29 May 2007

A pair to bet on

I've liked most of the Dana Stabenow's mystery novels that I've read. She's written 18 of them, all set in Alaska. Part of the attraction to me has been that exotic locale.

(I was, after all, a fanatic fan of Northen Exposure. I'd gotten over the Alaska thing when Men in Trees came along, but then neither was actually filmed in the great north.)

Stabenow has demonstrated to me really good story telling. She's also done humor very well in one of her novels and action/adventure very well in a couple others.

The family banking exec, my sister-in-law Mary, passed on two Stabenow books this spring. I just finished the second one and figured this is a good time to say something about them.

The first book is A Deeper Sleep. This is, for Stabenow, a run-of-the-mill story about Kate Shugak, an Alaskan native-American, educated in the outside and trying to reintegrate herself into what the community of her birth has become. The story also involves state trooper Jim Chopin, who at the time of this story, is Shugak's lover. (There's a lot of interesting back story from more than a dozen earlier novels, but it's not necessary to have read them to enjoy this one.)

The little rural community and the characters in it work for me. I grew up in a small (not as small as Niniltna, Alaska) Minnesota town, and the portrayal seems realistic. Most often in these novels, Stabenow brings in outsiders as hunters, tourists, or run aways, as bad guys or victims. This time around it's the locals who are bad guys and victims.

The tale is complex and kept me interested and guessing right up to the end. It was an enjoyable escape for the hours I read. If you haven't read any of Stabenow's mysteries, it's one you could start with. If you liked it, you could find earlier ones in the library or used book shop.

The other book Mary dropped off for us was not typical of Stabenow's novels. It's a covert weapons trade/terrorist/CIA/FBI/Coast Guard/romance. It's called Blindfold Game, and is perhaps Stabenow's attempt to break out of the mystery genre. (Her first three books were science fiction, but then she won an Edgar for her first Kate Shugak mystery.)

As a thriller/adventure story it also follows up on a couple Kate Shugak novel that were action-packed. Blindfold Game involves arms dealers in Switzerland, North Korean terrorists, a dirty bomb on a surplus Russian missile, tramp freighters, a CIA desk agent and his Coast Guard officer wife, an Alaskan FBI agent, and a Greenpeace ship.

It's a well-told story with at least two-dimensional characters. It's intriguing enough to tempt me to learn more about the arms trade and itinerant shipping. I got close to the end one evening before bed and I knew I couldn't read the ending and expect to sleep. So the book sat on the pile for several days before I finished it one early evening. Luckily I had a couple hours to let my heart stop pounding and my blood pressure to go back to normal before I wanted to sleep.

Yes, I thought it was good. It was published in January 2006, so the paperback might be on bookstore shelves now. A Deeper Sleep was published in January 2007, so look in the library for it.

These were great spring reading. They might be great summer reading too. Read one or both and add your comment to mine.

22 May 2007

Old entry from the old site

From ReadingOnTheWeb, the predecessor to this blog. I add this here, because, Mosley's book is one of the best ones I've read in years.

Written 15 November 2002:

I had a 28-hour trip to Detroit recently.

I picked up a Walter Mosley book I'd heard of a few years ago.

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned was reviewed favorably, but there was something about the comments in those reviews that put me off at the time even though I have generally liked Mosley's books very much.

It's not really a novel.

The book is a collection of stories that amount to an extended character sketch of Socrates Fortlow, a middle-aged man who spent half his life in prison. The stories are set in mid-1990s Watts, and Fortlow (like his ancient namesake) is in search of virtue and self-knowledge. The stories describe his gradually greater involvement with the community and his efforts to make his life count for something good.

Fortlow's conversation with an old couple who ran a bookstore in a nearly abandoned Watts strip mall is a significant glimpse of the book. Fortlow speaks first:

"They let me go 'cause all I did was kill black folks. They don't think that black folks are worth a whole life in a white man's jail. But I wasn't cured. I was still mean an' still confused. You know my main problem was that I was never sure what was right. You know--absolutely sure."

The Minettes both stared. Socrates was certain that they weren't afraid of him.

"But you did change?" Oscar Minette asked.

"Comin' down to your store. Listenin'...An' watchin' you two just sit back and lettin' it all happen. It was like I was seein' through your eyes. I'd let my mind be smilin' an' carin' 'bout people when I knew that they was wrong. Somehow watchin' you made me see myself. You know what I mean?"

"You're a good man, Mr. Fortlow..."

"Why you say that, Oscar?"

"Because you know...that there's something good in the world...and you want it."

"What good is this you talkin' 'bout?"

"Purpose, Mr. Fortlow. Purpose. We're all here for a reason. There's a divine plan. Good men want to find their place in the plan. That's you."

The book is full of such ruminations and the actions that Socrates Fortlow takes in his attempts to find good and be good.

This is an inspiriting book. It's a thoughtful book and I highly recommend it. It's in the library. It's on the bookstore shelves. Find it and read it.

  • John Chutterbuck's review in the Houston Chronicle

  • An admiring review from Herbert Huber in Germany (auf Deutsch)

  • An interview with Mosley about Socrates Fortlow as part of a reading group guide

  • A review from MostlyFiction.com

After reading Walter Mosley's book, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, I left it on Dan Conrad's dining room table because I thought he'd like it at least as much as I did. Here's what he wrote about it:

"I'm almost finished with the Mosley book. I began reading it on the heels of Jane Austin and at first the shift in style and lifestyle was almost too much.

"I plunged on, spurred by your recommendation and was soon completely caught up in it. What wonderful characters and characterizations. I found myself following my teenaged son, Jeremy around reading parts to him -- whether he liked it or not! Wisdom and writing excellence come in many guises! Thank you so much."

You're very welcome, and thank you, Dan.

Based on the results of passing books on to Jana Eaton, Carrie Lucking, and Dan, I guess I should try giving away more books.

15 May 2007

Romantic science fiction

Many years ago I read a science fiction novel by John Varley, and was impressed enough to remember his name. I think the book was Titan. But I'm not sure. When I looked up the plot summary, it didn't sound like the book I remembered at all.

The reason for looking up Titan was that Nancy brought a John Varley book home from the library. This one was Red Lightning. Like Titan, this book involves the conflicts between residents of two different worlds.

In Red Lightning, the two worlds are earth and earth's fairly independent colony on Mars. The Martian colony and earth's survival are dependent upon the discovery/invention of a nearly-unlimited, non-polluting source of power controlled by a benevolent scientist. (Like most science fiction, this requires major suspension of disbelief.)

The separation between the two "worlds" is complete enough and old enough that culturally the two places are rather different. Rather like England and its American colonies in the late 1700s were different, I suspect (and I suspect that Varley intended that comparison).

So, politically and militarily, the power held by the scientist is too attractive. Many people wanted to run things. The scientist disappears and takes his secrets with him. The scientists' relatives live in Mars' rather idyllic society. The powers that be on earth invade Mars. The "Martians" rescue the scientist, find ways of resisting the earthlings' invasion because the scientist demonstrates that his power source is not only benign, but lethal. And the Martians live happily every after.

It's a romantic fairy tale in many ways. It's a hippie manifesto. (Varley spent some of his teenage years on the streets of Haight and Ashbury.) It's pretty well written and the story is well told. It was just the kind of escapism I needed last week.

If it sounds attractive, check it out. Your library may also have a copy.