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BOOK REVIEW: The Narrows

TITLE: The Narrows
AUTHOR: Michael Connlley
YEAR: 2004

This is one of the Harry Bosch mystery series. I've only read two, but I've enjoyed both. In this, two stories slowly converge into one. Harry is approached by the wife of one of his former co-workers who has died, seemingly of natural causes. However, she is suspicious and asks him to investigate. In the other, a serial killer that has clashed with the FBI before has seemingly reappeared from the dead. This killer, who goes by The Poet, was apparently in a previous book, and his identity is known to the FBI. Agent Rachel Walling has been called from her exile post in South Dakota to give some insight on the case.

Eventually Harry and Rachel's cases overlap, and they find themselves fighting time - and the FBI - to find the killer. The suspense is good as is the storyline. I found myself picturing Rachel as Renee Walker from 24, to the point that I've twice typed "Renee" in this review! (now that I see the initials are the same, I wonder if any 24 writers read this book. Renee Walker was also an FBI agent.)

Anyway, thumbs up!

BOOK REVIEW: The March

TITLE: The March
AUTHOR: E. L. Doctorow
YEAR: 2005

This follows a cast of characters during Sherman's march from Georgia to North Carolina. We start in Milledgeville, GA, where one family flees their plantation as their slaves excitedly follow the Union army. In town, one woman buries her judge father, and ultimately joins the Union army as a nurse; her house slave joins the march of free blacks. We also meet Willie and Arly, two confederates in jail for dereliction of duty; they're freed as the army moves in. They proceed to join both the blue and the grey depending on which is more advantageous at the time.

The book manages to capture all the nuances of the era. The lives of white southerners trying to stay alive, newly freed blacks who are elated and yet uncertain about the future, and young men on both sides who are cold and wet and must endure long painful marches interspersed with adrenaline-pumping skirmishes. At times, the camera pulls back to show the war and fighting in all its confusion and violence and death. It's a truly enjoyable book and no surprise that it won the PEN/Faulkner award in 2006.

BOOK REVIEW: Lost on Planet China

TITLE: Lost on Planet China
AUTHOR: J. Maarten Troost
YEAR: 2008

As opposed to his previous books about life in the Pacific Islands, this is the first book Troost has written about a place that he does not live. After a few years on the islands of Kiribati, Vanuatu, and Fiji, Troost and his wife and two sons have moved to Sacremento. Though they feel confined by their lives there, they realize that it's better to raise the boys in the good ol' U.S. of A. Troost decides to check out China, the whole country, for the experience and book of it.

I suspect the word most often used in the book is "smog." He comes up with some colorful (if depressing) ways to describe China's horrific air quality, and this does not just mean in the big cities. He notes that up to 1/3 of California's smog is traced back to China. If that stuff can cross 4000 miles of ocean, you know it's not exactly stopping at the Beijing city limits. He also discusses the multitude of lines in this most populous of countries. People don't wait in an orderly line, it's more like a rugby scrum with that tiny grandma coming at you with elbows and knees.

I have to say that this book is not as much fun as his previous two, because Troost clearly hates China, at least the eastern part of it. He finds the smog overbearing and the crowds loud and exhausting. He does enjoy his travels in western China, particularly Leaping Tiger Gorge and Tibet, and also gives mention to the Terra Cotta warriors. To his credit, he's very adventurous when it comes to food, even snapping the heads off live squid and eating the bodies. He tries to be upbeat, but you can tell at times he's worn down.

BOOK REVIEW: The Brass Verdict

TITLE: The Brass Verdict
AUTHOR: Michael Connelly
YEAR: 2008

This author has an entire series of mysteries involving detective Harry Bosch, though I've not read them. While Bosch makes appearances in this book, the main character is a defense attorney named Mickey Haller.

Haller has taken a break for a couple of years while he recuperated from a gunshot wound and the ensuing painkiller addiction. He's ready to ease back into the working world, when a colleague is murdered and Haller inherits all of his cases. One of them is a biggie - a studio head has been charged with murdering his wife and her lover. Haller wants the case, but the studio head refuses to delay it, thus meaning he only has ten days to prepare. Further complicating things, the murdered lawyer's laptop with case information was stolen (and there's no backup, natch).

A theme running through the book, and stated explicitly more than once, is that everybody lies. Cops, criminals, lawyers, and even our hero Haller. He'll start to trust someone, or at least take them at face value, and then realize the error of his ways. He's also trying to rebuild his relationship with his daughter after the damage done while he was addicted to painkillers.

The story is very enjoyable and the book flows smoothly, although by the very end the level of conspiracy is a bit much. The author should have ended it a bit earlier, the book would still be good. I've heard the Bosch books are good too, and I'm inclined to give one of them a try.

BOOK REVIEW: The Poe Shadow

TITLE: The Poe Shadow
AUTHOR: Matthew Pearl
YEAR: 2006

Like the author's other books, this is a mystery surrounding an historical figure (shockingly, Edgar Allan Poe). On October 7, 1849, Poe died in Baltimore and was buried in an unmarked grave with only 4 mourners present. Lawyer Quentin Clark happens upon the scene and is greatly affected by the news; he has exchanged a few letters with the author over the years. He wonders why news of the death was hushed by Poe's family, and quickly decides that there must be more to the story than meets the eye.

Clark then becomes a man obsessed and a bit unhinged. He abandons his law practice and his fiancee on the quest for the "truth" behind the death of Edgar A. Poe. He goes to Paris and back to Baltimore. He is followed by shady characters who later try to kill him. In looking for the sleuth based on Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Paris, he ends up with two of them. One is a shady charlatan named Baron Claude Dupin and another a reclusive and reticent Auguste Duponte. Both end up in Baltimore and it's a race against time for Clark and Duponte to solve the mystery before the Baron does, or before someone kills them.

By the end, the plot became so overblown and convoluted (there could be implications for the future of the Republic of France!!!) that I couldn't follow it and stopped trying. It's a fun read, but the author tries to pack a bit too much in there. That said, apparently all facts and most characters in the book were real. Some of the facts were newly brought to light and used in the book. Something about knowing that made it a bit more interesting.

BOOK REVIEW: Life in a Medieval City

TITLE: Life in a Medieval City
AUTHORS: Joseph and Frances Gies
YEAR: 1969

Details, well, life in a medieval city. While there were a few truly interesting facts, this book was a bit impersonal. It felt like a bird's eye view, rather than placing you in the city. They focus on one city, Troyes in 1250. The language is clear and the book reads fluidly.

BOOK REVIEW: Wicked

TITLE: Wicked
AUTHOR: Gregory Maguire
YEAR: 1995 (that long ago - I hadn't realized)

This book was a fun ride about the back history of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. How did she get wicked? How come only her sister had ruby red slippers? And what's with that green skin?

Elphaba was born green, scaring the heck out of her parents. Her father is an earnest preacher and her mother is bored and seeks comfort elsewhere. As Elphaba grows up, she becomes accustomed to being treated differently because of her green skin, but fortunately loses the pointed teeth she was born with for a normal set. She goes to college in a big city in Oz and is roommates with Galinda (later Glinda the Good Witch). She becomes an animal rights activist, and then leaves college to go underground in the Emerald City with a loose group that are trying to overthrow the corrupt government.

After a wrenching end to her affair with her true love, Elphaba spends some years in a convent to recover, and then goes west to an area of Oz that brings to mind the Australian outback. Still stung from the world, she decides that if the world thinks she's a witch, then that's the role she'll play. Dorothy and her gang only make a brief appearance at the end, but the story is certainly full enough without them.
TITLE: Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu
AUTHOR: Laurence Bergreen
YEAR: 2008

This basically follows Marco Polo's life and travels. While Marco was not the first European to travel to Asia (even his father and uncle beat him on that score) he was the first to write about it, and thus became the most famous. Unfortunately, the written record leaves a lot to be desired and calls into doubt all sorts of assertions. Marco dictated his adventures to Rusticello while in prison in Genoa. The men, who together were fluent in Italian, Mongolian, and some Genoese/Venitian (sp?) dialects, decided that the travels should be written in French, the language of romance. Later translators then had to make sense of Rusticello's imperfect middle French. Add to that that there is not an original text, but 119 surviving manuscripts, many of which are of different length, order, and language. Which is the "real" account?

Marco Polo's Travels details a young man who accompanies his father and uncle to the court of Kublai Khan, and ultimately serves as the great Khan's tax collector for over 20 years. Marco is boastful in his accounts, often embellishing his travels or importance in a particular event. However, it does seem to be true that he was close to Kublai Khan and did travel to many cities in the Mongolian empire to collect taxes. Marco learns to straddle the worlds of his Venitian origins, Mongolese warriors, and Chinese inhabitants. He comes to respect Buddhism.

Bergreen's task is to get a complete story from the surviving manuscripts, and then decide what part is Marco's story and what is Rusticello's embellishment or editorial opinion. The author does a fantastic job of this. He admits when there are academic discrepancies on a particular point, and then makes the case for his own opinion. He also writes in a style that makes it easier for the non-historian to digest: the chapters are comprised of short (page or two) long passages that give you a mental break to soak in what you've read. I truly enjoyed the book. I've read reviews that his book on Magellan is even better, so I may have to check that one out. I'm also now inclined to find something about the Mongolian empire.

BOOK REVIEW: A Good Man is Hard to Find

TITLE: A Good Man is Hard to Find
AUTHOR: Flannery O'Connor
YEAR: 1955

This is a collection of short stories. I didn't finish it, and am not likely to pick it up again. Basically, it was southern gothic, which I'm not a fan of, combined with a style of short story that leaves me dissatisfied. I don't feel like I get to know the characters well enough to care about them, or wonder what happened after the story ends. The ones that you do feel like you know are people that you don't want to spend any more time with.
TITLE: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
AUTHOR: Robert Louis Stevenson
YEAR: 1886

How did I get this far in life without having read this? I can say that it was a little (though not a lot) different than I thought, and that was a good thing. I wonder what it might have been like to be unaware of the story line, and the shock that Jekyll and Hyde were one. Very entertaining, and very short.