4.30.2012

The Map of Time, by Felix J. Palma

Map of Time
The Map of Time
I'm not sure how I'm going to write about Felix Palma's The Map of Time without getting deep into spoiler territory. Normally, I can get away with a mostly vague summary of the plot(s), slap on my hypothesis about what I think the book is trying to say, and sign off with a recommendation about whether it's worth reading or not. But the plots of this book are so inextricably bound up in what the book is about that I don't think I can tease them apart without going into such detail about the plot that I will pretty much ruin the experience for anyone else who wants to read the book. Plus, I have some serious reservations about whether this is a good book or not and I am dying to criticize it (in more than the academic sense).

Let's see how far I can get before I resort to the spoiler warnings. Anyone reading this should probably brace themselves anyway.

The Map of Time is divided into three unequal sections. All three are linked by characters and events. What changes is the perspective of the narrator--an omniscient character who repeatedly claims the ability to see everything, everywhere. This narrator pops up sporadically, and it's easy to forget his presence until he announces himself again.

The first section of the book contains the story of Andrew Harrington, a rich somewhat dissolute man who has the misfortune (in more than one sense) to fall in love with Mary Kelly, a Whitechapel prostitute who is doomed to be one of Jack the Ripper's victims. After her death, Harrington numbs himself with drugs and alcohol for eight years before deciding to try and kill himself. His cousin and friend, Charles Winslow, however, concocts a wild plan involving the writer H.G. Wells to help Harrington change history and save his lost love.

The second section involves a young woman who is so bored with her own time and the limitations of life for Victorian women that she convinces herself that she is in love with a romantic hero from the distant future. Wells gets involved again as the girl and the hero manage to tangle themselves up in their romance and the intricacies of time paradoxes. It's kind of fun to watch them whip themselves into frenzy.

The third and smallest section of the book is, surprisingly and somewhat disappointingly, when the most interesting (at least for me) plot happens. This time, H.G. Wells takes center stage and finds himself fighting for his life (and the lives of fellow authors Henry James and Bram Stoker) and the future of his world as he knows it. If they entire book had consisted of this section, expanded to its full creative potential, I would have been a very happy reader. As it is, I am merely a thoughtful reader, mildly entertained.

I give up. I have to start spoiling the book. SPOILERS AHEAD.

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When you read the inside jacket of the book, you expect a time travel novel. But in the first section, when Harrington ostensibly uses the time machine featured in Well's novel, it turns out to be a fraud cooked up by Harrington's cousin to shake him out of his suicidal funk. And in the section section, where the time travel apparently occurs through an act of magic, the whole show turns out to be a hoax as well. But in the third section, we finally get to see some "real" time travel. And that's partly while I feel cheated. I had to read through nearly 500 pages to get to it and then it's all over at just over the 600 page mark.

I try not to force my expectations on a book as I read it and let the author take me where they want to go. But I can't help but feel mislead not only by the book jacket but also other reviews of the book I read. As I read The Map of Time, I was reminded of a story I've heard in several different versions where some tourists go into an attraction after paying a lot of money and, after realizing it's a fraud, convince their friends to go too so that they don't look like total rubes. The first two sections of this book are all smoke and mirrors, while the third section is over in a comparative flash. And I can't excuse the book on the grounds of bad translation because what I'm disappointed about is the plot.

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END SPOILERS

Okay, I feel a little better having gotten that out my system.

This is a hard book to sum up. I want to say the book is about fraud and deception and manipulation. But this book is also about time paradoxes and interconnectivity. Characters weave in and out of each others stories, making crucial cameos or revealing important information. It was, I'll admit, a lot of fun to see the connections and see the stories behind the main story.

So, can I recommend this book to other readers? I'm still not sure because what you read on the inside book jacket is not what you get when you actually read the book. The book takes a long time to get going, so you'll have to be prepared for a very slow burn before any action takes place. One other piece of advice, don't be too tied to your expectations because this book will not by what you expect.

4.29.2012

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat
Three Men in a Boat
My first thought on finishing Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) was, these people managed to conquer a fifth of the globe? It's a wonder they manage to get downstairs for breakfast. The entirety of the book can best be described as a comedy of errors, with a dollop of absurd hubris ladled over the top. Even though its clear that this book was written to make its contemporaries laugh--and is no doubt making fun of stereotypes that no longer exist (maybe)--it can still get modern readers going. I snorted and chuckled and snickered my way through the whole book.

We meet our protagonists as they sit about one evening comparing their diseases. It's clear that the only thing wrong with them is laziness, boredom, and a lack of ambition. None of the three men really has any goals beyond avoiding work for as long as humanly possible. Weirdly, this book helped me understand Freud a little better. When you have people of means without any real problems, they will invent things to be wrong. To help with their ennui, the three decide to boat up the Thames from London to Oxford, in the hope that the fresh air and exercise will restore them. Our narrator, Jim, also plans to bring his dog Montmorency--a fox terrier with "more than the usual amount of original sin in him."

From there, nothing goes right. Not only do they have inclement weather and unhelpful locals to deal with, they also have their own incompetence messing up their plans. In every chapter, at least one thing goes wrong (usually more than one). I'm surprised they didn't drown on the first day. Our narrator does try to raise the tone every now and then by writing, in the most grandiose terms, about the history of various points of interest or particularly beautiful vista. But something always happens to Jim to interrupt these flights of intellectual fancy--such as steam launches trying to run them down on the river, Montmorency trying to fight all the village dogs at once, all the food ending up in the river, etc. etc.

Three Men in a Boat is a frivolous delight and I mean that in a good way. Sometimes you just need to read something silly.

4.21.2012

Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory

Raising Stony Mayhall
Raising
Stony Mayhall
Daryl Gregory's Raising Stony Mayhall is an interesting twist on the zombie apocalypse in a number of ways. It's a fresh story (though that might not be the right word considering that most of the cast is made up of animated corpses). In traditional zombie stories, the dead are mindless, hungry things. But in Raising Stony Mayhall, once the fever passes, the dead become aware again--bringing in all sorts of narrative potential and ethical complications.

The prologue to the book gives you a clear sign that something catastrophic has happened to the United States. But you don't get enough information here to know exactly what happened. The prologue plants a seed of dread that grows as the story progresses. The first chapter then takes us back in time, to 1968, when a family of women find a dead girl on the side of the road, carrying what appears to be an equally dead baby. Except that the baby moves. He doesn't breath or eat, but he moves. And through some miracle, he actually manages to grow.

The book really gets interesting once Stony gets into his teenage years. He's known for some time that there was an outbreak in 1968, and that if he's ever found, the authorities will shoot and burn him. But he chaffs at hiding. After a car accident, however, Stony has to leave the nest. He soon falls in with a group of other self-aware zombies. (They prefer LDs, or living dead.) The LDs live in secret, with human volunteers who hide and help them. But they are divided into factions. The Abstainers are strict in preventing any new outbreaks. The Perpetualists want to transform a few people to to keep their own race going. And the Biters, who want to get the humans before the humans get them.

I can't say much more without getting deep into spoiler territory. As in Gregory's previous book, The Devil's Alphabet, this book is a fascinating mediation on what makes us human, especially when we don't look human and the regular people are frightened of the differences. This book goes farther than The Devil's Alphabet, because the LDs have the ability to transform any human into one of them and they have the awareness to decide whether or not to do so. Regular zombies are frightening enough. I thought I'd seen the pinnacle of scary zombies when they gave them the ability to run. But when you give them the ability to think, well that's frankly terrifying, because it means not only will the usual precautions not work but also that killing them means that you're killing a sentient being.

So, for a different and challenging spin on the zombie story, I highly recommend Daryl Gregory's Raising Stony Mayhall. Fans of regular zombie stories may be disappointed in the lack of blood and gore, but this book is a rewarding read for all that.

Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore

Sacre Bleu
Sacre Bleu
If my art history class had been anything like Christopher Moore's Sacré Bleu, I would have had to switch majors to art. I love books were the fiction fits so neatly inside the boundaries of actual history. A significant part of the cast of this book comes straight from the pages of art history. Renoir, Manet, Monet, Pisarro, Toulous-Lautrec (pictured on the cover), and van Gogh all make appearances in this book. Not only to the artists show up, but their art work is the book, too--which saved me a lot of time running back and forth to Google images to look at the dozens of works referenced in this book. Oh, and the book is actually printed in a beautiful blue ink.

Olympia
Olympia, Édouard Manet, 1863
In the author's note at the end, Moore says that he started out to write a book about the color blue. And as is usual with Moore, things get pretty weird pretty quickly. Sacré Bleustarts with an alternate version of van Gogh's suicide in which the artist is murdered by the man who sells him his colors. It becomes readily apparent that something supernatural is going on, and that it has to do with a particular shade of blue (please do click the link, ultramarine is beautful) that the Colorman specializes in. And then there's the Colorman's companion, a woman named Bleu who appears to be the inspiration behind works of art like Manet's Olympia, among many others.

The story bounced back and forth from the Colorman and Bleu to a Monmartre baker named Lucien Lessard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Lessard and Toulouse-Lautrec, saddened by van Gogh's death, become suspicious of the circumstances and start to investigate. As they learn more, they find that the colorman and a mysterious woman (Bleu) have already visited a number of their fellow painters, inspiring them to greatness and ruining their lives. To complicate matters, Bleu chooses Lessard as her new artist.

The book is filled with flashbacks to other artists and points in history, showing you just how long the Colorman and Bleu have been playing their games. And it also shows you just how talented Moore is about working within the constraints of history. This is something I like about Tim Powers, as well. They can take a welter of disparate facts, events, and unrelated oddities and create a story that can coherently and logically link them together (with a little help from the supernatural. Be warned though. This is Christopher Moore we're talking about here. So in between all the sublime art and poetic descriptions of painting, there are enough knob gags to keep an entire class of seventh grade books giggling for years.

Even with all the sex jokes (and I'll be the first to admit that I laughed a lot), I really enjoyed reading this book. I'd say Moore is maturing as a writer, but that's entirely the wrong word. There will always be something boyish about Moore's writing. But his last few books have show incredible depth. I have no idea what he's going to come up with next, but I'm so going to be there.

4.08.2012

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

I'm well aware that it's pretty macabre of me to enjoy zombie novels. When anyone asks me why I like them so much, I feel like I'm doing a little verbal dance to keep the questioner from knowing that I kind of like watching society as we know it be destroyed. What keeps me coming back to these books, really, is watching society rebuild itself. We're pretty stuck with the way things are with our traditions, debts, enmities. Changing anything is very, very hard. So I often ponder the question: what if the slate were wiped clean? Would we get to build a great society, or would we try to rebuild the old?

Zone One
Zone One
So, even though there's not much zombie action (though there's enough to satisfy the reasonably bloodthirsty), I enjoyed reading Colson Whitehead's take on the zombie apocalypse in Zone One. The novel takes place over three days, though it covers more chronology through flashbacks. Our narrator, known only by the nickname Mark Spitz, is working as a sweeper in New York City. The worse seems to have passed and the sweepers are responsible for taking out the last lingering zombies that the Marines and the Army missed during the big push. Because Mark Spitz doesn't have a lot to do, physically, he reminisces about the past. He doesn't think much about this life before. Mostly, he thinks about his encounters with various survivors and "skels" and life at Fort Wonton in New York's Chinatown.

It may sound boring, on the face of it. But I found the book interesting precisely because it ponders the same sorts of questions that I wonder about when I read zombie novels. In this version, there seem to enough vestiges of government and business from the old world to try and resurrect the old society. Sweepers and other advance groups are not allowed to loot or to destroy property. Chains of command are preserved. Government propaganda seems to be working overtime to forcibly raise the survivor's morale. It seems that there are enough tethers to the past to keep the slate from truly being wiped clean.

To me, that would sound awfully pessimistic. But even having finished the book, I'm still not sure if Whitehead intends the book to sound that way, or if he's trying to inspire a grim sort of hope. Because at the end of the book, I honestly felt both emotions.

Zone One is an interesting hybrid of genre and literary fiction. There's enough action to keep you going, but the bulk of the book is designed to get readers thinking. Novelist Glen Duncan wrote a review of the book for The New York Times that pointed out the oddity of this blend (with a few snotty comments thrown in about lowbrow readers having to look up the big words). I suppose some genre fans might wonder about this big show treading on their turf. But I like to see genres blend like this. I've always thought that literary fiction could use more blood and guts and I know that genre fiction has a lot to saw about our society--it just gets dismissed by the cultural gatekeepers. I don't know if this book is a gamechanger in that regard, but it's a pretty good step in the right direction.

Ganymede, by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series continues to surprise me. By the third book, you'd think I'd have a handle on where it's all going. But because Priest changes characters and settings with each entry in the series, all I can say with any certainty is that the zombie problem is getting worse and that the Civil War is still lingering.

Ganymede
Ganymede
Ganymede introduces us to Josephine Early, a New Orleans madam, who has taken on the task of getting a functioning submarine to the Union forces anchored out in the Gulf of Mexico. This book also sees the return of Andan Cly, a pirate airship captain, from the first book in the series, Boneshaker. Cly comes out to New Orleans from a very different Seattle (walled off and full of zombies) to help Josephine move her ironclad. Meanwhile, Josephine has to fight off the zombies that have turned up in her city and keep nosy Texans from getting too close to the submarine.

That's the plot in a nutshell and there's not much to elaborate on about this book. Most of the impact of this book, as with the previous books in there series, comes down to setting and characters. Priest's United States is disturbingly different from our own. The Civil War has been going on for a decade longer than it really did and Texas has declared itself a republic again. As for the characters, Priest has a remarkable way of creating fully-developed characters. The strong women that each of the books center on are a delight to read about.

Ganymede is not my favorite in the series, if only because the plot threads didn't hang together as well as they did in the previous books. But it was still a very enjoyable read and a great way to kill a few hours. And the ending it definitely worth sticking around for. I can't say too much without giving everything away, but the end does involve torpedoes and air pirates.

The Radleys, by Matt Haig

The Radleys
The Radleys
Matt Haig's The Radleys answers the probably never asked question of: what do you do when you're a vampire, but your parents have been hiding the truth from you? Even thought the prose was thin, I rather enjoyed reading this novel of an alternate England where vampires exist and the police have an Unnamed Predator Unit that tracks down the worst offenders. The Radleys are abstainers. To be more accurate, Helen Radley is an abstainer who has her husband towing the line. And the children don't know what they are. They just think they're weird kids who are always sick with something.

The opening of the novel introduces this family who are desperately trying to seem normal. It would be really easy to read this novel as a metaphor for how we all tamp down on our eccentricities so that we can fit in. Hell, that may have been the author's intention for all I know. But I didn't want to read it that way, primarily because it's just too easy and I hate it when novels wear their morals on their sleeves.

The Radleys' normalcy disappears over one action packed weekend when Clara's true nature comes out when a boy tries to assault her. Her parents go into cover up mode and she and her brother have to come to terms with their monster status. All the family secrets come out into the open. Within a few chapters, we have quite the family drama going on only with, you know, bloodsucking and murder. I had a lot of fun this afternoon when I read it.

The only problem I have with the book I alluded to above. The writing is thin. The short chapters and punchy sentences are clearly part of the author's style. But I found that the prose didn't have a lot of depth to it. It was hard to sink into this world, though Haig does a great job of dropping hints about vampires in music and literature. Without real depth, though, it's hard to really believe in this world. There just wasn't enough detail.