Monday, March 16, 2009

You'll read it in a day--but it'll keep you up all night

by Jack Kilborn

It may be the worst-kept secret in publishing that Jack Kilborn is the pseudonym of novelist J.A. Konrath. Fans of Konrath's Jack Daniel's serial killer novels know that he's not afraid to depict graphic violence. That knowledge is not going to prepare you for what you'll face in Afraid.

The plot is high concept, and simple enough to summarize in just a few sentences. Every major government, including our own, is experimenting in "Red-ops." Why turn soldiers into killers, when it's so much easier to turn killers into soldiers? And if you can use cutting-edge technology to enhance them, so much the better. One such Red-ops team of psycho killers accidentally crash lands in bucolic Safe Haven, Wisconsin. It's a terrible, terrible mistake, as the team launches into what they've been trained to do--kill and maim in the most terrifying (and may I add disgusting) way imaginable. Only the elderly town sheriff has begun to suspect that it may not be a mistake after all...

And it was that last bit, in the book's description, that got me. Not a mistake? What do they want? I was hooked. I mean HOOKED. I had important work to do, but once I had started it, I could not stop reading this book until I finished it. I read it in less than a day. The pacing of the novel was relentless, as was the subject matter. I had been told that this was a gory novel. In no way does that prepare you for the level of sickness you will encounter in this novel. I can not emphasize enough that Afraid is not for the faint of heart. If it were a film, I wouldn't have made it through the first five minutes. (Let's all hope they never make a movie.) Kilborn's creative, I'll give him that. I don't even know how a healthy mind goes to the places his went.

Ultimately, I give the novel four stars. When all was said and done, I was mildly disappointed in what all the furor was about. Was it enough to justify the events of the novel? And I wasn't sure, but I might have found a small plot hole. Mostly, I just can't give five stars to anything this revolting. On the plus side, there was actually some pretty fantastic storytelling. I'm a total sucker for characters like Stubin and Mathison. In addition to unremitting suspense, Kilborn threw in enough twists, reversals, and out-and-out surprises to keep me constantly on my toes. As much as I'd like to deny it, Afraid was damn entertaining.

If I sound conflicted, it's because I am. I'd like myself better if I liked this book less. This is sick, sick, sick stuff y'all. I'm going to recommend it to my mom--she loves psycho killers! Will I read Kilborn's next one? You betcha.

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Looks like Johnny isn't the only talent in the Depp family

Loser's Town: A David Spandau Novel
by Daniel Depp

I guess when you're the half-brother of an A-list actor and your debut novel is an LA noir/Hollywood satire, you open the book with an author's note that starts:

They are not They.
He, She, or It, is not You.

Daniel Depp has written a sharp and stylish mystery. It opens with thugs Potts and Squiers running an errand for their boss, Ritchie Stella. Stella's a night club owner, drug dealer, organized criminal, and wanna-be motion picture producer. He's sent Potts and Squiers to remove a body from the home of newly-minted film star Bobby Dye. Just in case Bobby doesn't realize that he owes Stella big time, some highly incriminating photos are taken at the scene. Armed with these, Stella asks Bobby to star in a film he wants to produce. The script's a stinker, and if he knows anything, Bobby knows that doing Stella's film will kill his burgeoning career. He needs help.

It is at this point that we meet our protagonist, David Spandau, a private eye we've been promised to see in future novels. Spandau's a former Hollywood stuntman and a part-time rodeo performer. He wears Armani suits with cowboy boots. His philosophy: "When all else fails, just be taller." What else do you need to know about the guy? He's good at his job, still hung up on his ex, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. Spandau decides he's going to solve the Stella problem, despite being hired, fired, and quitting the job any number of times throughout the book.

There's nothing really special or unusual about the plot of the novel, and I don't know that plotting is Depp's strength. I'm torn when it comes to the characters. Spandau's entertaining enough. And Potts turned out to be a pretty interesting character. A thug with a rich internal life, he's a good guy at heart, but he does some very bad things. Then there's Terry McGuinn, an associate of Spandau's. He's five foot six, a martial arts genius, catnip for the ladies, and has an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife. I guess that's it. Depp has gone a bit overboard making all of his characters... characters. They're all so special and idiosyncratic. It's a bit much, but they really are entertaining.

Where Depp really shines is with his prose and his dialog, both of which are wonderfully witty and fun to read aloud. The banter is fast-paced and humorous, and yes, the language is salty. I find myself amazed by how many people are deeply offended by a little cussing. The irony is, even Spandau doesn't appreciate the language, repeatedly telling other characters, "I've got better things to do... than sit around and be verbally abused." Anyway, if you're easily offended, you probably won't appreciate the dialog--but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Depp's other strength is just knowing the world he's writing about. Insights into the privileges and pitfalls of fame ring true. His working knowledge of the film industry and the characters therein provide plenty of material for his satirical eye. Depp's got a fine sense of humor, but not everything in this novel is a joke, and there's a good blend of comic and more serious elements. I didn't have tremendous expectations going into this novel, but I liked it enough that I'll definitely be checking out the next in the series.

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It wasn't always the City of Lights

Pictures at an Exhibition
by Sara Houghteling

Pictures at an Exhibition is the story of the Berenzon family, as told through the eyes of son Max. Max's father Daniel is one of the premiere art dealers in Paris. He sells the works of their next-door neighbor, Pablo Picasso, and has an exclusive contract with Henri Matisse. Works by Sisley, Degas, Lautrec, Manet, and too many others to name pass through the Berenzon Gallery. They are a wealthy and respected family. And while they're not religious in the least, like many of the art dealers of the time, they are Jewish.

Max was raised surrounded by great works of art. Every evening, his father would drill him on memorizing each work from exhibitions of the past. Max has always assumed that he would one day inherit the gallery. However, when Max is a teenager, Daniel informs him that he can't "with good conscience" pass the gallery down to him. Daniel doesn't believe Max has the right abilities and temperament to fill the role. It would be an understatement to say that Max has some "daddy issues."

So, as the story gets going in 1939, nineteen-year-old Max is studying to be a doctor. His father has just taken on the latest in a series of apprentices. Max typically resents these interlopers, but Rose Clément is different. She is beautiful, independent, awe-inspiring. It is love at first sight. It's not long before a relationship of sorts begins between Max and Rose. But no matter how many ways Max shows his love for her, Rose clings to her independence. Their romance, the business of the gallery, and everything else are put on hold with the outbreak of the war.

Rose is working furiously with the staff at the Louvre to safeguard the artworks. Daniel puts 250 of his most valuable paintings in the vault at the Chase Bank. More are hidden in a secret basement room in the gallery. Max and his parents flee the city and hide in the countryside. They stay away from Paris for several years, and we don't see them again until their return in 1944. Someone else is living in their house. The gallery is a wreck, and all the artwork has been found and stolen. Likewise, the art that was in Chase Bank is gone. Despite the fact that both Max and Daniel were born in France, they have been stripped of their citizenship. They have few rights, and almost no recourse for the injustices that have befallen their family. Their wealth is gone. Everything they had is gone.

Daniel decides to cut his losses and return to his wife in the country. Max, perhaps in an attempt to finally win his father's respect, stays in a wholly changed Paris to seek out their artwork through channels of varying legitimacy. It is Max's quest to find Rose, the art, and most of all himself that encompass the latter two thirds of the novel. It shouldn't come as a shock to any reader that it's a sad and difficult story.

I had a really conflicted response to this novel. In part, I'm sure, it was because of my own Jewish heritage. I'm no more religious than the characters in this book, but seriously, has anyone ever written a novel where the Jews lived happily ever after? It just gets depressing after a while. So, it would be accurate to say I had an emotional response to the book.

Intellectually, I loved every bit of this novel that was about the art. Whether it was ruminations on the works themselves, gossip about the artists, or details of how the French protected their treasures, I thought it was absolutely fascinating. Houghteling did a great job of providing an insiders view of a fascinating time in the art world.

I had a more difficult time relating to the main characters. At one point, Max says to Rose, "I couldn't understand you less." Bravo, Max, I thought. I shared his sentiment. But the truth is, I had a difficult time with Max, too. I don't think they were badly-drawn or unrealistic characters, just people that I had little in common with or understanding of. It made it a bit difficult to care that much about them or root for their romance.

There's an interesting author's note at the end of this novel. I was truly surprised by how much of the book came straight from the historical research. That went a ways towards explaining why parts of the novel were bogged down in details. All and all, even thought I wasn't fully invested in the character's stories, I was interested in learning about the time and place in which they lived. I'd recommend Pictures at an Exhibition for readers interested in art, history, or Jewish literature.

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The course of true love never did run smooth...

The Stepmother: A Novel
by Carrie Adams

Bea and Jimmy have a great relationship. They have three beautiful daughters ages 8, 9, and 14, and always seem to be there for each other. Also, they separated four years ago and divorced two years ago. Bea and Jimmy are the poster children for amicable divorce--that is until the day that Bea realizes that she's fallen back in love with her ex-husband. Coincidentally, it's the same day Jimmy tells her, "I've met someone."

That someone is Tessa King. Now, can I just stop right here and say that this is the second book in a row that I've read, and haven't realized it was a sequel until it was far too late to do anything about it. So, FYI, Tessa King is the protagonist of Adams' debut novel, The Godmother. It might have been nice to have known of her single girl looking-for-love back story, but truthfully I don't believe it's necessary to have read the first novel.

As I was saying, Tessa is introduced more than 60 pages in, which gave us plenty of time to really get to know Bea and Jimmy and see all that is good about their relationship. The first four chapters are all told from Bea's point of view, and I was rooting for her. Then, amazingly, the next several chapters were told from Tessa's point of view and I truly empathized with her! The novel switched POV between the two women every several chapters, and my allegiances continued to switch back and forth throughout the novel--through not strictly based on who was currently narrating. Sometimes I felt the most for Jimmy (or James, as Tessa calls him) and sometimes for the kids.

The point is, Carrie Adams did a terrific job of making these characters seem real and empathetic. Love triangles and modern family life are painful. I could really appreciate this difficult situation from all sides. I don't have to give a detailed synopsis of struggles with an unruly teenager, or family dysfunction, or second thoughts. I don't want to tell you the ups and downs these people go through. You'll want to experience that on your own. There's a lot of drama--which might stretch some readers' credulity--but it's no worse than what I've heard from people in real life.

Adams' writing is fine. I don't know that the London setting was integral to the story, but American readers may experience slight confusion over some references or slang. It's nothing too impenetrable. Overall, The Stepmother is an engaging family drama that occasionally veers towards melodrama. In a story like this not every character can live happily ever after, but as a man once said, "All's well that ends well."

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Ashes, ashes, all fall down!

The Domino Men
by Jonathan Barnes

London is engaged in a secret civil war. It's been raging for more than a century between the people of London and their rulers, the Windsor family. Okay, it's not really "the people," it's a shady group called "the Directorate" fighting on their behalf. And, yeah, the royals don't really rule anyone today, but you get my point. The Windsor's have sold the city's soul to an inhuman entity called Leviathan, and we are warned: He is coming.

Conscripted into this secret war is our protagonist, the aptly named Henry Lamb. Henry is a file clerk at the Civil Service Archive Unit. Shortly after his grandfather falls into a sudden coma, strange things begin to happen in Henry's life--such as his work transfer to the Directorate and his new (and very welcome) relationship with his landlady. Slowly at first, but eventually with greater and greater understanding, Henry comes to realize that everything he knows about the world and even about himself is now called into doubt. It is all much stranger and scarier than he previously believed.

Henry is writing his story for posterity from some point in the future. Right from the opening, Henry tells us that "time is now very short for me." About 100 pages in, suddenly the text becomes italicized, and a new narrator is telling a concurrent story. That is the story of the heir to the British throne, Prince Arthur Windsor. Arthur has his faults and weaknesses, and is being preyed upon by the mysterious Mr.Streater--a character with dialog so distinctive that I could literally hear his voice in my head. Arthur and Henry's stories fight for prominence through the rest of the novel, the struggle itself supposedly an indicator of Henry's eventual fate.

The Domino Men is rife with foreshadowing, but Jonathan Barnes has done a masterful job with the novel's construction. As I read, realizations would come to me--I am sure--exactly when Barnes intended for each epiphany to happen. Suddenly the light-bulb would snap on and I'd understand something important. And time and time again I'd flip back in the book to see all the exactingly placed clues. They were all there. Sometimes when I finally "got it" everything would be so right and so obvious, but all revelations came in their own time. Aside from the well-timed epiphanies, there were more than a few twists that managed to take me completely by surprise. By the end, I was extremely satisfied with all the major questions having been wrapped up, while still leaving a bit of room for a sequel--though I really don't believe that one is necessary.

On the subject of sequels, I had absolutely no clue The Domino Men was a sequel to The Somnambulist. I remembered being interested in reading The Somnambulist when it was first released, but I never got around to it. (I definitely will now.) The Domino Men was so deftly plotted however, that if I missed anything important by not reading the first book (set more than a century prior), it's not at all obvious to me.

The book is well-written, in a distinctly British style. The vocabulary alone is a joy to read, and though some turn their noses down at genre fiction, the use of language here is quite wonderful. Many times I paused to linger over a turn of phrase or sentence. There is a lot of humor that buoys the story as well. My biggest criticism, and the reason for the loss of one star, is that I believe that the novel could have been shorter. It dragged a bit in the middle and through the end. I'd find myself very caught up in what certainly felt like a dénouement, and I'd find myself thinking, "There's another 150 pages? No, not possible!" The book was never boring, but I do think it could have been slightly condensed.

I'm extremely grateful to have discovered this young author at this time. I am very much looking forward to now reading the first part of this tale, and will likewise be very interested in seeing where Mr. Barnes goes next. This novel is highly recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman and other writers of contemporary fantasy.

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I wanted to like it more...

Going to See the Elephant
by Rodes Fishburne

I can empathize with Rodes Fishburne, I really can. San Francisco is the most magical, whimsical, passionate, and beautiful city I've ever lived in. I hate to write, and even I could wax rhapsodic about this place. However, a great setting does not a compelling story make. At least, not always.

Going to See the Elephant (and it is a great title) is essentially the coming of age story of San Francisco newcomer Slater Brown. No, he's not a teenager. He's in his early twenties and he's come to SF to be a Writer. His dream is the write... something that will endure the ages. It's an immature dream, and Slater has a lot of learning to do in the course of the novel. First, though, he needs a job.

That he finds at the fourth-rate newspaper, The Morning Trumpet. Slater aspires to be an ace reporter. Instead, he is summarily fired after submitting his first article. That is until fate, or something like it, intervenes. And here there is a bizarre, supernatural plot device that is never really explained--although I kept waiting for something more, right up until the end of the novel. Anyway, suddenly young Slater has all the scoops any reporter could want. He's a powerbroker, a man-about-town, beloved of the people, and hated by those with secrets to hide. Most notably, he has made an enemy of the Mayor of San Francisco.

Along the way, he meets a beautiful and mysterious girl and a brilliant and mysterious inventor. He pursues both. You can pretty much guess how the girl subplot goes, and I really don't even know what to say about Milo Magnet and his incredible weather experimentation. I didn't really see the point at all. In the end, our hero learns his life lessons and has grown up a bit.

So, as I said above, I really wanted to like this novel. It had so many elements I love: humor, romance, San Francisco. But it never really worked for me. The humor wasn't really that funny. The satire--if that's what it was meant to be--not that sharp. The romance, frankly, not that interesting. The protagonist, I'm afraid, not that interesting.

I'm glad this novel speaks to many people. I sincerely wish I was one of them because I was really looking forward to reading it. Mr. Fishburne has talent. Perhaps his next novel will be more to my liking.

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The most Crichtonesqe novel since Crichton

by Daniel Suarez

Few readers were more saddened by the premature death of Michael Crichton than I was. Ever since his death (and truthfully even before it) I'd read any novel that promised to introduce "the next Crichton." Invariably, I'd come away disappointed. Until Daemon. Daniel Suarez's debut novel gave me hope for the future of smart, complex techno-thrillers. What a read! What a find! Thank you, Amazon Vine!

Daemon is the story of... Well, it's a little hard to summarize. The catalyst of this novel is the death (from brain cancer) of Matthew Sobol. Sobol is the young, multi-millionaire genius behind a computer gaming empire. Specifically, he made his fortune designing MMORPGs, and if you're like me, you're a reader who doesn't know squat about Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games. That's okay, you'll get educated along the way.

So, Matthew Sobol spent a lot of time thinking about society and the world we live in as his death approached, and apparently he found it lacking. Or, perhaps, the tumors in his brain drove him mad. Take your pick. In either case, Sobol set in motion an elaborate plan that would be kicked off, only after a computer read of his obituary in the news. That was the catalyst that released the eponymous computer daemon into the world.

For those that don't know (i.e. me), a daemon is a process that runs in the background and performs a specified operation at predefined times or in response to certain events. And that's precisely what Sobol's Daemon does. The obituary triggers the murders of some of the programmers that took part in the daemon's creation--in quite creative ways, I might add. And that is literally the start of the novel, and how we get introduced to homicide detective Peter Sebeck. Pete is our everyman, the one who asks the questions about technology so that the reader doesn't have to. And initially, it seemed that Sebeck would be the protagonist of a fairly typical police procedural. I could not have been more wrong.

First, rather than have a single (or a few) protagonists and antagonists, Suarez tells his tale with an ever-expanding cast. It's very hard to tell who will be a major character and who will make a brief appearance, never to be seen again. And even among the more major characters, don't get too attached, because no one is safe in this novel. This daemon is playing for keeps. Through the computer attacks, it is almost as if Sobol still lives (all the while begging the question: How do you punish a dead man?). He makes phone calls. He sends videos. And he punishes anyone who gets in the way of his destructive plans. He also rewards those who help him, because even the most powerful computers in the world need occasional human henchmen.

The way Sobol recruits from among society's disgruntled and disenfranchised reminded me so much of Randall Flagg in Stephen King's The Stand that I'm inclined to believe it's Suarez's homage to the man. I found it a little hard to believe how many people were willing to sell their soul to the daemon, but what do I know. Interestingly, none of the heroes in this novel is all good, and none of the villains is all bad. It certainly made for more interesting reading. Sometimes I couldn't even figure out who the good guys were.

Crichton has long been criticized for writing underdeveloped characters. Suarez, quite frankly, isn't even trying to develop many of the characters, sometimes populating entire chapters with characters notated only by the agencies they represent: CIA, FBI, NSA, DARPA, and so on. The stakes in this novel certainly do expand beyond the Thousand Oaks Police Department. The daemon is an enormous, world-wide danger.

The pace of this novel is relentless, and more than a few plot twists took me completely by surprise, including an enormous shocker in the final pages. The novel comes to a satisfying enough conclusion, but quite a few threads are left unresolved. I was sort of okay with the things left up in the air--food for thought, you know--but Publisher's Weekly promises a sequel. I am so there!

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An entertaining debut

The Book of Unholy Mischief: A Novel
by Elle Newmark

I read A LOT of thrillers, and can I just say that it's nice to see a talented female writer enter the scene? There aren't many women who write true thrillers, and Elle Newmark is off to a good start.

Please don't let me mislead you by first commenting on her gender. There's nothing particularly feminine or "chick litty" about The Book of Unholy Mischief. On the contrary, there are very few women even in the novel, and in general they aren't very nice. It is the story of Luciano, an orphan raised (barely) on the streets of 15th century Venice. He's had to learn to run and hide and steal to survive. Along with a few rag-tag friends, he's managed a subsistence living up until the day he's caught stealing a pommegranite. The man who catches Luciano in the act is the head chef of the Doge of Venice. Fearing the worst, Luciano is shocked when instead of being punished he is brought into the palace and given a job as the chef's apprentice. There, he's fed and warm and safe for the first time in his life.

But he's also privvy to intrigue, and there are secrets being discussed in the palace, on the streets, and throughout all of Italy. Specifically, everyone seems to be on the lookout for a mysterious book. The book holds wonders--though no one seems to be exactly sure what they are. But all agree that book is fabulously valuable. The chef, Luciano's now-trusted "Maestro," seems to know more of these matters than he rightly should. Soon Luciano is drawn into the heart of the intrigue, and again finds himself fighting for his life. His years on the street have prepared him for the tests he faces.

This is a fun, fast-paced read. The 15th century Venetian setting was fascinating and convincingly-drawn, without being one of those intricately-researched epics that drags on and on for hundreds of pages of description. Newmark paints a scene, but doesn't belabor the matter. Likewise, the characters were interesting and believable. The plot itself wasn't entirely unfamiliar, but I felt like there were aspects of the story that were pleasingly fresh. Particularly the revelation of what the book actually is.

I'd recommend The Book of Unholy Mischief for fans of this sort of fiction, and will myself look forward to seing what Ms. Newmark comes up with next.

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An unexceptional but entertaining novel

Never Tell a Lie: A Novel of Suspense
by Hallie Ephron

As this novel opens, we are introduced to the seemingly idyllic suburban life of David and Ivy Rose. The high-school sweethearts have been married for ten years, and after three painful miscarriages, they are finally expecting their first child. Imminently--Ivy is about nine months pregnant, and is in full nesting glory. She and David are clearing junk out of their house and selling whatever they can in a yard sale. At the sale, they are approached by Melinda White, an old high-school acquaintance they haven't seen in years. This unpopular ugly duckling has blossomed into a swan. So much so that Ivy and David can barely believe it's the same woman. Melinda is also enormously pregnant, and seems eager to catch up with the Roses. Unfortunately, despite her new look, she's as socially awkward as she was as a teenager. Ivy appears to be desperate to escape her company, so David offers Melinda a tour of their house. Problem solved, and soon David and Ivy are back to their normal routine.

That is, until two days later they return from a doctor's appointment to find a police cruiser parked in front of their house. Suddenly the police are asking questions about Melinda. She hasn't been seen since their yard sale. In fact, literally no one saw her exit the house after she entered with David. And then incriminating physical evidence starts to turn up that neither Ivy nor David can explain. The police are doing everything possible to put a wedge between the couple. Soon Ivy (through who's eyes the story is viewed) has begun to doubt everything she believes to be true.

In the headline above I called the book unexceptional but entertaining. It's a quick, uncomplicated read, and I don't mind admitting that sometimes that's exactly what I'm in the mood for. Ephron does such a good job salting hints and clues throughout the novel that a savvy reader won't have too much difficulty figuring out what's going on before the Roses and the police do. Nonetheless, once the action gets going (really only after the cops show up) things move along briskly and I found myself reading past midnight to finish the novel in a single day. Truthfully, I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend Never Tell a Lie, but if you're a fan of Mary Higgins Clark and her ilk, you'll probably enjoy it.

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Non-fiction to rival the wildest adventures!

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann

I'm a huge fan of classic and contemporary tales of adventure, but I don't normally read much non-fiction. However, David Grann's The Lost City of Z sounded too irresistible to ignore. My instincts were right; it ranks among the best thrillers I've read. What a story!

Actually, it's two stories. The first is the life story of Victorian explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett. A member of the Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett was an explorer in the days when much of the globe was truly unknown. He came from a family of modest means, and began his career in the British military stationed in Ceylon. But he achieved worldwide acclaim as an explorer of the Amazonian jungles and river ways.

Grann's book is most concerned with Fawcett's last fateful expedition, but throughout the first couple hundred pages, he recounts Fawcett's entire career and it's enthralling. It's hard to imagine the bravery it took to strike out into the absolute unknown--with little or no communication with civilization--sometimes for years at a time. Fawcett and his companions routinely faced starvation, bloodthirsty indigenous tribes, horrific insect infestations, lethal tropical diseases, deadly white-water rapids, poisonous snakes, anacondas, piranha, and other terrifying creatures. If, for instance, you're wondering what's so horrific about insects, then you haven't been treated to a graphic description of what it's like when a living human is infested with maggots beneath their skin.

Fawcett and his men (always men) faced death constantly, and it seems that he must have lost hundreds of men in the course of his career. Perhaps not hundreds. Fawcett, unlike many of his contemporaries believed in keeping expeditions small. He was far more successful than most. The chapters that detail Fawcett's interactions with the native populations of the Amazon are among the most fascinating. Fawcett followed his own instincts which often were in direct opposition of conventional wisdom. Time after time he succeeded where others failed, and where the difference between success and failure was the difference between life and death.

Here's the other thing about Percy Fawcett: I think he was the Forrest Gump of his time. His story is touched on directly or indirectly by a truly staggering number of historic figures including Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Pickford, Ian Fleming, Winston Churchill, H. Rider Haggard, TE Lawrence, and even Indiana Jones!

As fascinating as every aspect of Fawcett's story is, the real hook is the enduring mystery of Fawcett's last expedition. Over the course of his long career, Fawcett had developed a hypothesis that there was once a great civilization in the depths of the Amazon. An El Dorado-like city that he simply called "Z." This is what he single-mindedly sought at the end of his career. In 1925, accompanied by his son and a friend, Fawcett entered the jungle determined to locate the lost city of Z--and was never heard from again.

He didn't go quietly. Readers around the world waited with bated breath to learn his fate. The story was routinely resurrected for decades. In the eighty-some years since, hundreds have entered the jungle hot on his trail. Many have never returned. Author David Grann is the most recent in a long line of would-be explorers obsessed with this mystery.

And it is Grann's tale that is the second story being told. He's an unlikely adventurer--a not particularly athletic, middle-aged staff writer for The New Yorker. But Grann does get caught up in the course of researching the book. So much so that he leaves his comfortable urban life, his wife, and his infant son to enter the Brazilian jungle. Like so many others, he seeks to find out what truly happened to Fawcett, and/or if there really was a Z. We follow Grann's progress interspersed between the chapters about Fawcett. One of the most shocking aspects of Grann's expedition is just how much the Amazon has changed since Fawcett's day. Grann doesn't dwell overly on the ecological ramifications, but the juxtaposition is disturbing.

Time and time again I had to restrain myself from turning to the back of the book to see how it ends. I was as caught up in the outcome as I have been with any novel in recent memory. Success was so unlikely; I just couldn't imagine how Grann's quest would end. And I'm certainly not going to tell you. Go read this book! Run! Now!

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Male fantasy fulfillment - an erotic page-turner

Night of the Furies
by David Angsten

I wanted to devour this novel as soon as it was published because I'd LOVED Angsten's debut thriller, Dark Gold. But I'm mildly obsessed with saving just the right novel for my Thanksgiving flights, so delayed gratification it was. The book was definitely worth the wait, and made for excellent airplane reading.

Dark Gold was set to great effect in Mexico. Here, Angsten takes us most evocatively to Greece. Note to self: Never travel with David Angsten. In Angsten's hands, even the most appealing destinations are filled with menace and terror. As the novel opens, we are reintroduced to brothers Jack and Dan Duran. Readers of Dark Gold will remember them from the first novel, but I'd have to say quite emphatically that knowledge of their earlier exploits is unnecessary. Prior events are touched on only in passing. This makes sense, of course, so as not to alienate new readers, but I was mildly disappointed that there wasn't more... continuity. More on that in a moment.

Jack and Dan, joined by Dan's girlfriend Phoebe, are on a covert mission. They're quite illegally visiting the historic site of the Oracle of Delphi in the middle of the night. Dan is indulging in one of his strange investigations, and with proper homage to history, and a canister of ethylene (which supposedly caused the original visions) they've got the perfect set up for Phoebe to provide a prophesy. Which she does--along with the warning, "The Furies are coming!"

The warning, however, is dismissed, and soon Phoebe has to return to her archeological dig. Jack, too, is planning to move on, when Dan gets a call from an old roommate, Basri. With a trust-fund, a yacht, and some wildly libidinous ways, Basri makes an ideal stand-in for Dionysus. He tempts Dan and Jack into a wild pleasure cruise on his yacht full of Hellenic beauties. Before embarking, the brothers are given yet another warning, and here I grew frustrated. ANOTHER yacht full of dangerous beauties? Seriously, Jack, will you EVER learn? Surely after the events in Mexico he should have been somewhat more circumspect?

See? That's how you can tell I'm a woman, because basically these guys were being offered an enormous Greek orgy, and pretty much nothing was going to keep them off that boat. I can't tell much more, except to say that there's a whole lot of sex and then things go downhill with staggering speed. I have to imagine that male readers are going to love the more... graphic aspects of the novel. Yeah, Angsten really goes there. For the women, well, I suppose it depends on the woman. There is a lot of eroticism in this novel, but it's meant to be somewhat disturbing, and it is.

Jack and Dan have gotten themselves into trouble unlike, quite frankly, anything I've seen in fiction. The front end of the novel is loaded with a significant amount of exposition. It's slightly unfortunate, but Angsten does a good job of giving readers an education on Greece and its art, history, mythology, and religion. It's quite interesting, and the lessons are put to good use within the plot. Once events get going, the pace moves along at a break-neck speed. Angsten really excels at writing chapters that end on hooks so that you literally find yourself unable to put the book down. It's precisely what I'm looking for on a transcontinental flight.

I waffled over whether to give this novel four or five stars. The plot, while riveting, isn't all that convoluted or complex. However, there were some pretty delightful revelations late in the game. There were ridiculous male fantasy-fulfilling sex scenes, but I can't honestly call them gratuitous. There was a deplorable lack of sea monsters, but, uh, that's my own personal bias. And I guess I can't blame the author if his characters sometimes act like idiots. In the end, a slightly generous five stars for tremendous action, pacing, and sheer outlandish fun!

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A book to rekindle my interest in a fascinating subject

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process
by Irene M. Pepperberg

All my life, I have been fascinated with the idea of cross-species communication. As a young girl, I devoured books about the ape language experiments and John C. Lilly's work with dolphins. It is mildly surprising, therefore, that I missed out on the news about Alex the talking parrot. I don't recall hearing one thing about Pepperberg's work with him until I heard about this book. And knew that I had to read it.

Alex was an African gray parrot who worked with scientist Irene Pepperberg for about thirty years. The book actually opens and ends with discussion of Alex's untimely death at the age of 31 in September of 2007. Now, I was not a fan of this animal, and am not particularly fond of birds, but I sobbed like an idiot over Pepperberg's reminiscences and the pages of notes and tributes that she received after his death. You'd have to be hard-hearted indeed to be immune. And apparently Alex touched many, many lives in his own unique way. None more so than the scientist who worked with him.

Pepperberg seems to be a bit of an odd bird herself. She had a strange upbringing and was by her own account socially awkward. Awkward, but wicked smart. She excelled academically and despite her interest in biology devoted herself to the study of chemistry, eventually earning a Ph.D. in the field. Unfortunately, by the time she completed her matriculation she realized her true interests lay elsewhere. Late in the game she made the switch to animal behavior. Her unusual background was one of many professional hindrances Pepperberg describes through the course of this book. There were never enough research grants, or lab space, or open minds. Well, all good stories need conflict.

And the real story here is about the work she and Alex achieved over the course of his life. African grays are among the best talkers in the avian world. Pepperberg's idea to embark on language studies with a bird was fairly revolutionary back in the 70's. The experiments Pepperberg describes and the results achieved are unquestionably fascinating. And far from being a mere test subject, Alex as described has a personality that's larger than life.

Alex & Me is very interesting on multiple levels--as far as it goes. But ultimately, that was my biggest frustration with this book. Totaling a scant 240 pages, the book never really went into anything in depth. Partly it is a memoir of Pepperberg's life, but everything is discussed fairly superficially--her childhood, her relationship with her husband, their eventual divorce, professional rivalries, and various friendships. Names of people are plugged in throughout the book, but not one other human is fleshed out significantly. Likewise, the science was absolutely riveting, but too often for my liking Pepperberg glossed over the details of her work, perhaps fearing she'd bore lay readers. It left me craving much more information, but to it's credit, Alex & Me did reawaken my interest in this subject.

Comments (3) Permalink Most recent comment: Jan 5, 2009 1:50 PM PST

Absolutely the best mystery I've read in ages!

The Whiskey Rebels: A Novel
by David Liss

I have never considered myself especially a fan of historical fiction. Nonetheless, quite a few of my favorite novels fall into that category. Honestly, I sort of love these books in spite of their period setting, not because of it. That said, The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is the best mystery I've read in a long, long time.

It's set in a period I know little about--post-Revolutionary War America. Again, to be honest, my knowledge of American history in general doesn't go much beyond what I learned in grammar school. It bored me senseless because they never taught the really interesting stuff in school. Liss's tale of the Whisky Rebellion (which I had literally never heard of) was complex and riveting. Our hero, of sorts, is Ethan Saunders, a thoroughly disgraced former Revolutionary War spy. He was framed as a traitor to the revolution, ultimately causing him to loose the woman he loved, Cynthia Pearson. In the years since, attended by his slave, Leonidas, Saunders has become a penniless, womanizing drunkard. It sounds bad, and it is bad. This man formerly of sterling character has fallen truly low. Still, for all his many flaws, Ethan Saunders is utterly charming. The man charmed my socks right off, and it is his charisma and humor that caused me so much delight throughout this novel. Mr. Liss, I beg you, bring back Ethan Saunders in future novels!

The actually mystery is quite convoluted, and a bit difficult to sum up in a few sentences. It has to do with the early American economy, and given my ignorance of history and economics, I had to pay close attention to follow everything that took place. But that, too, was the pleasure of this novel. It was complex. It was challenging. There was a large cast of characters, with some appearances by people even I remember learning about, such as Alexander Hamilton. This is an intricate 500-page mystery. There were twists and turns and surprises aplenty. At no point could I have guessed how it was going to end. So, in all ways, it was everything a mystery should be. In addition, it was a romance, a buddy story, a history lesson, an espionage novel, and more. I was fascinated, for instance, with the relationship between Ethan and Leonidas, which was unlike any I'd read about before. The Whiskey Rebels is highly recommended for readers of all stripes and inclinations.

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Every American needs to read this book!

Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother is one of those books that can make you an evangelist. You start recommending it to everyone you know. Then to people you barely know. Then you start walking up to random strangers... Okay, not quite. But this is a book that I really think SHOULD be read be every informed citizen. Let me tell you what it's about, and hopefully you'll see why.

As the book opens, Marcus coerces three close friends into ditching high school so that their team can play their favorite online/real world clue hunting game. They're out and about in San Francisco when they hear and feel a massive explosion. Suddenly, there is chaos everywhere, and one of Marcus's friends is hurt. Being kids, they look to authority to help in a time of crisis. They try to flag down either the cops or an ambulance, but who they actually get to stop are some military guys. From there, things start happening fast. Marcus and his friends are detained on U.S. soil for six days and treated like terrorists, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eventually, three of the four kids are released and severely threatened not to tell what happened to them. They don't even know what became of their injured friend. The ordeal affects the three in different ways. As they get back into "normal life," they discover that life is anything but normal. Homeland Security has taken over San Francisco. Being San Francisco, the city protests. The louder the protests, the tighter Homeland Security grips down on the city. This causes even more extreme forms of protest, and suddenly it's like a vicious circle between the rights of the people and the control of the government--for our "protection." Marcus and his friends are intimately caught up in the events that follow an act of terror they had nothing to do with.

This is being marketed as a young adult novel only because the protagonists are teenagers, but I am a 39-year-old woman, and let me tell you--this book is freakin' scary! Not in a Stephen King sort of way, but in a so realistic I can see this stuff already happening in the world around me sort of way. I AM a San Franciscan, so I can smile at the entirely realistic way the reactions of this city's inhabitants was portrayed. Setting the story here was brilliant, because, yeah, San Francisco does not sit idly by. But you don't have to be radical in the least to be worried by what Doctorow has eerily predicted in this novel. And once you've read it, you'll look at a lot of things happening in the world today with new eyes. And then you too many become an evangelist.

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Slow moving but filled with insights

I See You Everywhere
by Julia Glass

I've been laid up with an injury for several weeks, and I've been reading up a storm. I have been FLYING though the pages. Julia Glass's I See You Everywhere dragged me to a grinding stop. It must have taken me two weeks to read this short 300-page novel. I know that sounds bad, but on the contrary, I thought the novel was phenomenal. I'm not sure why it took me so long to read. What I can say is that the deeper into the novel I got, the more I liked it. And the longer the stretches of time that I devoted to reading, the more I liked it.

The novel is a character study of two sisters, Louisa and Clem(entine) Jardine, who are very different women. I See You Everywhere spans 25 years of their lives, starting when Louisa is a surly 24-year-old, and Clem is only 20. Their story is told episodically, beginning in 1980, and skipping ahead years (or sometimes only months). Through viewing their lives through these snapshot windows of time, you see how radically their lives change and how the women change--and how they stay the same. The maturation of each of these women rang so true to me. For the most part, the chapters alternated between the points of view of each sister. In the beginning, it was tricky figuring out which one was talking, and frankly, trying to remember which sister was which. But as I got to know these ladies, that was no longer a problem. Often times, one sister would recollect an event we experienced first-hand through the eyes of the other, and I always found these overlaps, or recollections of past events already depicted, especially interesting.

Each time we would check in with one of the characters, I'd await with interest the clues that would let me know where she was in her life. Does she live in the same city? Is she with the same man? Does she have the same job? The answer was usually "no." My life would be much the same if viewed every few years. It's easy to forget how much changes over time. This constant moving forward kept my interest up. While I wouldn't describe this as a plot-driven novel, at one point a development shocked me to the core. I yelled, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!" alone in my apartment. While it was shocking, it was also believable. Take care what you read about this novel, so as not to ruin a considerable surprise.

I found myself reading the chapter titles carefully. They were so clever, and often had multiple meanings. When I finally realized the full significance of the novel's odd title, I just loved it.

I opened talking about how slowly I read this novel. Part of the reason may have been me just stopping to reflect on what I had read. Not so much the beauty of the sentences, but what struck me as some deeply truthful insights into the characters or into life in general. I have a feeling this novel will stick with me for a long time. I am one of two sisters. We really aren't very much like Clem and Louisa except that we are so unlike each other. I may have to share this book with her. So we can disagree about it.

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So much more palatable when fictionalized...

American Wife: A Novel
by Curtis Sittenfeld

Someone recently asked me why I enjoyed this novel so much, and all I could come up with was, "It was a really good story. It's entertaining." I should probably elaborate on that.

American Wife is an account of the ordinary and extraordinary life of a fictional First Lady. By all accounts it is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush, and Mrs. Bush does share some commonalities with our heroine, Alice Lindgren. For instance, both are avid readers and former librarians. Both married wealthy, connected, affable underachievers. Both came from a middleclass background. But, of course, Alice is not Laura Bush.

I do not count myself among Mrs. Bush's admirers, so I'm not overly familiar with her real life story. Truly, it left me wondering just how parallel the story being told by Curtis Sittenfeld was with that of the First Lady. Did Mrs. Bush have to overcome a trauma early in life as did Sittenfeld's heroine? Did she grow up with a live-in grandmother? Honestly, I don't think I care enough to find out--though I sure would love to stumble upon a magazine article spelling everything out, LOL.

What I do know is this: I have never spent a single minute wondering what it would be like to be First Lady. Does any little girl (or big girl) seriously dream of such things? Certainly our protagonist Alice didn't. She's an everywoman, and as such I found her personable and relatable. The fairy tale story of her life was fascinating to me, in the way that real life never has been, perhaps due to a lack of imagination on my part. Truthfully, I feel like this novel gave me a little more empathy for those who live in the White House than watching eight or nine seasons of The West Wing ever did.

I read this novel while house-bound with an injury. I'd been laid up for a while, and had been reading A LOT. I was, in fact, a bit stir crazy. When I started American Wife, it grabbed me right away. I turned pages gleefully for hours on end. It entertained me more than I would have ever guessed. In the end, can you ask for more than that?

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Always remember. Never Forget.

Sarah's Key
by Tatiana de Rosnay

The message of Tatiana de Rosnay's new novel is never forget the atrocities of World War II. That very message is spelled out several times in the text. But it's hard to remember history that you've never learned, and a story you've never heard. De Rosnay's novel aims to rectify that for one dark event in France's history.

In July of 1942, thousands of Parisian Jews were rounded up in the middle of the night and corralled in the Vélodrome d'Hiver or the Vél' d'Hiv' for short. They were predominantly women and children, because many Jewish men had gone into hiding. After days of being kept in inhumane conditions and in fear for their lives, these families were shipped off to internment camps outside Paris, and eventually almost all were murdered in Auschwitz. For obvious reasons, this is not a proud moment in French history--because it wasn't even the Nazi's who did this. It was French police and French officials who perpetrated this crime. It is an event that is largely forgotten today. I, for one, had never heard of it.

The first half of the novel is broken into two narratives. One, set in 1942, is the story of 10-year-old Sarah. When the police come to her family's door, Sarah's 4-year-old brother Michael hides in a secret cupboard the two of them play in. They keep water and a flashlight in there, so Sarah lets Michael stay hidden in the locked cupboard. She pockets the key, assuming that they'll be returning in a few hours. She promises Michael that she'll be back soon.

In short alternating chapters, we are also following the story of American journalist Julia Jarmond. Julia's married to a Frenchman and has lived in Paris for more than half her life. She writes for a magazine for expatriates living abroad, and is assigned an article on the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' roundups. Julia is unfamiliar with this event, but is quickly shocked by the extent that Parisians have whitewashed this unflattering event from their history. Not only do most not remember the events, but many people she talks to actively resist hearing about it. But, like a good journalist, Julia follows leads, meets the right people, and becomes very emotional about telling this story. Eventually, Julia realizes that this piece of forgotten history intersects with a part of her family-by-marriage's history. No one wants her to dig into the past, and when all the ghosts are eventually revealed, the responses of those whose lives are touched are fascinating.

It is no surprise that Julia's research intersects with Sarah's story. Eventually the two narratives merge into one story now being told from Julia's perspective. But much of the tension that keeps you turning pages quickly is your desperate desire, like Sarah's, to learn Michael's fate. However, that truly is not the whole novel. There is more to Julia Jarmond than just her role as a researcher. I felt that the novel had something to say about who the protagonists and who the villains are in the stories we live. Not just in times of war, but even in a marriage. Conflict is viewed from differing angles, and things are not as clear cut as you may initially think. Characters are depicted in shades of gray, which always makes for interesting reading.

I read this novel in a single day. It's hard to "enjoy" such a tragic story. I wondered at the way the author skipped back and forth in time so rapidly at the beginning of the book--back and forth, every few pages. But as the ordeal became more and more intense, and genuinely moving, I was grateful not to linger overly long in Sarah's world. Yes, the ending is a little cheesy, but this is a novel well worth reading. It's a compelling story, and one that should be remembered.

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Possibly I am an idiot...

Home: A Novel
by Marilynne Robinson
Edition: Audio CD

...because it took me so long to realize that this was a period novel set decades ago. Home is a claustrophobic novel set in small town Iowa and peopled with devout Christians. It might as well have been set on another planet for all that I know about that world. Which doesn't make it bad--obviously--but possibly I wasn't the best reader of this novel.

Lest you think that I'm a reader unfamiliar with or unappreciative of literary fiction, that is not the case. Robinson's novel is the very definition of character-driven literature. The reason I described it as claustrophobic above is that the story revolves around only three characters, and for the vast majority of the novel, they are the only three people you encounter. The brief scenes that allowed in other characters were such a relief!

The story is told from the point of view of 38-year-old Glory, the youngest of the eight children of Reverend Robert Boughton. Glory has recently moved home to Gilead, Iowa to care for her elderly father. Gradually we learn of the disappointments of her life. The household is shaken early in the novel by a letter from one of the middle sons, Jack. Glory was still a girl when Jack left home in disgrace 20 years ago. He has not been seen and barely heard from in all the years since, to the point that no one knew if he was alive or dead.

And the family has had cause to wonder about Jack's status and whereabouts. Growing up, he was always the rebellious one. Always in trouble at home, at school, and even with the law. When Jack returns to his father's home in Gilead, explanations about where he's been, why he stayed away for so long, and why he has suddenly returned are not quickly forthcoming. Jack has clearly had a hard life. He is struggling with alcoholism. He is trying to be a better person, but he is profoundly damaged. It was mostly Jack's story, as it was gently exposed, that kept my interest in the novel. Glory was kind, steady, dependable, but a bit bland. And the father--mostly he bugged me.

A big part of my annoyance with the character of Robert Boughton was the voice used by audiobook reader Maggi-Meg Reed when delivering his lines. OMG, it was like chalk scraping against a chalkboard! And a ridiculous number of his lines either began with or consisted entirely of the word, "Yes." It was grating. I've noticed that readers of the book seem to have enjoyed the experience more than listeners of the audiobook. Possibly I would have enjoyed the experience more through my eyes than my ears, as that is typically how I consume books. But that still wouldn't have saved me from a protracted theological debate on disc seven that left me wanting to throw the book across the room. But, hey, that's me.

I wished these characters spent less time walking on eggshells and more time engaged in honest conflict. But that's not who these people were, apparently. The ending of the novel was perfect, beautifully written and moving. It made me consider adding an extra star to my review, but in the end I decided not to. There will be enough accolades for Robinson, and my honest reaction to this book was mixed. Is Home a brilliant and nuanced character study? Probably. People smarter than me seem to think so. But there were a few times that I found the dialog preposterous. The story is slow, and there's no getting around the fact that it's a downer. Am I glad I read it? Yeah. I'm so overdue reading a Robinson novel. Alas, this has not inspired me to grab up the copy of Gilead that's been sitting on my shelf for four years, but maybe I'll give Housekeeping a whirl.

Comments (6) Permalink Most recent comment: Jan 4, 2009 2:22 PM PST

Friday, March 13, 2009

When we are born, we cry, that we are come to this great stage of fools

Fool: A Novel
by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore is at his best when he stretches himself. He can keep cranking out amusing books set in Pine Cove and San Francisco, and I will joyfully continue reading them. But it is the rarer and more challenging works (such as his prior novel LAMB) that I really look forward to with relish.

Fool is Moore's take on Shakespeare in general and King Lear in particular. Once again, Moore has set himself the challenge of finding the comedy in an epic tragedy. In Fool, now that I think of it, he uses a device similar to the one he used in LAMB--a charming and ridiculous narrator. This is Lear told from the point of view of the court jester, Pocket, a character as endearing as any that Moore has written. Through Pocket's eyes we learn more about the goings on in Castle Lear than we have been privy to in the past. And, we learn the fool's own fascinating life story. It is possible that devotees of the Shakespearean original did not realize that the Lear household actually revolved around the fool?

I don't know that there's much point in giving you a Cliff's Notes version of the plot. Lear was the elderly king of all Britain. As the play/novel opens, he has decided to divide his kingdom among his three adult daughters. The division will be determined by who loves him the most. (That's fair, right?) The two eldest, Goneril and Regan flatter him mightily. Only the youngest, Cordelia, speaks truthfully and modestly of her love for her father. But her sincerity is lost on Lear. He flies into a rage. He disinherits Cordelia and divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan and their respective husbands. Lear's best friend Kent says, "Hey, this is crazy. What are you doing?" and gets banished for his trouble. And so it begins, eventually leading to murder, war, madness, and so forth. This ringing any bells?

You may be asking, "Where's the fool?" That's just it. Pocket is everywhere. He's telling the story. He is the witness to it all. He knows the entire back story, has all the family secrets, knows how those three girls lost their virginity, etc. And you know that's going to come up, because this is a Christopher Moore novel, after all. Shakespeare may be hallowed ground to some, but Chris Moore isn't above throwing in a little bathroom humor, some gratuitous sex, and a joke or two that'll make you groan. Actually, I don't think Will Shakespeare was above any of those devices himself. Some of the humor is terribly erudite and sophisticated and some is well, idiotic. (Literally, as it happens.) Say what you will, this novel is laugh-out-loud funny!

I'll be honest, there were times when the mixture of comedy and tragedy clashed a little uncomfortably for me. It's a freakin' depressing story, y'all! But Moore's twisted take on Shakespeare and his obvious love and respect for the Bard are all but brilliant. Bravo, Chris! Do keep stretching those literary and creative muscles. This is your best work in years.

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Harkaway just might be brilliant

The Gone-Away World
by Nick Harkaway

I'm a reader given to pronouncements like: I hate science fiction. And for the most part it's really not my cup of tea. Well, The Gone Away World is undeniably science fiction, and it is the most interesting novel I've read in quite some time. The back copy on the galley I read compared it to Kurt Vonnegut meets Joseph Heller meets Mad Max. I immediately assumed that was hyperbole of the worst kind, but damn if that doesn't sum it up perfectly!

How can I describe the plot? As the novel opens, we're in a post-apocalyptic version of the world we know. We meet our first-person narrator and his team of trouble-shooting compatriots. Something possibly disastrous has happened, and they're off to save the day--as long as they'll be adequately compensated for the job. That's what they do. They're the Haulage & Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County, a tight-knit group of life-long friends and war buddies.

The first chapter was about 30 pages, and I have to admit it was very strange and confusing, but undeniably funny. After that first chapter set in the novel's present, the clock is rolled back several decades, and the next 275 pages tells the life story of the unnamed narrator. And suddenly the book became far more accessible, because there were references to things like Elvis Presley and Tupperware. It was a world I could recognize. And gradually all the weird stuff from the first chapter was explained. What was the "Go Away War," why it was called that, and how the radically altered (not for the better, I can assure you) world came to be. It's a strange, deeply disturbing story leavened with a lot of humor and some wonderfully whimsical and likeable characters.

Around the 300 page mark, we are back where we were at the top of the novel, and our heroes are off to save the world. But nothing goes according to plan. And just when you think you've got a grasp on the rules of this strange world and this odd novel, Harkaway pulls the rug from under your feet and suddenly all the rules change and everything you think you know has changed!

This is a dense and challenging 500-page novel. Some parts of it are wonderfully light and comic. Other parts were so dark and disturbing I wasn't sure I wanted to continue reading. But I did continue, often forcing friends to listen to me read pages of text aloud. The language is fabulous and the many tangents and asides are priceless--such as a meandering discussion of the role of sheep in times of war. Other times it's a single sentence such as: "You have to worry about someone even mimes find creepy." that you want to stitch onto a pillow and place on your couch.

I wouldn't recommend this novel to everyone I know, but for readers with an open mind and a tolerance for absurdity, satire, and speculative fiction it's a must read. It may be one of the best debut novels I've ever read. It is the most interesting novel--period--that I've read in years.

Comments (2) Permalink Most recent comment: Oct 14, 2008 9:53 AM

How did a Catholic boy write this?

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter: A Novel
by Peter Manseau

I am a secular Jew. Like myself, this novel is far more ethnic than religious. It's incredibly Jewish, but at the same time wonderfully inclusive. What I mean is, you do NOT have to be Jewish to read and enjoy this novel. In fact, it is a tale literally being told by an outsider.

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a story within a story. On the surface, it is the fictionalized autobiography of Itsik Malpesh, "the last Yiddish poet in America." Born in 1903 in the middle of a Russian pogrom, Malpesh leads a picaresque life that takes him from the town of his birth to Odessa, from Odessa to New York, and eventually to Baltimore, Maryland. It's a long, eventful, tragic, dramatic, funny, and occasionally joyful life. In the course of its telling, Malpesh documents anti-Semitism in the old world, the birth of Israel, the death of Yiddish, the American immigrant experience, and a saga of star-crossed love. But it's so much more. Itsik's is such a human story! It's beautiful and compelling and grabbed me right from the opening pages.

The story within this story comes in the form of copious "translator's notes." Itsik's memoir was written in his native tongue, Yiddish. His story is being filtered through an unlikely translator, a young, non-Jewish, college grad with an all-but-useless theology degree. The most marketable of his skills is his knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet. It's enough to get him a job in a warehouse of Yiddish literature run by a Jewish organization. Bored beyond belief, this nameless narrator teaches himself the language and embarks on his own journey which eventually leads to nonagenarian Itsik Malpesh.

Amazingly, Itsik's story and the narrator's story have strange little connections that reminded me of the subtle connections between the stories in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. However, these coincidental connections shouldn't have surprised, as the past never really seemed to stay the past in Itsik's long life. People came and went and reappeared when and where you least expected them. Or perhaps where you most expected them. Call backs and foreshadowing were used to good effect, and overall the writing of this debut was impressive. The story started to drag just a bit late in the novel, but the ending was so satisfying that it hardly seems worth mentioning. This is a truly auspicious debut, and I will be waiting with considerable interest to see what Peter Manseau writes next.

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Two stars for the novel, four stars for the recipes

Belle in the Big Apple: A Novel with Recipes
by Brooke Parkhurst

By the time I requested a review copy of this novel through the Amazon Vine program, I could already see the very mixed to negative reviews. But I thought to myself, "Perhaps they're not really chick-lit fans." And I must admit that I was very intrigued by the idea of a novel with recipes. Intrigued enough to want to check it out for myself.

Unfortunately, the only conclusion I can come to is that this is a very badly written debut novel. It's essentially a fish out of water story. Southern Belle comes to the Big Apple to make it big. While not the most original premise, it definitely could have worked. Belle gets a job with a conservative cable news network. As the author is a former employee of Fox News, she might have had some fun with that. Unfortunately, the writing was honestly just tedious. Ideas were poorly expressed.

Possibly my biggest problem was with the protagonist herself. Helen Feilding made me relate to a hard-drinking, chain-smoking Londoner. Jennifer Weiner made me relate to a zaftig, East Coast Jewess. There was absolutely nothing relatable in Belle. I felt absolutely no kinship with her, and really didn't like her very much. When the character is unlikeable, you don't really care if they ultimately succeed, so even the ending held little satisfaction.

What was the one great thing about this novel? The recipes! They really are great, and were intergrated into the text in fun ways. I can't wait to try a few out.

Comments (2) Permalink Most recent comment: Sep 22, 2008 10:17 AM PDT

A No-Spoiler Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a layered and nuanced mystery with so many different plot threads and intrigues that it's a shame to ruin any of the twists and turns. The novel opens with Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger reluctantly opening a package on his 82nd birthday. It's another anonymously-posted pressed flower, the same gift he has received every year since his beloved grand-niece Harriet disappeared back in 1966. He believes that her murderer is tormenting him.

Elsewhere, financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist is being handed down his sentence in criminal court. He has been convicted of libeling the wealthy and powerful Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, and it seems they take libel rather seriously in Sweden. It carries a steep fine and jail time. His career in shambles, Mikael is offered an unusual freelance job. Henrik Vanger wants him to move out to the country, ostensibly to write a history of the Vanger family. In reality, Mikael is being hired to investigate Harriet's disappearance 36 years prior--one last time with fresh eyes. Vanger has been obsessively investigating the crime for decades and has never been able to move on with his life.

As much as he doesn't want the job, Mikael is coerced into accepting the proverbial offer he can't refuse. It's a fascinating writing project, an enormous paycheck when he most needs it, and one more thing...Vanger promises to give Mikael dirt on Wennerstrom that will stick when the end of his one-year contract is up.

Where, you may be asking, is this eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo? She is Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old private investigator who enters the story gradually. She is hired by Vanger's lawyer to investigate Mikael Blomkvist before the job offer is made. After that early introduction, we follow her exploits occasionally, and it is no surprise when she eventually gets dragged further into the heart of the story. Lisbeth is a very different sort of literary character. Warm and fuzzy she's not. In fact, there seems to be something... wrong with her. But we only get tantalizing bits of information about her background, and how she has come to be in the position that she's in. Nonetheless, Lisbeth, with her many gifts and many flaws is the perfect counterpoint to nice guy Mikael. (I literally lost count of how many times he proclaimed to someone, "I want to be your friend.")

This novel had a long dénouement, as there were so many different storylines to wrap up. Naturally, there was far more to the case of Harriet, the goings-on of the Vanger family, and even the libel case with Wennerstrom than immediately meet the eye. The novel is deftly plotted, and the conclusions are deeply satisfying, all the while paving the way for the two sequels Larsson wrote before his untimely death. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been a monster bestseller in Europe, and is likely to become one here as well. It has no literary pretensions, but it's a well-written, fast-paced story with richly imagined characters. If that's your cup of tea, by all means, dive right in.

Comment (1) Permalink Most recent comment: Sep 1, 2008 2:39 PM PDT

Send in the Nimitz!

Supreme Courtship
by Christopher Buckley

There are some authors who--even when they're not at their best--are so much better than almost anyone or anything else. Christopher Buckley is just such an author.

I don't think that Supreme Courtship is his strongest work. The satire isn't quite as clever and cutting as some of what he's done in the past. I'd call it "Buckley light." That said, you'd have to be made of stone not to get a giggle from this book. It's just silly and fun.

In the novel, the US is governed by a wildly unpopular president. (I'm not even going to say anything here.) Not only is he unpopular with the people, he's even more unpopular with his own congress. (He vetoes all of their pork barrel projects.) As revenge, the senate subcommittee eviscerates every Supreme Court nominee he sends their way, no matter how honorable and qualified. It's painful to watch. At his wits end, in an attempt to nominate an untouchable, he nominates Pepper Cartwright, America's favorite television judge. Hilarity ensues!

Not only is Buckley lampooning all three branches of the federal government, he takes pot shots at reality television, the uninformed populace, and possibly the writers of The West Wing. Again, this is a very light and fluffy book. If you're looking for in-depth insight into the workings of the Supreme Court, you're barking up the wrong tree. If, however, you're looking for a pleasant and not too challenging way to pass a few hours, you could do a lot worse. Christopher Buckley makes me smile. And you'll never look at the Nimitz the same way again, LOL.

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Ripped from the headlines?

The 19th Wife: A Novel
by David Ebershoff

When I heard what this novel was about, I immediately wanted to read it. The reason is that I've been so intrigued by news accounts of groups like the polygamous fundamentalists featured in this novel. For me, it was like a window into another world.

The story opens with 20-year-old Jordan Scott reading the news online. He sees a photo of a woman being placed into a police car and suddenly realizes that it's his mother! He hasn't seen her since she and his father left him by the side of the highway with $17 dollars in his pocket at the age of 14. You see, Jordan was raised in Utah in a polygamous Mormon sect--an extremist offshoot of the contemporary Mormon Church. Jordan's mom was #19 of his dad's 25 or so wives, and Jordan was raised with about 100 siblings. It's a very different upbringing. Sadly, at the age of 14, Jordan was excommunicated for a non-existent offence, and cast out from his home, family, and the life he'd known. But he's a survivor, and he's made a life for himself in LA.

Seeing that his mother has been arrested for the murder of his father, Jordan realizes that he must return home and face his past. He goes to visit his mother in jail, and she tells him, "I didn't do it!" and begs for his help. With all the conflicted feelings you would imagine, Jordan begins his own investigation into the murder case, and for the first time in years has contact with his former life. Despite the pain this sometimes brings him, he makes friends along the way, and they're a fascinating and diverse group of allies.

This contemporary murder mystery would be more than enough story for your average novel, but in this case, it's only half of it. For the chapters about Jordan and the murder mystery alternate with another story. It's the fictionalized memoir of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, one of the early founders of the Mormon Church. The very formation of the Church, right through its first several decades, are seen through Ann Eliza's eyes. She was a real historic character who did write a memoir about her life, marriage to the decades-older Young, eventual divorce, and crusade against polygamy in the Church.

Ebershoff has woven these two tales together magnificently. I can't claim to have known much about the Mormon faith, its history, or any current issues in the religion, but I was equally fascinated by both stories being told. I realize there's a limit to what a person can learn from a fictional work, but this novel appears to have been meticulously researched. (There's a great author's note at the end.) It's a hefty book, but well-written, compelling, exotic, and more than anything one hell of a story.

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More "Adult" than "Young"

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Several weeks ago I had dinner with a writer of adult mystery novels. During the course of the evening, she raved to me about a young adult novel she'd read called The Hunger Games. While I don't read a lot of YA fiction, I would say that I'm more open to it than many a childless adult. And her recommendation must have stuck in my head, because when I saw it offered through Amazon's Vine program, I jumped at the chance to read the book. Yesterday I wrote her a thank you note because I loved The Hunger Games as much as she had, and I doubt I'd have given it a second glance if not for her raves.

The novel is set in a dystopian country called Panem--a place that was once North America. There have been wars and uprisings in Panem's past, and now the 12 districts that make up the land are ruled over with severity by the government in the Capitol. There are many ways that the populace is kept in its place, but perhaps the harshest is the annual Hunger Games. By edict, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 is randomly drawn from each district to compete in a fight to the death. The last one of these 24 left standing will win lifetime fame and fortune, and the entire nation is forced to watch these children kill each other live on television.

The first-person narrator of this gripping and fast-paced thriller is 16-year-old Katniss. When her 12-year-old sister is selected, Katniss knows the little girl will never survive, and volunteers to take her place. Katniss has been providing for her family for years, and has learned to show a tough face to the world. Still, nothing could possibly prepare her for what she's about to face. Visiting the Capitol for the first time, she experiences luxury and excess beyond her wildest imagination. On the field of battle, she experiences the best and worst of humanity.

The premise of this novel may seem a bit worn to you. I know that other writers have trod this territory before. And yet... it makes a good story, these human struggles. And Suzanne Collins has crafted a compelling and moving tale. I can tell you that I read 384 pages in a day because I COULD NOT PUT THE BOOK DOWN! I will also admit to sobbing unabashedly at one point in the novel. There's so much more to the story than just the fight to the death. There is a fascinating and disturbing culture explored, complicated relationships, and complex ethical dilemmas. You may think you know how the novel has to end, but don't be so sure. The novelist is clever. This narrative does come to a definitive conclusion, but there is room for more to be told in this story. One aspect is left unresolved. I have absolutely no idea where this is going to go (Isn't that wonderful!), but I can't wait for the sequel!

Comment (1) Permalink Most recent comment: Aug 18, 2008 4:11 PM PDT

I loved this book. I LOVED this book!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer

How many ways can I say that I loved this book? It may well end up being my favorite read of the year. And why not? In many ways, this story is like a love letter to books and the joy of reading.

As you have, no doubt, read before, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel. It is told entirely through correspondence, and takes place in 1946, just as Europe is trying to heal in the wake of WWII. The ostensible protagonist of this novel is Juliet Ashton, a thirty-two-year-old writer from London--though it is really an ensemble piece filled to overflowing with heart-warming characters.

The story begins when Juliet receives a letter from a stranger, Dawsey Adams, who lives on Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands. He has come into possession of an old book of Juliet's--one that had her former address written inside the cover. Dawsey is interested in learning more about the author of the book, and he's come to Juliet for help.

A casual reference by Dawsey to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society eventually leads Juliet to explore the war-time experiences of the residents of Guernsey. The island was occupied by the Germans for five years, and Juliet believes this should be the subject of her next book. So begins a correspondence that grows to encompass dozens of characters who range geographically from London to Guernsey to Scotland, France, and Australia. In the course of her research, and getting to know the residents of Guernsey first on the page, and then in person, Juliet finds her life altered in ways she never could have imagined.

This novel, and these lovely characters, had me grinning from ear-to-ear for the entirely too short time it took me to read the book. I don't mean to imply that it's cute, or twee, or precious in any way. On the contrary, as with any story involving war, there is a measure of tragedy. But still, somehow, every time I even think about this story (which is quite a bit in the days since I read it) I find myself smiling. All I want to do is share it with all of my favorite people, so that they too can have the pleasure of reading it for the first time. What a pure delight!

Comment (1) Permalink Most recent comment: Aug 8, 2008 10:20 AM PDT