Sunday, August 26, 2007

Murder on the Orient Express - Agatha Christie (*****)

A brilliant "locked room" classic!

"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" might be the locked room mystery that holds down honours for being the novel in which Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot to a grateful reading public. But it is "Murder on the Orient Express" that showcases a confident, polished Hercule at the height of his powers. Standing tall beside Sherlock Holmes and Auguste Dupin, Poirot is arguably the most widely read and best known detective in literature and "Murder on the Orient Express" is certainly one of the finest examples of the mystery genre. In a brilliant variation of the typical British drawing room mystery, Christie places her cast of thirteen suspects together with the victim and Poirot on the Orient Express en route from Istanbul to Calais.

Mr Ratchett, an unsavory looking man who obviously has some dark secrets in his past, approaches Poirot as the train leaves Istanbul with the offer of a very fat fee asking for his services to help protect his life from enemies he knows are out to kill him. Poirot, seeing this as a very uninteresting exercise from a cerebral point of view, politely declines. But when the train is stopped in its proverbial tracks by a huge snow storm and Ratchett is killed in his locked berth, stabbed no less than twelve times, Poirot is pressed into service to solve the case by his long time friend Bouc who is also a director of the corporation that owns the train.

Through the simple process of gathering clues by interviewing the thirteen suspects - a wildly disparate lot that in modern terms would almost certainly be referred to as a "motley crue" - Poirot employs "the little gray cells" and intuits a positively brilliant solution. In that time honoured literary tradition of gathering all of the suspects into a single room, a somewhat less than humble Poirot puts on a flashy show of summarizing the case and revealing the identity of the perpetrator in a brilliant twist that only Poirot could fathom and only Dame Christie could create.

There is nothing about "Murder on the Orient Express" that does not deserve high praise - dialogue; the hilarious mis-translation of idiomatic French into spoken English; the less than subtle but accurate use of class distinctions and behavioural stereotypes unique to different nationalities; characterization; colourful narrative description; plot; suspense; red herrings; and, of course, a brilliant solution that deftly ties up every conceivable loose thread. And all of that is in an all too short package that can be read in the brief space of three or four thoroughly enjoyable hours. Read and enjoy, pass the book onto your best friend but, for goodness sake, keep your lip zipped about that brilliant ending!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

TBR Challenge 2007 (On track!)

Eight months down, four to go! Eight titles down, four to go! On track but just hanging in there by a thread. Friedman's "The World is Flat" was a DNF setback but I suppose setbacks are the stuff of which challenges are made, aren't they?

Here's how the list stands at the moment:

1. Strange Cargo – Jeffrey Barlough (fantasy)
2. The World is Flat – Thomas L Friedman (non-fiction, sociology, DNF)
3. Angels and Demons – Dan Brown (thriller)
4. The Angel of Darkness – Caleb Carr (historical fiction)
5. Vancouver – David Cruise and Alison Griffiths (historical fiction)
6. Dreaming the Eagle – Manda Scott (historical fiction)
7. Rite of Passage – Alexei Panshin (classic sci-fi)
8. The Man Who Mapped the Arctic – Peter Steele (history)
9. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova (fantasy)
10. Dark Fire – CJ Sansom (historical fiction
11. Backbeat – J Frederick Arment (sci-fi)
12. The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (fantasy)

1. Colonization: Aftershocks – Harry Turtledove (sci-fi)
2. War of the Flowers – Tad Williams (fantasy)
3. Clothar the Frank – Jack Whyte (historical fiction)
4. West of Eden – Harry Harrison (sci-fi)

Next planned read is CJ Sansom's "Dark Fire".

Classic Sci-Fi Challenge 4

EE "Doc" Smith's "Triplanetary" served double duty in the challenge department. For my self-imposed task of reading new authors in the genre of classic sci-fi, progress has been steady, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable. Although this particular novel was less than impressive (my opinion alone, of course ... and there are thousands out there that disagree with me), the whole idea of enjoying new authors has proven exciting.

Here's my progress on the challenge so far. Completed titles are highlighted in red italics:

1. Lest Darkness Fall - L Sprague de Camp
2. The Voyage of the Space Beagle - AE van Vogt
3. A Mirror for Observers - Edgar Pangborn
4. The Best of Stanley G Weinbaum - Stanley Weinbaum
5. Earthman's Burden - Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson
6. Triplanetary - EE "Doc" Smith
7. Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg
8. Tales of the Dying Earth - Jack Vance
9. Cities in Flight - James Blish

Up next is L Sprague de Camp's "Lest Darkness Fall". I've been looking forward to this one for a long time.

Friday, August 24, 2007

"By the Decades" Challenge - Coming Right Along!

I was a little put off, frankly, with "Doc" Smith's overbearing style and "Triplanetary" didn't exactly thrill me to my toes. That said, there was more than enough content to suggest that I ought to continue with the Lensman series and hold off on final judgment for a little bit.

Having completed this title, I can now lay claim to having completed nine consecutive decades and since I'm currently reading Conan Doyle's "The Poison Belt", I'm thinking that eleven decades is a goal within short range reach. Stay tuned! This is one challenge I am determined to finish completely.

Here's the link to 3M's blog for a detailed explanation of the rules and a list of participants.

1870 The Law and the Lady - Wilkie Collins
1880 A Study in Scarlet - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1890 The Well at World's End - William Morris
1900 First Men in the Moon - HG Wells
1910 The Poison Belt - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1920 The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie
1930 Burmese Days – George Orwell
1940 Triplanetary - EE "Doc" Smith
1950 The Voyage of the Space Beagle – AE van Vogt
1960 The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
1970 Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
1980 West of Eden – Harry Harrison
1990 Plum Island – Nelson DeMille
2000 Ptolemy's Gate – Jonathan Stroud

A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson (*****)

Nature Writing and a Travelogue with "oomph"!

Perhaps it was a fit of angst dealing with his own personal version of a mid-life crisis that led Bill Bryson to tackle the challenge of hiking the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail! It was certainly a solid understanding of his own personality and clear recognition of his own physical and mental limitations that prompted him to invite his friend, Stephen Katz, an overweight and out of shape recovering alcoholic with an inordinate fondness for snack foods and cream soda to accompany him on this daunting challenge. The demands of the AT ultimately proved too much for Bryson and Katz who sensibly (and with an almost relieved sense of philosophical acceptance) decided to abandon the notion of a complete through hike. But the resulting story, drawn from Bryson's daily journal of the summer's efforts, is an overwhelming success and pure joy in the reading.

"A Walk in the Woods" is an extraordinary, entertaining travelogue on both the AT - the Appalachian Trail - and the people and places of small town America that dot the trail's path along the eastern seaboard from Georgia to Maine. At the same time, it is much, much more. Bryson is scathing in his political commentary and almost enraged criticism of the ongoing state of mismanagement and the sadly misguided policies of both the Parks and Forest Services of the US government. "A Walk in the Woods" is also a deeply moving introspective examination on the nature of friendship, family, struggle and perseverance, joy and despondency. As he and Katz amble along rock strewn trails dappled with sunlight broken by the leafy forest canopy, Bryson frequently, effortlessly and almost without our even noticing the change, wanders metaphorically off the main trail and onto a side path of lightweight but nonetheless informative and educational sidebars of nature writing on an amazingly wide variety of topics. Glaciation, bears, bugs, ecology, continental drift, hypothermia, hypoxia and weather are only a few examples of the topics which he elucidates for the lay reader with his clear, concise prose.

Then there is the humour! It is perhaps an understatement to say that, in this regard, Bryson has a rare gift. He has treated his readers to laughs originating in every imaginable corner of the vast world of humour - wry sardonic wit; biting satire; slapstick; self effacement; sarcasm and insults; fear; and even extended comedy sketches worthy of stage or television. His description of the astonishingly stupid and entirely self-absorbed fellow hiker Mary Ellen who has the annoying habit of constantly clearing her sinuses with a grating honk is definitely laugh-out-loud material.

Pure entertainment and enjoyment from first page to last. I believe Bill Bryson would consider it a compliment if I suggested that "A Walk in the Woods" is the first book I've ever read with a smile on my face during every single moment of the reading. Highly recommended - even if you've never spent a single night under nylon in the woods.

Triplanetary - EE "Doc" Smith (**)

The grand-daddy of all galactic royal rumbles!

Two civilizations, the Arisians and the Eddorians, old beyond imagining and evolved to the point where their mental skills alone command energy and forces that are unthinkable for lesser species such as humans from our beloved Earth or even the reptilian Nevians, battle for dominance of the universe. In "Triplanetary", Doc Smith has left no room for doubt concerning the identity of the "good guys" versus the "bad guys". The Eddorians, quintessentially and unabashedly evil, have set themselves a modest but extraordinarily clear mission -

"to tear down and destroy every bulwark of what the weak and spineless adherents of Civilization consider the finest things in life - love, truth, honor, loyalty, purity, altruism, decency and so on."

The Arisians, of course, represent all of those virtues which the Eddorians are so bent on removing from the Universe.

"Triplanetary" is the grand-daddy of all space opera adventure novels - a non-stop, red hot action-oriented, plot driven space battle that is a positively orgasmic geekfest of techno-babble on steroids. One need only read a single chapter to envision the origins of the special effects in modern movie and television versions of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Andromeda or Battlestar Galactica. If you like your battles hot, your villains ugly and nasty, and your heroes manly (how could a hunk named "Conway Costigan" be anything but a two-fisted, steely-eyed man's man?), then you'll probably enjoy "Triplanetary"!

On this basis alone, "Triplanetary" is probably worth reading as the acknowledged progenitor of every space war novel that was ever written. One could even make a very strong case that Steven Spielberg, Gene Roddenberry and the entire world of special effects in visual media owe much to Smith's fertile imagination!

But does "Triplanetary" deserve membership in a library of what we now call science fiction classics? I think not. There is so much wrong with "Triplanetary" on the literary side, it's really quite difficult to know where to start.

Other than cartoonish heroic stereotypes, character development is negligible. Dialogue is stilted and the romantic interludes, in particular, are so trite as to be laughable. The raging purple prose is so positively brimful of superlatives and absolutes that one wonders how any progress was made at all, any goal achieved or any enemy defeated - barriers were impassable, obstacles were insurmountable, chances of success were only one in numberless millions, beams of destruction were relentless, forces were cataclysmic, objects were immovable, tractor beams were irresistible - well, it just got tiresome because this was the nature of the entire novel. Science, even as it was known at the time, was effectively ignored and technology in the novel crossed the line from imaginative into purely fantasy.

Recommended as a fast, enjoyable read from the standpoint of understanding the roots and growth of science fiction as a genre. But the novel has not stood the test of time and is weak gruel indeed compared to many of its contemporaries.

Three To Get Deadly - Janet Evanovich (*****)

Grandma Mazur ... I'd like you to meet Lula!

It was a slow day in the bounty hunting business and the best that Stephanie could do was an FTA. "Uncle Mo" Bedemier, well-loved owner of the local ice cream parlour, was a "failure to appear" on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Stephanie didn't like the idea of having to chase down one of the burg's most respected citizens and the local populace, thinking the charge bogus and ill-advised in any event, certainly weren't tripping over themselves to give Stephanie a lending hand finding her man. But business is business and Stephanie is Stephanie. She leaped into the deep end of the pool and soon found herself up to her neck in murdered drug dealers, vigilantes, bible-thumping snake-charming country preachers and the porn industry. Plenty of room for fun and games in this little story!

But from the first moment a grateful reading audience read Stephanie Plum's exploits in her debut novel "One for the Money", the plot never has been the thing. "Three to Get Deadly" doesn't change a thing about that. Character development, slapstick comedy, earthy blue-collar New York dialogue and sticky wickets that would do "The Perils of Pauline" proud are what has rocketed this series to the top of the best-selling lists. No doubt about it. Janet Evanovich continues her string of successes and laugh-out-loud hilarity reigns supreme from first page to last.

Did you like Grandma Mazur in the first two books of the series? Then you'll die for Lula, former juiced hooker, newly minted office assistant and bounty hunter in training under Stephanie's dubious tutelage. She's "f"-ing amazing - funny, frolicsome, free-wheeling, full-figured, feisty, fired-up, frantic, in your face and fabulous! She's got a salty mouth and an attitude that any self-respecting trucker would be might proud of! What a piece of work.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

"By the Decades" Challenge - Update

This particular challenge is coming along strongly and shaping up for completion well before the end of 2007 and WAY ahead of schedule. As you read this entry, I'm actually halfway through Doc Smith's "Triplanetary", so even if I stopped at this point I can lay claim to having read a novel published in nine consecutive decades. But this is one challenge I am determined to finish completely. Stay tuned!

Here's the link to 3M's blog for a detailed explanation of the rules and a list of participants.

Completed titles appear in red italics.

1870 The Law and the Lady - Wilkie Collins
1880 A Study in Scarlet - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1890 The Well at World's End - William Morris
1900 First Men in the Moon - HG Wells
1910 The Poison Belt - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1920 The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie
1930 Burmese Days – George Orwell
1940 Triplanetary - EE "Doc" Smith
1950 The Voyage of the Space Beagle – AE van Vogt
1960 The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
1970 Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
1980 West of Eden – Harry Harrison
1990 Plum Island – Nelson DeMille
2000 Ptolemy's Gate – Jonathan Stroud

The First Men in the Moon - HG Wells (****)

Social commentary and high adventure!

Mr Bedford, a recently bankrupt Victorian gentleman has retired to the English countryside to recover his spirit and write a play. He meets Dr Cavor, an eccentric, quaintly comical scientific genius researching the preparation of a compound he calls "Cavorite" that will be opaque to all radiation including gravity. When a laboratory error results in the wildly successful early completion of the Cavorite project, Bedord and Cavor use it to create a sphere that is capable of travel to the moon.

The science in HG Wells' "First Men in the Moon" is now known to be wildly off the mark - anti-gravity; a lunar atmosphere that freezes during the frigid lunar night and sublimates into a rarified but breathable air during the warmer day; an extraordinarily fecund flora that seeds itself, germinates, grows, blooms and completes its life cycle during the brief sunlight hours; and a civilized but strictly class structured lunar insect-like people living under the moon's surface that Bedord and Cavor called "Selenites".

Despite its failings in the light of current scientific knowledge, "First Men in the Moon" is still an enjoyable adventure written in typical late Victorian style that gives us an early taste of 20th century science fiction space opera to follow. Just as he did in his better known novel "The Time Machine", Wells successfully uses his protagonists, Bedord and Cavor, as tools to discuss, satirize and critique deeply and dearly held British notions of class and imperialism.

Suspending your belief and accepting the science in terms of what was known and understood at the turn of the century will allow you to whisk yourself away on a space-faring adventure for an enlightening, enjoyable few hours.


Beach Road - James Patterson (**)

The bizarre ending twist fails utterly!
Tom Dunleavy is a very good athlete who never quite made it to the top. After a very few minutes of near fame as a white NBA basketball player, Dunleavy bottomed out with a career ending injury and retired to a quiet life managing a very mediocre one-man law firm in New York's East Hampton, summer home to America's über-wealthy glitterati set. Dante Halleyville, an old friend of Tom's and arguably the finest young black high school basketball player in the country has been arrested for a triple murder following a pick up game of hoops against a team of all white players. The murder has celebrity, racial and drug overtones and Tom is astonished to find himself in the thick of the affair as Halleyville pleads with him to serve as lead defense attorney in a trial that promises to be front page news across the nation. Dunleavy, intuitively recognizing Halleyville's innocence but sensibly realizing he will be way over his head during this trial, pleads with Kate Costello, an old girl friend and rising star in one of America's upper crust law firms, to join him as co-counsel for the defense.

"Beach Road" is no exception to Patterson's now easily recognizable style of writing short, snappy two to three page chapters that keeps things moving along at a rapid fire pace. But he's introduced a very interesting and quite effective twist - entitling each chapter with only a character's name and writing those few pages from the viewpoint of that particular character. That makes for some very novel fast-paced changes in perspective. But, sadly, this particular style rests for its success strictly on dialogue and action leaving absolutely no margin for error in plot development because it also leaves absolutely no room for the redeeming features of narrative description, atmosphere and character development.

"Beach Road" succeeds admirably and is a lightweight, enjoyable and quite compelling page-turner until the eagerly anticipated and much vaunted twist that the dust jacket exclaims will leave readers gasping in shock. Like a downhill mountain-biker who jams on the front brakes, "Beach Road" vaults up over the handle bars and lands flat on its face! Weak, weak, weak ... the twist is certainly an unpredictable surprise but it is so bizarrely unrealistic and utterly off the wall as to completely derail what was looking to be a pretty darn good book. Thankfully, the twist occurs very close to the end of the book so the disappointment lasts for only a very few pages. That means a summer beach or hammock reader can still derive a little enjoyment from the book and not feel they wasted hours upon hours of their time.

Recommended for die-hard Patterson fans! If you've never read Patterson before, you'd better not be starting here.

Eyewitness Travel Guide to Switzerland (*****)

Informative, comprehensive and entertaining in the bargain!

I'm not a seasoned or jaded traveler ... yet! So a comprehensive travel guide is critical to my preparation for a trip and a great way of post-filling information and details into some of the holes or places that I might have missed or had to rush through when I was actually on the trip. Along with photographs and trip journals, they're also a wonderful way to resurrect detailed memories of a trip long after you've returned home.

Eyewitness Travel Guides seem to have the market beat by a long margin! That's not to say that Lonely Planet, Frommer, Michelin or the Blue and Green Guides miss the mark entirely but the Eyewitness series, in general, seems to be more informative. The photographs and illustrations instill a higher degree of keen anticipation and provide a better means of choosing in advance between a world of competing destinations and alternative tourist attractions. Their guide to Switzerland, in particular, was astonishingly accurate and complete - history, food, travel, hotels, geography, destinations, estimated costs, highlights, outdoor activities - every last one of them spot on and accurately described from the perspective of an actual trip through St Moritz, Lucerne, the Bernina Pass to Tirano, Italy and Interlaken. Even now the photographs of Swiss cuisine and cheese can set my mouth to watering!

One noteworthy omission that my traveling companion and I discovered by accident - Switzerland offers a museum pass for 30 Swiss francs that will give admission for one month to virtually every museum in the country. That's a remarkable offer given that the countryside is positively littered with a host of attractive museums, castles and attractions most of which charge a 5 to 10 franc admission. We learned that little tidbit from the concierge of the Palace Lucerne Hotel - kudos to the hotel for over the top service and a great piece of advice!

With that one small suggestion for addition to future editions, the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Switzerland easily earns a five-star review. And Switzerland, by the bye, is certainly a delicious five-star travel destination!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Rage - Jonathan Kellerman (**)

A bewildering conglomeration of psycho-babble!

Troy Turner and Rand Duchay were barely teenagers, little more than children themselves, when they kidnapped and murdered a young child. Troy, clearly the instigator and an evil sociopath lasts mere weeks in prison and receives his just desserts shanked by a fellow inmate. Rand, a somewhat more pathetic slow-witted dysfunctional creature who appears to have been relentlessly drawn into the deed of kidnapping by bad company somehow survives his incarceration. Upon his release he seeks to talk with psychologist, Alex Delaware, whom he encountered briefly during his trial for the murder eight years earlier. Delaware, who only reluctantly agrees to talk with him, is shocked to find Duchay murdered mere minutes before the planned conversation can take place.

"'Rage", an aptly titled psychological thriller, place Delaware and his police colleague, Milo Sturgis, into a complex battle of hide and seek with a brutal, psychopathic serial killer. In marked, almost stark contrast with some of his current best-selling colleagues such as James Patterson, Jonathan Kellerman has chosen to focus his novels on the psychological aspects of crime - motive, character, deviance, emotion, passion - and "Rage" takes this approach to story-telling to levels beyond any he has previously attempted.

So much so, in fact, that the thrill of the story is mostly buried in a web of convoluted, puzzling dialogue between Sturgis and Delaware in which they simply feed off one another in a stacked series of "what-ifs". One dysfunctional misfit after another is introduced, anaylyzed and set up as the possible mastermind of a series of brutal, evil killings. The conversation becomes so dense and the analysis becomes so complex that ultimately the evil devolves into something almost banal and the story is lost in a thicket of psycho-babble.

"Rage" is far from Kellerman's best efforts and ranks as almost boring beside such phenomenal successes as "The Murder Book".

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Naked in Death - JD Robb (****)

An exciting first novel in an imaginative series!

Damn! I wish I hadn't done that!

"Naked in Death" is the first in JD Robb's popular Death series which is now almost two dozen novels strong ... and I loved it! My pocketbook will protest and my bookshelves will be groaning under the ever increasing load as I begin the quest to accumulate the rest of the series.

Eve Dallas is a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department. The story is set in 2058 - a future near enough to be entirely recognizable but far enough away that Robb can postulate some very interesting technological and cultural developments - guns have been banned; prostitution is legal and completely regulated; cars have an auto-pilot setting; VR simulations have advanced to a heart-stopping, palm-sweating, gut-wrenching reality that is light years beyond the technology we know of today; smoking is almost a thing of the past; police weaponry consists only of lasers and high powered stun guns with handguns firing real bullets available only in museums and private collections; and, would you believe it, recreational "hotels" for the über-wealthy are actually in continuous orbit above the earth!

On the other hand, the murder, sadly, is one with which we are all too familiar - the violent, gruesome, almost ritualistic slaying of a sex trade worker, now known by the euphemism "licenced companion", which is only the first of an intended series by a serial killer. He left behind a note ... "ONE OF SIX"! This particular licenced companion, Sharon DeBlass, just happened to be the grand-daughter of a US Senator and you might well imagine the political pressure that is being brought to bear on Dallas and NYPD to solve the case. When the investigation points in the direction of Roarke, a self-made reclusive billionaire, the heat and passion in the novel is turned up a notch as Dallas finds herself in the unenviable position of falling for a man who just might be the killer she's looking for!

I don't think I can give Robb top marks for the plot - the solution is just a little too predictable and can be seen a fair distance from the end of the novel. But "Naked in Death" certainly earns both thumbs well turned up in every other way - dialogue, characterization, setting, humour (the side plot about the husband's murder by Hetta Finestein, a lovable little gray haired old lady, is a positive hoot), imagination, novelty, creativity and more. And I have to hand it to Robb ... she writes a mean sex scene. Whew! They're footloose, they're well-timed, they're playful and they're plenty hot enough to raise a little sheen of sweat on your brow! Highly recommended!

Romance, police procedural, mystery, science fiction ... you name it, they all fit. If you like a lightweight, easy-going enjoyable read in any of those genres, you'll enjoy "Naked in Death".

The Overlook - Michael Connelly (*****)

A hot Harry Bosch thriller!

Having begun life as a 16 part serial for the New York Times, "The Overlook" has a dramatically different flavour than the preceding 12 novels in the continuing, exciting Harry Bosch canon with which Connelly has thrilled his legion of fans. Less grim and foreboding, less atmospheric, less prone to the philosophical meandering that we've come to expect from the angst-ridden backcountry of Bosch's psyche, "The Overlook" is much more of a plot driven novel - a shorter, snappier, purely action oriented police procedural but no less successful and enjoyable for the differences!

Dr Stanley Kent, a medical bio-physicist who had access to radioactive materials used in the treatment of cancers at hospitals throughout LA, has been found murdered - executed, in fact, with two bullets in the back of the head - on a Mulholland Drive overlook. Bosch, assigned to the murder with his new partner, Iggy Ferras, immediately begins to bump heads with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, called in on the case as a result of the potential terrorist involvement with the assassination. The case is mere minutes old and Kent's body has barely begun to cool when Bosch discovers that the crime also involves the theft of a case of potentially deadly radioactive Cesium-137. That the FBI agent assigned to the case is Rachel Walling, Bosch's love interest who we met in Connelly's last novel "Echo Park" complicates matters immensely but certainly doesn't prevent the inevitable inter-organizational war over case jurisdiction.

Bosch, true to the mantra "Everybody counts or nobody counts" which we first heard in "The Last Coyote", focuses on people and is intent on finding Kent's murderers. The FBI, not too surprisingly, treats the murder as incidental and is intent on treating the theft of the Cesium as a threat to national security.

There is no doubt in my mind ... Connelly is brilliant! Even with a purely plot-oriented novel, he has made sure that Bosch loses none of the flavour or depth of character so carefully built up in twelve previous novels. His interaction with Walling is both hot and heated (if you understand the subtle distinction). The jurisdictional squabbling and in-fighting has a definite tinge of realism and, frankly, it is difficult as a reader to sit in judgment in this particular case and take sides. Bosch and Walling, the FBI and the LAPD were all right and wrong at various moments in the novel!

And what can one say about the ending? There is no way that any reader is going to see this fancy twist coming! If you're a Bosch fan, you're gonna love it! If you haven't read any of Bosch's previous novels, don't start here ... go back and read four or five of the earlier novels (try to pick them up in chronological order - start with "The Black Echo") so you can get that underlying feel for the character first. Then come back and enjoy this one with the rest of us.

Highly recommended!

Beneath a Marble Sky - John Shors (****)

A monument to undying love!

A romantic reconstruction of imperial life in 17th century India, "Beneath a Marble Sky" recounts the turbulent story of princess Jahanara, the daughter of the emperor who commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal as a fabulous testament to the overwhelming love of his wife. Well educated, literate, a wily diplomat, savvy political advisor and a bright, witty conversationalist and companion at a time when Muslim women were held in particularly low esteem, Jahanara has been well taught by her mother who bequeathed the solemn responsibility for the care of her ailing father to Jahanara on her death bed.

Now an elderly woman herself, the story is told in the form of a flashback narrated from Jahanara's point of view as she relates the fascinating, complex, violent and disturbing history of her family to her grand-daughters. Her soft spoken, pacifist eldest brother Dara, the rightful heir to the imperial throne dreams of the day he can see the Muslim community in peaceful co-existence with those professing the majority Hindu faith. In complete contrast, her younger brother, Aurangzeb, is so consumed by jealousy of his brother's position as heir and the deep hatred of Hindus whom he labels godless heretics, that he spends his entire life plotting the coup and the civil war necessary to steal the throne from his father and brother. Jahanara's story, set against the backdrop of the construction of the Taj Mahal also tells of her unrequited impossible love for Isa, architect of the Taj Mahal and a commoner that Jahanara can never marry and the exquisite pain of her arranged, political marriage to Khondamir, an ugly, evil, conniving merchant with some very sleazy, distasteful sexual proclivities.

"Beneath a Marble Sky" is many things for many readers - an accomplished historical fiction with lots of savory details for time and place; a compelling political page-turner loaded with intrigue, violence, passion and pathos; as well as a powerful moving romance that tells of three distinctly different but heart-warming relationships that come to fruition in ways that will draw a sigh and a smile from even the most romance-phobic male readers.

My taste in historical fiction would have enjoyed more time spent on the context of the story - more background, for example, as to the religious tensions that were so central to the story and perhaps a little more detail describing the common man's daily life in a setting which to us is so completely exotic and foreign. But, to his credit, Shors did not overstate his case or overstay his welcome by producing a needlessly padded heavyweight door-stopper which, sadly, is often the case with contemporary historical fiction authors.

Highly recommended.

A Study in Scarlet - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (****)

Dr Watson ... I'd like you to meet Mr Sherlock Holmes!
As Agatha Christie's "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" introduced a grateful reading public to Hercule Poirot, perhaps the second best known fictional detective of all time, Conan Doyle's "A Study in Scarlet" marked the debut appearance of the acknowledged master of detection, the one and only Sherlock Holmes!

John Watson, a medical doctor recently retired from the British military to recover his health and recuperate from wounds received in Afghanistan, is looking to stretch his limited budget by finding another gentleman with whom he can share accommodation. When a mutual friend introduced him to Sherlock Holmes, one might slyly suggest that the game was afoot and the rest, as they also say, became history. Already characteristically melancholy and moody, a jaded Holmes, who labeled himself the world's only consulting detective, is invited by Scotland Yard's Lestrade and Gregson to assist in the investigation of a baffling pair of murders.

With "A Study in Scarlet", Doyle is clearly new to the craft of writing mysteries and the great detective's debut outing suffers from characteristic first novel and new character jitters. The style itself is markedly different from everything that follows in the Holmes canon with the story being told from a third-party perspective. The background to the mystery is revealed through the mechanism of a flashback to the western USA at the time of the Mormon migration to Utah. Feedback from the reading public must have been immediate and - we'll have to hand it to Doyle - he must have been a quick learner. Watson was thereafter appointed official narrator and diarist to the master and Doyle never looked back.

I leave it to others smarter than I to judge whether or not Doyle's historical characterization of the Mormons is justified or accurate! Suffice it to say, that the mystery is entertaining but the details are, quite frankly, entirely unimportant beside the overwhelming fact that this was the first time the world heard the name "Sherlock Holmes". It took Doyle only a few pages for example to treat us to an aphorism that we would come to hear over and over again,

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence."

This novel is a cornerstone in the annals of crime fiction, an extremely important piece of the history of English literature and a darned good read! Enjoy it!

Lost - Michael Robotham (****)

Ruiz is London's very own Harry Bosch!

Michael Robotham is definitely an author who bears watching!

DI Vincent Ruiz, debuted as a supporting cast member in Robotham's first novel, "Suspect", is rescued from the Thames wounded, bleeding, hypothermic and a good deal more dead than alive. Suffering from transient global amnesia brought on by the trauma of the night's events, Ruiz is initially unable to recall anything at all about what he was doing on a motor launch cruising the Thames in the middle of the night. But it's clear that something very important was going down as he is immediately harassed by Internal Affairs who are treating him more like a criminal than a police officer wounded in the line of duty. With what few clues are available about the shooting and with the help of psychiatrist Joe O'Loughlin, Ruiz begins to painstakingly reconstruct his memories and to pick up the threads of his search for the truth about the kidnapping of seven year old Mickey Carlyle.

Ruiz quickly discovers he is the only detective who believes in the possibility that Mickey Carlyle is still alive despite the conviction and imprisonment of Harlan Wavell, a sexual predator convicted three years earlier for the kidnapping and murder. A blue wall of official obstruction is erected in the path of Ruiz's investigation as the department believes that Ruiz's efforts may lead to the possibility of the killer's release on a technicality. The painful Byzantine process of re-constructing the investigation and filling in the blanks of his memory loss piece by painful piece leads Ruiz on a tortuous path through London and Europe - down through the sewers of London and back into the river Thames; into the repulsive thoughts of a "grooming pedophile"; into a confrontation with Russian crime-lord, Alexei Kuznet, who is looking to recover a cache of diamonds worth over two million pounds; and even to London and Thailand's drug and sex sub-cultures.

Despite a plot with lots of twists and turns and a surprise ending that very few readers will suspect before it actually arrives, much of the quality of Robotham's "Lost" is cerebral - atmosphere, characterization, dialogue and psychology - the scion of a loving marriage between a police procedural and a psychological thriller. Those readers searching for comparisons need look no further than Michael Connelly's successful Harry Bosch novels. Like Bosch, Ruiz is a dark, brooding, mature hero with an in-your-face attitude who's toting lots of mental baggage! But I was also pleased to find that Robotham did not neglect to fill in the story with some very interesting technical asides - transient global amnesia; the complex engineering of London's vast and ancient sewer system; the police treatment of kidnapping and ransom demands; some peeks into Sikh family culture, and more.

Most enjoyable and definitely recommended. One tiny tip - if you haven't yet read "Suspect", go find it first and enjoy both!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"By the Decades" Challenge 2007 (Update)

I've made one substitution in order to consolidate some of the reading I'm doing and make a title do double duty. "Triplanetary", written by EE "Doc" Smith and first published in 1942 will take the place of "The Robe" by Lloyd Douglas as my choice for the fabulous forties. That way I get to make a notch in the belt of my Classic Sci-Fi New Author Challenge at the same time. That will also put my count for consecutive decades covered at nine. Hip, hip, hooray!

Here's the link to 3M's blog for a detailed explanation of the rules and a list of participants. Completed titles appear in red italics.

1870 The Law and the Lady - Wilkie Collins
1880 A Study in Scarlet - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1890 The Well at World's End - William Morris
1900 First Men in the Moon - HG Wells 1
1910 The Poison Belt - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1920 The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie
1930 Burmese Days – George Orwell
1940 Triplanetary - EE "Doc" Smith
1950 The Voyage of the Space Beagle – AE van Vogt
1960 The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
1970 Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
1980 West of Eden – Harry Harrison
1990 Plum Island – Nelson DeMille
2000 Ptolemy's Gate – Jonathan Stroud