Review: 'Every Crooked Path' by Steven James

Cover of Every Crooked Path by Steven JamesWhen my favorite stop on I-95 in North Carolina ceased selling paperbacks because the distributor folded, they offered to sell me the spinrack and the 24 well-thumbed books left on it. I ended up with some thrillers I otherwise would have missed, like this one. I love the rack but wish I'd missed this book.

Every Crooked Path is a convoluted novel with slapdash pacing, thin characterization and characters who speak in the same voice -- a trait most excruciating when the protagonist attempts to bond across the generation gap with his girlfriend's sullen 15-year-old daughter. FBI agent Patrick Bowers is hunting a dark web child sex trafficking group, a disturbing subject the author tries to soften by being short on harrowing details. That works, but the logic of the case doesn't. One thing that did work was a character suffering a breakdown from a job watching videos of child exploitation for a safety group. That has become an all-too-real problem for social media moderators at Facebook.

Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

Cover of Behind the Throne by K.B. WagersThis book was highly recommended by six avid readers on File 770 and they were right. Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, a gunrunner who left her family 20 years ago and never looked back, is brought home when the assassinations of her sisters and niece leave her heir to the empire.

The story mixes palace intrigue with well-spun action as Haili struggles to survive long enough to figure out who's behind the attempted coup. The India-inspired, far-future society Wagers has created is richly drawn and contains surprises too good to spoil. A lot of the charm comes from the fact that Haili's accomplished criminal life made her a fish out of water as a potential empress. She's always clashing with her ever-present bodyguards over her desire to carry her own weapons and is sometimes less the protected than the protector.

One minor criticism is that the large cast of characters around Haili made it tough to remember them all when they showed up again. The novel is a fantastic opener to a trilogy.

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

Elmer Gantry felt as if I'd read it already because the protagonist has been so widely referenced in American culture. Sinclair Lewis mercilessly skewers a narcissistic preacher who exploits Christianity to enrich himself and secretly commits every sin he fulminates against from the pulpit.

The book begins with Gantry as a hard-partying, anti-intellectual football star at a Baptist university, follows him into a career as a pastor he feels no calling to pursue and tracks for a quarter century his ups and downs (but mostly ups). Gantry's mistreatment of women, whom he adores until he gets them, was particularly cutting. Aside from some racial slurs and Gantry's brief flirtation with a 14-year-old girl being insufficiently called out as predatory, the book has aged well.

Lewis is a withering social critic. Elmer Gantry is less a biography than an indictment. It's rare to read a book about a character so disliked by its author. I've never wanted more to see a protagonist pay for his sins.

Gamer Fantastic RPG Fiction Anthology

Cover of Gamer Fantastic RPG fiction anthologyThis anthology doesn't live up to the inventive premise of telling stories where roleplaying games and reality intersect. I was ready to quit after the introductory material and early stories all hammered the same worn-out joke about gamers being slovenly fast-food addicts, but I stuck around to see what Jim C. Hines would do with his story "Mightier Than the Sword." His entertaining tale was about libriomancers who could pull weapons and creatures out of SF/F novels, a premise he later expanded into a book of that name. I liked his references to real writers and novels, including a subtle, self-deprecating joke about himself. Reading Jody Lynn Nye's engaging "Roles We Play" about roleplaying being used as a therapeutic tool in the 19th century has motivated me to seek out her novels. Kristine Kathryn Rusch ended with an intriguing story about a magical RPG store in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The rest was forgettable, including a short perfunctory tribute to E. Gary Gygax after his death.

Star Wars: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston

Cover of Star Wars: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston

As a fan of Aaron Allston going back to his earliest RPG designs for Car Wars and Champions in the 1980s, I liked this book but felt like his creativity was constrained by the plot requirements required of the 12th book in a 19-book series (which I haven't read prior to this installment). The novel follows the fall of Coruscant to the Yuuzhan Vong. Starfighter squadrons and Jedi commanded by Wedge Antilles must take and hold the planet Borleias to help Coruscant refugees escape and regroup. Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Mara Jade Skywalker and Jaina Solo participate in dogfights and one covert mission to set up book 13. Most of the novel's appeal was seeing familiar faces engaged in expected derring-do, but the Yuuzhan Vong are as appealingly weird a foe as The Borg in Star Trek. They loathe tech and instead rely on pervasive and sadistic bioengineering. My favorite scenes were told from their perspective. Allston, who died in 2014 at age 53, was one of the best media tie-in writers in SF/F.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This comic novel about a neurodivergent genetics professor looking for a mate won me over quickly. Don Tillman is pushing 40 and has never been on a second date. He approaches the problem by crafting a long test for prospective partners he calls the Wife Project, believing that if enough women take it one will eventually pass. Everything in Don's life is methodical. He meets Rosie, a woman completely unfit according to his test criteria. Mayhem ensues. I laughed out loud many times at clashes that sprang from Don's unique, persnickety, detail-obsessed way of looking at the world. I liked that some of Don's inner dialogue was told in outline form because it makes perfect sense he'd use an outliner for every problem, professional or personal. The novel is told from Don's perspective so Rosie isn't as richly drawn a character, but they're an odd fit that works. This book and the inevitable romcom that comes from it are likely to appeal to anyone in the throes of Sheldon Cooper withdrawal.

Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear

Cover of Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear

In a modern world with no idea it is happening, the faerie realm and human magi prepare for a savage war that will break a stalemate going back to the time of King Arthur. Elizabeth Bear mostly takes the side of the fae through Seeker, a once-human bound to the Elf Queen who must steal humans at her command. Bear uses so many lush metaphors to describe the physical world experienced by magical beings that it was tough to consciously take them all in, but the cumulative effect was mesmerizing. Most of the novel consists of powerful otherworldly creatures readying for war and engaging in diplomacy with allies, enemies and undecideds, which reminded me favorably of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. This builds to a harrowing and dramatic conclusion. The star of the book is a kelpie (water horse) nicknamed Whiskey. Seeker controls him by knowledge of his true name and they develop a deep relationship despite the fact he's allowed three chances to kill her, which he reminds her of often.

Two Science Fiction Novels I Didn't Finish

I hit a bad streak reading novels this month. My house is overflowing with books I've been meaning to read, so I will give up on a novel when I've abandoned all hope of being entertained. I figure if I'm not enjoying a book after 50 to 75 pages, it's time to bail. I reached that point with Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) and Philip K. Dick's The Divine Invasion (1981).

Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet SunQuiet Sun is a Nebula Award-nominated time-travel novel by the late Wilson "Bob" Tucker. He was an active science fiction fan who belonged to the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) and coined the term "space opera."

As a current member of FAPA and a time-travel geek I wanted to like the book, but after 70 pages Tucker was still putting the main characters together. Nothing had happened yet. No time travel. No plot twists. Just talk talk talk. The male protagonists pass the time pontificating about their fields of study and making moves on the young female bureaucrat who recruited them. She's in her 20s and the prospective time travelers are an older scholar and two military officers. Their constant attempts to flirt with her may have been standard operating procedure in the free-love-and-sideburn '70s, but Tucker never shows her reciprocate anyone's interest -- so it feels like actionable sexual harassment.

Wikipedia's synopsis of the novel reveals that the time-traveling Don Drapers go to the future and find a U.S. embroiled in race war: "Moresby goes first and travels to July 4, 1999 ... only to emerge in the middle of a racial civil war in which Chicago had recently been attacked with a nuclear bomb launched from China on behalf of black guerrillas." I might have stuck with the novel if I knew it was fueled by early '70s fear of a black planet.

I hadn't read anything by Philip K. Dick before trying Divine Invasion. The book's about a virgin conception on a remote industrial planet. The savior fetus Emmanuel is the son of Yahweh, and he needs to return to Earth to take the planet back from the devil Belial, who has been running things since the fall of Masada in the first century AD. Belial controls Earth through a one-world government that's a "unification of the Communist Party and the Catholic Church."

This is odd enough to catch my interest, but Dick's plot feels like an excuse to engage in ponderous theological ruminations on God, the Bible and the Torah. Here's an example:

Emmanuel watched, and presently the cat came to him and asked to speak to him. He lifted it up and held it in his arms and the cat placed its paw against his face. With its paw it told him that mice were annoying and a bother and yet the cat did not wish to see an end of mice because, as annoying as they were, still there was something about them that was fascinating, more fascinating than annoying; and so the cat sought out mice, although the cat did not respect the mice. The cat wanted there to be mice and yet the cat despised mice.

All this the cat communicated by means of its paw against the boy's cheek.

I usually struggle with this kind of pass-the-bong storytelling. Give me literal fiction with relatable characters. I have an allergy to allegory.

Review: Russell Baker's 'Growing Up'

On a recent trip to the local Barnes & Noble, I was surprised to see Russell Baker's Growing Up in the autobiography section. The book came out 26 years ago and Baker has faded from the public spotlight since his retirement in 1998 from the New York Times, where he was a popular columnist. I picked the book up, figuring it must be a pretty good memoir to have outlasted the author's fame, and noticed a week later that the bookstore had already reordered a copy.

Growing Up by Russell BakerBaker's book is a great memoir. He tells the story of his childhood growing up in the Depression, which takes him from a rural Virginia shack without electricity or running water to stark poverty in Belleville, New Jersey; and Baltimore, where his widowed mother must rely on the charity of family members to feed the family. Baker, born in 1925, frames the story with his 84-year-old mother's lapse into dementia at a nursing home, which has untethered her from the present and drops her into random points in her life. One day he comes to see her and is met with the question "where's Russell?" In her mind, she'd become a young mother again with a three-year-old boy and a younger sister. Russell's father, who she met when his car broke down leaving the local moonshine distillery, had not yet died in his early thirties from diabetes because insulin wasn't available.

Although the specifics of Baker's childhood are often grim, he writes with a sense of humor about himself that reminded me of Jean Shepherd's narration in the movie A Christmas Story. This is particularly true when he describes how his lack of aptitude for anything else led him to journalism. "The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer," he writes, "and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn't require any."

Baker's modesty about his own abilities is misplaced. He writes well, telling the human cost of the Depression through the lives of his relatives. He focuses in particular on his mother and her diminishment of opportunities. A college-educated schoolteacher, she remains jobless for years and can't fulfill her dream of putting the family in their own home until he's almost in college. The Bakers are so poor that at one point she gives up her third child, still an infant, to be raised by childless relatives.

Baker's mother ends up living through her children, leaning hard on Russell to make something of himself and putting him to work on the streets selling the Saturday Evening Post when he's just eight years old. She's so miserly about affection and praise that by the end of the book, I needed a hug. Unfortunately, the story ends with Russell as a newlywed who has not yet made anything of himself as a journalist, so there's never the cathartic third-act moment where the mother makes clear that her sacrifices on behalf of her only son were worth it. That bummed me out.

Although he's retired from the Times and a second gig hosting PBS' Masterpiece Theatre, Baker still writes occasionally for New York Review of Books.