Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Archangel Project

I somehow find this series by C.S. Graham irresistible. It may be the high quality of the writing, with its vivid descriptions and razor-sharp pacing; or it may be the two highly sympathetic main characters, Tobie Guinness and Jax Alexander; or it may even be the unabashedly left-wing politics. The remote viewing, complete with Tobie's sincere doubts and Jax's ironic mocking, is also undeniably an element.

This book is the first in the series, but the characters and formula are already pretty well developed. The action is launched through a remote viewing. The CIA in the person of maverick Jax gets involved in spite of its skepticism. The Keystone Kops special ops people fail to eliminate or stop Tobie. When all else fails, a second remote viewing session on the run helps the heroes over the final hurdle.

The venue here is New Orleans, still recovering from Katrina, where the authors behind the pseudonym actually live. The city itself becomes one of the characters in a picture that does not airbrush out the problems. The plot once again is nefarious, reaching to the very upper levels of the government. The sad thing is, it doesn't even sound that far-fetched.

But now I will be taking an enforced break from the series, because I've read the three books that have been published. I imagine, though, I will pre-order the next one when I can.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Taste of War

My "Snapshot" review appeared in Washington Independent Review of Books:

by Lizzie Collingham
634 pp.
This fascinating book about the role of food in World War II is exhaustively researched, well written in the way that British dons know how to write, and probably the definitive work on the subject. Collingham documents how the desire for food resources provided much of the motivation for going to war; how the need to feed both the military and civilians during the war dictated much of the strategy; and how a truly worldwide war radically disrupted a food-supply network that was already global in scope. She traces the successes and failures of various countries in coping with food supplies during the war — how Britain, for instance, kept civilians on the home front reasonably well fed but failed miserably in supplying the colonies and let millions in Bengal die of famine. She relates how the United States suffered virtually no rationing but developed methods of producing, processing and packaging food that have led to our current industrialized food supply. Because of the density of detail, this long book will appeal more to devotees of World War II history (who will see the conflict from a new perspective) and to those interested in the history of nutrition than to the general reader. The only real flaw perhaps is that the author’s narrow focus can be reductive: The reader could get the impression that Hitler went to war only to capture the grain fields in Ukraine or that the Allies’ entire shipping strategy was based on food supplies. But on the whole, Collingham provides new insights into an aspect of the war that movie dramas or standard histories rarely touch on: War or no war, people have to eat, a monumental challenge to leaders in every country.
Darrell Delamaide

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Janus Stone

This quirky "archaeological cozy" by Elly Griffiths is an oddly compelling read. The second book featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, it is very British and very female in a way that would not necessarily appeal to me. But I've had a soft spot for mysteries involving archaeology since Agatha Christie set some of her Hercule Poirot stories at the type of digs her husband worked on, so I picked this up when I saw it on a table at Politics & Prose.

The language is more pointedly British than in some other British writers I've been reading, perhaps because the setting and action are in such down-to-earth everyday situations. So there are plenty of references to lorries (trucks), boots (trunks), crisps (chips), torches (flashlights), and so on. In addition, the newly pregnant protagonist is quite focused on the growing child within her, the prospect of motherhood, the craziness of hormones, and so on.

The pace is not very fast and the plot, while neat, relies on a number of unlikely coincidences and a very high incidence of little girls dying mysteriously. Nonetheless, the author's voice, focused almost exclusively on Ruth's point of view, and the sympathetic main characters make the confection work. There is a droll undertone and gentle self-mockery to Ruth's character that are easy to identify with. The DCI on the case, as he was apparently in the first book of the series, The Crossing Places, is Harry Nelson, and his combination of gruff exterior and tender interior bring Albert Finney in his middle years to mind.

The story, set in the windswept marshes of Norfolk, involves the discovery during excavation of a Roman site of a young girl's skeleton in circumstances suggesting she might have been the victim of a pagan ritual sacrifice. The cast of characters, besides Ruth and Nelson, includes an archaeologist consultant, a part-time druid, various members of the local CID and assorted colleagues of Ruth's from the university, with a cameo appearance by her born-again parents, who strongly disapprove of her prospective single motherhood.

This little corner of Norfolk seems to have as much adultery as one of John Updike's suburbs. Sleeping with other people's spouses is the thing grown-ups do here (perhaps that's why it's called adultery). Ruth is pregnant after a one-night stand with Nelson (no spoiler, this is all in the opening pages), who is of course happily married to the beautiful Michelle and very fond of his two daughters. Ruth's best friend is apparently a scalp hunter currently sleeping with Ruth's department head, and futilely hoping he will leave his wife. Other sexual activity is intimated, but none of this interferes with the narration.

The story develops slowly and the pace only picks up in about the last fifth of the book. Some of the red herrings are belabored. The author can't decide whether to make Father Hennessy, the director of a children's home located at one time on the archaeological site, a sympathetic character or an ambivalent suspect. Also, for no apparent reason, she at one point throws in the totally extraneous fact the writes SJ after his name, only to observe that Ruth has no idea what it means. So the reference remains totally superfluous and even annoying, given that it's very unlikely a Jesuit would be director of a children's home. (One is left with the impression that Griffiths herself has no idea what SJ means.)

On balance, enjoyable, but no compelling reason to read the previous or the next book in the series.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Babylonian Codex

No sooner had I abandoned my attempt to re-read the old, yellowed copy of my Travis McGee book than I picked up a second thriller by C.S. Graham and was as captivated by it as I was by the first one I read, The Solomon Effect.

What these books have beyond good, solid writing and sympathetic characters is that they are witty and intelligent. Also, they are real travelogues and packed with the kind of arcane trivia that I personally like a lot.

There are realistic thrillers and less-realistic thrillers, and these books by the husband-and-wife writing team of Candice Proctor and Steven Harris fall into the latter category. Aside from the reliance on the paranormal phenomenon of remote viewing, they have plots which depart from real-life scenarios into the fantastic and even apocalyptic. But they are rooted enough in the world of fact that one is willing to suspend disbelief.

The historical details, like the descriptions of the various venues, come across as authoritative. Whether its descriptions of biblical texts or a scene in Marrakesh, the narrative rings true. If there is a meeting at the Jefferson Memorial, you are there, but if the characters are standing on an ancient mosaic in an obscure Spanish town, you are there, too.

And once again, the relationship between October Guinness and Jax Alexander is an entertaining and sympathetic one. So I read the book in just a couple of days. All that said, however, it was not quite as good as the first one I read, maybe just because it was the second one. The remote viewing, the characters, the writing were a little less fresh and original the second time around.

The plot, too, was somewhat formulaic, with many of the same elements as in the other book. Once again, a controlled remote viewing session launches the action, and is followed later in the book by a second session, on the run and less controlled. Once again, the bad guys include a number of high-ranking government officials with special ops crews that are remarkably and consistently inept when it comes to eliminating our heroes. Once again, there is a subplot involving an innocent third character who supplies the missing key that enables our heroes to follow through on their mission. Once again, Tobie and Jax crisscross oceans and countries following the twists and turns of the plot.

I'm curious to see if the same formula is followed in the first book of the series, The Archangel Project, or in whatever new book the authors come up with to continue the series.

One of the Amazon reviews complained about the "politics" of the book, and indeed the radical leftist view of the authors is more apparent in this book than in the other one. But since I have a lot of sympathy for this political viewpoint, it is one of the things I enjoy the most. And in this book, even though I have described the  notion of a biblical codex leading some right-wing nut jobs into transforming the U.S. into a theocracy as a fantastic and apocalyptic plot line, it is rooted in some disturbingly real facts. The authors' portrayal of "dominionists" in our military industrial complex is based on much actual documentation and makes Hillary Clinton's remark about a "vast right-wing conspiracy" seem like an understatement.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Travis McGee

I'm in the process of sorting through my books to donate some to the library. I do this with some hesitation because virtually every time in the past that I've gotten rid of some books, I end up missing one or another at some point.

But keeping so many print books is looking increasingly anachronistic. Many, many books are now always "in print", either as actual print books or ebooks (though many are not!), so odds are that book I end up missing will probably be available in one fashion or another. Besides, even though we devote a considerable amount of space to bookshelves, I'm running out of shelf space.

So in the first triage, I boxed a number of my mystery-thriller "collections" -- the many volumes of Brother Cadfael, Emma Lathen, Ross McDonald, and John D. MacDonald, specifically his Travis McGee series. I'm letting the boxes sit in the basement for a while to make sure I really am ready to give these books away. I've gone back and re-sorted some boxes and reclaimed some of the books for keeping a while longer.

Then Larry De Maria had one of his characters in Madman's Thirst mention the art of John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee character. Right, I thought. There is a model for lucid narrative style. So I retrieved one of the books from the boxed collections. I mostly bought these paperbacks in Europe so they tend to be UK editions. The Travis McGee books were from Pan.

I discovered to my dismay that these cheap paperbacks were printed in an era when very small print was considered acceptable and on paper stock that yellows dramatically with age. In short, they are virtually unreadable. It's a bit like keeping a vintage wine for so long that when you open it it's turned to brown muck.

So I may want to re-acquaint myself with Travis McGee but it's not going to be with the copies that I've kept for 20 to 30 years and schlepped through a good half a dozen moves. Travis is of course still in print, as befits a classic. From what I was able to read in my yellowed copy, however, it is an open question just how much of Travis I want to re-visit. There are some aspects -- most notably his chauvinism -- that are somewhat dated (and were already at the time it comes back to me).

There are good models for style who are not so dated -- one of my current favorites is C.S. Graham -- so I might be just as well off blazing new trails. In any case, I've ordered a new copy of the first Travis McGee, A Deep Blue Goodbye, so we'll see.

Update: No traction. Good writing but very dated. MacDonald's chauvinism, as expressed in Travis McGee's patronizing attitude toward women, annoyed me when I originally read these books and by today's mores is unsympathetic. So I'm ready to let go of this series and let it be just a happy memory.