Sep. 30th, 2016

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Cranking out the book reports, Jim.

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (Maigret, #4)The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien by Georges Simenon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was excited when Penguin started reprinting all of George Simenon’s Maigret novels, but the first in the series, Pietr the Latvian, indicated that the early Maigret novels were somewhat unpolished compared to the later novels where Maigret had matured as a character. I needn’t have worried – this fourth novel is classic Maigret, where the focus is more on the psychology of the characters than pulp detective action. The story begins when Maigret follows a man acting suspiciously and inadvertently causes him to commit suicide in a hotel room in Brussels. Determined to find out why, Maigret investigates and soon finds himself hounded by Joseph Van Damme, a successful businessman with no obvious connection to the case yet a little too interested in what Maigret does or doesn’t know. It’s an interesting and concise story, but the main appeal for me is in watching Maigret work – his doggedness, and his Columbo-like ability to both annoy his suspects and play dumb to the point that they underestimate him.

ISIS: The State of TerrorISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are plenty of books out now about Islamic State (or ISIS), most of them naturally out of date (this being an ongoing story) and many of them politically motivated. This one has a more academic approach, and covers a lot of bases: how and why ISIS came into being, how it operates, the context in which it operates, its innovative use of social media, and what it ultimately wants to achieve. Understanding all of this, the authors argue, is key in developing the most effective strategy to dealing with ISIS, with the caveat that even under the best of conditions, it’s going to take generations. (Put another way, it’s not the kind of problem that can be solved in a single presidential term.) Obviously, what other readers make of this book may depend on their specific political views about terrorism and radical Islam. For me, I found it very educational – I feel I have a better handle on the ISIS problem, and I agree with the authors’ view that history and context matter; complex problems require complex, nuanced solutions; and that we can’t beat terrorism by allowing ourselves to be terrorized to the point of stooping to their level of ruthless violence and simplistic worldviews. The text gets a little repetitive at times (due to different chapters covering parallel aspects of ISIS’ development), but overall I’d recommend this to anyone who wants a better understanding of ISIS and the scope of the problem – because they're sure not going to get it from American cable TV news.

The WitchesThe Witches by Roald Dahl

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t read Dahl as much as I probably should, because I’ve generally liked what I’ve read by him so far. I’m trying to correct that, starting with this classic and controversial story of a young boy whose Norwegian grandmother teaches him everything there is to know about witches, which comes in handy after he finds himself trapped in a hotel ballroom full of them. Two things struck me upon reading this: (1) just how brilliant Dahl is at telling stories, and (2) the fact that in the 1980s (when this was published) you could still get away (barely) with the stuff Dahl gets away with here in what is ostensibly a children’s book – especially the ending, which is a bit unsettling, given the relatively lighthearted tone of the rest of the book. Still, I guess that’s to be expected from a writer who traded in … well, the unexpected.

The Puppet MastersThe Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After reading The Body Snatchers, it made sense to follow up with Robert Heinlein’s version of the “aliens-possessing-humans-as-Cold-War-metaphor” story, not least since Heinlein wrote this several years earlier. A secret govt agency investigates a UFO sighting in Des Moines and discovers that slug-like alien parasites are attaching themselves to humans to take control of them. In some ways this is better than Jack Finney’s take – for one thing, for all his old-fashioned sexism, Heinlein writes better female characters than Finney did. And Heinlein is generally good at keeping you turning the pages and introducing neat story twists, as well as framing the action within a kind of institutional reality (i.e. the agents spend as much time fighting govt bureaucracy and Congressional politics as the actual aliens). On the other hand, narrator Sam Cavanaugh is a tiresome mix of red-blooded American machismo, overbaked melodrama and indignant outrage – the kind of character that Heinlein is a little too good at writing. Also, while the storyline intentionally pits the reality of back-riding aliens against American puritanical morality, the results are often so over the top that it’s unintentionally funny at times (at least I assume it’s unintentional). In that sense, it’s easier to appreciate if you enjoy low-budget B-movies and don’t take it seriously. It's not terrible by any means, but as RAH books go, this was a little too OTT for my taste.

The Book of Phoenix (Who Fears Death, #0.1)The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book – a prequel to Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death (which I haven’t read yet, though I’m assured reading order is irrelevant) – tells the tale of Phoenix, a genetically altered woman living in one of seven towers run by an R&D corporation known as the “Big Eye”. She’s happy there until she’s told her boyfriend Saeed committed suicide after seeing something he wasn’t supposed to see. Then all hell breaks loose – literally – as Phoenix escapes, sprouts wings and learns to use her power to generate sun-like heat to the point of being able to rise from her own ashes. As she learns the true horrors of the Big Eye’s experiments, she becomes an angel of vengeance on an increasingly epic scale. It’s a mind-bending mashup of dystopian SF, superhero comics, mythology and mystic folklore. It’s also a stunningly angry book – Phoenix’s rage against the racist greed and corruption of Big Eye (and the society that turns a blind eye to it all) radiates off the page – and yet Okorafor masterfully expresses Phoenix’s anger without devolving into clichéd polemics and slogans. A couple of scenes take dramatic license a little too far for my taste, and the bits about time travel don’t quite work for me (more in terms of how it’s used rather than how it works). But overall it’s a gripping, imaginative and well-written story.

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