27 March, 2013

Review: Calculated In Death by J.D. Robb

Preparing to review absolutely anything except the latest J.D. Robb book forced me to face how much I meh'd all the books this month. I didn't even hate them. We can't be friends. I'm left wondering why they came to my house at all. Go home books, you bored me.

So Calculated In Death. At this point the In Death series is like yet another rerun of yet another CBS procedural. We all know what we're getting going in. There's a murder, it gets solved. Eve has her marks to hit taped off on the floor and she gets her angles in pretty quickly. There is a scene in CiD that made me reconsider the comfort zone this series has moved to. Mr. Dallas is an infinitely wealthy guy, right? He fitted Eve out with an experimental coat meant to take a taser hit and keep her moving. He did not outfit Peabody with the same. Because she is not his wife. She is his wife's partner, she is sometimes the difference between his wife living and dying, but she is not his wife. So when the killer targets Eve she wastes valuable time protecting Peabody from a second strike instead of using all of the advantage her coat would have otherwise bought her. We could argue that Mr. Dallas (because really, who else is he at this point?) was unaware the coat would function, or that Peabody isn't his problem or any number of things. Still. Safety equipment. Half the duo only. Infinite resources.

Later in the book Eve offers a costly pair of sunglasses (one of many she fails to value but recalls stuffed into her glovebox) to a street junkie in exchange for information. She has it, it's a tool, she uses it. Eve alternates between her complete contempt for the wealth in her life (and it's effects on others) and utilizing that wealth to the fullest. Eve has not overhauled anything in her department or otherwise flashed her cash. She wants to be one of the kids when the kids are around and Super Cop enjoying the bounty of her marriage when they are not. It's as though the class tight rope she (and her relationship) were walking has become a bounce house to play in. I don't believe Eve has a wealth struggle anymore. I believe Eve has passed into the world of Has. As such, her resentment of obligations related to the cash now reads as petulant and childish instead of pragmatic or uncomfortable. Eve is loaded. Her former best friend is loaded. In a sense, Eve is now slumming at her job.

It no longer makes sense for Eve to operate as the cop in the corner office. She likes her job, her job defines her, but she has become a high profile target independent of her job. It's the Batman problem. Without Batman would so many freaks settle in Gotham? Is Batman's one man show ego driven or the best use of Wayne Industries cash? As the In Death books go Calculated In Death was very enjoyable. It didn't feel like a rerun or a Very Special Chapter, just a new episode of a comfortable old series. In Death will run as long as Robb wants it to go. There will be no baby-louge, no balancing of work and parenting (unless Eve adopts). She and Mr. Dallas will run their Nick and Nora well into the dinner theater years and beyond. I'm not knocking that. I'm not sure what I want from Eve right now. She can't win for losing, I suppose.

21 March, 2013

Review: Finding Florida by T.D. Allman

Spoiler Alert: I'm a Floridian.

I picked up an advance copy of Finding Florida planning to hate read it. Instead I fell completely in love. I fell so in love that I've been struggling with how to properly convey that love to you without imitating Gollum and the Ring. If I ruled the world, people would be unable to have an opinion on Florida without having read Finding Florida. We'd pass it out with our free samples of orange juice, take copies door to door with the Yellow Pages. Pundits speaking in election years would have to first read a sample passage from the book before continuing to weigh in on whatever issue of the day Florida was allegedly causing. And then, as a nation, we'd take a good long look at what we've done.

 Here's the thing. Everyone writes about Florida. Everyone knows what Florida is, be it a punchline or a destination. If you have enough cash, Florida is Mar-a-Lago. If you don't, Florida is Trayvon Martin. If you want to prove a point (any point, really) you can use Florida as the example and people will assume you're right. No one ever tells the truth in or about Florida. This is a place where reality twists to the will of the speaker and that frustrates the hell out of the natives. Especially if the speaker is from the New York corridor. T.D. Allman tells the truth. He actually found Florida and wrapped it in a book for you. This is a clear eyed, race neutral history of the Sunshine State. Therefore, Finding Florida may strike some as an incendiary book with an agenda. I would argue that it is impossible to really understand Florida and not be angry. Take our snakes. The milk snake is harmless. It's identical cousin the coral snake will kill you. Schoolchildren are taught rhymes to tell the difference. (My school used "Red on black, friend of Jack. Red on yellow kills a fellow." They also dumped a bag of snakes on the table to make sure we remembered it.)  Florida is a coral snake repeatedly packaged as a milk snake. Don't blame T.D. Allman for getting the facts in proper order.

Florida was never purchased. It was not ceded by Spain. Florida was conquered by repeat covert military actions on tenuous premises. Florida was home to interracial towns which were repeatedly cleared for white settlement. Massacres were common and frequent. Free blacks were enslaved on the pretext that their ancestors had been slaves. Florida is America's spoil of a long and bloody war based on race and profit. The fight for Florida was a fight to expand slavery. A mixed community could not be tolerated as a border to the slaveholding south.

"Starting when he was still Billy Powell, Osceola drew his wives and friends from all racial groups. People of Indian, black—and white—descent fought under his command in every battle. They kept fighting even when betraying the blacks among them would have saved them much suffering and, in many cases, saved their lives. Osceola’s brutal mistreatment, as Congressman Giddings put it, demonstrated “the intimate relation which this war bore to slavery.” General Jesup was even more blunt about it. It was, he pointed out, a war to protect and expand slavery, “a Negro and not an Indian war.” Finding Florida, Page 186

T.D. Allman captures the essential problem of Florida. Billy Powell becomes Osceola. Our history, as it actually happens, is continually rewritten into a narrative that serves forces outside our borders. Without knowing who we really were we cannot understand who we are. Finding Florida is about the framework of political corruption that began our state and still rules it today. It is about the unending ability of people who have failed elsewhere to reinvent themselves, rise to the highest levels, and fail again. 

"When people are unwilling or unable to come to terms with reality, a politics based on unreality becomes necessary to sustain what the Florida scholar Eugene Lyon describes as the “utopia of
mutual hopes.” - Finding Florida, Page 454

"Only in Flori-duh!" is something a Floridian hears often. Failed by our schools, failed by our government, we are a people with a mutual hope that consistently eludes us. We want to be the state we know in our bones we can be. The problem is that too many of us want too many versions of that state. A thousand versions imagined in our own image consistently at war with each other, consistently in denial of our shared history. To the other 49 states we are inexplicable, bewildering and backwards. To ourselves, we are a scapegoat for national failures. Finding Florida proves we're both right.

15 March, 2013

Oh March, You Are Full Of Ides

In February I discussed the extensive run of DNF books I'd encountered. I'm afraid the trend continued. Any number of books were picked up and discarded for TSTL heroines or sexapalooza plot avoidances or sheer boredom. (Wait, that was just Five Golden Rings.)

My point remains. Secret society, secret matchmakers, secret crime fighters. Secrets upon secrets and not a drop of intrigue to be had. It's a dark time in my fiction TBR, and it's made for quiet times here.

I considered dropping in a music review or three. After all, David Bowie put out a new album. You probably heard. It's brilliant. You probably heard that too. I'm not sure I had much to add from a critical standpoint. (If Courtney Milan and David Bowie collaborate it is all over for me and my credibility.) I think I'll go on a non-fiction run. I've recently read a number of decent books that I can talk about without running off on side roads about These Kids and the Books They Read.

02 March, 2013

Review: Heaven With A Gun by Connie Brockway

*Somewhat disappointingly, this is not a tribute to the 1969 film.

The most I can come up with for Heaven With A Gun is that it was fine. Perfectly acceptable. That's sort of the review kiss of death, I know. This novella is neither compelling enough for me to remember the leads names nor offensive enough for me to have renamed them something like The D-Bag Duke. It's a western with a reporter and an outlaw. There. We're done. Wait, we're not? Ok, uhhhh...  I didn't love HWAG but I certainly liked it.

There's a pretty equal mix of charm and tedium in here. Saloon whores with hearts of gold. Hot headed youth. You know the deal.  The heroine's backstory isn't shown. It's strictly told. This is a shame because her history prior to the hero is the most engaging part of the book. I loved her meeting him, I loved her mind, I loved how she got her reputation. I tolerated her motivation and life choices. The hero starts strong too. I enjoyed his early mid life crisis, his cynicism and desire to shake the West off his shoes. Somehow putting them together diminished both of them. Our heroine falls for the hero because he's the hero and vice versa. Not in a bad way, just in a very conventional way that is perfectly... fine.

I suppose my hopes were high for this story. The Americana side of the genre hasn't knocked my socks off since Morsi. It's been a long dry spell for me and American historical. Plus, I love a good western. What's not to adore about European Colonialism using corrupt political motivations to clear indigenous populations? That is some prime drama there. Some of the early frontier towns were models of multiculturalism. (Much of what we learn in grade school is a heavily fictionalized account of how the West went white.)  Liking  HWAG fine just wasn't quite enough. I think Brockway could have made an interesting full length book out of the characters she created for the novella. The ending felt rushed, almost anticlimactic. Some of the early details begged for full length scenes.  If you're jonesing for a lightly comedic western you can do much, much worse than HWAG. I couldn't help wishing it had been just a bit better.