Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Waterless Book Report

I'm still not getting into the work mindset. It doesn't help that they turned the water off in this part of the neighborhood to make some kind of repairs, and they didn't give us any notice. I hate that because it doesn't give me a chance to fill some pitchers and bottles with water, and what if someone was in the shower or doing laundry when they cut the water off? Now I really need another cup of tea, and I'm at the point of filling my teakettle with ice cubes (if I even still have any ice cubes in the freezer). I had just enough water in the kettle to have tea with breakfast, but things could get ugly very soon. I can't even splash my face with cold water to wake myself up.

But enough griping. I've got more books to talk about.

First, there's The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, which is one of those books that proves that the line between "genre" and "literary" fiction is pretty arbitrary. Yeah, the author won a Pulitzer and gets hailed by the literary circuit, but this is a genre novel, essentially an alternate history (well, actually a present based on alternate history) told in the style of a hardboiled detective novel, and it was a ton of fun. The hallmark of a good alt-history book is if it makes you believe that the way history is depicted in the book is real and leaves you wanting to check the encyclopedia in case you remembered your history incorrectly, and this one definitely left me with that feeling. The book is about a timeline in which Sitka, Alaska became the major settlement for displaced Jews after the end of World War II, so that it's pretty much the center of the world's Jewish life, and now the agreement that created that settlement is about to expire (much like Hong Kong reverting to Chinese rule). In this setting, a down-and-out detective finds a dead body in the flophouse hotel where he lives, and his investigation of the murder leads him to uncover a much larger conspiracy. I'm a big fan of alternate history, since I love playing what if, and I love detective novels, and this is a good mix of the two, told in a very strong voice.

The over the holiday, my parents had a copy of the new Dick Francis mystery, now with his son Felix listed as co-author, and I'm glad to see there's an heir apparent. Dead Heat is about a chef with a restaurant in a major horse racing area who starts to feel like something is up when a big percentage of the guests at a dinner he catered become ill, and then the very next day another racetrack lunch he caters is bombed. He starts off investigating to save his reputation, then ends up fighting for his life.

I figured out after reading this why Dick Francis's books are so satisfying: he doesn't write series. Normally, I love series, but it can be tricky in mysteries. If you've got an amateur sleuth, you have to keep coming up with reasons for the main character to get involved with investigations, without it looking too suspicious (some of these mystery characters would probably be suspected as serial killers in the real world). You also can't let the characters grow too much or learn too much along the way, or else you won't have much of a plot in later books if the sleuth has learned enough to solve the mystery in chapter one. The romantic plots also tend to get stretched out because the story is over if the characters get together. But since Dick Francis writes standalone mysteries, there's always a specific reason for the amateur sleuth to be involved in the case, he has to deal with it using the resources he has available, and then when it's over, it's over. He gets the girl and he moves on with his life, perhaps a bit traumatized, but definitely wiser from the experience. He's learned exactly what he's made of, he's been tested, and he's prevailed. These are the kind of books you close with a satisfied sigh.

Saturday was cold and rainy, the perfect reading day, and I made some muffins and a pot of tea and curled up with Fortune's Fool by Mercedes Lackey, which was just about the perfect romantic fantasy. In this world, the Tradition is the source of magical power, as the Tradition tries to make the story come out right. Knowing how things are supposed to work can give you a lot of advantages. For instance, you know that you need to take some extra bread with you on a journey, because you will run into a poor old crone begging by the side of the road, and you know she'll turn out to be a great enchantress who'll help you if you help her. It's a fun twist on the idea of the power of myth. This book focuses on the seventh son of a king, the one who in stories is usually the fortunate fool -- the one who seems like a simpleton but who has things work out for him. He's been forced into this role as a way of tying into the power, but he's a bit weary of being widely regarded as a fool. And then he meets the youngest daughter of the King of the Sea, on a mission from her father. This is one of those books that has everything -- humor, adventure, magic and romance -- and since I have an autographed copy of the first book in the series from a convention this summer, I know I'll have to read more. Now I just need another rainy weekend with nothing to do.

I just had a knock on the door to tell me the water's off. Um, thanks. Actually, they did apologize for the lack of warning. There was an underground leak in a pipe, they've found the leak, and now they just have to get a part here to get it repaired. I may have water before the end of the day. Just thinking about that is making me thirsty. I guess I could walk over to the library and get some tea, but I hate going out without a shower and without washing my face.

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