, messing with it could be more than the human race's survival is worth. But mess with it is what tech magnate Ellis Billington means to do, and he has a record of pursuing his goals with a ruthlessness equal to that of any Bond villain – augmented by a knack for necromancy.

This book blends, and bends, the tropes of spy thrillers, high-tech science fiction and Lovecraftian horror in a sexy, self-referentially funny way. It takes wry pokes at the software industry, government bureaucracy, corporate culture and pyramid schemes that peddle beauty aids. It chills with scenes depicting demonic possession, thrills with stunts like hitting the ejector button on a subcompact car, and keeps the scenery interesting with undead shootouts, gadgets concealed as eveningwear and two characters pscyhically handcuffed together.

Also included in this book is a short story titled "Pimpf," which (I just learned; thank you, Internet) is German slang for a boy whose voice hasn't changed. I guess that explains why Stross chose that title for a goofy romp in which Bob gets an intern, then almost loses him when a first-person-shooter computer game inhales his mind. Supported by his techie pals Pinky and Brains (keep up, now), Bob plunges into the cyberworld to rescue him, only to face the vilest enemy mankind may ever know: Human Resources. Stross adds an afterword in which he muses entertainingly about the Bond franchise. I recommend it all around, especially if you (like me) plan to move on quickly to Book 3 of the Laundry Files, The Fuller Memorandum.

The series continues with several other short stories and, most recently, a ninth novel titled The Labyrinth Index. Stross is also the author of three Singularity Sky novels, six Merchant Princes books and about 15 other books.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Shadows Still Remain

Shadows Still Remain
by Peter de Jonge
Recommended Ages: 14+

When a beautiful NYU student is first reported missing, then found murdered over Thanksgiving weekend, New York Police Detective Darlene O'Hara recognizes it as the case that could make her career. But she's just a lowly detective in the Seventh Precinct, not yet a Detective First Grade with the homicide squad, who take over the case while she's still working on it. So while the homicide guys follow one theory – their suspect a boyfriend whose resemblance to Darleen's college student son tugs at her heartstrings – she chases down leads they don't consider important enough to waste time on. After a certain point in her investigation, she starts to get in trouble with the brass just for following her own leads when it's no longer her case. She increasingly has to hide out, adopt disguises and skive off from work to follow a trail of clues that involve sexual exploitation, academic fraud and at least one more death.

O'Hara, aided and abetted by her detective partner Krekorian, runs an outlaw investigation that, if she's right, could show up those homicide guys. But she's digging into things people don't want her to find out. Even when it seems she's solved the case, she continues to turn over stones concealing even nastier buried things until you wonder when the breathtaking twists are going to end. Ultimately, O'Hara heeds the voice of a police friend in an internal dialogue (in her mind only), telling her that if she doesn't stop somewhere, the chain of cause-and-effect could lead all the way back to the trees from which the first hairless apes descended.

As I mentioned, this is a mystery that packs a lot of twists into relatively few pages. The large-print edition I read (because that was what the library had on offer) wasn't all that thick, and I guess the regular-size paperback would be quite a bit smaller. In spite of that, the mystery provides an ample field of activity for the main act, which is the character of Darlene. A high school dropout with a smart mind and an even smarter attitude, she drinks too much, thinks about her kid a lot, lusts after a nerdy medical examiner, picks and chooses the rules she'll follow, holds her immediate supervisor in contempt and identifies passionately with the victims of the crimes she detects – even when their identity comes into question. She has a warm, funny, down-to-earth voice and feels like good company, though her judgment isn't always the best. I've already read her second adventure, Buried on Avenue B, but I'm looking forward to more.

Peter de Jonge is also a member of James Patterson's coterie of co-authors, with about five books to their shared credit including Miracle on the 17th Green and The Beach House.