Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ship of Fools Richard by Paul Russo

Winner of the 2001 Philip K. Dick award, this book tells the story of the Argonos, a starship that has travelled through the universe for centuries without a clear mission. After wandering through space for what seems like an eternity, the ship comes across a planet whose inhabitants have vanished, and then later a mysterious alien ship. This book is very well written, so I understand why some people have hailed this book. Speaking for myself only, however, I found this story to be a ho-hum effort that repeats themes that have been covered in countless other science fiction books. Though it is clear that Russo is a strong writer, the plot never captured my imagination, nor did I find the characters all that intriguing.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself by K. C. Constantine

This novel sent shivers through my body. With a very creepy ending -- and I mean creepy with a capital "C" -- I will remember this story for a long time to come.

The plot begins with the chance discovery of a skeleton that has been scattered around several farms. As Police Chief Mario Balzic investigates the case, we are drawn into a perverse world where lies run rampant. When the reader finally discovers what happened, the resulting emotions will be a tragic mixture of empathy, anger and disgust.

This book is the second installment of the Mario Balzic series, and is by no means the best. Unlike some of the later Balzic novels, some of which are simply brilliant, this book falters in the beginning. In fact, during the first-half of the story, the writing is surprisingly flat, which is quite disappointing given K.C. Constantine's amazing literary skills.

In the second-half, however, the writing improves a lot, and the plot soon reveals a haunting set of characters. By the end, fans of Constantine's work will recognize some of the common themes that permeate through the Balzic series, such as racism, women's struggle against misogyny, and the kind heart of Chief Balzic, who seems to be constantly clashing with the powers that be.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Dateline Vermont by Chris Graff

Vermont is famous for being the most liberal state in the United States. For decades, however, this rural New England state voted Republican. In fact, from 1854 to 1988, Vermont voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election, except for the 1964 landslide of Lyndon Johnson.

Curious to find out how this once solidly red state became blue, I recently picked up a copy of "Dateline Vermont", while visiting Montpelier, the state capital. As the former Vermont bureau chief for the Associated Press, Graff covered Vermont politics for more than 25 years. In this memoir, he describes such momentous events as the rise and fall of Howard Dean, the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party, and the rise of Bernie Sanders, the only democratic socialist in the United States Senate.

Though I enjoyed parts of the book, such as the the section on how the Vermont state legislature recognized same sex civil unions, I was disappointed overall. The main reason for this is that Graff's memoir failed to provide what I was looking for, namely, a good explanation of why Vermont turned its back on the Republican party. To be fair, this book does provide a thorough description of modern-day Vermont politics. What I did not find, however, was a strong analysis of why these events took place.

In short, this is an interesting read for serious students of Vermont politics. This being said, for those who don't live in New England -- which includes this Canadian -- this book is simply OK.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election by Chuck Todd

I was disappointed with this book. If you watch MSNBC, you know that Chuck Todd is one of the most insightful commentators on U.S. presidential elections. So I was really looking forward to reading this book, which bills itself as a comprehensive analysis of why Barack Obama won the 2008 election.

Unfortunately, this book does not offer any new insights, but rather rehashes what Todd has already said on TV. To be fair, political junkies will be pleased with the numerous statistics that slice and dice the U.S. electorate into countless pieces. For those who want greater context, however, this book is surprisingly weak on overall analysis, especially in the introduction, which is the weakest part of the book.

In short, I was expecting a lot more from Todd. To use an analogy, this work is like a book on World War II that contains pages and pages of statistics -- e.g. how many soldiers died; how many guns were used; how many tanks were built -- without providing a good explanation of why the war occurred in the first place. As such, I couldn't help but think that this book was simply a rushed job that was put together to cash in on the post-election window.

2 out of 5 stars

The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes by K.C. Constantine

K.C. Constantine is a master in portraying the life of blue collar America. In this fifth segment of the Mario Balzic detective series, Constantine paints a picture of small-city Pennsylvania that is both uplifting and tragic, humorous and infuriating.

More of a social analysis than a classic mystery novel, this book touches on such themes as domestic abuse, the withering away of Pennsylvania’s coal industry, and the petty politics that surround City Hall. Amidst this fascinating context is Constantine’s genius for writing dialogue, as well as his unflinching honesty. For the characters in this book are not one-dimensional people, but rather real human beings who possess a strong belief in hard work and family values, while also displaying a not-too-subtle racism and, for too many of the men, a dangerous acceptance of misogyny.

In short, this story is a real picture of blue collar life, with warts and all, that will leave the reader wondering why Constantine is not a much better known writer

3 out of 5 stars

Iraq's Sunni Insurgency by Ahmed S. Hashim

An excellent summary of the present-day Sunni insurgency in Iraq. In this brief study, Ahmed Hashim provides an insightful analysis of the different factions in the Sunni resistance (e.g. Ba'athist elements, Islamic fighters, nationalists, local tribes) , the Sunni-Shia split in Iraq, and the different objectives and tactics of the various Sunni factions. An excellent read for anyone who is interested in understanding what's happening in Iraq.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky

This memoir by acclaimed mystery writer Sara Paretsky left me with mixed feelings. Published in 2007, shortly after the Republicans lost Congress in the mid-term elections, this book contains a fascinating analysis of U.S. culture. In particular, I was captivated by Paretsky’s feminist analysis of the U.S. myth – some would say self-destructive myth – of rugged individualism. I was also fascinated by her description of the racism, anti-communist paranoia and hypocrisy of the United States in the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the last chapter of the book is a complete disaster. Like many literary train wrecks the concluding section is based on good intentions. Disturbed by the Bush Administration’s reaction to September 11th, and in particular the passing of the Patriot Act, Paretsky writes a passionate defence of free speech. Her tone, however, is so shrill that it could pass of as a left-wing version of Fox News. Furthermore, some of her claims are highly dubious.

As a case in point, the last chapter argues, among other things, that media concentration in the publishing industry will limit the number of writers who can get published. This point, however, is contradicted by an earlier observation in which Paretsky writes that there are now so many female writers telling stories with strong women heroes that she can’t keep track of them all. Moreover, reading her memoir in 2009 with President Obama in the White House, the reader can be forgiven for thinking that her pessimism about the Unites States is highly exaggerated. This point becomes ironic when we find out that Paretsky lives in Chicago, the city that President Obama has called home for many years. In short, I found this book to be well written and fascinating in parts, while shrill and grossly one-sided in others.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars