Monday, January 19, 2015

Perfidia, by James Ellroy

James Ellroy. Perfidia. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 695 pages. ISBN 9780307956996.

Ever since seeing L.A. Confidential and reading an interview with James Ellroy I've wanted to read one of his books, so I was pleased to be given an advance reading copy of his latest, Perfidia, at the 2014 BEA, held at the Javits Convention Center last May.

Ellroy is most known for his L.A. Quartet, which includes The Black Dahlia, The Big Forever, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz, and which is set from 1946 to 1958. Perfidia is the first book in The Second L.A. Quartet, which is set during World War II and which includes many of the characters from the original series.

Perfidia begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the discovery of the murder of a Japanese family. The events and hysteria that surrounded the start of war are described in great detail. Men and women line up to volunteer for armed service, and Japanese citizens become immediate targets of suspicion and violence. The four main characters in Perfidia are embroiled in both the war preparation and the murder investigation. Hideo Ashida is a Japanese-American scientist who works as a crime scene investigator for the LAPD. William Parker is an alcoholic police captain hoping to become Police Chief some day. Kay Lake is a young woman who's looking for any kind of excitement she can find. Dudley Smith is a detective who's hoping to cash in on some shady deals enabled by the wartime confiscation of Japanese property.

Perfidia is dense with plot and characters. It was difficult at time too keep track of all of the characters, almost none of whom had any redeeming characteristics. All of the policemen, without exception, are portrayed as being willing to lie and cheat to get ahead. They cover up crimes, arrest people for crimes they didn't commit, kill people for crimes that they can't prove but whom they're convinced are guilty. They betray each other, make promises that they can't keep, and throw their loyalty to whomever they think will come out on top. All of the characters abuse alcohol and many abuse drugs, such as terpin hydrate, Benzedrine, and opium. Most sleep with anyone and everyone who crosses their paths, although this is explained away as the prevailing attitude at the beginning of the war. There is a casual and virulent use of racist epithets that would be shocking today. Violence is a consistent theme throughout the book with people shot, stabbed, poisoned, drugged, blown up, and beaten up.

Much has been written about Ellroy's staccato-style prose. He writes short sentences, many just fragments. I found it difficult to get used to, but after a few hundred pages of this, I adjusted. One objection I have is that many of his characters' dialog sounds indistinguishable from each other. Their utterances are unnatural; no one really speaks the way his characters do in his books. I assume this is intentional on Ellroy's part, but it still takes some getting used to.

Nevertheless, the book kept my interest, and I would like to read some of his other books. His descriptions of wartime L.A. are unforgettable; I will probably always think of this book when I think of that time and place.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Book of Life, by Deborah Harkness

Deborah Harkness. The Book of Life. New York: Viking, 2014. 559 pages. ISBN 9780670025596.

The Book of Life is the third volume in Deborah Harkness' trilogy about witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont. In this book Deborah is pregnant with twins and they've returned to the present from their sojourn in 1591. Deborah is trying to locate the three missing pages from the Bodleian Library manuscript Ashmole 782, also known as The Book of Life, which contains secrets about the origins of witches, vampires, and daemons. In the meantime, Matthew is working with colleagues to analyze vampire DNA so that he can find a cure to a genetic disease, which causes him to go into "blood rages" when he's upset. As in the other books in the trilogy, there's a lot of action ranging from upstate New York and New Haven, Connecticut, to England, France, Italy, and other European countries. With many plot twists and interesting characters, this is a great wrap-up to the trilogy. I do wonder, though, if she will continue the story. With so many characters, not to mention the twins, there seems to be a lot of potential for more books...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Nicola Griffith. Hild. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2013. 545 pages. ISBN 9780374280871.

I loved this historical novel about the young woman Hild, later known as Saint Hilda of Whitby. Hild was born to a royal family in 7th century Britain. She is used as a pawn by her mother, who declares that she had a dream that Hild was a seer. Used by her great uncle, the king of Northumbria, she accompanies him as he battles with others for dominance in the British territories. Author Nicola Griffith has done an enormous amount of research in support of this book, truly bringing the 7th century and all of its challenges to life. The struggles between early adherents of Christianity and pagan religions are illuminated. Ms. Griffith's writing is wonderful; the dialog is completely believable. One challenge for me was that I was constantly looking things up; Ms. Griffith's uses some older terms and vocabulary that had me frequently referring to Wikipedia articles and online dictionaries. I recommend Hild to anyone who likes history or historical fiction.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, by Jeff Sutherland

Jeff Sutherland. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. New York: Crown Business, 2014. 248 pages. ISBN 9780385346450.

Scrum is a project management and product development technique that's intended to deliver results more frequently and quickly than traditional methods. Originally developed for application in software development projects, Scrum can be applied in other project or development settings. Decrying the use of traditional project management techniques, such as Gantt charts, author and Scrum creator Jeff Sutherland describes the origins of Scrum, shares anecdotes about its application in war, home improvement, and business settings, and gives a checklist of Scrum principles. Although the anecdotes are interesting, this book is more of a sales pitch for Scrum and less of a primer. Sutherland does provide a list of Scrum principles as an appendix, but there isn't any real instruction on how to put them into practice. The Scrum principles outlined are:
  • Pick a product owner
  • Pick a team
  • Pick a Scrum Master
  • Create a product backlog (i.e., list of to do items)
  • Refine and estimate the product backlog
  • Conduct sprint development
  • Make work visible with a Scrub board listing to do, doing, done items
  • Hold daily Scrum meetings
  • Conduct sprint reviews or demos
  • Conduct sprint retrospective (i.e., debriefing)
At the end of each chapter is a list of main points that the reader should take away; these are fairly useful. Other particularly useful suggestions include the creation of a product backlog and the use of development sprints. Such efforts can be useful in many environments, not just in software development. Overall, this book was thought-provoking and would be useful for anyone who's interested in improving productivity in environments where team work is the norm.