This was pretty good contemporary cyberpunk. Morgan doesn't have William Gibson's way with words, but his characters are more interesting and his pacing and action scenes are much better.
There is the potential for a space opera here - the world of Altered Carbon is a far future in which humans have spread to the stars, and the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, was born on another planet, but this story takes place entirely on Earth, in "Bay City" (what used to be San Francisco). That and all the Japanese names and yakuza and such seem to be conscious nods to Gibson.
Kovacs is your basic bad dude ex-commando killing machine with a tortured past. He used to work for "Envoy Corps"; in this far future, the U.N. is apparently the interplanetary government and it trains super-soldiers as "Envoys" to go do all the usual killing and pacifying for what turns out to be corporate interests and rich people. Same as it ever was. Kovacs gets disillusioned and turns rogue, and the book opens with a criminal enterprise he and his girlfriend are running going very badly. This is how we are introduced to the most interesting technology in this world: "resleeving." Basically, human minds can now be digitized and transferred ("sleeved") in new bodies. People convicted of crimes can be sentenced to virtual "storage" — your mind goes into a data bank for some period of time (potentially centuries) and in the meantime, someone else can buy the right to walk around in your body. Mix this with artificial intelligences and virtual worlds and you can see the possibilities for cons, grand schemes, and cunning plans is enormous.
Kovacs winds up on Earth, freed from his virtual sentence following his botched enterprise in the prologue, because a very rich "Methuselah" (someone who's been resleeved repeatedly for hundreds of years) wants him to do a job for him. Mr. Bancroft died, violently, a few days ago, and upon being resleeved from his backup storage, he of course has no memory of what happened prior to his last backup. The police say either he killed himself or his wife killed him. Bancroft refuses to believe either scenario, and wants Kovacs to find out who actually blew his head off and why.
This is where Altered Carbon crosses cyberpunk with a hard-boiled detective novel. Kovacs has to go looking for clues, and of course runs into all sorts of people with conflicting interests all of whom threaten him or bribe him to do what they want. The way in which he eventually uncovers what's really going on, gets caught up in an extensive web and snagged on multiple hooks and conflicting obligations, was quite skillfully plotted. He eventually unleashes bloody vengeance as is typical for this sort of story, and of course he runs up against multiple dangerous dames with whom he has a lot of graphically and sometimes laughably-described sex.
If you are fond of the "hard-boiled lone wolf bangs babes and carves a swath of bloody vengeance" genre, then Altered Carbon is the book for you. The whole digitized humans angle contains no ideas that haven't been floating around in cyberpunk for decades now, and certainly other cyberpunk novels have been written with a noir feel to them, but this is the best of the lot I have read recently.
There were some authorial indulgences (the sex scenes, the Jimi Hendrix AI-run hotel, and a whole lot of prostitutes) which are characteristic of a freshman SF novel (though I kind of liked the Hendrix). But overall, this paid tribute to its predecessors while not being wholly derivative, and I enjoyed it quite a lot, and wouldn't mind seeing a little more extra-solar SF next time.
Sarum tells the entire history of England, from its ice-age prehistory when the first men arrived on the island to the 1980s, by focusing the passing of ages on the city of Salisbury, once known as "Sarum." Located on the edge of Salisbury Plain, at the juncture of five rivers, archeological evidence tells us it's been a trading settlement since prehistoric times (and of course, it is located only a few miles from Stonehenge). Rutherfurd uses a mixture of archeology and recorded history to tell us the complete history of Sarum from the arrival of Hwll the Hunter, seeking high ground as the ice melts, to the last in the line of the Shockleys and Masons, who have entertained us with their family dramas for centuries, trying to restore Salisbury Cathedral in 1985.
How historically accurate is this book? It would take a historian to criticize that aspect of Rutherfurd's storytelling, though obviously everything involving the neolithic settlers, followed by the bronze age settlers, ancestors of the Celts, and pretty much everything up to Roman times, has to be more speculation than known fact. To this day, we don't know for sure exactly when Stonehenge was built or for what purpose, and I remember an Irish history professor in college telling me "Don't believe anything anyone writes about druids - crazy people write about druids." So Rutherfurd's take on the bloodthirsty rites of these Bronze Age tribesmen is probably as likely as any other.
This is not primarily a history book, though, but a multi-generational (many, many, many generations) soap opera, through which history is told. Of the many families living around Sarum, Rutherfurd invents several — the Wilsons (descended from "Will's son" though actually present as fisher-folk living on Sarum's rivers since the Ice Age), the Masons (descended from a medieval mason, who was himself descended from an old Celtic craftsman who learned architecture from the Romans, who was himself descended from the architect of Stonehenge), the Porters (descended from a Roman officer named Porteus), the Godfreys (descended from a Norman knight), the Shockleys, the Forests (a branch of the Wilsons that renamed themselves something more noble once they got money) — who frequently change names and reverse fortunes and have interwoven lives, feuds, and marriages with the passing of centuries. The family that ruled Sarum in Roman times becomes in the 19th century the tenant farmers living on land owned by another family that were Anglo-Saxon peasants in the 11th, and so on. Naturally they don't know their ancient noble (or common) origins the way the reader does, other than as family tales passed down which they believe to be largely fictitious, like Doctor Barnagel, who laughs at his family's legend of being descended from a Danish invader known for crying "Bairn nae gel!" ("Don't kill the children!"), not knowing that it's actually true.
This is a historical epic told through the eyes of everyday people. Rutherfurd has each of his families passing down physical and personality traits through the generations that are more fanciful than genetic, but there is something pleasing and familiar in seeing what the scheming, "spider-like" Wilsons are up to in each century, or what form the next generation's incarnation of a buxom, Amazonish Shockley girl will take.
It sprawls across all of history. How are these families affected by the Roman invasion? The Anglo-Saxon invasion? The Danish invasion? The Norman invasion? The Black Death? The Reformation? The English Civil War? The New World? The Napoleonic Wars? All the way into the 20th century, where things became a bit rushed, covering the passing of time from World War I to 1985 in as many pages as earlier were spent on a single generation in the medieval era.
Stylistically, Edward Rutherfurd is a plain and unembellished writer and he often relies on cliches and tropes, particularly all the women with their "firm young bodies" from paleolithic times onward, and the aforementioned repetition of family traits, from the Wilsons' "long-toed feet," dating back to the Ice Age, to the precise fussiness of the Porters, dating back to their Roman ancestor. Chapters begin with a lot of historical exposition explaining what's going on in this era, then zooming into what our families are up to and which side they're taking. But none of this was a detriment to me; it was a long, long listen and very satisfying. The time spent to research and write an epic spanning over 10,000 years and yet get us personally invested in the lives of individual people made it well worth it.
I liked it enough that I am pushing Rutherfurd's New York epic higher on my TBR list. This is a big fat historical epic to satisfy anyone who likes these kinds of books. Wanda McCaddon's narration was steady and professional throughout - there were a few times when her voice sounded a little shrill, but she handled male and female roles with the perfect British accent. The only place she fell flat was, predictably, the American characters (hardly any Brits can drawl Yank believably), and they only show up briefly in the very last chapters.
I liked Redshirts. Fun. Entertaining. Quite funny at times. And yes, rather clever. Though clever more in a "Look at what I'm doing, isn't this cute, and you can feel clever too by getting all of the in-jokes (which are pitched low and soft)" way, rather than, say, a mind-blowing, genre-elevating, Big Idea, Hugo award-winning way.
Which is probably why I read this book with my eyebrows constantly going up and down. Because as the metaphysical pretension became outright self-indulgence, I just kept thinking... "Yeah, this is fun, but... a Hugo? Really?"
The main characters are redshirts on the starship Intrepid, the flagship of the fleet, captained by square-jawed Captain Abernathy, who is always seen with his excruciatingly logical Science Officer, and a good-looking but dim astrogator named Lieutenant Kerensky who has a disturbing history of surviving horrible wounds, diseases, maimings, and other catastrophes. Meanwhile, much of the activity aboard the Intrepid revolves around avoiding the attention of the staff officers, and especially, avoiding Away Missions.
Ensign Andrew Dahl is a newbie aboard the ship, and once he figures out what's going on, he also figures out that he is most likely to be the next sap sacrificed.
Okay. So, Redshirts is really, really meta. It's not even a little bit subtle, either. Once Dahl and his friends realize what's going on, they start researching early 20th century Earth television and refer to Star Trek by name.
Scalzi is not the first author to write about fictional characters discovering that they are fictional characters. And he knows it, and he makes sure you know he knows it, continuing his see-how-clever-I-am metaness by having other characters, whose minds are blown by the meta, researching and mentioning by name everything from Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo to Jasper Fforde.
Dahl eventually deduces that not only are they characters on a TV show, but the TV show isn't even real — it's actually a fictional creation in a novel!
Whoa, Scalzi, you are sooooo clever!
Joking aside, Redshirts was amusing. The characters are Scalzi's usual likable jerks tossing zingers at each other while eventually delivering heartfelt moral epiphanies. But most of the humor comes from "spot the genre reference," and much of the humor is diluted by the author making sure that dimmer readers don't miss the reference by having every dialog continue for a beat or two longer than necessary.
There is a lot of self-referential humor, about science fiction, about Hollywood, and about writing.
On an additional plus side, Wil Wheaton's narration was pretty awesome; Wheaton really "gets" Scalzi's voice and the voice of his characters.
Jim Hines's Princess series is enjoyable light fantasy, the sort of thing that will appeal to fans of the early Xanth series (before Piers Anthony got really skeevy), but with more self-awareness. The first book was novel mostly for the premise: Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty turned into real, flesh-and-blood characters, not fairy tales but actual princesses with plausible backstories with just enough connection to the "fairy tale" version to make it understandable how the legends started.
The next two books were basically continuations of the adventure, adding the Little Mermaid and Red Riding Hood to the mythos.
In the fourth and last book in the series, there's little adaptation or subversion going on; it's just the final adventure of our three heroines, with some revelations about little details that have been running throughout the series (like just why is Danielle/Cinderella able to talk to animals?), and a resolution, of sorts, to the unfortunate Talia's crush on Snow.
Snow White, the flirty sorceress who's been the "fun" third of the trio for the past three books, becomes the Big Bad in this one, corrupted by a demon through the power of her mother's magic mirror. All of a sudden she's turning everyone evil, destroying armies, and toppling kingdoms. Danielle and Talia have to go after her, with the question hanging throughout the book being whether they'll be able to save Snow without killing her.
I won't say anything about the ending, other than that it was not unexpected, and I felt it was satisfying without being a cop-out.
There are a lot of magical battles, including battles of wits with faeries. While, as with previous books, it was rather AD&Dish at times, I think Hines made the action and the magic consistent enough for his setting without making me hear dice rolling in the background.
While this is the last book in the series (for now), there is certainly potential for Hines to continue the series in the future if he chooses to do so, and I would probably read them.
The Princess books wouldn't make my Best Fantasy list, but they're fine, enjoyable adventures with a surprisingly detailed amount of worldbuilding and character development. The Snow Queen's Shadow brings it to a bittersweet conclusion; I would definitely recommend reading the previous books first.
So you have a diverse cast of poor to barely-middle-class Los Angelenos living in an old apartment building in which everyone is willing to ignore the occasional creepiness and green cockroaches because the rent is ridiculously cheap. When new guy Nate moves in, just another wage slave working in a dead-end temp database entry job, he actually starts taking an interest in the strange mysteries of the place, like the rental agent who turns out to be an actress, the doors that don't go anywhere, the absence of a connection to the city power grid, etc.
He makes friends with his neighbors, and slowly they all become involved in solving the mystery. Half the book is character spotlights, from Veek, the minimum-wage worker who has high-powered cluster computers in her apartment, to Xela, the nudist who dyes her hair in day-glow colors with matching carpet and drapes. Tim, the guy with all kinds of secret agent skills who says he used to be a small book publisher. And Andrew, the creepy Bible freak. There has to be a creepy Bible freak.
The other half of the book is plot, as the Scoobies go about solving the mysteries. And find it's turtles all the way down. All I need to do is drop the word "Lovecraftian" and I've pretty much told you all you need to know about the story and whether or not you're interested.
Is this a brilliant, genre-breaking, or Hugo-worthy novel? No. But it's a pacey adventure with a little romance, a little death, a little SAN loss. The big reveals make sense, given the necessary suspension of disbelief, and Peter Clines has created a consistent world in need of saving.
I've come to rely on Peter Clines to deliver good dark fun with straightforward prose and storytelling in gleeful genre mash-ups, and that's what 14 is. So: Lovecraftian adventure in a creepy old Los Angeles apartment building. You in or not?
Brandon Sanderson only seems to have one story in him, but he's very clever about retelling it with different faces and settings.
Here is the story: plucky protagonist with a tragically heroic motivation is stuck in a crapsack world ruled by a villain with godlike powers. Protagonist teams up with a clever band of fellow underdogs who are dedicated to bringing down the Big Bad, even though it is utterly impossible, because it is the Right Thing to Do. The underdogs are largely a collection of personalities defined by quirks and catchphrases. They will banter their way through a series of Ocean's Eleven-escque escapades, using corny made-up swear words (because Brandon Sanderson has this Mormon no-swearing, no-sex rule) while the protagonist spends his time figuring out the rules of the magic system. Then they face the Big Bad and defeat him with the Power of Heart (and the protagonist finding a loophole in the rules).
This describes pretty much all Brandon Sanderson novels I have read so far.
But I liked Steelheart, even if I liked it better the first time I read it, when it was called Mistborn. Because yo, superheroes.
In Steelheart, a light appeared in the sky ten years ago. Called "Calamity," it gave people superpowers. The twist — there are no heroes. All "Epics" are evil.
David watched Steelheart, the most powerful of all Epics, kill his father. Steelheart then took over Chicago, and ten years later, the world is a dystopian hellhole, with "Newcago" being a marginally better place to live than most because there is actually food and an economy and electricity and running water. You just have to live with an invulnerable god-like ruler who randomly kills people to demonstrate his power.
So besides being a retelling of Mistborn ("Newcago" even replicates the sunless, plantless world of Mistborn, as Steelheart literally turned the environment to metal, and one of his minions has permanently blotted out the sun), Sanderson did one other thing in Steelheart: he makes Comic Book Guy the hero.
The nineteen-year-old protagonist, David, is a comic book geek, in a world where comic book characters are real. Despite growing up in a Dickensian dystopia, he manages to collect information about every Epic around and becomes an expert on their powers, tactics, and weaknesses. He's like that guy who memorizes everything in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Never mind that in this world, the characters he's memorizing are real and he has a practical reason for obsessing over them (he wants to kill them); even the other characters call him a nerd.
The fun in Steelheart is mostly figuring out the puzzles. Sanderson leaves clues throughout the story — largely related to how Epic powers work, what is Steelheart's weakness, and who the secret Epic(s) are. I saw all of the twists coming and figured out most of the clues, and I found the good guys' victory at the end to be a bit of a cheat (Lamest. Loophole. Ever.) but meh, it's Young Adult.
It is the first in a series. Of course. I may read the next one if it sounds interesting enough, but it's not a must-read.
Steelheart was a fun read. Brandon Sanderson doing superheroes will appeal to you if you like superheroes and/or Brandon Sanderson and are willing to overlook the limitations of both. It is not his best work, nor is it his worst, and likewise it's neither the best nor the worst superhero novel I've ever read.
"Rock Paper Tiger" was an unexpectedly good debut novel, and made Lisa Brackmann a crime fiction writer to look out for. I said that if she continued writing about the adventures of Ellie McEnroe I would be down for that, and lo and behold, here is a second book about Ellie. And while Hour of the Rat wraps up tidily, there were enough character issues left unresolved that more books seem very likely.
This is good, since I've liked the first two a lot, though I do fear that the Ellie McEnroe series will go the way so many crime/mysteries series do, eventually laboring under the weight of so many continuing characters and long-running plot threads that each book winds up indistinct and episodic.
So far, though, the series is still fresh. Ellie McEnroe was a medic in the U.S. Army. She got a chunk blown out of her leg in Iraq, and now she has physical and psychological issues to deal with. She settled in China, originally because her then-husband brought her there when he got a job as a "security consultant." Now she's peripherally involved with the Chinese art scene, living as a semi-permanent expat and trying to stay out of trouble.
A buddy of hers from the "sandbox" asks her to find his brother, who's somewhere in China and apparently in some trouble. Reluctantly, Ellie agrees. The brother turns out to be accused of eco-terrorism, and Ellie's hunt will bring her to the attention of powerful multinational corporations, the Chinese secret service, and an eccentric art-collecting billionaire. As with the previous book, it means she spends a lot of time running scared and getting beaten up and not knowing who exactly is after her.
There isn't much to the "mystery" — what makes the book enjoyable is, of course, Ellie's outsider's view of China. This is a modern look at China, with its odd mix of authoritarian statism and hyper-capitalism, beautiful country villages and cities so polluted that the air is practically solid. A GMO seed company is the primary villain, but there is of course the ever-present though mostly easy to pretend-it-isn't-there surveillance by various organs of the Chinese government. The Chinese characters are often more cynical than Ellie is about their country, but they are as proud and as ambitious and as nationalistic as any Americans.
Also, Ellie's mother, who drove her crazy last book with a constant stream of Jesus-loves-you emails, comes to China for a visit. Lisa Brackmann understands the value of comic relief characters.
An altogether enjoyable read. For any fan of crime fiction or expat adventures, go ahead and get started on this series now — it's my hope that it will be around for a while.
Normally narration is either "good enough" (i.e. transparent) or "annoying" to me, but I want to call out Tracy Sallows's narration as being particularly good. Her voice for Ellie made me really believe it was the character speaking, her voicing of Ellie's mother made me laugh out loud, and she handled the Chinese characters, with their accents, very well also. She actually made the book more enjoyable.
Warning: BIG FAT SPOILERS!
Okay, I actually saw that coming, but I'm still kinda surprised she actually went there.
So, if you have read the first two books in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy, you know that Georgia Mason died at the end of book one, and was brought back to life (as a clone) at the end of book two.
I'm not a big fan of "cheats" like this. Throughout the second book, Grant coped with having killed off one of her main characters in the first book by making Shaun "crazy," so Georgia becomes a permanent presence in his head, thus allowing the living main character to have conversations with his dead sister.
This continues in book three, even past the point where Shaun finally finds out about the cloned Georgia. I was expecting there to be some additional sort of "twist" to explain how the Georgia in Shaun's head could be telling him things Shaun didn't himself actually know. But nope, it was just crazy.
The Newsflesh trilogy, supposedly a zombie post-apocalypse series, aspires to be a political allegory as well. The "real" story is that in the wake of the unleashing of the Kellis-Amberlee virus, which causes the newly-dead to rise up again as viral-animated cannibalistic infection vectors, American society has responded to this terrifying change in the status quo by accepting a "new normal" that includes blood tests at every door, elevator, and vehicle, shoot-to-kill orders, safety protocols that make walking out in the open or doing pretty much anything but huddling within fortified enclaves unthinkable, and of course, listening to a government-coopted news media lie about everything.
Sound like Mira Grant might have an agenda here?
The point is pressed home hard in the concluding volume, in which Shaun and George and their surviving newsies find themselves on the run, working with mad scientists and crazy hackers with crazier gun moll sidekicks, swearing to unleash vengeance and The Truth. And they also kill a zombie bear. A ZOMBIE GRIZZLY BEAR!
Like the first two books, it's fast-paced adventure from start to finish. Whenever things start to get slow, you can bet something is about to get blown up or another horde of zombies will come moaning around the corner.
The Center for Disease Control, already revealed to be a little shady in the previous book, turn out to be an Evil Government Conspiracy that is literally holding the President hostage. And there are some new revelations about the Kellis-Amberlee virus, and of course, there is the whole cloning bit, where they managed to clone Georgia and perform a memory transfer from dead Georgia's brain, so that the clone is kinda sorta the real Georgia, at least real enough to convince Shaun.
Which is where things get really creepy, because you know how I commented in my review of the last book that these two are... disturbingly close, and it's kind of weird that neither of them seemed to have an actual love interest?
Yeah, the author went there.
I cannot say I was shocked or surprised, but between Shaun being a constant jerk even before Georgia died, and an even worse jerk after, and then when clone Georgia comes back, he is, as Becks points out so succinctly, "an incestuous necrophiliac"... this was sure a creepy twist to throw in the finale.
Mira Grant's writing is clever and full of banter, but sometimes the forced "punchiness" of it (like we are constantly being reminded how Irwins, in the face of imminent death, cope by making wisecracks) became wearying.
I also hesitated to label this series "YA" before, but there were too many points in Blackout where I felt talked down to by the author spelling things out through unnecessary dialog. For example, upon being told that they will not be allowed to continue without passing a checkpoint, Shaun asks: "And if we don't pass the checkpoint tests?"
Gee, what do you think? Three entire books have been spent hammering the point home. This is not even a question anybody living in this world would ask. Everyone knows what the "safety protocols" are in the post-Rising world.
Grant also gets a bit heavy-handed with some of the emails and blog entries that begin each chapter. Like: "Shaun is alive. Repeat, Shaun is alive!" Repeated in an email. Now, think about it. If you are telling somebody something really important in an email, you might underline it or use boldface or something, and you might say "Repeat: blah blah blah" once for dramatic emphasis. But you probably don't repeat it at the start and end like you are sending it out via radio broadcast on an uncertain transmission.
I know, small details. But they annoyed me.
For all that, I enjoyed the story and this was a pretty solid conclusion to the trilogy. Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire is not about to become my favorite author: this series was pretty much brain candy. But it's tasty brain candy, even if you aren't normally into zombie novels. I am docking book three a bit for the juvenile flourishes, so 3.5 stars, rounded to 4 because I liked the series as a whole.
This is one of those anti-war classics that emerged from the Great War, with boys marching off singing patriotic songs about whipping the Huns, and discovering war as it was to be fought in the 20th century: trenches, machine guns, grenades, endless shelling, poison gas.
It was probably very powerful in its day. It still is a powerful and harrowing description of war, but the narrative is a sadly familiar one. If you want to read another story about how horrible war is, this is another story about how horrible war is.
One Man's Initiation has the anti-war message of All Quiet on the Western Front and the starry-eyed socialist idealism of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Ending with a bunch of soldiers slinging philosophy and revolution in an atmosphere of alcohol and mortar shells, you can see how anything that might shake up the present world order must have appealed to them under the circumstances. Unfortunately, we also know how it turned out.
As a story, it's average, half-fiction, half autobiographical soapbox. I listened to it because it was an Audible freebie. Not a complete waste of time, but I find Upton Sinclair a much more compelling writer in this space than John Dos Passos.
Let me be bold here: I think this book deserves to be a modern classic.
Not because it's the greatest book I've ever read. I liked it a lot, but it falls short of true greatness.
I am, however, comparing it to a lot of other classics I've read in the past few years, and in particular, the great melodramatic social commentaries like Bleak House, Mansfield Park, Middlemarch, North and South, Can You Forgive Her?, The Age of Innocence and so on.
Note that while I liked most of those books, I didn't love them. And I'm not necessarily comparing Héctor Tobar with the likes of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.
But he does exactly what Dickens and Austen and Trollope and Eliot, et al did — in telling a story about characters caught in a particular time and place in rather contrived situations, he tells us about that milieu. And by telling a good story with vibrant and detailed characters, he makes the story interesting.
The milieu here is 21st century Los Angeles. Like most of the above-mentioned social commentarians, Tobar centers the story in a well-to-do household, that of Scott Torres and Maureen Torres-Thompson.
There's a wealth of details just in their names. Scott is a computer geek paper millionaire working at a start-up. He's all but abandoned the Mexican half of his heritage, including his Mexican father who was banned from his household by his wife for making what she considered to be a racially insensitive remark. Maureen is the very model of a nice progressive white lady who thinks racism and sexism and other isms are just ever so awful, while enjoying her stay-at-home mom status with floors washed, toilets scrubbed, meals cooked, and lawns gardened by underpaid Mexicans.
They both are and are not sympathetic people. Scott and Maureen really are pretty ordinary upper-middle class Californians with major materialistic blindness. Scott is utterly emasculated, Maureen is utterly emasculating, without being deliberately cruel. When she goes out and orders an expensive landscaping job, just as Scott has let go all but one of their Mexican help because the recession has devastated their savings and his company is struggling, it precipitates a conflict that leads to the second half of the novel.
Araceli Ramirez is the Torres-Thompsons' cook/housekeeper. She gets paid $250/week plus room and board. Nannying and babysitting is emphatically not part of her job - she doesn't even like kids. But when a series of ill-timed miscommunications lead Scott and Maureen both to leave the house for several days, each believing that their two boys are with the other one, Araceli is stuck with them.
The specific circumstances that cause Scott and Maureen to be unaware that they left their kids with the housekeeper for four days, and that cause Araceli to decide that she needs to take them across L.A. to their grandfather's house, are a bit contrived, a comedy of errors engineered to be convenient to the plot. But once they get underway, it's an interesting journey, because Araceli is the real main character.
She is not a "heroine." She's not a "spunky protagonist." And she's certainly not a nice motherly Latina guardian angel. She's a serious, responsible, hard-working woman who has learned to live with bitterness and lost opportunities. To her employers, she's just the unsmiling housekeeper they dubbed "Ms. Weirdness." In fact, Araceli is an astute observer of human nature who only refrains from making sharp comments because her English isn't very good. She's a former art student who had to leave her university in Mexico City, and now here she is trying to keep these sensitive, imaginative gringa boys out of trouble.
Their adventure turns into an even more farcical comedy of errors involving the police, politicians, celebrities, political activists and race-baiters, with Araceli caught in a media firestorm.
Is there a profound message in this book? Not really. The Barbarian Nurseries doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. America assimilates, rich people tend to be privileged and entitled, rich liberals tend to think very highly of their never-tested principles, no one actually wants to get rid of illegal immigrants except a few politicized useful fools, and just because someone doesn't speak your language doesn't mean they aren't thinking thoughts.
But it's the situation and the characters that make this book. What did Dickens or Trollope ever tell us that we didn't already know? And no one who appreciates the old classics should criticize Héctor Tobar's occasional tilt towards absurdity.
This novel of modern culture and racial friction in Los Angeles doesn't get 5 stars because it didn't have the literary brilliance to make it one of my faves. I think what it was most missing, for me, was humor. There were times when it was almost a satire, but not quite. But still, definitely a recommended read.
This Kindle short/Audible freebie is a "true crime" story about Lonnie Franklin Jr., the serial killer known as the "Grim Sleeper" because he supposedly stopped killing for over a decade, before resuming.
The real story here is not so much Lonnie Franklin. As serial killers go, he's not very interesting. He is your basic working-class schlub, in and out of trouble with the law, who ran a chop shop in his yard that all his neighbors in South L.A. knew about. Naturally, most of the women he killed were prostitutes, drug addicts, or otherwise troubled women living in environments where no one is really surprised when they go missing and/or turn up dead, and not coincidentally, mostly black. Which is where the real story, such as it is, is revealed in this scant book.
The author milked a single case to cover a really broad range of topics, and for the short length of this book, he took on too much. Covering California from the 70s to the present day (as of this date, September 2013, Lonnie Franklin has not yet gone to trial), Paul Alexander tries to connect the history of race relations in L.A., particularly with its notoriously corrupt and brutal police department, the AIDS epidemic, the rise of crack cocaine, the Rodney King riots, the history of DNA evidence, and the large roster of other Los Angeles serial killers, to his main story. Most of the connections are tenuous at best.
The author's main thesis is that the LAPD has a history of corruption and incompetence, a case that's hard to dispute, and that this led to them not catching Lonnie Franklin earlier, which is probably true but some of his specific accusations are a bit of a leap.
But what becomes glaringly evident, though it's the one thing the author doesn't spell out, is that the reason Lonnie Franklin wasn't caught earlier was that the women he killed didn't matter. They were mostly poor African-American women from the bad parts of L.A., either living/working on the streets or not far from it. The very name given to the murders initially - the "strawberry murders," so-called because street slang for women who traded sex for drugs was "strawberry" - tells you what the police and the media thought of them.
"Wrong zip code. They’re dead where it doesn’t count."
— Mike Fletcher, The Wire
Homicidal was somewhat interesting, but much too broad and the coverage consequently superficial, with the author's conclusions not very well-supported. It's not much more than an expanded magazine feature on a fairly unremarkable loser of a serial murderer.
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