Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm a Blue, my ex is Orange--this explains so much...

Shades of Grey:
The Road to High Saffron
by Jasper Fforde Artifacture from before the Something That Happened may be collected, so long as it does not appear on the Leapback list or possess color above 23 percent saturation.

Did you understand that? You would if you were Eddie Russett, the 20-year-old, first-person narrator of Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron. Eddie knows that the above is one of Munsell's innumerable Rules. "The Word of Munsell was the Rules, and the Rules were the Word of Munsell. They regulated everything we did, and had brought peace to the Collective for nearly four centuries. They were sometimes very odd indeed: The banning of the number that lay between 72 and 74 was a case in point, and no one had ever fully explained why it was forbidden to count sheep, make any new spoons or use acronyms. But they were the Rules..." Not surprisingly, this is a society that has embraced "loopholery" enthusiastically.

Eddie's society is a Colortocracy, where social status isn't determined by merit or by birth, it's determined by which color(s) 0f the spectrum you can see, and how much of them. Eddie's a Red, which is next to lowest on the totem pole. Oranges are higher than Reds, Yellows higher than Oranges, and so on. The only ones lower than Reds are the Greys, or achromatics. They can't see any color at all. They're the unappreciated workers of the society.

In Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde has created a richly imagined future that revolves entirely around color, and the perception of it. Explains Eddie, "No one could cheat the Colorman and the color test. What you got was what you were, forever. Your life, career and social standing decided right there and then, and all worrisome life uncertainties eradicated forever. You knew who you were, what you would do, where you would go and what was expected of you."

As the novel opens, Eddie doesn't want much from life. He wants to fulfill his Civil Obligations as best he can. He wants to marry into the prestigious Oxblood family. And he does have a few fairly radical ideas about improved ways to queue. Other than that, he wants to avoid the perils of swans, lightning, and mildew. But that's before he travels for the first time in his life, to the Outer Fringes, where the Rules are interpreted differently. Eddie's a fish out of water, and we're meeting people and learning about life in the village of East Carmine right along with him.

It is there that Eddie meets a Grey named Jane. He's smitten immediately, and that's even before she threatens to kill him. Jane, rude in a world without rudeness, violent in a world without violence, leads Eddie gradually down a path that has him questioning everything he thought he knew about the Colortocracy--in a world that most definitely does not value questions or those that ask them.

By now, you many have gathered that this novel is a bit of a departure for Fforde. There is so much going on that it's hard to take it all in, and virtually impossible to summarize. While undeniably funny, the humor is darker and a bit less overt. Shades of Grey is more challenging, sophisticated, and substantive than anything we've seen previously from Mr. Fforde. In a word, it's brilliant! The cleverness he has always displayed in his Thursday Next novels is dialed up several notches here, as he points his satirical eye at a world so strange and outlandish that comparisons to our own are inescapable. I'm not convinced that all of the Fforde Ffanatics will embrace this latest work, but I suspect most will. And I, for one, with be looking forward with great enthusiasm to Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers and Shades of Grey 3: The Gordini Protocols.

If only the author could go back in time...

The Kingdom of Ohio
by Matthew Flaming

I love debut novels and I love time travel stories. I love trying something new and potentially finding a favorite new author. Alas, that's not how it worked out this time. The simple truth is that The Kingdom of Ohio was a real slog to get through. More bluntly, it was the most boring time travel story I've ever read.

I'm not going to go into real detail with regard to the plot, but the novel is set in New York in 1900 at the time that the subway is being excavated. Our hero is Peter Force, one of the subway workers. One day, while looking out the window, Peter sees a woman collapse and rushes out to help her. She's tattered, but beautiful. She tells him that her name is Cherie-Anne Toledo, and that she has traveled somewhat inexplicably seven years into the future, and from Ohio to New York. The basic questions of the novel are, is she mad, and if not, how did this happen and what does it mean?

The story is stranded in a mass of superfluous detail. For instance, the world of this novel is exactly like our past (complete with starring roles for some of the preeminent figures of the time: J.P.Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nicola Tesla) except for one major thing: In the novel, there was once a "Kingdom of Ohio," all but forgotten now. It was literally a piece of land sold to a French family during the early part of America's history, and ruled within this country's borders as its own Kingdom for more than a century. It is this Kingdom that Cherie-Anne claims to be from, but really, what's the point?

What, too, is the point of the copious and extremely tedious footnotes scattered throughout the book? Presumably, the author was trying to blur the line between reality and fiction. This was simply a very bad idea. Additionally, the author used the device of a present day narrator telling the story in retrospect. Flaming obscures the identity of this narrator, but it's so obvious from the start who it is, that this, in itself, telegraph's the novel's ending.

Flaming has attempted to write a time travel story in the tradition of Time and Again or The Time Traveler's Wife. In other words, a story strong on romance and weak on science, but again he fails, as I never grew to care about these characters or their relationship. Honestly, I didn't even like them very much.

Again and again and again as I read this novel, I searched for redeeming qualities, but here I failed. The prose exhibits the clunkiness of a first-time novelist and the story bored me more than anything else. I'm sorry, but I can't recommend reading The Kingdom of Ohio.

Are we not all uncommon readers?

The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett

I received this charming novella from a friend. Can I just tell you? There can be no more perfect gift for the bibliophile in your life. What a joy!

The story is simple. The Queen of England has some very bad corgis. One day on a walk through the grounds at Windsor, the dogs start barking their heads off at a mobile library. (What I'd call a bookmobile.) Neither the Queen, nor the dogs apparently, had ever noticed it parked by the castle before. Propriety being everything, the Queen pops her head in to apologize for the corgis' behaviour, but then feels compelled by that same sense of propriety to borrow a book while she's there. (It would be rude not to.)

She asks for help selecting the book from the librarian, and also consults with a young man who happens to be picking out a book of his own. It turns out that the young man, Norman Seakins, works in the castle's kitchen. So begins an odyssey that changes the monarchy, because quite by accident the Queen discovers that reading is the great passion of her life.

Not that everyone is happy with the Queen's new, all-consuming pursuit. She has to deal with Kiwi private secretaries and the Prime Minister, among others. This slim book is the story of the extraordinary friendship between a Queen and a dish washer. It explores the camaraderie of the literate. There are ruminations on books, and ruminations on writers--and why the latter are more enjoyable on the page than at a party.

The Uncommon Reader is short, sweet, funny, smart, and utterly delightful! It's just the thing to stuff in a stocking or give to a bookish friend "just because." Or, even better, just give it to yourself.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Douglas Preston’s homage to H.G. Wells?

by Douglas Preston

Doug Preston's latest solo effort starts with a bang--literally--in the form of a meteoroid impact off the coast of Maine. And that's where the juggling begins. Preston's juggling three narrative threads. The first involves two young girls who go in search of the fallen meteoroid. They're after big bucks on Ebay, and maybe a little adventure. They get a hell of a lot more than they bargained for.

The second thread involves a researcher with the Mars Mapping Orbiter (MMO) project at the National Propulsion Facility (NPF, but you might as well think JPL). Mark Corso has just been promoted. In fact, he's taken the position of his disgraced mentor, Jason Freeman, who was fired and then murdered in a random home invasion. (Uh huh.) A few days after Dr. Freeman's death, Mark receives a package from his mentor with a stolen hard drive full of very classified, very illegal data. He can not have this data! He's got to destroy the thing, forget he ever saw it... but he can't help looking to see what's on it first. And so Mark Corso gets sucked into what may be the biggest, most dangerous scientific discovery of all time. And possibly the biggest cover up, too.

And finally, the third thread involves our old friend Wyman Ford. (Don't worry if you haven't read his previous adventures. This book is essentially a stand alone. There's not a thing you need to know from previous books that will affect your reading of this one.) Ford's a former CIA operative, a freelancer now, and he's just been offered a job. There have been some very unusual gems showing up for sale in Asia. They're strikingly beautiful, but notably unlike anything anyone's seen before. And potentially quite dangerous. Ford is tasked with finding the source of the stones and reporting back. It's one of the easiest assignments he's taken in recent years. (Uh huh.)

Preston does a good job of keeping all his balls up in the air. This 368-page book has an even 100 chapters. You can do the math. That's a whole bunch of short, fast-paced chapters. Almost every one of them ends on a hook, making the novel virtually impossible to put down. Preston places his characters in every type of peril you can imagine, from the everyday unpleasantness of a strung out drug addict, to an extraordinary threat to all life on earth. Simply put, Preston goes all out with this one.

Is some of it ridiculous? Sure. I mean, what waitress knows that much about astrophysics? But then again, I'm a college drop-out who knows a hell of a lot about physics. It could happen. Actually, now that I try to think of examples of ridiculousness, they evade me. My point is, read Impact with a sense of fun. Enjoy it as the thrill ride, and the homage to the greats of science fiction, that it is. If you set out to pick it apart, you'll be able to find flaws. Just leave it alone and have a good time. Because this book is a really good time. You're going to be holed up inside some snowy weekend this winter. I seriously can't imagine a more entertaining way to pass the time.

John Irving’s finest novel in years

Last Night in Twisted River
by John Irving

I may as well come out and say it: I love John Irving. My love is unconditional. I will defend his lesser novels against all defamers. Happily, I will not be put in that position any time soon, because Last Night in Twisted River is his strongest novel in years. It's a wonderful read!

I recently told a friend, "It's so good it hurts." Reflecting on what I had said, I realized I was right. Sometimes reading his books hurts. He populates his novels with sweet, sentimental, anxious men, and then he tortures them. Mr. Irving's signature blend of comedy and tragedy is again on display. Only in his world does an oft-repeated tale of whacking a bear on the nose with a frying pan lead to an accidental death.

The novel opens in rural New Hampshire in 1954. Widower Domenic Baciagalupo is the cook at a logging camp, where he is assisted by his 12-year-old son Danny. It's a rough and tumble world, personified by the gruff and rugged logger, Ketchem, who becomes the closest thing to family that either Baciagalupo has. Last Night in Twisted River is an epic novel, spanning some 50 years. The aforementioned accidental death is the novel's catalyst. It causes Domenic and Danny to go on the run, sought for decades by a vigilante sheriff. But aside from being the tale of this truncated family's life in exile, this is a story about how you become the person you are.

Specifically, Mr. Irving is looking at how a writer becomes a writer, because that, indeed, is what Danny Baciagalupo becomes--a successful one, too. In fact, Danny Baciagalupo's career is... John Irving's career. There is no attempt to disguise the obviousness of the career trajectory, the subject matter of the books, the literary criticism--all are identical to Irving's. It seems clear that the author is having some fun with the self-referential material, but for fans like me, Irving gives us unusual insight into his process, and possibly some of his own attitudes on the life of a writer. Though, perhaps we can't assume that is so, as Danny has much to say about readers' assumptions about the autobiographical nature of fiction, and the value of what is borrowed versus what is imagined.

In a recent review, I commented on the way that Pat Conroy returns again and again to certain themes and plot elements in his fiction, but "jumbles them up in new and interesting ways." certainly this is true, too, of Mr. Irving. In this novel we again find bears, writers, absent parents, endangered children, New England settings, prep schools, and so forth. It's easy to compare different aspects of this novel to what has come before. A dash of Garp and a soupcon of Owen Meany. But right from the start, the work of which this reminded me the most was The Cider House Rules. Not in subject matter, but in the period setting and the span of the story being told. And probably in the nature of the male relationships in this novel.

Last Night in Twisted River is a long, heart-wrenching story. You won't be racing through it. You may learn more about logging than you ever wanted to know. But John Irving's language is magnificent and you won't soon forget these characters and their epic journey. This book is a must read for all fans of John Irving and of great literature.

More milestones!

Today I posted my 100th review on I wrote my first review in July of 2006, but I surely wrote a majority of those 100 reviews this year. I started out sporatically, inspired to write by the worst book I've ever read. Now I review everything, and I've grown to enjoy it. It forces me to think critically while I'm reading. It forces me to pay attention to what I'm reading. I'd better watch out or those novels won't go in one eye and out the other much longer.

So, when I saw the way things were shaking out, it was pretty easy to arrange my 100th review to be Last Night in Twisted River, the latest work by my favorite author. That felt good. I'll be posting that review here momentarily.

I passed one other milestone several weeks ago. I broke into the top 500 Amazon reviewers. I was pretty happy when it happened. It was a goal, and I achieved it. As of today, I'm ranked at #419. Not bad for three and a half years. Thanks to everyone who's ever given me a helpful vote.

And thanks to everyone who reads the reviews here. I'm always amazed by the notes and comments I get from complete strangers. Thanks so much for reading!