Tuesday, January 29, 2008

There She Is!

I haven't watched the Miss America pageant since 1987 when the contestants dressed like drag queens, but weren't nearly as pretty. When The Learning Channel started pushing their new series Miss America: Reality Check, my first reaction was "it's about time." But we saw part of an episode and became hooked.

TLC showed the contestants video of people on the street being asked what they thought about the Miss America pageant. Talk about a reality check!

However, TLC breathed new life in a tired, old worn-out American staple. We got to see the contestants up close and learn about their own struggles as well as their idiosyncrasies. It gave faces and personalities to what used to be cardboard cut-outs with sashes over their shoulders.

We had contestants to cheer for, which was good for me since Miss Oklahoma didn't make the 16 semi-finalists. Oh, well. She had huge shoes to fill since the last TWO Miss America's hailed from Oklahoma. (Go us! Go us!)

The show produced some real gems, too. When Miss Utah was eliminated from the semi-finalists, she dropped to the floor and did push-ups! Several of the other contestants joined her.

When the host Clinton asked Miss Connecticut, who did not make it to the semi-finalists, what was it like to stand on stage in a bikini in front of millions of viewers, she responded, "How would I know? I'm up here with you!"

During the introductions, Miss Pennsylvania said she was from the state where everyone knew what the state flag looked like. This was especially funny, since she forgot what it looked like during the first challenge on "Miss America: Reality Check".

Some made jokes at their own expense. Miss Wyoming introduced herself by saying her state had moved up its primary but nobody cared!

Overall, TLC kept the pace of the show quick and light! Way to go!

Congratulations, TLC and Miss Michigan!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Kept Boy by Robert Rodi

There is a reason why I don't read gay literature, It's the same reason I don't watch gay cinema or "Queer as Folk". The message is all the same: You can only find true love, happiness and sex, if you're young, extremely good-looking and have a great body. If you are older (i.e., over 35), you are to be pitied. The only way you will get someone to share your life is with money and LOTS of it. But Robert Rodi's "Kept Boy" looked like it might be different, so I decided give it the benefit of the doubt. I was SO wrong.

The only twist in this story is that the pretty boys start out as rivals, vying for the attentions (i.e., money, money, and money) of a wealthy, over-fifty, theatrical producer Farleigh Nock in Chicago. Dennis is his 'kept boy'. When Nock hires a new pool boy, the much younger Jasper, Dennis goes on a narcissistic warpath spending copious amounts of Nock's cash to keep his good standing.

Rodi makes it very clear that the only reason the novel's sugar-daddy is being fought over by two young men is because he is loaded. Otherwise, Rodi's novel would have been placed into a different universe far more fanciful than anything Gene Roddenberry, Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury could have dreamed of. I lived most of my adult life in Dallas, the most superficial city in the most superficial state, and came out there in 1991. I have seen first hand how wealth can cover many flaws but when it comes to age, there is only so much happiness that money can buy.

In the final pages, Dennis realizes that his love for Farleigh is only "companionly" and "pitying". Dennis and Jasper finally fall in love with each other. When they break the news to Farleigh, he expresses his happiness for them, then promptly drops dead. Dennis is the sole heir of Farliegh's vast wealth. As SNL's Church Lady would say, "How conv-E-nient!"

The book does have its funny moments, though. For example, the houseboy Christos is a former lover of Farleigh and, although a very reminiscent of the houseboy from "La Cage aux Folles" or "The Bird Cage", delivers some of the best lines in the book. Another instance, a trip to visit a 100 year-old grandmother ends in hysterical violence. The old woman herself is hilarious. Other than this, humor comes only in the form of snarky, bitchy comments.

The point of Rodi's book is if you're young and beautiful, find yourself a much older sugar-daddy and use your sexiness to worm your way into his bed and his will. You won't have to endure it long, because if your sugar-daddy has any sense, he will die before he gets any older and leave you all of his money.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Marble Mask by Archer Mayor

My main interest in reading Archer Mayor's "The Marble Mask" was the anticipation of reading a mystery with a solid Vermont setting. My own novels focus on a different state per story and I am unfamiliar with this one. Not many authors write with such pride and love for their states like Mayor or Jean Hager, who has a murder mystery series set in Oklahoma. Sue Henry and Dana Stabenow write Alaskan mysteries. Other authors write about their beloved cities, like Margaret Truman's Washington, DC books and Martha C. Lawrence's Elizabeth Chase in her San Diego.

However, I initially felt that "The Marble Mask" may not be an enjoyable read since there were two factors of the book that tend to detract from the story, from my point of view.

The most important aspect is that Mayor writes in first person through the main character Joe Gunther. Frequently it seems that the author is living vicariously through the main character's adventures, romantic scenes and ultimately becomes the hero solving the mystery. I am not accusing Mr. Mayor of that at all nor am I saying it is a bad thing, but it is something that crosses my mind. (Heck, I even do it sometimes when writing some of my unpublished-for-a-very-good reason stories). Another reason this can become cumbersome is that the story never changes its point of view. It is told solely through the eyes of the main character.

Gunther has plenty of adventures through the course of the "Marble Mask", from being stranded on a mountain during a fierce blizzard nearly freezing to death, and being lured out in the middle of the night for a clandestine meeting, not one, not twice, but THREE times. One resulted in the murder of the contact, the second the death of his would-be killer and the third resulted in his kidnapping.

The second aspect of the novels like this that make them difficult is the tendency to lag when the initial murder is decades old. In "The Marble Mask" the body of a murdered man, frozen for over fifty years, is found on the mountain above Stowe, Vermont. When Gunther is trying to solve such an old crime, the story has a propensity to slow down and crawl because the mystery goes nowhere for a while. Witnesses alive when the original crime was committed have died or are suffering from the ills of old age; buildings have been torn down; documents and records are extremely difficult to locate if they still exist at all. It is only when the detective starts to get close to the solution and somebody responds with deadly force that the pace of the book speeds up.

Mayor does keep a good clip to the story, but there are times when he gets a little wordy in describing the history and area of this New England state where the story takes place.

However, Mayor's novel is an entertaining read and I look forward to more of his works. I found his concept of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation very interesting. The VBI is an agency recently formed by the state government, developed to work with all other state agencies, relying on their resources and people, involving everyone in the process and the glory.

It's an interesting concept, but it did introduce an element of confusion, since the team formed in the story numbered six. This gave the book an over-saturation of main characters. Then the number of suspects continued to grow. Mayor also threw in a couple of peripheral murders, which had little to do with the plot and final solution; just included to introduce a red herring subplot involving the Hells' Angels and a rival group which never solidified.

Joe Gunther finally figures out the perpetrators of the fifty year-old murder and the ones that occurred during the course of the novel mainly by attrition of the suspects, as the body count rises. The family of the first victim is a Mafia-style clan and their intrigues among themselves, employees, bodyguards, partners in crime and rivals become a confusion of who-did-what-to-whom that the solution is not a surprise or very satisfying as a whodunit.

Finally, the reference to the marble mask in the title in the final few pages of the book is so fleeting, the reader wonders why the book was named for it.

Overall, I did enjoy the book. It had plenty of action with an interesting twist and a pride for the beauty of Vermont.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

On May 31, 1889 an earthen dam on the Little Conemaugh River gave way after torrential rains and washed Johnstown, a small community east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania off the face of the earth. McCullough published his work on the disaster in 1968, for which he was able to interview survivors, getting first-hand accounts of the flood. McCullough, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize, researched historical records and publications to piece together a minute-by-minute recreation of the tragedy, much like Isaac's Storm by Erik Larsen and The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin.

Unlike those later works, McCullough's work reads more like a history book, stating facts in a school-book manner. Larsen and Laskin put faces on the tragedies, giving the reader a personal connection with the victims. McCullough finally does break away from the aloof prose, but not until after the depiction of the flood.

His style also includes frequent moments of 'familiarity' as though he were speaking to the reader rather than writing. His sentences are peppered with vague descriptors like 'more or less', 'something like', 'no more than'. McCullough also cannot help inserting his own editorializing in the final chapter when blame for the tragedy was being tossed about. He comments that 'anyone with a minimum of horse sense' could have known about or realized that the dam was in no condition to hold indefinitely.

Another drawback to McCullough's style was a frequent propensity to digress when discussing the people involved with tragedy. He mentioned facts and historical points of interest that may or may not have any bearing on the story. These tangents often subtract from the subject of the book.

McCullough also moved back and forth in time whenever shifting to different points of view. He may describe how one person experienced the wave when it hit Johnstown about an hour after the dam burst; then in another sentence he discussed another person's witness but starting well before the dam broke. It gives a confusing account of the sequence of events. Larsen and Laskin changed points of view but kept the timeline in tact throughout their works.

Overall, the book is a great account of one of the country's worst disasters. McCullough's exhaustive research interviewing eyewitnesses and historical records pays off in the end result. The reader sees and feels the sadness and horror of a town utterly destroyed, followed by the heroism and scandal that followed.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Dune: House Atreides by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

In his Afterword, Brian Herbert wrote that he had already started working with Kevin J. Anderson when his father's sequel to Chapterhouse: Dune was discovered. In Dune 7, the writing duo finally found Frank Herbert's vision of the series so they could write the prequel with confidence they were following the late author's ideals.

The result, Dune: House Atreides is a stellar work that begins the generation before Paul Atreides, or Muad Dib. Herbert and Anderson paint a universe of the Imperium where blood feuds, treachery and betrayal run amok between the Houses of Harkonnen, Corrino and Atreides. We see the Bene Gesserit witches as being the subtle manipulators in all schemes, but also we find out more about their breeding programs and how devious they can be in getting what they want. Herbert and Anderson also introduce us to another House and mentions several others, expanding the Imperium far beyond the first five novels.

It is very good to see Arrakis as it was originally - sandworms, Fremen, endless desert - since it has not been this way since Children of Dune. Starting with God Emperor of Dune, the final three novels of Frank Herbert described a world entirely different from the very first Dune, which will always be a classic. In God Emperor, the weakest and weirdest of all the novels, Arrakis is lush with plants and flowing water, with the desert (although still huge) confined to less than half the planet. Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse brought us back to some sense of familiarity.

The only hiccup in House Atreides was the mention of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother consulting with a Feng Shui expert on the proper construction and orientation of a birthing facility being built on Wallach IX, the home planet of the witches. Fortunately, this gaffe was a mere half page and the chapter did not hinge upon this incident. Herbert and Anderson could have just as easily left it out.

Even so, the authors have produced a beautifully written novel of a cold, harsh universe almost completely devoid of love, but is still an exciting read.