Monday, August 31, 2009

Dead of Winter

Rennie Airth's latest, the Dead of Winter, would have been a perfectly good book, if it had not been written after his excellent River of Darkness (looks like there is a mass market available - you are crazy not to get this book at that price) and quite good Blood Dimmed Tide. Now it seems like a book that could have been much better.

The book differs in a number of ways from the previous stories. Two of the most significant though are the time frame and the characters. Unlike the previous books which were set in the post-World War One period, this book is set in the waning days of the Second World War. Britain's home front is grim, with the family tension rising as parents fear their children will die in the last days of war, food being close to inedible and the V-1s and V-2s making London a frightening place.

A young Polish girl is killed on the blacked out streets of London. Retired policeman John Madden, reluctant hero of the previous books, is brought back in as the girl had been working on his farm. He then drops out as other characters take the lead. The book is quite light on Madden, enough that I felt it was a stretch to call it a John Madden mystery.

The story, which involves ties to a 1940 murder in France and to the growing violence of the 20th century, is fairly straight forward. It is a police investigation where the cops are from the old world of simple criminals must contend with a hyper-violent criminal from the nasty second half of the century.

One of the things that Airth does best is show the terrible wear of war on society. Here he does it with the damaged home front. The police force consists mostly of older cops who should have retired, but all the replacements are at war. The populace gets by on little and the unfortunate East Enders live in bombed out ruins. It is incredibly bleak, but handled very well.

I think the World War 2 setting made me want some more dark political dealings, in the vein of John Lawton or Alan Furst, authors more known for their World War 2 settings. It is still a very good book that I read quickly. In the end, it left me thinking how much more I liked the earlier books.

Disney buys Marvel!

Marvel comics is going to be part of the world's best known entertainment empire. My hope is that the Death of Captain America sequence becomes a movie. Or the Ultimates.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Descent part 2

I loved, loved, loved the Descent. Scary, claustrophobic and ambiguous, it is hard to think of a better horror movie from the past decade. The trailer to the sequel is now available. You can watch it here. The movie is working from the US ending, not the UK version. This means that the heroine escaped and is now taking a group back down to investigate. It feels a bit like Aliens with the sole survivor returning with a bunch of people who don't believe her. To be honest, it doesn't look that exciting.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A visit to the comic shop

I've spent a long time working on converting my kids into nerds and the effort is finally bearing fruit. We started with Star Wars, the nerd gateway drug, and have moved along nicely. Now the kids love Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ray Harryhausen, and giant monsters (can Godzilla be far behind?)

The next great leap is to comic books. My oldest likes the Marvel Adventures Avengers books. The Marvel Adventures books are geared for the younger set. This is handy as comics are increasingly being made for more mature types. It is fun to take them down to Cosmic Monkey and look through the kids section. It also means I get to pick some up for myself. Here are some recent reads.

Locke and Key Head Games. This six issue series just wrapped up. Unlike the first six issue series (an absolute must read), this one is more transitional, setting up action for the next book. The weirdness quotient goes up quite a bit in this story as does the complexity of the narrative. Author Joe Hill writes horror novels as well, and it shows in the story.

Unwritten - I picked up the first one, and will certainly be reading more of this title. The book is about the son of a writer of Harry Potter like stories. The father has disappeared and the son plays on his fame at comic conventions. At one convention, an audience member calls his identity into question and then the story gets really strange. Pretty soon characters from the books start appearing in the real world. Here is a LA Times piece on the book.

Y the Last Man. How on earth have I not read this already? At the shop yesterday there was a display of "After Watchmen, what next" comics. For a buck you get to try classic darker comics. So I finally picked up Y the Last Man, a story about all the men on Earth dying, except for Yoric. Wow what a book.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The new Stephen King

Reading about the new Stephen King (due out around Thanksgiving, a nice gift to booksellers) I was struck by how retro it seemed. The book is long at over 1000 pages. It involves a strange threat (a dome suddenly appearing overhead) to a small Maine town. In the face of adversity, the citizens exhibit varying amounts of good and evil ( you can count on a fair helping of venality as well.) Sounds like his epic horror books like the Stand and It, that he wrote back then.

It turns out it sounds retro for a reason. King initially drafted the book back in the 80s. He took another stab at it later and is now finally satisfied with it. Boffo, I say. Under the Dome sounds great to me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Brits love the Wire

The Guardian loves it so much they have a whole page devoted to all things Wire. The show is big enough to cause a row in UK politics. Apparently a Tory shadow minister called Manchester the British Baltimore. Silly of course, but I am happy the show is watched enough to become a reference point in Parliament.

Here is the Guardian's nine reasons to watch, which should convince you if you haven't already started watching. They pick Bubbles over Omar as the character you can't help but love, which I think is right. Here is Irvine Welsh saying that the Wire makes writing on British TV look suck ass. Ok, he says "absolutely shit." It's nice to see that the British wail and bemoan the state of their culture as much as we do.

Sometimes, I wish I were Catholic, I don't know why

Conspiracies make for great fiction. Like ghosts, vampires and other hidden terrors, they are the sort thing we would like to believe exist, but our rational mind tells us they do not. Conspiracy fiction lets us enter a fantasy world, usually a political one, where the evils of politics are not forced by the realities of compromise, but by wicked forces.

Thanks to Watergate and the collapse of trust in institutions the 70s were a hey day with movies like Three Days of the Condor and the Parallax View. The X-Files ushered in a new era of paranoid drama in the 90s, reviving the notion that the government and the aliens were engaged in a long term struggle of which we caught occasional glimpses. The funny version was Men in Black, the creepier version was Taken.

In the book world, the most successful of conspiracy stories is of course Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. It will be interesting to see if his Lost Symbol creates the same excitement. If successful, we can be sure that tourism will spike in his chosen settings and interest in previously unpopular subjects like the Templars will sky rocket.

It was the Catholic Church as a whole that sat at the center of the Da Vinci Code and its predecessor. And why not? Is there an organization as large, ancient, culturally pervasive and powerful as the Catholic Church? (the Illuminati, maybe?) They have cool commandos in the Jesuits, and their own Majestic-12 in Opus Dei.

Portugese author Luis Rocha explored the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in his first book, the Last Pope. He has just followed it up with the Holy Bullet, which continues the intrigue. In this book, it is the attempted assasination of Pope John Paul II that drives the plot. This time the CIA, Opus Dei, the British SIS, an Islamic visionary and the unfortunate heroine of the first novel chase after the truth behind the near death of the Polish Pope.

The book can be a challenging read. Rocha writes in a indirect European style that is far more elliptical than the writing you usually find in American novels. The chapter ordering is also out of the ordinary. The chapters set in the current day are in order, but the many chapters in the past are not, which requires close reading.

The book forces you to pay attention, and I appreciate that the book assumes you know something about the Church and European politics. At one point, we see mention of "the German, Ratzinger." Now, hopefully we all know that is the current Pope. Plenty of other thriller writers would contrive some means of relating who Ratzinger is to those who are unsure. I am happy Rocha assumes we read newspapers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

They were all in love with watching, they were doing it in Texas

David Morrell is a prolific writer of adventure and horror stories. He is probably best known for writing First Blood, the basis for the Rambo movies. I greatly enjoyed his Creepers and have a few others on my bookshelf as well.

His latest is called the Shimmer and it is based on the Marfa lights. The lights, the origin of which is still unexplained (but may well be headlights in the distance), appear to some people but not to others and draw a number of visitors to this quiet corner of west Texas. Morrell uses this occurence and as the base for an entertaining sci-fi adventure tale. The lights are hynoptic in the book and those who see them are drawn to them, while those who can't become...troubled.

The story itself has elements of the X-files, Ace in the Hole, and the paranoid 70s film era. The main character is a cop, Dan Page, whose wife disappears. Turns out, she is in Rostov Texas where Page quickly heads. While there he becomes embroiled in an escalating crisis involving the lights and a secret government base located nearby. Quicker than you can say Trust No One, the cop and his wife find themselves in dire straits. Others are in a much worse place.

The emphasis here is on action. Morrell switches things up nicely more than once and gets the plot moving along. The book is more about the crazy adventure, than the characters, although I quite liked the back story of the mysterious and violent Colonel in charge of the base. I totally want to go to Marfa now.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Niall Ferguson goodness

I am in the middle of a number of big fat nonfiction books (including the HUGE From Colony to Superpower) so I am taking them all slow. I was slow to start Niall Ferguson's The War of the World, for no real reason I can identify. Maybe the first few pages didn't grab me. Now I am greatly enjoying it.

It is the story of why the 20th century was so violent. He explores the role of ethnic conflict and the replacement of imperial cosmopolitanism with violent nationalism as sources of violence. More on that later.

I just wanted to mention how much I enjoy his prose. While talking about the murderous Stalin regime, he tells the sad tale of the Leningrad Society for the Deaf and Dumb. Having killed off everyone else, the forces of the state decided this fellows were bad news and executed 34 of them for plotting to kill Stalin. Then, in a footnote of all places, he nicely captures the insanity of the regime. If it wasn't so terrible, it would make for an ideal farce.

What had in face happened was that the chairman of the Society had informed on some members who had been selling things on local trains to make ends meet. This denunciation led to the NKVD's involvement. The chairman himself was subsequently implicated in the alleged conspiracy and shot. The following year, the NKVD decided the original investigation was suspect. The local police were then arrested.

Why apologists for Stalin still exist baffles me. If you want to explore this regime from a fictional perspective, I highly recommend Tom Rob Smith's Child 44.

Fun with lists

Oh how I loved the Book of Lists, when I was young. Filled with strange lists, like people who might have been Jack the Ripper or the ever popular preserved sexual organs of famous men, the book was made to titillate and entertain. There is much less titilation, but plenty of entertainment in 10 Bad Dates with De Niro, a book of movie related lists.

I of course went straight the sex and violence section, where movies like In the Realm of the Senses play a major role. Once you get past all the real live actors having sex lists, you can move on to less prurient fare. There is plenty of it. I thought I would give it a quick flip through and put it aside, but I thought that many of the lists were funny and informative. In a list of movies that were never made, but should have been, we learn that John Waters of all people was planning to make A Confederacy of Dunces. I hated that book, but I think a Waters version of it would be worth watching, especially if done in the bizarre fashion of his early movies. There's tons more of this sort of goodness, including a list of one by Stephen Soderberg. He talks about Chinatown really is as awesome as you remember, and in fact is probably better.

This is a book that movie geeks will devour. The book's editor, Richard Kelly, has a blog about the book and movies in general.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dark and nasty, but oh so good

I imagine that, at one point or another, most people have experienced the terrible feelings of wrong and hopelessness that come late at night when you cannot you sleep. When dawn comes, a more measured view takes hold. The main character, and in fact most of the characters, in Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects lives permanently in that state. Rejected by her cold, cruel patrician mother in favor of her dead sister and her eventual much younger sibling, Camille is a bundle of neuroses. Her relationship to sex is particularly troubling and it complicates the task that brings her back to her small town Missouri home after years of self imposed exile.

Her editor sends her back to write a story about two girls, one dead and one missing. Camille reluctantly agrees and soon finds herself in combat with her mother, the local police and her former friends. Her hometown's wealthy cattily stalk one another and trample on the weak, all done with smiles. The younger generation is just as bad. Camille's younger sister leads the bullying popular pack of girls that torment the rest of the town's children.

It's the writing and the depiction of the evils of how people treat one another that make the book shine. There is a mystery at the heart of the story, but the end isn't much of a shocker. Like Camille we watch the everday and not-so everyday horrors inflicted by those that can do it, whether parents, friends or neighbors. This one isn't for the whodunit reader, who will be disappointed and potentially repelled, but for those who want a look into damaged lives and communities.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wow, Avatar looks sweet

A lot of people think Titanic when they think James Cameron, but he also made the first two Terminators and Aliens, one of the best science fiction films ever. I had heard that Avatar, his latest, is going to be good and this new trailer certainly makes me think it will be.


Finding new non-fiction can be a challenge. There are certain subjects about which I happy to read regardless of author. When considering a book outside of my have to read subject zone, I generally rely on past experience. Certain authors, like Ted Conover and John McPhee, cover subjects in such an engaging way that I am to pick up any book with their name on it. Finding new highly reliable authors is always a treat. Thanks to Citizen Reader, I found Michael Perry. Perry lives in rural (very rural as the title of his book Population 485 attests) Wisconsin and writes thoughtful essays about work, community and life based on his own experiences as an volunteer fireman/EMT, a brother and a husband.

His book Truck: A Love Story does not fall into my obvious must read category. Cars are a complete mystery to me and I cross my fingers whenever I visit the shop as I am incapable of intelligently discussing service options. Perry makes the story of his year long effort, with the help of his brother-in-law, to rebuild his 1951 International Harvester pick up truck compelling by staying humble and by breaking down the story with lots of context. It helps to that this book is about a lot more than rebuilding a truck. It is about learning how to grow your own food, finding love in unexpected places, and building a relationship (with a person as well as a truck).

The slow breaking down, cleaning, repairing and rebuilding of the truck is a nice metaphor for the reflective style of essay writing that Perry adopts. If the unexamined life is not worth living, Perry has every reason to enjoy life. Perry's prose is a pleasure to read. On to Coop.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stay out of the swamp

Our two spookiest states are Maine and Louisiana. Maine has the creepy fog covered craggy coasts where you just know a lizard creature is waiting to pull you into the depths. Then there are the forests, the people with the crazy accents and the Stephen King and Lovecraft stories. Louisiana has the dank bayous filled with gators, snakes and all manner of bugs and is a bad place to hold National Guard exercises. Let's not forget the voodoo, the crazy accents, the drive through bars and the fact that the sea is swallowing the Delta. Louisiana though doesn't quite have the horror story base that Maine does.

Deborah LeBlanc is doing her part to fill in the gap. She has written four novels set in the creepy backwoods and waters of the Sportsmen's Paradise and the latest is Water Witch. A water witch is someone gifted in the ways of dowsing, or finding water. Dunny Pollock, born with an extra finger, can find all manner of objects including missing people. Living in Texas, her sister summons her to the Lousiana bayous to find two missing children. She does go but then has to confront evil forces unleashed by a poorly performed native American ritual.

The book has lots of bloody violence, the supernatural and children in peril. It also is steeped in the local culture, which LeBlanc apparently knows well. Here's to LeBlanc for making Lousiana a place more likely to give me nightmares.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Between two ferns

I have yet to see the Hangover (a fool decision on my part, I know) but I have enjoyed Between two Ferns the faux interview show of Zack Galifianakis. I quite liked this one with Michael Cera. The tickling is quite uncomfortable. The Bradley Cooper one is also nice.

And here is between two cocks, which is nice and tense.

Detroit crime city

Peter Leonard, son of Elmore, writes crime novels that will remind you of his father's. His Trust Me is a briskly paced crime novel populated with a wealth of Detroit low lifes and strivers. The central character is Karen Delaney. She is shacked up with a Greek restaurant owner but harbors plans for revenge against a ex-lover. She gave him her life savings to invest which he kept when he kicked her out of the house. When a pair of dim witted criminals try to rob her current beau she hatches a plan to get back her money, and then a bit more.

Things of course go awry and then many people find themselves after the money. There are many characters, sometimes confusingly so, and most of them are in some sort of desperate situation. The level of violence, often quite casual, is greater than in the Elmore Leonard books, at least as I recall. The elder has his hard core killers, but this book features intelligence-challenged fools making a series of bad mistakes that tend to get them dead or badly hurt.

The Detroit in the book is a bleak place. While a few people live well (and in fear of crime) the majority live on the edge of ruin and seem to spend their time in casinos. Like the city, the characters are a damaged bunch. Don't read this if you like to have characters with whom you can completely sympathize. Do pick it up if you want a fast bracing crime story.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Could have been better

So I finished the Strain last night. Overall I give it an OK grade, thanks to a strong start and a weak finish. The book starts with a 777 landing at JFK with nearly everyone on board dead once the wheels stop rolling. A CDC epidemiologist is called in to investigate and he soon learns that something dark and nasty is afoot. The authors build up the tension nicely, with the vampire strain creeping out into the city, and thanks to some powerful assistance to the vampire, the world won't listen.

The problem is the end which becomes quite formulaic. The redshirts are very clearly redshirts and the final battle of this first volume of the trilogy is like many other vampire, or monster, books you have already read. The epilogue gives hope for something more novel and exciting in the second volume.

I suppose I have come to dislike the small band of heroes holding back the tide of darkness model of fantasy/science fiction/horror. Perhaps it isn't even dislike, but a sense that if you are going to do it, do it some way new or terribly exciting, which the ending did not do.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Too much vampire bizness, reading late at night

So I am still on vacation, but we leave tomorrow for Portland. I finished Fangland this week and wish I could have brought the other vampire book I am reading, the Strain, along as well. That one was too heavy for the travels and I dislike travelling with library books anyway. These two very different books once again illustrate all that can be done with the vampire story.

The Strain, which I haven't finished, is a tale of Vampire Apocalypse. In the book, vampires are a disease and a weapon that threatens to overwhelm the world. The pacing is rapid and the feel is cinematic. Characters, such as they are, serve mostly to create tension and to allow the plot to move forward. One thing to note is, at 80% through, this book is part of one of those trilogies which is really one novel cut into three parts. Nothing wrong with this, but you can expect to be left hanging, or desperately wanting more.

Fangland is an updated version of Stoker's book complete with a victim/avenger character named Harker, Evangeline in this case. Evageline is a producer for a 60 Minutes like newsprogram. She heads off to Romania to interview a crime figure who turns out to be something far worse than a gangster. Later, said criminal begins to infiltrate the offices of the newsprogram.

This book takes the metaphorical/symbological approach with the battle of vampire vs. human serving as the philosophical battle between those fixated on the wrongs of the past and those who want to move ahead. Sex, frequently a subtext in vampire books, is front and center in this one, but in a morally ambiguous sense. Harker herself is burdened by sin, but is in the end redeemed. You can read this one as an allegory about life in the media or as the triumph of life over death. Either way, it's good.

I think the vampire story is so flexible because each author can pick their mix of sex and violence. The form allows for, and maybe even demands, both, but the authors can make one or the other dominate. In the case of the Strain, it is nearly all violence, with a sense of sexuality driving the villain. Other vampire novels have highlighted the murky line between sex and violence, but Fangland is interesting because it sets sex and violence in direct opposition.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Something for the top of your reading pile

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind is one of my favorite of the many good literary thrillers. Set in post-war Barcelona, it is a tragic, sad mystery centered on a love story and the love of books. His most recent book, the Angels Game, is a much more conventional than the first book, with a simple structure, a familiar plot and familiar characters. It is a testament to Ruiz Zafon's great strengths as a writer that this book is just as an enthralling as the first book. I may even like it better and plan to re-read Shadow of the Wind to be sure.

The main character, David Martin, works at a newspaper thanks to the help of a wealthy benefactor. He begins to write lurid potboilers for the paper and finds a following. He gains a number of successes as a writer and attracts a mysterious patron who wants him to write a special book. The writing of the book and his purchase of a dark, forbidding house begin a spiral into a tale worthy of his own dark stories. There is much more of course, including the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a few love stories, and tragedies aplenty.

As I mentioned the plot veers closely to familiar territory. At more than one point, I thought I was re-reading another thriller. This isn't the case, although the similarities are often great. I was happy to look past this thanks to the wonderful writing. Ruiz Zafon's prose is densely atmospheric and he sets up a wonderfully gothic story that has its fair share of surprises. The characters themselves provide impressive surprises. While he follows thriller formula in terms of pacing, he uses pace to drive the story and to excite, not to distract from plot holes or the absence of characters.

I used to grouse that this guy was never going to write another book, it took so long between the two. I am happy for him to take this long if the book will be this good.

I should note that much of my enjoyment of the book, originally written in Spanish, is due to what seems to me to be a fantastic translation. The book reads as if it were written in English, a tribute to the skills of Lucia Graves, the book's English translator.

Friday, August 07, 2009


Off to GA and NC for a week long family vacation. Should be very fun. A few book notes before going:

I am reading Truck - I loved Population 485 so I immediately picked this one up. I think I prefer this one to Population 485, which says a lot as I thought that book was great. They are similar in subject, with lots of personal stories built around a theme, in case, the rebuilding of his rusty truck and finding unexpected love. The writing feels more confident and relaxed this time around. Perry riffs on an amazing number of topics and delivers more off the cuff wisdom in a chapter than many books deliver.

Guillermo del Toro, he of the spooky movies, now has a spooky book in the Strain. It is a Vampire Apocalypse book, or so it seems, with what promises to be an insane body count. The book has its issues, but I finding that I quite like it, staying up far too late to read some more. It's the first of a trilogy, which means there will be cliffhangers aplenty, but based on what I have read so far, it is a winner.

The BN review has a long interview with Richard Russo. I am cautiously optimistic about his new book. I particularly like this response to a question about reviewing books:

Actually, I don't review that much, and for a reason. Even when a book truly sucks, I can't get out of my mind the fact that some poor dumb schmuck labored over it lovingly, just as I do over my own fiction. I realize that it's somebody's job to blow the whistle on bad books, but I resist the notion that it's mine. When I do review, I look for and attempt to articulate the work's strengths before pouncing on its weaknesses. When there's simply no good news, I try not to appear as if I'm enjoying myself in delivering the unpleasant verdict.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal

Sean Dixon's Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal concerns the Lacuna Cabal, a book club consisting of a group of odd performance artists. There club had a series of peculiar experiences in recreating books, but things get really strange when they start to read the Epic of Gilgamesh, off clay tablets naturally. The book starts just as the war in Iraq is kicking off and with a book that comes from Mesopotamia, you can probably guess there will be a connection.

The book club consists of a set of quirky misfits, some of whom are alpha misfits that dominate the rest. At times they felt a bit overly quirky, to the point of distraction, but I thought they worked reasonably well.

The book is decidedly post-modern, with narrators speaking with the readers strange footnotes and a purposeful confusion of what is happening. It reminded me a bit of the House of Leaves in this way, although it did not make me want to throw it across the room as that one did.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

More fun than a barrel of nukes

My favorite nonfiction book of all time is The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Telling a story that combines brilliant individuals, the biggest scientific endeavor of all time and intense political drama, it is hard to go wrong, but author Richard Rhodes knocked it out of the park with this phone book sized opus. It is, I believe, the only nonfiction book I have read three times.

Loving the subject matter and having had success with some of her other histories, I had to try Diana Preston's Before the Fallout, which covers much of the same ground. The Preston book is much shorter and has a tighter bibliographic focus that the Rhodes book. While the achievements of the scientists lies at the core of the Preston book, it doesn't go into the intense detail that the Rhodes book does. You won't see the extensive reporting on weapons design that you will find in the Rhodes book, but you will get a close look at the community of science that discovered the secrets and created the ideas that led to the bomb.

Preston writes clear, accessible engaging prose and her books cover a wide range of subjects including the Lusitania sinking, the Boxer Rebellion and polar exploration. This one on the Taj Mahal looks quite good as well.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Way out there alternate history

If you like completely gonzo over the top alternate history, then you probably have already read or heard about John Birmingham. In his Axis of Time trilogy a US-led naval task force from 2021 finds itself catapulted back to 1942 where it quickly disrupts the timeline by accidentally sinking a good piece of the US Navy. World war 2 changes quite a but as you might guess.

His latest is even crazier. Without Warning starts a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For reasons unrevealed in this book (part one of a new trilogy), most of the population of North America disappear. The area around Seattle, Guantanamo and southern Mexico escape but that is about it. As you can imagine, the world is initially stunned, but then the chaos starts. The world economy is shattered and the conflicts really heat up the world over.

Perhaps this was the only way to go, but the way the conflicts fall out reads like the neocon scare list. Again, it is not to say that what he comes up with is unreasonable, but it may sound a bit like the Corner at National Review when you read it. I don't think, especially based on some other plot lines, that Birmingham is advocating a particular political line here, but you will certainly take note of the fate of certain nations and locales.

The characters are a mixed bag, serving to anchor stories in Seattle, Cuba, Mexico, France and the Middle East. The character in France has the most exciting story. She is ultra secret assassin type who finds herself on the run in an increasingly nasty Europe. I liked the Mexico story as well which involves some smugglers becoming Han Solo-esque good guys as they assist refugees escaping the collapsing Mexican state.

I like how Birmingham ratchets up the action and chaos as the book progresses. I suspect the action will get even crazier in subsequent volumes (the next of which is titled After America). The book suffers from a bit of bloat, but this one feels much sleeker than the recent efforts of Turtledove, the reigning king of the genre.

NPR listeners don't like the genre

NPR recently polled its listeners about the top 100 beach reads. The results are here. While I quite like the books chosen, the list smacks a bit of pretension. Aren't beach reads supposed to be the guilty pleasure, escapist books? This is the time for people to break out the crime, the science fiction the fantasy. Not our NPR readers apparently. There is a Chandler, an Orson Scott Card and Tolkein, of course, but there is only one Stephen King listed? Really?

I may be projecting, but the list looks like favorite books overall or the books people would like to be seen reading instead of the genre. On the genre side, I was a little surprised at the Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. A fun read to be sure, but I am surprised if it still being read enough to make the list.

More fun with Harryhausen

A few months back I rented Jason and the Argonauts for the kids. They had been reading some Greek myths and I thought they might like the monsters. They liked even more than I expected/hoped, so I decided to follow up with a less seen film with Ray Harryhausen's effects. Yet again, the kids loved it.

The Valley of Gwangi is probably the world's only cowboys vs. dinosaurs movie. The plot is simple. A group of people try to revive a struggling rodeo show by bringing in creatures from the Valley of Gwangi. The Valley somehow has various beasties from pre-history including the eohippus and the allosaurus. It takes awhile to get to the creatures,but once it does, it is quite fun. The effects are impressive and there is more human interaction with the models than in some of the other Harryhausen films.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Form a line to the throne

The Dark Ages are typically skipped over in most histories. Despite books like the History of the Middle Ages, the period following the fall of Rome and before the Renaissance gets little coverage in the popular histories. Tom Holland, writer of vigorously entertaining and thoughtful histories of the West, has now turned to this era with Millennium: The End of the World and the Rise of Christendom. In the book, he explores how Christendom, and therefore the West as we know it, arose. The book begins and ends with the meeting of Pope and Emperor at Canossa where the first of many balances would be struck.

As in his prior books, Holland explores the mindset of his subjects as well as their actions. Great emphasis is placed on the concern that the world might really end and how the visitations of people like the Vikings might be a sign of the end times. Holland also highlights the role of those Vikings in creating modern nations like Britain and Russia.

I also appreciated his reminder that the people of this era were quite different from those of today. He shows the castle building knights to be predatory creators of protection rackets that devastated the autonomy and independence of the peasantry. The supposedly enlightened leaders of Islamic Andalus are shown as similarly cruel and exploitative.

Unfortunately, this one didn't hold together or delight as much as Rubicon. In part it is because he is telling a larger story, how the West started on its path of separate religious and state power. He had an easier task with Rubicon in describing how the Roman Republic collapsed. Fewer actors and a definite end. It's just not as tidy here and some of the stories feel like non sequiters.

Still, better than most history and much more likely to engage the average reader.