Saturday, November 29, 2008

No Laughing Allowed During 'Polar Shift'

Review of POLAR SHIFT (Penguin Audio 2005)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

Author, Clive Cussler (with Paul Kemprecos); read by Scott Brick

Maybe you didn’t get up this morning and say, “You know, these elites are starting to bug me, and I think I will reverse the earth’s magnetic field and destroy the planet,” but apparently Clive Cussler and Co. do think like that and thus this novel.

It is childishly simple to mock a Cussler novel with its square-jawed, blonde heroes (two this time, including a franchise Cussler character Kurt Austin) and "attractive" heroines. (Attractive, attractive--why always that description?) So why should I resist? I am pretty childish. Let the mocking begin.

POLAR SHIFT is like two or three book concepts smashed together. It leaps the shark more than a football player doing broken field drills. There are huge rogue waves, tiny woolly mammoths, an underground city complete with alleys, the obligatory Nazis, and enough pseudo-scientific jargon to choke everyone in Los Alamos (also in there).

So . . . be prepared. But on the positive side, this is a darn intense "listen," with some memorable scenes that make the movie Titanic look as boring as Last Year at Marienbad. (Don’t remember that one? There’s a reason.)

Scott Brick, one of my favorite readers, has a sort of chewy, earnest voice and doesn’t overdo the accents or shoot the women into falsetto.

Should you check out POLAR SHIFT? Ask yourself—How much do I hate electromagnetic fields?

Star Lawrence owns the health humor site Health’s Ass. She can be reached at

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Powell's Books Goes Solar

Powell's Books, an awesome (in the true sense of that word) independent bookstore and the literary pride of Portland, OR, will begin using solar power next month. In fact, it will be using one of the largest solar electric installations in Oregon.

The system is being installed at Powell's 60,000 square foot warehouse in northwest Portland, out of which operates.

According to Michael Powell, "It made perfect sense for our business financially, and it supports our values as a company. We are continually looking for ways for our business to lessen its impact on the environment. "

Although electricity is relatively cheap in Oregon, the bookseller expects to recoup its investment within five years. It will also get the benefit of a federal tax credit.

But what about all the rain Portland gets? Will there be enough sun to generate power? According to
Vince McClellan, who owns the contracting firm that developed and installed the system, "A solar array in the Willamette Valley will produce about 70% of the energy that an array in southern Arizona will produce. Because utility companies offer credit on a yearly basis for power fed back to the grid, the focus is on how much sunshine we receive over a year rather than when it shines."

Well . . . okay, then.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

'The Big Clock' Ticks Along

Review of THE BIG CLOCK (New York Review Book Classics 2006)
Author, Kenneth Fearing

THE BIG CLOCK has been called a "brilliant study in noir" (by The Globe and Mail) that has a plot "stretched tight as a drum" (according to the NY Times). I'll second those thoughts and add that in this short, well-crafted novel, Kenneth Fearing skillfully combines elements of the thriller, noir and social satire into a story that moves at a good clip and keeps you hooked--once the hook catches you, which really doesn't happen until nearly halfway through.

I'm not sure exactly what kept me reading up until that point. Maybe it was the arch observations of the protagonist, George Stroud--not a terribly likeable man. Drinks like a fish, cheats on his wife and seems to hold everyone and everything in disdain (himself included--which earns points for him, I guess). He's married to a woman named Georgette and their daughter's named Georgia, but they all call each other George, which is, um, unusual (and made me wonder if George Foreman had ever read this book) and, strangely enough, not as confusing as you'd think--but hardly so interesting as to pull me into the story. There are some amusing and entertaining moments early on, but not amusing or entertaining enough to make the story a page-turner. Even the milieu in which Stroud works--as executive editor for one of many periodicals owned by a publishing magnate named Earl Janoth--while providing Fearing a way of exploring the whole "faceless modern corporate world" thing, is not so compelling (in fact, at times, the plethora of names and publications can get a bit confusing) that I just couldn't stop reading.

I couldn't say for sure, but I may have simply been biding my time during those first few chapters in anticipation of what I knew (based on reading about the book) was to come--that George Stroud has a fling with Janoth's girlfriend, then witnesses her and Janoth going into her apartment building together. The next day, she's found murdered in that apartment. And, given the time of death, Stroud is pretty sure (barring the unlikely intervention of a third party) he knows who-dunnit. Janoth knows someone--a person he can't identify--saw him going into his girlfriend's building right before the murder. Janoth then (wait for it) puts Stroud in charge of the investigation to find--himself! Yes, this is where things get interesting.

As Stroud goes through the motions of trying to identify the man who saw Janoth at the scene of his girlfriend's murder, while doing everything within his power to keep everyone from finding out he is that man, we see the investigation from various points of view (an unusual device for a crime novel of the 1940s, when the book was originally published) and the evidence slowly accumulating and getting closer all the time to implicating Stroud. It struck me after a while that I was reading a low-tech version of the Kevin Costner movie No Way Out, which turned out to be one of two films based on this book (the other called, simply, The Big Clock).

The farther the investigation goes, the more difficult the book is to put down. Fearing manages to combine dread, irony, suspense and laugh-out-loud humor (the last bit particularly in a chapter written from the point of view of an artist who sees Stroud buy a key painting) with great skill. And if the ending seems a trifle pat and strains credulity some--well, I can forgive him for it. I can forgive an abrupt stop to what was a great ride.

By the way, as a reissued classic, the publisher saw fit to have Nicholas Christopher write an introduction. If you've never read the book, I urge you--do not read the introduction first. Christopher assumes we all know the story and brings up at least one spoiler that absolutely wrecked the final twist for me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

'The Brass Verdict' Shines

Review of THE BRASS VERDICT (Little, Brown and Company 2008)
Author, Michael Connelly

When I heard that Michael Connelly had brought Mickey Haller, his defense lawyer protagonist, back in a sequel to THE LINCOLN LAWYER, I was already sold on reading it. I gave that book a glowing review on another blog, praising Connelly for, among other things, his realistic and sympathetic depiction of the kind of character who doesn't always get so portrayed in crime fiction. When I heard that THE BRASS VERDICT brought Haller together with his polar opposite, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, I was dying to see how that pairing played out.

Essentially, after a year-long hiatus during which Haller recovers from a serious gunshot wound (suffered in the previous book) and ensuing addiction to pain pills, he is thrust back into practicing law by inheriting an entire practice from a murdered friend. However, of all the cases he picks up, he's most concerned with one--a high-profile murder rap against a filthy rich film studio exec. It's on the investigation into the lawyer's murder that Bosch makes his appearance. It seems that Haller may have placed himself in jeopardy by taking over his friend's practice, because the killer may come after him next, rendering him dependent on Bosch for protection. And, though the relationship between Haller and Bosch starts off rocky, the two eventually develop a cautiously cooperative (if not completely forthright) rapport.

True to form, Connelly does a masterful job of plotting this story. It's full of suspense and has more twists than Mulholland Drive. Told in first person from Haller's point of view, the story is intricately constructed and depends on things that don't quite seem likely to occur--at least, not until you've read it to almost the very end. And (for those who have read the Bosch series and know that he's in this book) when Haller and Bosch meet, you can pretty much see what's coming, even before Bosch introduces himself. (The scene in which they meet has an intensive "wait for it" feel.) Their clash of interests may be predictable, but still manage to be entertaining. (One scene Haller and Bosch share actually made me laugh out loud. I won't spoil it by saying which.)

Having said that, while Connelly is quite capable of sardonic humor (Bosch revels in it), he tends not to be as deft with the lighter variety, in my very humble opinion. And, more than in some of his other books, his attempts at whimsy in this one seem to stray into being overly cute at times. One scene with a celebrity expert witness (who happens to be a gorgeous blonde woman with a bubbly personality--natch) comes to mind as being a bit over-the-top in that department.

Occasionally, the antagonist characters tend to be more like caricatures. The prosecutor Haller goes up against seems to lack the finesse I would picture a district attorney with a perfect record would have and comes across as a bit too much of a grandstanding blowhard at times.

The scenes in which we see Haller relating to his daughter and ex-wife, however, add a nice personal touch. And a bit of relief in what is otherwise a rather intense tale.

My only other criticism is Connelly's famous attention to detail--particularly in the courtroom scenes. It had the unfortunate effect of reminding me why I don't usually read (and never write) legal thrillers. Nonetheless, Connelly does get major points from me for getting it right. As right as I've ever seen a courtroom proceeding done in fiction. Which makes some of the reading--much like a real trial--a trifle tedious at times.

No matter. There's enough suspense here--and interesting back-and-forth between Haller and Bosch, as well as Haller and his client--to get you past all that and keep you turning the pages. I read most of the book on a round-trip flight that took three hours total--that's how much of a page-turner it is.

The book ends with a breathtaking climax, as well as a couple of final twists, the last of which struck me as being the teeniest bit contrived--but not so much that it ruined the story. Actually, it serves as an apt metaphor for the notion that there's a yin-yang symmetry between crime solver and criminal defender--flip sides of one coin that is our less than perfect, but still far and away better than most, justice system.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Catch and Release, Singleton Hippie Art

Catch and ReleaseThe Peace(c) Singleton 2008"There at the bottom of it all,I scrunched my toesdeep into the sandand held on fora never~ever againforever...waiting to breathe....To be lifted up again...To see the sun....And then....I felt the tiniest threadof waters turning tepid blue,champagne chilledand full oflife...And I remembered...what I needed to share....Peace...."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

'Faster Than the Speed of Light': One Scientist's Moving Account

Review of FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF LIGHT (Perseus Publishing 2003)
Author, Joao Magueijo

I was inspired to read FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF LIGHT after seeing a special on the Science Channel in which Joao Magueijo explained his theory about the speed of light not being constant. He developed the theory that light may have moved faster when the universe was created than it does now, as a way of explaining certain paradoxes about the "Big Bang" theory that have confounded cosmologists (scientists who study the origins of the universe--not to be confused with cosmetologists) for decades. Since this theory contradicts one of the long-held tenets of Einstein's special theory of relativity (that the speed of light is constant), Magueijo's work was widely pooh-poohed and he was called quite a few bad names for his efforts--as I recall, words like "moron" and "heretic" had been tossed about.

Needless to say, I was intrigued. I had to find out more.

See, once upon a time (so long ago, it seems like another lifetime), I studied physics and even took a course in relativity. In fact, the idea of studying cosmology--understanding how everything was created--seemed incredibly appealing. I was ultimately done in by the math. It just turned out not to be my thing. Words are my thing. I turned to them instead.

I approached this book with some trepidation, concerned that it would be far too technical for me to enjoy after lo these many years of not doing hard science. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, because this book is about more than just science. It's about the people who do the science: how they work; how they collaborate, clash and compete with one another; and the resistance they encounter from various quarters when they take their theories to the bleeding edge and explore strange and controversial new possibilities. In short, it's about the human drama associated with science, along with the theory Magueijo created.

The book was a real eye-opener, in terms of finding out how contentious scientists can get with each other over these theories. All the name-calling that I took as a sign of others feeling threatened could just as easily have been typical posturing among Magueijo's peers from the sound of it. And I had to laugh (in sympathy) at his description of the agonizing process of getting one's theories published. Magueijo makes the academic publishing world sound about as arbitrary and capricious as the literary one.

Magueijo's writing also makes the book easy to digest. The science can get a bit heady at times, but if you don't get too put off by it, his stories and (sometimes delightfully ribald) sense of humor make the reading well worth the effort.

In the book, to a greater extent than the TV special, Magueijo discusses how others have come up with their own VSL (variable speed of light) theories--some of them prior to his doing so. And, since he was finding support among other scientists before he wrote the book, what may have seemed crazy in the 1990s may seem less so now. This book was published in 2003, so even more scientists may have signed onto it during the last five years, for all I know.

The book even served as a review of what I learned in that relativity class. Plus I learned a bit more. And while I would hardly consider myself a cosmology expert after reading this book, I can say I have a slightly better understanding of the science, along with a much greater appreciation for the trials and tribulations of those who are pushing the envelope in the field.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Book World Suffers More Losses

Lately, it seems like the obituary page is turning into a hit parade of literary greats of one sort or another.

Michael Chrichton is gone. His death has been written up in the NY Times and many other places. I've never read his books--never even saw Jurassic Park--but you can't argue with his success.

John Leonard has also left the building. A writer, critic and "out-and-proud liberal" (an endearing trait in itself, I think), Leonard worked for many major publications in a variety of roles. He's authored books, and the most recent one has possibly the longest title I've ever seen.

Friday, November 7, 2008

And then there were Angels, Singleton Hippie Art

And then there were Angels(c)Singleton 2008It was morningin the Manger,and everythingwas alive,brimming,dancing...a new day was born...And the Angels sang...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

In 'Chasing Darkness,' Cheeky PI Elvis Cole Skirmishes Again with Questionable Cops

Review of CHASING DARKNESS (Brilliance Audio 2008)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

Author, Robert Crais; read by James Daniels

I am no cop lover. So I am a big fan of private dicks who nip at the heels of the police. If they can do it with funny asides, more the better. You can’t be too funny, actually.

Elvis Cole is one such literary heel-nipper. He, of course, lives in a house perched on an LA canyon wall, has an iconoclastic cat who takes no nip (speaking of nip) and an even more cynical ex-cop friend named Joe Pike.

Some years before, Cole had been hired by a local lawyer to try to get his client off a murder charge—indeed, Cole found a tape of the guy elsewhere during the time of the crime and the accused walked. Now—the guy is found, apparently a victim of suicide, with a book of Polaroids of dying women (blood still spurting) at his feet. The woman Cole proved he did not kill is in the book.

Hey! No fair! Cole insists he was right the first time and sets off to roam the weirdos, aggrieved relatives, offbeat landlords, busybodies and all the usual suspects you’d expect in a wise-ass detective novel to prove the dead guy did not commit at least that one murder.

And who should be acting strangely? The police! (Did you call that one? I did.)

I had a problem with the reader, James Daniels, who has sort of a light voice that to me did not fit Cole, although he has apparently read other Cole and Joe Pike books. I also thought the title was blah—darkness, evil, murder, killer, ripper—pick one from Column A, etc. I could have thought up many better titles.

Despite this, it’s a fun ride—assuming you are not in the Death Album (see? better) and at least this time, I wasn’t. So far, so good.

Star Lawrence is a health writer and author of the blog HEALTH'Sass.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

'North River'--A No-Nonsense Tale of New Yorkers in the First Depression

Review of NORTH RIVER (audiobook 2007) by guest blogger Star Lawrence
Author, Pete Hamill; read by Henry Strozier

It’s 1934. Dr. John Delaney is moping around his townhouse, taking care of patients and obsessing over his daughter, Grace, who has taken her infant son and left for Mexico or Spain or someplace looking for her husband, who is some kind of half-vast revolutionary. Delaney is also processing his wife Molly’s decision of some years before to walk out of the house, never to return. Is she drifting in the currents of the North River? Apparently, this guy has kinda bad luck with women.

Sound like a Hallmark special? Not so fast. When Delaney returns home one day, his grandson, Carlito, about 3, is stuffed into a rickety troller in his front hall—here, Dad, I have to check Europe for hubs.

Delaney’s furious, not all warm and fuzzy. But the kid is hungry and can’t reach the toilet to pee, so things need attending to. He muddles on.

Of course, he begins to like hanging out with the kid and teaching him things about New York, but at the same time, he has gotten crosswise of a Mafia war. They even threaten the tot.

But Rose, the babysitter/nurse/etc. he found, is Sicilian, off the boat. She knows a thing or two about these goombahs.

I don’t want to give anything away, but this is not a touchy-feely. We wouldn’t expect that from Pete Hamill, anyway.

The reader is a wonderfully deliberate, rumbly guy named Henry Strozier, whom I have heard before.

I got so caught up in these people, I thought sadly at one point—some of them may be dead now. Wait—they never lived at all, this is fiction. Really good fiction can make you think things like that.

Star Lawrence is a health writer and author of the blog HEALTH'Sass.

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