Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Devil You Know



The Devil You Know (a Felix Castor novel)
Mike Carey
2006

The Devil You Know is an urban fantasy. Wikipedia describes urban fantasy as a subset of contemporary fantasy meaning that the supernatural exists and is accepted in a world not unlike our own. If it is in a city then it is urban fantasy. You could also classify it as a supernatural thriller. In any case, it would be safe to put Carey's Felix Castor in the company of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden and Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan.

Carey might be better known for his writing in comics where you will find his name on titles in the DC Comics Vertigo imprint such as Hellblazer and Lucifer as well as Marvel comics like X-Men and Fantastic Four.

The Devil You Know is the first in the Felix Castor series. It is set in London in a world where the dead began "...to rise is sufficient numbers that it wasn't an option anymore just to ignore them." In addition to ghosts, there are demons and loup-garou (were creatures, sort of). Felix is a freelance exorcist who uses a tin whistle to draw the ghosts to him then cause them to move on. Where they move on to isn't discussed but Carey sets it up to be explored in later books in the series.

Felix needs money to pay his rent and takes a job to exorcise a ghost from an archive in spite of a warning from a demon who is also possessing a friend of his. What should be a straightforward exorcism gets complicated as Felix tries to find out what is anchoring the ghost to the archives. The story takes on more twists when a gangster who lures young women from Eastern Europe into sexual slavery gets involved and someone sics a succubus onto Felix.

The story seems a bit drawn out and overly long at times but Carey is creating a convincing world and uses the detail to describe the rules of this world. Consider his take on loup-garou. We are used to reading about were creatures as humans who take on animal form. In Felix's world, ghosts take possession of a animal and shape it into something resembling a human. I appreciate that Carey is able to add fresh elements to a genre with a lot of competition.

The Devil You Know concludes with Felix taking on (unwillingly) an unusual partner and setting the scene for an interesting sequel. Speaking of which, the other books in this series are

Vicious Circle (2006)
Dead Men's Books (2007)
Thicker that Water (2008)

You might have to wait a bit as they are first published in the U.K. and not immediately available in the U.S. Amazon doesn't show a listing for Vicious Circle.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Tin Roof Blowdown




The Tin Roof Blowdown
James Lee Burke, 2007

The Tin Roof Blowdown is a Dave Robicheaux novel set in post-Katrina New Orleans. I checked it out of the library, read a couple of chapters, and set it aside. This morning I decided that it is a book that I am not going to finish. It isn't that The Tin roof Blowdown is badly written or has an uninteresting story. Burke writes well and his descriptions of post-Katrina New Orleans are emotionally charged and come from the heart. It is a subject that means a lot to Burke. The problem is that I don't care about Dave Robicheaux any more.There is too much of a sameness about Dave and his buddy Clete. I find myself wanting to read more about Dave's boss, Helen Soileau, the sheriff of Iberia Parish.

A lot of people liked this book. Me, I skipped to the end to see what happened. Still, if you are a die-hard Dave Robicheaux fan, you are going to want to read it yourself. Otherwise, check out the reviews.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

My Last Combat Mission

My Last Combat Mission - No ordinary Day -
Roy E. Daniel

You are not going to find this book in Borders or Barnes and Noble. It was author published. A Google search does show a few copies on Internet book search sites. I had a personal interest in reading My Last Combat Mission and was able to get copy from the author. What's my interest in Roy's story? My father was the radio operator and waist gunner on this mission.

I have supplemented this description of Daniel's book with material of my own such as images related to this book here. These images include a scan of the papers issued to prisoners by the Germans as well as postcards written from the prison camps. These del.icio.us bookmarks helped me understand the air war and POW experience.

My Last Combat Mission - No Ordinary Day - is not a long book. There are 86 pages of text and 33 pages of photographs. Oddly, the photographs of aircraft on the cover and in the book are not B-24s, which is the type of bomber Daniel was flying.

Daniel wrote his book more than fifty years after the events at the urging of a friend. His writes sparingly but well and his story deserves to be preserved. This generation is now in its eighties and their contribution needs to be remembered.

At the time of these events, Daniel was twenty-two and my father nineteen.

On 29 May 1944, at 0700, 35 B-24 Liberator's from the 485th Bomb Group, took off from their base at Venosa, Italy to bomb the Atzgersdorf aircraft factory near Vienna, Austria. Daniel describes the target as the marshaling yards at Wiener Neustadt. Both identifications of the target are correct. They joined a much larger raiding force on the way to the target. This was the 14th mission for the 485th Bomb Group in which 61 tons of bombs will dropped. Watching the news from Iraq we are used to seeing pinpoint accuracy with smart bombs but it wasn't like that in 1944. Then the bombers flew in the combat box, straight and level, under attack from the ground and the air, until the lead aircraft released its bombs. That was the signal for the rest of the bombers to release their bombs. Daniel's plane was #3 in the lead box and on the left wing of the group commander.

After releasing its bombs, aircraft 41-28797, assigned to the 829th Squadron, was hit by flak. The crew attempted to keep the bomber in the air but fire in the #3 engine and right wing forced the ten members of crew # 36 to bail out over Zara, Yugoslavia. Daniel and the rest of the crew parachuted safely but were captured by the Croatian army and turned over to the Germans. The MACR gives the time of capture as 1230 but this is certainly an estimate because the crew was not captured at the same time but brought together in the same place over several days. This is considered the first loss of an entire crew due to enemy action in the 485th.

About a third of the book describes the mission, capture and interrogation of Daniel and the crew and was the most interesting for me since my father was present at several of the events. For that reason, they were also the strangest for me to process as I read. These were the times of the most fear and uncertainty and this come across in his narrative. After his capture, Daniel was saved from a impromptu Croatian firing squad by a Croatian colonel who was sympathetic but forced to turn him over to the German army.

Eventually the crew was reunited and held in the countryside in a grain room for several days while being questioned and arrangements were made to move them to another location for processing as POWs. They were to be flown to Zagreb, Yugoslavia on a JU-52. Daniel realized that he could fly the plane and developed a plane to hijack he aircraft. The sympathetic colonel was prepared to make his sidearm available to Daniel. At he last minute, an armed German soldier appeared and thwarted what would have been their best opportunity to escape as a crew.

The rest of the book describes his life as a POW and eventual liberation from Stalag Luft VII-A in Moosburg on 29 April 1945, eleven months after capture. For most of his time as a POW Daniel was in Stalag Luft III which you may know as the scene of The Great Escape which occurred several months before his arrival there. Later, as the Russians got closer, the camp was evacuated to Stammlager XIII-D and then, finally, to Stalag Luft VII-A where they were liberated by Paton's 14th Armored Division. My father was also liberated from Moosburg though he and Daniel never met there as Daniel was an officer and my father an enlisted man.

Daniel gives the reader a feeling for the privations the POWs suffered. The transportation by train in "Forty-and-eight" rail cars is particularly vivid. Forty-and-eight referred to rail cars designed to transport forty men and eight horses. Here, however, fifty men were crammed into a car, sat in rows, with their knees nearly up to their chins and no toilet facilities.

He also describes in ingenuity of the Prisoners to utilize everything they could put their hands on. For example, they found themselves without pots and pans to cook in but were able to improvise by joining food tins from Red Cross packages.

Circumstances make for incongruous incidents such as the time a German soldier asked him to hold his rifle while he went to find them some food. My father had a similar experience on a march between camps.

While still prisoners, the POWs heard about the recently enacted G.I. Bill. After encountering a fellow airman with a bad tooth, Daniel realized that he could become a dentist after the war. He made good on that dream and became Dr. Roy E. Daniel.

Reading Daniel's account of life as a POW, I can see why my father hated, really hated, the TV show Hogan's Heroes. He saw absolutely nothing funny about it.

I recently spent two weeks sitting by my father's bed in a state veterans nursing home. It was sobering to see him and other men and women from "The Greatest Generation" at this stage of their lives.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Serenity




Serenity
2 disc Collector's Edition

Whomever authorized the cancellation of the series Firefly should be given to the Reavers ... but at least we got the movie Serenity.

I love this movie. It has elements of space opera and the western. Joss Whedon has said that he conceived of it after reading The Killer Angels and wanted to follow people who fought on the losing side. In that respect I guess you could put it in the same category as The Searchers and The Outlaw Josey Wales. There is no need for me to go into detail about Firefly and Serenity as the Wikipedia articles (see links in first paragraph) are pretty good.

This movie has everything:

  • terrific cast
  • characters you care about
  • well crafted action sequences
  • pursuit by the government
  • spooky bad guy
  • altered humans worthy of George Romero
  • battle in space
  • heroic actions in support of noble purpose
  • last stand of the crew fighting against impossible odds
  • friendship, loyalty, sadness, humor
  • explosions and gun play
  • iconic hero shot worth watching the entire movie just to see
  • super-powered adolescent girl with edged weapons
  • I'm not sure what was on the original DVD release but this version features two commentary tracks, one with Joss and another with Joss, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, and Nathan Fillion. It also has the usual outtakes, deleted scenes, and extended scenes.

The is one bonus feature that is sure to please fans. On disk two is Session 416. In it we have black & white sessions with a faceless interviewer and River. We see the River from before her programming, when she was a normal and highly intelligent, smiling, school girl who might have the ability to read minds. At first, she is being interviewed for a place with an Alliance supported institute. Over the course of several interviews we see the gradual disintegration of her personality and her descent into psychosis. At one point the interviewer tells her that the institute is all about her mind and allowing it to do everything it could and she asks "Would I still be allowed to dance." This directly feeds into a comment by Simon at the beginning of the movie when she is being rescued from the institute.

Now I need to get the Firefly episodes.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Water for Elephants




Sara Gruen, 2006
My Rating: *****

This blog is as much about my experiences reading as the books themselves so it might take me a while to get to the story.

I was sitting in The Last chapter, an indie bookstore/coffee shop in Arcadia, Florida using their free wi-fi to post my comments on Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues. Since I didn't have anything new to read and I like to support indie book sellers, I started looking for something to buy. I found Water for Elephants on the top-selling book table table and was intrigued by the blurb from the Washington Post

You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world ...
I enjoy stories that describe worlds, times, professions, environments etc. with which I have little knowledge and a novel set in a circus during the depression looked to be an interesting read.

Water for Elephants is told by Jacob Jankowski, now in his nineties, and a resident of a nursing home (his children prefer to call it an assisted living facility). Jacob begins his story after a circus sets up near the home. It is easily the most exciting thing to have happened to the residents in a long time.

In 1931, 23 year old Jacob is within days of graduating with a degree in veterinary science from Cornell when a personal tragedy makes him so disoriented and depressed that he walks out of his final exam without writing a word. He hops onto a passing train which is hauling the Flying Squadron, the advance party that will set up the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He narrowly avoids being red lighted (circus term meaning tossed from the moving train) by Blackie, an enforcer for circus security. He is befriended by Camel, a working man (circus term meaning not a performer), who decides to help him get a job.

Gruen uses Jacob's first day and night to introduce us to circus life from the other side. Does anyone remember the 1956 TV show, Circus Boy? This isn't that circus. Besides mucking out the horse cars on the train, Jacob is put to work nudging the rubes into sideshows and acting as security during the choochie show (his first ever look at a live naked woman).

Jacob is written off as a useless college boy until Uncle Al, the ringmaster, discovers that he is a vet in all but degree. Since all the big circuses, like the hated and envied Ringling Brothers, have a vet he immediately hires Jacob. He works for August, the equestrian director and superintendent of animals, who is married to the beautiful equestrienne, Marlena. Guess where this goes. Later, Uncle Al is able to acquire an elephant named Rosie from a defunct show. To Uncle Al, this puts the Benzini Brothers closer to the big time. Rosie becomes a major character in the story. As you read Water for Elephants you will understand the relevance of the epigraph quoting Horton Hatches the Egg.

Gruen skillfully blends her research into the story making it both informative about a time and way of life few of us know anything about as well as highly entertaining. She works in the desperation of the depression and glimpses of the life of hobos. Her descriptions of people, places, and events are vivid. I could almost smell the stock cars and midway and feel the layers of grime on Jacob that first day with the circus.

Both the circus story and the nursing home story come to satisfying conclusions. My thought as I read the last line was "Way to go Jacob!

There is one aspect of the book that I don't understand. One of the book-group discussion questions states that "Sara Gruen has said that the "backbone" of her novel "parallels the biblical story of Jacob" in the book of Genesis. I don't see the parallels. I read the story of Jacob after I finished the book and Gruen's Jacob doesn't have much in common with the biblical Jacob other than he lies down and rest his head on stones the first night of his journey, the names of several of his children, and that he works for the circus for seven years.

I read this book sitting in a state veterans home in Florida and Gruen's descriptions of the residents, their daily routines, entertainments, their meals, and the relationship between the residents and the staff held a special poignancy for me. When you read this book I want you to know that nurses like Rosemary do exist.