Monday, April 30, 2012

The Dark At the End

by F. Paul Wilson

The fifteenth and last (except for the inevitable at least three prequels!) Repairman Jack book. Following immediately after Fatal Error, Jack and Weezy (and the Lady, and Glaeken) seek out clues in the Compendium of Srem, a book full of information about the Otherness, and in their old hometown of Johnson, New Jersey.  But Rasalom has corrupted the book, and also has plans that involve Dawn Pickering and her mutate baby.  This leads to a couple of high-adrenaline, high risk plans, in which Jack and crew launch an attack on Rasalom’s house, take back the baby, and lay a trap for Rasalom himself; and a madcap trip back to Johnson to discover Rasalom’s name, which may hold the key to his power.

The attack on Rasalom’s servants and the explosive (literally) ambush of Rasalom are high points in the book, as is an incredibly chilling short scene in which Rasalom shows just how cruel he can be to those who aid Jack.  The stakes are the highest anyone can imagine, as if Jack succeeds the world spins on, while if he fails the Change will come and earth becomes a living hell for its human inhabitants.  The suspense is nail biting, as dumb luck, human error, and misplaced compassion make the best laid plans go bad.  Wilson plays fair, giving his good guys a decent chance, but not making them stupid (though I did briefly think that Jack would have drowned the monster baby as soon as he set eyes on it, which might have solved a good many problems).  A truly thrilling, action packed finale (or rather, setup to the actual finale, Nightworld).

four stars

[follows Fatal Error]

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wolves at Our Door: The Extraordinary Story of the Couple Who Lived with Wolves

by Jim and Jamie Dutcher

The true story of the wildlife filmmaker (Jim) and employee of the National Zoo (Jamie) who met and married during a six-year project studying a pack of captive wolves who had been hand-raised in a fenced environment in Idaho’s  Sawtooth Mountains, but more or less left to their own natural inclinations.  Dutcher is aware of how controversial his project is (both from ranchers who see wolves as the devil and from environmentalists who think he is selfishly playing God by hand-raising wolves and interfering with them), and takes enormous pains to justify everything about it, from the fencing to the amount of relative luxury they lived in while filming (beds with sheets!  Wine! The horror!).  The pups are hand raised so the humans involved could safely film the wolves and give medical attention when needed; but the Dutchers go to great lengths to keep the environmental impact to a minimum – and succeed, if a government report on their impact is any indication.

There’s a lot of fascinating information here, especially about the technical aspects and logistical obstacles in filming a wildlife documentary (to capture the wolves’ true feral nature, which comes off as less than majestic when close up, he films them in slow motion).  There is also a great deal to learn about wolf behavior, such as how the pack hierarchy can change over time, or that physical power does not necessarily correspond to status level, or how the omega can get away with playful behavior that a mid-level wolf would be punished for (reminding me of how a medieval king would take abuse from a jester that would mean death coming from advisors).   About his colleagues with whom he falls out, Dutcher is not entirely reliable, finding fault with their position in general and painting himself (and his wife) as the lone hero against the entire irrational world.  A reader does have to take an author’s word for a lot – you can’t proceed with any criticism if you can’t agree on what the author asserts – but things can’t be that black and white.  Finally, the Dutcher anthropomorphize to a great extent.  They note repeatedly that they are not scientists, but artists, and can only repeat what they feel and are not limited to observable repeatable phenomena; however, Jamie’s flights of fancy on how wolves respect ravens, and regret killing them by accident, are a bit much.  Overall, this is a highly interesting, and unfortunately rather sad, account of a wolf pack that didn’t belong to people or the wild.  Was this project a good thing, in the end?  Yes, if you allow that it de-demonized wolves for many people.  But maybe the subjects themselves would rather not have come to the end they did.

three stars

Friday, April 20, 2012

How Right You Are, Jeeves

by P.G. Wodehouse
a.k.a. Jeeves In the Offing

With Jeeves on vacation, Bertie finds himself at his Aunt Dahlia’s place in Brinkley Court, along with an American family, the Creams, who must be handled with kid gloves to prevent their canceling a big business deal with Bertie’s uncle; Audrey Upjohn, Bertie’s former headmaster, who still chills Bertie’s soul; Upjohn’s insipid daughter, Phyllis, who is infatuated with the playboy kleptomaniac wastrel American, Willie Cream, and must be put off; and old pal Roberta Wickham, engaged to be married to Bertie’s old pal Reginald Herring, who has written a caustic, libelous review of Upjohn’s memoirs and thus whose future depends on assuaging Upjohn’s wrathful soul.  Oh, and familiar face Roderick Glossop, eminent psychologist to the wealthy, is there in the disguise of a butler to surreptitiously assess Willie Cream’s psyche.

In short, the usual cast of doomed lovers, imperious guardians, and secret schemes abound, and Jeeves must be sent for.  Though there is little in this book of the sublime Bertie-Jeeves dialogue that defines their perfect relationship (Jeeves being mostly absent and even after he arrives doing his magic more or less off-camera), there is more than enough of the brilliant Wooster narration (“one got the distinct illusion he was swelling like one of those rubber ducks which you fill with air before inserting them in the bathtub”; “in his opinion three was a crowd and that what the leafy glade needed to make it all a leafy glade should be was a complete absence of Woosters”).  One may roll one’s eyes at the recurring tropes (the fretful porpentine quote, the young lovers who cannot marry unless the young man’s future is assured), but frankly you have to be a bit of an Upjohn not to delight in this world of wit, erudition, manners, and happy endings.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Favorite Greek Myths

by Mary Pope Osborne

Osborne, the author of the Magic Tree House books, retells twelve stories of Greek myth in a very slim (75 not very dense at all pages) volume for children.  As in Enid Blyton’s collection, these are tales mostly well-known to Western culture, also mostly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Orpheus and Eurydice, Echo and Narcissus, Midas’ greedy wish, Persephone and Hades, the ill-starred love of Cupid and Psyche.  She also includes a few obscurities: Arcus, who shot his mother while hunting after she had been turned into a bear; the race of Atalanta and Hippomenes; and perhaps most obscure, the rather grim story of Ceyx and Alcyone, who turned into a kingfisher when her drowned husband washed ashore.

Osborne is a decent writer, and infuses the stories with fairy-tale timelessness while emphasizing their explanatory intent.  She’s less captivating than Blyton, however, and her retellings lack detail and the rich color than the master raconteurs (Blyton, the D’Aulaires) do.  She doesn’t for example, mention Midas turning his children to gold, which gives the tale its real pathos; nor in her story of Orpheus in the underworld is there any menace conveyed from Charon or Cerberus.  These tales are pleasant but thin and plain – and why revisit the classics if you’re not going to make them shine just a little brighter? 

three stars

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tales Of Ancient Greece

by Enid Blyton

A collection of sixteen stories from Greek myths (mostly taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses), retold for juveniles.   Some, such as Icarus’ fall and King Midas’ wish, are extremely familiar, while a few have not permeated as deeply into out popular culture (Clytie who loved Apollo and watched his passage each day; Baucis and Philemon, who were kind to the gods in disguise and were thus the only ones to survive the mass drowning of their village – a story much more familiar in its Judeo-Christian frame).

This thin, 104-page book is a readable, fun introduction to some of the more colorful tales of Greek myth.  Blyton is a fine writer, and adds color, mood, and motive to the tales.  Most deal with the consequences of hubris (Arachne, Phaeton) or the simple misfortune of having caught the eye of a god (Io, Daphne, Midas, Persephone).   The “morals” of these tales, if they could be said to have a lesson and not simply serve to explain the natural world, seem mostly to be that bad things come to those who don’t know their place.  This is not a moral that American youth are brought up to find tasteful, but Blyton strives to put a happy face on even the most tragic of tales, concluding that Orpheus and Eurydice were reunited eternally in death, or casting the tale of Pygmalion and Galatea as a happily-ever-after story.

four stars

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Uncivil Seasons

by Michael Malone

In Hillston, North Carolina, Justin Savile, police detective, dipsomaniac, and black sheep of the ruling plutocracy of the town, partners with fast-talking, lower-class Cuddy Mangum to investigate the beating death of the wife of a state senator (his uncle).  A petty thief is found with her stolen silver, but it doesn’t add up, and Justin starts uncovering some secrets that the family would rather keep hidden.

Written in a playful, stylish, literate tone, this is a delightful mystery, an actual whodunit with tight plotting, lots of red herrings and convoluted suspense.  But it’s also a sophisticated romance, a character study, an evocation of old-money southern mores, and a comedy in the style of the fast-talking, quick-witted films of the ‘40s.  Although a slightly jarring note, to me at least, rang in Cuddy, who is presented as a hulking blue-collar vet and auto-didact, but who talks in a never-ending spout of aphorisms, highly erudite references, and puns, like a straight Oscar Wilde.  I suppose there are all kinds in every walk of life, but it struck me as a bit off given his background.  Self-taught and disarmingly smart, certainly, but a blatherer?  It seems off-type.  That aside, this book is a rarity: a smart, engaging police procedural that also delves successfully into the wider world of love and the meaning of life.

four stars