Monday, November 15, 2010

"A repository for human sadness"

Great House
by Nicole Krauss

I read The History of Love back in 2006. That was the beginning of my crush on Nicole Krauss. After that, I back-tracked and read her almost-as-delightful debut novel, Man Walks into a Room. Suffice it to say, I’ve been looking forward to Great House for a long time. Truthfully, this latest novel is my least favorite of the three. You’ll note that I still awarded it five stars. I don’t think Nicole Krauss is capable of publishing a novel worth less than five stars. Her writing is gorgeous. And her insight into complex emotional lives is dazzling. It’s not that Great House isn’t, well, great, but it is challenging.

If you flip through the pages of the book, you’ll notice something right away. The text is dense. There is virtually no white space on the pages, just long, almost unbroken paragraphs that make up a series of monologues. Or perhaps “confessions” is the more accurate word. The novel is structured in two parts. Each of those parts is comprised of four lengthy monologues—with the exception of the novel’s powerful final pages.

The book opens with 50-something Nadia, a solitary novelist living in New York. She is explaining her life to someone she addresses as “Your Honor.” Next we are with Aaron, an elderly Israeli reflecting upon the death of his beloved wife and his strained relationship with his son, Dov. Next is Arthur Bender—British and proper, the insecure husband of Holocaust survivor Lotte Berg, a woman with secrets. And finally we hear from Izzy, the youngest and sexiest of the narrators. Izzy is recounting a very slightly surreal love affair. In the second portion of the book, we spend some time with each of them again.

There is much talk amongst readers about a desk being the object that connects these diverse characters through distance and time. That’s not actually true. There are connections of varying subtlety, and the desk is one part of what connects some, but not all, of these characters. As Lance Armstrong might say, “It’s not about the desk.” It’s not even about the connections, really. Or, at least, I don’t believe that’s the point.

I got to know these characters reading Great House. I learned what propelled them, who they loved, what made them hurt. Especially what made them hurt, because there’s a lot of pain and sorrow and regret in these pages. These narrators are not cute, not joyful, and often not even very likeable. Nadia describes herself as “a person who was always falling through the ice, who had the opposite effect on others, immediately making them raise their hackles, as if they sensed their shins might be kicked.” And just as I began to warm to Aaron, it became clear that he was something of a monster. These are confessions. They are at times difficult to read. You won’t always understand the actions of the characters, but you will believe them. And you will feel their pain and the power of their stories and the beauty of Nicole Krauss’s words.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

After a couple weeks of fiction, I thought I'd mix things up this week with a non-fiction title, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal. I'm giving away a galley of this book that goes on sale on January 25, 2011. William Morrow is giving this book a big roll out, hoping that it will find the same success as Greg Mortenson's Three cups of Tea. However, at this time, I don't have a whole lot of info on the title. Blogger Deb Hoffman posted this elsewhere on the web:

In search of adventure, twenty-nine-year-old Conor Grennan left his secure home and job for a trip around the world. His first stop was as a volunteer at the Little Princes Children’s Home orphanage in war-torn Nepal. When Conor got there he was overrun with small children’s smiles and joys of welcome. Soon he found out that underneath, these children had endured being wrenched from their families and sold by human traffickers to become slaves. Conor vowed to keep the children safe and to ultimately reunite them with their families and villages. Often fraught with the inequalities of our world this book shows the determination of a handful of people to right the terrible wrongs that have been heaped on these children. Little Princes is a heartwarming story that highlights the tragedies of war that families have experienced and the changes that occurred within one man.
I'll be honest, this book isn't my cup of tea (three or otherwise). As readers of this blog know, I don't read much non-fiction, so I won't be reviewing this title here. But early reviews have been positive. I hope this book lands in the hands of a reader who will really enjoy it. Please post a comment below for a chance to win the book. A winner will be announced Friday afternoon. At that time, the winner has a week to send me a U.S. mailing address, or another name will be selected by random number generator.

Good luck!

UPDATED TO ADD: This book just got a rave, starred review in today's Publisher's Weekly:

Grennan, who once worked at the East West Institute in Prague, embarked on a round-the-world trip in 2006, starting with a stint volunteering for an orphanage six miles south of Kathmandu. The orphanage, called the Little Princes Children's Home, housed 18 children from the remote province of Humla, rescued from a notorious child trafficker who had bought the children from poor villagers terrified of the Maoist insurgents eager for new recruits; the parents hoped to keep their children safe, but the children often ended up as slaves. Grennan was stunned by the trauma endured by these children, who he grew to love over two months, and after completing his world tour, returned to the orphanage and vowed not only to locate seven Humla orphans who had vanished from a foster home, but also to find the parents of the children in the orphanage. This required starting up a nonprofit organization in America, Next Generation Nepal, raising funds, buying a house in Kathmandu for the children's home, and trekking into the mountains of Humla to locate the parents. Grennan's work is by turns self-pokingly humorous, exciting, and inspiring.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night…

The Distant Hours
by Kate Morton

Okay, that infamous line is never used, but it might as well have been. There were plenty of dark and stormy nights in this deliciously atmospheric novel of suspense. Like Ms. Morton’s previous novels, this is a tale told in two times. The “contemporary” story is set in 1992, and events are set in motion by the delivery of a letter 51 years late. Protagonist Edie Burchill is visiting her parents when the letter arrives, and she witnesses her mother’s unexpected and unexplained emotional response to the missive.

Questioning her mother, Meredith, Edie learns for the first time that her mother was evacuated from London during WWII. For over a year, she lived in the country with the sisters Blythe and their elderly father at gothic Castle Middlehurst. Meredith is inexplicably reticent to discuss her past. This is merely one more example of the distance that Edie has always felt with her mother. Edie finds the incident odd, but it fades quickly into the past—until months later, lost on a road trip, she stumbles upon Castle Middlehurst and her curiosity is fiercely awakened. On a whim, Edie arranges a tour of the castle and discovers, among other things, that all three sisters are alive and in residence. After several introductory chapters setting up the story, the book moves back and forth between Edie’s answer-seeking in 1992, and chapters set during the actual events that occurred between 1939 and 1941, seen from the POV of several of the story’s participants.

There is so much more to the story told in this epic novel. The Blythes are a literary family, and patriarch Raymond is the author of the children’s classic The True History of the Mud Man that inspired Edie’s love of literature and eventual career in publishing. Ms. Morton is a brilliant story-teller and knows exactly how to torture her readers with questions. What was in the letter Meredith received half a century late? What was the true inspiration of the Mud Man? Why is the parlor door kept locked? What was in Raymond’s will? What really happened that night in 1941?

So many questions. And Morton teases us along for hundreds of pages, stringing along answers like breadcrumbs for readers to follow. Kate Morton is very, very good at what she does. Though, after three novels, the similarities in the types of stories she tells and the themes therein have become quite evident. She’s going to need to shake things up before she starts to recycle too much. But for now, The Distant Hours is hard to beat for good old-fashioned entertainment value. It literally brought chills and goose bumps to my skin time and time again. Savor it on a dark and stormy night!

P.S.: Post a comment within the next 30 hours to the giveaway post (below this post, not in the comments section right here) for a chance to win this book!

Monday, November 8, 2010

BOOK GIVEAWAY: The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

A quick note: The winner of last week's giveaway has been posted in the Moonlight Mile thread.
This week's giveaway is by a terrific gothic author from down under. I've been reading and loving Kate Morton since she debuted in the US with The House at Riverton. I thought that The Forgotten Garden was even better. Now I'm deep into this 672-page galley, and Ms. Morton has not disappointed. I'll be posting a review as soon as I can find time to finish the book. For now, here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say in a starred review:

A letter posted in 1941 finally reaches its destination in 1992 with powerful repercussions for Edie Burchill, a London book editor, in this enthralling romantic thriller from Australian author Morton (The Forgotten Garden). At crumbling Milderhurst Castle live elderly twins Persephone and Seraphina and their younger half-sister, Juniper, the three eccentric spinster daughters of the late Raymond Blythe, author of The True History of the Mud Man, a children's classic Edie adores. Juniper addressed the letter to Meredith, Edie's mother, then a young teen evacuated to Milderhurst during the Blitz. Edie, who's later invited to write an introduction to a reprint of Raymond's masterpiece, visits the seedily alluring castle in search of answers. Why was her mother so shattered by the contents of a letter sent 51 years earlier? And what happened to soldier Thomas Cavill, Juniper's long-missing fiancé and Meredith's former teacher? Despite the many competing narratives, the answers will stun readers.
Reading that again, it makes me even more anxious to finish this book. And I'm delighted to share a galley with you. Anyone with an American mailing address is elegible. Please post a comment below for a chance to win. The winner will be choosen by a random number generator and posted Friday afternoon. The winner has a week to contact me at with a mailing address, or a second name will be chosen. Good luck!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Forget the candy—this was my Halloween treat!

The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten
by Harrison Geillor

I don’t remember when I’ve laughed as loud and as long as I did over the cover copy of The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor. The concept is genius, and the fake blurbs are hysterical. At this point, I should probably admit that I’m not a fan of Prairie Home Companion, zombies, or literary mash-ups, making this book an unlikely choice for me. What can I say? I judged this book by its cover.

And that turned out to be a not-entirely-accurate way to judge the interior contents. As I mentioned, the cover copy was laugh-out-loud funny and just a bit stupid. Based on that first impression, I have to say that the book was all-around better-written, better-plotted, and a lot less stupid than I expected. Also, the humor was different. It was funny and satirical, but less “in your face” than I expected.

The plot is easy to summarize. In fact, one character does just that, “The situation is this. The dead have come back to life, and they’re dangerous. Just like in some kind of horror movie or video game. When the corpses rise, there’s nothing human left in them, as far as I can tell, just a terrible hunger.” Lake Woebegotten does not exist in a pop-culture vacuum. Another character has taken a course in “The Zombie as Metaphor.” He kept up a running dialog throughout along the lines of, “It seems to me we’re dealing with the classic George Romero Night of the Living Dead sort of zombies, just straight-up reanimated corpses hungry for human flesh, probably brought to life by some form of cosmic radiation. You heard about the meteor shower last night, right? Who knows what came flying down from space?”

Oddly enough, this book reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s recent doorstop, Under the Dome. Both stories are basically a look at an entire small town full of people coping with a dangerous and otherworldly stressor. The town is made up of individuals with secrets, hidden agendas, and various strengths and weaknesses. It’s a perfect setting for drama and (as even Mr. King knows) comedy. As in, “Julie’s eyes had a strange light to them, and Otto wondered about her past, who she was, really, where she’d gone when she left town, why she’d come back….” Or, “Eileen hadn’t exactly developed a taste for blood, like some kind of tiger that eats one little Javanese boy and can’t abide the taste of anything by sweet, sweet manflesh after that, but she’d discovered she could kill both deliberately and in the heat of the moment if the job needed doing.”

The novel is structured in three parts, and here’s a great example of the pseudonymous author taking a more sophisticated and interesting approach to telling the story. The middle section is entitled, “Twenty-some Odd Scenes from the Winter, in No Particular Order, Certainly Not Chronological.” And that, of course, is exactly what it is. But by presenting these short chapters jumbled and out of order, he does a great job of creating narrative tension. It was this section that bumped the book up to 5 stars for me.

The one area that may disappoint is if you’re looking for some real scares. I’m widely-acknowledged to be huge scaredy-cat, but not even I had a moment’s fright over these zombies. And that’s the way I like it. But I laughed a lot, and got a fast, fun story with a perfect ending. My determination to stay far, far away from Minnesota is firmly reinforced.

Monday, November 1, 2010

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Yes, as at least one of you guessed, this week's giveaway is Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane. Unbelievably, this was my introduction to Mr. Lehane's work. I read it from cover to cover this weekend and absolutely loved it! (My full review is below.) It gives me great pleasure to share a galley of this excellent novel with you.

Please post a comment to this thread for your chance to win this book. The winner will be picked by a random number generator on Friday, and will be posted here. Winners have one week to contact me at with a U.S. mailing address, or I will draw a new name. And that's about it. Good luck!

How did I live this long without reading Dennis Lehane?

Moonlight Mile
by Dennis Lehane

Not only have I not read the books, I haven't even seen the movies--except one. I saw Gone Baby Gone, which is good because Moonlight Mile is the sequel to that book. So, I knew this book was a sequel when I picked it up, but I didn't actually realize it was the 6th book in a series. I don't generally like to start a series in the middle. Well, it's good I didn't know, or I might have missed out on a fabulous novel and delayed my introduction to Mr. Lehane further. If it's not already explicitly clear, I didn't find coming to this series late a problem. Exposition was used beautifully, not only to tell the back-story, but also to explicate character. That said, I'm pretty sure I spoiled several past novels for myself, but Lehane's writing is so strong and his characters so appealing, that it wouldn't stop me from reading the preceding books in the series.

The central characters in the series are private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. Angie's been out of the business for years, acting as stay-at-home mom for 4-year-old Gabby by day, and going to grad school by night. Patrick's trying to make ends meet working as a subcontractor for a high-end Boston investigative firm and hoping to get hired on permanently. Patrick and Angie have a life together. They're happy. And they don't discuss the McCready kidnapping from 12 years ago. If their marriage has a third rail, the outcome of that case is it. And all is well until Bea McCready contacts Patrick: Amanda is missing again.

Amanda is no longer a 4-year-old cutie. By all accounts, she's a remarkably self-sufficient 16-year-old young woman. Despite the privations of her upbringing, she's a brilliant and successful student. However, Amanda may be a little too smart for her own good, and may have learned some life-skills that no teenager should know. As Patrick and Angie are drawn back into a world they hoped they'd left, the twists and turns kept me flipping pages like mad. There was one revelation that was obvious to me, but two pages later there was a jaw-dropping shocker. Time and time again Lehane managed to surprise me. This was an undeniably excellent mystery.

And despite the thrilling plot, even as a new-comer to this well established series, this novel was all about character for me. Whenever I can hear characters' voices in my head (instead of my own reading voice), I know that an author has brought them completely and totally to life for me. It doesn't happen that often. But, Patrick, Angie, and the many supporting characters were beautifully drawn. Wow, my first taste of the celebrated Mr. Lehane and I am hooked!

Friday, October 29, 2010

You *are* what you read

The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide
by Eva Talmadge & Justin Taylor

I've never considered getting a tattoo. They're fine, but never held any personal appeal... until I saw The Word Made Flesh. It's a photo essay of literary tattoos, and in addition to the fine editors who put the book together, it owes its success to the creativity and literacy of the individuals pictured within. Don't expect to see a lot of smiling faces. Most photographs are disembodied arms, legs, and other assorted body parts.

The tats pictured take all forms. Many are literary quotations, and it's quite fascinating to see the words that moved a reader so profoundly that he or she literally wanted them to become part of their selves. Other tattoos were recreations of cover art, illustrations, bookish logos, punctuation marks, and even portraits of authors.

One of the sequences that interested me most was a press release and a series of photographs from "The Skin Project." Writer Shelley Jackson has penned a 2,095-word short story entitled "Skin." It will never be published anywhere. The only place it is being printed is word by word on the bodies of volunteers. The only individuals who will ever be privileged to read the entire text are the tattooed "words." Five of them are pictured. And once the "words" die, the story will be gone. Very cool.

While the photographs are the central focus of the book (and they're nicely shot and pleasingly laid out), the text is likewise pleasing and diverse. Much of the text is made up of brief discussions of the tattoos in the bearers' own words, which are almost always interesting. The editors do a good job, as well, keeping things mixed up. I mentioned the press release earlier. At one point, a two-page short story that inspired a tattoo is printed in its entirety. Elsewhere, a man talks about his tattoo, and the writer quoted responds to being immortalized in this manner.

The pictures in this book are awesome! But after I'd done the quick flip, I went back and read every word of text. Literature is my greatest love, and I dig people who have been permanently marked by their reading. And I really dig this little book!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Eight weeks of winners!

So, for the past couple of years, I've done a pretty good job keeping up with this blog... Until this September. What can I say? The past few months have been brutal. I've spent so much time traveling and attending literary events (the National Book Festival, Bouchercon, the Northern California Independent Booksellers' Association Trade Show, Thrillerfest, Litquake, etc.) that I haven't had time to write about them. September was a month of exhaustion and writers block. Happily, with some hard work I've caught up with most of my reviewing.

To reward the readers who have stuck around (I know you're out there. The site counter records you lurkers.) and new readers who visit the site, I've decided to give away a book a week (most of them Advance Reader Copies) for the next eight weeks. I've got some really fantastic titles to share! (A few of them are pictured above.)

Here's how it will work: Every Monday, starting November 1st, I'll make an announcement about the giveaway of the week. You'll have until the following Friday to leave a comment on the book of the week post. That comment is all you need to do to enter. On Friday afternoon, a random number generator will pick that week's winner. I'll post the name of the winner, and you've got one week to contact me with a mailing address. I'm really sorry, but I'm going to limit this contest to those with a U.S. mailing address. I have to do the shipping and pay the postage, and I need to keep this fun and managable. I'll post a new giveaway for the next eight weeks, with the final book drawn on December 24th. Uh, it's like eight weeks of Hannukah!

A clue to next week's giveaway: This hardback novel goes on sale on November 2nd, and will surely race up the bestseller list. Any guesses? Check back on Monday and enter to win!

These Tales never grow old

Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel
by Armistead Maupin

I'd never been to San Francisco when I read the first five Tales of the City books. Armisted Maupin had created this wacky, wonderful city that seemed as fictional as the setting of any fantasy. I saved book six for my first visit to San Francisco, and once I arrived, I discovered the magical city that Maupin had created was exactly as described. On that first visit to San Francisco, I called my best friend and said, "I'm pulling a Mary Ann." I've been here nearly a decade.

I relate the above to explain that these books have had a fairly significant influence on my life. These characters are dear friends. And at one point I did very much empathize with series protagonist Mary Ann Singleton. Over time, we grew apart. I didn't understand all the choices she had made. Now Mary Ann and I are both a lot older than we were when we first met. After all this time, it is such a pure delight to catch up with her!

Alas, things aren't going so well on her end--on a variety of levels. Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." For Mary Ann, that place is San Francisco, with Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. He and his husband Ben don't let her down. In addition to Mary Ann's crises, this novel spends significant time checking in with Michael's business partner, Jake, and Mary Ann's adopted daughter, Shawna. An extra bonus in this novel, for long-time devotees like me, is that one of the plot elements ties back to the very first Tales novel.

I read this novel in no time flat. It was a joy from start to finish! (Oh, and if I weren't blurring the lines between fact and fiction enough already, a real life acquaintance of mine makes a cameo appearance in the book! That's a first.) Armisted Maupin makes what he does look so easy, almost as if he's channeling the members of this non-traditional family. (The "logical family" as opposed to the biological family, as Anna Madrigal would say.) He imbues his tales with such humor and such heart. The stories are completely over the top, yet grounded in an emotional reality. No one does this better.

Armisted, I am so grateful that you're again telling tales of the city. I hope to visit with these friends for many years to come.

"Something happened to little girls that grew up watching their mothers being hit... It was a peculiar law of attraction."

Law of Attraction: A Novel
by Allison Leotta

Until reading Allison Leotta's novel, Law of Attraction, I'd forgotten just how much I enjoy legal thrillers. This debut is a pleasure from start to finish. The central character is Anna Curtis, a freshly-minted Assistant U. S. Attorney. Anna prosecutes misdemeanor domestic violence cases, and as the novel opens we witness the Laprea Johnson case from the first intake. Anna's opposing counsel for the trial is an old law school pal, Nick Wagner. Despite a strong attraction, Anna knows that she can't get involved with a public defender--and certainly not one she's up against! But after the unsatisfactory conclusion of the Johnson case, Anna and Nick's relationship changes. And it changes once more when they find themselves on opposing sides of the Johnson case for a second time.

While it is no doubt annoying for a novelist to be compared to her fictional creation, it is clear that Allison and Anna share more than a hair color. Allison Leotta also graduated Harvard Law and became an AUSA in Washington, DC. Her intimate familiarity with Anna's world really shows. She is unquestionably strongest when writing from Anna's POV, and somewhat weaker when channeling her inner city characters. At one point one of them claims, "All due respect, Ms. Curtis, but you don't know my life." `Nuff said. Still, Leotta manages to create some interesting and layered characters.

For a novice novelist, she does an excellent job with exposition, and really explains the ins and outs of what prosecutors are up against. The prose and dialogue are strong as well. It's not that the writing is particularly beautiful, but it isn't clunky either. It's just easy reading without being dumb. The pages fly by and there's a welcome vein of humor throughout the book to relieve the dark subject matter.

With any mystery or thriller, it's really the plot that makes or breaks the story. I basically figured the whole thing out about halfway through the novel. (I'm clever like that.) When, 50 pages later, the protagonist was thinking along the same lines as me, I realized that perhaps the novelist was more clever than I had given her credit for and had tossed a few red herrings into the mix. In the end, I did get some of it right, but there were a heck of a lot of surprises along the way. This is a fast-paced book, and if somehow the mystery doesn't keep you completely riveted, there's a good chance the romantic aspect will. Things get a bit steamy.

While Law of Attraction isn't going to win any literary awards, it was a terrifically entertaining debut and was more than enough to satisfy me. This is an author to watch. I'm looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next!

And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes...

Mr. Toppit
by Charles Elton

When a reader decides to give a debut novel a try, all they have to base the decision on, really, is the book's description. That's what grabbed my interest in Mr. Toppit, Charles Elton's debut, and I was not disappointed. It's not a work of literary fiction that's going to set the world on fire, but is some pretty good story-telling.

The novel revolves primarily around two characters with a most unusual bond. The first is overweight, middle-aged Laurie Clow of Modesto, CA. It didn't take me long to see there was something a little... off about Laurie, a sort of desperation, almost. But even now it's hard to articulate exactly what it is about her. It's 1981, and Laurie is vacationing in England. She witnesses a terrible accident; a stranger is hit by a truck. She rushes to the scene and tries to comfort this man, Arthur Hayman, as he lay dying.

Later, at the hospital, Laurie somehow becomes attached to Arthur's grieving family: his wife, Martha; 17-year-old daughter, Rachel; and 13-year-old son, Luke. It is while visiting the family's home that Laurie learns Arthur was the author of five not especially successful children's novels called The Hayseed Chronicles. The protagonist of the series is Luke Hayseed, a character based on his son, and it is Luke Hayman who is the other central character of the tale.

The first half of the book relates how Laurie comes into the Hayman's dysfunctional lives, and how she is somehow transformed by her experience with Arthur. She's a bit obsessed by him, his family, and certainly by the books he wrote. As a character, I found her to be bizarre, and yet still entirely believable. There are a lot of odd people in the world, and by and large they're fascinating to watch.

Roughly the second half of the novel takes place five years later in LA. Laurie, almost single-handedly, has turned The Hayseed Chronicles into a world-wide phenomenon. Imagine that Harry Potter was identifiably based on a real kid. That's what Luke Hayman has been contending with. During a summer visit, we get to see the myriad ways his and Laurie's lives and relationships have changed. Throughout the novel, Elton manages to insert small mysteries and questions in a not too heavy-handed way, but gradually revelations do come about.

Not everything in this novel is a slam dunk. I wasn't sure that all the changes of perspective and POV were necessary or elegantly handled. Perhaps not every narrative thread paid off in the end, but I kind of enjoyed the diversions along the way. And there was so much to like. Amidst the darkness and drama, there is a lot of excellent satire going on. At times I was almost laughing aloud. And I found Luke to be sympathetic in a way that Laurie was not, and I cared about him and those he loved.

You may be wondering who the eponymous Mr. Toppit is. He's the mostly unseen villain of the Hayseed Chronicles. The events of all five books revolve around him, but he doesn't make a true appearance until the last line of the last book. As I read Mr. Elton's story, I wondered if Mr. Toppit would make a last minute appearance. It's not that simple. The final pages of the book cover several years, from the late 80's to the mid 90's. Did Mr. Toppit make an appearance? Maybe...

Not so tragic after all

Our Tragic Universe
by Scarlett Thomas

It has now been several weeks since I read Scarlett Thomas's Our Tragic Universe. The novel's description sounded hugely appealing to me, but 30 pages in, I wasn't loving it. In response to a friend's query I wrote, "My immediate response to the opening is slightly negative. I haven't really connected with the first-person narrator, the struggling novelist. And the book is not overtly funny yet. So far, it's sort of gray and gloomy and British, and seems to be peopled with not wildly likeable characters preoccupied with adultery. Of course, I have a nasty cold, and that could be coloring my perceptions. That said, I suspect that I will finish reading it, and I have a feeling that it will take a turn for the better."

I was right. It did get better, and I certainly did warm up to central character. Meg is a novelist. Sort of. She makes a living churning out ghost-written genre dreck and book reviews. She's been working on a serious literary novel for years now, but can't seem to get more than 43 words on the page. Yes, that's correct, 43 words. As the story progresses, we watch Meg struggle with her relationship, her friendships, finances, temptation, and her craft. There are many philosophical ruminations on the nature of story-telling. It's quite interesting--to a point. (Thomas lost me at the Zen koans.) Along the way, we meet some lovely characters and some not-so-lovely characters, and we get to laugh a bit. (Although the humor never was as overt as I expected.)

I've subsequently read and heard so many raves of this novel that I felt the need to marinate a bit before writing my review. While I did warm up to Our Tragic Universe, I'm afraid I still don't quite get the raves. It was enjoyable and well-written, but that's about as far as I'm willing to go. Give it a read and decide for yourself. If, however, it doesn't grab you right away, consider giving Ms. Thomas a bit of latitude to win you over.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Culture vultures, prepare to feast!

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
by Stephen Sondheim

If you are lucky, you will discover artists whose work speaks to you in a very profound way. For me, it's the paintings of Henri Matisse, the novels of John Irving, the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. I'm an unabashed fan.

Mr. Sondheim's new coffee table book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes, is a gift to us all. Before you even start reading the text, flip through it and you'll see that this is a gorgeous book. It is chock full of photographs--more than 200--many of them full page blowups. There are pictures and artwork from the productions, candid photos from Mr. Sondheim's personal collection, and images of his hand-written notes, lyrics, and sheet music. This book is richly and beautifully illustrated. The only small disappointment is that all images are black and white, but it is truly a minor complaint.

Once you've feasted your eyes, dive into the text. Almost immediately, you'll see that Mr. Sondheim has written his book with the care and precision with which he writes his songs. There's a slight formality to the tone (with the laying down of copious rules along the way), but at the same time, it's a very candid look at his work, his collaborators, his predecessors, and his life. For musicians or composers, there is much substantive information on his process. And for theater buffs like me, this book is a treasure! Mr. Sondheim's contributions are the apotheosis of musical theater. The shows recounted are theatrical history. Sadly, I'm too young to have seen the original productions of any of these 13 shows, but now I've heard about the drama behind the scenes of Merrily We Roll Along straight from the horse's mouth. I know his two regrets from West Side Story, what he really thinks of theater critics, how he wanted to plot A Little Night Music, and the influence of Hammerstein's Allegro on his career. The truth is, there is just so much packed into this book, it is simply impossible to even begin to summarize the contents.

This book is specifically dedicated to Mr. Sondheim's lyrics, and what a joy it was to sing, er... I mean, read my way through them. To give you an idea of how comprehensive Finishing the Hat is, every lyric of every song from the original production of Follies is included. Nine songs cut from the show are included, along with the reasons behind the changes. A revised lyric for a later London production is included. And altered versions of "I'm Still Here" (for Barbara Streisand and for the film Postcards from the Edge) are included. And always Mr. Sondheim's thoughts, observations, and occasional criticisms are shared, often through the use of extensive footnotes.

The book ends at Merrily, 423 pages in, with a provocative statement and the word INTERMISSION. This is indeed the intermission between the volumes of Mr. Sondheim's collected lyrics/memoir, the second of which will encompass the remainder of his storied career. I can only hope the second book is well into its production. As excited as I was to get my hands on this book, it is truly more than I could have hoped for. In the end, it's a fitting testament to an immense talent.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Entertaining, but unworthy of Gruen's talent

Ape House: A Novel
by Sara Gruen

Add my name to the long list of readers who were enamored with Sara Gruen's last novel, Water for Elephants. I could not have been more excited when I learned that her follow-up would deal with ape language experiments, as that's been a subject of great interest for years. This novel should have been a slam dunk in Sara Gruen's capable hands. But while it's undeniable that I enjoyed reading The Ape House, the word that came to mind over and over was "unworthy." In the hands of some average Joe writer, I would have been perfectly happy with this book, but Sara, you're better than this.

The novel opens with the New Year's Day visit (because apparently these people don't believe in holidays) of Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Thigpen and two colleagues to the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas City. John is there to talk not only to primatologist Isabel Duncan, but also to her charges--six bonobos who communicate very effectively with their human friends using American Sign Language or typing on a special computer.

The novel gets off to an absolutely charming start as we witness John's meeting with the apes. Things go reasonably well, and John is satisfied as he and his colleagues head home. Almost upon arrival, however, he learns that a shocking act of violence has taken place back in Kansas City, sending the lives of Isabel and her primate family (for that is what they are) into turmoil.

I had read this book prior to publication, and I didn't know what to expect plot-wise. Ms. Gruen certainly managed to surprise me with where she went. And it was all very interesting in a lurid, slightly sleazy way. I definitely kept turning the pages, but I felt the story being told was beneath her.

The bonobos were great, and I don't know how anyone could fail to fall in love with them, in person or on the page. Additionally, reporter Thigpen made an appealing everyman protagonist. I don't know that Isabel Duncan was his equal. I get that she's passionate. I get that she's traumatized. But I didn't feel that I ever got a sense of the woman behind her most obvious, plot-driven character traits. And while there are plenty of antagonists in this story, they're consistently painted in shades of black and white with no complexity at all.

What bugged me most of all, however, was that some of the plotting was absolutely by-the-numbers, and shockingly amateurish--nothing more so than the entire Pinegar sub-plot. Cringe-worthy. Look, there's a lot to like in this novel, but if you're expecting anything even nearly on par with Water for Elephants, you're going to be bitterly disappointed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tragicomedy, my favorite

Skippy Dies: A Novel
by Paul Murray

A 672-page novel is an investment, but Skippy Dies by Paul Murray gets so much right that I hardly know where to begin. Okay, I'm going to begin at the beginning...

The novel opens with the death of the eponymous Daniel "Skippy" Juster as the 14-year-old collapses in a donut shop. From there, we are taken back in time to the myriad events that lead up to that moment. And we spend the next 450 pages falling in love with Skippy, hoping for a different outcome. The following 200 pages are the aftermath, and are arguably the most compelling of a very compelling tale.

Now, a book about the death of a young boy sounds like a bummer--and Skippy's death is far from the only tragedy depicted--but as in life, the tragedy is balanced with high comedy. The novel is set at Seabrook College, an upscale private preparatory school in Ireland. This, the institution's 140th year, is a time of transition. The Catholic priests who have been in control for more than a century are beginning to take a back-seat to secular influences. (Yes, contemporary scandals in the Catholic Church are touched on within the plot, which may be objectionable to some readers, but it's not the focus of the story.)

While Skippy is certainly a central character, the novel is an ensemble piece. We meet Skippy's school pals, the older boys that bully them, the teachers and priests that teach them, the girls from the neighboring school, a smattering of parents and significant others. There's a plot. Many of them, in fact; it's an expansive novel and much happens along the way. But this story is character-driven, and that's where Murray excels. His characters are so, so delicious! Ruprecht, the idiosyncratic genius; Mario, the teenage lothario; Howard "The Coward" Fallon, a teacher searching for himself; and an acting principal you'll love to hate. He perfectly captures the sweet innocence of young boys, right along with their monstrous side. Every word, every action rings true. In Murray's novel, protagonists disappoint. Good things do not always happen to good people. But through it all, there is still so much to laugh about.

I could not be less interest in Irish school boys, but Paul Murray has written a universal tale that simply shines. The writing is fantastic, and just gets better and better as the novel unfolds. I loved it from start to finish. Don't let the length deter you from one of this year's finest reads.


DRACULAS (A Novel of Terror)
by Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Jeff Strand, & F. Paul Wilson

For a girl who claims to dislike vampire novels, I sure seem to be reading a lot lately. Five since the start of the year. From this, we can infer that either Susan is lying about her literary predilections, or that roughly eight percent of all books published today feature vampires. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

The refreshing thing about the current glut of vamp-lit is that no two writers take the same approach to the legendary beasts. Some are traditionalists, some are epidemiologists, some are humorists, and some just like gore. And in Draculas by Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson, there's a bit of all of the above. Back to that in a moment.

First, I'm going to comment on the collaborative nature of this novel. I've read books by a pair of authors, but never a quartet before. You could be forgiven for thinking that it's choppy or doesn't fit together properly. However, the truth is that Draculas is seamless. It was not the least bit obvious to me that different sections had been written by different men. For readers or writers interested in how the book was written, you're actually in luck. After the text of the novel, there's a section of "extras" (like DVD extras) including interviews, extra content, and extensive material (including correspondence between the four authors) detailing how the book was written. This won't be of interest to all readers, but it's a bonanza for those who want to go behind the scenes. The book is value added, if you will.

Okay, back to the story... The novel opens with a few tabloid accounts of a "vampire skull" with "thirty-two elongated, razor-sharp teeth" being unearthed by a Romanian farmer and being purchased by a wealthy Coloradan. He is Mortimer Moorecook, elderly and dying. At this point he's got more money than time, and it seems he's looking for a way to cheat death. When the skull finally arrives, he opens it in the company of his hospice nurse and a "biological anthropologist" he's hired to research the vampire legends. After a quick toast to celebrate his acquisition, he plunges the skull's horrific teeth into his neck and immediately goes into convulsions. The nurse and anthropologist get him to the hospital where, to their amazement, elderly Mortimer transforms into a kind of monster. A "dracula." And it's contagious. Soon, remote Blessed Crucifixion Hospital (ha!) is lousy with draculas and survivors are fighting for their lives and their humanity.

In the introduction, Joe Konrath (eschewing his Jack Kilborn pseudonym) explains that back in his day vampires were scary. They weren't sparkly heartthrobs. "This novel is an attempt to make them scary again." And it succeeds to a point, but it's also kind of funny. Not as overt as Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends, but on par with a film like Zombieland. (A funny film that completely freaked me out. I'm SUCH a lightweight.) Draculas is definitely taking the premise seriously, but there's a lot of humor in vampire tropes. Plus, several of the characters are downright amusing, such as the gun-toting sheriff's deputy who likes to quote Clint Eastwood dialogue to calm his nerves. And the fact that one of the characters is a clown. The little girl vampire that wanted to drink the "red candy" was just a touch precious in my opinion, but mostly the authors get the balance just right. It's creepy. It's fast-paced. And it may be just what you need to get in the Halloween spirit. Enjoy!

Yu's fanciful debut would have benefited from warp drive

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel
by Charles Yu

There's a great deal to like in Charles Yu's debut novel, and not much to hate. It's the story of a reclusive time machine repairman also named Charles Yu. Yu has sort of been drifting through life, a not very active participant. He lives in a closet-sized time machine with a fictional dog:

"It's not comfortable in here. But it's not not comfortable either. It's neutral, it's the null point on the comfort-discomfort axis, the exact fulcrum, the precise coordinate located between the half infinity of positive comfort values to the right and the half infinity of negative values on the left. To live in here is to live at the origin, at zero, neither present nor absent, a denial of self- and creature-hood to an arbitrarily small epsilon-delta limit. Can you live your whole life at zero? Can you live your entire life in the exact point between comfort and discomfort? You can in this device. My father designed it that way."

He has a crush on his computer's operating system:

"Is TAMMY's curvilinear pixel configuration kind of sexy? Yes it is. Does she have chestnut-colored hair and dark brown eyes behind pixilated librarian glasses and a voice like a cartoon princess? Yes and yes and yes. Have I ever, in all my time in this unit, ever done you know what to a screenshot of you know who? I'm not going to answer that."

For me, the principal joy of this novel was Yu's delightful use of language, often amusing and Jasper Fforde-clever, but also philosophical and even poignant at times. Where Fforde mostly sticks to peppering his novels with literary references, no aspect of pop culture is off-limits to Yu:

"Client call. Screen says


And my first thought is oh, man, wow, but when I get there, it's not you know who, with the man-blouse and soft boots and the proficiency at wielding light-based weapons. It's his son. Linus."

So, this is all charming, right? Where the book falls down is narrative drive. The novel opens with Yu offering some exposition about his life, the world, and the ins and outs of time travel. So far, so good. However, it bogs down in the middle. After the set-up, there's a meandering plot about Yu's search for his lost father, the inventor of time travel. The meta-fictional Yu reflects at length on his dysfunctional family and rambles in circles about the physics of time travel. As short as this small novel is, it's a bad sign that it tended to drag due to a lack of real plot. At one point, deep in the middle, Yu mused, "But what if I were to skip forward? Just cut out all of this filler in the middle?" I found myself wondering the same thing.

Mayans and divers and scares--oh my!

Black Sun: A Thriller
by Graham Brown

I'm just going to put this out there--I loved Graham Brown's debut novel. In my review of that book, I basically concluded with, "I want more." And I was very fortunate, because not only was the follow up, Black Sun, released a mere seven months later; it's basically the second half of the story begun in Black Rain. (And it's not that you can't read them both as stand alone novels, but I certainly think you'll get far more from reading them sequentially.)

So, Black Rain had a complete arc and came to a satisfying conclusion, but it was fairly obvious that the story would continue. In fact, it picks up two years later in Black Sun. Four of the surviving characters from Black Rain are back, and eventually they are united in a quest that involves the Mayan prophesy regarding December 21, 2012 and the fate of the world. Sigh.

Oh, sorry, did I sigh aloud? Just what we need, yet another 2012 thriller. (Do these things expire once that date passes?) Anyway, suffice it to say, despite the goodwill Mr. Brown had banked with his debut, I wasn't too enthused about the concept. I'll say this for him--he actually went somewhere quite interesting and different with it.

In Black Rain, I was delighted with Brown's use of exotic locations, ancient puzzles, and cutting-edge science. All of the above are back, and this time he adds a whole lot of sharks to the mix! (Oh, Mr. Brown, I think I love you.) Add sharks to any thriller and that's a winning recipe right there. As it happens, I'm kind of an expert on all things shark- and dive-related, and Brown does a reasonably good job with the material. Just when I'd think I was going to catch him writing something completely implausible, he'd add a little something or explain something that fixed it. He made his larger-than-life tale just plausible enough every step of the way. Nowhere was this more important than in dealing with the science in the book. There's a fair amount, from marine biology to astronomy, geology, and some really snazzy physics. I'm not an expert on all of those subjects, but I know enough to know when I smell a rat. Time and time again Brown sold it. He made me believe the science, and the science is the backbone of the story.

As mentioned above, we're dealing with characters we already know, but I'm honestly not sure if that's a plus or minus here. I think Mr. Brown used that familiarity as a short cut to character development. Picking back up with this cast after just a few months, it took a surprisingly long time to get a feel for who they were again. And I can't really say that I learned much more about them, or that their individual arcs moved forward very significantly. Of the antagonists, there were three different men of three different nationalities, and the primary baddie was just a bit too Bond villain for me. (Someone get a white Persian for Mr. Kang!) Fortunately, the other two were more believable in their motivations and their flaws. Finally, there was one especially interesting new character introduced latish in the book, and I was frustrated not to learn more about him. But the way the novel ends leaves me hopeful that we may see him again.

The story begun in Black Rain is now completely and satisfyingly resolved. But the door has been left wide open for further adventures with at least some of these NRI operatives. While I don't believe that this second novel was quite as strong as his debut, I had a rollicking good time reading it. Mr. Brown is writing science/adventure thrillers at a level head and shoulders above most of the field. I'm definitely on board for further adventures!

Disease personified

The Strain: Book One of The Strain Trilogy
by Chuck Hogan

It would be a significant understatement to say that I am not a vampire fan. I haven't avoided the genre entirely (It's almost impossible to do so these days.), but even a hint of fangs is usually enough to send me running in the opposite direction.

Fortunately, there are no fangs in this first collaboration between filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan. They're not that kind of vampire. Oh, no, these vampires are far worse. These vampires are just the slightest bit... plausible. Enough so that, frankly, this book scared the hell out of me. It didn't help that I read it on a plane.

The novel opens with a 777 landing normally at JFK. Once the plane is safely down, however, all systems go dead. There is no power, no communication, no one opens a door. Nothing. Fearing they've got a hostage situation on their hands, the authorities are called in. What they find is infinitely more disturbing.

I don't want to say much more than that this is a novel about an epidemic. Two of the central characters are CDC epidemiologists who take a very scientific look at the events unfolding in New York. And that is why the book was so effective in frightening me. I don't believe in supernatural boogeymen, but the monsters in this book were presented in an all-too-believable way. Aside from that, it was just plain gross and creepy as hell.

I've read Chuck Hogan's solo work, and he's a fine prose stylist. Guillermo Del Toro, on the other hand, knows how to tell a story and has a fine visual sense. The two of them working together are a truly powerhouse combo. In addition to scaring the heck out of me, they kept me turning the pages at a lightning pace. While The Strain is clearly a horror novel, it is also very much a thriller.

Fortunately, I had the sequel, The Fall, immediately on hand for when I finished The Strain's cliffhanger ending. I dived straight into the second book, but I'll take my time reading it. I've got a year to wait for the third and final book in the trilogy.

And then what happened...

Stories: All-New Tales
by Jeffery Deaver

Above are the four words that Neil Gaiman writes about in his introduction to the collection edited by himself and Al Sarrantonio. "And then what happened."--the four words that every storyteller longs to hear. That child-like impulse is the essence of what he and Sarrantonio wanted to evoke with this collection. On that basis, they were largely successful. These diverse stories, written by an impressive array of writers, kept me turning the pages and, yes, wondering what would happen next.

In some cases, I didn't have to wonder long. The stories range in length from a mere three pages to an impressive 48. Despite his name appearing in 72-point font on the book's cover, Mr. Gaiman contributes only one story in addition to his introduction. So, die-hard Gaiman fans, don't be disappointed. Instead, revel in the embarrassment of riches that have been brought together. This story collection features contributors who are among the best in genre fiction (Gene Wolfe, Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Swanwick, Peter Straub), literary fiction (Stuart O'Nan, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley, Roddy Doyle), and popular fiction (Jeffrey Deaver, Jodi Picoult, Joe Hill, Chuck Palahniuk). Honestly, I barely brushed the surface of all the big-name contributors, so very many of whom are long-time favorites of mine.

I'll be honest, not every single story is a slam dunk, but not one was a stinker. The one I liked best (possibly Carolyn Parkhurst's featuring an unreliable narrator) might be the one you liked least. These things are so subjective. The overall quality of contributions is high. Whether you're looking for quick palate cleansers between longer works, or you're looking forward to reading this collection cover to cover, I feel confident in asserting that there's something for everyone to be found within these pages.

The trail of what-ifs and if-onlys

Fragile: A Novel
by Lisa Unger

When I read Lisa Unger's breakout novel, Beautiful Lies, a few years ago, I fell in love with the novel's protagonist. The jacket copy on her most recent novel, Fragile, makes it sound like it's built around psychologist Maggie Cooper, wife of a police detective and mother of a potential suspect in a girl's disappearance. But the truth is that Maggie's not a strong enough character to build a novel around. Fragile is more of an ensemble piece, and Unger spends the first 50 pages introducing a sprawling cast of characters.

As noted above, the plot revolves around the disappearance of Rick Cooper's 17-year-old girlfriend, Char, who may or may not be a runaway. Taking place in The Hollows, a small town in upstate New York, Char's disappearance is an eerie reminder of another teenage girl's disappearance a generation before. That earlier crime touched the lives of many of the novel's central characters.

The first chapter of Fragile, set in the present, seems to be incredibly damning of one of the characters. After that opening scene, we go back in time a month to see the events leading up to that scene, and as expected, guilt and innocence are not at all cut and dried. As with any good who-done-it, there will be several suspects to consider, and in this case any number of crimes that may or may not have taken place. At one point a character reflects, "What gave her comfort when she did choose to walk that dark terrain, follow the trail of what-ifs and if-onlys, was that she wasn't the only person in The Hollows with memories and buried secrets. Not by a long shot."

Unger sets a dour tone for the tale, with plenty of sentences along the lines of, "On the wire above him, a mourning dove cooed, low and inconsolable." It felt a bit heavy-handed, but whatever. I don't believe this is Ms. Unger's strongest work, but her strongest work is pretty darn hard to top. Fragile is actually an enjoyable psychological thriller. I can't rave about it, but for fans of the author or the genre, it's well worth your time.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Elizabeth Lerner gives insight into the Elizabeth Smarts of the world

I'd Know You Anywhere: A Novel
by Laura Lippman

Once upon a time, Eliza Benedict was Elizabeth Lerner. Elizabeth became Eliza at the age of 15, after she was abducted for 39 days by spree killer and rapist Walter Bowman. She was the only girl who survived. In the years since that autumn, she's carefully guarded her privacy and done everything possible to move on with her life--with more success than most people who have never been traumatized. She's happily married to her college sweetheart, and the contented stay-at-home mom to two.

All of that changes with the posting of a letter. After 22 years on Virginia's death row, Walter Bowman has seen her photo in Washingtonian Magazine, and as he writes, "I'd know you anywhere." This first communication is the beginning of increasingly escalating contact from the inmate and his associates. What really happened all those years ago? And what does Walter want today? These are the questions that Laura Lippman sets before readers in this well-written, richly-characterized novel of suspense. The story being told unfolds beautifully, and as disturbing a character as Walter is, he's equally fascinating. And at times, I wasn't even sure if he was the biggest monster in the book.

After her long, celebrated career, this was my introduction to Laura Lippman's work. It won't be the last novel I read. How delightful to know she has an extensive backlist now waiting to be explored.

If it bleeds, it leads

Silencing Sam: A Novel (Riley Spartz)

by Julie Kramer

This is now the third of Julie Kramer's mysteries that I've read, starting with Stalking Susan and Missing Mark. Within the first few paragraphs of Silencing Sam, I had this thought, "Oh, there she is!" The "she" I was referring to was television reporter Riley Spartz, the protagonist of the series. After just a few sentences, I had this overwhelming feeling of recognition. Riley's voice was so instantly familiar and recognizable. It was like getting a call from a friend you haven't heard from in a while. It was nice.

It may seem like I am belaboring the point, but the truth is, these mysteries have always been more about the characters and setting to me than the actual who-done-it. Oh, and by setting I mostly mean the fascinating world of television news--a world that Julie Kramer obviously knows inside out. (Although, at this point, the whole Minnesota setting is beginning to feel a bit exotic to this bi-coastal girl. Seriously, I had no idea Iowa and Minnesota shared a border. That can't be right?)

This time Riley's gotten into an altercation with the Twin Cities' local gossip columnist, Sam Pierce. The confrontation escalates to a drink in the face--which leads Riley into a courtroom, charged with assault. It's not her proudest moment, but it all would have blown over quickly enough if her accuser hadn't been murdered hours after the guilty verdict. Now Riley's looking guilty of a far more serious crime. As she's launching her own investigation to clear her name, she's got struggles on the professional front as well. The station has hired a good ol' boy from Texas as its newest reporter, and he's proving to be more competition than she needs right now. Station politics are as precarious as ever.

While Ms. Kramer's mysteries have life and death stakes, there is something gentle about them. They aren't too graphic or gory, which suits me just fine. Some of the clues are a little obvious--for instance, there was a series of clues in this novel that just jumped off the page, and I found it frankly unbelievable that a reporter of Riley's caliber didn't see what I saw. That said, for all my cleverness, it didn't get me any closer to figuring out who the murder was. I guess "Kramer the Namer" still has a few tricks up her sleeve.

Yes, I read all night...

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)
by Suzanne Collins

If The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are tales of a dystopia, then Mockingjay is a slight departure for the series. This final chapter in the trilogy is a war story. Panem is at war. The stakes for Katniss and the band of characters that we've grown to love (and sometimes hate) have never been higher. And while Suzanne Collins' work on this series has been masterful to date, she rises to the occasion to give her story the conclusion it deserves.

As the novel opens, Katniss and hundreds of other refugees and revolutionaries have been taken in by the citizens of District 13. The rumors were true, but District 13 is both more and less than anything she could have envisioned. While safety is a fluid concept in Katniss's experience, she is what passes for safe at the moment. Still, she is tortured by thoughts of Peeta, being held prisoner in the Capitol. And she is tortured by too many ghosts. We're introduced to a somewhat more fragile Katniss in this novel, and she is not the only character in a somewhat diminished state. The events unfolding around them, as well as those of the past few years, have taken a heavy toll.

It is in this final chapter that the surviving characters must wage a battle for the future of Panem. Ms. Collins has never shied away from depicting graphic violence and disturbing scenes, and this novel may be the most disturbing yet. For me, the life and death struggles that occur in a war resonate more painfully than a staged fight to the death. There's no denying that this is a dark tale. It is even more impressive, therefore, that Ms. Collins manages to infuse enough humor into the book to occasionally relieve the gloom, and to remind us why we love these characters in the first place.

This third book is a departure in other ways. The pace of the story-telling wasn't quite as breathless. While still very much a thriller, in some ways Mockingjay allowed itself a bit more time to explore the emotional lives and constantly shifting relationships of the characters, as well as the full ramifications of the dangerous situations in which they found themselves. The emotional aspects of Katniss's tale have never been given short shrift, but there was a greater expansiveness here, perhaps owing to her increasing maturity. Of course, fans are waiting with bated breath to learn the outcome of the Katniss-Gale-Peeta love triangle. There is a resolution, one that seemed like the only possible outcome to me. The ending of the book is satisfying, not always happy, but deeply satisfying.

Perhaps the best testament I can give Mockingjay is to tell you that this 41-year-old, responsible, gainfully-employed woman read it from cover to cover between 1:00AM and 7:00AM this morning. Not for one minute was I in danger of falling asleep. I think it's going to be a long time before a story inspires me to want to pull a stunt like that again.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Super sad, super satirical--it's just SUPER!

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel
by Gary Shteyngart

At one point when I was reading this disturbing, satirical look at a possible American future, I just thought, "Wait! How did we get there from here? How did we get from the America I know to a totalitarian nation on the verge of financial and political collapse?" And in the next moment, unbidden, I thought, "It's a totally logical projection."

Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is provoking some strong responses. It's polarizing. It's disturbing. It is funny, but you know how humor is, so subjective. What I find uproarious, you'll find imbecilic. As a great man said, "So it goes." Perhaps one of the reasons the novel is so provocative is that despite the absurd humor and the extremity of Shteyngart's vision, his satirical eye is dead on. He's got us pegged.

As for the plot, it's an epistolary novel, a romance related from the pages of Lenny Abramov's diary and Eunice Park's emails and instant messages. Poor, sweet, neurotic Lenny. He'll never be the best looking guy in the room, but he has other redeeming qualities. He's kind, sincere, loving, fiscally responsible, a reader and a thinker. Unfortunately, 39-year-old Lenny lives in an aggressively vulgar and illiterate culture that is obsessed with youth, beauty, and consumerism. The object of his affection is the much younger, much hotter Eunice. It's an unlikely match, but I was actually touched as the relationship progressed, all the while fearing for Lenny's tender heart.

There is so much I could write about this novel! The fact that Lenny works in the indefinite life preservation industry, based on the idea that if you're rich enough you never have to die. His boss, Joshie Goldman, is a post-adolescent septuagenarian. The fact that LNWI (Low Net Worth Individuals) have formed a tent city in Central Park, and there are armed National Guardsmen all over the New York. The very idea of privacy is essentially a thing of the past. Everyone wears a device that simultaneously connects them online and broadcasts the most intimate details of their lives, and people--lliterally--feel they can't live without the constant stream of data. The dystopian near future that Shteyngart has created is so rich and fully realized and so worthy of contemplation and discussion. I can barely touch on the ideas he explores in a few paragraphs.

It is worth mentioning just how strong his writing is as well. Even in the midst of the tortured language used by his characters, I found his prose to be a joy to read. There were interesting subtleties to the end of the novel, and I'm not completely sure I understood everything. Rather than weaken the ending, I find this to be a strength. I'll be pondering Eunice's decisions for some time, and look forward to discussing the end with friends. Yeah, this one's going to stick with me for a while.

What do metaphorical bubbles taste like?

The Cookbook Collector: A Novel
by Allegra Goodman

One of my favorite things is reading a novel with a setting with which I'm intimately familiar. That was certainly the case with Allegra Goodman's wonderful The Cookbook Collector. In the 90's, I worked for a high-tech start-up in Cambridge, MA. I shopped at Store 24. I lived on Newbury Street. In 2002, I relocated to San Francisco in the very depths of the dot-com bust. I window shop in Palo Alto. I eat at Greens. And I certainly know what it is like to be one of a pair of very different sisters. I recognize Emily and Jess, the sisters at the center of this novel, as they are easily identifiable Bay Area types, and I know the mixture of admiration and exasperation they evoke in me.

As familiar as it all was, Ms. Goodman grabbed me from the opening pages of this beautifully-written novel. And the story she told, a story I was so intimately familiar with, held me rapt, excitedly turning pages, wondering what was going to happen next--even though I knew what was going to happen next. I'd lived these times, but still Allegra Goodman managed to surprise me, as though history would turn out differently in her capable hands.

For what she has written is a story of our recent history, from 1999 to 2002. Far beyond the rise and fall of the dot-com economy, however, this is a novel of relationships. Relationships between siblings, friends, lovers, parents and children, colleagues, competitors, and acquaintances. Some of these relationships are successful, others not so much, but one in particular was utterly delicious. Goodman writes:

"...he longed to nourish her with clementines, and pears in season, fresh whole-wheat bread and butter, wild strawberries, comté cheese, fresh figs and oily Marcona almonds, tender yellow beets. He would sear red meat, if she would let him, and grill spring lamb. Cut the thorns off artichokes and dip the leaves in fresh aoli, poach her fish--thick Dover sole in wine and shallots--julienne potatoes, roast a whole chicken with lemon slices under the skin. He would serve a salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and just-picked basil, Serve her and watch her savor dinner, pour for her, and watch her drink. That would be enough for him. To find her plums in season, and perfect nectarines, velvet apricots, dark succulent duck. To bring her all these things and watch her eat."

I'll admit the food passages were among my favorite, and a seduction over dinner was the most erotic thing I've read in some time.

This is a bittersweet tale about a bittersweet time. Allegra Goodman has done an amazing job capturing time and place and creating some indelible characters and some gorgeous prose along the way. What a joy to read!

FILM REVIEW: The Extra Man

Writer Jonathan Ames seems to be a media darling these days. Creator of the successful HBO television series Bored to Death, he’s now making the leap to the big screen with this adaptation of his 1998 novel, The Extra Man. Two adjectives that immediately spring to mind, whether speaking of Ames ’s fiction, non-fiction, or his life, are quirky and comic. And those are definitely the two adjectives that describe this film, co-written and directed by husband and wife team Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman.

It’s the search-for-identity story of Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a young English teacher we see fired in the film’s opening scene. Louis uses the setback to follow his heart to Manhattan , where he hopes to pursue a career as a writer. His first priority is to find a home, which leads him to answer the apartment-sharing ad of the endlessly eccentric Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline). Soon, the introverted Louis gets sucked into Henry’s wacky world, peopled with the likes of elderly billionairess Vivian Cudlip (Marian Seldes) and Klingon-like neighbor Gershon (John C. Reilly).

This is an odd story filled with quirky and sometimes off-putting characters. There’s something anachronistic about Dano’s Louis, exhibited outwardly in old-fashioned manners and vintagey three-piece suits and inwardly in his Gatsby-esque fantasy life. Classic fiction isn’t the only thing Louis fantasizes about, though. In fact, he’s tentatively exploring his sexuality and trying to come to terms with transvestite urges, all while pining for a pretty co-worker (Katie Holmes).

Henry, on the other hand, is larger than life, and Kevin Kline throws himself fully into the role—literally, as it happens, when the character dances. Henry isn’t particularly nice. He doesn’t much like women, and is adamantly against sex. He describes himself as, “somewhere right of the Pope.” His apartment is cluttered and filthy. He’s ethically-challenged and teaches Louis how to scam tickets to the opera and urinate in public. He is not the best role model. And, yet, that is exactly what he becomes, introducing Louis to the concept of “the extra man.”

Henry’s lifestyle is sustained by squiring wealthy elderly woman to their dinners and art openings and vacation homes. And it is Kline’s innate charm, despite the character’s flaws, that makes him believable in the role. It is also Kline’s over-the-top performance that drives the film’s humor. His line readings are priceless, and you simply can’t help but laugh at his antics. In fact, a day after seeing the film, I dissolved into tears trying to describe him attempting to wipe his fleas onto a Yorkshire terrier. Who does that?

This isn’t a mainstream film, and it won’t appeal to every viewer. The humor is smart, edgy, strange, sophisticated, physical, and just weird. But I laughed long and loud. The performances (many by New York stage actors) were excellent, and Kevin Kline’s alone is worth the price of admission. Not every joke lands, and parts of the film are uneven, but I never knew what would happen next. I think The Extra Man will find its audience among fans of Wes Anderson’s quirky, charismatic films. It deserves to find an audience. Take a break from formulaic summer fare and give it a chance.

Can we revise our endings?

The Nobodies Album
by Carolyn Parkhurst

Have you ever had the experience of starting a novel and just falling in love with the protagonist right away? This isn't that novel. When we meet first-person narrator Olivia Frost, the best-selling novelist is flying to New York to drop off her latest manuscript at her editor's office. She's a little quirky, a little acerbic. Walking through Times Square, she's stopped in her tracks by a news feed. Her estranged son, the rock star Milo Frost, has just been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend.

So begins Carolyn Parkhurst's latest, The Nobodies Album. It's part conventional murder mystery, part character study, and part rumination on the art and life of a novelist. For me, the book worked on all levels. I won't go so far as to call it a page-turner, but I was engaged by the mystery plot. The dénouement may have been obvious to some readers, but not to this one. I did warm up to Olivia and found her to be an interestingly complex character to build a novel around. But more than anything, I think, I enjoyed the insights into what it is to be a writer:

"I've often wondered if writers are the ones who feel compelled to narrate their lives as they live them, to stand in the shower and wonder whether there's a less predictable word than `lather.' I used to think it made me a good writer--look at me, honing my craft as I stand here to pour a cup of coffee, drafting and revising my descriptions of the mug, the smell, the sound of the hot splatter! Now I just find it tiresome, though it doesn't seem to be something I can stop. An end to narration: that's what I imagine death will be like."

Olivia isn't just ruminating on her writing, however. A significant subplot of the novel is her desire to rewrite the endings of all of her previously published works. (And I don't think you need to be Freud to see the significance in that.) To that end, scattered strategically throughout the novel (in order to create maximum tension and suspense) we are treated to the jacket copy and the original and revised conclusions to Olivia's seven novels. These interruptions are relatively short, and read more like self-contained stories than the true final pages of books, but the overall effect reminded me of Italo Calvino's experimental novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Basically, you'd get caught up in the story snippets and feel slightly jarred when they ended.

Reading back over what I've written, I realize my description of this novel sounds a bit busy and overwrought. On the contrary, I thought it all came together really well. It was both entertaining and illuminating.

Oh, and Ms. Parkhurst, if you're reading this, I'd really like to read the entirety of Olivia's imaginary novel The Human Slice!

This prince is charming!

The Frog Prince
by Elle Lothlorien

I don't mind admitting that I'm an unabashed fan of romantic comedies. Good ones are hard to find, but when you do it's a joy. Elle Lothlorien's debut novel, The Frog Prince, is a good one.

We all know there's a formula to these things, and this author is wisely not reinventing the wheel. The story opens with the required meet-cute. Her stiletto heel, his sandaled foot--in the unlikely comic setting of a funeral parlor. That is how protagonists Leigh Fromm and Roman Lorraine first encounter each other. There's an instant attraction, a slight antagonism, and only later does Leigh find out that the annoying hot guy is actually Roman Karl Franz Joseph Max Heinrich Ignatius Habsburg von Lorraine, Crown Prince of Austria. Well, not quite a "real" prince; she soon learns, "Austria's a parliamentary representative democracy. The monarchy was abolished in 1918." But close enough for the paparazzi.

There's nothing wildly original about the set-up above. It's essentially a fairy tale. What sets it apart is the voice of the protagonist. Leigh describes herself as, "a social misfit in a model's body." That's a hard character to bring to life. Well, at least I find myself skeptical about any girl that beautiful being that awkward, but Lothlorien pulls it off. And Leigh's running internal dialogue had me laughing out loud throughout the novel. She's like a character out of one of those classic screwball comedies from the 40's, and you just fall in love with her. It's easy to see why Roman does as well, warts and all.

There's really no need to summarize the twists and turns of the plot further. I will add that Lothlorien brings in a strong cast of supporting characters that add much to the goings on. The panoply of "almost royals" is a hoot. And she does a good job of showing the different facets that keep characters from becoming caricatures. For instance, Leigh's enemy does have her kinder moments.

In the end, I judge a romantic comedy on two things: romance and comedy. The Frog Prince is a winner on both counts. Leigh and Roman are a terrific couple to root for, and I found myself grinning like a sap long after the novel had ended.

It's almost time for me to let go

Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is one of those books that I've "always meant to get around to." Knowing that the cinematic release is imminent is what finally moved it to the top of my towering TBR pile. I'm delighted to have finally read the novel, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I can't help feeling just a bit let down. I've been hearing raves for years, and my expectations were pretty high.

I don't even know what to say about a book that has already garnered hundreds of reviews. It's got a plot that supposedly has a big reveal, so I want to be careful what I write, but that was also part of the problem for me. What was supposedly the big secret was obvious to me from the beginning, either because I've unconsciously picked up chatter over the years, or, um, it was just obvious.

Anyway, it's a story told in reflection by Kathy, our 31-year-old first-person narrator. She's reflecting on the events of her life, thus far. The first lengthy section of the novel details her upbringing at an unusual British boarding school. There she formed the relationships that were pivotal in her later life, most notably with her best friends, Ruth and Tommy. She continues relating the events of her life after her schooling, and the continually evolving relationships she had with her friends as she slowly learns more about the world they're living in.

That was sufficiently vague. The story is interesting, disturbing, and very, very thought-provoking. There were a few problems I had, but I want to emphasize that despite minor complaints, I thought there was real brilliance to this book. My biggest problem was that every single scene, some of them very emotional, was related by Kathy. And her recounting, in hindsight, was always somewhat flat and removed. An example, "...for a while things were okay between us. Maybe, looking back, there was an atmosphere of something being held back, but it's possible I'm only thinking that now because of what happened next." It was literally a case of being told, not shown. Instead of being directly in a scene, we get everything through the prism of Kathy's eyes. It wasn't that she wasn't a sympathetic character, but somehow I had trouble channeling her emotional connection to the events of her life. I sort of got sick of her deadpan voice, and the constant foreshadowing got a bit old, too.

And my other complaint is related. Mr. Ishiguro is renowned for his beautiful prose. I have no doubt his reputation is justified, and I look forward to exploring more of his work in the near future. However, he so skillfully and consistently narrates in Kathy's voice, that all poetry is lost. That simply isn't who she is, and she tells her story in a straightforward and utilitarian manner.

It's the haunting nature of her story (to us, if not to her) that is so powerfully effecting. I had a friend tell me that he loved the novel up until the ending, but then felt it was a let-down. My feeling was the opposite. Had it gone any other way, I might have been disappointed. There was so much in this book to digest, I'm not sure that I've taken it all in yet. I'll look forward to the film to spark further discussion, contemplation, and debate.

Food for thought

The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi

Cal*o*rie (kal-uh-ree)
A unit of energy equal to the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. One calorie is equivalent to 4.1868 joules.

The biggest problem with Paolo Bacigalupi's novel The Windup Girl is me, the reader. I'm not a big fan of science fiction due to my own failure of imagination. The further away from reality as I know it, the harder it is for me to get involved in and follow a story.

Bacigalupi's much-lauded and honored debut is set in our world--in Thailand, a few hundred years in the future. But it's a much-changed world. Specifically, it's a post-petroleum world. I started this review with a definition of the word "calorie." In this weight-obsessed time, people have forgotten that a calorie is actually a measure of energy. That point isn't commented upon in the text, but it seems relevant as much of the novel revolves around the Kingdom of Thailand's need to feed its people and power its nation and economy.

It seems a variety of plagues have beset the agricultural world. Some may have been natural, some engineered, and surely climate change has taken its toll. Unfortunately, commerce may have played an even larger role, with sterile, disease-resistant seed stocks being owned by huge multi-national "calorie companies." The powers that be in Thailand seek independence from these monopolies, even as central character Anderson Lake, a "calorie man," investigates the available food sources cropping up outside of Agrigen's control.

This description barely scratches the surface of this complex novel. It is an intriguing exploration of a post-petroleum society with regard to the science, industry, and politics of the time. Internal Thai politics are a big part of the story, as are crime and punishment, social mores, and the often clashing cultures which have been thrust together in a volatile environment. Finally, it is a novel of relationships, human and not-quite-human...

Narrator Jonathan Davies does a good job with the unabridged audiobook. I won't swear that his Asian accents are authentic or even culturally sensitive, but my American ears could understand the dialogue clearly. In fact, I had an easier time discerning the huge cast of characters from the distinct voices he created than I did from the unfamiliar foreign names.

The Windup Girl wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but I'm glad to have read it. It's left me with more than a little food for thought.

Monday, August 2, 2010

David Mitchell returns to San Francisco *swoon*

Yes, I did swoon in the headline above. Have you met David Mitchell? You would swoon too.

For me, it's several things. First, the man is ungodly talented. I've mentioned this before, but his recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the best book I've read in the past several years. Cloud Atlas was definitely the best book I read in 2004. Even my least favorite of the three I've read, coming of age tale Black Swan Green, was fairly magnificent and has really stuck with me in a way that is rare for a girl who writes a blog entitled In One Eye, Out the Other.

In addition to his crazy talent, the guy is completely adorable--not just in the most obvious sense (see photo above) but also his personality. Every time I see him, we seem to have an odd encounter. This started the very first time I met him, back when he was touring for Cloud Atlas.

I don't know why I went to his book signing. I hadn't read him and didn't own any of his books. Perhaps I'd just heard buzz on the book. Maybe I was just bored, and a reading was free entertainment. I don't remember.

Here is what I do remember... I went to A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books straight from work. I was early, so I grabbed a seat in the front row and pulled out the paperback I was reading at the time. Now, people who know me and regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I was reading a mass market trashy underwater fiction horror thriller. It was a creature feature called Sleeper about a water monster type thing in the basement of the Pentagon, and as I recall, it was pretty darn entertaining. Better than one would expect from such a premise. But I definitely didn't want anyone in that fine bookstore and that oh-so-literary crowd to see the trash I was reading, so I sort of had the book's cover pressed against my skirt to preserve the illusion that I belonged. And all was well until I looked up from an engrossing passage to find a handsome young man kneeling in front of me trying to determine the title of the book I was reading. And realized that the person in front of me was none other than David Mitchell.

Why? Why? Why was he so curious about the book I was clearly trying to hide? Apparently he's always like that, and I have to admit that I'm much the same. Whenever I see someone reading a book, I'll do whatever I can to get a glimpse of the title. Still, it was unseemly. I didn't want to show him. I told him it was too stupid a book to be seen with. I asked him to go away. Nothing would get rid of the man! Seriously, didn't he have a reading to prepare for? Ultimately, he said to me that no matter how bad it was, it was better than sitting at home in front of the television. So, that's when I finally showed him the book. And we laughed. The man charmed my socks right off. He went on to do an amazing reading, and I bought a copy of a book that I probably wouldn't have purchased if not for that encounter. Lucky me; it was my introduction to one of my very favorite authors.

I don't think that anything unusual occurred the second time we met, but I was still excited to hear him read at the Booksmith on Haight a couple of weeks ago. He didn't let me down either. It was a packed standing-room crowd. I was there with Jon, and while we were among the standing, we had a great spot. David did a terrific reading, the highlight of which for me was learning the pronunciation of de Zoet. (It's dee Zoot.) As always, he was completely adorable, gradually stripping off layers of clothing in the over-heated store and making jokes about a very slow striptease, to the delight of the crowd. He spent a lot of time answering questions and seemed to enjoy himself. And he expressed what appeared to be a genuine appreciation for San Francisco and its wikipedia-like denizens.

My galley of Thousand Autumns is on loan, but I was happy to buy a hardback copy of the book. It's one of those special books that you just have to have a pristine hardback of on your bookshelf, you know? Plus, I like any opportunity to support independent booksellers and Praveen, the owner of the Booksmith, is becoming a friend. I'd rushed back to the signing line as the Q&A broke up, so it didn't take too long to reach the front. Besides, Jon and I were having fun kibitzing with those around us. I always meet the nicest people at that store.

Anyway, as David was signing my book, I asked him a question. I asked, "What was the deal with the name of that English character, Cutlip? Why were all the Dutch characters so amazed by his name?" And David gave me a strange look. He said, "I can't... I can't... Wait a minute... Come over here." And with that, he got up from his signing table and walked me into a corner and proceeded to crack up. He said, "You really don't know?" And I told him that I'd made the inquiry of a Dutch friend online, but that I had not received an answer. He wasn't surprised. He proceeded to explain that in Dutch, both parts of the name refer to some jocular slang for part of a woman's anatomy. He compared it to the word "Willy" when discussing male anatomy. Meanwhile, there was a fair amount of giggling and blushing from the two of us in the corner of the bookstore as the rest of the people waiting in line looked on. I'm sure they're all dying to know what we were talking about.

After a few moments we composed ourselves and returned to the signing table. As David finished signing my book, I reminded him of how we'd first me, and we'd had a good giggle over that, too.

Suffice it to say, I will drop anything and go see David Mitchell on book tour any chance I get. I never know what the man will do next! Probably all future encounters will be boring and normal, but let's hope not.