Friday, March 23, 2012

I can admit when I'm wrong...

The Rook
by Daniel O'Malley

I don’t know how many books I’m offered to review on a daily basis, but suffice it to say it’s a lot. I can’t possibly read them all. It’s a high class problem to have, right? When I read the description of Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook, I thought, “Nope, not for me.” I mean, it all sounded so supernatural, and I’m just not into that. A few weeks later, I was snooping around Amazon, as I tend to do, and I noticed the reader reviews. There were like 26 out of 26 five-star reviews for the debut novel of this unknown Australian writer. Well, I may be judgmental, but I’m not an idiot. I read the book. And I loved it! Hooray for crowd sourcing!

It opens with a most unconventional letter: “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine…” Myfanwy Thomas has awoken, injured, in a nighttime park with absolutely no memory. Thankfully, there’s that helpful letter from… herself. That’s not all the preparation Myfanwy has done for Myfanwy; she knew this day was coming. She’s got a very detailed plan in place.

Let me stop for a moment and address why I didn’t write “preparation that Myfanwy has done for herself.” The reason is that this new, amnesiac version of Myfanwy is treated as a whole new entity by the author, herself, as well as other characters in the book. It’s as though the old Myfanwy has literally died. It was an interesting choice.

Moving on. Myfanwy Thomas works for a secret British organization that fights supernatural threats. She’s a powerful woman, having attained the high rank of Rook in this organization where the elite are named for chess pieces. And all of those elite have extraordinary powers. Myfanwy is no exception, and in her current state, she is only beginning to understand what she may be capable of. Her colleagues are a fascinating bunch, but I’ll let you discover their various abilities on your own. Why ruin your fun?

The Rook is the first in what shall become a series, as such, it serves as an excellent introduction to the truly entertaining world O’Malley has created, as well as all of the major players therein. This book is a tale of intrigue, as well as fantasy. Myfanwy has lost her memory because she was attacked. She needs to figure out which of her colleagues has tried to kill her, and to stop them before they try again. Additionally, she needs to keep doing her very important job, while hiding the fact that she has absolutely no memory of her prior life, or anything about this top secret organization.

First and foremost, this book succeeds because it is just fun, fun, fun! I could list other books about secret British agencies that guard against supernatural threats. It’s not like we’ve never seen anything like this before. However, Daniel O’Malley’s execution is excellent. His writing is accomplished, and he’s created a heroine to love in Myfanwy. World-building is another strength, and the book moves along at a delightful clip. The plotting is inventive and takes the story in unexpected directions. And the proceedings are leavened with generous doses of humor throughout.

Sometimes (often), I get annoyed that everything seems to be a series these days, but this is a world to which I look forward to returning. Kudos to Daniel O’Malley for overcoming my literary prejudices so ably! I hope many other readers give the newcomer a chance.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Talkin' 'bout my generation gap

by Lissa Price

“Enders gave me the creeps.” That’s the first sentence of Lissa Price’s debut novel, Starters, as thought by her tough, independent protagonist, Callie Woodland. Callie has had to become independent—she’s a Starter. In the futuristic world envisioned by Price, the population has been decimated by a genocidal “spore war.” There was a vaccine against the spores, but there wasn’t enough. Following standard protocols, it was given to the weakest members of society, the oldest and youngest. Now, the survivors are almost exclusively 20 or younger (the Starters) or 60 or older (the Enders).

But society is suffering something far worse than a generation gulf. The Enders have all the money and all the power. Trust me, by and large, these are not kindly old grandparents! And with advances in medicine and technology, they regularly live to be 200 or more. It’s tough times to be a Starter. You’re not legally allowed to work, and if you don’t have an Ender willing to be your legal guardian, you’ll be hunted down and locked in a facility.

So, this is the world that Callie’s been surviving in for the last few years since she lost her parents. She might be relatively okay on her own, she has friends, but she’s responsible for a sick little brother who means everything to her. It’s a constant source of worry which leads her to take desperate measures. She’s going to Prime Destinations, where she can get enough money for food and rent for a year. While never stated explicitly, this is a new form of prostitution. It’s not sex she’s selling, but she’s going there to sell her body—or at least rent it out.

Prime Destinations has developed technology whereby a teen can rent possession of their vigorous, young body to an Ender for a day or week or month at a time. She’s told:

“We insert a tiny neurochip into the back of your head. You won’t feel a thing. Totally painless. Allows us to connect you to the computer at all times. We then connect your brain waves to the computer, and the computer connects the two of you.”

In other words, an Ender in suspended animation would take control of Callie’s body, while her own consciousness is in a coma-like sleep. After just three rentals, she’d get the big pay day and be totally free of obligations. It’s an offer she can’t afford to refuse.

But bargains with the devil are never simple. Something goes wrong, and Callie winds up in a struggle for dominance with an Ender who has her own agenda that has nothing to do with the rental agreement. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a story that becomes increasingly complex and increasingly compelling as it goes along. There is actually quite a lot going on in this dystopian tale. There are, of course, elements of social commentary, along with some amusing social satire. There are political intrigue and thriller aspects to the tale alongside the science fiction. And, yes, in what has become a familiar YA trope, there a love triangle. (Or square? Pentagram? Whatever, there’s romance afoot.) Additionally, there are some compelling plot lines involving a mystery villain, the Old Man, about whom it is said:

“The one thing that everyone knows is that he’s kept his identity secret. No one’s ever seen his face. Rumors abound… He used to be a software genius, he was in charge of Dark Ops during the war and sustained some injury… Who knows if any of it is true?”

Who knows, indeed? It is these questions that will have fans rushing back for the sequel to this nail-biter, Enders. Price does a great job creating likable and engaging characters and telling a darn entertaining story. It moves at an enjoyably rapid pace. I felt influences of many other sources within the confines of this story, but rather than take away from what Price has created, I felt like they added interesting subtext to the tale.

Finally, it is at least a little ironic that this tale of the young and old should have so very much crossover potential between its intended YA audience, and oldsters like me. I’m not quite an Ender yet, but I’m not a young adult either, and I was captivated. I’m thrilled the sequel is due out in December. Price has set things up for a blockbuster conclusion, and I shall be waiting with bated breath.

My long-awaited introduction to Matthew Pearl is a mixed bag

The Technologists
by Matthew Pearl

I’ve had a galley of Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club sitting on my bookshelf since before it was published. How long ago was that? That’s how long I’ve been meaning to get around to reading the man. Story of my life. Hurrah! I have finally met this goal!

Set in 1868, this period thriller opens with an act of terrorism. Early one Boston morning, several ships’ compasses and other instruments fail. In the fog, they crash into each other and the wharves. There is pandemonium, destruction, and loss of life. The cause and perpetrator of this mayhem is unknown. This is the first of several incidents that virtually bring the city to its knees. All the attacks seem to involve science, and this is at a time when there’s a great distrust of science in general.

1868 also happens to be the year of the first graduating class of MIT. Pearl’s protagonists, determined to secretly solve the mystery and save the city, are several members of the small student body, most of whom are underdogs in one way or another. At the very heart of the tale is working-class charity student Marcus Mansfield. Mr. Pearl has created a mostly appealing ensemble, but I don’t honestly think that character development is his greatest strength. It is clear that historical accuracy and research is. I’m not enough of a history buff to tell you if every single aspect of this novel is accurate, but I was doing a lot of Googling as I read, and there was a tremendous amount of real history worked very effectively into the plot. And the time and place was fascinating—especially to me, having lived in Boston for a number of years. Thank you, Mr. Pearl, for the time machine. Additionally, the science used in the plot was clever and inventive.

About the novel’s plot… Well, it’s complex and convoluted—perhaps a bit excessively so. I found my credulity becoming increasingly strained as the novel proceeded. There were some coincidences late in the game that I found annoying as well. Elements of the story were overly melodramatic. And the dénouement, when it came, was satisfyingly full of surprises and reversals, but I wonder if Mr. Pearl took things just a step too far. There were so many surprises and reversals that it felt like it took forever to finally get the truth!

Did I enjoy reading this novel? Yes I did, unquestionably. But I do feel it had flaws, and overall, after looking forward to reading this author for so long, I was just the slightest bit disappointed. Since this is my only experience of his work, it’s possible this wasn’t the best book with which to start, and I look forward to reading more of him in the future.

NOTE: I had tremendous fun reading this novel on the free Subtext iPad app.  It allowed me to fully annotate the novel with marginalia--links to websites, articles, photographs, and more--and to interact and discuss the novel with other readers.  If you have an iPad, check this app out!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A convoluted supernatural plot can’t compete with out of this world prose

The Vanishers
by Heidi Julavits

I’m one of those reviewers who tends to start with a plot summary. So, I could tell you that this is the story of twenty-something Julia Severn, an “Initiate of Promise” at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology. The novel begins by detailing Julia’s complex and troubled relationship with her mentor, Madame Ackerman. Their problems may stem from the mentor’s fear of being supplanted by the protégé, or perhaps they’re due to Ackerman’s resemblance to Julia’s mother who committed suicide when Julia was an infant. For these reasons (and others), things sour, but their separation plagues Julia physically. She leaves school and spends the next year seeking a medical explanation for her physical decline. None is forthcoming until an odd girl literally trips into her life and explains that she’s under “psychic attack.” Offers of both help and employment are proffered.

And that—as they say—is just the beginning. The plot of this novel felt like a game of Three Card Monty, with constantly shifting character identities and allegiances. I didn’t read this novel because the description of the plot interested me. Ghosts, psychics, astral projections? Definitely not my cup of tea. However, a book about mother-daughter relationships and other female rivalries? Now you’re talking! And that’s very much what Heidi Julavits delivered. The whole psychic thing was merely the backdrop against which every type of mother-daughter drama imaginable was displayed.

And all this talk of “drama” sounds dramatic, and some of it was. But a lot of it was very, very funny. And even more of it was weird. And some of it was just plain confusing. I stand by my Three Card Monty analogy. But through it all was Heidi Julavits’ sparkling language. So much of language is merely functional. And, sure basic communication is a good goal. But the sentences of this novel were full of surprises and unexpected turns. They communicated, but they also delighted in a way that is truly rare. This is the sort of novel that leaves me wondering, “Why haven’t I read this author before?” I know there’s another book somewhere on the shelf. I will be digging it up, because Ms. Julavits has charmed me utterly with her inventive use of language. Plot, in this case, was almost immaterial.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Explaining the unexplainable

The Good Father
by Noah Hawley

Dr. Paul Allen is a good man.  As Noah Hawley’s novel opens, he is enjoying the family tradition of shouting out Jeopardy questions with his wife and twin sons.  The game is interrupted by breaking news.  The Democratic candidate—the presumed next President of the United States—has just been shot at a public rally.  The coverage is chaotic, with reports and footage coming in from a variety of sources.  Finally, some images of the shooter come up on the screen.  It’s Daniel, Paul’s 20-year-old son from his first marriage.  So begins a nightmare.

I think this premise alone is enough to intrigue most readers.  We’ve experienced these atrocities, seen the breaking news coverage, hoped for the best.  Who hasn’t spared just a moment to think of the people who love the perpetrators of these crimes?  Just because your child turns out to be a monster, doesn’t mean you stop loving them.

Within moments, Secret Service agents have shown up at Dr. Allen’s door.  He is taken in for questioning.  They need to know everything about Daniel.  He is shot, in custody, and branded as a terrorist.  Paul is in shock and in denial.  Yes, he’s seen the footage of his son with gun in hand, but he knows that Danny didn’t do it.  As events unfold, Danny refuses to speak or defend himself, so it falls to his father.  But Dr. Allen is a diagnostician, and even as he consistently proclaims his son’s innocence, he mentally searches for the trauma that broke him.

This novel is about the people on the periphery of a terrible act.  It’s about the toll a child’s action takes not only on the parent, but on the entire family.  The story is realistic, honest, and utterly compelling.  Though flawed, Paul is a hugely sympathetic protagonist, even as he’s being reviled by the world.  And while it is clear as day that this loving father is grasping at straws to save his child, at a certain point you have to wonder if these anomalies he finds don’t add up to something more ominous.  And at that point, a wonderful family drama becomes significantly more suspenseful.  These questions will have you turning pages until you finally get the entire story.  Mr. Hawley does a superlative tying up all lose ends, whether plot-related or emotional. 

This is a very contemporary story set in a realistic world most of us know all too well.  The shootings of figures like Gabby Gifford, Ronald Reagan, and Robert Kennedy aren’t merely acknowledged, they’re dissected.  Noah Hawley has tried to explain that which is essentially unexplainable.  It’s extraordinary how well he succeeds.  This novel works brilliantly on all levels.  The writing is very strong without being unnecessarily showy.  Each character, no matter how minor, is imbued with details that bring them to life.  The human drama at the heart of this tale is both heart-breaking and healing.  This is, in short, a flat-out fantastic novel.  Read it!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

An evening with Matt Ruff

So, last night I had the pleasure of hearing Matt Ruff read from and talk about his novel, The Mirage.  This is not the first time I've gone out to see Matt, and it's always worth the trip.  I've been reading his novels for, gosh, a very, very long time now.  I discovered him with the very bizarre Sewer, Gas, & Electric--which is still my favorite--and I've been a fan ever since.  (People who know me are nodding and saying, "Yes, Susan, we see the shark on the cover.")  He's not the most prolific writer, but that makes me value each of the novels even more.  Learning that a new book is about to be published is a real cause for celebration.

One of the most awesome thing's about Matt's work is that you never know what you're going to get.  So many writers revisit the same territory or the same themes.  In the worst cases, they rewrite the same novel over and over.  Not so here!  Each of his books is completely different.  But this book is really different from what's come before, one of several subjects I bring up with Matt in the Q & A session recorded below.

I haven't reviewed this novel yet (hopefully soon), but it's extraordinary.  There is so much going on, on so many levels!  I mean, it's a brilliantly realized alternate history, but it's also got an interesting thriller plot going on.  Plus, there's a fantastic element.  And a bit of a satirical edge.  What I'm trying to say is, there's a whole lot to think about here. 

Anyway, enough prattling from me.  In the film clip above, you'll see a few opening remarks Matt made before he began reading.  In the next three clips below, you'll hear him reading from the novel.  I'm afraid I cut off the first couple of words he spoke.  The opening sentence of the novel is, "This is the day the world changes."  I mean, it's an awesome opening line, and you should know what it is.  Also, I'm afraid there's a very brief gap between, I think, the second and third reading clip.  Sorry, quick battery change. 

These last two film clips are of the Q & A session after the reading. Given the unusualness of the story he's telling, I think this is especially interesting. You'll hear me ask a few questions on the tape, and truthfully, I could have discussed this book all night. (Actually, The Mirage would make a great book club selection, now that I think of it. In fact, it would be especially interesting read back to back with Amy Waldman's excellent post 9/11 novel, The Submission. Just a thought.) I got to ask the final question of the evening, "What are you working on next?" And Matt was unusually forthcoming about an idea he's been thinking about. I'm so glad I have this on tape, because one day I'm going to hold a book in my hands, and go back and listen to this germ of an idea.

I was sitting in the front row, so as better to hold up a Flip Cam right in this poor man's face. When I finally turned around to get in the signing line, I had some pleasant surprises. First was running into my friends Lynn & Evan, who I haven't seen in ages. And second was running into novelist S. G. (Scott) Browne. I run into Scott often enough that we chat whenever we see each other. I love that he comes out to support other authors on tour. As it happens, Scott will soon be on tour himself for the forthcoming Lucky Bastard, which is getting amazing advance reviews.  So, hopefully we'll have video of him on the blog in the not too distant future.

For now, anyone who needs a copy of this thought-provoking novel, I know where you can get a pristine signed copy... Feel free to contact my awesome friends at The Booksmith. Their customer service can not be beat, and--say it with me--we love to support our local independent booksellers!

And, if you're not familiar with Matt's work, maybe start by exploring his website, which has a lot of interesting content. Or just dive into the novel that intrigues you the most. I recommend them all.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A collection that is stronger than the sum of its parts

Stay Awake: Stories
by Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon's last novel, Await Your Reply, was my introduction to his work. It was one of my favorite novels of the last few years, and I'm now fan. This latest collection of stories was a more qualified success. First, perhaps, I should note that I'm a long-form reader. Short stories aren't my typical fare.

And these stories were, for lack of a better word, weird. There is a better word, of course, but I can't quite think of it. Mr. Chaon is a world-class prose stylist, so each story was a pleasure to read, but as I delved into the first several in this collection of twelve, I'd be reading along and then the story would end rather abruptly. And I'd be like, What just happened?

These stories were disquieting. The opening sentence of the first story, "The Bees": "Gene's son Frankie wakes up screaming." That's evocative. It sets a tone for the tale of a recovering alcoholic who abandoned his first family and is now in crisis.

"Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted" (Great title!) opens: "There had been several funerals of his old high school friends and Brandon hadn't gone to any of them." It doesn't take a reader long to detect motifs of grief, death, deception, and loss in these tales--which is not to imply that the book is one big downer. It's thoughtful. And speculative. Sometimes funny, romantic, and, yes, a bit weird.

Keeping with the above themes, "Long Delayed, Always Expected"
opens: "When January turned fourty-four, she began to have gloomy thoughts about the future, about mortality and so forth." It recounts the resumption of her relationship with her brain-damaged ex-husband.

Chaon's characters find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, none more so, perhaps, than the parents of a baby with two heads in the collection's title story, "Stay Awake". My favorites were the achingly beautiful "To the Psychic Underworld", the mind-freaking "I Wake Up", and the amusing "Shepherdess", which opens: "The girl I've been seeing falls out of a tree one June evening." As above, it sets a tone for what is to come.

Ultimately, the collection as a whole worked more for me than the sum of its parts. Reading them all together added something that, again, I'm not quite able to articulate. But these stories, which often don't have tidy endings, will leave me thinking. And I will continue to read anything that Dan Chaon publishes.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A story with heart and heft

by Liz Moore

I have to tell you, this novel grabbed me from the opening pages, which take the form of a confessional letter from former professor, Arthur Opp, to his long-ago student and long-time correspondent, Charlene Turner. They haven't seen each other in years, and Arthur has a lot to confess.

"The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat. When I knew you I was what one might call plump but I am no longer plump. I eat what I want & furthermore I eat whenever I want. For years I have made very little effort to reduce the amount that I eat for I have seen no cause to. Despite this I am neither immobile nor bedridden but I do feel winded when I walk more than six or seven steps, & I do feel very shy and sort of incased in something as if I were a cello or an expensive gun."

The fact that he weights somewhere between 500-600 pounds is just the beginning of Arthur's confession. He states, "In my letters to you these past two decades I have been untruthful by omission." He admits that not only has he not taught in years, but that he hasn't left his house in over a decade. He ends the lengthy missive, "In spite of everything, at heart I am still the same Arthur.

I'm going to stop right here and suggest there may be two kinds of reader responses to Arthur Opp, sympathy or revulsion. My immediate response was sympathy for this lonely man who fantasizes about salvation in the form of Dr. Phil. If your immediate response was revulsion, this is not the book for you.

As it happens, Charlene hasn't been entirely truthful about the details of her own life. And because so many stories follow predictable and formulaic patterns, early on in this novel I thought I knew the story I was reading. I thought it would be one of those heart-warming tales of two lonely people finding love and community. And it was and it wasn't that. I was delighted that author Liz Moore surprised me at many turns, and her story didn't follow the predictable path. Not entirely. There were notable divergences that gave the novel additional substance.

Heft really is a novel full of heart with flawed characters it was easy to fall in love with. The tale moved quickly. The characters were very well-developed and believable. I remained engrossed throughout and was satisfied at the end. Heft is nothing more than a good story, but that's plenty enough for me.