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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Black Echo

Black Echo
Michael Connelly
Publisher: Warner Books
ISBN: 0446612731

This book was one of four that was put into my hands by a former co-worker of mine from Wbooks; a very nice woman with a tremendous passion for books in general, and mysteries in particular.

The Basics:
The central character of Black Echo is Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch, a former Vietnam soldier turned LA Cop. In fact, he's turned Beverly Hills cop, after departmental politics exiled him from his beat in LA proper. A routine murder investigation takes a turn for the personal when the body discovered in a drainage ditch turns out to be a fellow "Tunnel Rat" from the war; after that, Harry is drawn into a strange mystery that takes him back to the tunnels of Vietnam, while trying to negotiate with the FBI, police department politics, and, of course, the bad guys.

The Good:
The mystery itself is pretty well-done. It's not the sort that you can figure out at the beginning (the reader doesn't have the information needed), but it makes sense as it's revealed, and I never ran into a "but that doesn't make any sense!" sort of moment.

Connelly's characterizations are solid—not particularly original, mind you, but solid. Harry is a pretty stereotypical hard-boiled, maverick detective. His eventual side-kick/love interest, Agent Eleanor Wish, is likewise well-rendered, if a bit of a stock character (the tough lady cop, this one). While many of the characters are a bit stereotyped, they are rendered well.

Connelly has an excellent knowledge of his subjects, and the information is presented well. Police procedure and acronyms flow throughout the text, but in a way that doesn't make it seem forced or misplaced. Likewise, his knowledge of the Vietnamese war, so far as it pertains to this story, seems fairly complete and accurate. It usually only shows up in background discussions, but it is well done.

The Bad:
This is one of Connelly's first books, and it shows. The writing is gorgeous in some parts, but at other points, it's horrifically choppy. Connelly occasionally suffers from strange need to explain things that are perfectly obvious to the alert reader, which I find baffling. I would assume that anyone who reads mysteries is likely to pick up on subtle, or, more to the point, not so subtle, clues. Black Echo has the occasional X-Men III-like moment where the writer turns to the audience and says "in case you were so dumb that you missed that, let me make it REALLY CLEAR for you." Blah.

The Ugly:
As I said, the book is populated by...well, clich├ęs, I guess. They aren't really stereotypes, but they are definitely standard issue cop drama molds (the Maverick Cop, the Tough Lady, the Bumbling/Obnoxious Internal Affairs Guys, the Loud Chief, etc.). None of these are bad enough to be offensive, and they are rendered well, but man...original, they are not.

Overall, it was decent. I had a hard time getting into the book, but once I got going, I found that I rather enjoyed it. It's not high literature, but if you like this sort of hard-boiled cop drama/mystery, it's probably worth checking out.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Lost World

Lost World
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Publisher: Modern Library (Random House)
ISBN: 0812972139

As part of my continuing quest to get myself up-to-date on the classics of pulp fiction, I picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries) classic foray into adventure/science fiction, Lost World.

The Basics:
Professor Challenger returns to England, claiming to have discovered a lost world in the Amazon rainforest, where dinosaurs and other, stranger creatures still exist. Mocked and ridiculed for his claims, he eventually accepts a challenge from some of his colleagues, and assembles a second expedition to explore the plateau. The adventuring party (and really, that’s exactly what they are), includes Edward Malone, a newspaper man, and the narrator of the tale; Professor Summerlee, a noted zoologist who disbelieves Challenger’s wild claims; Lord John Roxton, a hunter and outdoorsman of considerable skill; and some random flunkies, who either get killed or wander off, and are no particularly notable consequence.

The group, of course, does find Challenger’s lost world, and sets about exploring it/become trapped on it. Once trapped, their mission of exploration of turns into one of survival, as they try to cope with ravenous dinosaurs, poisons snakes, and a kingdom of evil ape-men. They do eventually escape, after many trials, tribulations, and adventures.

The Good:
I believe I covered this with the dinosaurs, snakes, and ape-men, but in case it was unclear:
Dinosaurs! Ape-Men! Snakes! HIGH ADVENTURE!

Seriously, this is pulp sci-fi at its finest: fast-paced, exciting, full of (mostly) likeable, memorable characters, and all around sheer pulp wackiness. Something is always HAPPENING in this book; even the conversations carry an air of constant action and energy (Sometimes caused by Professor Challenger’s notorious willingness to resort to violence in the face of those who mock him). The four main characters are all fairly distinct and enjoyable. It’s tempting to paint them as archetypes, but honestly, this is where some of the archetypes come from.

The lost world itself is great; while I’m sure Conan Doyle’s paleontology is a bit off, his descriptions of the various dinosaurs, fish, and other strangeness that the adventurers encounter are all wonderfully evocative. It might not be good science, but it’s great writing.

The Bad:
The build up to getting to the plateau takes a little while. I would have liked less “getting there” and more “stuff on the plateau” itself. Still, the getting there is more interesting and enjoyable than say, PJ’s King Kong.

The Ugly:
If Darwinian racism or British Imperialism is likely to offend you, this book will.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Boxer Rebellion : The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900

Boxer Rebellion : The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900
Diana Preston
Publisher: Berkley Trade
ISBN: 0425180840

I should begin this review with an explanation; it took me forever to finish this book. I honestly have no idea why. It’s well-written, interesting, but not notably difficult reading. It doesn’t seem like the sort of book that should have taken me a long time to read. Admittedly, it is four hundred some-odd pages, but that’s no excuse. Whatever slowed me down, it wasn’t lack of enjoyment, I assure you. And there’s nothing like having to spend twenty hours on planes to help you catch up on your reading.

Also, I’m abandoning the “good, bad, ugly” format for this review. I simply don’t have enough “bad” or “ugly” to make it worthwhile.

Boxer Rebellion is a history of, well, the Boxer Rebellion, a popular anti-Western revolt that occurred in China at the end of the 19th century. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the rebellion. I knew that it was a reaction to Japanese and Western encroachment into China; that the “Boxers” were actually the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, and that they gained their nickname because of the martial arts routines they practiced; that the Boxers, like the Ghost Dancers in America believed (falsely) that they had mystical powers that would protect them from bullets. And that was kind of it.

It turns out that the rebellion was a lot larger, stronger, and more dangerous than I had been lead to believe. During the rebellion, the diplomatic legations in Peking came under siege for several weeks, as did several church complexes in China. A large number of Western missionaries and their Chinese followers were slaughtered trying to reach safety, and the Chinese government actually supported the Boxers in their efforts to drive foreigners from China (at least, some of the time).

Boxer Rebellion tells the story of the revolt primarily from the perspective of the besieged, as well as the military forces that were deployed to try and rescue them. Using a large variety of primary source documents, Preston traces the days leading up to the rebellion, the rebellion itself, and the aftermath. The extensive use of primary sources allows Preston to give the reader an intimate feel for what the experience of surviving this rebellion was like. There are several characters who left extensive journals, and it is through their eyes that the reader can really experience the horror of these events for themselves. It is certainly much less clinical and detached than reading a simple narrative or descriptive history, and makes the whole book much more riveting.

Unfortunately, there are almost no surviving documents detailing the Chinese experience of this revolt; Preston is very upfront about this fact, and how it limits the manuscript (though at four hundred plus pages, it’s not that limited). While Preston does provide some general descriptions of events that occurred in China at various stages of the revolt, it’s impossible for her to get into the heads of the Chinese in the same way that she does the European and American citizens. Which is sad; I suspect she’d do a great job.

 Preston’s writing is excellent. It flows, it’s engaging, and she integrates quotes from the primary sources exceedingly well. I wouldn’t normally comment on the last, save that it is very important to this particular book, given the great emphasis on primary source material.

My only point of confusion about this book is that the experiences described in it are so far removed from the previous descriptions of the Boxer Rebellion that I had heard that I’m forced to wonder where the hell those ideas came from. While Preston makes a passing reference to Imperial Chinese soldiers shooting Boxers to “test” their powers, most of the siege is conducted with guns, cannons, and other modern technology. While that in some part is due to the participation of the Imperial Chinese soldiers at certain points in the siege, it seems that the Boxers did not wholly rely on their powers to defeat their enemies. More investigation is clearly warranted.

Overall, an excellent, well-researched, and thoroughly enjoyable book. Definitely worth the read, if the subject at all interests you.