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Sunday, October 2, 2016

What I'm reading (#21)

This week I had the pleasure of reading a book that had been recommended to me more than once -- Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

I have to admit that I love good young adult fantasy literature.  It probably stems from having grown up reading and rereading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door and (the best of the three, in my opinion) A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia were (as for many children) a big part of my childhood mythology, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon Lloyd Alexander's amazing (and sadly, little-known) Chronicles of Prydain -- based on the Welsh myth cycle The Mabinogion -- when I was about twelve, and was transported.

Since then, there's been (of course) Harry Potter, and the brilliant and eerie Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  But there have been a few duds, too; Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series left me saying "Meh," and the much-lauded The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper left so little impression on me that I can only remember a few scattered scenes, and virtually nothing of the plot.

So I'm picky.  Which I suppose is a good thing.  I went into Riggs's Miss Peregrine with high hopes, but half expecting them to be dashed.

I'm glad to say my pessimism was entirely unwarranted.  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a charming, sometimes funny, often bone-chillingly creepy story that is as entertaining a read for an adult as it is for a young person.

The tale revolves around Jacob Portman, a misfit teenager with distant parents and no real friends.  He's really close to his grandfather, Abe Portman, who had been a refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland.  Abe tells his grandson wild tales of odd children he knew when he was young -- an invisible boy, a pair of children with super strength, a girl who could make fire with her hands, a girl who could levitate.  Each story is accompanied by photographs, and the young Jacob was captivated by the weird stories his grandfather told.

But as Jacob gets older, he comes to the conclusion that his grandfather is insane.  Most of the photographs seem, to his more mature eye, obvious fakes.  Grandpa Abe's tales begin to seem like the meanderings of a man whose traumatic childhood left him living in a fantasy-world past.

And Jacob tells him so.

Abe is disappointed, but seems to shrug it off.  Their relationship continues, but it too has become more distant, as if something Abe had been hoping for in his grandson had failed to materialize.

And then, one day, something awful happens that casts Abe's wild stories in an entirely new light.

To give any more details would cheat you of a wonderful, fantastical read that deserves no spoilers.  Riggs's point-of-view character, Jacob, is no sanitized, saintly boy, like the character of Peter the High King in Lewis's Narnia.  He's a real teenager, with a real teenager's moods and drives and vocabulary.  The story is gritty and (for all of its elements of fantasy) realistic.  You won't be able to put it down.  And as for me -- I'm already looking forward to reading the sequel, Hollow City, when it comes in with my next Amazon order.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What I'm reading (#20)

I haven't posted in a while for a couple of reasons -- the start of school has been the usual whirlwind of lesson prep, evening open house, meetings, and exhaustion, and also because I've spent the last three weeks making my way through the 560+ pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven.

I honestly didn't expect to like Under Heaven much.  On the recommendation of a friend, I'd gotten it and another of Kay's books, Tigana, a few months ago.  I started with Tigana and got about a third of the way in before I gave up -- I found it dense, complicated, and filled with way too many underdeveloped and unrelatable characters to keep my attention.  (To be fair, though, I felt the same way about Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, widely regarded as a masterpiece.  So it may well be me.)

In any case, Under Heaven sat there unread until three weeks ago, when I figured I ought to tackle it.

I was absolutely transfixed, pretty much from the first page.

The story is a fictionalized account (actually fictionalized enough that it could be classified as "alternate history") of the Tang Dynasty of China at the time of the An Lushan Rebellion (mid 8th century C. E.).  The main character, Shen Tai, second son of the late General Shen Gao, has gone to a battle site called Kuala Nor and is determined to bury the skeletons of the dead to put the ghosts of the battle to rest.  He is a quiet, thoughtful man, ill-suited to the castle intrigue of the capital Xinan, and his mission to live a solitary life laying to rest the spirits of slain warriors seems to suit him well.

But as in real life, things seldom go as planned.  His selfless devotion to giving proper burial to the victims of the battle has come to the attention of more than one highly placed person.  One is the King of Tagur, who is married to the sister of the Tang Emperor Taizu.  The other is the Emperor himself.  And the attention he's getting from these two august personages brings the enmity of a third person -- the scheming, cruel First Minister, Wen Zhou.

So Shen Tai ends up caught in the very web he'd tried to escape -- having to navigate his way through the plots, rumors, and complex rivalries of the royal family, accompanied only by his bodyguard, the Kanlin warrior Wei Song, and his friend the poet Sima Zian.  And when his position is made even more precarious by an unimaginably rich gift from the King of Tagur -- 250 priceless Sardian horses -- Shen Tai has to figure out how to stay one step ahead of the conspiracies that are determined to end his, and his friends', lives.

Under Heaven is a phenomenal book -- intricate, complex, brilliantly written.  The characters are so well drawn that they virtually leap off the page.  It's not fast-moving or action-packed -- the story is as the times were, full of intrigue and backstabbing and gossip.  But it is a beautiful, haunting tale of one man trying to survive what the Chinese adage calls "interesting times."  I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

What I'm reading (#19)

Everyone handles loss and grief differently.  Some turn inward; some weep; some become angry.  When Helen Macdonald's beloved father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, her world seemed to crumble around her.  She'd lost her touchstone, one of the small number of people in her life that anchored it, made it make sense.

She tumbled headlong into a depression that severed her from contact with friends and the rest of her family.  There was only one thing in her life that still felt real to her.

Helen was a falconer.  It'd been her driving passion since childhood, since discovering T. H. White's book The Goshawk and realizing, "I want to do this."

She tells the story of her ride upwards out of her grief and despondency on the tail of a goshawk named Mabel in her book H is for Hawk.  It is a brilliant, occasionally funny, deeply moving tale of how one woman dealt with the horrible ache of losing someone dear -- and is a gripping, thought-provoking read.

Goshawks are notoriously difficult to train.  They are nervous, stubborn, aggressive, and aloof.  Her choice of this species was deliberate -- she needed something to sink herself into, to distract her from her despair.  Along the way, she parallels her story with the one White told about his own similar experience in his book The Goshawk.  White (the author of The Once and Future King) was a deeply unhappy man, who never recovered from abuse he received as a child at the hands of his insane father and various sadistic schoolmasters.  He, too, was dealing with despair, albeit of a different sort, and looked to the wildness and freedom of a hawk to teach him how to live.

Macdonald's path was not an easy one, but what she learns along the way was worth the pain, and what she learned had to come from experience.  On the other hand, White in the end lost focus, and also lost his hawk, Gos; afterwards he compares Gos with symbols of violence, with bloodthirsty men from the pages of human history, and his own failed attempts to train him as a war.  Macdonald writes:
I swear to myself, standing there with [White's] book open in my hand, that I will not ever reduce my hawk to a hieroglyph, an historical figure or a misremembered villain.  Of course I won't.  I can't.  Because she is not human.  Of all the lessons I've learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there -- rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly.  They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.  In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.  And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it.  Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities.  Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
H is for Hawk is a fantastic book, one that you will remember for a long time after you turn the last page.  Macdonald's trek through the valley of the shadow of death is one we all take, for all of us lose people dear to us, all of us have to come to terms with that most difficult part of what it means to be human.  In her book, we learn along with her that such grief can be endured, and the lessons it has to teach are truly worth learning, however much they cost us in pain and anguish.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

What I'm reading (#18)

I am fascinated by how the universe works.  It's what got me into science; I felt driven to understand not just the surface, the descriptive stuff, but why things operate as they do.  Of course, when you start pursuing the whys in science, you get yourself in deep water fast -- and, according to a physics professor friend of mine, you will inevitably at some point come up against the brick wall of "we don't know why this is the way things are; they just are this way."

But it's this drive to comprehend the inner workings that spurred me to read Sean Carroll's amazing book The Particle at the End of the Universe -- the story of how the Higgs boson was discovered, and what it implies about the deep structure of the cosmos.  Carroll's book is at once personal and technical; any huge endeavor such as the search for the Higgs inevitably involves a kaleidoscope of different personalities, each with their own specialties and quirks.  Carroll does a wonderful job of showing us not only the science behind the Higgs, but the fascinating interplay of scientists and technicians that made its discovery possible.

It's also inevitable, however, that the book involves some venturing into the deeper waters I alluded to earlier.  I found parts of it a challenging read, despite my bachelor's degree in physics (although I must, in the interest of honesty, mention that my performance as a physics student was lackluster at best).  But even the parts that were difficult were worth muddling through.  He's a wonderfully lucid writer, and the glimpses you get of the inner workings of particle physics are as grand as they are mind-bending.

And he's up front, too, about the fact that there are still huge gaps in our understanding.  Even what we do know has a mystifying quality to it, when you take it to the level of subatomic physics.  Take the following passage from Carroll's book, about something that we experience every day -- light:
It's only because the data force us into corners that we are inspired to create the highly counterintuitive structures that form the basis for modern physics...  Imagine that a person in the ancient world was wondering what made the sun shine.  It's not really credible to imagine that they would think about it for a while and decide, "I bet most of the sun is made up of particles that can bump into one another and stick together, with one of them converting into a different kind of particle by emitting yet a third particle, which would be massless if it wasn't for the existence of a field that fill space and breaks the symmetry that is responsible for the associated force, and that fusion of the original two particles releases energy, which we ultimately see as sunlight."  But that's exactly what happens.  It took many decades to put this story together, and it never would have happened if our hands weren't forced by the demands of observation and experiment at every step.
So along with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Particle at the End of the Universe is another book to add to your list of fantastic non-fiction reads.  I won't promise that it'll be an easy summer read -- but you will come away with your mind significantly expanded.  And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions."

Monday, August 1, 2016

Teaser -- Poison the Well

The first chapter of Poison the Well -- the first of the Parsifal Snowe mysteries, about a psychic detective agency.  Coming out in print from Oghma Creative Media in Summer of 2017!


“There he is.”
Bethany Hale’s voice, although quiet, somehow had the ability to be heard over the noise of a busy night in Arcangeli’s. The silver-haired man across from her, dressed in an immaculate, perfectly tailored Armani suit, nodded at her, and made a little gesture with the balloon glass of cognac he held in his left hand.
“You should go to him, then?”
“No,” Bethany said. “Just watch.”
The man they were observing had just entered the restaurant, and stood for a moment in the doorway. After giving a rather imperious look around the room, he went to the bar and sat down, a confident half-smile on his face. He was wearing an expensive-looking pale green shirt with a sport jacket, but its cut accentuated, rather than hid, the body it covered. Even with the fabric in the way, Bethany got a sense of the muscles rippling underneath, and wondered how many hours a week he spent in the gym. When he turned his head she saw an angular face, jaw darkened with five-o’clock shadow. His smooth tan suggested that he spent a great deal of time in the sun. His hair was black, and gave the appearance of being carelessly brushed, but Bethany suspected that every strand was exactly where he intended it to be.
The man was sitting on a bar stool, leaning to the side with leonine indolence, elbow on the bar. He spoke a few words to the bartender, and a moment later had a drink in front of him—it looked like a gin and tonic, or something else clear with a wedge of lime in it. He took a sip from his drink, and made a comment to the woman who was sitting next to him, who half turned toward him with a faint smile.
She was elegantly, but simply dressed, with a close-fitting garment of a watery silver, cut modestly but deeply enough to be alluring. A necklace with a white stone, perhaps an opal, lay against her skin, and caught the light when she moved.
They spoke in quick sentences. It was clear, even from across the room, that they were strangers. Something about her reserve made it obvious. But she was friendly, smiling, and then laughed at something he said, looking down immediately afterward and lifting her glass of white wine as if to say, “I’ll drink to that.”
Bethany, watching them from across the room, cleared her throat, fidgeted with her silverware.
“What are you waiting to observe, Ms. Hale?” her companion said.
The man at the bar said something to the woman next to him, reached out and touched her necklace. Bethany tensed, and said, “Now. Watch.”
The silver-haired gentleman half-turned toward the bar, seeming slightly embarrassed to be so blatantly watching the couple. Bethany, however, had no such compunctions, and kept her eyes fixed on the man in the green shirt. He lifted the opal from the woman’s neck, and held it briefly, and said something. The woman smiled, and reached up, touching the stone herself as it lay against his fingers.
The man smiled, and let the necklace drop gently. The conversation between him and the woman next to him continued for a few moments, but then she finished her wine, set the glass on the bar, and after a quick word to the man and the bartender, picked up her purse and left.
“Fascinating,” Bethany said.
“You’ll go to him, then?” her companion responded.
Bethany nodded, and her lips compressed into a thin line. “Yes,” she said, but privately thought, And if he tries to touch my necklace, I’m going to slap the hell out of him.
She made her way across the room, and up to the now empty seat at the bar. The man turned a little toward her, and nodded, and said, “Evening.”
Bethany gave a chilly little smile, and said, “Would you mind very much coming over to my table? I and a business associate have a proposal that you may be interested in.”
The man’s eyebrows went up, and he gave her an amused grin. “Now there’s a pickup line I’ve never heard.”
Only one of Bethany’s eyebrows went up, a fraction of an inch, and she said, “It’s not a pickup line.” And she thought, Maybe I’ll slap him anyway, just to be on the safe side.
“Oh?” the man said. “And how do you know what sort of business I’m in? Maybe I’m a stockbroker, maybe I’m a used car salesman, and as far as I know I’ve never seen you in my life, so unless your business is professional stalker, you have no way of knowing what my talents are.”
“Let’s take as a working model that we believe you might be interested to hear what we have to say. Then you respond, ‘Okay,’ and follow me across the room, and we can tell you about it, rather than wasting our time speculating.” Bethany’s voice, always level and no-nonsense, took on that almost clinical tone that she was unable to prevent when speaking to someone she instinctively disliked.
The man, far from put off by her iciness, simply smiled again, and said, “All right, you win.” He stood, tossed a ten-dollar bill on the bar, picked up his drink, and followed Bethany across the room.
Bethany gestured at her silver-haired dining companion, and said, “Allow me to introduce Mr. Parsifal Snowe.”
Mr. Snowe stood up, held out a neatly manicured hand, which the younger man took in a firm handshake. “Seth Augustine,” he said. 
“A pleasure,” Mr. Snowe said.
“Likewise.” Seth turned toward Bethany. “I’m told you have some sort of business proposal to make to me. Correct, Ms…?” He gave his crooked half-smile again.
“Hale,” Bethany said. “Bethany Hale.”
“Ms. Hale,” Seth said. “Nice to meet you, as well.”
Bethany didn’t respond, but merely sat down, waiting for Mr. Snowe to speak.
“Please, Mr. Augustine,” Mr. Snowe said, and gestured to a chair. 
Seth sat, and leaned forward, his dark eyes full of curiosity. If he is in the least ill at ease, Bethany thought, he hides it well.
“Ms. Hale and I are colleagues,” Mr. Snowe said. “We are two members of a private detective agency.”
Seth smiled, and turned his hands palm upwards. “I’m not a detective, Mr. Snowe.”
“We know that. However, you do have a talent that we might be able to find a use for.”
“My only training is in finance,” Seth said. “Somehow, I doubt you’re looking for someone to set up IRA plans for your employees.”
Mr. Snowe smiled blandly. “No, you’re quite correct about that. We’re referring to another talent of yours.”
“You’re a psychometer,” Bethany said.
Seth turned toward her. “I’ve never heard it called that.”
“You know the term, though?”
Seth shrugged. “I can guess what it means.”
“You pick up information from objects.”
“Yes. It’s useful.”
“Such as when you want to know if a woman is interested in you.”
He grinned. “Sure, why not?”
Bethany bristled. “A bit of an unfair advantage, don’t you think?”
“Why? Women complain about men making unwanted passes at them. If I can find out ahead of time if she’s ready and willing, it saves the woman in question the discomfort of having someone she’s not interested in coming on to her, and saves me the frustration of spending an entire evening pursuing someone for no… payoff later.” He shrugged. “Of course, in your case, I hardly need to pick up your wine glass to find out that you pack pepper spray.”
Mr. Snowe lifted one finger from his cognac glass, and Bethany suppressed the angry response that was about to escape her lips. “The salient point here, Mr. Augustine,” Mr. Snowe said, “is that we would like to employ your services.”
Seth turned back to him, and Bethany thought, He’s good at masking what he’s thinking, and his psychometric ability has made him cocky. Wait till he meets Callista—we’ll see how he feels when the playing field is a little more equal.
“Would I be acting as a consultant, or a regular employee?”
“I am prepared to hire you for a current case, which we will discuss with you if you accept the position,” Mr. Snowe said. “We are investigating a crime for which the services of a psychometer would be a great advantage. Whether you continue to work for us after that would, of course, be dependent on a great many things.”
“You’re currently unemployed,” Bethany said.
Seth rounded on her. “How do you know that?”
Bethany smiled. Knocked him askew on that one, she thought. “Let’s just say that you’re not the only one who has ways of accessing information about people,” she said.
Seth’s smile returned, although it looked a little thin. He shrugged. “No point in hiding it, I guess. It’d have come up eventually in any case. I got fired from my last job. I was a financial consultant with Carthen, Douglas, and Prescott. A damn good one, too,” he added, a little defiantly.
Doesn’t like not having the advantage, Bethany thought, and decided to press it further. She wasn’t sure whether it was out of curiosity as to how he’d react, or sheer spite, and then she decided that she didn’t care.
“Guess you should have thought twice about boinking the boss’s daughter,” she said. “What, didn’t her necklace tell you that daddy would object?”
Seth’s eyebrows drew together in a scowl, and he started to respond, but Mr. Snowe again gave a small gesture with his hand.
“Ms. Hale, Mr. Augustine, please,” he said. “This is all very much beside the point. We are not concerned here with why you were dismissed from your previous position, because neither the position nor the dismissal is germane to what we would like you to do for us.”
Seth subsided, but gave Bethany a glare before turning back to look at Mr. Snowe. “Okay,” he said. “I’m interested.” He cleared his throat. “What kind of salary are we talking about?”
“I would prefer to discuss remuneration in private,” Mr. Snowe said, looking a little embarrassed to have to discuss such matters at all. “But as far as the financial end of things, I can assure you that we could make it worth your while. It might not be as lucrative as your previous employment was, but I think we can make you an offer that would be quite attractive.”
Seth nodded. “All right,” he said. “You can count me in, assuming that I agree about your offer after we discuss it. What sort of case is it?”
“Murder,” Mr. Snowe said. “Ms. Hale, do you have the file?”
Bethany looked over at Mr. Snowe and said, “Sir, do you think it is wise, before he’s agreed to work for us…” She trailed off, leaving the rest of the question unasked.
Mr. Snowe smiled a little. “You need not worry that Mr. Augustine and I will not reach a satisfactory agreement regarding his terms of employment. Please feel at ease in giving Mr. Augustine a brief outline of the case in question.”
Bethany reached down, and picked up a briefcase and opened it, and withdrew a manila folder.
“You may have heard of the case,” Bethany said. “A little over three weeks ago, there was a wedding reception out at the Colville Yacht Club. A man dropped dead right after the groom’s brother gave the toast. Cyanide in the champagne.”
“I read about it in the newspaper,” Seth said.
“The peculiarity,” Bethany said, “is that nobody seems to know who he is.”
Seth looked at her quizzically. “Including the police?”
“They’ve tried every method at their disposal—dental records, descriptions of wanted criminals, missing person reports from all over the US. Nothing. He’s a nonentity. He showed up at the reception, walked in, sat at a table, talked to the people around him, ate the food, drank the wine, and then died—and no one has the slightest clue as to his identity.”
“Well, presumably someone knows,” Seth said.
“Yes,” Bethany replied. “But of course, the problem is trying to figure out who that someone is.”
“And that’s where I come in?”
Bethany nodded. “We need all the information we can get. We have other psychics on our staff, but thus far they’ve been unable to pick up anything useful. Telepathy would be the most direct way, of course, but our telepath is somehow being blocked. We think that the guilty party must have at least some degree of psychic ability, because he or she seems to be quite competent at shielding.”
“How many people were at the reception?” Seth asked.
“A little under two hundred,” Bethany said, and Seth gave a low whistle.
Mr. Snowe nodded. “You see the difficulty,” he said. “We have been hired by the bride, who is eager to have this resolved. She has been under tremendous emotional strain since her wedding. In her words, ‘It should have been the happiest day of my life, and now all I can think about is that man’s death.’ When it became evident that the police were moving more slowly than she desired, she came to us.”
Bethany opened the folder, and pushed a photograph toward him. It showed a long, rectangular table, surrounded by eight people, laughing and drinking and eating. Three of them were obviously bridesmaids, from the identical styling and unfortunate color of their dresses. At the left end of the table sat a tall, wiry man, with a narrow face, pale eyes behind a pair of black plastic-framed glasses, and rather unkempt light brown hair. His appearance was unremarkable, and he was watching the others, smiling a little, but everyone was turned away from him, engaged in their own conversations.
“Is that him?” Seth asked, pointing.
“Yes,” Bethany said. “Five minutes after this photograph was taken, he was dead.”
Seth looked at the people at the table. “Who are we looking at besides the victim?”
Bethany pointed to the individuals in the photograph. “The bride is obvious. Her name is Rose Petrillo—now Rose Scanlon. Her new husband, Tom Scanlon, is here, next to her, on the far right.”
“The victim was seated at the head table, and no one questioned it?” Seth asked, his voice registering incredulity.
Bethany nodded. “The dinner part of the reception had just started. There were cocktails, and everyone was standing around eating hors d’oeuvres and socializing. There are a couple of photographs of the victim during cocktail hour, but this one shows his face the most clearly. The call was given to be seated, and everyone found their places. Apparently he just walked up and sat down at the head table, and no one said anything.”
“Wasn’t there assigned seating? You know, name cards or something?”
Bethany gave a mirthless little smile. “That’s one of many curious things about this case. The groom’s best friend, Jon van Zandt, was supposed to bring his partner along. The partner got sick the day before the wedding, and Jon let several members of the wedding party know. Apparently, the message never got passed along to the Yacht Club staff, so there was an extra place setting at the head table. Whether the victim knew about this ahead of time, or simply saw an empty seat and took it, isn’t known, of course.”
“Could the poison have been intended for the partner? Put there by someone who didn’t know the partner was sick?”
“Possibly. That’s one avenue we’re investigating. As far as we know, no one but the bride and groom knew van Zandt’s partner on sight. However, that solution still leaves unanswered the question of who the victim was, and why he was there. But if we discount for now the possibility that someone was trying to kill Jon van Zandt’s partner, it brings us back to zero.”
“Which raises the issue of why no one questioned the presence of a strange man at the head table at a formal wedding reception.”
“Well, as far as that goes—the fact is, none of the people there knew everyone at the table except the bride and groom, and even the bride and groom probably barely knew two of the bridesmaids’ dates. Most of the people at the table were relative strangers to each other.”
“So he blended in.”
Bethany nodded. “You know how receptions are. If you see someone you don’t know, the groom’s friends assume it’s one of the bride’s friends and the bride’s friends assume it’s one of the groom’s.”
“It’d be a hell of a way to get free food and liquor,” Seth said, grinning.
Bethany nodded. “Remember the movie, The Wedding Crashers? It would be amazingly easy to crash a reception if you had the guts to act like you belonged there. We’ve talked to all of the other people who saw him, and everyone evidently thought he was an obscure cousin, or else someone’s date. Arlene Petrillo—she’s the bride’s sister—said she was going to ask him who he was, you know, in a friendly sort of way. Then Mark Scanlon got up to give a toast—he’s the groom’s brother, and was the best man—and the next thing you know, the victim was dead.”
“So, who are the other people at the table?” Seth asked.
Bethany touched the images of the three bridesmaids one after another. “The dark-haired woman is Arlene Petrillo, the bride’s sister. She was the maid of honor. Next to her,” Bethany pointed to a laughing woman holding a wine glass, “is Caitlin Sonntag, the bride’s best friend. The third one,” she pointed at a slim blonde who was looking down at something on the table, “is Lisa Drake, the bride’s first cousin. Lisa was sitting across from the victim and apparently talked to him a couple of times during the reception, and was the first one who noticed him choking when the poison took effect.”
“And the men?”
“Well, there’s Tom Scanlon, the groom, who I already pointed out. The empty chair across from him is where Mark Scanlon was sitting. He’d already gotten up to give the toast.” She pointed to a man who was leaning across the table, smiling, saying something to Tom that looked confidential. “That’s Jon van Zandt, Tom’s best friend, the one whose partner was home with the flu the day of the wedding. And these two are Jim Dennison and Charlie Zarone, who are the dates of Caitlin Sonntag and Lisa Drake, respectively.”
“But just because they were at the table, that doesn’t mean they’re the only suspects, right?” Seth asked.
Bethany’s eyes met Mr. Snowe’s for a moment, and then she looked back at Seth. “That’s right. The champagne was poured by the Yacht Club servers, and was on the table waiting for the guests when they sat down. While it was being served, as people were seated—well, it was chaotic. Literally anyone could have dropped poison in the glass without being noticed.”
“So, what we have here,” Seth said, “is a murder that took place in front of dozens of witnesses, with an unidentified victim, no apparent motive, and about two hundred individuals who had opportunity?”
“Precisely,” Mr. Snowe said.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

What I'm reading (#17)

This week I read a book that brings to mind Dorothy Parker's acerbic quip, "This wasn't just plain terrible.  This was fancy terrible.  This was terrible with raisins in it."

The book was The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury, and I really, really wanted to like it.  For one thing, it weaves together modern thriller elements with medieval European history, something that (when done well) is one of my favorite tropes.  (Just a few weeks ago, you may recall, I sang the praises of Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's novel The Rule of Four, which does the same sort of thing, only does it well.)  And The Last Templar starts out with a bang; four horsemen, in armor with Templar insignia, raid the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the opening day of an exhibit of treasures from the Vatican, and steal a bunch of it -- including a mysterious machine called a "multi-geared rotor encoder."

From there, however, it does a complete face plant.  Starting in chapter two, I began to notice some things that made me wonder how this manuscript survived the editing stage: a point-of-view that jumps around like a hyperactive kangaroo, sometimes in the same paragraph; overuse of turgid words like "stygian" and "vertiginous;" dialogue tags such as the following:
  • "I'm fine," she winced.
  • "I'm on my way," he smiled.
The latter gave me a flashback to my long-ago college Creative Writing professor, Dr. Bernice Webb, saying, "You don't 'wince' or 'smile' words!"

The problem is, bad editing isn't the only problem.  There are pages and pages (whole chapters, in fact) that are the author telling us historical backstory.  The dialogue and the narrative feature cheesy lines such as, "Reilly looked at her and smiled, and, at that very moment, he knew with utter certainty that he would spend the rest of his life with this woman."  (A thought, it must be noted, that occurred to Reilly while he and said woman were confronting a crazed murderer intent on killing them both.)

Worse, the characters are caricatures.  We have the beautiful divorcee archaeologist, trying to balance a career and caring for a child as a single mom.  We have the tough-yet-sensitive FBI man who we know from the moment of introduction is going to be the male love interest.  We have the has-been academic who has more or less gone crazy trying to reestablish his place in the world of scholarship.  Worst of all, we have the villain, a ninja priest who alternates pious talk with breaking people's fingers, and who was so obviously the bad guy right from the get-go that he might as well have worn a tag on his shirt saying, "Hello, My Name Is Father Evil McSatan," and who despite this gets to sit in on FBI meetings discussing the case.

And then said cast of characters start doing incredibly stupid and/or implausible things.  If there's one thing I hate, it's when I as a reader sit back and think, "Okay, there's no way that could happen."  It jerks me out of the story, reminds me that I'm reading fiction -- exactly what (as a writer) you wouldn't want.  And in The Last Templar, this happens every damn page.  Here is a short list of such events:
  • Three of the four horsemen who conduct the raid on the museum turn out to be small-time crooks who were hired for the job.  Only one has any knowledge of horses.  None are trained in handling medieval weaponry.  Despite this, they are able to ride their horses, in full chain mail, up steps into a museum full of people, behead one of the guards with a longsword, wreak havoc, steal stuff, and get away.
  • The FBI agent is able to have one of his men make an exact working replica of the rotor encoder -- using nothing but a photograph of the x-ray taken when the thing was brought through customs on its way into the United States from the Vatican.
  • The has-been scholar goes over to the archeologist's apartment, implying that if she doesn't bring certain documents she's stolen along with her, he's going to harm her mother and/or daughter.  The archaeologist thinks, "You know, I should let my FBI agent boyfriend know about this.  I really hate it when people in movies go blundering in when they could have told the police and gotten some back up."  Immediately afterwards, she goes blundering in without telling the police and getting some back up.
  • The ninja priest walks right into a hospital room where one of the four horsemen (now gravely injured) is being held, and despite the fact that the FBI were guarding the room and there were presumably some medical staff on duty, kills the guy and ninjas his way back out of the hospital without being seen.
  • Meanwhile, the tough-yet-sensitive FBI agent is chasing the beautiful divorcee archaeologist, who has decided to go to Turkey to pursue pieces of this puzzle.  He (1) gets into the boarding area without a boarding pass; (2) gets onto the plane without a boarding pass or a passport; and (3) somehow ends up in the seat right next to the archaeologist.  Once in Turkey, he passes through customs with no problem despite #1-3 above, and in fact, a Turkish guy shows up and offers them food, a tent, a car, and a gun, and basically tells them to have a nice time wandering around the Turkish countryside, and if they end up shooting anyone, well, you know, not to worry about it because that kind of stuff happens sometimes.
  • They find out that the archaeological site they're after is at the bottom of a man-made lake.  A guy nearby just happens to have scuba gear.  With no apparent prior knowledge of scuba, they dive 120 feet down, are able to find a stone that was placed there seven hundred years ago, pry it up, and pull out the miraculously undamaged leather pouch underneath.
  • In the middle of two storms (one coming down from the north and one coming up simultaneously from the south, because apparently that's the way weather works), they bring up the figurehead of a ship from the bottom of the Mediterranean that has also been there for seven hundred years, and out of a secret compartment in the figurehead, they extract a book, which is not only miraculously undamaged, but isn't even damp.
Okay, you get the picture.  This book makes Dan Brown's Angels and Demons sound plausible.  To quote the inimitable Dorothy Parker once again, "To call this plot wafer-thin would be an insult to wafer makers."

Want the kicker?  This book has been made into a made-for-TV miniseries, and was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 22 weeks.  This is the kind of thing that makes writers like me suspicious of how the whole big-name publishing industry works.  The fact that this poorly-edited, poorly-conceived, poorly-executed hash even got a contract in the first place is baffling, considering how many truly fine novels there are out there languishing in obscurity.

All right, enough with the screed.  I'm mostly mad at myself, honestly, for soldiering on for 523 pages to get to the ridiculous, contrived ending.  But I figure if I can warn one person away from making the same mistake I did, it's worth it.  At least the book was given to me -- I can't imagine how irritated I'd be if I'd paid $9 for a new paperback.  There are many better uses for $9, and in my opinion that includes using it to start a fire.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What I'm reading (#16)

Knowing my interest in all things paranormal, a friend of mine recently gave me a copy of Christine Wicker's Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, about the village (not so far away from where I live, actually) that is completely populated by Spiritualists.  Founded 120 years ago, it is the longest continuously occupied Spiritualist community in the United States, and is the home to dozens of self-styled mediums.

As anyone who follows my other blog, Skeptophilia, knows, writing about the paranormal when you're a skeptic yourself can put you on a tightrope between sounding credulous and sounding scornful.  I don't always walk that line so skillfully myself -- I have a regrettable tendency toward scorn -- but Wicker does an admirable job of presenting the mediums she interviews as interesting, sane humans, not dupes nor charlatans nor loons.  In the interviews she presents here, she does her very best to be fair both to the people into whose homes she was welcomed, and to the general principles of skepticism.

Interestingly, she is confronted over and over with the basic problem that most of us skeptics have with the paranormal; that it's unverifiable.  Like religion, evidence only gets you so far (in my opinion, not very far at all, actually), and after that, it becomes a matter of faith.  So if you don't have the faith to begin with, it becomes a frustrating matter of pulling yourself up by your own shoelaces -- which Wicker ultimately has to admit doesn't work for her.

So if you're hoping that reading Lily Dale will convince you of the truth of the afterlife, you'll come away disappointed.  Wicker meets a lot of faith-driven Spritualists in the little village -- and more than a few outright hoaxers.  But as an even-handed look at a community whose raison d'être is communicating with the spirits of the dead, it ranks right up there with Mary Roach's Spook as a thoughtful and entertaining read.