Monday, April 7, 2014

The Birth of a Hero: Isabel Allende's Zorro

Sadly, unavailable on Kindle.
It is a testament to the strength of fictional characters when we seek to learn what they were like as children. In Isabel Allende's Zorro, the movie-serial icon of the 40s, TV icon of the 50s, and big-screen icon of five decades since, is revealed as he develops the traits that made him attractive to generations.

To me, who lived for two decades in the LA area, the Zorro legend has a particular appeal. Place-names and real historical figures mingle in these legends with fictional heroes and villains. The Robin Hood quality of Zorro made him particularly endearing to me as a child; long before I knew of La Cienaga and the Cajuenga Pass, I felt the satisfaction of seeing justice dispensed at the end of a blade by Don Diego de la Vega's alter ega, Zorro. In my childhood, Zorro and Guy Williams were inseparable. Even the brilliant performances by George Hamilton (Zorro, the Gay Blade) and Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro) in the role could not quite disabuse me of this. "They are actors," a younger me whispers. "You know the real Zorro is Guy Williams."

It took a book, this book, to finally replace my mental image of the Spanish hero in the Alta California. For the first time, I see the growth of Zorro in the childhood training of young Diego. I learn why his brother Bernardo (relegated to the role of sidekick in so many Hollywood renditions) is important to de la Vega's yearning for justice and his protective stance toward California's Indians. I meet and understand his childhood nemesis, Rafael Moncada, and learn why their contention has the power to endure into their adulthood.

For the first time, I understand why the bumbling of the doltish Garcia so often turned the tide in Zorro's favor. I see the long history that allows the Franciscan priest to extend the sanctuary of the mission to a thief's desire for escape. Even the map of Zorro's domain is made explicit.

Rich in detail and ambitious in scope, Allende's Zorro introduces us to the "real" person behind the legend. We follow the development of the two boys Diego and Bernardo, as they seek to define for themselves the sources of honor and courage, learning from Diego's fierce mother and Indian grandmother. We discover the love of mischief that underlies Zorro's later crusade against the oppressive governors of Alta California. Then we follow the two young men to Spain, where they learn new modes of "magic" and a new respect for justice in the house of the wealthy Tomás de Romeu. 

Like any biography, some of its power comes from the presumed knowledge of the writer—and Allende herself speaks as a character in Diego's life, Isabel de Romeu, in the latter half of this tale. The character of Isabel is a perfect foil to the adolescent Diego: intelligent, capable, and endowed with the same sense of mischief and desire to protect the weak. (In fact, I got the impression that Allende was drawn to write this fictional biography so that she could enter the story of a childhood hero. Such is the power of her writing that the suspicion soon fades, and we accept Isabel de Romeu as if she had long been part of the Zorro mythos.)

Perhaps because the action is sumptuously detailed and partakes of those Thursday evening thrillers that glued us to the TV (pirates and grizzly bears supplement the usual fencing and whip-cracking), I found it reminiscent of the "original" Zorro tales I loved as a child. It was easy to drop back into that cliff-hanger terror. Will Zorro be discovered? Will the Alcalde's men catch him?

Will Allende write a sequel? 

Zorro is top-notch, both as action fiction, and as an homage to the original. Allende has delivered—now, where's the popcorn?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Popcorn, Potato Chips and John Heldt Time Travel Novels

What do they all have in common, popcorn, potato chips and John Heldt time-travel novels? To quote an old friend, "they're ever so 'more-ish'." As soon as you finish one, you want more.

The trio of novels in the Northwest Passage series share this light feel and "more-ish" savor.

A Montana mine is a portal to 1941.
The Mine kicks it off with a silly time travel gimmick: Young man stumbles into a mine in 2000, touches a glowing wall of rock, and is instantly transported to 1941. It's a ridiculous start to a very good story, with likeable characters and an intimate feel for history.

Joel Smith takes very little time to accommodate to his arrival in 1941 Montana, hopping a freight train for home (Seattle) and getting involved with several remarkable university students. (One of them is his grandmother.) The story then revolves around his status as a time traveler, with sports trivia knowledge that helps him accumulate gambling winnings, and darker knowledge of the coming world war - and he must choose whether he will share it or not.

Even more compelling: when he figures out that the passage back to 2000 might reopen, he must decide whether to return, abandoning the new life he has built in 1941, his new friends, and his love, Grace.

I almost didn't buy this book, but once I began reading it, I was glad I had. In fact, I immediately went online and purchased the next in the Northwest Passage series, The Show.

Another time portal in a Seattle theater.
In the next book of the series, The Show (labeled on Amazon as Northwest Passage 3), I learn how Grace managed to stay with Joel and travel from 1941 to 2000. Grace also must cope with her own diversion in time, when the now-mother of twins and happy wife of Joel Smith walks into the restroom of a newly-rebuilt theater in 2002 and emerges - alone - in 1918 Seattle.

For Grace, the need to return to 2002 is urgent. She knows the theater in which the time portal rests will be completely destroyed by fire in a few short months. If she cannot find the combination that triggers the portal before then, she'll be stuck in 1918. 

I also found fascinating the woman's different handling of her bleak knowledge of the future. Unlike her husband when he traveled to the past, Grace finds reason to inform those she knows will suffer in the coming months.

And it appears that there are time portals all over the northwest, hence the third in the series, The Journey, which involves a portal in a mansion in Oregon.

New travelers find an Oregon portal.
The final book in the trilogy, The Journey provides a passage from 2010 Oregon to a second chance at love and fulfillment in 1979 for a wealthy widow. This book is labeled Northwest Passage 2, even though in every way except publishing date, it is clearly the third in the series. 

The main difference between the first two novels and the third is that the 48-year-old widow Michelle Preston Richardson has the opportunity to nurture and guide her teen-aged self and the friends from her own childhood, to make better choices than they originally did. Her mature perspective also opens Michelle to more possibilities for a richer life than wealth can provide.

The climax of the story, as with the other two, comes when she must choose how (or whether) to return. 

Each of the novels was enjoyable on its own, but The Mine and The Show really support each other with main characters in common, in a way that The Journey does not. Its main connection to the first two is the "Northwest Passage" of the time portal location. But read separately or as a trilogy, all three are very enjoyable, light reading.

The Corpse Reader Crosses Genres to Deliver

Inspired by Song Cí, the first CSI
I don't read many mysteries. As a genre, they usually don't have enough "draw" for me; I look for more than is offered in most run-of-the-mill who-dunnits. But The Corpse Reader, a novel about the dawn of forensic science in China, first written in Spanish (and then translated into Japanese and Dutch, among other languages) sounded like it would appeal on more than one level.

As I read it, I kept seeing parallels to other historical mysteries: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh, The Coffee Trader by David Liss, and an intense tale of the search for a Soviet-era serial killer that so far as I know is only available as a movie: Evilenko or Citizen X.

It seems to me that Garrido has merged religious ambience (as with Eco's novel), nascent forensic investigations (like both Eco's and Wambaugh's novels), a Byzantine bureaucracy (like Soviet Russia from the two movies), and a clumsy, nearly unlikeable, disaster-ridden protagonist (as with Liss's coffee trader), to spin an engrossing, challenging story.

The author has put a lot of thought and research into The Corpse Reader, but it doesn't read that way. It is only when you dig into the end-papers of the novel, read the author's notes and his discussion of terms, that you realize that echoes from The Name of the Rose are no circumstance. While in the midst of Garrido's tale, however, you only feel the pull of the story. What will happen to young Ci Song? Will he survive his trials at the Tsong Emperor's court? Can he solve the mystery?

And that's the triumph of this fiction-from-fact, that who killed the corpses Ci reads becomes much less important than finding out how Ci will discover the truth. I'm glad I gave it a chance to impress me.

Friday, April 4, 2014

666 Park Avenue Trilogy: NOT the Script for Last Year's TV Series, But Worth Reading On Its Own


Last year's TV series 666 Park Avenue promised a lot: At 666 Park Avenue, all of your dreams and burning desires can come true: wealth, sex, love, power, even revenge. But just be careful what you wish for, because the price you pay...could be your soul. 

The series delivered a lot of thrilling suspense and supernatural mystery at the beginning, but gradually got harder and harder to follow. That's when I decided to follow up on the novels listed each week in the credits as the basis for the series.

The Eponymous Novel 1: Not Quite What I Expected

First in the trilogy is 666 Park Avenuethe series of three novels by Gabriella Pierce that supposedly provided the framework for the TV seriesI hoped the novels would help me catch up on the TV series. It didn't. In fact, they could not have helped me with the TV show, because they tell a whole other story!

Just to start, the building at that ominous address is not a condo/hotel, it is a private multi-generational mansion. And Jane's partner is named Malcolm, not Henry. The sinister mover behind the scenes at 665 Park Place is Lynne Doran, not Gavin Duran, and Malcolm is her son.

But put all the differences aside, and you can enjoy this creepy thriller for its own guilty pleasure. Jane is the beautiful innocent (clueless, in other words, and hence vulnerable) seduced by the exotic worldly dark man of every palm-reader's staple prediction. The story of how she finds her feet in the whirlwind and comes into her own power is a good one.

Overload Alert: For a guy's taste, there is an AWFUL lot of wedding fashion, kitsch and designer labels thrown into the mix. Just put on your filters, boys, and skim past it; I promise it isn't essential to the tale.

Novel 2: Glamour, Yes - Dark, No
The middle novel, The Dark Glamour, takes up the tale of Jane Boyle, witch in training, as she hides from her mother-in-law in New York City.

I almost said, she hides in plain sight, but actually her appearance is completely shifted by the "dark glamour" of the title. Thanks to a spell and a bottomless purse (courtesy of her out-of-sight husband Malcolm), innocent blond Jane gets to swank around New York and London as model-tall, model-glamorous Elle, a sultry brunette with a wicked sense of humor and a lot more confidence in her powers.

This shift is echoed by a much lighter story. Although the tension continues to build, Jane believes she has found a way to get her mother-in-law off her back and at the same time help a young woman with a 
history similar to her own find her family and claim her powers. In addition, Jane's friends supply a better foil for her shift from clueless victim to "good witch".

I forgive Pierce for the blatant telegraphing of the plot gimmick, since the story is otherwise well-told and fairly well balanced. (And because every good thriller deserves a cliff-hanger ending!)

Novel 3: The Finale (Maybe) to 666 Park Avenue
Now that I had read the first two books of this series, I wasn't expecting anything like the TV series 666 Park Avenue in this third novel of the trilogy.

But I was pleased to see the tale in The Lost Soul take up where The Dark Glamour left off, with Jane and her friends having helped Lynne Doran, Jane's sinister mother-in-law, locate her long-lost and presumed dead daughter, Annette.

The problem is, they haven't helped the daughter reconnect with a loving family at all. They've only served up the next victim in Lynne Doran's plot, the replacement for Jane herself. And now, being a "good witch", Jane will move heaven and earth to rescue her.

That's if she can convince Annette she needs rescuing.

This is a rousing climax to the trilogy, and ends with sufficient hooks for Pierce to take up the tale again later. Very satisfying as a single novel and as a series!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Confessions of an Engineer: I Read This Book

Sadly, unavailable on Kindle.
When you are a teenager, sometimes the world seems dark, unbearably centered around and focused on you. Martha Brooks returns us to those feelings of trauma and tragedy in True Confessions of a Heartless Girl.

This is a story ostensibly about 17-year-old Noreen and her attempts to find her place in the world. Awkward in the way every teenage girl is, Noreen tumbles from one disaster of her making to another. Profoundly clueless about her own heart because of a mildly-abused and semi-abandoned childhood, Noreen is unable to recognize love and caring when she does encounter it. When she drives into the tiny Manitoban town of Pembina Lake in her ex-boyfriend's stolen truck she is shattered, exhausted and possibly pregnant.

We see the town clearly, even though Noreen does not at first. Lynda, the struggling single mother who owns the town's failing cafe, takes Noreen under her wing. Dolores, grandmother to the entire town, who proudly wears a shirt that says MEDDLER FOR JESUS, feeds her mint tea and some hard advice. Del, who works endlessly on a cottage in which no one lives, offers her the cottage and a chance for redemption in return for a "full accounting". Mary, Dolores' life-long friend, suddenly grown snappish and hurtful; Seth, Lynda's 5-year-old son; even Tessie the dog, all have their own problems. Noreen perceives herself as the cause of all this trouble.

Yet gradually, as Noreen begins to mature under the guidance of so many helpful strangers, we learn that troubles come to all of us, that thirty-year-old heartaches are just as deep as those we feel at 17, and can seem just as unsolvable to those involved. Brooks brings us to the edge of that cold lake of frightened adolescence that still lives in each of us. "What if she says no and laughs?", "What if he doesn't love me after all?"

Then she tosses us in, and laughs at our affronted pride.

This is not a novel about a girl in trouble. It's a story about the ordinary, everyday troubles that we all have, and the way that sharing diminishes them. It's about love in all its manifold dimensions. And it's about the redemption that can come to any of us from making a true confession and rendering a full accounting.

I recommend it for readers of any age.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Flash Boys: Accessible and Thrilling Tale of Microseconds, Pennies and Billions in Skimmed Profits

Review: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

When you characterize a business practice as "flash", doesn't "in the pan" immediately follow in your mind? And would you want to have to apply that term to your investments?

In Flash Boys, Lewis has presented the up-to-date (final events occur in early 2014) tale of a skew gradually built into the U.S. stock markets following each market crisis. His premise? Over time, regulatory interventions have tilted Wall Street into practices that are certainly flash, and could even be legitimately labelled "scalping" or "skimming." Certainly not the investment environment we want, post bank-bailouts!

The story shows a compelling glimpse of these practices. They may not be illegal, but they tread very close to the primeter of insider trading, and add nothing but complexity and opacity to the markets.

Lewis does an excellent job of wrapping the different people who are involved - engineers, computer "technologists" and programmers, financial wizards and brokers, bank managers and salespeople - with recognizable faces and engaging (though not always pleasant) personalities. He also resists the temptation to neatly tie up all the loose threads at the "end." Instead he leaves us with a new puzzle and just enough clues to encourage us to take part in the next act of this financial play.

"Flash Boys" may be a misnomer, because most of the main characters are engaged in what might be called "anti-flash". Their enterprising answer to misconduct in the stock market, once it has been identified, is as brilliant as it is realistic. The pace is thrilling, and the financial jargon is made accessible (although doubtless the explanations are over-simplified - certainly the programming discussions are just deep enough to convey a sense of the complexity, but no deeper).

I devoured this book in a single pass, and will probably re-read it once my anger has cooled. If you have any investments in the stock market, anger upon learning how a few "elite insiders" have profited at your expense is a valid response. 

I would rather read it as an account of how a few insiders found a way back to an honest, open trade.

Liner Notes:

  • If Michael Lewis' name rings a bell, it may be because he is also the author of The Blind Side, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and Next: The Future Just Happened, among many others.
  • By itself, the description of the super-fast cable project is worth the time invested in reading the book. In my opinion, of course; my engineer's eye likes the superbly visual way Lewis lays it out.
  • Since this review was first posted, I have reread Flash Boys twice. It is still compelling.