Pleasantville by Attica Locke; 4 out of 5 Stars
This is the follow-up novel to Black Water Rising and like that one we follow the law career of Jay Porter of Houston, now 15 years older, recently widowed, and still holding down only a few clients. A mayoral election is in full swing, the historically Black neighborhood of Pleasantville has been hit by a chemical plant first shutting down jobs and then polluting the city, a wave of recent murders, and divisive politics set on splitting the once reliable voting block in the neighborhood. Jay represents the interests of the citizen of Pleasantville as they sue the chemical company for pollutants that have been linked to cancer. As the novel gets into full swing it happens that the various plot lines above as well as some from the previous novel begin to intermix.
So the strengths of this novel are its knowledge of the legal world, so even when lawyers are being ridiculous showmen, the narrator lets us know they know they’re being ridiculous. In addition, it has a really strong sense of how local politics is a lab for the kinds of things we’ve seen in national politics in the last two decades. This is a pre-Bush and pre-9/11 novel to be sure, in its setting, but its ramifications are very familiar.
In addition, Locke does such a good job of tying the different threads together. This feels so much like a post-Wire book as much as anything in the ways the different storylines are so well interconnected.
The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer – 4 out of 5 stars
Like it’s predecessor The House of the Scorpion this novel is about Mateo Alacran, grown, sentient clone of the dictator/drug lord of Opium, a narcostate in part of what used to be northern Mexico. Mateo now though, with the former lord dead, is the de facto Lord of Opium because of the ways in which the clone laws and more or less succession laws work in the state. It doesn’t hurt too much that the former lord killed off almost all the top echelon of his followers at his funeral with poisoned wine. So now he’s in charge, and he’s only 15 or so. Left with just a handful of his former advisers, friends, family, and “idjits” (people with a kind of electric lobotomy) Mateo finds himself trying to hold onto power without falling into the same trappings that lead the first of his name into evil corruption. The novel focuses heavily onto the question of those slaves of Opium whose brains have be kneecapped to various extents, some who are so controlled and mindless that you have to tell them when to eat and then to stop lest they eat themselves to death, and those who still have most of the cognizance, but can be controlled with simple commands. Like other Young Adult novels, this one has a real heart to it and allows the kind of black and white morality of teenagers take over when it comes to much more complicated questions. Mateo is faced with real challenges and real adversaries. I am not sure it’s immediately as strong as the first one, and maybe that’s because it has lost a little of the novelty, but it does well what a lot of new novels do: what do you do when you actually get into to power/overthrow the evil that perverted the land.
American Housewife by Helen Ellis 2 out of 5 stars
This is a perfectly fine collection of stories that won’t really do much to change your life or even leave a really strong impression on you afterward. The basic premise is that this is a series of short stories that are linked by the author, roughly by the narrative voice, and by the subject of “American housewives” go figure. The stories range from the writing under the oppressive control of a corporate publisher, a story in which a writer has her book sponsored by Tampax, whose tactics for getting her novel out of her becomes increasingly draconian, an idea that has a kind of false note since, ummmmm your book is getting published when lots of other books are not. There’s a story about an increasingly violent dispute over a common space in a condo. There’s a story about someone joining an already established bookclub and learning all at once all of the flaws of its members, which get increasingly absurd. And then about every 3rd story or so is a overly clever musing about something…like cats or other things. Again, the book is fine, and it’s sometimes funny, but it’s weird critical of middle brow stuff all the while being incredibly middle brow. I don’t know that it’s trying to be climbery or anything like that but it’s not a kind of self-aware humor…and I guess that’s a pretty big flaw actually.