Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Timeless—or perhaps timely—Tales of my City

Michael Tolliver Lives
by Armisted Maupin

I won’t go as far as to claim that Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City books are the reason I upended my life and moved to San Francisco eight years ago—but they were surely a factor. Maupin captures the spirit of San Francisco like no one else, and his books are truly dear to me. Several years ago, in a tremendous act of willpower, I tucked away Michael Tolliver Lives for a “rainy day.” That day, of course, has come, and it’s such a comfort to visit with these old friends.

Like myself, they are older. Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is in his mid-fifties and Anna Madrigal is eighty-five! In the pages of the book we get updates on all of our beloved former Barbary Lane denizens, but as the title suggests, this is really Michael’s show.

Like his creator, he is now married (legally) to a much younger man, and is living with HIV—an eventuality he’d never considered years ago when AIDS was a death sentence. As for further details of the plot, they’re essentially irrelevant. This book is all about character. And Maupin’s insight into these people is just as deep—and as deeply affectionate as it ever was.

Now, clearly I’m a hard-core fan, and reading this book gave me great joy at a time when I badly needed it. That said, this latest volume is not a favorite. Perhaps because Michael’s life so closely mirror’s Maupin’s, I felt like parts of this book smacked of self-justification. Also, and this isn’t exactly a complaint, but this book seemed a lot more gay than I remember the rest of the series being. Or rather, more graphically and explicitly gay. I don’t really care, but readers who aren’t fairly open-minded might not want to go there. I’m pretty open-minded, and I could have done with just a bit less detail.

Small complaints aside, I was thrilled to reconnect with these dear friends and discover I loved them as much as I ever had. Maupin is a magical writer with boundless heart. I will read absolutely anything he writes. Happily, I won’t have to wait quite so long for my next visit. Mary Ann in Autumn, a Tales of the City novel, will be published in November!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Easy reading for the easily amused

Easily Amused
by Karen McQuestion

First, thanks to novelist Joe Konrath, who introduced me to Ms. McQuestion on the pages of his blog. This is the first of her novels that I've read, and as I'm easily amused myself, I liked it.

Anchored firmly in chick lit territory, Easily Amused is the story of Lola Watson. About to turn 30, Lola's reasonably content with her life. She's got a great job, good friends, and has recently inherited a fantastic Victorian house from her maiden great-aunt. There are only two areas of discontent. First, the newly acquired neighbors are awfully intrusive. Lola's a bit on the stand-offish side. And that may be part of the reason for issue number two: There's no man in her life, and hasn't been for quite some time.

She isn't the typical neurotic chick lit heroine. However, matters come to a head when her pushy younger sister decides to move her wedding forward to Lola's 30th birthday. I think we can all agree that that's just dirty pool. She and her best friend Piper begin plotting fantasy schemes of dream dates to take to the wedding, but suddenly the perfect dream man shows up and shows lots of interest.

Unfortunately, at virtually the same time, some else shows up. Hubert Holmes, one of Lola's oldest and dearest friends, is on the outs with his girlfriend. He needs a place to crash, and Lola has this huge house...

That's the set-up of this fluffy but enjoyable diversion. I found myself quite engaged with the story and characters, though Lola skirted with unlikability as she strove to keep everyone at arm's length. Still, I found myself reading deep into the night. I was in a blue space, and the novel's humor buoyed me. Ultimately, I'm not really sure I was fully satisfied with the novel's conclusion, but the process of getting there was so enjoyable that I'd certainly be open to reading future novels.

Biggest disappointment: Not one Watson/Holmes joke. Unforgivable.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Read this one in the summer sun...

The Passage
by Justin Cronin

Okay, here’s the thing to know about The Passage… The first 250+ pages are exposition. It’s okay. It’s well-handled. We’re shown, not told, as it were. But you should know going in that the real story being told gets going nearly three hundred pages in.

What, you may be asking, requires that much exposition? Well, this is a post-apocalyptic epic. The novel opens in the future; best I can tell it’s within the next ten years. As the story begins, we see events unfolding for roughly five years prior to cataclysm and its immediate aftermath. Essentially, we’re seeing how our world becomes the nightmarish world that comprises the bulk of this epic. At nearly 800 pages, it’s only the first novel of a planned trilogy!

The elements of Cronin’s novel are highly derivative—which I don’t necessarily consider a problem. It’s the tale of a government experiment run amok. In trying to alter an exotic virus to create super soldiers, the U.S. Army creates… something else. Something no longer human. Something deadly. Of course, it gets out, and it spreads.

The most obvious comparison would be Stephen King’s The Stand—for more reasons than I will enumerate here. There are echoes of other King novels as well. One of the major characters in The Passage, possibly a source of salvation, is a young girl. Swan Song, anyone? The virus changes those infected into vampire-like creatures reminiscent of Matheson’s I am Legend and any number of contemporary novels influenced by that classic. The surviving people, possibly the very last surviving people, live in a commune, entirely dependent upon tall walls and bright lights to keep the monsters at bay. This and other aspects reminded me of Jeanne DuPrau’s Books of Ember series.

I don’t know if Cronin has read any or all of those works. Regardless of whether he has or not, he’s taken archetypal elements and created his own story. This novel has more pre-publication hype than anything I’ve ever seen—including The DaVinci Code. If it’s not a monster bestseller, heads will roll. Heads. Will. Roll. Based on the hype and buzz alone, I expected a slam dunk. For me, it wasn’t.

Despite his literary pedigree, Cronin doesn’t have the way with characters that King does. That said, I definitely enjoyed this novel. While the length is great, I didn’t find it to be excessive, and I never grew bored. Cronin gave himself room to tell his tale expansively. He paced the story well and paid good attention to details. This isn’t a novel I feel the need to rave about, but I enjoyed reading it. And there’s no question at all that I’ll continue with the series. While this arc of the story comes to a conclusion, larger plot elements are left unresolved, and with a cliff-hanger even. Ugh! I’m looking forward to seeing where Mr. Cronin goes in Book Two.

Tell-All: I plan to!

by Chuck Palahniuk

Let me cut to the chase... I hated this novel. I've read Palahniuk before, and I've neither loved nor hated his work. He's got a perverse aesthetic, but the guy can write. That's what got him the two stars. But this was the longest 200 pages I've ever had to read. Slim as this volume is, getting through it was torture.

Tell-All is the story of fading Hollywood star, Katherine Kenton, and it's told from the POV of her... Assistant? Confidant? Maid? Consigliere? Anyway, the singularly unpleasant and deeply possessive first-person narrator is Hazie Coogan. Let me tell you, if I never read the phrase "my Miss Kathie" again, it will be too soon.

It's hard to summarize the plot of this novel because ultimately there's so little substance to it. Set in the golden age of Hollywood, the narrative is highly stylized. First, there are no chapters, just "Acts" and "Scenes." Cinematic, rather than literary, vernacular is used to set these scenes, such as Act I, Scene Eight: "We open with a panning shot of Miss Kathie's boudoir mantel, the lineup of wedding photos and awards. Next we dissolve to a similar panning shot, moving across the surface of a console table in her drawing room, crowded with more trophies. Then, we dissolve to yet another similar shot..."

All proper names are in bold-face, with those names dropped by the dozens in the style of old-time gossip sheets. Just paragraph after paragraph of filler. And if that's not enough, Palahniuk regales us with dozens of "witticisms" attributed to famed gossip columnists. For instance, "This prattle, further example of what WALTER WINCHELL means by the term 'toast-masturbating.' Or 'laud mouthing,' according to HEDDA HOPPER. According to LOUELLA PARSONS, 'implying gilt.'" Over and over and over.

Then there were the lengthy passages along the lines of, "This woman is POCAHONTAS. She is ATHENA and HERA. Lying in this messy, unmade bed, eyes closed, this is JULIET CAPULET. BLANCHE DUBOIS. SCARLET O'HARA. With ministrations of lipstick and eyeliner I give birth to OPHELIA. To MARIE ANTOINETTE. Over the next trip of the larger hand around the face of the bedside clock, I give form to LUCREZIA BORGIA..." I'll spare you further, but trust me, it goes on for some time. Why say something once when you can say it sixteen times?

And aside from the redundant, redundant, redundant text, even the plot eventually repeats and repeats six or seven or eight times (I lost count) with identically-staged murder attempts. By the time I reached "the surprise ending" as Hazie calls it, I was just so very glad my ordeal was over.
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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Just add water...

Dark Life
by Kat Falls

In introducing us to the world she's created in Dark Life, author Kat Falls uses a tried and true device--the fish out of water. Or the fish IN water. Well, a girl in water, at least.

Falls' debut novel is set in what I certainly hope is a fairly distant future, a time after "the Rising." Global warming and a rising sea level have caused a 20 percent decrease in worldwide land mass. U/V radiation is so bad you'll fry unless your skin is heavily slathered with zinc. Resources are stretched thin. The country is under martial law. Space is now the ultimate luxury, and the vast majority of people live many to a room in towering vertical cities. Falls doesn't paint a pretty picture.

These are the circumstances that compelled a few brave souls to venture under the sea. Scientists at first, but eventually other "pioneers" have staked their claim below the surface. These homesteaders don't live in domed cities beneath the sea. They've each got a private home based on the latest in sub-sea architecture. They're engaged in aquaculture, and surrender an exorbitant percentage of their catch and crops to the government in taxes. This is what feeds the "topsiders."

Fifteen-year-old Ty Townson was born beneath the sea. It's his home, and the only place he wants to live. During a brief surface visit he wonders, "How was anyone comfortable up here?" In the opening pages of the novel, Ty ducks into an abandoned sub to escape a pack of green lantern sharks. Out of the frying pan and into the fire; the interior is drenched in blood. Fortunately, the only body he discovers is that of fellow teen, Gemma Straid. Topsider Gemma had boarded the sub hunting for her older brother, and had made the same gruesome discovery. The two teens become fast friends, and Ty agrees to help Gemma with her hunt.

As Ty introduces Gemma to his world, we see everything through her outsider's eyes. It is a truly fantastic world that Falls has imagined! Without going so far as to call it realistic, I will say that she's based her sub-sea frontier on good science, from the Liquigen the divers breathe to the marine life they encounter. Some of the most fascinating creatures in the ocean make cameo appearances on the pages of the book, all of them depicted more or less accurately. Ms. Falls has a knack for picking the coolest critters, but it just goes to show you that when it comes to the underwater realm, reality rivals the most vivid imagination.

Let me not slight Ms. Falls, however. She uses her imagination plenty. In Dark Life she has created a fully-realized world. In addition to the fascinating environment, there are politics, there is culture, and there is slang: "We gotta make wake!" "I felt like total Chum." It was the world that she's built, much more than the tale of missing brothers and marine bandits, which had me completely captivated. Her young characters are appealing, but seemed sort of innocent for their ages. When Gemma asked, "Don't you ever get sick of being so good?" I'll admit I wondered the same thing. Well, I guess there's no harm in a couple of good role models in a young adult novel.

The book comes to a neat conclusion after some thrills and chills and a few twists along the way. There's nothing there that suggests a sequel, but I, for one, would love to learn more about the mysteries of the Dark Life.
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Thursday, May 13, 2010

R.I.P. Weasel

So, this was supposed to be a good week. My friend Boyd's debut novel, The Ark, went on sale on Tuesday. I've been involved with that novel since the very first draft, so it's a really big deal. And it's a great novel! (You may notice my review immediately below this post.) My plan was to pimp Boyd's novel online all week. We all need a little help from our friends, right?

Unfortunately, Boyd's success isn't why I'll remember this week in years to come. On Monday morning I woke up, but my lovely companion Weasel didn't. He's been with me most of my adult life, and I'm having a really hard time with the loss.

Weasel was about 19, so he had a long, healthy, happy life and he died at home. You couldn't ask for any more than that. He was a good friend all these years, and there wasn't a person that met him that didn't comment on how special he was. Truly. His crazy, blonde "mother" used to drag him all around town on a leash or in a totebag. (I grew up with dogs, okay?) Weasel was a popular visitor to bookstores, the beach, parks, sidewalk cafes, hotels, shops--he came all over the place with me. Back when I was stage managing all the time, he'd come to rehearsals and sit quietly in a seat at the theater until I was done. There will never be another cat like him.

See that photo of us on the right? That was taken about eight years ago at Books by the Bay by none other than author Christopher Moore. Weasel actually met more best-selling novelists than most readers of this blog.

Oh, and can you see the markings on his forehead? The cat had a "W" on his forehead. I called it "The Mark of the Weasel." He was so funny, and friendly, and sociable. He used to go up to strangers in bookstores and sort of flop on his back at their feet and wiggle around like, "I get no love and attention at home." Shameless!

When we lived in San Diego, he'd meow at passersby out the street-level window until they'd come over and talk to him. Oftentimes I'd be just out of sight eavesdropping on their conversations. One day a good-looking guy came knocking at my door. He didn't want to meet me; he wanted to meet Weasel. That cat had charisma.

Intellectually, I knew our time was limited. He was well beyond the average life expectancy of a house cat, but somehow that doesn't help at all. I am heart-broken. I've been crying all week and my eyes feel raw and sore.

People are incredibly kind. Most people know what it is to love and lose an animal. Sadly, I'm not the only one in this situation right now. My friend Donna lost her cat last week. He was only eight. I am lucky Weasel and I were together for so long. My friend Matt has a desperately sick cat at home, too. We're all heart-broken.

Matt had some good news to share, at least. He's the author of a terrific debut thriller that came out a couple of years ago called Hooked, and he's getting the sequel ready for publication now. That's not the good news. Matt has a "day job" writing for the New York Times. He won a freakin' Pulitzer Prize for journalism last month! (That'll teach me to only check the book and drama winners.) How crazy is that?

And one more item of note...The big promotion I've been working towards for months? It looks like it's coming through on June 1st. Wish I felt like celebrating. So, congrats to Boyd, to Matt, and to me.

I miss you, Weasel.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's hip to be square

The Ark: A Novel
by Boyd Morrison

Archeologist Dilara Kenner has rushed back to the States at the behest of Sam Watson, an old family friend. Sam meets her flight at LAX and explains, "Three days ago, I made a startling discovery at work. It has to do with Hasad." Hasad, Dilara's father, has been missing for three years. Just as Sam begins to tie Hasad's disappearance to a plot to "kill millions, maybe billions" that will culminate eight days hence, the old man collapses, the apparent victim of a very suspiciously-timed heart attack. His final words "Listen! Tyler Locke. Gordian Engineering. Get... his help. He knows... Coleman. Your father's research... started everything. You must... find the Ark."

(I know, I know, we've all seen exactly this sort of opening to any number of thrillers. There are always some adventurers off in search of some holy grail or other, and who also have to save the world along the way. Yes, we've seen these types of stories before, but the thing is, when they're well done, they're entertaining as hell. And folks, this one is really well done. No plot description or talk of well-developed characters will ever give you a sense of why this book stands out so well against the pack of clich├ęd thrillers. At some point the reader must take a leap of faith and give a new novelist a try. I'm telling you right now, this is the one to give a try.)

The eponymous Ark is Noah's, of course. Dilara's father has been hunting it for decades and she's been as dismissive of his work as the rest of the world--but apparently someone was paying attention. First, however, Dilara needs to stay alive long enough to find out who Tyler Locke is. From the moment she leaves LAX, the attempts on her life come fast and furious. She quickly discovers that Locke is an engineer, currently working on a remote oil rig, and figures that may well be the safest place for her. She's wrong. At least Dilara and Tyler have connected, but he's as mystified by Sam's final words as she is. Still, there's no denying that something very suspect is going on, and Tyler is quickly sucked into Dilara's drama.

It is Tyler Locke that debut novelist Boyd Morrison is setting up to be the recurring hero of a series. And if this first adventure is any indication, Locke is up to the task. While he owes a debt to action heroes like Dirk Pitt and Philip Mercer, there's something a bit softer about Tyler. He comes by his "kick-ass" side quite believably, having served as a combat engineer in Desert Storm, but he's as likely to pull a Leatherman tool on you as a gun. Now in his 30's, he's a young widower trying to come to terms with loss. And he has a bit of an egghead side, too--approaching each challenge as an engineering problem. It's more interesting than you might, at first glance, think. Here, for instance, are some thoughts on the conundrum of Noah's Ark:

"From an engineering standpoint, a purely wooden ship bigger than that is untenable. Without the iron frames and internal bracketing that 19th century ships had, a ship the size of Noah's Ark would flex like a rubber band. It would have sprung leaks in a thousand places. Not to mention that in a raging storm like the Flood, wave oscillations would have snapped the frame like a twig. The Ark would have sunk in minutes. Good-bye human race." From there, Tyler analyzes the lifespan of wooden artifacts, the storage capacity of the Ark, and the amount of water it would have taken to cover the earth. This is a man whom likes to throw logic at a problem.

Once Tyler and Dilara have teamed up, however, there is little time for academic discussions. Sam's cryptic words take on horrifying meaning as unfolding events capture the entire world's attention. The events described thus far happen within the novel's first few chapters. Throw in some monster trucks, mysteriously melting movie stars, and megalomaniacs and you've barely brushed the surface of what lies ahead. Boyd Morrison has plotted a wild ride that is guaranteed to keep readers turning pages deep into the night. The Ark is not only intricately plotted, it's smart. Morrison gives his readers credit that they'll be able to follow along, and it's a pleasure to read an author not catering to the lowest common denominator.

I can't claim that this release is my introduction to Morrison's work. The truly cognoscenti have been fans since long before Simon & Schuster came into the picture. But, it's exciting to finally let the rest of you in on this find. I can't wait for the sequel!
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What happens between A and B?

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan

After reading a few chapters of Jennifer Egan's latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I'd determined it was really a collection of linked stories more than a novel. Reading further, however, I saw the larger themes and the cohesiveness of the whole. It is, indeed, a novel, and an excellent one at that!

The book opens sometime in the recent past, and kleptomaniac Sasha is recounting a story to her therapist. Her former boss, record producer Benny Salazar, is mentioned in passing. The next chapter takes place several years earlier. Here Sasha is still Benny's assistant, and now it is he that is the first person narrator. Benny's just trying to get through a visit with his pre-teen son while mentally stifling a lifetime's worth of shame. He reflects, in passing, on his old high school gang, and in the next chapter we're back in San Francisco, circa 1980, with them. Benny wants Alice, but Alice wants Scotty. Scotty wants Jocelyn, but teenage Jocelyn is seeing Lou, a record producer more than twice her age. Don't worry, he'll get his chapter.

They all get a chapter or two or three. The story skips back and forth in time and place. The voice moves from first person to third person and even to second. Asides or characters that seemed tangential become central. And eventually several themes become apparent. The main one is not even subtle, as the traversing between points A and B is referenced several times in various ways. Scotty at one point asks, "I want to know what happened between A and B." An aging rock star's comeback album is entitled A to B. Even the two sections of this book, which might have been labeled "Part I" and "Part II" in another book, are here "A" and "B."

Another theme is the passage of time. The novel, as I mentioned earlier, moves back and forth freely along the timeline of characters' lives. Ranging from around 1980 to some point in the 2020's, we see the (often ravaging) effects of time.

One character states, "Time's a goon, right? Isn't that the expression?"
Another responds, "I've never heard that. 'Time's a goon?'"
"Would you disagree?"

The episodes that Egan spotlights are all, in some way, transformative for her characters. And let's talk about those characters. Reviewers like me will often extol "richly-drawn characters." It isn't until I read a novel like this--with insight so deep that you feel you know everything it's possible to know about these people based on brief snippets of their lives--that it really hits home what characterization is all about. Egan is THAT good.

Plus, there's the language. Her prose is truly a pleasure to read, no matter how absurd or at times unpleasant the subject matter. Egan's pointillistic novel roams from the New York music scene to an African safari; from the affluent suburbs to life on the edge in Naples, Italy; from a dictator's palace to our collective future. And in careening from place to place, time to time, and character to character in these linked lives, Jennifer Egan takes us from point A to point B.