Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays!

I just wanted to take this time to wish you all very happy holidays and a wonderful new year!

This is the first year I've ever blogged, and it's been a greater pleasure than I ever expected. I'm amazed and gratified to be read by friends and strangers alike, and I'm thrilled each and every time I hear from one of you. Thank you for stopping by this year. And here's to excellent reading in 2010!



Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A woman's take on Manhood

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son
by Michael Chabon

A confession... I have little interest in "the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father, and son." I have a lot of interest in Michael Chabon. And why not? In addition to being one of my favorite authors, we're both 40-something Jews who were raised in suburban Maryland. And we both live in the San Francisco Bay Area and travel in literary circles. Okay, we're acquainted--but in the most superficial way imaginable; just enough to say hello and kibitz a bit. But the fact that he's a nice guy is completely subsumed by the fact that he's one of the greatest writers living today. I am an unabashed fan, and this collection of essays about a subject I'm not particularly interested in (being neither husband, father, son, wife, or mother) was a thrilling read.

Chabon's use of language is magnificent. No matter the subject, it's the sort of text where you want to grab anyone in the vicinity and just start reading aloud. I knew I was hooked when I began tearing up while reading the first essay, "The Loser's Club" which recounts a rejection suffered in his youth. "That was the moment I began to think of myself as a failure," the Pulitzer prize-winner writes. Chabon is vulnerable within these essays, sharing deeply personal details of his life, and letting that streak of neurosis shine through. But don't worry that the collection is one long, drawn out therapy session. There are more laughs than tears and as I noted above, Chabon is a very likeable fellow. "I Feel Good About my Murse," for instance, is delightfully silly. Even so, Chabon's got something real to say about masculine identity amidst the laughs.

Not every single essay is a slam dunk. The Lego one sort of left me cold. For you it might be another. But overall, this collection is so strong that it must surely be a go-to gift for fathers, husbands, sons, and all lovers of great writing for decades to come.

Oh, and I've seen him playing with his kids--he really is a great father.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Susan's Top 10 Books of the Decade (2000-2009)

You may have noticed that this is the time of year that every person and publication ccomes out with various top 10 lists. I must admit, this is an activity I engage in every year. I'm not quite ready to commit to my Top 10 books for 2009. It's gotten to the point that I've become bitterly resentful of any truly wonderful contender for this year's list. Cutting it down to 10 will be brutal.

This is the first time I've ever compiled a best of the decade list. Oddly, it was significantly easier to come up with these titles. Of course, there were many, many worthy books I couldn't include. I've read hundreds and hundreds of books in the past decade, but these ten stood out--either for their literary merit, because the book or author is a personal favorite, because it represents a favorite genre, because the novel has stuck with me, or because it was simply the single best book I read in a given year.

The only author who was short-changed was Michael Chabon. The Yiddish Policemen's Union could and arguably should have made the list, but as wonderful as it is, it pales in comparison to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, IMHO. And in order to have a more diverse list, I decided to list only the stronger novel.

So, for what it's worth, here are my personal Top 10 Books of the Decade:
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon (2000)
  • Carter Beats the Devil - Glen David Gold (2002)
  • Prey - Michael Crichton (2002)
  • Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
  • Lamb; The Gospel according to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal - Christopher Moore (2003)
  • The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger (2004)
  • Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell (2004)
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows(2008)
  • The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood (2009)
  • Last Night in Twisted River - John Irving (2009)
Apparently, I really like books with incredibly long titles, LOL. I also seem to be favoring novels from the first half of the decade. Perhaps with a few more years' perspective, there would be other, more recent, titles that would make the cut. I realize that not all of these books are in the same league, but these are my picks. What are yours?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What's the buzz?

Generation A
by Douglas Coupland

I can't say I've loved every word Douglas Coupland's ever written, but by and large I enjoy his work quite a lot. His novels are observant, quirky, and very funny. So, I was looking forward to Generation A. And I enjoyed reading it, but I wanted to like it so much more than I did. I think my biggest problem is that I felt like I was reading two different books. The first half of this novel did not seem to match up with the second.

The novel is primarily told from the points of view of five individuals from five different lifestyles and countries. What bonds them is that they all share an extraordinary experience. They are each stung by a bee--at a time (roughly the year 2024) when no one's seen a bee for five or six years. They've long been assumed extinct, and the world suffers for it. Fruits and flowers are incredibly rare, and must be labor-intensively hand-pollinated. Honey is like gold. The bees are essentially the canaries in our coal mine, and the future isn't looking too bright.

This is so much an issue, that there's a new, hyper-addictive drug on the market called Solon. It keeps users in the present, instead of all that pesky worrying about the future. It also makes time pass quicker, and helps alleviate loneliness so that users can "live active and productive single lives with no fear and anxiety." So, it is in this near future that Zack from Iowa, Samantha from New Zealand, Julien from Paris, Harj from Sri Lanka, and Diana from Canada become instant worldwide celebrities--and subjects of scientific scrutiny.

And I was really engaged in this somewhat bizarre story. I was digging it! But as things moved forward, the plot veered off into left field. For reasons I won't get into, the B5 (as they are called) spend the second half of the novel telling each other quirky stories they've made up. Very little happens as a series of sometimes charming short stories are recited, and the ideas behind Coupland's satire are driven home.

Eventually there are revelations that somewhat tie the two halves of the novel together, but I found the ending to be weird and somewhat grotesque. There were definitely pleasures to be had in the reading of this novel. Coupland is just too darn good for that not to be the case, but Generation A never quite came together as a cohesive work.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Put your thinking cap on

Freedom (TM)
by Daniel Suarez

How much do you know about technology? Economics? Video games? Agriculture? The military-industrial complex? I hope it's a lot, because Daniel Suarez explores those subjects and many more in his latest thriller, and he's not talking down to anyone. I'll be honest, at times it was a real struggle to keep up.

Freedom (TM) is the sequel to his debut, Daemon. The first thing I'll tell you is this: Under no circumstances should you attempt to read this novel without having read the first. You won't understand a thing. As for what it's about, one of Suarez's characters summarizes it far better than I ever could:

"There is an open-source cybernetic organism called the Daemon that is spreading across the globe. It's created an encrypted social network based on an online video game. Millions of people are joining that network and using it to reinvent human society."

And that's about all you need to know, because while plenty of stuff happens, this is not a plot-driven novel. Nor is it character-driven (though all the main players from the first novel are back). No, this is the rarest sort of novel; it's idea-driven, or philosophy-driven. Characters spend large segments of the book having conversations like:

"America is just another brand purchased for its goodwill value. For its excellent fucking logo."
"And it's all a big conspiracy..."
"No conspiracy necessary. It's a process that's been happening for thousands of years. Wealth aggregates and becomes political power. Simple as that. 'Corporation' is just the most recent name for it. In the Middle Ages it was the Catholic Church. They had a great logo, too. You might have seen it, and they had more branches than Starbucks. Go back before that, and it was Imperial Rome. It's a natural process as old as humanity."

"Words have power in this new age. They are not just sounds. Where ancient people believed in gods and devils that listened to their pleas and curses--in this age, immortal entities hear us. Call them bots or spirits; there is no functional difference now. They surround us and through them word sounds become an unlock code that can trigger a blessing or a curse. Mankind created systems whose inter-reactions we could not fully understand, and the spirits we gathered have escaped from them into the land where they walk the earth--or the GPS grid, whichever you prefer. The spirit world overlaps the real one now, and our lives will never be the same."

There's a worldwide, covert cyberwar going down. Intriguingly, it's not taking place in the fabled halls of power; it's happening in middle America. Suarez has created a scenario I couldn't have imagined, and in fact, a new world order that's like some Comic-con fantasy come to life. The ideas his novel explores are fascinating and worthy of exploration. Five stars all the way for sheer intelligence and creativity. The loss of one star in my rating is due to some small issues of pace, character development, and plotting. But any quibbles are relatively minor, and the end of the novel was deeply satisfying.

As noted above, this is a novel of ideas. As such, it deserves to be widely read. Freedom (TM) is highly recommended for fans of Daemon. And if you haven't read Daemon yet, get crackin'!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Lori Lansens loves her misfits

The Wife's Tale
by Lori Lansens

I liked Lori Lansens' last novel enough that I wanted to read this one right away. I liked this one too, though not quite as much. With its endearing conjoined heroines, The Girls was such an original story. The Wife's Tale, on the other hand, is very familiar--almost an archetypal ugly duckling tale. Yes, it's a story we've all read before, an oldie but a goodie. And here it is in a nutshell:

On the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary, Jimmy Gooch leaves his morbidly obese, middle-aged wife, Mary. She goes in search of him, and winds up finding herself. There's more to it than that, of course, but you can make those discoveries on your own.

What I will say is this--coming into this novel, knowing the above premise, my first thought was, "the husband's a monster!" But Lansens writing is more subtle than that. The husband is not a monster, and Mary Gooch has a lot of issues. While the story is familiar, Lansens is not regurgitating the same old black and white story. There's a little more nuance going on here, and some readers may not appreciate that not all the loose ends get tied up by the end. I, however, don't believe every novel has to end tied neatly with a red bow. This wife's journey is a tale worth reading.

NOTE: I received a free review copy of this novel from

And THAT is Stephen King's genius

Under the Dome
by Stephen King

From the moment I heard the premise of Under the Dome, I couldn't wait to read it. Here it is in a nutshell: On a perfectly ordinary fall day, an invisible, impregnable barrier surrounds the small town of Chester's Mill, Maine. Nightmare ensues. And I do mean nightmare. Uncle Stevie isn't playing around. This isn't one of his tall tales filled with imaginary monsters and buckets of gore. The monsters here are human, and they are terrifying.

Okay, as an editor, when I see a 1,000+ page novel, my first thought is, "Does it really need to be this long?" Maybe not. I'm sure a few pages could have been trimmed. But I will tell you this... The deeper I got into this novel, the quicker I turned pages--right up until the end, when I was in a veritable page-turning frenzy. It reminded me, right from the start, of the fine work he did in the 70's, when as a child I devoured each new novel upon publication. King hasn't lost his touch with character, and he remains a consummate storyteller.

Under the Dome is epic. The time span is short, but the novel deals with the lives of more than 2,000 people trapped in a combustible hothouse. These are truly terrifying and incomprehensible circumstances. Things in Chester's Mill are bad, and hour by hour the situation got so much worse I didn't want to believe it. But I did. I believed it all. And that is Stephen King's genius.

Friday, December 4, 2009

This is the novel I’ve been waiting for…

Altar of Eden
by James Rollins

I love James Rollins' SIGMA novels, but after a while, all series start to feel a bit old to me. Like many other readers, I've really been hoping for a return to the stand alone thrillers with which he began his career. My wish has been granted with his latest work, Altar of Eden, and it was everything I could have hoped for.

Some books can be summarized with a single, high-concept sentence. That's never the case with Rollins, though this book is structured differently and is in many ways simpler than the SIGMA novels. More on that in a moment. The novel opens in the wake of a hurricane. Research veterinarian, Dr. Lorna Polk, is collected from her workplace by a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter and ferried out into the Louisiana swamplands. She can't fathom who has requested her or why she is being brought here. The "who" turns out to be Field Operations Supervisor Jack Menard, a painful ghost from her past. The "why" is a shipwreck. A shipwreck that looks like a mysterious and nightmarish crime scene, and which holds a most extraordinary living cargo. Her first guess is that they've stumbled upon an exotic animal smuggling ring, but as Rollins writes:
"Jack shone his flashlight into the nearest cage. She stared inside--and knew she was wrong about everything."
James Rollins is great about writing these hooky endings to his chapters. They're sort of textbook, but irresistible! I know they keep me turning the pages.

I noted the structure of this novel above. The SIGMA novels all contain multiple narrative threads and stories. They're notably complex thrillers. Altar of Eden has a single narrative thread throughout. it is the story of where this discovery takes Jack and Lorna, and it's broken into three discrete parts.

Act One encompasses the first third of the novel, and it reminded me of nothing so much as those old creature feature films from the 70s. You remember the ones? Where the mutant piranhas are heading upstream to the summer camp? That's just a nostalgic example, there are absolutely no mutant piranha in this novel (though, if that's your cup of tea, definitely check out Rollins' Amazonia), but something has escaped that shipwreck, and it's stalking the bayou. The hunt is on!

Act Two is the shortest of the three. Here, the protagonists have a chance to catch their breath--for like a minute. It's a chance for Lorna and her colleagues to strut their scientific stuff. And this is the part I have to assume other Rollins fans like me love. Every Rollins novel features at least one element of mind-blowing science. My favorite part of this one involved magnetite crystals in the brain, but the fractals were really cool too! There are tantalizing tidbits from any number of scientific disciplines, but don't worry if you're not as geeky as me. Rollins doesn't go too deeply into anything. His explanations are brief, clear, and intriguing. (As always, he has an author's note at the end to separate fact from fiction. And, as always, there's more fact than you might expect.) Unfortunately for our protagonists, the bad guys who were in the background of Act One come front and center in Act Two.

Act Three is the lengthiest of all. It's the endgame. Dr. Polk discovers that what she found in the Mississippi Delta was just the tip of the iceberg. I have to admit that I had a few small quibbles with the end of this novel that I can't discuss without massive spoilers. Nonetheless, those quibbles did not take away from my enjoyment of this excellent page-turner. I read much of it on an airplane, and it kept me compelled for 3,000 miles.

Amusingly, I listened to a large section of this novel on my Kindle, while wandering the National Zoo. There are a lot of animals in this novel, so I could read about alligators and monkeys while visiting alligators and monkeys! (Yes, I really am a huge geek.) I've heard former-vet Rollins discuss why he's never written about a veterinarian before. "Not enough people die," he always says. Well, he finally found a way to make it work. :-) I'm looking forward to more stand alone adventures!

NOTE: I received a free review copy of this novel from the author.