Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays!

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

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



Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A woman's take on Manhood

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What's the buzz?

Generation A
by Douglas Coupland

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Put your thinking cap on

Freedom (TM)
by Daniel Suarez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 7, 2009

Lori Lansens loves her misfits

The Wife's Tale
by Lori Lansens

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

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

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

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

And THAT is Stephen King's genius

Under the Dome
by Stephen King

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

This is the novel I’ve been waiting for…

Altar of Eden
by James Rollins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm a Blue, my ex is Orange--this explains so much...

Shades of Grey:
The Road to High Saffron
by Jasper Fforde Artifacture from before the Something That Happened may be collected, so long as it does not appear on the Leapback list or possess color above 23 percent saturation.

Did you understand that? You would if you were Eddie Russett, the 20-year-old, first-person narrator of Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron. Eddie knows that the above is one of Munsell's innumerable Rules. "The Word of Munsell was the Rules, and the Rules were the Word of Munsell. They regulated everything we did, and had brought peace to the Collective for nearly four centuries. They were sometimes very odd indeed: The banning of the number that lay between 72 and 74 was a case in point, and no one had ever fully explained why it was forbidden to count sheep, make any new spoons or use acronyms. But they were the Rules..." Not surprisingly, this is a society that has embraced "loopholery" enthusiastically.

Eddie's society is a Colortocracy, where social status isn't determined by merit or by birth, it's determined by which color(s) 0f the spectrum you can see, and how much of them. Eddie's a Red, which is next to lowest on the totem pole. Oranges are higher than Reds, Yellows higher than Oranges, and so on. The only ones lower than Reds are the Greys, or achromatics. They can't see any color at all. They're the unappreciated workers of the society.

In Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde has created a richly imagined future that revolves entirely around color, and the perception of it. Explains Eddie, "No one could cheat the Colorman and the color test. What you got was what you were, forever. Your life, career and social standing decided right there and then, and all worrisome life uncertainties eradicated forever. You knew who you were, what you would do, where you would go and what was expected of you."

As the novel opens, Eddie doesn't want much from life. He wants to fulfill his Civil Obligations as best he can. He wants to marry into the prestigious Oxblood family. And he does have a few fairly radical ideas about improved ways to queue. Other than that, he wants to avoid the perils of swans, lightning, and mildew. But that's before he travels for the first time in his life, to the Outer Fringes, where the Rules are interpreted differently. Eddie's a fish out of water, and we're meeting people and learning about life in the village of East Carmine right along with him.

It is there that Eddie meets a Grey named Jane. He's smitten immediately, and that's even before she threatens to kill him. Jane, rude in a world without rudeness, violent in a world without violence, leads Eddie gradually down a path that has him questioning everything he thought he knew about the Colortocracy--in a world that most definitely does not value questions or those that ask them.

By now, you many have gathered that this novel is a bit of a departure for Fforde. There is so much going on that it's hard to take it all in, and virtually impossible to summarize. While undeniably funny, the humor is darker and a bit less overt. Shades of Grey is more challenging, sophisticated, and substantive than anything we've seen previously from Mr. Fforde. In a word, it's brilliant! The cleverness he has always displayed in his Thursday Next novels is dialed up several notches here, as he points his satirical eye at a world so strange and outlandish that comparisons to our own are inescapable. I'm not convinced that all of the Fforde Ffanatics will embrace this latest work, but I suspect most will. And I, for one, with be looking forward with great enthusiasm to Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers and Shades of Grey 3: The Gordini Protocols.

If only the author could go back in time...

The Kingdom of Ohio
by Matthew Flaming

I love debut novels and I love time travel stories. I love trying something new and potentially finding a favorite new author. Alas, that's not how it worked out this time. The simple truth is that The Kingdom of Ohio was a real slog to get through. More bluntly, it was the most boring time travel story I've ever read.

I'm not going to go into real detail with regard to the plot, but the novel is set in New York in 1900 at the time that the subway is being excavated. Our hero is Peter Force, one of the subway workers. One day, while looking out the window, Peter sees a woman collapse and rushes out to help her. She's tattered, but beautiful. She tells him that her name is Cherie-Anne Toledo, and that she has traveled somewhat inexplicably seven years into the future, and from Ohio to New York. The basic questions of the novel are, is she mad, and if not, how did this happen and what does it mean?

The story is stranded in a mass of superfluous detail. For instance, the world of this novel is exactly like our past (complete with starring roles for some of the preeminent figures of the time: J.P.Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nicola Tesla) except for one major thing: In the novel, there was once a "Kingdom of Ohio," all but forgotten now. It was literally a piece of land sold to a French family during the early part of America's history, and ruled within this country's borders as its own Kingdom for more than a century. It is this Kingdom that Cherie-Anne claims to be from, but really, what's the point?

What, too, is the point of the copious and extremely tedious footnotes scattered throughout the book? Presumably, the author was trying to blur the line between reality and fiction. This was simply a very bad idea. Additionally, the author used the device of a present day narrator telling the story in retrospect. Flaming obscures the identity of this narrator, but it's so obvious from the start who it is, that this, in itself, telegraph's the novel's ending.

Flaming has attempted to write a time travel story in the tradition of Time and Again or The Time Traveler's Wife. In other words, a story strong on romance and weak on science, but again he fails, as I never grew to care about these characters or their relationship. Honestly, I didn't even like them very much.

Again and again and again as I read this novel, I searched for redeeming qualities, but here I failed. The prose exhibits the clunkiness of a first-time novelist and the story bored me more than anything else. I'm sorry, but I can't recommend reading The Kingdom of Ohio.

Are we not all uncommon readers?

The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett

I received this charming novella from a friend. Can I just tell you? There can be no more perfect gift for the bibliophile in your life. What a joy!

The story is simple. The Queen of England has some very bad corgis. One day on a walk through the grounds at Windsor, the dogs start barking their heads off at a mobile library. (What I'd call a bookmobile.) Neither the Queen, nor the dogs apparently, had ever noticed it parked by the castle before. Propriety being everything, the Queen pops her head in to apologize for the corgis' behaviour, but then feels compelled by that same sense of propriety to borrow a book while she's there. (It would be rude not to.)

She asks for help selecting the book from the librarian, and also consults with a young man who happens to be picking out a book of his own. It turns out that the young man, Norman Seakins, works in the castle's kitchen. So begins an odyssey that changes the monarchy, because quite by accident the Queen discovers that reading is the great passion of her life.

Not that everyone is happy with the Queen's new, all-consuming pursuit. She has to deal with Kiwi private secretaries and the Prime Minister, among others. This slim book is the story of the extraordinary friendship between a Queen and a dish washer. It explores the camaraderie of the literate. There are ruminations on books, and ruminations on writers--and why the latter are more enjoyable on the page than at a party.

The Uncommon Reader is short, sweet, funny, smart, and utterly delightful! It's just the thing to stuff in a stocking or give to a bookish friend "just because." Or, even better, just give it to yourself.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Douglas Preston’s homage to H.G. Wells?

by Douglas Preston

Doug Preston's latest solo effort starts with a bang--literally--in the form of a meteoroid impact off the coast of Maine. And that's where the juggling begins. Preston's juggling three narrative threads. The first involves two young girls who go in search of the fallen meteoroid. They're after big bucks on Ebay, and maybe a little adventure. They get a hell of a lot more than they bargained for.

The second thread involves a researcher with the Mars Mapping Orbiter (MMO) project at the National Propulsion Facility (NPF, but you might as well think JPL). Mark Corso has just been promoted. In fact, he's taken the position of his disgraced mentor, Jason Freeman, who was fired and then murdered in a random home invasion. (Uh huh.) A few days after Dr. Freeman's death, Mark receives a package from his mentor with a stolen hard drive full of very classified, very illegal data. He can not have this data! He's got to destroy the thing, forget he ever saw it... but he can't help looking to see what's on it first. And so Mark Corso gets sucked into what may be the biggest, most dangerous scientific discovery of all time. And possibly the biggest cover up, too.

And finally, the third thread involves our old friend Wyman Ford. (Don't worry if you haven't read his previous adventures. This book is essentially a stand alone. There's not a thing you need to know from previous books that will affect your reading of this one.) Ford's a former CIA operative, a freelancer now, and he's just been offered a job. There have been some very unusual gems showing up for sale in Asia. They're strikingly beautiful, but notably unlike anything anyone's seen before. And potentially quite dangerous. Ford is tasked with finding the source of the stones and reporting back. It's one of the easiest assignments he's taken in recent years. (Uh huh.)

Preston does a good job of keeping all his balls up in the air. This 368-page book has an even 100 chapters. You can do the math. That's a whole bunch of short, fast-paced chapters. Almost every one of them ends on a hook, making the novel virtually impossible to put down. Preston places his characters in every type of peril you can imagine, from the everyday unpleasantness of a strung out drug addict, to an extraordinary threat to all life on earth. Simply put, Preston goes all out with this one.

Is some of it ridiculous? Sure. I mean, what waitress knows that much about astrophysics? But then again, I'm a college drop-out who knows a hell of a lot about physics. It could happen. Actually, now that I try to think of examples of ridiculousness, they evade me. My point is, read Impact with a sense of fun. Enjoy it as the thrill ride, and the homage to the greats of science fiction, that it is. If you set out to pick it apart, you'll be able to find flaws. Just leave it alone and have a good time. Because this book is a really good time. You're going to be holed up inside some snowy weekend this winter. I seriously can't imagine a more entertaining way to pass the time.

John Irving’s finest novel in years

Last Night in Twisted River
by John Irving

I may as well come out and say it: I love John Irving. My love is unconditional. I will defend his lesser novels against all defamers. Happily, I will not be put in that position any time soon, because Last Night in Twisted River is his strongest novel in years. It's a wonderful read!

I recently told a friend, "It's so good it hurts." Reflecting on what I had said, I realized I was right. Sometimes reading his books hurts. He populates his novels with sweet, sentimental, anxious men, and then he tortures them. Mr. Irving's signature blend of comedy and tragedy is again on display. Only in his world does an oft-repeated tale of whacking a bear on the nose with a frying pan lead to an accidental death.

The novel opens in rural New Hampshire in 1954. Widower Domenic Baciagalupo is the cook at a logging camp, where he is assisted by his 12-year-old son Danny. It's a rough and tumble world, personified by the gruff and rugged logger, Ketchem, who becomes the closest thing to family that either Baciagalupo has. Last Night in Twisted River is an epic novel, spanning some 50 years. The aforementioned accidental death is the novel's catalyst. It causes Domenic and Danny to go on the run, sought for decades by a vigilante sheriff. But aside from being the tale of this truncated family's life in exile, this is a story about how you become the person you are.

Specifically, Mr. Irving is looking at how a writer becomes a writer, because that, indeed, is what Danny Baciagalupo becomes--a successful one, too. In fact, Danny Baciagalupo's career is... John Irving's career. There is no attempt to disguise the obviousness of the career trajectory, the subject matter of the books, the literary criticism--all are identical to Irving's. It seems clear that the author is having some fun with the self-referential material, but for fans like me, Irving gives us unusual insight into his process, and possibly some of his own attitudes on the life of a writer. Though, perhaps we can't assume that is so, as Danny has much to say about readers' assumptions about the autobiographical nature of fiction, and the value of what is borrowed versus what is imagined.

In a recent review, I commented on the way that Pat Conroy returns again and again to certain themes and plot elements in his fiction, but "jumbles them up in new and interesting ways." certainly this is true, too, of Mr. Irving. In this novel we again find bears, writers, absent parents, endangered children, New England settings, prep schools, and so forth. It's easy to compare different aspects of this novel to what has come before. A dash of Garp and a soupcon of Owen Meany. But right from the start, the work of which this reminded me the most was The Cider House Rules. Not in subject matter, but in the period setting and the span of the story being told. And probably in the nature of the male relationships in this novel.

Last Night in Twisted River is a long, heart-wrenching story. You won't be racing through it. You may learn more about logging than you ever wanted to know. But John Irving's language is magnificent and you won't soon forget these characters and their epic journey. This book is a must read for all fans of John Irving and of great literature.

More milestones!

Today I posted my 100th review on I wrote my first review in July of 2006, but I surely wrote a majority of those 100 reviews this year. I started out sporatically, inspired to write by the worst book I've ever read. Now I review everything, and I've grown to enjoy it. It forces me to think critically while I'm reading. It forces me to pay attention to what I'm reading. I'd better watch out or those novels won't go in one eye and out the other much longer.

So, when I saw the way things were shaking out, it was pretty easy to arrange my 100th review to be Last Night in Twisted River, the latest work by my favorite author. That felt good. I'll be posting that review here momentarily.

I passed one other milestone several weeks ago. I broke into the top 500 Amazon reviewers. I was pretty happy when it happened. It was a goal, and I achieved it. As of today, I'm ranked at #419. Not bad for three and a half years. Thanks to everyone who's ever given me a helpful vote.

And thanks to everyone who reads the reviews here. I'm always amazed by the notes and comments I get from complete strangers. Thanks so much for reading!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The real and the surreal clash in Lethem's Manhattan

Chronic City
by Jonathan Lethem

If Seinfeld was "the show about nothing," then Chronic City just may be the novel about nothing. It's beautifully written, but very little happens in the course of it's 480 pages. To keep my comparison alive, you'd find your "Jerry" in protagonist Chase Insteadman--one of the many unusual names we'll discuss in a moment. The book's jacket copy describes him like this:

"Chase Insteadman, a handsome, inoffensive fixture on Manhattan's social scene, lives off residuals earned as a child star on a much-beloved sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancee, Janice Trumbull, is trapped by a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station, from which she sends him rapturous and heartbreaking love letters."

Within the novel's text, Chase describes himself: "My distinction (if there is one) lies in the helpless and immersive extent of my empathy. I'm truly a vacuum filled by the folks I'm with, and vapidly neutral in their absence." In other words, a hard character to really care about.

Chase is surrounded by a group of equally oddly-named friends. Foremost among them is Perkus Tooth, the "Kramer" of the bunch. Perkus is long past quirky and deep into weird territory. He's a largely sequestered social critic who spends his days and nights getting high and sharing semi-coherent rants with a selected few. Perkus's life-long friend, Richard Abneg, a city bureaucrat, can be our "George." And their long-time associate, and Chase's secret lover, Oona Laszlo, rounds out our quartet as "Elaine."

My comparison with this long-dead television show is a little ridiculous, but at the same time, it's not crazy at all. These are caricature New Yorkers, doing their thing. Chase is the least objectionable of the bunch, but none of them are all that likeable. By far, the most sympathetic character is Janice Trumbull, trapped in space and pining for her man. Her letters home were my favorite part of the novel, but they were few and far between.

So, I mentioned the names. To those already listed add Strabo Blandiana, Laird Noteless, Georgina Hawkmanjani, Anne Sprillthmar, and many others. The crazy names certainly weren't randomly selected, and it's no casual mistake when Chase is erroneously addressed as "Chase Unperson," and Perkus is later referred to as "Mr. Pincus Truth." Lethem winks at his readers with this passage:

"His name is Stanley Toothbrush."
"See, now you're definitely making fun of me, because that's idiotic."
"Stanley would be awfully hurt if he heard you. You have no idea how often people laugh in his face."
"Toothbrush... that's just a little hard to swallow."
"No more so than stuff you swallow every day."

The New York setting is as much, if not more, of a character than any of the others. (And the title references not only Manhattan, but a grade of marijuana. Did I mention the characters spend interminable portions of the novel getting high and having only vaguely comprehensible conversations?) Lethem's Manhattan is immediately recognizable; I've eaten at the burger joint the characters frequent. At the same time, it's a sort of bizarro Manhattan where the city and the citizens have to deal with tigers run amok, a pervasive scent of chocolate, and can choose to read the "War-Free Edition" of the Times. Muppets are Gnuppets, and are referenced constantly. What does it all mean?

I don't think anyone but Jonathan Lethem will ever understand what it all means, but by the end I understood what he was getting at. I just didn't care. As terrific as some of the writing is, the novel as a whole is rather tedious, and ultimately unsuccessful. I can't honestly recommend reading it unless, perhaps, you're a pothead with an extraordinary vocabulary.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rawr is totally a thing...

Bite Me: A Love Story
by Christopher Moore

In my rave review of Moore’s last novel, Fool, I implied that his novels inspired by Shakespeare and the Bible are more substantive than his fluffier San Francisco/Pine Cove novels. This latest novel, Bite Me, has me rethinking that statement. Funny, it is. Fluffy, it is not. Bite Me is the third (and final?) novel in the Bloodsucking Fiends series. The first novel in a great series is always special because it’s our introduction to a new world. That said, this latest installment just might be the best. What I can tell you is this: I found it to be darker, scarier, more suspenseful, and at least as funny as the previous novels. And in addition to all of the above, it’s genuinely moving. These characters have been friends for more than a decade now. I’ve grown to care about them.

The novel opens pretty much in the immediate wake of You Suck. The opening chapter is the first of many that are narrated by the unforgettable Abby Normal, self-proclaimed "emergency back-up mistress of the greater Bay Area night." Abby begins by providing a dizzying (and helpful) recap of the first two novels, but I’d strongly suggest you read Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck before tackling this one. She and Foo Dog still inhabit the “love lair.” Jody and Tommy are still encased in bronze. Chet, the huge shaved vampire cat is on the prowl. And all of our favorite San Franciscans are back: the Emperor, Bummer, and Lazarus; the Animals; cops Rivera and Cavuto; the folks from Asher’s Secondhand Store; and others. And Moore fans, a beloved past character who’s never shown up in San Francisco before makes a surprise appearance in a supporting role. Be careful what you read about this novel. It would be a shame to ruin the surprise!

I don’t want to summarize the plot. It’s too crazy, it lurches in all sorts of unexpected directions, and why should I ruin your fun? What I can tell you is that I was completely surprised by the novel’s ending. Earlier I said this novel is darker, scarier, and more suspenseful. (At this point I should admit that I’m a total wuss who’s afraid of horror movies and rollercoasters.) Still, characters are placed in real jeopardy. Not all will survive. And I was definitely on the edge of my seat for large stretches of the novel. That Moore can maintain this level of tension while being spit-milk-out-your-nose funny is astonishing. I didn’t actually spit any milk out of my nose. I read this novel while laid up with the flu. Every time I laughed out loud it started a coughing jag. I nearly coughed up a lung, but I just couldn’t put it down! If that’s not a recommendation, what is?

Despite aphorisms about old dogs and new tricks, I have to say it: I think Chris Moore is getting better. I’ve been a hardcore fan for years, and that is saying quite a bit.

This novel sells itself...

Await Your Reply: A Novel
by Dan Chaon

As soon as you read the opening pages you'll be hooked. Dan Chaon's intricately-plotted novel opens in the middle of the night with a father rushing his son to the hospital. "Listen to me, Son: You are not going to bleed to death." The son's hand is in a cooler on the front seat.

Elsewhere in the night, freshly-minted, eighteen-year-old grad Lucy Lattimore has just surreptitiously left town with her former high-school history teacher, George Orson. They're making "a clean break" together.

The final narrative strand is the story of Miles Cheshire and his--Dare I say it?--evil twin. Miles has been looking for his twin brother, Hayden, for more than a decade. As the novel opens, he's approaching the Arctic Circle in far northern Canada on this latest quest.

What do these people have in common? All of them have huge mysteries in their lives. Many of them appear to be engaged in illegal activities. From the start, the reader knows that there are connections. They are tantalizingly close, but nothing in Chaon's novel is obvious, and revelations don't come easily. The author plays with time, like an artist playing with perspective, to further obfuscate connections. Not all of the stories are told in a linear manner. Meanwhile, the characters explore the very concept of identity. And so many questions are raised... Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

Constantly while I read Await Your Reply, I kept thinking, How did he do this? He, being Dan Chaon, who has written a complexly-plotted and compulsively-readable thriller that is also a work of incredible literary beauty. Await Your Reply is an amazing accomplishment. You won't be able to put it down. Once you've followed all the trails and unraveled the last clues, you'll be blown away! What are you waiting for?
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Moore's a revelation!

A Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore Given that it's been 15 years since Lorrie Moore's last novel, it is not that surprising that I have not read her previously. A Gate at the Stairs was my introduction to Moore's work. What an eye-opener!

Now many would disagree with me, but one of the things that distinguishes a great many of my favorite authors is their distinctive use of language. Frequently the writers I admire most are so stylistically idiosyncratic, that I could consistently identify their work without a name attached. Add Lorrie Moore to a short list with John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and a few others. In A Gate at the Stairs, Moore wrote about subjects covered by many writers, but at almost all times, I felt like she was writing about these people, these issues in a way that no other writer would ever tackle the subject matter. The word that came to my mind over and over was: revelatory.

The story of The Gate at the Stairs is both simple and complex. It is simply the coming of age story of an unsophisticated mid-western college student named Kassie Keltjin. Her life is complicated by a year of introductions to new people and ideas that kicks off when she accepts a position as nanny to a freshly-adopted mixed-race child. Issues of race, marriage, male/female relationships, family, friendships, identity on the deepest level, and terrorism in post-9/11 America are tackled.

Sometimes these issues are handled with sensitivity and finesse, other times with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Some readers may have trouble with the more heavy-handed elements of the plot, but I was so interested in what Moore was saying, I was riveted at all times. Moore has a wonderful satirical eye, and what could be an overly heavy or melodramatic plot is leavened with her playfulness and humor. That said, there were parts of this novel that were staggeringly painful to read. While more character-driven than plot-driven, it must be said that a whole lot happens to Kassie as she begins her journey into adulthood.

I can't pretend that A Gate at the Stairs is without flaws. What I can say is that I was COMPLETELY absorbed in Moore's tale. If you ask me to list the novels faults, I can't do it. I couldn't say what the problems were. To ME, it was flawless. It's been a very, very long time since a writer has knocked me out like this. Every page or two there would be sequences just begging to be read aloud. I urge anyone who's serious about becoming a writer to spend some time with Lorrie Moore. I can't wait to explore her backlist!
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Expectation mitigation

The Coral Thief: A Novel
by Rebecca Stott

By the time I had read this novel, I'd already seen that it had hit the trifecta of book reviews--starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. Further, the reviewers had all commented on the novel's mix of science, history, romance, and mystery. All I could think is, "I've got to read this book!" Ah, but raised expectations are a brutal thing. Rebecca Stott addresses the issue herself:

"It depends," I said, "On your expectations. Whether they are low or high." "Oh, my expectation are, I believe, unusually high." "Well, then, many things will not be as good as they seem."

And that was my experience exactly. I think that had I come to The Coral Thief with no expectations whatsoever, I would have enjoyed it more.

The novel opens with 21-year-old protagonist Daniel Connor on his way to Paris from his home in Edinburgh. The year is 1815. Napoléon has just been defeated at Waterloo. And Daniel Connor is striking out on his own for the first time to continue his medical and scientific studies at the renowned Jardin des Plantes with the famed Dr. Cuvier. He comes bearing gifts of rare coral specimens, a translated manuscript, and letters of recommendation from his former professor.

As he travels by mail coach, Daniel meets a most extraordinary woman. It takes him a while, in the dark, to realize that she is quite beautiful, though she's about twice his age. She speaks knowledgeably, if controversially, about science. She is like no one he has ever known. When he awakes in the morning, the woman is gone. So is the bag containing his specimens and the rest of the precious items in his charge. Oddly, she's gone out of her way to leave his money.

Despondent, Daniel reports the theft to the French police, a more harrowing endeavor than one might expect. It is there he learns that his thief is Lucienne Bernard. In his desperation to retrieve the lost items, he becomes increasingly entangled with Lucienne and her colleagues. Ultimately, after a meandering start, The Coral Thief resolves itself into a May/December romance and a heist caper.

There's a great deal to like about this novel. Foremost for me was the novel's setting. It was a fascinating time and place. In the wake of major political upheaval, the world was on the brink of a scientific revolution that would change the way we think forever. The characters in this novel are the players in this sea change in thinking. I was so interested in this pivotal time and place, I found myself somewhat frustrated--a rare incidence of me wanting more fact and less fiction. Though it must be said that Rebecca Stott did a really terrific job relaying the significance of the events unfolding.

My biggest problem--and it's a biggie--was with the protagonist, Daniel. He was young, naïve, and frankly didn't have a whole lot to offer. I'm close to Lucienne's age, and all I could think is, What could she ever see in this kid? (Clearly I've failed my cougar test.) And young or not, Daniel is kind of an idiot. He risks so much for a woman of suspect motives. I wanted to slap him. But I did like that Stott addresses some of my conflict directly:

"Why did Daniel Connor take this path rather than the one he was supposed to take, what Rev. Samuels would call the righteous path, the one that went with Cuvier, with hard work, apprenticeship, patronage, the one that would almost certainly lead to success? Why instead did he take the path that led into the muddy and shadowy labyrinths with the heretics and the thieves? You'd have to ask him that. I am no longer that Daniel Connor. That one, that boy, is many Daniels ago."

The book is fairly short, but I have to admit it took me far too long to read. My failure to connect with the characters was a big impediment. Still, some of what Stott's written is so wonderful--such as the haunting story of how Lucienne du Luc became Lucienne Bernard--that it's hard to even suggest anyone miss it. If you have any interest in the time, place, or subjects being addressed, The Coral Thief is well worth a look.
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Finally, Dan Brown writes about something I'm interested in!

The Lost Symbol
by Dan Brown

For years I was Dan Brown's fan, his only one. I have a first edition hardback of Angels & Demons. And when I had a whole stack of galleys of The Da Vinci Code six months before publication I couldn't give them away. Well, what a difference the better part of a decade makes. While I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, I didn't enjoy the endless over-the-top hype of the novel and the zillions of Da Vinci clones. Enough already. And, truthfully, Brown's religious subject matter really didn't interest me. So, I can't say that I've been particularly excited about the publication of The Lost Symbol.

Yeah, I bought it the day it went on sale, but I was at home sick as a dog with the flu. The price was right on Kindle, as was the convenience factor, and I was hoping to have the machine read to me as I wasn't quite well enough to tackle the task for myself. Therefore, I was disappointed after purchase to see the read aloud feature disabled for this novel. Boo hiss, Doubleday. Anyway, I eventually got healthier and began to read again and discovered that Dan Brown has finally tackled a subject of real interest to me--my hometown, Washington, DC.

As the novel opens, Robert Langdon is literally jetting to DC to give an important speech as a favor to a dear friend. Rushing to his destination in the US capitol, Langdon discovers the circumstances of his visit to DC are not what he was led to believe. Soon, he's embroiled in another elaborate, puzzle-filled, life-threatening hunt through the nation's capitol. He's dodging the CIA, while unraveling arcane Masonic clues, and sparring with a mad man. In other words, pretty much what you'd expect from Dan Brown.

For me, personally, the symbolic tour of Washington, DC was a true joy. And the ties to the Smithsonian Institution, where I once worked, were an added bonus. These plot elements had me happily flipping electronic pages all through the first half of this lengthy novel. I was enjoying The Lost Symbol significantly more than I had expected. However, the deeper I got into the novel, the less fresh it felt.

First, there is the villain, Mal'akh, or whatever he wants to call himself. It doesn't take the reader long to realize the guy is a complete and total nut job. And once you get past the more lurid aspects of his character and story, it gets kind of old. How much crazy do you have to read before it get boring and repetitive. He's nuts. We know it. Move on.

Second, Brown again falls back on all his favorite plot devices. Tricks like referring to characters without using their name, so as to obscure identity as long as possible. Or having characters have major information that is hidden from the reader. These things are tricks. They're used in a heavy-handed manner. And, again, it all just begins to feel manipulative and old. Plus, the revelations when they finally, finally come just aren't that exciting.

Third, there are plot elements that were supposed to be huge surprises that were just so obvious to me. I'm not saying that every single reader will pick up on the stuff that I did, but they might have clued into something else. I'd be surprised if they didn't.

So, a mixed reaction from me. I really enjoy Robert Langdon's lectures. I think the symbology is genuinely interesting. Having so much of it revolve around a location I'm intimately familiar with was a special treat for me. There were a lot of plot elements that were just a lot of fun, and on one level this is a light, entertaining read. The second half of the book didn't work as well for me. I think Brown returned to his bag of tricks too often and ultimately revelations disappointed. For a less critical reader simply looking for a page-turner, you could do worse.
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Two things about Jews: We're funny and we love to eat

Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen
by David Sax

David Sax, the author of Save the Deli, does an admirable job illustrating the above, writing with both humor and appetite. The book was a labor of love for him, born of a fear that these institutions, and this part of the Jewish cultural experience, are disappearing. The evidence backs him up. Sax lists deli after deli that is no longer part of the landscape. It is these losses that propel his quest to visit the survivors, to evaluate the health of the deli in America and abroad, and to sample the wares as often as possible.

Like many readers, I suspect, the first thing I did upon acquiring this book is flip to the back to see if any of my favorite delis were listed. As it happens, I had eaten at more than a few. Even more delightfully, there was a whole chapter on my city: I Left My Kishkes in San Francisco. (Oh, the chapter titles made me laugh.) And, oh, what a pleasure to read about delis I frequent! But even for the readers who have never heard of David's Delicatessen, how could they fail to be affected by the story of the chopped liver? According to the menu, it's chopped exactly 1179 times. When Sax inquired about this oddity, David Apfelbaum pulled up his sleeve to show the number 1179 tattooed on his arm. As Sax commented, that's some twisted humor. Save the Deli is the story of the food, the culture, and also of the people Sax encountered along the way.

Sax proclaims New York "the world capitol of Jewish delicatessen." That's where he opens the book, leaping into his research behind the counter at Katz's Delicatessen. After a thorough exploration of the city's deli culture--past and present--he moves on. To Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Boulder, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, LA, Las Vegas, Scottsdale, Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, DC, and Florida ("Where Deli Goes to Die"). And even further afield in Montreal, Toronto, London, Paris, and Krakow. You'd think with all that schlepping and all that kibitzing that chapters would get redundant, but Sax keeps things fresh, finding new delicacies, stories, history, and characters wherever he goes. (And for readers who have no idea what I just said, there's an amusing Yiddish glossary at the back of the book.)

I'll give the final words to Mel Brooks, a life-long deli fan who was interviewed for the book: "Delis are magnets for Jews, and Jews, in order to survive emotionally, have developed tremendous humor... Also, delis seem to be happy places. I've never seen anyone weeping at a table in a deli. I've seen them in cafes and smart restaurants dabbing their eyes, but I've never seen anyone crying in a deli. Never in a deli! No one ever has a bottle of Dom Perignon with their lover and says, `This isn't working out.' Cel-Ray tonic doesn't cut it."
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Aldous Huxley cements his legacy with Island

Island (Perennial Classics)
by Aldous Huxley

I have to admit that I didn't find this novel as transformative as some readers did, but I'm quite glad to have read it. Truthfully, it's not much of a story, but it sure will give you food for thought and I expect Huxley's ideas will stick with me for a long, long time.

The protagonist of Island is British journalist Will Farnaby. Will isn't an entirely likeable character as the novel opens--as is so often the case in these tales of redemption. In an attempt to escape his troubles, or possibly to escape himself, Will takes a day off from a Southeast Asian business trip to go sailing. A sudden storm sweeps in, and in the novel's opening pages Will realizes he's shipwrecked and injured. Luckily, Will has washed up on the exotic and little-visited island of Pala. This island-nation is a modern (or the 1960s version of it) Utopia.

Will is discovered by some children who promptly go for help. It arrives in the form of Dr. Robert MacPhail, one of the island's most respected citizens. Dr. Robert patches Will up, and he and other islanders indulge Will's curiosity about their home. Over the course of just a few days, they introduce Will to every aspect of their most extraordinary society. From family life, medicine, education, and rites of passage, Will learns about Palanese life from birth to death.

He meets many islanders, including the future Raja who is about to come of age, and his mother, the Rani. These two members of the ruling class have some very different ideas about how things should be on Pala. And their agenda may just tie in with a secret agenda of Will's own... It is this loose storyline that the plot consists of, but it's actually a very minor part of the novel--just a thread that runs through a lot of philosophy and sociology. Personally, I had a very limited interest in and tolerance for a lot of Eastern religious (mostly Buddhist) philosophy. But I really loved the sociological ideas Huxley put forth in his Utopia. Really, really interesting stuff! For another reader, it might be the reverse. One way or another, I really have to believe the novel would be of interest to any thinking person.
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Addie Downs is down but not out

Best Friends Forever: A Novel
by Jennifer Weiner

At the age of 33, Addie Downs has survived more than her share of sadness and tragedy. But she's come through it stronger. While she lives a largely solitary life, she's made the most of the gifts she's been given and is taking positive steps to improve her lot in life.

Then the doorbell rings.

Addie is almost not surprised to see Valerie Adler, her childhood best (and only) friend, whom she hasn't seen in more than a decade. It was as if she'd always known this day would come: Valerie needs her help. It's the night of their high school reunion. A plan for casual revenge gets a little out of control, and Valerie may have hit an old nemesis with her car. She needs Addie to come with her for moral support as she returns to the scene of the crime.

So begins an odyssey into the past and into a new future for these two best friends forever. It's a Thelma and Louise-esqe road trip of laughter and discovery, and I defy you not to smile as you read it. Author Jennifer Weiner has struggled with the "chick lit" label for her entire career. Such dismissiveness doesn't acknowledge the way she brings her characters to life. Within pages, she's created wonderful, sympathetic, relatable characters. Sure the plot's a little outlandish, but Weiner's humor (infused in her creations) is irrepressible. At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with reading something that simply makes you feel good.

Finally, I meet Alex Hawke

I don't know about you, but the longer an author's backlist is, the more hesitant I am to begin reading a series. One the bright side, you won't be waiting on pins and needles for a sequel, but there's a lot of territory to catch up on. I've been buying Ted Bell's Alexander Hawke thrillers since the very first one was published. Now that there are five books in this series, I've finally gotten around to reading the first one. Debut novels are often rough. I was pleasantly surprised by this one.

The novel's prologue recounts what is likely the single most traumatic experience of Alex Hawke's life--the cold-blooded murder of his parents when he was seven years old. Young Alex witnessed the whole thing, but has blocked the events from his memory. It's a terrible start on life, but Alex has a few advantages as well. He's the scion of a wealthy and influential British family. He's raised by a loving grandfather and given all the best advantages in life.

After the prologue we meet the adult Alex Hawke. In addition to being a captain of industry, he does covert jobs for the British and American governments. That's not as random as it seems. As a younger man, Alex had served with distinction in the special forces of the military. He has ties to the rich and powerful everywhere. And business interests around the globe provide the ideal cover for his presence in hot spots.

In this case, the hot spot is Cuba. Hawke is instructed to find who has bought a very dangerous submarine, but what he finds in addition is a coup d'état ninety miles off the US coast. What's more, the situation has gotten very personal when the bad guys drag Hawke's girlfriend Victoria into the mix. Fortunately, Hawke has backup. Aside from the American government he's working for, he's brought his own most trusted allies. Foremost among them is Ambrose Congreve, a semi-retired Scotland Yard inspector, and Hawke's closest friend. Also, there is Stokely Jones, a former New York cop who acts as Hawke's body guard and Chief of Security. Hawke has surrounded himself with a loyal team that would go to hell and back for him. I expect we'll get to know each of them better as the series progresses.

As I mentioned above, it's a strong debut. The writing is fine and the pacing is good. The plot featured some good twists and turns, and even had a fun buried pirate treasure sub-plot. Hawke's a character you can build a series around, and while his extreme wealth and other gifts are a bit preposterous, it's kind of fun to see how the other .00001 percent lives. (Was I the only one sort of picturing Richard Branson as I read the book?) There was really only one thing I had a big problem with, and oddly enough it was one of the supporting characters. Specifically, it was Stokely Jones, who spoke all of his lines in an ignorant and affected dialect. An example, "Ain't far. See all them Christmas lights hanging in the trees on that island over there? Only a couple of miles. We could swim it, but Mr. Congreve, he old fashioned." Not only is it annoying to read, I found it somewhat insulting to a minority of which I'm not a member. I really hope it gets toned down in subsequent novels.

And I guess I'll find out, as based on this debut, I plan to move forward with the series. I'm looking forward to getting a better handle on Alex Hawke, and seeing how the supporting cast continues to develop.
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A rare sequel that equals its predecessor

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)
by Suzanne Collins

A year ago The Hunger Games knocked me out. I thought it was simply fantastic! I've been chomping at the bit to get at the sequel ever since. It was hard to imagine where Collins could go with Katniss's story, and how she could possibly top herself--but she did!

Catching Fire is an absolutely terrific sequel! Now, I'm not going to tell you much about the plot for your own good. It's an unfortunate truth that spoilers can't be unread. What I will say is that all the main characters from The Hunger Games are revisited or remembered, and a few new characters are introduced. Collins does a really bang up job moving the character development forward. The plot of Catching Fire delves far more into the politics of Panem, and the fall-out from Katniss's actions during the games.

Just about the midpoint of the novel, Katniss thinks to herself, "I have to admit I didn't see it coming. I saw a multitude of other things." Yes, me too! Collins writes a twist at the midpoint that caught me as off guard as it did Katniss. And I loved it! I'm on pins and needles for book three!
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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sorry to drop off the face of the earth...

A quick note to my three readers... So sorry to suddenly stop posting content. First a work transition and businesss travel got in the way of my free time. More problematically, I returned from my business trip with the H1N1 flu. I've been pretty seriously ill for the past couple of weeks. I'm getting better, but I think full recovery is going to take a while. I hope to get around to posting several book reviews I have written this past month in the near future.

Thanks for not abandoning me!



Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Science and religion clash in a thought-provoking thriller

The Rapture
by Liz Jenkins

Apocalypse and dystopia. Everywhere I look apocalypse--at least on my bookshelf, that is. Everyone seems to be writing about the end of the world, and the scariest part is that none of it seems to be the least bit implausible.

The latest addition to my apocalyptic reading is Liz Jensen's The Rapture. Once you get past the notably unattractive cover, the first thing you'll notice about this novel is the superiority of Jensen's prose. Right from the first paragraph, it is abundantly clear that you're not reading the average thriller with serviceable language. What's even more extraordinary is that the beauty of Jensen's prose doesn't slow down this thriller one bit.

At its heart, this is the story of three very damaged people and one very damaged planet. The first-person narrator is Gabrielle Fox. She's the new art therapist at Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital. Gabrielle left the bustle of London for this facility in remote Hadport in the wake of her own personal tragedy. It takes some time for all the details to be teased out, but the result, two years on, is that she will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Doctor, heal thyself. Gabrielle is well aware that she has a lot of issues of her own to work through before she's fully prepared to help others.

Nonetheless, she is charged with helping some severely disturbed young people. Perhaps the most disquieting of them all is Bethany Krall. Now 16, Bethany has been locked up for two years since she killed her mother with a screwdriver. She is not cute, and she is not misunderstood. She is a tough, tough character to empathize with, but you just can't turn away from her.

Bethany has been having visions in the wake of her electro-convulsive therapy treatments. She sees cyclones, earthquakes, and other things she can't possibly know, with very specific details. While at first Gabrielle ignores Bethany's insane babbling, when enough predictions prove correct, she seeks outside opinion. Here enters physicist and expert on natural phenomenon, Frazer Melville (inexplicably referred to by his full name or the appellation "the physicist" at all times). He brings the science--and the romance.

It is fairly formulaic for a thriller to have a romantic sub-plot, but this is a rare example of the romance feeling truly integral to the story being told. The relationship felt organic, and I felt emotionally invested in the characters. Yes, there were times I wanted to slap Gabrielle and yell, "Get over it!" But she behaved consistently as the damaged individual she was.

There's no need to discuss the details of the plot further, but I was pleased by the insertion of some science into the religious "end times" story. This isn't a Michael Crichton-style hard science thriller, but it should definitely leave you with some food for thought.

Provocative, but poorly marketed

by Matthew Glass

Matthew Glass's debut novel, Ultimatum, suffers from unfulfilled expectations. If you read it expecting to find the thriller it was marketed as, you will be sadly disappointed. If you're open-minded, what you'll find instead is a provocative novel of ideas and politics.

The near-future story is set in 2032. Joe Benton, a good man with good intentions, has just been elected President of the United States. He thought he knew what he was getting into, but almost immediately upon entering office, he learns from the outgoing President that the global warming/climate change situation is significantly worse than anyone has ever publicly or even privately acknowledged. The United States and the whole world is facing a catastrophe--rising tides, flooded cities, millions of people needing to be relocated and much, much more.

When I read the description of the novel, I was expecting an action thriller. Desperate people being airlifted from the rooftops of drowning cities. That sort of thing. On the contrary, this is a serious, intelligent (and realisting, all things considered) look at the tense politics involved in negotiating a crisis. It's suspenseful, but a page-turner it's not.

I can't regret time spent reading books with these dire environmental warnings. What's eerie is that as I was reading the novel, I was hearing news reports that echoed the content of the book almost exactly. Very disturbing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Big Chill--on acid

South of Broad
by Pat Conroy

Leopold Bloom King ("Leo" to friends) is the narrator of Pat Conroy's first novel in 14 years. The story opens on Bloomsday, 1969, in Charleston, South Carolina. Most families don't commemorate this celebration of the work of James Joyce, but then again, most parents don't name their sons after fictional Joycean characters. At the tender age of 18, painfully shy Leo has had enough drama to last a lifetime. Trouble began early with his radiant older brother's suicide. Leo found the body. This led to years of therapy and adventures within the mental health care system. Finally released from institutions, Leo is immediately convicted of a crime he didn't commit, but for which he refuses to defend himself. All of this has occurred before the events of the novel, and is exposited in the first 50 pages or so.

On that fateful Bloomsday, Leo is finally on the verge of getting his act together. And this kid is too good to be true. He's got no friends his own age, but Leo is genuinely kind-hearted and charms any adult willing to give him a chance. However, everything changes on that day. That is the day that larger-than-life twins Sheba and Trevor Poe move across the street. It is also the day that he meets Ike Jefferson, the son of his new African American football coach (thanks to desegregation). It is the day he meets teenage orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead, just arrived in town and handcuffed to their chairs. And, finally, it is the day he meets South of Broad bluebloods, Chad and Fraser Rutledge, and the beautiful Molly Huger. It is, in short, an eventful day.

The non-linear novel is told in five parts. That first section established the rich Charleston setting, gives the necessary exposition, and cements the life-altering relationships of these high school friends. Part two is set 20 years later. It is 1989, and Sheba Poe has returned to Charleston as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. She's a drama-queen of the highest order, but she hasn't forgotten her friends or her roots. As the group of friends reunites around Sheba's surprise visit, we see what's become of these teenagers we've just gotten to know. And we learn just how incestuous this group is, and who ended up married to whom.

It was this section, more than any other, that reminded me powerfully of the film The Big Chill--right down to the South Carolina setting, the careers of some of the friends, and the many (many!) issues they are dealing with. Part three sees this close-knit group on a quest to San Francisco. One of their number, openly gay and rumored to be dying of AIDS, is missing. No one has heard from him in over a year. Part four returns us to 1969 and the friends' senior year of high school. It is here that we learn more of the events that led to the adult lives these people were leading 20 years later. And finally (and I do mean finally, as the book came in at over 500 pages), part five returns to 1989/1990 and the culmination of all the plots and dramas we've exhaustingly witnessed.

It is a truly staggering list of discord. All the typical Conroy highlights are hit: daddy issues, mommy issues, male and female rape, suicide, southern living, mental illness, military education, team sports, adultery, relationships with coaches, family drama, and so much more. This sort of... redundancy of themes... can't help but make you wonder what the author may be working through. Nonetheless, though revisiting a lot of territory, Conroy jumbles things up in new and interesting ways.

I had a very mixed reaction to this book. I can (and will) criticize any number of aspects of this novel, but I can't deny that it was entertaining. It's compulsively readable, but in a trashy, guilty pleasure sort of way. I usually think better of Pat Conroy. Some of the language exhibits his renowned lyricism, but much of the dialog is cringe-worthy. Each of the characters attempts to be more witty and glib than the next. Their dialog is a non-stop stream of one-liners, innuendo, and casual racism. None of it rings true, and goes a long way towards making these characters, their actions, and the constant high drama simply too much to believe. Most of the characters are extreme personalities (some of them downright repugnant), and I found it truly hard to believe that their bonds were as tight as was depicted. The entire San Francisco section took Conroy way out of his element. and while he convincingly narrated through the eyes of an outsider, the story he told rang false. Armisted Maupin he's not.

And I mentioned it before, but by the end of the book, the non-stop drama of these people's lives is exhausting. Family drama, relationship drama, racial drama, religious drama, deaths, suicides, crimes, affairs, mental illness, addiction, natural disasters, and not one psychopath--but two! Folks, it's a lot to take in. Mr. Conroy's stored up a lot of plotlines in the time he's been away from fiction, and apparently he decided to use them all.

I'm sure his fans will defend this novel. And it's already a best-seller, but it's far from his strongest work. Read it if you're a die-hard fan, or if you're just looking for a page-turner. But if you're expecting a lot more than that, I expect you'll be disappointed.

Yet another adult strolling down memory lane

House of Stairs
by William Sleator

I see that I'm not the only adult with strong memories of reading this novel when they were young. In my case, it must have been 30 years ago, but somehow I never forgot the book. I've been keeping my eyes open for a copy for years now, and it's truly fascinating rereading this book that I loved as a child with my 40-year-old eyes.

The novel opens with Peter. Peter has no idea where he is. He finds himself blindfolded and taken to an unknown destination. Removing the blindfold, he finds himself all alone in a truly bizarre environment. Everywhere he looks, as far as the eye can see, he's in a cavernous space filled with stairs. Stairs going up, stairs going down, some with small landings, some connected by bridges. There are no walls, no floor, no railings, no place to feel safe. As he fights vertigo, Peter spies someone below him and calls out.

Unfortunately, Lola doesn't know anymore about where they are or why than Peter does. Their stories of being blindfolded are the same, but they quickly discover other commonalities as well. They are both orphans from state homes and both 16 years old. They discover this is true of the other three kids they meet in the "house of stairs."

Peter, Lola, Blossom, Abigail, and Oliver all find themselves in an utterly inexplicable situation, and they all deal with it differently. They are very different personalities. Survival becomes their first priority. What at first seems to be an entity merely trying to control their actions, quickly becomes far more sinister.

Viewing the reactions of these young people to their circumstances, and finding out how the novel would end, had me turning pages just as fast now as it did when I was a kid. And I'm happy to report that I really enjoyed revisiting this story. I can see that it's a piece of fiction very much of its time, and as an adult I better understand the context of the novel. (Like another reviewer, I, too, thought of the infamous Zimbardo and Milgram experiments.) All that aside, House of Stairs is still a compelling story and a warning to be heeded today.

Friday, August 7, 2009

If Julie & Julia merely whetted your appetite...

Gourmet Rhapsody
by Muriel Barbery

"I am the greatest food critic in the world." So says Monsieur Pierre Arthens on the first page of Muriel Barbery's charming novella, Gourmet Rhapsody. Readers of Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog will remember Monsieur Arthens, and will see other familiar faces crop up. This novella, while not a sequel to that novel, is set in the same apartment building on Rue de Grenelle.

As we can see from his bold introductory statements, there's nothing wrong with Monsieur Arthens' ego. Alas, it is his heart that is failing. He has been told by his doctor that he has 48 hours to live. Perhaps he could depart this world at peace, if only, if only, he could taste that taste once more. The elusive taste he can't quite remember. What is it? Where did he taste it?

The novella is made up of many brief chapters, alternating between Monsieur Arthens' ruminations on the most formative, the most poignant, the most extravagant, and the most serendipitous meals of his life, and reminiscences of Monsieur Arthens by those who know him. These include those closest to him--his spouse, children, lovers--and those who know him more tangentially.

These interludes are only a few pages long, but each character speaks with a distinct voice. So many of these characters left me wanting to know more of their story. I was fascinated with his wife, Anna, and her unusual attitudes. I can only hope that I will learn more of her someday, as Barbery does not appear to be averse to revisiting her character's lives. Of all the people (and things!) that comment throughout the book, his housekeeper's chapter may have been my favorite. There's something so sad about the way he treated her when compared to those whom he was supposed to love. Pierre Arthens is a complex and arguably unlikable character.

But I did like him. How could any foodie not? His language--even within the confines of his own mind--is florid and overblown, but so much of Barbery's prose is interesting and beautiful. Simply put, it is a joy to read. And I defy you to get through this book without running to the kitchen to satisfy any number of cravings the text will evoke. It is, indeed, a rhapsody to the joys of good food, good people, and perhaps a lust for life.

You do NOT want to play Trivial Pursuit with these two!

Spartan Gold
by Clive Cussler & Grant Blackwood

"Fortune favors the bold." That's the oft-quoted motto of Sam and Remi Fargo, the husband and wife protagonists of Clive Cussler's latest co-authored offering. Spartan Gold is the first book in a new series penned by Grant Blackwood. The Fargos are "treasure hunters and adventurers." Sam's background is mechanical engineering and Remi's is in anthropology and history, but both appear to be polymaths. In their line of work, they have ample opportunity to put their numerous skills to good use.

As the novel opens, they're hip deep in the muck of a Maryland swamp. They're looking for buried treasure, but what they find is something altogether unexpected. It's a Nazi-era German mini-sub very, very far from where one would expect to find such a thing. An attempt to get the scoop on local rumors of such an anomaly is aborted by their source's kidnapping right before their eyes. After the Fargos free their friend from the professional operative interrogating him about a shard of wine bottle he found in the Pocomoke, the plot really takes off.

It comes as no surprise when the Fargos' crack research team (at their home base in La Jolla) links the wine bottles to "Napoleon's Lost Cellar," and then links these 12 wine bottles, secreted around the world, to a major hidden treasure. This is because we'd seen the great man make his (unseen) discovery of ancient treasure in the novel's prologue. It is this unknown treasure that Sam and Remi are seeking, but they've got competition in the form of a ruthless Ukrainian crime boss and his henchmen. Unlike the Fargos, Hadeon Bondaruk knows exactly what they're seeking and he will stop at nothing to possess it. So begins a cat and mouse chase across the globe. It's an epic scavenger hunt with a high stakes outcome. Along the way, there's breath-taking scenery and a few history lessons leading up to the inevitable showdown between the good guys and the bad guys.

It's a okay start, as these things go. The characters are more archetypes than flesh and blood people. But, hey, it's a series; there's time for character development later. There are some fun supporting characters, most notably Yvette Fornier-Desmarais. I expect we'll see more of her. Sadly, I can't say the same of their sidekick researcher, Selma. She's a cardboard cutout masquerading as a character. For now, Sam and Remi display that typical Cusslerian insouciance in the face of danger, and snap off witty banter whenever possible. It's easy to joke about their arcane knowledge. (The rugs of Yoruk nomads? Really?) And an early reference to Henri Archambault elicits the response, "the Henri Archambault?" Why, yes, Napoleon Bonaparte's chief enologist. He's practically a household name.

Still, despite their ridiculous knowledge base, the Fargos are refreshingly fallible. This is probably my favorite thing about the novel. They're chasing cryptic clues. They have to work really hard to solve them. Sometimes they even have to sleep on it. The puzzle solving is depicted unusually realistically. (I mean, in those National Treasure films, riddles are solved in a matter of seconds.) Sam and Remi make other mistakes, too. They get lost occasionally. They screw up. What can I say? Imperfect protagonists are infinitely more interesting in my book.

The story is light, very light, and fast-paced for the most part--thought my interest did flag a bit in the middle. But then our heroes took the action into the proverbial lion's den, and that picked things up straight through the ending. By and large the writing is fine, though there are some quirky redundancies to the text.

Fans of Cussler's signature mix of history and adventure will likely give this one a thumbs up. It's nothing to write home about, but Grant Blackwood is off to a respectable start.