2.26.2011

All Clear, by Connie Willis

All Clear
All Clear
All Clear is not a sequel. It's actually the second half of Connie Willis's Blackout. (Together, they've been nominated for the 2011 Nebula Award.) You really must read Blackout first, because All Clear starts with the very next chapter. Both books are utterly absorbing. If you're a fan of World War II novels or time travel novels, I highly recommend this. If you're a fan of both, like I am, these books are perfection.

Blackout and All Clear are linked to two earlier novels (Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog). All are set in a future England where time travel exists and is used by historians to travel back to observe the "contemps" (contemporaries). The only historical events these historians can't visit are divergence points, decisive moments in history like the evacuation from Dunkirk or the Lincoln assassination. Otherwise, the historians suit up to visit everything from the Black Death to the attack on the World Trade Center. Unlike other time travel novels that have come out lately, Willis doesn't make use to the multiverse phenomenon in any of her books. Remarkably, all this time travel happens in a single time line. This made my head ache a little when things sped up towards the end of All Clear, but it's makes of a jaw-droppingly audacious story.

Blackout introduced us to a trio of historians who get stranded during the Blitz in the fall of 1940. Michael is there to observe heroes at Dunkirk. Merope visits a manor to gather information on the evacuations of London children to the English countryside. Polly takes a job as a shop girl to experience life as a Londoner during the first months of the Blitz. Mysteriously (and terrifyingly to the travelers) their drop sites close. After joining forces, the three try to locate other historians who might have made it back to the early months of the war and locate alternate routes home. They are thwarted at every turn. Willis does a fantastic job of making all her characters distinct and very believable.

As I read their story, I felt some of the same panic and fear that real Londoners might have felt as Hitler's Luftwaffe did its worst to their city. I say some. I know full well nothing can ever compare. Still, I turned those pages breathlessly (not an exaggeration) until the all clear sounded and the raids were over. I read this book in four big gulps, reading 150 and 200 page bites. I just could not put it down. Willis hews so closely to actual history that it was very possible for the characters to die in the past. I was even more worried about the contemporary characters that the historians befriend; they could have died at any moment from an unexploded bomb or during a raid.

When I finished the book, I had to marvel at the bravery of the English. Intellectually, I knew that they stood alone against Germany for a long time before the Americans entered the war and even longer before the Allies turned the tide. But I never really thought about what it would have taken to do that. This book opens with the most beautiful dedication to all the "ordinary" citizens who won the war. Without them, the world would be a very different place. In spite of their travails, I though the historians were very lucky to have stood beside them. According to one interview I read, these citizens were part of the inspiration for these books. Willis does a remarkable job of taking her readers back to those dark, dark days. I marveled as I read at how they carried on, did their bit, then invaded France and took the fight all the way to Berlin.

This book also brought home the sheer bloody chutzpah of the British deception operations. Michael, one of the historians, ends up making a trip to Bletchley Park during his search for more travelers from the future. (Hilariously, he almost gets run over by Alan Turing on his bike.) At Bletchley, hundreds of mathematicians, cryptanalysts, crossword puzzlers, chess players, and a host of others broke the nearly unbreakable German codes and then kept the secret for years so that the Nazis wouldn't change their encryptions. And during the run up to D-Day, two massive operations involving inflatable tanks and fake planes, newspaper disinformation campaigns, and I don't know how many other plans kept Hitler and the German high command confused as to where the real invasion would be. If this had all happened in novels, no reader would believe them. It's astonishing that they actually happened.

I don't think I can say much about All Clear without giving away crucial plot points and completely ruining the experience for future readers. But I will say that both Blackout and All Clear deserve to win many awards and that everyone should read them: science fiction fans, thriller fans, historical fiction fans, mystery fans. Everyone should read these books. I've always through that one of the things that make stories great is an ability to transport the reader. I was transported. Last week, when I was reading, my mom called to chat and I just couldn't shut up about this book and its setting. For almost an hour. (Sorry, mom.) I can't recommend these books enough.

Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain

Medium Raw
Medium Raw
It was good to spend some time with Anthony Bourdain. I'm a big fan of No Reservations, and thought that Kitchen Confidential was brilliant and wildly entertaining. Medium Raw, a sort of follow up on what's been happening in Bourdain's life since the start of No Reservations, is a mixed bag of memoir, food commentary, and social commentary. It's clear from reading that Bourdain has mellowed from the angry, angry man he was when he wrote Kitchen Confidential--but not so much that this book isn't peppered with bile, obscenities, and rants. There just aren't as many of them as there were in Confidential.

Success and happiness have started to file away Bourdain's sharp edges. In this book, you get a peek at his life with his new wife and daughter. (One of my favorite parts of this book was the chapter describing how he and his wife are using hilarious psy ops on their daughter to get her to fear McDonald's and fast food.) He's less harsh than he used to be about Food Network favorite Rachel Ray, though Sandra Lee is still scary. I like the new Bourdain. While I read Kitchen Confidential, I kind of wanted to suggest that Bourdain get some anger management or even just a good cuddle to calm him down. The new Bourdain seems like he'd be a lot more fun to hang out with, and less likely to hurl a chair through a window or something.

This isn't an earth-shatteringly good book. It tends to meander in places, and lacks focus. But, like I said, it was fun to spend some more time with Boudain. If you're a fan, you'll want to pick this book up. If you're not a fan, run--don't walk--to see a few episodes of No Reservations. If you haven't already read Kitchen Confidential, what the hell are you waiting for? Once you become a fan--and you will--then I'd recommend this book.

2.20.2011

Kraken, by China Mieville

Kraken
Kraken
It's hard to explain what China Mieville's Kraken is like. There are so many things going on in this novel that it's hard to know where to start. There's a multi-layered conspiracy, a giant squid, cults, and several apocalypses. But even that doesn't come close to describing this book. I got close last week when I was talking to someone else who had read the book. Reading Kraken is like watching a virtuoso musical performance. Many passages in Kraken read like Mieville riffing on weird and wonderful ideas without exploring them in much depth. That's what my fellow reader and I could agree on. We both wished that the author had taken more time to flesh out the alternate London where this book takes place. For my part, I would add that the characters--with a few exceptions--were hard to sympathize with, if only because they got lost in the weirdness of the setting.

The beginning of this novel is straightforward enough. Protagonist Billy Harrow discovers one morning that his museum's prize giant squid has gone missing. Instead of regular police, Harrow finds that the disappearance is being investigated by the "cult squad"--a pair of cops and their scholar-consultant. From there, Harrow gets a crash course in metaphor-mancy, magical crime, faith, prophecy, and a whole host of other weirdnesses. There's so much going on here that its hard to keep your feet as a reader. You're tempted to try and solve the mystery, of course, but there are so many players and clues and stuff that it's an overwhelming experience to read. It's not the sort of book you can just fly through. Not only do you have to read slowly, carefully, but you may have to take breaks to digest what you've just read.

Kraken is astonishing in its creativity and originality. You can tell that Mieville had a lot of fun writing it. There are some ideas--like the literal knuckleheads and the communist shabti spirit--that are a hoot to read about. And I love the idea of metaphor as magic, where music on an iPod can literally carry characters away. But after a while, it seems like all sizzle and no steak. At the end, the big problems get wrapped up far too neatly and far too easily.

Unlike The City and the City, Mieville's previous work, it's as if Kraken, ironically, has no soul. It's hard to get worked up over the characters or the looming apocalypse(s) because none of it seems real enough. I guess that's my big problem with the book: very little actually rang true. The twin cities from The City and the City, while just as weird, had enough detail and plausibility to make me believe that they might actually exist.

I won't say that I didn't have a good time reading Kraken. I did. I guess it just wasn't what I was expecting. It had all the creativity that I was hoping for. It was a terribly interesting book to read. But the lack of characterization made it hard to really get into this book, to bond with it and care about it as much as I cared about The City and the City.

2.12.2011

World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler

World Made by Hand
World Made by Hand
One of the great things about fiction is that an author can explore how our future might turn out in a meaningful way. Putting well-realized characters into a possible future is will have more impact than speculative nonfiction. Readers can't help but identify with the characters on the page (unless the character in question is Holden Caulfield). I know that I can't help but wonder what I would do if I were in the same situation.

James Howard Kunstler, previous author of nonfiction about a post-scarcity world, tries his hand at fiction with World Made by Hand. We meet our protagonist, a former software company marketing executive turned carpenter, several years after the collapse of the world economy. Unlike other novels about post-scarcity I've read, Kunstler lets a good amount of time elapse between a shortage of oil and a full scale collapse. There's an old saying the civilization is just a couple of good meals away from anarchy. I've always wondered how true that is. I supposed I have more faith in Americans than most readers are. In spite of everything, Americans can band together in large emergencies. We've done it before. Of course, my level of faith in Americans is inversely proportional to amount of reality television and pop culture I've been exposed to.

At any rate, Kunstler's reimagined and fragmented America would take time to achieve. The economy collapsed without oil, and then the government (except for a rumored president in Minnesota) followed after major acts of terrorism. America reverts to small farming communities and banditry. It's always interesting to me that in these situations, people seem to revert to the Middle Ages. Some lucky communities have steam power, but that's about it. In World Made by Hand, one farming community goes so far as to reinstitute feudalism. This regression fascinates me, because it illustrates how far we've come with technology and how much we have to relearn in order to survive without it. As I read books like this, I start to think about what I might do, how I might grow my own food, how I might defend myself without society's protection, how I might cope with the loss of the technology that props up how I live.

World Made by Hand meanders through several months in Robert's life. He, and a few dozen other survivors, have set up shop in rural New York, well away from the turmoil of the cities. After a strongly religious group arrives and starts to settles, Robert finds that what he thought was the status quo was really just stagnation. A murder by a bunch of local rowdies ultimately leads to Robert taking over as mayor and forcing the rest of Union Grove to do more than just subsistence farming. They do so well that I worried for their safety, considering how violent their neighbors can be. I found it strange that Robert and his people seem to take no steps to create a militia, or any other steps to defend themselves. It was a curious gap in the logic of the book. If things are as bad as Kunstler would have us believe, Union Grove should have been terrified of the outside world.

In one of the more interesting episodes, Robert leads (accompanies might be more accurate) a group of the religious types to Albany on a rescue mission. We rapidly learn that few people have been as fortunate as the Union Grove community. Most of the people they encounter are starving, or close to it. And when they get to Albany, they find a nearly lawless town reminiscent of the Wild West. Extorting food and money from travelers keeps them afloat. Again, this made me curious about how Union Grove has managed to maintain a Mayberry-level of safety all these years.

World Made by Hand is an idea book. Its purpose is to make its readers think about what might happen when the oil runs out. But I appreciated its attempts at subtlety. Kunstler doesn't hit his audience over the head with morals and warnings. He lets the story unfold without scolding about consumerism and anti-environmentalism. There are a few characters who are obviously meant to serve as lessons rather than just be characters, but even these are believable. As I read, I enjoyed the book more and more. Now that I'm done, I want to get my hands on the sequel.

2.09.2011

Lonely Werewolf Girl, by Mark Millar

Lonely Werewolf Girl
Lonely Werewolf Girl
Have you ever read a book and, part way through, start to wonder why the hell you're reading it? So much about this book should have irritated me to the point of not finishing it. And yet, I held on all the way through 550 pages to the end. I'm still not sure how to explain that other than to say that Kalix, the eponymous werewolf girl, has something of Lisbeth Salander about her. They're both terribly damaged girls that you want to help and take care of, that nonetheless can kick your ass if they felt like it.

Martin Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl is a scattered, multi-threaded novel that follows a quartet of werewolf siblings in London. Two of them, the brothers, are scrabbling for power even before their father (the head of the clan) dies. The sisters want to stay out of the business. One of them wants to build her fashion business. The last sister, Kalix, wants to stay out of it because her family is a back of vicious creature that want to kill her. The novel jumps back and forth between the lot of them as they scheme (or don't) over several weeks until tempers start to flare and characters start to die.

Kalix is prickly, addicted to laudanum, and seriously, deeply depressed. In real life, she would be hard to deal with. And yet, other characters start to adopt her because she can be witty and caring when the circumstances are right. I can't help but try to psychoanalyze her. Every clue about her childhood is tantalizing. Part of what is so appealing about her, I suppose, is knowing that she's one of the few decent members of her family. She's fiercely protective of her friends and the people she likes. As a reader, you know she could be a great person in her world, if only she could straighten herself out. Millar shows the beginning of that process, probably because we would lose all hope if Kalix kept circling the drain.

Another thing that kept me reading was the dark humor of the novel. On the back cover, there's a blurb from a UK magazine called List: "Imagine Kurt Vonnegut reading Marvel Comics with The Clash thrashing in the background." I couldn't have put it better myself. This book is snortingly funny at times. And it doesn't shy away from the darker side of life, making it deeper fare than most contemporary fantasies. In spite of the magic and werewolves, this book feels truer to real life than other books in the genre. When characters get hurt in this book, you can see the bruises in your mind's eye. When they cry, you want to hug (some of) them.

I should mention the irritating things about this book. It's only fair warning to other readers who might want to pick it up. First, there is far too much recapping, especially in the first third of the book. Millar repeatedly brings up character's recent histories and motivations. Because I found this book so compulsively readable and was reading 100 pages or more in a sitting, I noticed it enough to get annoyed. Second, there are some characters that I wanted to shake until their teeth rattled. Two characters in particular were so obnoxiously upbeat and self-centered that I hated them at first site. And yet, they started to grow on me, too. By the end of the book, I found them hugely entertaining.

Lonely Werewolf Girl is a book that you have to take a chance on. After a rocky first third, this book is pretty damned good. Good enough that I'd like to read the sequel. Millar has created a genuinely original urban fantasy. It's full of the thorny dilemmas that I love to read, and characters so well-rounded you feel like you might actually bump into them someday. More than anything else, I'd say that this book is a compulsive read. If you pick it up, and give it a chance, be prepared to lose a weekend or so reading.

2.05.2011

The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Years of Rice and Salt
The Years of
Rice and Salt
The Years of Rice and Salt imagines a world without Europeans. As I read Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, all these little losses kept popping into my head. No Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Jimi Hendrix. No Leonardo da Vinci or Renoir or Michaelangelo. No William Shakespeare, no Austen or Dickens. No croissants, lasagna, or sauerkraut and German sausage. It was a strange and interesting experience.

This novel often seems more like a series of short stories than anything else. The narrative travels chronologically through an alternate history where the Black Death plague was three times more deadly than it was in our history. The first chapter sees a pair of Mongol warriors exploring the Balkans and finding ghost towns. Having read some of the accounts of what the Black Death was like, it wasn't hard to make the same leap Robinson did. One of the tricky things about alternative history, I imagine, is creating a convincing history after the point of divergence. Because the reader will always be wondering if it might really have happened this way. Robinson's history does progress along roughly the same lines as our own history. There are analogs to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the Age of Exploration and World War, all with their own Muslim or Chinese or Indian or Central Asian flavor.

The chapters (and the years) roll by and we meet presumably new characters as they discover North America (Yingzhou), start their own periods of scientific achievement and exploration, and go to war for seventy years. I say presumably, because Robinson makes use of the Buddhist idea of jati (reincarnation through various levels) and follows a handful of souls as they make their way up and down the levels. Occasionally, the chapters are interrupted by visits to bardo, where the souls can remember that they know each other and try to figure out what they learned and what they're supposed to do in their next existence. The souls' names always start with the same letter, making it easy to spot who is who until you learn to recognize K's fierce and angry spirit, B's spirituality, and I's intelligence and curiosity.

I appreciated the way that Robinson committed to the idea of a non-European world. He uses the Islamic and Chinese calendars to mark time. As the timeline gets further and further away from the point of divergence, I had to translate technological and scientific terms. For me, the translation was a large part of this book's charm. Robinson even uses stylistic devices from Chinese literature: sections of poetry dropped into the prose, explanatory notes wedged into the paragraphs they elucidate. Robinson's talent really shines in this book. It's almost as if The Years of Rice and Salt comes from this alternate history, too.

It struck me as I read that this was a book about ideas, more than it was about plot or character--reincarnation notwithstanding. There are a few places where the book bogs down as characters ponder history or culture or gender roles. I and K in particular have the academic germ (at least when K's not leading a revolution or fighting a war), and they can't resist sharing all their thoughts on reconciling Islam with Confucianism or on why women are so far down the totem pole or on the implications of a heavy metal with an unstable isotope. It would be tempting to skim over them. My advice to other readers is to remember that this is a book about ideas. When the characters start to muse, go with it. You'll find yourself thinking about history and all the rest in a new light.