Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Lauren Graham: As funny on the page as she is on the stage!

Someday, Someday Maybe
by Lauren Graham

Life is often heavy. Literature is often heavy. Sometimes I just want a little light entertainment, and Lauren Graham’s debut novel, Someday, Someday Maybe sounded like just what the doctor ordered. Now there’s no reason to believe that a gifted comic actress would be a particularly gifted comic novelist. Actually, my expectations might lean slightly in the opposite direction. So let me be the first to proclaim what a fun, funny, clever, and refreshing debut this is. It was absolutely everything I wanted and more than I expected.

Someday, Someday Maybe is the story of aspiring actress Franny Banks. She’d given herself three years to make it in New York, and as the novel opens in 1995, her deadline is fast approaching. Currently, she’s waiting tables, not for Godot. The novel details Franny’s travails personally and professionally as her deadline looms. There’s no real need to describe the plot further.

It seems reasonable to assume that there’s at least a smidge of autobiography in the mix. It can’t be a coincidence that Lauren Graham’s first professional listings on IMDB showed up right around 1995. She’s writing about a time, a place, and a world that she knows. The details ring true. And she does an excellent job of articulating the work of an actor. It’s quite interesting being inside Franny’s head, hearing her thought process, as she taps into the emotions she needs to convey. It’s easy to empathize with the likeable Franny and to root for her to succeed.

One of the greatest pleasures of the novel is the humor. Both actors and the industry are satirized. Additionally, there is rich observational humor. In discussing a neighbor, Graham writes:
“We worry about Frank in the way New Yorkers worry about strangers whose apartments they can see into. Which is to say, we made up a name for him and have theories about his life, and we’d call 911 if we saw something frightening happen while spying on him, but if I ran into him on the subway, I’d look the other way.”
Aside from her career, Franny is a twenty-something woman navigating the rocky shoals of romance. There’s a light chick-lit feel to the novel, and the romantic subplot was truly delightful. Graham has meta-fictional fun with romance tropes:
“I mean, the whole ‘love triangle’ THING bothers me. Who even thought of that? I’ve never been in a love triangle. Especially one where the girl is torn between the obviously right guy played by the more famous actor and the obviously hideously wrong guy played by the slightly less famous actor. And also, why does the heroine always have a sassy best friend? And why is she always a brunette?”
This is not literary fiction. Graham is writing in the voice of her first-person narrator. Yes, there are a
fair number of run on sentences and sentence fragments, but she brings Franny’s voice to life. I could hear her, and she didn’t actually sound very much like Lorelei Gilmore at all. Franny is a new creation. The novel’s prose is very readable, and occasionally it’s more than that. Also, Franny’s tale moves swiftly. It’s a story you’ll read in no time, and the odds are good you’ll be left wishing for a few chapters more.

Graham’s characters are appealing. You want these young people to find their happy ending—whatever that happens to be. The novel comes to a very satisfying conclusion, and I enjoyed my time in Franny’s company enough that I wouldn’t mind at all visiting with her in the future. Given her creator’s success, I’m going to gamble that things turn out alright for her. As for Lauren Graham, I can only hope those long hours on set translate to further forays into fiction. This was an auspicious and entertaining debut. I’m waiting for a sequel.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need."

The House at the End of Hope Street
by Menna van Praagh

“The house has stood at the end of Hope Street for nearly two hundred years.” So begins Menna van Praag’s debut novel. In those opening pages, nineteen-year-old Cambridge doctoral student Alba Ashby, reeling from an unnamed “worst event in [her] life,” is inexplicably drawn to the house. Alba is more than an academic over-achiever. She sees things that others can’t: ghosts and auras, but also vibrant and colorful scents and sounds. She immediately senses that this house is different.

Welcomed in by Peggy, the house’s elderly caretaker, she’s told, “You can stay here for ninety-nine nights, until the seventh of August, just before midnight. And then you must go… No rent, no bills. Your room will be your own, to do with as you like. But take care of the house and it’ll take care of you.” This last is an understatement. The house at the end of Hope Street is a veritable Hogwartsian Room of Requirement. When you’re sad and lean against the wall, it softens to comfort you. When you want to draw, a notebook materializes. You get the idea.

The tale opens with Alba, but eventually it proves to be an ensemble fantasy, as readers meet the other inhabitants of the house. There’s Peggy, of course, as well as an aspiring singer, Carmen, and actress, Greer. Each woman gets her ninety-nine days for healing, for reinvention, for whatever it is she needs. And this has been going on for two centuries. All over the house are framed photos of illustrious and accomplished ladies: Florence Nightingale, Daphne du Maurier, Vita Sackville West, Beatrix Potter, and dozens of others. (Don’t worry that you won’t recognize all the names—such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female doctor in England—there’s a handy guide to all the ladies at the novel’s end.) These women are more than the house’s history; they’re a part of its present. Their photographs speak and frequently advise the house’s current tenants. It’s just that kind of place. Okay, so that’s the set up. I’ll leave the actual plot for you to uncover.

The reason I actually decided to take a chance on this book is that Ms. Van Praag was compared to so many authors whose work I loved: Jasper Fforde, Sarah Addison Allen, Alice Hoffman. I’d say that Addison Allen is the most apt comparison, and that fans of her light, magical realism-filled novels are likely to enjoy this. I don’t believe that van Praag’s prose is up to par with Ms. Hoffman’s lush writing. And Jasper Fforde was, for me, the strangest and most disappointing comparison. While it’s true that many classic literary figures make an appearance in the novel’s pages, this book contains none of the wit and great humor that is such a feature of his work. Overall, I’d describe this as gentle women’s fiction with a fantastic edge.

As the paragraph above indicates, I had a mixed response to the novel. I’m not going to lie… I had issues with Alba. “Every day she went to the library at the same time. Every day she bought her lunch at the same café and ordered the same thing.” This character is not just boring and repressed; she’s painfully shy and incredibly passive. When confronting a person who has wronged her terribly, she’s “barely audible.” Again and again I found myself wanting to slap this little mouse. And this is something I see in fiction all the time. An author who wants to show growth creates a character that is so damaged and diminished that it’s hard to care about her. (Kinder, gentler readers may well disagree with me on this.)

In general, I found the characters of the novel to be fairly one-dimensional. Alba has siblings, for instance, that are so cold and uncaring that they in no way resemble real human beings. And another thing—if you use historic figures like Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath as characters, write them dialogue that sounds like it might come out of their mouths. Give Parker a witty line, for God’s sake! Give Plath some poetry!

On the other hand, one of the great pleasures of the novel is the bibliophily on display throughout.
Alba is a serious book lover, her one redeeming quality. I thoroughly enjoyed her ruminations on literature. And even if they weren’t well-characterized, the extensive literary cast and references were great fun. I’ve always said that you can’t go wrong preaching to the choir. The story, in general, is entertaining and it all moves quickly. Also, Ms. van Praag did manage to surprise me with a few fun plot twists I didn’t see coming. And I actually quite enjoyed the theme of female empowerment, as exemplified by the house’s past tenants. The other thing that van Praag handled well was the novel’s resolution. While I felt frustration with certain elements of the tale, I have no complaints about the ending. It was the feel-good fix I was looking for.

So, all in all, a mixed bag. I’m happy enough to have read the book. It was quick and not overly challenging. In other words, not a bad way to pass a day. And the great thing about debut novels? The authors are still learning and growing. Who knows what Menna van Praag may dream up next?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Helene Wecker says: "I'm a giant nerd."

Okay, I'm just going to make this Helene Wecker Week on the blog, because I can't seem to stop talking about her wonderful debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni.  I have already bullied stiff-armed coerced encouraged several friends to read this novel, and they've loved it as much as I have.  Really stunning debut novels are rare.  When you uncover one, the news must be shared.  Am I right?

Helene and I have been chatting casually via Twitter for months now.  It's just a coincidence that she,
This photo was too cute not to steal from Linus's Blanket!
too, lives in the Bay Area.  (Good God, we have some serious literary talent in this part of the country!)  We'd never met until last night.  I was so delighted to be able to attend her official book launch party held--where else?--at the Booksmith on Haight Street.  (For those who are keeping score, it was my third visit to the shop in a week.)

And I am equally pleased to be able to share footage of this event with folks who aren't able to catch Helene on tour.  This was her first bookstore event ever, and she performed like a seasoned pro.  In the very first clip above, she makes a few introductory remarks and also sets up the first selection that she will read.  That takes up the first seven and a half minutes.  After that, she reads the passage that introduces her golem.  In this second clip, she introduces her jinni:

These next two video clips below are the Q & A session.  Helene discusses both pop-culture and literary influnces, the research process, language barriers, and (in response to me) why golems are cool and vampires are not.  In part two, she discusses the industry of turn of the century New York, audiobiographic influences, what she'll be working on next, and overseas publication.  Look for a really amusing response to a reader's interpretation of an element of the book.

Enjoy the book, enjoy the video, and spread the word!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

World Book Night 2013: 20 Books, 5 Iconic Neighborhoods, 3 Independent Bookstores, 2 Talented Novelists, & a Partridge in a Pear Tree!

I don't mind admitting it:  A few years ago when World Book Night was only overseas, I was jealous.  You can imagine how thrilled I was, therefore, to participate in the first annual US World Book Night last year.  I was equally enthusiastic this year, but far more nomadic.  I didn't sign up to be a book giver for 2013 because who knows where I'll be living four months in the future, right? 

But I was relatively confident that I'd be able to participate.  Last year there were unclaimed books at my local independent bookseller, and I was counting on this year being the same.  (People are so flaky.)  As the day approached, I called over to the fabulous Booksmith on Haight Street to see if they had an unclaimed box and indeed they did.  I said, "I'll take it!"

Now last year, I got my first choice book, and I was thrilled and honored to be handing out copies of my favorite book of all time, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.  It was perfect!  This year, none of the thirty books spoke to me in as personal a way, so I figured, I'll just hand out whatever they give me.  I asked what book I'd be distributing and the guy on the phone told me, "Montana Sky."  I thought, That's odd.  I don't know that title.  Moments later, I found out why.  It's a popular Nora Roberts romance.  Oy.

This is not exactly my typical reading--although I actually have read
two of the prolific Ms. Roberts' 200+ novels.  They're both of the popular trashy underwater fiction subset of the romance genre, but they count.  Nonetheless, I am hardly an enthusiast.  Still, it was my plan to sell the heck out of those books.  I read the novel's description and some glowing reviews.  And then my ace in the hole--my friend Nicole, who may be Ms. Robert's #1 fan, and I totally mean that in the Kathy Bates sense of the phrase.  She seemed to think a made for TV movie starring John Corbett was a major selling point, and in at least one case, she may have been right.  (The book, incidentally, is about a wealthy rancher who dies leaving behind a $20 million dollar estate and three daughters from three different marriages.  They don't know each other but have to live together for a year to collect the loot.  Is it just me, or are you getting echoes of Lear?)  But I'm getting ahead of myself...

I had a lot going on Tuesday night.  My plan was just to run all over San Francisco, lugging the books in tow, and handing them out all along the way.  And that's pretty much how it went.  In the late afternoon, I headed over to the Booksmith to pick up the books.  The evening got off to a great start, as I was greeted by my very favorite bookseller, Cynthia, as I walked in the door.  A brief digression...  Remember how every time Norm walked into Cheers, everyone in the bar would call out, "Norm!"  I actually have been greeted with that "Susan!" at the Booksmith, and even when they don't actually say it, that's how I feel.  Okay, digression over.

So, the plan was to grab the books and go.  I was on a schedule, and it was going to be a long night.
That is so not what happened.  I was taken into the back room to locate the case of books.  Once there, all the booksellers and I started talking books.  We're uniformly enamored with Helene Wecker's debut, The Golem and the Jinni, which is actually having its book launch party at the Booksmith tonight.  Be there or be square.  But then someone called out, "Have you read Andrew Sean Greer's book?"  Uh, yeah.  I loved The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells more than words can say! Helene Wecker and Andy Greer are currently duking it out for my favorite book of 2013. Man, those booksellers are on it. So, the point is, I didn't get out of the store quite as quickly as I planned.

I needed to get all the way across the city, so I thought the Muni N train would be my quickest route.  I was handing out books in the Haight as I made my way to the train stop, and had even more success amongst the commuters.  Okay, they look kind of serious in the photo to the left, but I'm telling you, these commuters were thrilled to be gifted a book.  And the gentleman in the glasses?  He was so awesome!  He was the only man who took a Nora Roberts.  He was like, "What's this World Book Night all about?"  So I launched into a mini lecture and the commuters were totally into it.  I explained the idea was to especially target people who maybe aren't big readers, haven't read a book in a long time, or maybe can't afford books.  He admitted that he hadn't read a book in ages, and accepted his copy with enthusiasm.  As you can see, the readers dug right in.  But that guy was my fave.

Okay, the next stop on my agenda was another awesome independent bookstore, Book Passage in the Ferry Building.  This is, of course, a commuter hub on San Francisco's Embarcadero.  I was running over there to hear Maria Semple, the author of Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, speak.  As regular readers of this blog know, it made my top 10 list last year.  What a fantastic and funny novel!  The event was already underway when I arrived, and I was somewhat amused/horrified to see that of the two dozen fans present, 100% of them were women.  Gentlemen, you are missing out on some great fiction. 

Okay, so I was late, but I captured most of the Q & A.  Yes, the footage sucks.  My FlipCam has no focus, and I was at the back.  Sorry.  But what you really need to know is this:  There are serious spoilers for the novel discussed on this video.  This is the paperback tour, and Ms. Semple didn't hold back.  I suspect most of us had already read the book.  Anyway, the conversation is great and worth checking out, but you are forewarned.  Enjoy!

There was no time to rest. As the event ended, I charged out into the Ferry Building and handed out several books to commuters and diners there. My next stop was to backtrack downtown to the Metreon Center. If it hadn't been such a literary night, I might have been attending an advance screening of the film The Big Wedding. Moments after I arrived, the publicists announced that the theater's seats were all filled and sent the rest of the people home. But you know what consoles women thwarted from seeing a free chick flick?  A free romance novel!  More books were handed out.

Okay, from downtown to North Beach and another independent bookstore!  This time, it was to the
world famous City Lights BookstoreJoyce Carol Oates was reading from and signing The Accursed.  Okay, I haven't read it, and have no intention of reading it, but I was meeting my friends Rina and Jacob there, and they're big fans.  I've read and enjoyed Ms. Oates short stories.  Why wouldn't I want to hear her speak?  And I did get to hear her--but not see her.  City Lights was packed!  I was stuck in the back corridor, listening and Tweeting about the shelves of books all around me.  It was okay.  My ears work fine.  And once the Q & A was over, I joined Rina and Jacob in the signing line.  I even took a couple of Rina's books to get signed, and Ms. Oates was friendly and lovely.  We had a very nice chat about this truly fabulous blouse she's wearing.  (Says she's not great with fashion, and that it was a gift.)

North Beach is, of course, a very touristy neighborhood, and a couple more books were handed out there.  By then it was late, and I'd literally been from one end of San Francisco to the other.  I'd worked pretty hard in the course of my book-giving and literature-appreciating.  So, when Rina and Jacob suggested a late dinner in Chinatown, how could I resist?  They introduced me to the Bund Shanghai Restaurant.  OMG, yum!  And bless Rina and Jacob for driving me home.

World Book Night was so much fun!  Yes, even as passionate book-giver as I am, it's a little embarrassing to go up to strangers and offer them an unsolicited romance novel or to make loud announcements on public transportation, but it's totally worth it!  Seriously, so many people were so thrilled to receive a book.  This is a wonderful literacy program, and I'm delighted to have participated.  I look forward to doing so for many years to come.  Many thanks to World Book Night US and all of the participating publishers and authors who donated half a million books to be given away free!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Creatures of earth and fire connect in a dazzling debut

The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker

There is a certain satisfaction in coming to the end of a long novel, but as the pages dwindled on Helen Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, all I felt was grief that this magical story had to end. After 500 pages, I wanted it to go on and on. And if you stop reading this review right now, that’s all you really need to know.

You will be shocked to hear that the novel is, in fact, about a golem and a jinni. For those who are unaware, a golem is a figure of Jewish myth, an automaton made of earth or clay, brought to life to do the bidding of another. A jinni (or genie) is a figure of Arab myth, a magical creature of fire. So, before we even get into plot details, look at that fascinating set-up! Jewish/Arab. Earth/fire. Just hearing the premise, I anticipated some sort of culture clash to be central to the tale. And while the story does primarily unfold amongst the Jewish and Syrian immigrant populations of late 19th century New York, it is not a parable of Mid-East conflict. This was merely the first of many instances when Ms. Wecker defied expectation and convention, keeping me guessing in what direction her tale would evolve again and again.

Talk about defying convention—the titular golem is a woman, and self-aware. She was originally created (with a laundry list of attributes that included intelligence, curiosity, and propriety) to be a rich merchant’s wife. He, alas, died en route to America, shortly after bringing her to life. She arrived at Ellis Island without a master or a plan. The jinni, on the other hand, was freed from imprisonment in a flask—but don’t expect him to start granting wishes any time soon.

This is the story of two creatures in turn of the century New York who are both Old Worldly and
otherworldly. Separately, they must find their way in circumstances that neither is prepared for, all the while concealing their essential natures. As the golem says to the jinni, “We’re our natures, you and I.” Because, yes, eventually their paths do cross and it’s the start of a most unexpected friendship.

Can I tell you? This wonderful, literary fantasy left me wanting to slap the next writer who sits down in front of a keyboard and starts typing about a vampire. Ms. Wecker has created a story unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Her central characters, while not human, share a deep humanity (for better or worse) and are beautifully drawn. Other characters, which at first seem peripheral to the tale, prove to be central, as Wecker’s story expands encompassing a larger community. And at all times the relationships depicted between men, women, creatures, adults, children, friends, lovers, and enemies were complex, unpredictable, and captivating. The novel’s prose is as rich as the period setting is evocative. And while I really haven’t gone into any detail, please know that the plotting is both elegant and assured.

Of course, there is culture clash in this novel, and conflict galore. But in every instance that her tale could be ordinary, Ms. Wecker makes it extraordinary. The lush cultures, heritage, and history depicted so beautifully are merely the jumping off point for a dazzlingly inventive fantasy. Where did this writer come from, and how is it possible that this accomplished work is her debut? It is sure to be one of the literary highlights of the year!

NOTE: This book will be released next Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Kristopher Jansma says, "It's not really as pretentious as you think it would be."

I was introduced to Kristopher Jansma--literally and figuratively--at the Northern California Independent Booksellers' Association Trade Show back in October.  He was one of a handful of authors who spoke at a lunch I was fortunate to attend.  I also had a chance to speak to Kris briefly on that day.  I was mildly offended by his youth and talent, but otherwise he seemed pleasant enough. 

As as I wrote in my rave review, I knew as soon as I heard the description that I was going to love his
debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.  And, of course, I did.  So, naturally when I saw that Kris was coming to the Bay Area on his book tour, I jumped at the opportunity to hear him speak again.  Honestly, I don't remember a word he said last fall, but even if I did, I don't think it would have meant much.  The Unspeakable Spots of Leopards is the type of complex, sophisticated novel where you want to hear what the author has to say after reading the novel.  Everything will have greater resonance and meaning then.

And I'm here to help you out with that.  I was lucky enough to be able to record his event at the renowned independent bookstore, Book Passage.  The short video clip at the top of the page is Kris's opening remarks.  After that brief introduction, he read for nearly 25 minutes.  That reading is captured on the two videos below.

Now, this is the part that I like best, the Q & A session. Kris discusses his characters, influences, process, his next project, research, the book's reception, favorite authors, teaching, and much more.

Now, it's hard to find the right place to end each video segment. As soon as I determine that a recording is getting too long and the author is going to keep answering questions, I end one clip and start another. Invariably, that's the exact moment he takes the last question! And so, for the completists out there, that's exactly what the final little snippet below is.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a phenomenal debut. Expect to see it on all kinds of year-end best-of lists, including my own. I encourage you to beat the end-of-the-year rush and grab a copy now.  Enjoy! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Adam Johnson has always been a winner in my book

The announcement of a major literary award is always cause for celebration, but how much more exciting when it's a book you love, by a really delightful author. Such was the case earlier today, when it was announced that San Francisco novelist Adam Johnson was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, The Orphan Master's Son.  (And BTW, Pulitzer Committee, see how much more fun it is when you pick a winner?)

Now, I'd encountered Adam around San Francisco at various literary events over the years, and he was always pleasant, but I never quite got around to reading his first novel.  He really came onto my radar when his editor, the awesome David Ebershoff, sent me a galley of The Orphan Master's Son, along with a personal letter.  I, of course, geekily wrote about that here, and suffered further embarrassment when Ebershoff left a comment on the blog post.  D'oh! 

When I finally got around to reading the galley, I absolutely loved it!  You may read my review here.  Ultimately, out of the 202 books I read last year, it made my top 10 list.  The Orphan Master's Son is simply an extraordinary novel.

I was fortunate not only attend Adam's local book launch at the Booksmith, but I filmed his talk and posted the video to the blog.  I had my first substantive interaction with the man when he signed my galley.  Now, you know that thing where people say, "It couldn't happen to a nicer guy"?  Read on. 

We talked for a few minutes, I asked if I could posted the footage here, and must have given Adam my calling card.  I know this, because a couple of weeks later, I received the sweetest note in the mail.  Snail mail, people!  Believe me, that's a first.  He thanked me for posting the video I shot, and for all the support I give to books and authors.  And he meant it.  Plus, the man walks the walk, because I continue to run into him occasionally at other--often less established--authors' lit events.  He comes out to support his peers.

The next time I bumped into him it was months later, and I just wanted to thank him for the thoughtful note.  He was talking to some people, so I approached quietly in order to reintroduce myself.  Before I even could, he greeted me warmly by name.  I was stunned.  He then launched into this... this... ridiculously flattering introduction to his friends and we all chatted in the most convivial way.  Seriously, what a nice guy! 

Suffice it to say, I was rather jubilant upon hearing the happy news.  Great book, great guy!  I'm sorry
the excitement of the day was quickly overshadowed by deeply sad news out of Boston, but I'm thrilled for Adam Johnson.  I hope to have the opportunity to congratulate him on this honor in person sometime soon.  And more than anything, I hope that this new visibility brings new readers to his fantastic novel. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

A rollercoaster of a day

I was planning on blogging about the Pulitzer Prize announcement today.  I was jubilant earlier on hearing the news that Adam Johnson won for his wonderful novel, The Orphan Master's Son.  I was so happy, in fact, that I called my best friend Jon to share the news.  He was equally delighted.

And then Jon reminded me that it was Marathon Day.  Jon and I are both former Bostonians.  In fact,
that's where our friendship began twenty-some years ago.  I said, "Oh, Marathon Day!  That was my favorite day of the year in Boston.  It was such a great day for community.  I loved all the runners with their little silver blankets.  I hope it's a nice day today."  I was refering to the weather.

Five minutes later, I called Jon back about something trivial.  Before I said a word, he told me about the two explosions.  We quickly got off the phone, and I've been glued to the news ever since.  I feel ill.  All this news footage is my old neighborhood.  I know the area so intimately.  I lived one block from the marathon's finish line.  Twenty years ago today, I was sitting on my fire escape watching the runners come in.  If I were there today, I'd have felt the bomb blast.

I don't get back to Boston as often as I'd like, but I still have ties.  I still get emails from the Harvard Bookstore.  A few minutes ago I got notification that they'd cancelled their author event for this evening.  They wrote:
Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, the runners, the spectators, and the first responders.  Stay safe and take care of each other."
I sincerely hope never to receive an email like this from a bookstore again.  My thoughts are with all of Boston today.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL

Code White
by Scott Britz-Cunningham

One of the great things about thrillers is that there are so many different kinds! There are crime thrillers, medical thrillers, religious thrillers, techno-thrillers, and many more. Most thrillers tend to fall into one category, but I’ve just read a notable debut that has elements of all four listed above!

Code White is an impressive first effort from medical doctor Scott Britz-Cunningham. The entire novel takes place in the course of a single day, making for a propulsive plot. At the heart of the tale is Chicago neurosurgeon Ali O’Day. She is one of a team of doctors who are attempting to make medical history—and are having it documented live on a national morning television show. They are using a new technology called SIPNI, short for Self-Integrating Prosthetic Neural Implant, to try to restore the sight of a blind child. During the operation, there’s an overhead announcement, “Mr. White, please report to security.” A nurse explains that it’s a security code, “It’s a bomb. A bomb in the hospital.”

Readers don’t have to wait long to find out who the mastermind of the plot is. It’s not a who-done-it, or even really a why-done-it, but more like a will-they-stop-it? Isn’t that always the way with bombs? So, in one corner you have your dedicated doctors trying to save an adorable child, in another you have your mad bomber, and then you have law enforcement. In this novel, that comes in many forms. The threat is first identified by the hospital’s head of security, Harry Lewton, but soon enough both the Chicago PD and the FBI are added to the mix. They do not help matters.

It is the unassuming Lewton who is the novel’s most appealing character. Character development is
generally the weakest element of most thrillers, and I was of two minds about it here. Britz-Cunningham has actually done an excellent job of giving his characters backstories and stressors in the present that influence their actions in the course of the crisis. In that way, they were well-rounded. Still, other than Lewton, it’s hard to get a real feel for them, and it’s hard to work up a lot of sympathy. The biographical details were in place, but the other details that would have brought them more to life—the quirks, the speech idiosyncrasies, the stuff that really humanizes—were absent. So, while there’s room for improvement, character was at least handled with some forethought and intelligence. Less head, more heart next time, Scott.

The plotting is clever and, as you can imagine, fast-paced, especially as the clock ticks down. There’s a significant amount of science, covering both medicine and technology, interspersed throughout the novel. It’s smart and interesting. Exposition is handled well. And then there’s the question of why I titled this review the way I did. You’ll see. Blending so many types of thriller together strikes me as a difficult thing to pull off. It shouldn’t work. But Britz-Cunningham does manage to pull it off. This isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s an impressive debut, and well-worth checking out.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A good, old-fashioned creature feature

Island 731
by Jeremy Robinson

When I reviewed Jeremy Robinson’s novel SecondWorld, I suggested that he might find broader readership by toning it down just a smidge. I’d like to report that he did-but I don’t think I can honestly say that. And yet… Somehow the completely insane over-the-top… everything… of his latest novel, Island 731, works. It just works. If you can’t have fun reading this novel, you simply aren’t trying hard enough.

Of course, while I’ve voiced all sorts of criticism over the years, I’ve never denied the fun of Robinson’s novels. This one, for instance, opens with a brief, disturbing prologue set during WWII, and then immediate jumps to the present day aboard the research ship Magellan. Well, overboard the research ship Magellan. They are investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A scientist jumps overboard to acquire a valuable research specimen, and a crew member jumps to the rescue. Add a great white to the mix and we’re off to the races!

The scientist is Avril Joliet and her rescuer is Mark Hawkins, a former park ranger and expert tracker. (Yeah, yeah, these fictional characters do tend to come equipped with invaluable skill sets.) They are merely two of a small ensemble of characters at the heart of the tale. Possibly the most entertaining among the characters is high school science teacher Bob Bray. It is Bray who is the vehicle for most of the exposition once the novel’s plot kicks into gear, and much of the humor. This book is all about plot, so I don’t want to give much away. Succinctly, there’s a major storm that is merely the beginning of the problems that are about to plague the Magellan. Cascading failures lead members of the crew to a mysterious island. (And Jules Verne smiles from heaven.) There, they encounter astonishing and very frightening creatures. Bray attempts to explain:
“Okay, let’s talk science… Chimeras are formed when two fertilized eggs, or embryos, fuse in the womb… The main difference between natural chimerism and laboratory chimerism is that the process can be controlled in a lab… Anyway, instead of randomly merging embryos, scientists can select specific embryonic cells from one organism—say a bird’s wings and breast muscles strong enough to use them—and transplant them on to something else. Like a lion.”
(If that sounds choppy, blame me. The ellipses are due to my condensing of the text.) Later, clues point to horrors from WWII. Again Bray is the agent of exposition: “There have been several nations and individuals who have done horrible things in the name of biological scientific progress throughout history. But none hold a candle to Unit seven thirty-one. They were Japan’s covert R and D division during World War Two. They performed sadistic experiments on human beings.”

I don’t think it’s necessary to go into further detail. Robinson’s plot unfolds at a lightning pace, and
revelations occur throughout the novel. Along with those revelations are a goodly number of shocks and surprises along the way. As noted above, Robinson has written a science thriller, and he makes a good faith effort to dress his outlandish tale in enough facts to make the fiction go down easier. Me, I’m a Googler. I stop and check details regularly. Is there a Great Pacific Garbage Patch? I’m sad to say it’s true. Japanese cannibalism in WWII? I’d never heard of it, but-check! And what the heck is an aye-aye? Do yourself a favor and look it up. Robinson is the master of the strange but true. That will only get you so far. As always, Robinson really pushes the envelope of what readers will buy. I’ve been known to balk. But this time I just grinned and went along for the ride. I do love me some monsters!

You’ll recognize all sorts of classic and contemporary influences to this novel. Let’s just call it an homage to the greats. Mr. Robinson is walking where others have gone before, but he puts his own spin on this science-run-amok tale. And I ask you, who doesn’t like a good, old-fashioned creature feature?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Catching up with Warren Fahy

Several years ago, I received a galley of a debut thriller called Fragment.  I was so thoroughly
enchanted by the novel that the title of the review I wrote was, "Where have you been all my life, Warren Fahy?"  A few days later I received an email from Warren thanking me for the enthusiastic review.  While we've never met, we've chatted via email sporadically ever since.  And Warren has been a great friend to this blog over the years, frequently giving us exclusive scoops, such as the conversation below.

**A warning first--there is info below about the newly
(re)published Pandemonium that could definitely be considered spoilers for the novel.  Read on at your own risk.

Susan: Hey, Warren, congratulations on the long-awaited hardback publication of Pandemonium! For years, this book has been almost mythical. It's great to finally hold a copy in my hands, and what a great job Tor did putting this book together design-wise. Do you want to comment on the book's path to publication?

Warren: It took a circuitous route, indeed! And it was a bewildering odyssey from an author’s perspective. What it came down to was an artistic difference of opinion between myself and Random House. I did a lot to bridge that difference but in the end the difference proved just too profound, unfortunately. It was painful to me in many ways. It hurts an author on many levels to change publishers, especially after writing a sequel. One of the sticking points was the inclusion of the hendros. I felt there was no way after the most important discovery in scientific history (terrestrial sapient life other than ourselves!) that the characters could just move on to their next adventure leaving everything from Henders Island behind. I felt this discovery would have such a profound effect on the world and on the lives of the scientists from Fragment that leaving them out was just too cartoonish, like Scooby-Doo episodes where the wildest thing happens and it’s on to next week. Also, having the hendros’ presence as a B-story in a stand-alone thriller was a dream come true for an author. You just don’t get the opportunity for such an exotic and original backdrop that often. I thought it would be incredible to have that development as a casual premise for a stand-alone novel. It elevated the whole sequel from simply being “Fragment in a cave” to being its own complete adventure. Crichton’s The Lost World felt like the second time around to me and I didn’t want to just repeat myself, A) because you can’t really, the same story over again can never be as much fun as the first time, and B) because it would instantly make my central characters shallow if they moved on from the last discovery as if it weren’t career-defining, which it certainly would be to any serious scientist. Finally, the idea that subterranean species could pose the same threat to surface ecosystems that species from Henders Island in the first book posed was scientifically too absurd for too many reasons, as well as being repetitive. There’s just no way subterranean species could be adapted to sunlight, even only half of the time. It would have taken us into genre horror/fantasy territory because it couldn’t be sustained logically. Now, subterranean creatures could do some damage and cause some scares in a limited and potentially very scary way (and they do in the novel!) but certainly not in a GLOBAL way, unless they were microbes or viruses. And I felt very strongly that the sequel to Fragment had to be big and that it should spell
out the dangers hinted at in Fragment, namely that people might deliberately use invasive species as weapons of mass destruction. It was the next logical step in the arc of both stories: the thing you feared most in Fragment is on the verge of happening! So I felt it worked as the second half that completed Fragment, as it were, and as an amazing stand-alone novel, too. Alas, my publisher did not agree and ended our contract. Technically, they claimed I was in breach of contract. Well, a few weeks later, after putting on my editor/type-setter/book designer hats, I published the novel myself on Kindle and Nook. That’s when you read it and reviewed it on Amazon, I believe, and you were one of 400 or so who got to see it then. It was only available for about 10 days I think, but my agent pitched a fit, naturally, so I took it down. Bob Gleason at Tor then picked it up, God bless him. But of course it had to get in line behind a lot of other Tor jets stacked up to land before me. Bob was ready to publish it as is but I gave it a couple more editing passes since I had the time. And now, finally, it’s out, and it’s just what I wanted it to be. Pandemonium survived the extinction event. And so did I.

Susan: I've been really curious what changes might occur between the self-published version I read two years ago, and this latest "Big 6" edition. In order to really compare the two, I had my Kindle read the old version aloud while my eyes followed along in the new hardback. It was fascinating! Believe me when I say, there isn't a single page without changes, but they're basically cosmetic. There's absolutely no doubt that this is a more polished draft. How much work went into updating the novel? It's obvious that you were still thinking of clever lines and adding telling character details. When is a book done? Is it ever done? Are you still thinking about how Pandemonium can be improved?

Warren: Oh, you’re tickling a lot of nerves there! Yes, it’s very hard to let go because as an author
you’re always in writing/editing mode. I edit paperbacks I’m reading! Since writing requires so many iterations as a writer or as an editor, you must have the ability to clean the slate of your experience every time so that you always read fresh and with a cold eye. You can’t build up good or bad prejudices if you have any hope of seeing what the reader is going to see. So if you can do that and NOT find anything wrong AND enjoy it you know you’ve gotten there. You’ll always find something you would change later when it’s in print, but you have to let it go then because people really do in a way own it as much as you do at that point. People have written me telling me they’ve read Fragment a dozen times and it’s their favorite book. People have also said that Fragment is living proof that the entire publishing industry has collapsed like the Tower of Babel. What right do I have to mess with all that now? I’m very happy with Pandemonium, I have to say, though. Since there was no editing process at Random House or Tor, and I had this long time in between to edit it myself, it gave me the chance to get the distance from it that is necessary for an author to do what an editor does. Now, I was a managing editor for five years in a previous incarnation, but you still need that distance when you’re editing yourself. I already loved the structure of the novel and since all the research and careful construction of the geography and history and ecosystems and science and technology and action choreography were already completed, it was really just the luxury of riding the ride adding aesthetic touches to the experience and filing off speed bumps. I gave it a total of three editing passes I think from the time it left Random House, probably only 15 days of work total but separated by months. Bob Gleason gave me total freedom, which is so wonderful. In the in-between time I finished and self-published a number of other novels and short stories.

Susan: I'm a huge fan of these two books, Fragment and Pandemonium. With Fragment, you really left the door open for a sequel. Pandemonium, however, doesn't have that obvious open door. Do you think you will return to this world, and if so, when?

Warren: I will return, and the pressure from Hollywood is pushing me to do that next, I’ve recently been told. I’m working on the third book in the series, SYMBIONT, right now, as well as another unrelated thriller called AFTER, appropriately enough, but the sequel will be in a totally different ecosystem unrelated to the first two books. Some of the same characters, though, including Nell and Geoffrey, of course. Someday, I think it would be very interesting to revisit Pandemonium and see what the collision of worlds has wrought...

Susan: How soon can we expect to see Symbiont on bookstore shelves?

Warren: No comment. Well, I’ll elaborate, actually. These books are like designing Disneyland. There is so much involved that has to be created before the writing of a novel can begin that it is hard to say exactly when it will be done. I expect to finish a draft within a year, though!

Susan: I know there's a film version of Fragment in the works. Can you give us an update on where it's at? What has your involvement with the project been?

Warren: Hollywood has been an interesting experience. It’s been circuitous as well, I’m afraid. The project was going in a direction for quite a long time that would not have borne much resemblance to the novel – in fact, to such a degree that you couldn’t really get away with saying “Soon to be a major motion picture” on the cover, which of course was a no-go for everyone. I didn’t know what was even going on for 2 years before I hooked up with Lloyd Levin (Boogie Nights, Field of Dreams, Hellboy, The Watchmen), who looked at my screenplay and loved it. He optioned the rights and we’ve finally locked down the screenplay last month. Now we’re looking for the right director to bring the audience someplace they’ve never been before, and that takes a certain kind of genius, to breath life into the design and motion of a whole new and menacing alien world. And it takes balls of steel to do something new in Hollywood, even though I think audiences are desperate for that magic Hollywood window to point in that direction and show us what we have never imagined before. Avatar, I think, proved that six times over. But it will take someone special, and we’re looking for him or her right now.

Susan: You have several other self-published works available for sale on various platforms. Would you care to tell us about them? Are you now planning on publishing any of those novels with Tor? Or will you be self-publishing future titles?

Warren: I did put some of my work out there since I wanted to bridge the gap between books that inevitably resulted from switching publishers and I needed to pay the rent! I thought it was a good way to diversify myself, too. I think time will tell where they end up, but I’m glad they’re out there. Plus, they defy categorization. They don’t really fit on bookshelves. As for future titles, time will tell there, too. I have a few in the vault. There’s a great freedom in publishing work yourself that’s pretty irresistible but there are obviously a lot of advantages to the traditional route, as well, especially when you have a publisher who respects your work.

Susan: Clearly you have interests beyond science and thrillers, and you're comfortable writing across many genres. Can we expect to see more science thrillers from you, or are you ready to move on? What's on the horizon?

Warren: The next two books are science thrillers, but I might simultaneously publish some books in other genres, as well... We’ll see!

Thanks so much, Warren! I love it when we have these conversations.

Readers, if you can't get enough Warren Fahy, I highly recommend checking out the essay he contributed to the Powell's Books Blog recently, Fragments of Pandemonium.  It's a non-fiction look at some of the science behind his novels, and it's absolutely fascinating!  Another terrific place to visit is his website, which is chock full of the real science behind his books and more great art like the illustrations stolen borrowed for this blog post. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Keep calm and mermaid on

The Mermaid of Brooklyn
by Amy Shearn

The tag line for Amy Shearn’s sophomore novel, The Mermaid of Brooklyn, reads “Sometimes all you need in life is a fabulous pair of shoes—and a little help from a mermaid.” Now, if you ask me, that sounds like some kind of light chick-lit novel—and there’s nothing wrong with light chick-lit. But that’s not what you’ll find in these pages. That’s selling Amy Shearn’s novel way too short.

First, it’s not chick-lit at all. If you must classify, put this one down as women’s fiction, but with a sharply-observed, Perotta-esque take on the village-within-a-city that is Park Slope, Brooklyn. It’s the story of Jenny Lipkin, the overwhelmed mother of an infant and a toddler. In the novel’s opening pages, her husband Harry calls to tell her he’s stopping to pick up cigarettes on his way home. He never arrives. Days pass, and no one has heard from Harry, no one can reach him. This would, of course, be upsetting under any circumstances, but this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Harry has issues of his own. But he’s never stayed away this long before…

Jenny is an appealing protagonist, appealing in her imperfection. She’s not extraordinarily beautiful, clever, or together. Quite the contrary, she was barely getting through her days when she had her husband’s support. Now the struggle really begins. The kids, the bills, the home: “This was not one of those ‘Oh, ha, sorry it’s such a mess’ moments. It was dangerously messy. It was call-child-services-doubt-the-mental-health-of-the-mother messy. It was TLC-reality-programming messy. We cohabited with dust bunnies I knew by name…” That’s a funny passage, and there is a good amount of humor and some real wit within the text, but there’s also a fair amount of darkness and desperation. I suspect that more than a few women will relate to Jenny’s feelings of bone-deep exhaustion and inadequacy.

Where, you may be asking, is the mermaid in all this? Where indeed? There’s no mermaid in sight
until more than a quarter of the novel has passed. And this nameless entity is not, perhaps, the mermaid you’re expecting. She’s no fairytale friend. This mermaid of Brooklyn is a creature of Slavic myth, a rusalka. I’m a connoisseur of mermaid legends and lore, and this was a new one on me. Per Wikipedia, “In Slavic mythology, a rusalka is a female ghost, water nymph, succubus, or mermaid-like demon that dwelt in a waterway.” I’ll leave you to discover how Jenny encounters her, and the exact nature of their relationship. It’s not entirely negative, as the above might lead one to believe, but it’s not exactly positive either. Jenny muses:
“I was starting to realize the rusalka wasn’t the best person to listen to. What did I know about her? Who WAS she, this new self of mine, this recently arrived Siamese twin? It was beginning to strike me, in moments of sickening dread, that I might be just another sailor coiled in her hair, seduced by her promises of impossible passions, believing I was being buoyed up as she slowly strengthened her squeeze, dragging me down to the ocean floor.”
Notwithstanding an amusing tendency to pepper her dialogue with Yiddish, there’s an opaqueness to the rusalka that leaves readers a lot of room for conjecture as to her nature. But despite this supernatural element, this is an unusually realistic look at one woman’s struggle to find her way through neighborhood politics, temptation, depression, and family life. I’m neither married nor a mother, but I related tremendously to Jenny, and I cared about her struggles.

The writing in The Mermaid of Brooklyn is terrific. I don’t use phrases like “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction” in a pejorative manner, but rather to describe genres of fiction. Still, those genres will give certain readers expectations as to literary quality. Whatever those expectations are, the depth of this book will surpass them. Shearn uses language in clever and observant ways. “We’d been in the park all morning, and I was Pompeiied in a gritty paste of apple juice, dirt, and sandbox.” Or, as two mothers express their exhaustion: “It was an exchange we shared about thirty times a day, like songbirds trading musical phrases.”

This was my introduction to Ms. Shearn’s work. I came to it with expectations that weren’t met at all. Fortunately, they were significantly exceeded. The Mermaid of Brooklyn is a whole lot more than a book about a fabulous pair of shoes.

Monday, April 1, 2013

"Catch me next time round."

Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson

In a notable departure, British novelist Kate Atkinson brings her literary gifts to the world of speculative fiction. In her new stand alone, Life After Life, heroine Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. Beginning on the day of her birth, a snowy February day in 1910, the baby is “dead before she had a chance to live.” Except, in the very next chapter, we again witness Ursula’s birth and she isn’t choked by the umbilical cord. But she does succumb to another fate at the age of four.

And so it goes, living, exploring, experimenting, trying to get it right. It takes readers a while to actually meet the adult incarnation of Ursula Todd. There were so many dangers, so many wrong paths along the way. After a while, I’m afraid, it became just a bit like, “Oh my God, they killed Kenny!” I don’t mean to be flippant, but this little girl died a lot of different ways. Any emotional intensity is severely muted through sheer repetition, and the knowledge that there are no real consequences. It will all begin again.

Which is not to say that there are no effects. Ursula seems to sense echoes of her past lives, sometimes even taking extreme measures to avert past disasters. Ms. Atkinson was rather brilliant in how she seeded these shadows of lives past throughout the novel and Ursula’s consciousness. Other reviewers have written eloquently on Buddhist philosophy, Jung’s Collective Unconscious, and many other sophisticated influences on Ms. Atkinson’s story. But one reader’s religion is another reader’s science. I, for instance, might go on about the physics of multiverses. “She had felt pleased with herself for resisting a yellow crêpe de Chine tea dress…” But in another lifetime, “She tried on the yellow crêpe de Chine tea dress she’d bought earlier that day…”

Buy the dress, don’t buy the dress. It’s one of a million—a billion—details that determine the outcome of our lives. As we watch Ursula live life after life, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less, we begin to determine the pivotal days, the ones that simply need to be survived. And we begin to see the cascading effect of small changes. We become very intimately acquainted with Ursula and the people that surround her.

Now, this premise is nothing new. From Bill Murray in Groundhog Day to Ken Grimwood’s cult
classic, Replay, this has been done before. It may be my imagination, but I feel like I’m seeing more of this sort of tale lately. Variations on the time travel theme. What Atkinson brings to the table is her skill as a writer, and the deadly seriousness with which she carries out her tale. For it is unfolding not in contemporary America, but 20th century England. Intellectually I know the history, but living war after war after war through Ursula’s eyes was brutal. Born in 1910, the girl saw some history, and it’s very clear that Atkinson did her research. The novel lingers longest during WWII, with Ursula experiencing the war from multiple vantages, all of them fairly brutal. War is hell. Didn’t someone say that once? As a reader, I began to feel brutalized, trapped in an endless war that went on for (surely) hundreds of pages. There seemed to be no exit. What is the point of all these lives? That is the question. A big question with major philosophical implications.

Atkinson does give answers, of a sort, though there’s plenty open for interpretation. This book is great fodder for those who want to delve into these mysteries, and for those who want to discuss them with others. It is well written, thought-provoking, and compelling. I enjoyed it, and am glad to have read it, but while I’m usually the most enthusiastic reader and the loudest in my praise, I can’t seem to embrace this one as whole-heartedly as many readers have. I liked it. It was good, layered, well-written, brilliantly-plotted, etc. etc. But it’s grim. Atkinson covers a bloody period of history, and even without the wars, the body count is staggering. I didn’t actually count how many times or different ways that Ursula dies, but it’s a lot. And, frankly, even when she’s living, it isn’t all that joyful. This is an undeniably excellent novel, but I’m glad to have finally reached the end of the line. It’s time for me to move on.