Friday, November 16, 2012

“Which story do you prefer?” A film review from a literary perspective

Wow, this has been an exciting fall for literary adaptations! I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi a decade ago and thought it was fantastic storytelling. I cheered when it won the Man Booker Prize. So, I was quite excited to attend an advance screening recently with several members of my book group. I remembered the novel quite well in broad strokes, but not the fine detail. I didn’t refresh my memory before watching the film, but was curious enough to reread Life of Pi in its entirety before writing this review. The film is very true to the novel in spirit and tone, but there are small changes, additions (generally positive), and elisions (some noteworthy).

The film opens similarly to the novel. The idea is the same, but the execution is slightly different. Different mediums require different storytelling tools. For instance, I believe most film-goers will readily recognize The Writer (portrayed by actor Rafe Spall, who replaced a distractingly famous Toby Maguire) as a stand-in for author Martel. In the novel, it is Martel himself, in direct address to readers, who fulfills this role, effectively blurring the line between fact and fiction. It is established that this story is being related to The Writer by an older Pi. From there, readers are introduced to a young Piscine Molitor Patel and the world he inhabits. It’s a charmed childhood, being raised at the Pondicherry Zoo amongst a loving family and exotic animals—an Indian “We Bought a Zoo.” These scenes are as lush and colorful as any Bollywood musical.

I’ve discussed this novel with other readers countless times over the years. It’s beloved by many, but truly hated by a vocal minority. I’ve never understood the vitriol, personally. Martel writes beautifully and accessibly. His story is fast-paced and yet deeply rooted in character. And it explores the boundless subject of faith through an extraordinary tale—a “story to make you believe in God.” But one complaint I’ve heard from readers is frustration over (or lack of interest in) Pi’s religious explorations early in the novel. The young man is a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. Martel never belabored the point, but those readers will be gratified to see that director Ang Lee has streamlined the beginning of the tale to move more swiftly to the meat of the story.

And that comes about when Pi’s family packs up their lives, their animals, and moves the whole kit and caboodle to Canada by ship. Well, that’s the plan. Something goes wrong in rough seas outside of Manila. The ship goes down in a haunting scene, and now the stage is set. Sixteen-year-old Pi is shipwrecked in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a 450-pound adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It’s survival of the fittest on the high seas, and things get Darwinian fast. Soon enough, it’s Pi and Richard Parker in it together.

When I first heard the premise of this novel, somehow I thought Richard Parker would be some kind of cute, anthropomorphized tiger, and oversized puddy tat. He was not. He was a terrifying predator, and he stayed a terrifying predator, throughout Pi’s ordeal. This was much the same in the movie (although not quite to the degree as in the novel, a change commented upon by Martel in the Hollywood Reporter). Richard Parker was scary in the book, but he was terrifying on the screen. I flinched as he snarled and lunged in 3D.

From here, both novel and film take on an episodic or picaresque quality. The film is delightfully dream-like from its opening frames. (An early scene of the swimming pool from which Pi derives his name enchanted me!) But as the days at sea pass, and the ribs of both animals become plainly visible, the film shifts from dream-like to hallucinatory. Episodes and encounters become increasingly extraordinary. Sitting in the audience, I could clearly discern who had read the novel and who had not by the gasps and exclamations. (Among my friends, the film was enjoyed equally by those who had read the book and those who had not.)

Yes, there are episodes that are missing from the film, one of which is quite notable. Fans may miss it. And, yet, I can understand the choices made. Cuts were judicious. As noted earlier there are a few small shifts and changes. But this is a very faithful adaptation of Martel’s novel, and I suspect it will please most fans of the original. What is lost is more than made up for by how Ang Lee has brought Martel’s fantastic vision to life.

The cinematography and design of this film is exquisitely beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of 3D technology, but once in a while it seems to really augment a film. Such is the case here—all the better to experience a small boat on the vast ocean. And while we’re on the subject of technology, the CGI work on the tiger is seamless. None of us could detect where the real tiger ended and the computer-generated beast began. I have heard that young Suraj Sharma never once filmed with the live animal. For safety, their scenes were filmed separately. And I don’t know how much footage was of a real cat. All I can say is that the illusion is extraordinarily believable. That a first-time actor could give such a convincing performance playing opposite an imaginary tiger is doubly impressive. The success of the film lies firmly on Sharma’s moving portrayal of 16-year-old Pi, but the supporting performances were equally strong. It was Spall’s response to Pi’s story at the end of the film that actually gave me chills.

I’ve been circumspect about revealing specifics of the plot. I’ll leave all the surprises of Pi’s voyage intact for those new to the tale. And readers of the novel can see for themselves what made the cut. About the ending… Those who have read the novel know what to expect. Now film-goers can join the debate we’ve been having for the past decade. In the end, it truly is all about faith. Which story do you prefer?

President Barack Obama's note to Yann Martel after reading Life of Pi.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Get out the vote!

Last week, I received this email from novelist Ayelet Waldman:

To win this election, we have to do whatever it takes to convince swing state voters to turn out and vote for Obama.

To that end, I'm hosting a call party

Sunday November 4th
4 pm

Please join me. You bring your cell phone, I'll supply the treats.


I don't know how I got this invitation from Ayelet. I mean, I don't know if she sent this to everyone on her mailing list, or just folks in the Bay Area, or people she sort-of knew, or what. But I got it, and it was welcome.

I know this is a book blog and not a political blog, so see how I integrate the literary and the political on this important day...

The fact is, Ayelet Waldman and her husband Michael Chabon live over in Berkeley, right across San Francisco Bay from me. It's a pretty safe assumption, on both of our parts, that we share a similar left-leaning ideology. And both Ayelet and Michael have been extremely public and outspoken in their support of the President, so I don't think I'm outing anyone. I was pretty sure they'd visited the White House at some point, but it turns out there are far more connections than just that. A quick Google search informs me that Ayelet and Barak Obama were at Harvard Law together. She was hugely active in his 2004 campaign, and attended the 2004 Democratic Convention as an Obama delegate. She, Michael, and their kids also attended his historic inauguration in DC. (And as a native Washingtonian, I still remember my bitterness at not being able to fly home for the occasion.) As for Michael, he went one step further--he wrote Mr. Obama a significant cameo appearance in his most recent novel, Telegraph Avenue (which I rave about here).

So, Ayelet, Michael, and me, we're all good, Obama-supporting Democrats. Personally, as a San Franciscan, I always have a sense of frustration that my vote is meaningless, or "doesn't count." I mean, I don't think that anyone is worried about the Democrats winning San Francisco, or California for that matter. I'm just voting with the pack out here. I want to make a difference in Florida and Michigan and Ohio and Nevada! And that's what Ayelet's invitation allowed me to do in a very small way. I was thrilled to be able to accept her invitation--and not just because I was curious to, let's face it, check out the home of these two writers that I so admire.

I have teased on this blog in the past that Ayelet has squinted at me on many occasions and asked, "How do I know you?" I decided to head that off at the pass by marching up her porch on Sunday and announcing, "Hi, Ayelet, I'm Susan Tunis. Thanks for having me over." To my surprise, when I said my name, Ayelet indicated that she knew who I was, and I believed her. ( Don't know what that's about.) But, I have to tell you that she and Michael were the consummate hosts. They were both friendly, casual, and inviting, and people--they'd turned their home into a war room! There were volunteers at computers and on phones everywhere. I'd arrived exactly on time, but when I entered their kitchen (filled, as promised, with all the snacks and beverages anyone could possibly want) there was activity in full swing. It left me wondering if they'd held their call party in shifts? Had they been doing it all day?  All weekend?  All fall?

What I can tell you is that those two are campaigning pros. They weren't on the phone, but circulating constantly: welcoming, training, troubleshooting. "Anyone having trouble getting on the Internet? Michael will help you." At another point, Ayelet told us to take over her house, to spread out, because we had the run of the place. "I don't care. You can go make calls on my bed--don't tell my husband I said that." (I think it's safe to say that Michael Chabon has better things to do than read my blog.) I can further assure you that I did not wander their house. The parts I saw on the first floor were very, very nice, but also felt real--like real people with four kids lived there. It was a nice, warm, friendly house. That was more than enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Actually, I felt kind of shy being in their home. I've had so many interactions with both of them in bookstores and at lit events over the years. And I feel pretty comfortable in that environment, because it's the right time and place to discuss books and be a fan. But on Sunday, I was a guest in their home, and I was there to do an important job--one I felt really strongly about giving my all. Michael was super friendly when he saw me, but I had a phone to my ear, and it just didn't feel like the right time or place to be that geeky girl who loves his books. (I'm a fan of Ayelet's as well, BTW. I've read and enjoyed quite a few of her books, starting way back with the Mommy Track mysteries.) So, I didn't really kibitz with my hosts or the other guests while I was there. Just the most minimal small talk. But everyone was friendly and working towards a common cause. I made as many phone calls as I could over the course of a few hours. I did the best I could to persuade people in Nevada and Ohio to turn out to vote for Obama.

Before I left, I again thanked Ayelet for inviting me. I told her the best part of joining them was all they taught me and that I could now do on my own moving forward. ("Yes, that's sort of the idea.") I only wish that I'd learned earlier! But I have confidence that my newly-acquired political activism skills will get called upon in the future. Now and Obama for America have all my info. I suspect I'll be called on again. And again. And I'll answer the call, because I do feel strongly about issues and the direction of this country. I'm so lucky to live in a city where almost everyone thinks like I do. We're proud of our "San Francisco values" out here.

I don't know if you share my opinions or if you'll be voting for my guy, but I urge you to get out and vote today. This is the time to let your voice be heard. It's a privilege, and I get excited every time I do it. Please, get out the vote!

And one final thank you to Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon for opening their home to all of us in the hope that we could do some collective good. Their generosity and just...awesomeness, it staggers. Go out and buy their books or something. They're amazing people.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Is there hope for the Middlesteins?

The Middlesteins
by Jami Attenberg

Edie Middlestein is a wife, mother, grandmother, lawyer, Jew, retiree, and an addict—not necessarily in that order. Edie is addicted to food, and her story starts not at a certain age, but at a specific weight: “Edie, 62 pounds.” Her life is recounted not in passing years, but in gaining pounds. But the bulk of this tale is relating Edie’s later adulthood. Edie’s children, Robin and Benny, are grown. Even her grandchildren are entering their teen years. At this point, Edie is morbidly obese—well over 300 pounds—sick, and her husband of decades, Richard, has just left her.

In the pages of this brief novel, Jami Attenberg has drawn a detailed character study of a woman and a family in crisis. As you may have gathered, this is a character-driven, rather than plot-driven tale. It’s less a matter of what’s going to happen—because I think we all know what’s going to happen—than whether it’s too late for these people. Is change possible? Is happiness possible?

Attenberg’s characters are finely-drawn, both sympathetic and deeply flawed in almost all cases. The issues with which they deal have the messy complexity of real life, without tidy narrative structures. Is it reprehensible to leave your sick wife? Yes, yes it is. But is it unreasonable to seek happiness? No it is not. These are the sort of issues wrestled with by the members of the dysfunctional Middlestein family.

There are no easy answers, but there insights into human nature along the way. I cared about these people. I hoped for them. In the end, that’s all you can do.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

CLOUD ATLAS: An early review from a literary perspective

David Mitchell is one of my absolute favorite writers, and Cloud Atlas is among my favorite novels. It was my top pick for 2004, and it made my Top 10 Best of the Decade list a few years back. I've previously blogged about my unusual first encounter with Mr. Mitchell while he was touring for Cloud Atlas. Good times!

Anyway, considering my love of the novel, you can imagine that I've been looking forward to the film with equal measures of anticipation and trepidation. You always want the film to do the source material justice, but it's rare that it actually happens. And especially when you're looking at as complex a novel as Cloud Atlas. It was said by many to be unfilmable, and if asked, I would have agreed.

And I would have been so very wrong. What Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer have achieved is nothing short of astounding. I'll cut to the chase and tell you that I LOVED this film. It will surely be my favorite of the year.

Have you read Cloud Atlas? The novel has a very unusual structure. Mitchell's an experimental writer. The novel is composed of six linked stories taking place in six different time periods and comprised of six different literary genres. Yeah, that's not too ambitious. The novel opens with the most distant story in the past, a 19th century adventure at sea. Halfway through, the story ends abruptly, mid-sentence. Next, we're at the home of a once-eminent European composer in the early 20th century. That, too, ends abruptly, and now we're embroiled in a mystery in early 1970's San Francisco. But halfway through the tale just stops and we're on to a high comedy set in the present day. After reading half of Timothy Cavendish's dreadful ordeal, we're suddenly in the science fiction world of futuristic and dystopian Seoul--for half a story. And finally, we're in far-distant, post-apocalyptic Hawaii, in a tale written entirely in pigeon English. And at last, the story goes all the way through to the end, after which the second half of the Seoul story commences, followed by all the others.

The film is... totally not like that. It's structured completely differently, with quick scenes from all six stories rapidly juxtaposed against each other. There is constant shifting. It's an amazing way to tell the tale(s), but it works. It more than works. It really drives home the novels abstract themes of connectedness. After the film, one of the things we commented upon was the staggering job of editing this film. I can't imagine what went into it, but it was masterful.

What these three writer/directors--apparently with limited input from Mr. Mitchell--did with this screenplay is extraordinary. It is brilliant. Now, it's been eight years since I read the novel, so my memory of the details is not so fresh, but by my reckoning, the screenplay was remarkably true to Mitchell.  I recognized dialogue taken verbatim from the novel.  Yes, there were elisions, but they were minor. The composer's daughter was removed entirely. She's a character that stands out in my mind due to a memorable later cameo in Mitchell's Black Swan Green, but you know what? She was superfluous. The film didn't need her. I'm sure there were other minor changes, but nothing at all that made me cry foul. No, as I watched the film, memories of the novel came flooding back in the most wonderful way. These filmmakers did a magnificent job of realizing the world(s) that David Mitchell had created.


The film boasts an impressive a-list cast that includes Tom Hanks, Hallie Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and so many others. And you've never seen these actors like this. No one has. Go to IMDB and read the cast credits. They're all double, triple, quadruple, quintuple, and sextuple cast! You can't possibly catch or recognize all of their iterations. The actors change race, nationality, and gender across the roles. The makeup work is magical, and if the film doesn't win the Oscar, there is simply no justice. Trying to spot Hugh Grant (mostly in smaller supporting roles) buried under old man or cannibal makeup is all kinds of fun, but this is far more than Hollywood stunt casting. The casting reflects the novels themes. It gets the message across at times almost subliminally. It also gives these stars the opportunity to really stretch their acting muscles.  Tom Hanks brings down the house in a brief comic turn as a thuggish author. When have we seen this actor play so many different colors in a single film? It reminds viewers of just how good he is. Oh yeah, that's what those Oscars were for. The same can be said of much of the cast. I strongly encourage you to stay for the credit--at least long enough to see the photos of the actors in their many roles flash by. You will be shocked by what you missed. THAT was Hallie Berry? you'll find yourself thinking.

Oh, and look for author Mitchell in a cameo as a "Union Spy." I didn't catch him, but I'll be on the lookout next time. Because I plan to see this film many, many times. There's just too much to take in. I'd venture I'll catch something new every time I see this film in years to come. Even at the lengthy running time of 2:42, I was ready to walk right back in the theater and start over from the beginning. The film held me transfixed, and I can't wait to see it again. Not to mention, I've already got a wish list in my mind of DVD extras!

I don't generally write movie reviews, but Cloud Atlas has inspired me. The ideas, the themes, the imagery of David Mitchell's wonderful and ground-breaking novel have sprung to life. It is magical. I attended an advance screening with several members of my book group the other night, and there was equal enthusiasm from those who had read the novel, and those who hadn't. Among my group, there were six thumbs way up, and one lonely dissenter--but she can write her own review. Mine is an unqualified rave. Go. See. This. Film.

Monday, October 22, 2012

VIDEO: Meet Scott Hutchins. (Or, This is what it takes to get me to read a book.)

Scott Hutchins and his debut novel, A Working Theory of Love, first came to my attention last June at BEA, or BookExpo America, a huge publishing trade show. The novel had a lot of what industry insiders call "buzz." People were interested. Reviews were positive. I grabbed a galley.

I didn't read it, of course. I mean, it wasn't even scheduled to be published until October, and I had way more books I had to read between now and this novel's pub date. But I did look at the book. I liked the title, and was that...? Yes, it's a highly-stylized representation of the Golden Gate Bridge on the cover. Hmmm, both author and story are local. Bonus points.

I still didn't read the book. I was waiting for Penguin to come through with an electronic galley so that I could read it on my Kindle. (Paper is so five years ago.) Those weasels at Penguin never did cough up that e-galley. And so, I attended Scott Hutchins' local launch party at The Booksmith on Haight Street without having read the novel.

And this is how it happens sometimes with me: an unknown author impresses me at a reading. Such was the case with Scott Hutchins--at his first ever event for his debut novel--and so now, at long last, I am reading the book. (And, so far, it is excellent.)

Scott got me off to a good start with the reading recorded here. In the video at the top of this page, after a few opening remarks, he begins reading from the beginning of the book. That reading continues through video 5 of 7 below. I was surprised, later, when reviewing this footage, that he had read for almost half an hour, somewhat on the long side for this sort of thing. It didn't feel that long at all in the store. He really held the audience rapt. It's a strong opening, and he read it well.

The last two video segments on this page constitute a brief Q & A session, also worth watching. Mr. Hutchins teaches at Stanford, and he handles himself well in front of an audience. ( BTW, sorry about the brief shakiness in the first video; it passes fairly quickly d a workable shooting angle.  This is actually better footage than what is usually seen on this blog, LOL. )

The crowd at the Booksmith launch party.
So, I mentioned above that this was a launch party hosted by The Booksmith. Those guys are awesome, and they unfailingly throw a lovely event. And one of the nicest things about the San Francisco literary community is that they come out for each other. I can't tell you how many times I've encountered Bay Area literary luminaries at an event celebrating a far less well-known writer. Case in point, who did I run into that night? Adam Johnson, author of one of my favorite novels this year, The Orphan Master's Son.

As it happens, I'd had a really nice interaction with Johnson in that very same bookstore last January on the night of his launch. I'd similarly blogged and posted video, after which Mr. Johnson, a truly lovely man, had sent me a note of thanks via snail mail. Who does that? To say I was charmed is an understatement. So, when I saw him at this event, I approached to reintroduce myself and thank him for his note. The reintroduction was unnecessary. Mr. Johnson remembered exactly who I was and introduced me to his companions with such flattering words that I blushed. Seriously, what a genuinely nice man he is! (That's not a compelling reason to read his novel, but after reading close to 200 novels in 2013, I can tell you without hesitation that The Orphan Master's Son will be on my Top 10 List at the end of the year. Niceness has nothing to do with it.)

But, speaking of lovely interactions, I did speak with Scott Hutchins at the event as well. I explained the reason I'd had a video camera in his face the whole evening was that I was a book blogger. He, too, inexplicably seemed to know my name and blog. (I assure you this is unusual.) I'd forgotten to bring my galley to the event, but seeing as we are both local, I told Scott that I'd undoubtedly "see him around town."

I received a very nice and unexpected follow-up email from Scott a few days later, so he really must known my name, because I never gave him my contact info. And it turns out that I was quite right, as I ran into him twice the week following this event. I was worried he'd think I was a stalker, but it was a major lit week in San Francisco, with both the Litquake Festival and the Northern California Independent Booksellers' Association Trade Show going on. I'm exhausted again just thinking about it.

Anyway, it turns out that Scott Hutchins is as pleasant as he is talented. In our interactions, he always seemed very authentic, and not at all like a schmoozing author on tour. I did eventually get a copy of A Working Theory of Love signed, and I am very much looking forward to finishing the novel and hopefully reviewing it in the not too distant future. For now, I'm happy to be able to share this event that finally introduced me to Scott Hutchins.

Oh, and one more thing... If you're inspired to read the novel as I was, I totally know where you can get a signed first edition. That's right, from the awesome folks at The Booksmith. They have amazing customer service and can ship anywhere. I'm just sayin', support your local indies!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Queen of England has gone rogue!

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train
by William Kuhn

Not so much Sarah Palin-style, but she has slipped her handlers. It started innocuously enough. Elizabeth (or “Little Bit” as she addresses herself) has been feeling rather blue. The monarchy has taken more than a few hits in the last several years. After a visit to her favorite horse, the stable girl loans The Queen a “hoodie,” as it has begun sleeting outside. This unusual attire, adorned with skull and crossbones, lends her instant anonymity, and she simply can’t resist embarking upon a small adventure. A jaunt to the local cheese shop segues into an impromptu trip to Scotland.

Back at the palace, panic ensues. A small band of The Queen’s most loyal staff brainstorm about where she could have gone. They’re determined to corral her back home before the press and public get wind of the fact that she’s missing and unattended.

This is non-fiction writer William Kuhn’s debut novel, and he’s off to a winning start. There have been many comparisons between Mrs. Queen Takes the Train and Alan Bennett’s perennial favorite, The Uncommon Reader. The comparisons are somewhat apt, and not even Kuhn is dodging them:
“’Did you read the one about The Queen becoming a reader?’ said the woman in spectacles to the young man at her side. ‘I did enjoy that one. So funny. And of course, being a reader myself, I liked that side of it.’”
That’s the sort of awkward subject that can crop up when you’re a queen conversing with commoners in mufti. But actually, The Queen’s interactions with her subjects are gentle and surely eye-opening.

Kuhn’s story is told not only from the monarch’s POV, but also from that of the staff pursuing her. These are likeable and only slightly damaged individuals. Their pursuit becomes a bonding experience, giving Kuhn a canvas on which to paint several different shades of relationship forming. He spends a fair amount of time at the top of the book introducing his cast, developing the characters, and establishing the workings of the palace.

It’s all rather sweet. But Kuhn isn’t ignoring the real world as he spins his tale. There is social commentary on subjects that include racism, homelessness, terrorism, animal rights, and mental illness, making Kuhn’s novel slightly less twee than Bennett’s novella. I’m not one of those Americans infatuated with royalty, but I found it all rather charming. And who couldn’t find it in their heart to empathize with a queen?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Jeff Carlson: More normal than his fiction would lead you to believe...

Susan: I met Bay Area novelist Jeff Carlson several years ago when I attended a signing for his novel Plague Year at Borderlands Books. I was intrigued by its high-concept nanotech premise -- not to mention one of the most provocative opening sentences of all time: “They ate Jorgenson first.”

I should have run in the other direction.

But I didn’t. Despite the lurid and disturbing subject matter of his novels, I liked Jeff right away. He’s actually a lot more normal than his fiction would lead you to believe.

We’ve continued to stay in touch, and I’ve kept reading his work. In fact, I tricked him into writing me into his sequel Plague War, in which I had a cameo role as Marine PFC Tunis. Jeff got back at me by nuking my character off the face of the earth.

Jeff: Well, you deserved it! Aha ha.

Also, the bomb was falling anyway. There’s nothing like a limited nuclear exchange to fulfill the promise of a book called Plague War...

Susan: ICBMs and nanotech. You really are crazy, aren’t you!

The reason we’re talking today is you’ve expanded your very successful short story The Frozen Sky into a full-length novel by the same name.

I’ve read the short version, which was originally published in the Writers of the Future 23 anthology, but I haven’t gotten to the novel yet. Just so my readers know what we’re talking about, here’s a brief description of the new book:

“I’m hooked.” –Larry Niven
“A first-rate adventure.” –Allen Steele


Something is alive inside Jupiter's ice moon Europa. Robot probes find an ancient tunnel beneath the surface, its walls carved with strange hieroglyphics. Led by elite engineer Alexis Vonderach, a team of scientists descends into the dark... where they confront a savage race older than mankind...


I was going to start by asking how you expanded the short story into a full-length work, but having just re-read the short, a better question might be: How the heck did you manage to write the initial story in sixty pages to begin with? It’s a big, sprawling idea loaded with genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, action, and surprises.

Jeff: Thank you.

The coolest thing about science fiction is its readers expect to cover a lot of ground in a hurry.

Writing a high tech adventure is like dumping eight technical papers, two radio astronomers, a physicist, a biologist, and a Special Forces soldier in a giant blender. You turn it on. Add a liberal amount of ice (or hydrogen sulfide). Then you shove the reader in and turn the blender on again! Bwah ha ha. If they survive, they’ve had a tasty mind-croggling drink.

Susan: There was so much touched upon and alluded to within the short story’s pages. First, the short story has an incredibly intimate cast of characters with one woman, Vonnie, at the heart of the action. I expect you expanded the cast?

Jeff: Yes. One trick in writing short fiction is to minimize the number of heroes and villains. With the novel, I was able to widen the focus.

The Frozen Sky has always been Vonnie’s tale, but now we get to see what happens after the ESA and NASA land support crews on Europa. As always when you bring people together, they have different motives and plans.

Human beings are such tricky little devils. Sometimes they cooperate. Sometimes they work against you.

Several of the plot threads play on the crews’ conflicting loyalties.

Susan: The short story has an intriguing and effective ending point. I want to use the word “provocative” again. It absolutely leaves the reader wanting more — which you now appear to have given them. Does the novel open before the short story begins and/or continue after what’s covered in the story?

Jeff: The opening is the same, although I’ve added more twists and action sequences. By necessity, the short story skipped over a lot of great scenes, which happened off-camera, so to speak.

Almost everyone who read the original story demanded to know what happened next, which was extremely gratifying.

Now there are 250+ pages after that point.

Susan: In addition to the science — which I’ll follow up on in a minute — there were intriguing references to both the politics and economics of Vonnie’s world. That also seemed ripe for expansion.

Jeff: Absolutely.

As with the biology, the astrophysics, and the cool weapons tech, I’m not writing dissertations on geopolitics or “future history.” I write thriller novels, so I tried to touch on what the world is like in the year 2113 without bogging down in who was elected when or what administration passed which trade sanctions. Yaaaawn.

Aha ha ha.

What does excite me is how our environments shape us. This holds equally true for the people in the novel as it does for the bizarre alien civilization inside the ice.

Nurture vs. nature. It’s a fascinating equation.

I also wanted plausible reasons for America, Europe, China, and Brazil to be in competition with each other as far as Jupiter’s moons.

Building a hundred years of “future history” was great fun.

Susan: This is a clearly a science fiction tale, but you really emphasized the thriller aspects of The Frozen Sky. It truly is a thriller. How do you maintain that kind of pacing throughout a full-length novel? Can you?

Jeff: Man, I hope so!

Part of the reason I love my job is I get to learn a million things from a million directions. I like to know how things work, and I’m dazzled by cutting edge awesomeness. Cold fusion. Cyber warfare. Planetology. Sharks. Glaciers. Volcanoes. Evolutionary theory.

At the same time, I also like to blow shit up. I mean gigantic big explosions, laser battles, and freaky blind monsters in the dark.

The trick is to salt in the geeked-out high concept science with real human drama, sex, intrigue, loyalty, honor, determination, and everything else that makes human beings such contradictions.

Can I say “blow shit up” again, too? :) I’m a boy. I like blowing things up.

Susan: What kind of research did you do? How much science do you need to know to write convincingly?

Jeff: I read a lot and read widely. I’m lucky that my father is a mechanical engineer who worked in the space race and later took part in developing orbital laser defense systems. I also have a step-brother who’s a lt. colonel in the Army Special Forces.

Two years ago, unbelievably, the house beside ours went up for sale – and who should move in? A computational biologist.

My experience has been that experts of this nature are excited to talk about their specialties, even to the point of fielding wild questions like: “If I needed four times as much hemoglobin as I do now, how would I evolve that way?” or “Could I make det cord out of socks, dirt, and jet fuel?” It doesn’t hurt to buy them lunch or a twelve pack.

These are interesting, interested people, and it’s my privilege to hound them with wild questions.

Susan: All of this leads to the necessity of world-building… You’re a hundred years in the future dealing with advanced technology and alien ecosystems. Where do you even start?

Jeff: Actually, that’s an easy answer. I started with Vonnie. We see everything through her eyes and learn with her as she orients herself inside the ice.

My favorite aspect of the entire story happens in Chapter One. Vonnie sympathizes with, admires, and even likes the sunfish despite the fact that they’re trying to kill her.

Susan: I thought one of the coolest things about the short story was its awesome, non-linear structure. It’s just a terrific, intriguing, but also challenging way to tell a story. Is the novel told in the same manner?

Jeff: I grew up reading a lot of Joe Haldeman, who’s a sophisticated storyteller who knows a good piece of subtext when it bites him.

Both the short story and the new novel of The Frozen Sky open with a flashfoward to set its tone and its themes, not to mention what the Motion Picture Association of America calls “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language.”

From the opening sequence, the new novel is told in a standard linear fashion.

Susan: You’ve been traditionally published by “Big Six” publishers in the past, and you’ve self-published your Long Eyes short story collection. This novel is also self-published. Do you want to talk about that?

Jeff: Welcome to the future, dudette!

Personally, I still prefer dead tree books. I spend waaaay too much in front of a computer every day to want to unwind with another gadget… but I’m rapidly fading into the minority.

Ebooks offer direct contact with readers, more readers, better royalties, and more artistic control.

For a writer, what’s not to like?

Also, anyone who wants a nice trade paperback of The Frozen Sky can find it on Amazon,, and some independent stores. I freaking LOVE independent book stores. I love Barnes & Noble and the regional chains. As a working pro, I don’t care whether you want your book in e-format, print, or audio. You can have The Frozen Sky any way you want it.

Susan: What’s next, Jeff? By that I mean tell me something significant about this big secret thriller you’ve been hinting about for many, many months.

Jeff: Interrupt is an epic disaster thriller in the vein of James Rollins, Doug Preston, and classic end-of-the-world books such as Lucifer’s Hammer or One Second After.

What is my problem, right? Bwah HA ha ha. I’m a happy guy. I have an amazing family and I love what I do. But as a writer, as a student of human nature, I’m fascinated with backing my characters to the wall. That’s what the Plague Year novels and The Frozen Sky are all about. As much as I like blowing shit up, I’m also interested in the best of the everything human – our strength, our imagination, our love and loyalty for each other.

We sold Interrupt to 47North, Amazon’s new sf/f publishing imprint. They intend to go crazy with it next July. Obviously their main focus is Kindle, but they’ll also release print and audio editions.

Here’s a gorgeous advance blurb just to mess with your head! :)

"Interrupt is an edgy, exciting thriller full of adventure and surprises. This book has it all -- elite military units, classified weaponry, weird science, a dash of romance, and horrific global disasters. Carlson writes like a knife at your throat." --Bob Mayer, New York Times bestselling author of the Green Berets and Area 51 series.
Susan: Wow! I guess all that’s left is to say thanks for visiting. Come again anytime. Maybe in July?

Jeff: Love to. Thank you, Susan.

Susan: Oh, wait, I have a bonus. Below I’m posting some video of Jeff along with authors Mira Grant and Scott Sigler discussing “the science of science fiction” as part of last year’s Bay Area Festival of Science. I actually posted this a year ago, but not enough people saw it. This is a fascinating discussion amongst three really smart and articulate writers. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wonder twin powers ACTIVATE!

Red Rain
by R. L. Stine

The pop culture reference above has probably already alerted you to the fact that I'm a good decade older than the kids who grew up reading R.L. Stine--which is not to say that I haven't read his kid lit. I'm that kind of adult. And let me put out there that I have nothing but respect for this talented author, so youthful Stine fans, please don't beat me up for the following review. Yes, it's critical, but I'll support my criticism.

Stine's latest foray into writing for adults is of limited success. First, a brief synopsis: After a prologue, we follow the exploits of "adventure travel blogger" Lea Harmon Sutton as she visits the mysterious Cape Le Chat Noir off the coast of South Carolina. It's a beautiful part of the country, but apparently no one visits due to the island's spooky reputation. Says Lea in a blog post:
"I've saved the best (or worst) for last. Here's the most interesting historical detail--and it's definitely creepy. Especially with frightening forecasts of a big hurricane heading this way. I don't want to talk about the hurricane now. I'm pretending it's not going to happen. You see, Le Chat Noir was devastated by one of the most powerful storms in hurricane history. It was the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. And I have every finger crossed that history is not going to repeat itself now."
Okay, we're going to return and look at the quote above more closely in a minute, but for now we'll move on. In short, you'll be shocked to learn that the hurricane hits. At this point, we are introduced to Lea's husband Mark, a child psychologist who is just wrapping up the book tour for his best-selling (if controversial) book about child rearing. He gets a panicked call from Lea in the hurricane while he's on stage at a book signing. He can't wait to wrap things up and head home to Sag Harbor and their two kids and his single mother sister to await further news from Lea.

Back to Le Chat Noir... The devastation is complete and Lea is traumatized. In the midst of the "horror," Lea encounters two angelic blonde 12-year-old twins, Daniel and Samuel. They tell her that they've lost their parents and home in the hurricane. Lea is instantly smitten with these two kids and decides on the spot that she's going to "adopt" them (in the completely illegal sense of the word) and take them back to New York:
"Later Martha warned her that she was being too hasty. `You don't know anything about these boys. You are acting on pure emotion. You need to wait till you can think about it clearly. Do some research. Try to find out something about them.'"
Ah, if only. Lea proceeds over the strenuous objections of her husband. We're now at 20% of the book, and at this point the story actually starts. What follows is a evil twin/bad seed mash-up with an utterly ridiculous supernatural twist. And I guess what I have to say about the novel is: There isn't enough willing suspension of disbelief in the world.

Let's return to that first quote I pulled. A few observations... Visiting a spooky island is considered adventure travel? And the fact that there was once a terrible hurricane is "the most interesting historical detail" a travel writer can come up with about the place? Meanwhile, with the island's history, another major storm is forecast and there isn't a single mention of evacuating in advance of it? And then, if you're an adventure writer who went into this scenario with your eyes wide open, to completely lose your mind in the aftermath? Finally, a past hurricane is considered "definitely creepy"? That will give you an idea of the level of horror in the novel.

Throughout the novel, I had big, big problems with believability of events and characters' actions, and that was before the supernatural even came into it. But there were many other problems. As noted above, this is supposedly a horror novel, and I am admittedly the biggest wimp alive. While there were occasionally gross-out scenes, there wasn't a single scary moment in the book. Part of me wondered if this was supposed to be some sort of horror satire, because I know that R.L. Stine is a truly funny man. If so, I missed the humor entirely. This book is notably un-funny.

And, I'm sorry to say, it is badly written. The more traumatized the characters became, the more cringe-worthy their dialogue. I could quote, but I'll spare you. And on the subject of dialogue, let's talk about redundancy. Three separate times, Mark confronts the eavesdropping twins asking "How long have you two been standing there?" within less than 100 pages. Who was editing this book? Because there were also flat out errors. At one point Mark states that he hadn't seen his wife in "a week" when it had been, like, a day and a half. At another point Martha claims that a priest who held a ceremony in 1935 "told" her something. Well, I suppose it's possible, but it seems highly unlikely.

Individually, none of these issues are deal-breakers, but when you have flaw on top of flaw, it gets awfully hard to immerse yourself in a story, and virtually impossible to believe it. Despite these many criticisms, I will say this: It wasn't a terrible reading experience. The book moved quickly. It was both well-paced and also relatively short, with brief chapters and lots of white space on the pages. I read the book in just a few hours, and while I can't recommend it or really say I liked Red Rain, I truly didn't hate it. I was curious to see what Mr. Stine had written, and now I know. I think I'll stick to his children's fiction.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

So, you say you can't get enough Christopher Moore?

Well, then, today is your lucky day. Today, his latest novel, Sacre Bleu, goes on sale in trade paperback. Personally, I loved this book. You can read my review here. But rather than hear more from me, I can let you hear from the man himself.

I videotaped Chris at two of his book tour stops for this novel last spring, the first and the last. It was interesting to compare and contrast the polished and unpolished versions of his material and, frankly, his state of mind at the beginning and ending of a long, grueling tour. Chris had asked me to hold off posting this video until the end of the tour and... somehow it never happened. My bad.

Starting with the video at the top of this post, and then going down in order below, is the video of the first tour stop, held at the Books, Inc., Opera Plaza in San Francisco. I have to admit I like the spontaneity of that first night better. No, everything he says doesn't make sense, but egads, the man is funny. He speaks bluntly! He insulsults Kansans! He lectures on art history! He gives prizes!

As you can see, the store is hugely crowded. SRO. So, my shooting and footage isn't the best, but if you're a regular to this blog, you're used to that. Sorry about the heads in the way, but it's good enough.

Of special note is the long final video segment below. The first couple minutes are the end of the Q & A, but after that is about 14 minutes of Chris giving out prizes to the audience. There's lot's of interaction. It's totally spontaneous. He plays "Rock, Paper, Scissors" with the entire audience! It's just a lot of fun and I'm really glad I taped it.

For all the folks who have never had the pleasure of seeing Chris live, I hope you have as much fun watching as we did in the audience. And let me know in the comments if you want me to post the end of tour footage at some later date.

Monday, October 8, 2012

“There are no free stories in the secret library of the Unbroken Spine.”

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan

What is it that bibliophiles everywhere love to read about? That’s right; all things bookish! Debut novelist Robin Sloan uses this insight to great effect in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It’s guaranteed to charm any just about any book lover. As for me, I just want to quote from it at length. There were so many delicious passages!

The novel is told from the first-person perspective of 20-something San Franciscan Clay Jannon. Laid off from his corporate design job and desperate for work, Clay takes the graveyard shift at this most unusual bookstore:
“Penumbra sells used books, and they are in such uniformly excellent condition that they might as well be new. He buys them during the day—you can only sell to the man with his name on the window—and he must be a tough customer. He doesn’t seem to pay much attention to bestseller lists. His inventory is eclectic; there’s no evidence of pattern or purpose other than, I suppose, his own personal taste. So, no teenage wizards or vampire police here. That’s a shame, because this is exactly the kind of store that makes you want to buy a book about a teenage wizard. This is the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard.”

I totally know that store. Penumbra’s however, is quirkier than most. For starters, they hardly ever sell any books. But there’s a bizarre collection of secret books that are not sold, but lent to a select clientele. And Penumbra has very specific rules regarding these dealings. Sloan’s novel begins as Clay’s quest to understand the mysteries of his new workplace, and it expands exponentially from there. It involves a 500-year search for arcane knowledge, a series of trippy fantasy novels, and what Clay recons is a cult that “seems like it might have been designed specifically to prey on bookish old people—Scientology for scholarly seniors.”

Despite the readerly trappings, this novel and the characters within are Silicon Valley savvy. Well, some of them are; it’s generational. Clay’s love interest, Kat, is employed by Google, and that company plays a significant role in the proceedings:
“Kat gushes about Google’s projects, all revealed to her now. They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself. They are making a sushi search engine—here she pokes a chopstick down at our dinner—to help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free. They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.”

Elsewhere there is talk of e-readers. When the bookstore’s customers disappear, Clay wonders if they’ve all bought Kindles: “I have one, and I use it most nights. I always imagine the books staring and whispering, Traitor!—but come on, I have a lot of free first chapters to get through.”

If you haven’t picked up on this yet, the humor of this novel really tickled me. It goes without saying that I loved the San Francisco setting. (Says Mr. Penumbra, “This city of ours—it has taken me too long to realize it, but we are in the Venice of this world. The Venice.” Amen, brother!) Yes, Clay and his friends seemed very, very young to me (When did I get this middle-aged?), but that didn’t stop me from warming to the clever and quirky cast of characters that Sloan has created.

I would think this book would appeal to Jasper Fforde fans. Sloan’s novel is not a fantasy, and is therefore somewhat more in keeping with reality as we know it, but still, his is a heightened and more literate reality. In Sloan’s world, you could walk into this bar:
“There’s a stack of books on the table and a metal cup with pointy pencils that smell fresh and sharp. In the stack, there are copies of Moby-Dick, Ulysses, The Invisible Man—this is a bar for bibliophiles.”

That’s a world that I was oh-so-happy to spend time in! I was, in fact, sorry to leave. Mr. Sloan, I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Variations on the theme of family

Goldberg Variations
by Susan Isaacs

I cannot honestly say that my failure to date to have read Susan Isaacs was really nagging at me, but when the publisher offered me a chance to review the galley of her latest, I jumped on it. I knew I was well and truly overdue. And what a pleasure this introduction proved to be. Not because it’s some major literary work; simply because it entertained me. Goldberg Variations captured my interest early with its cleverness and humor and kept me hooked through a rapid read.

I should mention that I am listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations as I type this review—a clever title for a novel about the dysfunctional Goldberg family. Other than the play on the name, is there a deeper connection to the Bach? I don’t know. Wikipedia tells me that “In music, a variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration, or any combination of those.” Something about that feels resonant to family interactions and the repeated mistakes we tend to make in our interactions with those we love… But perhaps I’m stretching.

No, it’s another classic that may be the seed of this family dramedy. As alluded in the novel’s description, Isaac owes a debt to Shakespeare’s King Lear. She doesn’t stretch the connection much beyond the barest premise. Her monarch is Gloria Garrison, whose kingdom is Glory, Inc., a lucrative and thriving makeover business. Approaching eighty, Gloria finds herself estranged from everyone she was ever close to. She has no obvious heir. With some distaste, she flies the three adult grandchildren she hasn’t seen in over a decade from New York to Sante Fe and tells them:
“I will choose one of you—only one—to come to Sante Fe, learn everything I have to teach about Glory, and inherit the business. I don’t believe in partnerships or co-anything. So no cousin duos, no brother-sister act. One of you will get Glory. The other two will get…nothing.”

Does Gloria sound harsh? You don’t know the least of it! More on her in a moment. Back to the proposition above. When Lear threw down this proposition, it led to murder and madness. Happily, things aren’t that grim here. There is a great deal of humor at the heart of this novel, and much of that comes through the internal voices of the central characters. The novel is told through the alternating points of view of Gloria and the three grandkids, siblings Daisy and Matt, and their cousin Raquel. I found these alternating POVs a really effective way to tell the tale, to get into each of their heads as their weekend-long reunion evolves.

As you may have gathered by now, this is a character-driven rather than plot-driven novel. And at the very heart of it is Gloria—and make no mistake, she’s a monster, but a frequently amusing monster:
“Not that I’m prejudiced, but I never liked short women. All too often they wrapped every work and act of theirs with cuteness. They’d say Oooh when Oh would do. They’d pin back their hair with tiny plastic barrettes as if God had not created taste. They’d stand too close to you and stare at you with their heads back, like you were a human Mt. Rushmore. True, there was a minority of shorties who shunned cute. Those were the dangerous one you have to keep your eye on all the time. They were like those tiny sharks a diver asks himself about—These little things aren’t the ones that bite, are they?—in the instant before his arm gets ripped off his body.”

Make no mistake, Gloria is an unlikable character, and if that’s an issue for you as a reader, consider yourself forewarned. For me, she was over-the-top like a soap opera villain. Her coldness didn’t feel very realistic to me, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the tale. Her grandchildren, to varying degrees, are significantly more sympathetic, thus saving the novel from being overwhelmed by Gloria’s nastiness.

In addition to family drama, Isaacs is commenting on a number of other character issues: social standing, religious identity, female empowerment, prejudice, and more. These issues are woven throughout the tale in a reasonably natural way. And at the story’s very core is the issue of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Is the novel’s ending realistic? Probably not. And yet, I had absolutely no problem with the novel’s conclusion. As noted above, Gloria’s not a very realistic character—or at least I hope she isn’t. But Isaac entertained me and didn’t make me work too hard. Goldberg Variations was a great introduction to her work, and I shall look forward to exploring further.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

My brief wondrous visit with Junot Diaz

Washingtonian that I am, I was so sad to miss last weekend's National Book Festival. The sting was at least somewhat relieved when my friends Rina & Jacob invited me to go see one of the Festival's headliners when he came through the Bay Area recently. Junot Diaz was at the top of my must-see list. If I'd known what an interesting, unusual, and entertaining speaker he is, he would have been even higher on my list.

Confession: I never read Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It just... never happened. It's been nagging at me ever since. So, I jumped on his recent collection of linked stories, This is How You Lose Her. Consider my socks knocked right off. I'll be revisiting the backlist in the near future.

The videos posted here were filmed on Friday, September 14th, outside of Copperfield's Books in Santa Rosa, CA. Yes, outside. Diaz was cold. I was cold. And the lighting was really bad as the sun set. Sorry about that. Don't let that keep you from watching because Diaz is a fascinating speaker. And do go out to see him live, should you get the chance. These videos begin with the one at the top, and then can be watched in sequence moving down. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In God we trust?

What in God's Name: A Novel

by Simon Rich

Simon Rich's latest novel is set in heaven. Or, more accurately at Heaven, Inc., where God is CEO. Yes, this is the place that you've been reading about in the Bible. But, perhaps it's not quite as you imagined. That is not the case, however, for Craig, the angel at the center of this tale:
"... he was grateful for the chance to finally see God's office. It had fulfilled all of his expectations. God's TV was enormous, at least 60 inches. And his remote control was nuts. A shiny chrome slab that looked like it had been molded to fit his hand. The desk was solid maple, and covered with cool executive toys. There was a Rubik's Cube which Craig could see was impressively far along, and a gleaming executive ball clicker. The kind that swings for minutes on end when given the slightest push."

The image above does not fulfill my own expectations, but then, I didn't know that God was a hard-core Lynard Skynard fan, that angels curse like sailors, or that finding a $20 bill in my coat pocket is a bona fide miracle. A miracle that I may owe to Craig, one of the most dedicated angels in the Miracles Department. As the novel opens, this "Angel of the Month" is tasked with training the beautiful Eliza, newly promoted to the department.

If you are a reader of faith, I think you can already see that this is an irreverent and, yes, very funny take on religion. And if the description of the office above wasn't enough of a tip-off, God is a pretty vapid character. "He didn't want to make the humans suffer. He just wanted them to like him." But he is weary of dealing with them. What God really wants to do is open an Asian fusion restaurant. He decides to destroy the earth and all upon it to clear the path for his next business venture. Can Craig and Eliza change his mind? It all comes down to a bet, a single miracle involving love. Can these two angels save the world? And will they ever go on a date?

If you put your mind to it, you can probably guess the answers to those questions. This is a quick, light, cute, and very funny read. It won't challenge anything except, perhaps, your expectations of an afterlife, but it's a darn good way to while away a few hours.