Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Science and religion clash in a thought-provoking thriller

The Rapture
by Liz Jenkins

Apocalypse and dystopia. Everywhere I look apocalypse--at least on my bookshelf, that is. Everyone seems to be writing about the end of the world, and the scariest part is that none of it seems to be the least bit implausible.

The latest addition to my apocalyptic reading is Liz Jensen's The Rapture. Once you get past the notably unattractive cover, the first thing you'll notice about this novel is the superiority of Jensen's prose. Right from the first paragraph, it is abundantly clear that you're not reading the average thriller with serviceable language. What's even more extraordinary is that the beauty of Jensen's prose doesn't slow down this thriller one bit.

At its heart, this is the story of three very damaged people and one very damaged planet. The first-person narrator is Gabrielle Fox. She's the new art therapist at Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital. Gabrielle left the bustle of London for this facility in remote Hadport in the wake of her own personal tragedy. It takes some time for all the details to be teased out, but the result, two years on, is that she will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Doctor, heal thyself. Gabrielle is well aware that she has a lot of issues of her own to work through before she's fully prepared to help others.

Nonetheless, she is charged with helping some severely disturbed young people. Perhaps the most disquieting of them all is Bethany Krall. Now 16, Bethany has been locked up for two years since she killed her mother with a screwdriver. She is not cute, and she is not misunderstood. She is a tough, tough character to empathize with, but you just can't turn away from her.

Bethany has been having visions in the wake of her electro-convulsive therapy treatments. She sees cyclones, earthquakes, and other things she can't possibly know, with very specific details. While at first Gabrielle ignores Bethany's insane babbling, when enough predictions prove correct, she seeks outside opinion. Here enters physicist and expert on natural phenomenon, Frazer Melville (inexplicably referred to by his full name or the appellation "the physicist" at all times). He brings the science--and the romance.

It is fairly formulaic for a thriller to have a romantic sub-plot, but this is a rare example of the romance feeling truly integral to the story being told. The relationship felt organic, and I felt emotionally invested in the characters. Yes, there were times I wanted to slap Gabrielle and yell, "Get over it!" But she behaved consistently as the damaged individual she was.

There's no need to discuss the details of the plot further, but I was pleased by the insertion of some science into the religious "end times" story. This isn't a Michael Crichton-style hard science thriller, but it should definitely leave you with some food for thought.

Provocative, but poorly marketed

by Matthew Glass

Matthew Glass's debut novel, Ultimatum, suffers from unfulfilled expectations. If you read it expecting to find the thriller it was marketed as, you will be sadly disappointed. If you're open-minded, what you'll find instead is a provocative novel of ideas and politics.

The near-future story is set in 2032. Joe Benton, a good man with good intentions, has just been elected President of the United States. He thought he knew what he was getting into, but almost immediately upon entering office, he learns from the outgoing President that the global warming/climate change situation is significantly worse than anyone has ever publicly or even privately acknowledged. The United States and the whole world is facing a catastrophe--rising tides, flooded cities, millions of people needing to be relocated and much, much more.

When I read the description of the novel, I was expecting an action thriller. Desperate people being airlifted from the rooftops of drowning cities. That sort of thing. On the contrary, this is a serious, intelligent (and realisting, all things considered) look at the tense politics involved in negotiating a crisis. It's suspenseful, but a page-turner it's not.

I can't regret time spent reading books with these dire environmental warnings. What's eerie is that as I was reading the novel, I was hearing news reports that echoed the content of the book almost exactly. Very disturbing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Big Chill--on acid

South of Broad
by Pat Conroy

Leopold Bloom King ("Leo" to friends) is the narrator of Pat Conroy's first novel in 14 years. The story opens on Bloomsday, 1969, in Charleston, South Carolina. Most families don't commemorate this celebration of the work of James Joyce, but then again, most parents don't name their sons after fictional Joycean characters. At the tender age of 18, painfully shy Leo has had enough drama to last a lifetime. Trouble began early with his radiant older brother's suicide. Leo found the body. This led to years of therapy and adventures within the mental health care system. Finally released from institutions, Leo is immediately convicted of a crime he didn't commit, but for which he refuses to defend himself. All of this has occurred before the events of the novel, and is exposited in the first 50 pages or so.

On that fateful Bloomsday, Leo is finally on the verge of getting his act together. And this kid is too good to be true. He's got no friends his own age, but Leo is genuinely kind-hearted and charms any adult willing to give him a chance. However, everything changes on that day. That is the day that larger-than-life twins Sheba and Trevor Poe move across the street. It is also the day that he meets Ike Jefferson, the son of his new African American football coach (thanks to desegregation). It is the day he meets teenage orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead, just arrived in town and handcuffed to their chairs. And, finally, it is the day he meets South of Broad bluebloods, Chad and Fraser Rutledge, and the beautiful Molly Huger. It is, in short, an eventful day.

The non-linear novel is told in five parts. That first section established the rich Charleston setting, gives the necessary exposition, and cements the life-altering relationships of these high school friends. Part two is set 20 years later. It is 1989, and Sheba Poe has returned to Charleston as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. She's a drama-queen of the highest order, but she hasn't forgotten her friends or her roots. As the group of friends reunites around Sheba's surprise visit, we see what's become of these teenagers we've just gotten to know. And we learn just how incestuous this group is, and who ended up married to whom.

It was this section, more than any other, that reminded me powerfully of the film The Big Chill--right down to the South Carolina setting, the careers of some of the friends, and the many (many!) issues they are dealing with. Part three sees this close-knit group on a quest to San Francisco. One of their number, openly gay and rumored to be dying of AIDS, is missing. No one has heard from him in over a year. Part four returns us to 1969 and the friends' senior year of high school. It is here that we learn more of the events that led to the adult lives these people were leading 20 years later. And finally (and I do mean finally, as the book came in at over 500 pages), part five returns to 1989/1990 and the culmination of all the plots and dramas we've exhaustingly witnessed.

It is a truly staggering list of discord. All the typical Conroy highlights are hit: daddy issues, mommy issues, male and female rape, suicide, southern living, mental illness, military education, team sports, adultery, relationships with coaches, family drama, and so much more. This sort of... redundancy of themes... can't help but make you wonder what the author may be working through. Nonetheless, though revisiting a lot of territory, Conroy jumbles things up in new and interesting ways.

I had a very mixed reaction to this book. I can (and will) criticize any number of aspects of this novel, but I can't deny that it was entertaining. It's compulsively readable, but in a trashy, guilty pleasure sort of way. I usually think better of Pat Conroy. Some of the language exhibits his renowned lyricism, but much of the dialog is cringe-worthy. Each of the characters attempts to be more witty and glib than the next. Their dialog is a non-stop stream of one-liners, innuendo, and casual racism. None of it rings true, and goes a long way towards making these characters, their actions, and the constant high drama simply too much to believe. Most of the characters are extreme personalities (some of them downright repugnant), and I found it truly hard to believe that their bonds were as tight as was depicted. The entire San Francisco section took Conroy way out of his element. and while he convincingly narrated through the eyes of an outsider, the story he told rang false. Armisted Maupin he's not.

And I mentioned it before, but by the end of the book, the non-stop drama of these people's lives is exhausting. Family drama, relationship drama, racial drama, religious drama, deaths, suicides, crimes, affairs, mental illness, addiction, natural disasters, and not one psychopath--but two! Folks, it's a lot to take in. Mr. Conroy's stored up a lot of plotlines in the time he's been away from fiction, and apparently he decided to use them all.

I'm sure his fans will defend this novel. And it's already a best-seller, but it's far from his strongest work. Read it if you're a die-hard fan, or if you're just looking for a page-turner. But if you're expecting a lot more than that, I expect you'll be disappointed.

Yet another adult strolling down memory lane

House of Stairs
by William Sleator

I see that I'm not the only adult with strong memories of reading this novel when they were young. In my case, it must have been 30 years ago, but somehow I never forgot the book. I've been keeping my eyes open for a copy for years now, and it's truly fascinating rereading this book that I loved as a child with my 40-year-old eyes.

The novel opens with Peter. Peter has no idea where he is. He finds himself blindfolded and taken to an unknown destination. Removing the blindfold, he finds himself all alone in a truly bizarre environment. Everywhere he looks, as far as the eye can see, he's in a cavernous space filled with stairs. Stairs going up, stairs going down, some with small landings, some connected by bridges. There are no walls, no floor, no railings, no place to feel safe. As he fights vertigo, Peter spies someone below him and calls out.

Unfortunately, Lola doesn't know anymore about where they are or why than Peter does. Their stories of being blindfolded are the same, but they quickly discover other commonalities as well. They are both orphans from state homes and both 16 years old. They discover this is true of the other three kids they meet in the "house of stairs."

Peter, Lola, Blossom, Abigail, and Oliver all find themselves in an utterly inexplicable situation, and they all deal with it differently. They are very different personalities. Survival becomes their first priority. What at first seems to be an entity merely trying to control their actions, quickly becomes far more sinister.

Viewing the reactions of these young people to their circumstances, and finding out how the novel would end, had me turning pages just as fast now as it did when I was a kid. And I'm happy to report that I really enjoyed revisiting this story. I can see that it's a piece of fiction very much of its time, and as an adult I better understand the context of the novel. (Like another reviewer, I, too, thought of the infamous Zimbardo and Milgram experiments.) All that aside, House of Stairs is still a compelling story and a warning to be heeded today.

Friday, August 7, 2009

If Julie & Julia merely whetted your appetite...

Gourmet Rhapsody
by Muriel Barbery

"I am the greatest food critic in the world." So says Monsieur Pierre Arthens on the first page of Muriel Barbery's charming novella, Gourmet Rhapsody. Readers of Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog will remember Monsieur Arthens, and will see other familiar faces crop up. This novella, while not a sequel to that novel, is set in the same apartment building on Rue de Grenelle.

As we can see from his bold introductory statements, there's nothing wrong with Monsieur Arthens' ego. Alas, it is his heart that is failing. He has been told by his doctor that he has 48 hours to live. Perhaps he could depart this world at peace, if only, if only, he could taste that taste once more. The elusive taste he can't quite remember. What is it? Where did he taste it?

The novella is made up of many brief chapters, alternating between Monsieur Arthens' ruminations on the most formative, the most poignant, the most extravagant, and the most serendipitous meals of his life, and reminiscences of Monsieur Arthens by those who know him. These include those closest to him--his spouse, children, lovers--and those who know him more tangentially.

These interludes are only a few pages long, but each character speaks with a distinct voice. So many of these characters left me wanting to know more of their story. I was fascinated with his wife, Anna, and her unusual attitudes. I can only hope that I will learn more of her someday, as Barbery does not appear to be averse to revisiting her character's lives. Of all the people (and things!) that comment throughout the book, his housekeeper's chapter may have been my favorite. There's something so sad about the way he treated her when compared to those whom he was supposed to love. Pierre Arthens is a complex and arguably unlikable character.

But I did like him. How could any foodie not? His language--even within the confines of his own mind--is florid and overblown, but so much of Barbery's prose is interesting and beautiful. Simply put, it is a joy to read. And I defy you to get through this book without running to the kitchen to satisfy any number of cravings the text will evoke. It is, indeed, a rhapsody to the joys of good food, good people, and perhaps a lust for life.

You do NOT want to play Trivial Pursuit with these two!

Spartan Gold
by Clive Cussler & Grant Blackwood

"Fortune favors the bold." That's the oft-quoted motto of Sam and Remi Fargo, the husband and wife protagonists of Clive Cussler's latest co-authored offering. Spartan Gold is the first book in a new series penned by Grant Blackwood. The Fargos are "treasure hunters and adventurers." Sam's background is mechanical engineering and Remi's is in anthropology and history, but both appear to be polymaths. In their line of work, they have ample opportunity to put their numerous skills to good use.

As the novel opens, they're hip deep in the muck of a Maryland swamp. They're looking for buried treasure, but what they find is something altogether unexpected. It's a Nazi-era German mini-sub very, very far from where one would expect to find such a thing. An attempt to get the scoop on local rumors of such an anomaly is aborted by their source's kidnapping right before their eyes. After the Fargos free their friend from the professional operative interrogating him about a shard of wine bottle he found in the Pocomoke, the plot really takes off.

It comes as no surprise when the Fargos' crack research team (at their home base in La Jolla) links the wine bottles to "Napoleon's Lost Cellar," and then links these 12 wine bottles, secreted around the world, to a major hidden treasure. This is because we'd seen the great man make his (unseen) discovery of ancient treasure in the novel's prologue. It is this unknown treasure that Sam and Remi are seeking, but they've got competition in the form of a ruthless Ukrainian crime boss and his henchmen. Unlike the Fargos, Hadeon Bondaruk knows exactly what they're seeking and he will stop at nothing to possess it. So begins a cat and mouse chase across the globe. It's an epic scavenger hunt with a high stakes outcome. Along the way, there's breath-taking scenery and a few history lessons leading up to the inevitable showdown between the good guys and the bad guys.

It's a okay start, as these things go. The characters are more archetypes than flesh and blood people. But, hey, it's a series; there's time for character development later. There are some fun supporting characters, most notably Yvette Fornier-Desmarais. I expect we'll see more of her. Sadly, I can't say the same of their sidekick researcher, Selma. She's a cardboard cutout masquerading as a character. For now, Sam and Remi display that typical Cusslerian insouciance in the face of danger, and snap off witty banter whenever possible. It's easy to joke about their arcane knowledge. (The rugs of Yoruk nomads? Really?) And an early reference to Henri Archambault elicits the response, "the Henri Archambault?" Why, yes, Napoleon Bonaparte's chief enologist. He's practically a household name.

Still, despite their ridiculous knowledge base, the Fargos are refreshingly fallible. This is probably my favorite thing about the novel. They're chasing cryptic clues. They have to work really hard to solve them. Sometimes they even have to sleep on it. The puzzle solving is depicted unusually realistically. (I mean, in those National Treasure films, riddles are solved in a matter of seconds.) Sam and Remi make other mistakes, too. They get lost occasionally. They screw up. What can I say? Imperfect protagonists are infinitely more interesting in my book.

The story is light, very light, and fast-paced for the most part--thought my interest did flag a bit in the middle. But then our heroes took the action into the proverbial lion's den, and that picked things up straight through the ending. By and large the writing is fine, though there are some quirky redundancies to the text.

Fans of Cussler's signature mix of history and adventure will likely give this one a thumbs up. It's nothing to write home about, but Grant Blackwood is off to a respectable start.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Screw Oprah--I'm cutting out the middleman

Okay, maybe my headline was a little harsh. Oprah and Random House have been very generous. For the past 48 hours they have been giving away free e-book versions of Colum McCann's latest, Let the Great World Spin. The novel has been getting nothing but raves since it's publication, including this recent NYT review:

Some of you may have already taken Oprah up on her offer. But you had to have a Oprah.com log-in, and it was a bit of a hassle. Or, more likely you never heard about the give-away. Never fear. Anyone who's interested in getting a copy of the Adobe Acrobat .pdf file--no registration necessary--just post a comment below. If you know I have your email address, no worries; I'll just send it to you. If I don't have your email, please leave me an address where I can send the file.

Oh, of special note to Kindle owners: You can email this e-book right into your Kindle for the bargain price of 30 cents. What a bargain!

Thanks, Oprah!