Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

(pb; 1980: first book in the Jason Bourne series)

Review:

A wounded man, rescued from the sea, discovers that he is more than he initially thought, and finds himself hunted by various agencies and people, not the least of whom is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka the Carlos the Jackal (who, by the way, is a real-life assassin).

This is classic Ludlum: Bourne, like most of Ludlum's protagonists, is well-developed, as are all of the characters in this novel. These personalities further convolute an already complex, international-in-scope plot, resulting in some memorably slick action sequences amidst detailed settings.

Bourne's initially-unwilling female companion, Marie St. Jacques, is a great foil to Bourne, and complements him in a romantic-but-not-annoyingly-so way.

Hairpin, often surprising, twists highlight this novel, making this a delight to read.

Followed by The Bourne Supremacy.



This novel has been filmed twice, first as a mini-series, later as a theatrical release.

The television mini-series version, bearing the name of its source novel, aired on American television on May 8, 1988.

Roger Young directed the mini-series, from a script by Carol Sobieski.

Richard Chamberlain played Jason Bourne. Jaclyn Smith played Marie St. Jacques. Anthony Quayle played Gen. François Villiers. Donald Moffat played David Abbott. Yorgo Voyagis played Carlos. Peter Vaughn played Fritz Koenig. Denholm Elliott played Dr. Geoffrey Washburn.



The theatrical film was released stateside on June 14, 2002.

Matt Damon played Jason Bourne. Franka Potente played Marie St. Jacques. Chris Cooper played Alexander Conklin. Clive Owen played The Professor. Brian Cox played Ward Abbott. Gabriel Mann played Danny Zorn. Walter Goggins played "Research Tech".

Doug Liman directed the film, from a script by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron (billed as William Blake Herron).

The Bourne Supremacy, by Robert Ludlum

(pb; 1986: second book in the Jason Bourne series)

Review:

Nine years have passed since the events of The Bourne Identity, and Bourne, now called David Webb (his real identity), is living in Maine, (somewhat) enjoying the sedate life of a college professor – he's still tormented by just-out-of-reach memories, memories that are violent, dark and rooted in Vietnam War-era Cambodia, but he's less volatile these days. A big reason for that is Marie St. Jacques, who became his wife shortly after the first novel, is with him and has borne him a six-month old son, Jamie.

Alex Conklin, Webb's former CIA-handler-turned-enemy, is back, also, this time as Webb's friend. Morris Panov, a blunt psychiatrist, is also is in Webb's life, helping Webb recover his memories – and his sense of well-being.

Much of that is shattered when a Kowloon massacre is falsely linked to Webb/Bourne. It appears that there's an assassin on the loose, one using Bourne's moniker. Not only that, he's targeted Webb/Bourne's family, as well...

The action of The Bourne Supremacy doesn't kick in immediately; Ludlum uses the first few chapters to set up Webb/Bourne's (relative) peace of mind before blowing it to bits. The story, then, kicks into high gear, with Webb/Bourne going back into the jungle, literal and otherwise, and battling corrupted (or misguided) political powers-that-be, brutal killers, as well as his own past.

Ludlum saddles Webb/Bourne with a dual personality, and it sometimes reads awkwardly. The Webb aspect of Webb/Bourne is shaken at the thought of returning to the violent life, worrying himself sick about Marie and Jamie. The Bourne aspect is ruthless and calculating, constantly telling the Webb aspect to shut up so he, Bourne, can do what he needs to do to win this death game. Despite the occasional awkwardness, this makes Webb/Bourne read like a real person, if a wildly conflicted one.

The action, of course, is slick-cinematic and exciting. The twists are still fresh and believable.

And the ending, with its many unanswered questions, is satisfying, while providing enough material for the next two Bourne novels, the first of which is The Bourne Ultimatum.



The Bourne Supremacy hit stateside movie screens on July 23, 2004.

Matt Damon reprised his role of Jason Bourne. Franka Potente reprised her role of Marie St. Jacques. Brian Cox reprised his role of Ward Abbott. Julia Stiles reprised her role of Nicolette "Nicky" Parsons. Gabriel Mann reprised his role of Danny Zorn.

Joan Allen played Pamela Landy. Karl Urban played Kirill. Michelle Monaghan played Kim. Tom Gallop played Tom Cronin.

Paul Greengrass directed the film, from a script by Tony Gilroy.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Valdez Is Coming, by Elmore Leonard

(pb; 1970)

From the back cover:

“They laughed at Roberto Valdez and then ignored him. But when a dark-skinned man was holed up in a shack with a gun, they sent the part-time constable to deal with the problem – and made sure he had no choice but to gun the fugitive down. Trouble was, Valdez killed an innocent man. And when he asked for justice – and some money for the dead man’s woman – they beat Valdez and tied him to a cross. They were still laughing when Valdez came back. And then they began to die...”

Review:

Straightforward Western from Leonard, whose mix of action and dialogue reads in a choppy fashion; this is uncharacteristic of Leonard’s work, whose writing generally has a natural “flow.” That’s not to say that Valdez is mortally flawed – that choppiness actually works, when one considers that the story deals largely with Mexicans whose primary language is Spanish, not English.

Good book, this, possessing less brutality than one would expect (given the back cover blurb). This is not one of Leonard’s best works.

#

Valdez Is Coming was released stateside as a film on April 9, 1971.

Burt Lancaster played Valdez. Susan Clark played Gay Erin. Jon Cypher played Frank Tanner. Richard Jordan played R.L. Davis. Hector Elizondo had a bit part as a “Mexican rider.”

Edwin Sherin directed, from a script by Roland Kibbee and David Rayfiel.

The Two Minute Rule, by Robert Crais

(hb; 2006)

From the inside flap:

“Ask anyone on the wrong side of the law about the two-minute rule and they’ll tell you that’s as long as you can hope for at a robbery before the cops show up. Break the two-minute rule and it’s a lifetime in jail. But not everyone plays by the rules...

“When ex-con Max Holman finally gets out of jail, freedom doesn’t taste too sweet. The only thing on his mind is reconciliation with his estranged son, who is, ironically, a cop. But then he hears the devastating news : His son and three other uniformed cops were gunned down in cold blood in Los Angeles the night before Holman’s release. When the hit is exposed as a revenge killing and the question of police corruption is raised, it becomes a father’s last duty to clear hi son’s name and catch the killer...”

Review:

Plotwise, this is your average “ex-con gets revenge” story. Crais doesn’t stray much, if at all, from that twist-filled formula, but his writing, as usual, is excellent, elevating this above most genre works like this. Crais does this largely by tying the plot closely to Holman’s emotions regarding his past and his murdered son, and having the action and chase sequences stem from those points; Crais also raises the literary bar by maintaining that fast-moving, light touch that writers of his exceptional ilk possess.

Solid story, action-packed delivery. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Night of Power, by Spider Robinson

(pb; 1985)

From the back cover:

“The place: a future New York City torn by racial tension and ripe for rebellion. In this frighteningly prophetic novel Spider Robinson – a multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner – postulates a near future in which black Americans at long last demand what is theirs... and have the power to take it. Their weapons are high technology and careful planning; their soldiers well trained and sworn to secrecy. And their plans are unsuspected... until the Night of Power.

“Caught in the middle of the insurrection are Russell and Dena Grant and their daughter Jennifer; a 13-year old whose genius-level I.Q. saves her life more than once after insurrection breaks out. As an interracial couple, the Grants are scorned by both blacks and whites. They face the problems every couple does – but the Night of Power becomes the ultimate test, of their loyalty to each other and to their separate races.”

Review:

Warning – possible spoilers in this review.

In the early part of the last decade of the twentieth century, the Grants – Dena and Russell, and their teenage daughter, Jennifer – abandon Canada for New York City. Dena, a popular ballet dancer, has a show to do, one that will bring them to the not-so-United States for six weeks.

It’s bad timing on their part. They arrive shortly before the Night of Power, a Muslim holiday, which has been radicalized and made more violent by Michael and his well-organized army of followers – an underground army that’s been growing for a quarter of a century.

Robinson has constructed an engaging, provocative social novel that is exciting and thoughtful, all the while focusing on the characters: primarily the Grants and Jose (Jennifer’s bodyguard), and their relationships with each other (as well as Michael and others). Robinson’s alternate-future New York is not far removed from our own, in terms of politics, history and attitude, making this an intriguing, if unsettling novel.

Readers seeking a light-hearted read might want to skip this one. The harsh, race-centric truths are made palatable by the love and hope that shines through the actions of the central characters. Even Michael, revolutionary and leader of the proposed country, Equity – formerly known as Pennsylvania and New York – is personable, intelligent and kind.

Incredible social novel, one that reminds this reader why he started reading sci-fi in the first place: to be challenged and entertained at the same time. Night of Power succeeds on this count, and then some.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Cater Street Hangman, by Anne Perry

(pb; 1979: first book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the back cover:

“While the Ellison girls were out paying calls and drinking tea like proper Victorian ladies, a maid in their own household was strangled to death. Quiet, young, Inspector Pitt found no one above suspicion – and his investigation at the staid Ellison home caused many a composed facade to crumble into far-from-elegant panic.

“But it was not panic beating in the heart of pretty Charlotte Ellison. And something, more than brutal murder was on Inspector Pitt’s mind. Yet such a romance between a society girl and so unsuitable a suitor was impossible in the midst of a murder...”

Review:

London, 1881. A madman is garrotting young women on Cater Street, and the police don’t have any clues as to who the killer is. And everyone, including the upper class Ellison family, are scared.

Perry charts well the mounting unease and terror within the Ellison family, particularly the sisters – opinionated Charlotte, homemaker Sarah, and clever Emily – as the killer claims more victims, a number of them linked to the Ellison house. Perry also charts well the slow-simmering attraction between Charlotte and Inspector Pitt, and the consternation this causes with her family, even as family secrets are unearthed, adding to the paranoia and terror.

Crisply and efficaciously written, this excellent – I’d venture to say “perfect” – mystery is a sly take on Victorian manners and human nature, and easily one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a long time. I guessed – note that I said “guessed,” not “figured out” – who the killer was, but I was lucky, for it could’ve been any number of characters in this exciting and well-rendered murder mystery.

Followed by Callander Square.

Shock Rock edited by Jeff Gelb

(pb; 1992: horror anthology)


Overall review:

Excellent short story anthology melding rock and horror, from the co-editor of the Flesh & Blood (noir) series. Alice Cooper’s "Foreword" is one of the best I’ve read in a long time: erudite and warm.


Review, story by story:

You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” – Stephen King: A road-tripping husband and wife find themselves in small-town hell after taking a “shortcut” through Oregon. Solid, almost-classic King tale that runs a little long.


Bob Dylan, Troy Jonson & the Speed Queen” – F. Paul Wilson: Jonson, a musician who can’t write his own music, time-travels back to 1964 to steal famous rock songs from their author-musicians before they write them. Complications, time line- and otherwise related ensue. Good tale, with a Twilight Zone-worthy end-twist.


Odeed” – David J. Schow: Gasm, a hard rock band, plays longer than they’re supposed to (contractually-speaking). Will this destroy the band's career, or will it increase their already-incredible popularity? Schow’s prose is electric, exhilarating. This tale has an immediacy that grips the reader and doesn’t let go.


Vargr Rule” – Nancy A. Collins: Well-written story about Varley, a charming slut, whose search for a one-night stand goes horribly (and fittingly) wrong.


Blood Suede Shoes” – Ronald Kelly: Ruby, a plain-Jane bobby-soxer, catches a ride with Rockabilly Reb, a famous rock star. But Reb’s more than he seems to be, Ruby discovers... Solid tale, one that makes clever use of rock history.


The Dead Beat Society” – Don D’ammassa: This reads like a late 80's heavy metal horror flick – fun, dumb and pot-friendly. Decent tale, though D’ammassa could’ve improved it by explaining how Mark Walton, a dead music geek, becomes a video/music ghost. D’ammassa eschews logic for atmosphere (which is serviceable, if perfunctory).


Voodoo Child” – Graham Masterton: When Jimi Hendrix, dead for fifteen-plus years, reappears to his friend Charlie, Charlie sets out to discover why Jimi is so determined to return to his death site. Highly original, sad work – and one of the best entries in this anthology.


Rites of Spring” – Paul Dale Anderson: Attendees at a Rites of Spring concert act accordingly, though more wildly than they expected. Good tale, up until the meant-to-be-symbolic-but-lame finish.


Dedicated To The One I Loathe” – Michael Garrett: Quirky morbid-funny tale about two cops investigating some backwood murders, somehow linked to an oldies radio station. Good read, worth a chuckle.


Requiem” – Brian Hodge: An aspiring folk singer and a club concert promoter check out the airplane crash site that killed the members of the 80's prog-rock band Grendel. An excellent morality tale about greed, bootleg recordings and earnest desire. One of the best entries in this collection.


Heavy Metal” – R. Patrick Gates: Laugh-out-loud funny homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Gates recreates, with hilarious accuracy, the hysterical tone-language and structure of Poe's famous tale. The ending’s not unexpected, but it works.


Bunky” – Rex Miller: I have no idea what this story’s about. The hip-hyperactive slang of the narrator alienated me instantly.


The Black ‘59” – Bill Mumy and Peter David: A guitar, possessed by the spirit of a dead malevolent rock star, finds new victims. Good story until the dumb finish.


Groupies” – Richard Christian Matheson: By far one of the most sexual and disturbing works in the anthology. Memorable, sporting an innovative deconstructionist structure (in the first half) and a nasty end-twist, this tale stands out from the other entries in this collection.


Reunion” – Michael Newton: So-so story about a reunion tour of a Grateful Dead-like band. It’s too illogical to be effective, with no set-up for its Psycho-like twist.


Bootleg” – Mark Verheiden:
Videodrome
meets Ghost World with a supernatural heavy metal element. Suitably bizarre and compelling, with a finish that doesn’t quite work.


Weird Gig” – Ray Garton: A washed-up 70's band gets hired to play a financially-lucrative but otherwise troubling concert. Predictable but entertaining.


Hide in Plain Sight” – John L. Byrne: A cocky club rock singer is seduced by a woman who may or may not be a werewolf. Sexually explicit, trashy fun with a clever end-twist.


Addicted to Love” – Thomas Tessier: Enjoyable story about a lonely music snob who attempts to win the favor of a woman with great gams and execrable music taste. Sly, memorable conclusion.


Flaming Telepaths” – John Shirley: A strange psychic war erupts between a televangelical group and a mysterious rock singer in a concert bar. Another solid entry, highlighted by Shirley’s intelligent, blunt humor.

The Night Listener, by Armistead Maupin

(hb; 2000)

From the back cover:

“... Gabriel Noone, a writer whose late-night radio stories have brought him into the homes of millions. Noone is in the midst of a painful separation from his longtime lover when a publisher sends him proofs of a remarkable book: the memoir of an ailing thirteen-year-old boy who suffered horrific abuse at the hands of his parents.

“Now living with his adoptive mother, Pete Lomax is not only a brave and gifted diarist but also a devoted listener to Noone’s show. When Noone phones the boy to offer encouragement, it soon becomes clear that Pete sees in this heartsick middle-aged storyteller the loving father he has always wanted. Thus begins an extraordinary friendship that only grows deeper as the boy’s health deteriorates, freeing Noone to unlock his innermost feelings.

“Then, out of the blue, troubling questions arise, exploding Noone’s comfortable assumptions and causing his ordered existence to spin wildly out of control. As he walks a vertiginous line between truth and illusion, he is finally forced to confront all his relationships – familial, romantic, and erotic.”

Review:

Emotionally complex, incisive work from the author of the Tales of the City series. (Side-note: one of the characters in The Night Listener is Anna, Noone’s twenty-something Asian assistant. Anna is the adopted daughter of DeDe Halcyon-Day and D’or Wilson. DeDe and D’or were major characters in early Tales books.)

In The Night Listener, Maupin’s writing spans all moods: amusing, touching, laugh-out-loud funny, angry, sexual, melancholy – mostly melancholy, though, as Noone is mourning what seems to be the demise of a ten-year relationship with Jess, whose restless ways have driven him to move out. Whether or not that move is permanent, Noone and Jess don’t know. All they know is that they’re hurting (Jess shows this through his actions; we never “get inside” his head.)

As if Noone doesn’t have enough bulls**t to deal with, new issues are becoming apparent with his father, an outspoken man who’s more comfortable with jokes and talking about the Navy and geography than he is with emotional truths – even when they’re staring him right in the face.

Noone’s most prominent relationship is with Pete, who may or may not be a real person. About halfway through, The Night Listener becomes a thriller/mystery. Who is Pete Lomax, if he’s real? Is he really a split personality of Donna, his adoptive mother? Or is it the other way around? And if either situation is true, how dangerous are they?

Despite the slight genre shift midway through, Maupin maintains the warm feel of the novel's first half. The ending might disappoint anyone looking for a an action-oriented finish, but for those readers who appreciate a graceful, emotionally solid ending, this is stunning.

The Night Listener is scheduled for an August 4, 2006 stateside release.

Robin Williams plays Noone. Sandra Oh plays Anna. Rory Culkin plays Pete. Toni Collette plays Donna. Joe Morton plays Ashe. Bobby Cannavale plays Jess.

Patrick Stettner directed, from a script by co-authored by himself, Armistead Maupin and Terry Anderson.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Ask The Dust, by John Fante

(pb; 1939)


Review:

An impulsive, profligate, impoverished twenty-year old writer (Arturo Bandini) falls for a waitress (Camilla Lopez) in a local L.A. diner, and embarks on a stormy love-hate affair with her. Camilla’s crazy, in love with a bartender named Sammy, and is a major pothead (or “hophead,” as Arturo calls her).

The Depression Era story is told from the first-person perspective of Arturo, whose stream-of-consciousness writing is initially charming, with semi-quirky details fleshing out the flow. About the middle of the 165-page novel, the charm wears thin (Arturo is often foolish), but the immediacy of the writing never flags. Arturo, like Camilla, is an aimless soul in a big world.

Other lost souls populate Ask The Dust, as well: Sammy, the object of Camilla’s affection, abandons bartending for writing in the desert; Mr. Hellfrick, Arturo’s neighbor, has a fondness for gin and meat that compels him to commit a strange murder; Vera Rivken, a scarred lonely madwoman briefly finds succor in Arturo’s company.

Despair and uncertainty dominates Arturo’s story (largely because of his poverty and inexperience), but there’s joy, too. Arturo is a roller-coaster of emotions ranging from wild highs to hateful lows, much of it aimed at Camilla who, initially, seems smarter than him.

This is a good read, if you can get past Arturo’s crazy-quilt behavior. Arturo’s not always likeable, but he’s always lively, like the other characters seen here.

#

Ask The Dust, the film, was released stateside on March 17, 2006. Colin Farrell played Arturo Bandini. Salma Hayek played Camilla Lopez. Donald Sutherland played Mr. Hellfrick. Idina Menzel played Vera Rivken.

The film was written and directed by Robert Towne.

Parasite Eve, by Hideaki Sena

(1995, 2005: translated by Tyran Grillo)

From the inside flap:

“Filled with scientific acuity and existential challenges in the tradition of Ghost In The Shell and Frankenstein, this medical fantasmagoria is a disorienting look into consciousness and will have you questioning the future of human evolution. New life begins at the cellular level, but when that cell contains restless mitochondria, it will aspire to be much more than just a speck in a petri dish. Parasite Eve was the basis of the hugely popular video game of the same name and has been cinematized in Japan, where the novel’s smashing success helped set off a horror boom that has only been intensifying since.

“When Dr. Nagashima loses his wife in a mysterious car crash, he is overwhelmed with grief but also an eerie sense of purpose; he becomes obsessed with the idea that he must reincarnate his dead wife. Her donated kidney is transplanted into a young girl with a debilitating disorder, but the doctor also feels compelled to keep a small sample of her liver in his laboratory. When these cells start mutating rapidly, a consciousness bent on determining its own fate awakes from eonic sleep.”


Review:

Fans of Dean Koontz and Koji Suzuki should check this out. Parasite Eve, which mixes elements of “hard” (fact-heavy) science fiction, emotional anguish and horrific goopiness, is an addictive read.

Sena’s medical background is evident in the crisp, restrained prose that makes up the first two-thirds of the novel, as well as the detailed medical explanations that occasionally sidetrack the plot. Still, Sena manages to keep the reader emotionally involved with conflicted, mostly well-meaning, characters who just can’t seem to get their lives back in order. The final third is an orgy of Lovecraftian splatter, an over-the-top release from the bursting-at-the-seams tension of the first two-thirds.

Another welcome, genre-true (as in effective and envelope-pushing) entry for bookstore horror shelves, this. Well worth your time.

A made-for-television film, based on the novel, was broadcast in Japan in 1997.

Hiroshi Mikami played Toshiaki Nagashima. Riona Hazuki played Kiyomi Nagashima. Tomoko Nakajima played Sawaka Asakura. Ayako Omura played Mariko Anzai.

Masayuki Ochiai directed, from a script by Ryôichi Kimizuka.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Screwjack, by Hunter S. Thompson

(hb; 1991, 2000: story anthology)

From the inside flap:

“... [Thompson’s] Screwjack is as salacious, unsettling, and brutally lyrical as it has been rumored to be since the private printing in 1991 of three hundred fine collectors’ copies and twenty-six leather-bound presentation copies. Only the first of the three pieces included here – ‘Mescalito,’ published in Thompson’s 1990 collection Songs of the Doomed – has been available to the public, making the trade edition of Screwjack a major publishing event.

“ ‘We live in a jungle of impending disasters,’ Thompson warns in ‘Mescalito,’ a chronicle of his first mescaline experience and what it sparked in him while he was alone in an L.A. hotel room in February 1969 – including a bout of paranoia that would have made most people just scream no, once and for all. But for Thompson, along with the downside came a burst of creativity too powerful to ignore. The result is a poetic, perceptive, and wildly funny stream-of-consciousness take on 1969 America as only Hunter S. Thompson could see it.

Screwjack just gets weirder with its second offering, ‘Death of a Poet.’ As Thompson describes the trailer-park confrontation with the dark side of a deservedly doomed friend: ‘Whoops, I thought. Welcome to the night train.’

“The heart of the collection lies in its final, title piece, an unnaturally poignant love story. What makes the romantic tale ‘Screwjack’ so touching, for all its queerness, is the aching melancholy in its depiction of the modern man’s burden: that ‘we are doomed. Mama has gone off to Real Estate School... and after that maybe even to Law School. We will never see her again.’

“... As Thompson puts it in his introduction, the three stories here ‘build like Bolero to a faster and wilder climax that will drag the reader relentlessly up a hill, & then drop him off a cliff... That is the Desired Effect.’”

Overall review:

One of the best – and one of the shortest (Screwjack spans 59 pages) – story anthologies I’ve read in a long time.

Review, story by story:

Mescalito” – Thompson’s familiar blend of anarchic politics, humor and paranoia. Fans of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas should love this.

Death of a Poet” – Bleakly funny tale about a trailer park crazy man. Chilling, though not surprising, ending. Unforgettable work.

Screwjack” – Tender, non-explicit tale about a wild cat lover who takes that love too far. Yes, folks, bestiality. It’s troubling, but it’s also beautiful, in a pure and perverse way, distinctly Thompsonean. Another unforgettable – and admirably ballsy – piece.

Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper

(pb; 1962: first book in the Fuzzy Sapiens series)

From the back cover:

“Zarathustra was a Class-III uninhabited planet, and the chartered Zarathustra Company owned it lock, stock and barrel. They developed it, exploited it and reaped huge profits without any interference from the Colonial Government.

“But then, out of nowhere, came Jack Holloway – with a family of Fuzzies and a great deal of evidence that they were more than just cute little animals.

“If the Fuzzies were a race of intelligent beings, than Zarathustra would automatically become a Class-IV inhabited planet, and the Company’s charter and privileges would be over.

“The chartered Zarathustra Company wasn’t going to allow that to happen...”

Review:

Description of the Fuzzies, taken from the third Fuzzy book, Fuzzies and Other People: “erect bipeds, two feet tall... their bodies were covered with silky golden fur. They had five-fingered hands with opposable thumbs, large eyes set close enough together for stereoscopic vision, and vaguely humanoid features.”

Part science-fiction nature book, part courtroom drama, author Piper keeps the tone of this book gentle, except when the bad guys (employees of the Zarathustra company) are doing bad things. Even then it’s PG- rated, alarming in a Bambi’s-mom-got-shot kind of way.

Piper manages to keep it interesting and complex, despite the relative gentleness of the story; he also manages to avoid become too cutesy, which is easy to do when dealing with creatures as adorable as Fuzzies.

This is a good read for science fiction and animal lovers, if they can deal with a couple of heartbreaking scenes. The ending naturally lends itself to a sequel, Fuzzy Sapiens.

Fuzzy Sapiens, by H. Beam Piper

(pb; 1964: second book in the Fuzzy Sapiens series)

From the back cover:

“The Pendarvis Decision had declared the Fuzzies to be intelligent beings – guaranteeing them protection and security. But just how much were those assurances worth?

“The Fuzzies were about to find out... Someone was going to make big profits by exploiting them, and there wasn’t much that could prevent the Fuzzies from becoming just another extinct species on Mankind’s conscience...”

Review:

A week has passed since Judge Pendarvis adjudged the Fuzzies (who actually call themselves “Gashta”) to be sapiens. Now, a plethora of new dangers has arisen, ones that their human friends have to deal with.

First, there’s the question of a limited food supply – the Extee Three (military rations) that the Fuzzies eat is running out. Not only that, but new questions about the Fuzzies’s birth mortality rates have come into play – why are their successful birth rates so low?

Last, and certainly not least, there’s Hugo Ingermann, a corrupt criminal lawyer who’s agitating the masses for profit – and political position. (Given author Piper’s descriptions of Ingermann, one wonders if Piper didn’t model Ingermann after the character Willie Stark, played by Broderick Crawford, in the 1949 film, All the King’s Men.)

The Zarathustra Company, now the Charterless Zarathustra Company, and its employees are no longer the bad guys. They’ve joined the rank of “Fuzzy lovers,” and are fighting to help them, too.

Just as enchanting and ecology-minded as the first novel, Fuzzy Sapiens is a worthy sequel.

Followed by Fuzzies and Other People.

Fuzzies and Other People, by H. Beam Piper

(pb; 1984: third book in the Fuzzy Sapiens series)

From the back cover:

“... Following Piper’s tragic suicide in 1964, there were persistent rumors that he had written a sequel to Fuzzy Sapiens, a third Fuzzy novel; some of his friends had been told about it, a few had even read parts of it. But the manuscript itself remained lost until it was discovered in a trunk in a basement in Pennsylvania.

“Now, at last, return to Piper’s Zarathustra. It’s been twenty years for us – but only three months since Jack Holloway found and befriended a small golden-furred being... three short months that have changed both their lives...”

Review:

Piper dropped the ball on this one. The second sequel in the Fuzzy series feels like a half-hearted thematic and structural retread. The issues aren’t as vital – they’re more legal technicalities than anything – and it doesn’t get good until the last third, when Little Fuzzy returns to the wilderness, where he may or may not link up with a band of other Fuzzies (briefly seen in Fuzzy Sapiens) to save the day for other characters, and themselves.

The wilderness parts with Little Fuzzy are good. The rest of it’s okay, but I’d only recommend it for completist readers or diehard Fuzzy fans.

Two other Fuzzy books have been published, neither of them written by Piper. I won't be reading them (I'm "Fuzzied out"). If you're interested in reading them, the titles are: Fuzzy Bones, by William Tuning, and Golden Dream: A Fuzzy Odyssey, by Ardath Mayhar.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, by Robert Baer

(hb; 2003: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

“In his explosive New York Times bestseller, See No Evil, former CIA operative Robert Baer exposed how Washington politics drastically compromised the CIA’s efforts to fight global terrorism. Now in his powerful new book, Sleeping with the Devil, Baer turns his attention to Saudi Arabia, revealing how our government’s cynical relationship with our Middle Eastern ally and America’s dependence on Saudi oil makes us increasingly vulnerable to economic disaster and put us at risk for further acts of terrorism.

“For decades, the United States and Saudi Arabia have been locked in a ‘harmony of interests.’ America counted on the Saudis for cheap oil, political stability in the Middle East, and lucrative business relationships for the United States, while providing a voracious market for the kingdom’s vast oil reserves. With money and oil flowing freely between Washington and Riyadh, the United States has felt secure in its relationship with the Saudis and the ruling Al Sa’ud family. But the rot at the core of our ‘friendship’ with the Saudis was dramatically revealed when it became apparent that fifteen of the nineteen September 11 hijackers proved to be Saudi citizens.

“In Sleeping with the Devil, Baer documents with chilling clarity how our addiction to cheap oil and Saudi petrodollars caused us to turn a blind eye to the Al Sa’ud’s culture of bribery, its abysmal human rights record, and its financial support of fundamentalist Islamic groups that have been directly linked to international acts of terror, including those against the United States. Drawing on his experience as a field operative who was on the ground in the Middle East for much of his twenty years with the agency, as well as the large network of sources he has cultivated in the region and in the U.S. intelligence community, Baer vividly portrays our decades-old relationship with the increasingly dysfunctional and corrupt Al Sa’ud family, the fierce anti-Western sentiment that is sweeping the kingdom, and the desperate link between the two. In hopes of saving its own neck, the royal family has been shoveling money as fast as it can to mosque schools that preach hatred of America and to militant fundamentalist groups – an end game just waiting to play out.

“Baer not only reveals the outrageous excesses of a Saudi royal family completely out of touch with the people of its kingdom, he also takes readers on a highly personal search for the deeper roots of modern terrorism, a journey that returns time again and again to Saudi Arabia: to the Wahhabis, the powerful Islamic sect that rules the Saudi street; to the Taliban and al Qaeda, both of which Saudi Arabia helped to underwrite; and to the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most active and effective terrorist groups in existence, which the Al Sa’ud have sheltered and funded. The money and the arms that we send to Saudi Arabia are, in effect, being used to cut our own throat, Baer writes, but America might only have itself to blame. So long as we continue to encourage the highly volatile Saudi state to bank our oil under its sand – and so long as we continue to grab at the Al Sa’ud’s money – we are laying the groundwork for a potential global economic catastrophe.”

Review:

Ex-CIA agent Robert Bauer charts the political, international and financial events and personalities that led up to the current state of things regarding 9/11, Saudi Arabia, our oil addiction and the world in general. In a detailed but easy to follow manner he talks about how, in the course of his twenty-year career in the CIA, he saw and heard things that, much to his later chagrin, culminated in the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the United State’s corrupt and continual practice of propping up Saudia Arabia, a country of religious and financial excesses that’s living on borrowed time by supporting fundamentalist terrorists who just may kill them (the Al Sa'ud family) and us.

Ironies and absurdities, many of them disturbing and globally dangerous, abound in this centuries-spanning, real-life drama of errors, missed chances, greed and other dark (or misguided) motives.

Despite the potentially alarmist tone of Bauer’s book, it’s logical, exciting as any summer blockbuster novel, and necessary. Every American who cares about his (or her) country should read this; this is one of the best and important non-fiction books to come out in years.

Read it. Even if you disagree with it, it'll make you think.