Sunday, April 13, 2014

the Benjamin January series

A FREE MAN OF COLOR by Barbara Hambly ISBN: 0553102583, New York : Bantam Books, 1997., I have posted the information on the first book, but this is really about the entire series. This series is excellent historical fiction, and is concerned with several things. It is the story of a man, Benjamin January, born as a slave on a sugar cane plantation near New Orleans, freed when his mother was purchased by a man who made her his official mistress, grew up to become both a trained surgeon and a fine musician, and has travelled to Europe and lived for many years in France. He has come home to New Orleans, and he tries to build a life of worth and dignity in a place where that is almost impossible for a person of color, free or not. It is the story of his family, of his culture, and of the City of New Orleans, which was first Spanish, then French, and finally American. Each culture has left its indelible mark upon the society, and New Orleans is constantly in a state of transition. The culture is unique and uniquely complicated, and this book studies, in depth the customs, rules of etiquette and laws that govern and circumscribe the lives of non-white residents and citizens. These rules are so complicated that they could easily provide a 4 year course of study in a college of diplomacy, yet it is by these rules that Benjamin and all non-white people must live. This is not the fantasy New Orleans, (though there are those elements as well). It is a city of swamps and sewers; of Creole society and the Demi Monde, existing side by side; a city of balls, culture and yellow fever; a major port of trade; and a place of many cultures which all intermesh, sometimes in strange and wonderful ways. Sometimes, this series is difficult to read, because some of the things it describes are emotionally and morally horrific, but then sometimes the era, when slavery was both at its height and beginning to come under scrutiny and serious attack, were also horrific. It was difficult for me to even comprehend a world in which I could not interact with a black person as a complete equal, or where a black person could not, for example, look me directly in the eye, or had to (legally) address me as "ma'am". Yet these things were true, in that setting, as was the custom, specific to Louisiana of categorizing people of color in an incredibly arcane genetic fashion. The society was delicately balanced on layer upon layer of stratification, and, unless one found oneself in one of the top layers, reading about it is, I suspect, far preferable to living in it. But this is a very human story, too. Benjamin and his family are real people, and I found myself coming to care for them and respect them for making the most of what they had to work with. They persevered and even flourished, despite the obstacles, mostly of enshrined bigotry, and each of them is unique and complex. The author has done her research extremely well, and her writing is both informative and accessible, so that these books never feel like "history lessons". But, these books are also complex mysteries, and Ben and his friends and family must use all of their resources and intelligence to solve them, often risking their lives and freedom to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed this series, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history, New Orleans, sociology, or very well plotted and often surprising mysteries.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Broken kids, broken families

LIVE TO TELL By: Lisa Gardener ISBN: 0553807242, Recorded from:, New York : Bantam Books, c2010 I read a lot, and usually, I can finish a book, decide it’s worth talking about and put it in my list for later Blog posts. However, every once in a long while, a book slips inside my personal “reading” space, and finds me where I “live”. I don’t always recognize what’s happening until the very end, although there are some signs deferring things such as food and sleep so I can keep reading. I certainly know it *has* happened, though, as soon as I read the last word. For a moment, I find myself a little breathless, a little dizzy, an “shell shocked” enough that forming simple mental sentences is difficult. It never lasts long, maybe for the space of an in drawn breath, and with my “wow” or “oh, my god” on the exhale, I’m released. I can’t altogether define what is required for such an effect, either. Sometimes it is writing that is so astoundingly lovely that the urge is to read sentence by sentence, practically memorizing each sentence, then writing them down, to be considered separately, with the same attention one would give, say to a haiku. Usually, though I think it’s a combination of writing, plot, character development, the handling of themes or issues …which all coalesce into something close to miraculous for me, takes away my breath, my words and my thoughts for a time, and leaves me enriched beyond measure. Such a book was Live to Tell by Lisa Gardener. It is one of the earlier D. D. Warren books, and I’ve read and liked other books in the series, but this one …got me good, so to speak. It has all the things one expect from Lisa Gardener, excellent writing, great characters, some of whom you love, some of whom you love to hate, and a plot that builds and builds and then glues you to your seat and the book. So …what was special about this book? In this book, the plot revolves around very troubled children and the ways in which they are both destroyed and helped. We don’t usually think of mental illness in terms of very young children, but it exists, and the author shows its extremely dark side with incredible vividness, but she also shows those health care specialists who are in the trenches, fighting with indomitable courage to help and hopefully to help save these little ones. Both stories are profoundly moving, and the children themselves break my heart and make me want to scoop them up and hug them at the same time. Added to the usually riveting plot, and the characters who walk off the page and stay for dinner (and if you’re going to cook for D. D. Warren, be prepared to cook a *lot*), this is one of those books that have changed me just a little, and this book is now a part of what I sometimes think of as my mental DNA.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dark legacies

THE NIGHT BEFORE By: Lisa Jackson ISBN: 0821769367, New York : Kensington, c2003. Savannah GA, one of the 3 cities not destroyed during the Civil War, is an ideal setting for this suspense novel. This city seems to lend itself to tales of suspense, dark, tangled mysteries involving ancient, deadly family secrets or the supernatural. One gets the feeling that no one ever quite walks alone here; that eyes are watching in the darkness, and that, just beneath the beauty of this town of the very old South, there is seething decadence, filled with shadowy surprises. I think this novel could only have taken place here, and it certainly contains all the elements one would expect; an old and aristocratic family, a mansion made more fascinating by its age and disrepair, interlocked, twisted lives and even more twisted minds, intricately plotted unsolved murders, and a whole large closet full of very dark family skeletons. Savannah is, however, also a modern city, and against this dark, decadent, fascinating background, modern people try to live open “normal” lives, and a modern police force attempts to use up to date techniques to unravel the past. That unraveling is part of the satisfaction this book provides, but the real strengths of this novel are the presentation of the environment in which it is set, and in the extremely careful and skillful character development. Many of these characters have very serious issues and pathologies, and the author develops each in such a way that those flaws, and in some cases, those flaws are extremely dangerous, that the internal landscapes of the characters are as much a part of the suspense as is the action described by the plot. In many ways, this is one of those books best read in full sunlight, and following its twists and turns requires the same care one would use in trying to find one’s way out of a labyrinth, but, by the end, all mysteries are resolved, all questions answered, and, like sunlight after a summer storm, the reader closes the book with a feeling of hope for the future of some of the characters who have suffered so much.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Lady of Distinction

A LADY OF DISTINCTION There are some fictional characters who have become so famous in their own rights that they step from the pages of their books and become part of our cultural lexicon. I remember reading a comment made by Harlan Ellison once that Sherlock Holmes and Super Man should be added to Jungian archtypes, because they have become part of our universal consciousness. There are other characters who, though not so universally known, are so well known by those who read the series in which they predominate, that they are often thought of, and are spoken of, not as characters but in the same ways we speak of friends or acquaintances. This is especially true among fans of a particular series, but a few are even more well known than the series in which they were created. It is one of these I’d like to talk about, for a while. David Weber created an excellent SF series, revolving around the life and career of Dame Honor Harrington, and it is she who I’d like to discuss for a bit. I became acquainted with her series some years ago, and I’m allowing myself the self indulgence of re-reading this group of excellent books, which begin with “on Basilisk Station”. The books are well worth reading, and, perhaps when I’ve finished all of them, I’ll discuss them. However, Dame Honor is so well developed that she has, at least for me, acquired many aspects of individuality that make hre feel “real” to me, at least mentally and emotionally, even though I am well aware that she is a figment of the vivid imagination of an extremely skillful author. Yes, I like and admire Honor. She’s the kind of person who I’d love to be able to invite to my home for dinner and an evening of conversation, and she has character traits that I value and admire. In fact, if she existed off the page, she’s the kind of person whose friendship I’d highly value. She is intelligent, decisive, observant, can think logically, and is deeply compassionate. She will perform her duty, always, and she knows, and willingly pays, the price that sometimes involves. For a military commander, that price is measured not only by the lives of her enemies, but by the lives lost of her crew, and sometimes of her friends. She isn’t unbelieveably brave or “perfect”, and therein lies her deep humanity. Sometimes, she questions herself, and her right to do what she does, in the most basic of moral and ethical terms. Sometimes, she’s scared nearly to death, fears that she’s made the wrong decisions, and she knows that, in battle, especially in space, the most hostile of environments, mistakes lead to absolute distruction. Yet, for all that, she forces her way through, does the absolute best she can, and accepts the results … and to my mind, *that* is one of the ultimate tests of an individuals’s strength. Yet, she does not lack humor, nor does she force herself not to care about the people around her. She can laugh, even at herself, and her friends probably outnumber her admirers (and there are many of those). In short, Dame Honor Harrington is such a beautifully created character that the books about her become, unintendedly, (and that is how it must be to work) the backgrounds against which she is painted.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

let me go a-wandering

THE OLD WAYS: A JOURNEY ON FOOT By: Robert Macfarlane and Robin Sachs ISBN: 9781470816919, Reissue of:, [Ashland, OR] : Blackstone Audio,p2012 There, sometimes, books that are so beautiful that they burrow their way into me, and make a nest in my soul. This is such a book. It is, ostensibly, the story of a walk through most of Europe, into the Middle East and into Asia, and it is that. That story is fascinating in its own right, filled with delightful characters and intriguing landscapes, history and folklore. But it is different from most travel journals, because this walk was made not on roads, but on the paths made, step by step, over centuries of use. Some were intended to herd animals, some as shortcuts, but each path, in its own way, was a spontaneous reaction to the needs of the people who lived there, and took little, if any account of Governments or traffic patterns. Along the way, the authors discuss sea lanes (again, not the formal ones, but those made by the sea itself, and the imperatives of those who derived their living from it. We are also given a glimpse of skyways, primarily those used by migrating birds. This is a book of motion, and of deep introspection on a wide range of subjects. It is the story of people, each of whom offers something unique and wonderful to the reader, if not the world, and most important, it is a reverent celebration of the beauty and diversity of the Earth on which we live. The writing is so exquisite that I often felt I was reading a book length poem, and I often had to stop reading for a time to contemplate an image or a sentence. It is a slow read, or should be, with ample time taken for appreciation and thought, because one of the things this book does is encourage the reader to examine and follow his/her internal paths, those made by experience or memory, and the reader is encouraged, by the very nature of this book, to meander far and wide. I found this book so richly dense that I couldn’t just sit down and read it through, as I usually do, but had to read some, think some, read something else for a bit so that I could digest what turned out to be a banquet, then come back to it. As I said, this book will stay with me for a very long time, and I find that, in the way of truly fine books, it has changed my perspective of things in subtle ways.

Friday, November 22, 2013

High School Friends ...

NEVER TELL A LIE By: Hallie Nephron ISBN: 9780061567155, Recorded from:, New York, NY : William Morrow, c2009 This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and, while she hasn’t sailed right on to my personal A list, I’d certainly be willing to read more of her work, although I won’t hunt it down. This is the type of tight little mystery/suspense novel that is perfect for a rainy (or snowy) afternoon, accompanied by appropriate food and drink. Cocoa and gingerbread come to mind, but that is a highly personal consideration. A warm afghan or quilt to burrow into would be appropriate, as would a kitty ensconced in lap. The story is part mystery, part suspense novel, and part psychological study, and all are nicely balanced. The author knows how to build suspense, how to gradually increase it, until the final scenes, which defy interruption by just about anything. The characters are nicely drawn, particularly the main characters, and the writing is brisk, spare but entirely effective. There are some extremely unusual twists, though once they occur, they make perfect sense, and the reader realizes things almost *had* to be the way they were, because one of the problems with living in the town where one grows up is that, eventually, past foolishness can come back to haunt, occasionally in extremely lethal and twisted ways.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A matter of motivation

BELIEVING THE LIE By: Elizabeth George ISBN: 0525952586, Recorded from:, New York : Dutton, 2012 I have always found that this author and Ruth Rendell have very similar styles, though, of course, they also each have their own distinctive voices. But, in my mental reading shorthand, this is a Rendellesque novel, so I expected, and got, several things. All of the elements of a good mystery are most certainly there; there is the crime, (or … is there?), there are the investigators and the suspects (who keep popping their heads up for inclusion at unlikely times and there is the evidence, both circumstantial and physical. However, George, like Rendell is as interested in human motivations and relationship dynamics as she is in what was don’t, to whom and by who. So, in a story which is as much character driven as plot driven, everyone, including the investigators, come under Ms. George’s microscope. Each person in the story has something to contribute, and something to hide, and in digging around for those hidden things, some of which become crucial, the investigators open all sorts of Pandora’s boxes, some of which belong, not to the suspects, but to the investigators. This is not a fast paced action filled read. Instead, it is a leisurely stroll through the hearts, minds and motivations of several people, and a map of how each person connects and interacts with, each other in what is, to put it mildly, a dysfunctional family. When the dust finally settles, not only do we see each person reflected in a very honest and unflattering mirror, but each person knows far more about themselves. Sometimes this is a positive thing, leading, it would seem to increased wisdom, and sometimes, they are forced to confront their own venality, greed and/or emotional neediness, and no, they aren’t pleased; but I, the reader was. There is the crux of the matter, and the central question. “was a specific death by drowning an accident, or was it murder? Everything else spins off that question, and as the investigators become familiar with each family member, they realize that each had valid motives to hate, if not to murder, the victim, and that, just beneath the wealthy, civilized vaneer that this family presents to the world, there is a whole graveyard of skeletons, some of which are extremely destructive, and all of which, in the end are retrieved and examined. But investigators are people, too …and no investigator can entirely set aside his/her humanity when on the job. In this case, some very hot buttons get pushed about as hard as is possible, and by the end, some of the investigators aren’t sure whether they have done more harm than good, and neither are we. As in any examination of any group of people, we find that they are neither all “good” or all “evil” (altough 2 of them come close to that). As in life, each person is some of both, drivin by their needs and desires, and usually focused on their own imperatives, and that applies to suspects and investigators alike. Ms. George is masterful in handling this, never over or under stating her points, so that, while the portraits she draws are entirely accurate and believable, they are never characatures or cartoons. This is not, as some books are, a gathering of the nasty and malicious, however. There are characters with whom we can unabashedly and wholeheartedly sympathize, not as the lesser of several evils, but as good people in situations that force them to examine themselves and others, and make sometimes difficult choices that will effect themselves and others, and they do …and they do it right, in my opinion. This author’s writing is a joy to read, because it is always meticulous, sometimes evocatively beautiful, and, when appropriate emotionally devastating. She always takes her time, and never glosses over details. For that reason, her characters are well rounded and fully developed, her scenes are lovingly and richly set, and her landscapes are profoundly alive. This book is set in the lake district of England, which can appear lovely and benign, and turn quickly into something as erie and lethal as the best Romantic Gothic novel setting with its deadly, shifting sands and tidal bores. All in all, this book is a reading feast, on all levels.