7.30.2013

Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City
Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters, picks up a few months after The Last Policeman ended. In protagonist Hank Palace's world, a huge asteroid is on a collision course with Indonesia. The asteroid is as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Jurassic. Countdown City opens at T-minus two and a half months.

Even though most of the world has given up or gone Bucket List (meaning that they've taken off to do whatever they've always wanted to), Hank is still taking on cases. He was a detective for only fifteen months before the state government shut down all criminal investigations. Hank just can't stop trying to put things right. He and the diner he hangs out with at with the other ex-cops seem to be the only things that are actually trying to keep doing business as normal.

Martha Milano, Hank's former babysitter, asks Hank to track down her husband. Brett, she says, is a good man, so noble that he wouldn't walk away from her even if the world is going to end. Because the world really is going to end, Hank doesn't have any of the usual resources. He's reduced to biking around Concord and following Brett's trail from person to person, accompanied by his less than faithful companion, Houdini the bichon frisé. The trail goes from a combination pizza parlor/paintball gallery to a revolutionized college campus to an abandoned Army fort.

The case is more than just a missing husband. The case is a focal point for the chaos around Hank and Concord, New Hampshire. The revolutionary college campus is the least of it. Just when Hank seems to be getting somewhere with his case, the few remaining cops disappear and the last bits of civilization snap. As Hank describes it:
The countdown has begun, and all the haphazard arrangements--the rummages and the ersatz restaurants and the bartering and the residents associations--all the vestigial institutions are crumbling into the past, and it's every man for himself from now on, and here I am with no house, no gun, no possessions or any kind. I'm down to one arm. I'm wearing a borrowed shirt and torn suit pants. (287*)

This is the second book in the trilogy, but it doesn't have any of the usual middle book problems. It has a terrific ending, a perfect wrap up for the case and the end of civilization. The ending also left me wanting desperately to get my hands on the last book, just to see what happens to Hank. (And his dog.) Even though things are pretty much hopeless on the global level, I still feel a little bit of hope. Maybe I've read too much fiction (okay, I've read too much fiction), but I still think things might work out okay for the erstwhile detective.

__________

* From the Kindle edition.

7.29.2013

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Just to get this out of the way, I think this book has one of the best covers I've ever seen.

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers is a dark picaresque. The two brothers of the title, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are guns for hire that work for a mysterious man known only as the Commodore. We meet them just as they've been given another job, to track down a chemist and prospector named Hermann Warm. Eli, however, is starting to have second thoughts about being a killer.

The Sisters Brothers is set in 1851, mostly in the California territory. DeWitt tells the story in short chapters that read more like vignettes. The Sisters' world is a violent one. Charlie in particular doesn't mind using his guns to get his way when people don't respond to his "reasonable" requests. Eli is more of a sensitive soul and on this trip, he starts to wonder why the Commodore sends them after people, why do they end up killing so many people, and maybe he could retire and set up a little shop somewhere. 

The brothers track their quarry to San Francisco only to discover that their spotter has switched sides. Warm, it appears, has discovered an easy way to find gold in California's rivers. Morris was supposed to just point Warm out to the brothers, but he went into business with Warm. Eli tries to convince Charlie that this might be their way out of the killing business. 

Some other reviewers (on GoodReads) commented that they didn't like the structure of the book because it meanders so much. But I think it works for this story. Reading it was like sliding into their lives for a few weeks. I enjoyed Eli's narration and DeWitt's snappy dialog:
"He describes his inaction and cowardice as laziness," Charlie said.
"And with five men dead," I said, "he describes out overtaking his riches as easy."
"He has a describing problem," said Charlie. (174*)
I had a great time reading this book. And not just because of the cover.
__________

* From the Kindle edition.

7.28.2013

The Unholy, by Paul DeBlassie

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It's expected publication date is 1 August 2013.

The Unholy
I was intrigued by the description I read on NetGalley of The Unholy by Paul Deblassie. It's set in an alternate version of Mexico called Aztlan, where medicine women really have magic and demons are real. Since it wasn't a vampire/werewolf and strangely alluring woman story, I asked to read the book. But if you read my post last night about editing, you probably know what I'm going to say in this review. While this book had an interesting and original setting, it was overwritten. The dialog was often cliched or unnaturally phrased. The villain was extremely evil, almost too evil to be believed. As I read The Unholy, I mentally editing it. 

Here's the story in a nutshell: Claire Sanchez, who witnessed her mother's murder twenty years ago, is now a natural therapist for a church run psychiatric hospital. She uses tea, massage, and a certain amount of woo to help the patients. When one of her patients runs off into the desert around the hospital and is later found dead, Claire decided to investigate the local archbishop because he made her medicine woman spidey senses tingle. DeBlassie also gives us that archibishop's perspective and there's no doubt that Anarch is the murderer. DeBlassie also makes it clear that Anarch is possessed by something malevolent. The archbishop plays a cat and mouse game with Claire because, not only does he want to kill her for investigating the murder, he wants to kill her because he has a vendetta against medicine women.

I'm not exactly sure why I kept reading this book, other than to say I was hooked by the setting. When so many of the nouns have multiple adjectives, you can't help but see the scene laid out for you. DeBlassie set up an interesting battle between native good and imported evil. Some readers might enjoy this, but I don't think many people are going to get into this book.

7.27.2013

Fear of a red pen

This is what happens when you run Finnegan's Wake
through a spellchecker. Really.
I'm reading another advanced copy from NetGalley and, unfortunately for the book, I've started to mentally edit it. I'd blame work, where I edit newsletters for faculty and the state library association. I've gotten used to slicing and dicing purple prose and beating awkward sentences into shape*. But it's not just that. It's because the writing in this book really did need more time with a quality copyeditor and because I suspect that publishers--from the bigs on down--are cutting corners when it comes to editing.

The author is the source of the story, the creativity, the fire of a great book. In spite of that, editors are vital. When you spend a lot of time with your own writing, you stop seeing the problems. If your ego gets in the way, your errors don't look like errors. (Or, as I used to call them when I was an undergraduate: style.)

The problem I'm having with the book I'm reading is that I'm about a third of the way through and I'm kind of liking the story. I'm trying to stay in the story while at the same time mentally trimming the sentences and denuding the nouns of their second adjective. Clearly, a good story can overcome a lot. I never thought I would admire Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy's iconic stripped down prose as much as I do. Simple sentences can carry more power than the overly ornate ones. Still, geniuses can create grammatically quirky sentences that I love. And round and round we go from author to editor to author to editor. They're a team.

I would be terrified to be a professional editor. How do you tell an author they're wrong? I mean, look at that text from Finnegan's Wake. That's wrong by any stretch of Strunk and White. But then it was written by James Joyce. How do you keep from over-editing and making the text sound like yourself? Just because it sounds right to me doesn't make it correct. That's what I have co-editors to share the blame with if we slash and burn too much.

And if an editor does their job right, you'll never notice their touch on the text.

__________

* I realize that it's cocky of me to write this, since I know that my own prose needs work and that I miss spelling errors. I'm going to write this post anyway.

The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

The Bookman's Tale
Have you ever sat down to read a book and feel that it was written just for you? That the author took a list of some of your favorite things and wrote a book about them for you? Reading Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale was like that for me.

The book begins with Peter Byerly trying to follow his therapist's advice to get out and meet new people, get back to work as a bookseller, and reconnect with friends after his wife's death. Because he suffers from a pretty crippling social anxiety, it's hard for him to leave his cottage in Kingham, England. He gets a call from a local man who wants to sells some of his family's books to help pay for the upkeep on the ancestral home. In a box marked "Never to Be Sold," Peter discovers a book that might change English literature forever.

Lovett tells that story of Peter and that book, a complete copy of poet Robert Greene's Pandosto, in three parts. First is Peter's attempts to trace the history of Pandosto, because it's covered in marginalia possibly written by William Shakespeare--proving that the Shakspere of Stratford and the Shakespeare of London were the same people. Second, Lovett shows us the history of Pandosto as it changed hands over the course of 400 years. Third, we also get the story of Peter and his wife Amanda. So, I got a story about an attempt to resolve the Authorship Question. I got a love story, and a I got a historical mystery.

In addition to all that, Lovett wrote beautifully about rare books and book preservation. One of my favorite passages in the book was a long description of Peter rebinding a book for Amanda in blue leather with gilded lettering. Seriously, it made me want to go run my fingertips over eighteenth century paper. (Yeah, I know.) It got me to thinking about books as objects instead of just stories. I've made my peace with ebooks, but I still love printed books--as long as they're well done. I wish books were still bound to last centuries like they used to be. I used to see so many copies of the Harry Potter books that just fell apart after a few dozen readings when I worked for a public library.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It was so well written and the main character could have been my twin. As I read the book, I remembered a visit I made to a rare books collection and getting gobsmacked by a copy of All the Year Round that had Charles Dickens' signature in it. Considering my reaction to that, I'm sure I couldn't handle something that Shakespeare actually wrote on.

7.24.2013

The Cleaner of Chartres, by Salley Vickers

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 


The Cleaner of Chartres
Salley Vickers' The Cleaner of Chartres is a lovely, beautifully written book about a woman who's past follows her for more than twenty years. Agnès Morel had the deck stacked against since the day she was born. She was found in the woods near Évreux, France. The man who found her took her to the nuns at the local convent because that was supposed to be the right thing to do. The nuns weren't horrible. Well, all but one of them weren't horrible. The one who was convinced Agnès that she was intellectually impaired. Years later, Agnès makes a living in Chartres cleaning at the cathedral and peoples' homes, posing for a painter, and babysitting.

Vickers tells Agnès' story in two interwoven parts. She shows us Agnès' life now in one part, her past in the other part. Her current life is shadowed by what happened to her before. One of the women she cleans for, the town busybody, takes a dislike to her that grows into malice after a misunderstanding over a collectible. When the busybody finds out about Agnès' secrets from the past, the woman tries to ruin poor Agnès. Fortunately, Agnès is sweet and caring. She doesn't mind doing dirty jobs. She's quiet, but funny once you get to know her.

Piece by piece, Vickers reveals Agnès' sad story. She became pregnant at 15 and the nuns arranged for an adoption without her consent. Losing her child (and the circumstances of the child's conception) made her lose touch with reality for a while. She spends time in a psychiatric clinic for a few years. There's some suspicion that she might have attacked a nanny who was looking after a child that might have been Agnès'. That's the story the busybody starts to spread around. In spite of her good qualities, Agnès is a fearful person who doesn't like to make waves. Unfortunately, that makes her a convenient scapegoat.

I'll leave the ending a mystery now, mostly because I don't want to ruin it for other people. I loved the way Vickers wrapped things up, though. Either way, the ending of The Cleaner of Chartres might make you tear up a bit. I really enjoyed this book.

Delia's Shadow, by Jaime Lee Moyer

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 17 September 2013.

Delia's Shadow
Jaime Lee Moyer's book, Delia's Shadow, reads like a blend of several different genres. There's a love story (romance), a race to find a serial killer (mystery), attempts to deal with actual ghosts that want justice (horror/contemporary fantasy), and it's set in 1915 in San Francisco (historical fiction). This blend is what led me to request the book but, I have to be honest, Moyer doesn't quite manage a believable balance between them.

The book opens with Delia Martin returning to San Francisco after two years in New York to be maid of honor for her best friend, Sadie. Delia is also coming home because one of the ghosts she often sees just will not leave her alone. Shadow wants something, and she'll haunt Delia until she gets it. Meanwhile, Moyer also gives narrator duties to Gabe Ryan, a police detective, who is being tormented by a sadistic killer who keeps sending him letters. Gabe's partner, Jack, is marrying Sadie, so Gabe and Delia soon meet and discover a mutual attraction for each other. Delia gets some help from a local psychic to deal with her ghost. That ghost turns out to be a victim of the killer Gabe is chasing.

The mystery aspect of this book is rather good. Hunting down a killer before forensic anthropology and advanced crime scene analysis keeps things suspenseful. But when you have help from "the other side," sometimes it reads a bit like cheating. Even though the killer eludes Gabe and his compatriots for a long time, they still manage to capture him rather easily. For me, what really didn't work, was the historical aspects of the book. The love story was sweet and I liked the characters. But I can't help but think that, in 1915, people would have been incredibly skeptical about psychics, letting women help identify and find a serial killer, etc. etc. There's only a bit of token resistance when Delia and her psychic friend, Dora, reveal that they can see ghosts before those characters knuckle under and just go with it.

What makes a genrebender work, I think, is when an author makes the parts that could be backed up by research as real as possible. That way, I'm not in a skeptical mood when I get to the flights of fancy. When I read historical fiction, I can't help but match up what I'm reading with what I know about history. I rather doubt that I'm the only one who does this. This book would have been better if things had been more difficult for all the characters. There should have been more hurdles and misunderstandings and terror. At least, there should had been for a reader like me to enjoy it more.

7.23.2013

The English Girl, by Daniel Silva

The English Girl
The English Girl is the 13th book in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series. The previous book in the series, The Fallen Angel, and this book have been much better than the doldrums that preceded them. For a while, the plots suffered from to much formula and not enough evolution of the characters. This book is another step in the right direction, towards a new stage in Allon's life.

Many, many moons ago, Allon began his life in Israel's intelligence community by serving as an assassin in Operation Wrath of God. Being an assassin changed him, and destroyed his ability to create original art. So, Gabriel apprenticed himself to the best art restorers he could find. His former boss, Ari Shamron, kept pulling him back in. I suppose there still is a bit of formula in that all of the books open with Shamron twisting Gabriel's arm until he takes on another job.

In The English Girl, the job is to find the missing mistress of the British Prime Minister. Madeline has good missing on Corsica and the French police are stumped. Gabriel uses his less than official connections with a Corsican don who runs assassins all over Europe. The trail leads across France and into Russia. What started as a simple blackmailing job turns into a false flag operation* run by a Russian oil company run almost entirely by ex-KGB men.

For the first part of the book, Gabriel works with a single partner, one of the Corsican don's best men. But when things go wrong and Gabriel decides to destroy KGB Oil & Gas, as the company is known, he needs the assistance of Mossad. Unfortunately for Gabriel, he's no longer an active agent. Shamron agrees to get him the help he needs, if Gabriel agrees to be the next chief of Mossad. Shamron has been planning this for years and Gabriel has always resisted.

I like that Silva has pushed his character towards that new step. It keeps the series from falling into a formulaic rut. I suspect that a lot of other authors of long run series might be tempted towards timidity. After all, they have something that works. Why change it? But you run the risk of boring the readers who've been following said series since the beginning. Characters have to grow in order to remain interesting. I'm very curious to see what happens when Gabriel takes the reins of Mossad and has to worry about keeping Israel and its people safe.

__________

* False flag operations, as depicted by Silva, is an operation that appears to be run by one group but is actually run by another. The group that appears to be in charge serves as a smoke screen for the second.

I think I get it now

Still a punk.
(By Risaaa, via deviantART)
I hated The Catcher in the Rye when I read it. First impressions are hard to get over, and impressions formed when you're young are even harder to get over. My impression of Catcher was that it was a product of its time, and that you had to be of that generation to get it. When I read it, I was a teenager. But I wasn't a disaffected, jaded teenager. And I figured that was why the book just didn't work for me. My opinion of the main character colored my entire reading of the book.

Earlier today, I got into a conversation with a coworker about what makes a book a classic, what to collect for the library, etc. As usual with this particular coworker, we ended up talking about the "Great American" novels. I brought up The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye as examples of books that I never really understood. And this coworker explained the ending of Catcher as a metaphor for Caulfield's love of childhood innocence, before people construct personae and barriers between themselves and other people. Children don't do that. They just are. They enjoy things because they like them, not because they should like them. As he went on, I felt like I actually started to understand the purpose of the book. I don't know if I'm ready to actually reread the book. My first impression is still strong.

The other thing that makes me thing that I might, in the near future, be able to read, understand, and possibly enjoy The Catcher in the Rye is that I've recently read books where the narrator or main character was a jerk or worse and liked the books. Maybe I've grown as a reader and matured. (Though that might not be a good sign when it comes to Catcher.)

7.21.2013

Dinner at Deviant's Palace, by Tim Powers

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. This edition is expected to be released on 30 July 2013. 


Dinner at
Deviant's Palace
I've been a fan of Tim Powers for years, ever since I read Last Call and Declare. There's no one else quite like him in fiction. His books are strange and original and fantastical. Reading them is an immersive experience where you have to learn what's going on with a minimum of expository text; you learn everything from context. Dinner at Deviant's Palace is not a new book. It was originally published back in the 1980s. But because it was set in a future, post-apocalyptic version of Los Angeles, it doesn't feel dated at all. Even early in his career, Powers' style is still well developed and masterly.

We meet our protagonist, Gregorio Rivas, as he's performing a gig in a popular bar in Ellay (L.A.). He's got a decent living, considering he's living in a broken society with no advanced medicine or even the rudiments of transportation and electricity. A local bigwig offers him an obscene amount of money to go back to his former profession of redeemer, someone who kidnaps members of a widespread cut, deprograms them, and returns them to their families and friends. Rivas tries to turn the job down, because as a former member of this particular cult, he's susceptible to their tactics. In other books he's written, Powers introduces an element of something so far out of the ordinary that it could be called supernatural. In Dinner at Deviant's Palace, it's an alien with an unusual ability to not only feast on other sentient beings, but also to make its snacks love it.

Rivas does accept the job and what follows is a dementedly entertaining and nail-biting journey through the remains of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. There are animated trash monsters, hive minds, displaced souls, mutants, cultists, bicycle gangs, and an army from what remains of San Bernadino. This book blew my mind.

7.20.2013

Mrs. Poe, by Lynn Cullen

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 24 September 2013.

Mrs. Poe
Lynn Cullen's Mrs. Poe takes a chapter of Edgar Allan Poe's life and fills in the gaps in the historical record. Literary scholars know that in 1845, Poe exchanged a series of love poems with Frances Sargent Osgood, another mid-nineteenth century American poet. There's no official documentation that they were having an affair, but everyone at the time though they were. All I knew about Poe prior to reading this book was that he earned shamefully little money for his work and that his official cause of death is a tie between alcohol and rabies.

The novel is narrated from Fanny Osgood's perspective. Fanny was married to a philandering portrait painter who had left her to pursue rich women elsewhere. She's in a tough spot but, fortunately, she has friends she and her daughters can stay with while she tries to earn a living through her writing. Her editor tells her that all anyone wants to read in 1845 are "shivery tales" like the ones Mr. Poe writes, but Osgood writes very feminine poetry about flowers and such. Fanny actually has a chance to meet Poe at a salon for New York writers. She also meets the consumptive Mrs. Poe.

Fanny and Poe--known as Eddie to his friends and family--connect. In spite of their respective marriages and in spite of the scandal it would cause, they continue their flirtation. Cullen writes amazingly, weaving actual history into her story. After reading quick synopses of their lives, I was persuaded that something probably happened between the two of them. The author knitted fiction and truth together so tightly that it was hard to keep the two separate.

You're despicable

"You're desthpicable!"
Books with unlikable characters are a challenge. You have to find something else that makes you care enough to finish the book. I've read books in the past with characters that started out unlikable or irritating, but grew on me because I started to understand them better. I've been thinking about the dilemma of trying to like the unlikable all week, ever since I finished reading Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees. The last time a character pissed me off this much was in The Catcher in the Rye. I still hate that little punk, Holden Caulfield.

The People in the Trees was beautifully written. It had all the other things that make me love a book--except a character that I could bond with. According to all my rules and theories about reading, this book shouldn't have worked. And yet, it did. Figuring out exactly how Yanagihara did this has been driving me nuts since I finished it. The main character was a terrible, terrible person. He was actually criminally terrible. But I still read the book and liked it.

It occurs to me that you don't often come across that many narrators that are also awful human beings. I suppose that it's a special challenge for a writer, on top of all the other challenges of writing an interesting book. I have no idea how they do it.

7.16.2013

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGally, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 13 August 2013.

The People in the Trees
As I read Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees, I made notes of ideas as they occurred to me. At one point, I wrote that the fictional editor of this biography of fictional scientist, A. Norton Perina, had a Bosworthian level man-crush on his subjects. The book begins with a introduction by another scientist, Ronald Kubodera, giving the reader a hint that this is not just the story of a remarkable and impossible scientific discovery. Before Perina takes over narrator duties, Kubodera tells us that Perina is currently serving two years for the sexual assault of one of his adopted sons.

Yeah.

Kubodera's editing provides one layer of frames. Perina himself provides the other. When writing even a nonfictional autobiography, the writer chooses what to reveal to their reader. They hide things and distort things and omit others. With another editor on top of that, you're getting a book that you have to read between the lines more carefully than usual. With that in mind, Kubodera gives way to Perina. Perina writes about his childhood and his disgust of his possibly mentally impaired mother and lazy father. He develops a sense of superiority that he never loses. From his description, you might wonder what, if anything, redeems this character. And I have to be honest, nothing much. Even though I thought this book was incredible, it's going to be hard to recommend to people.

Perina has a lack luster career in college, gaining a medical degree with almost zero interest in helping people. Instead, Perina wants to make a great discovery. He wants to make a difference. This might be the thing that could make Perina at least a respectable character if not actually likeable. It would, if it weren't for the fact that Perina feels no empathy for anything. He's often cruel. While reading about him dispatching lab animals, I had a hard time not quitting on the book. I stuck with the book because of the premise. Perina does get his chance to shine when he gets an offer to accompany two anthropologists to a remote South Pacific island to search for a potentially undiscovered tribe. The expedition does find that tribe, only to find out that some members can live for over a century after eating the meat of a rare turtle. Because of this discovery, Perina goes on to win a Nobel Prize.

The novel goes on to talk about how the island and its people are destroyed by pharmaceutical companies looking for the secret to immortal life. Perina eventually gets around to talking about the scores of children he adopts from the formerly idyllic Pacific island nation and to the events that lead to his imprisonment. I won't reveal the twist at the end. Not only would it ruin the ending, but I'm still not sure what I think about it. What I did like about this book, apart from the skillful way it was written, is that it brings up so many meaty ethical and philosophical dilemmas to ponder. Some readers might thing it's heavy handed, but I didn't. Sometimes points need to be made with a sharp slap to the frontal cortex.

It's a good thing to read a vexed book every now and then.

7.15.2013

Nom de guerre

New author, Robert Galbraith
Not only are writers among the few people who can achieve immortality (Homer is still going strong), but I think they're among the few people who can also have multiple lives. For a while, J.K. Rowling was actually two people--until someone worked out that a book released earlier this year was actually Rowling writing under a pseudonym ("J.K. Rowling's Book Ruse is a Cautionary Tale for Unknown Writers," by Joan Smith). The book, The Cuckoo's Calling, was doing pretty well for a book by an unknown author. It hit the bestseller list about a microsecond after the pseudonym was revealed.

There's been some negative press about the book (note the linked article above), but I think using a pseudonym was a great idea for Rowling. Harry Potter was such a magical and utterly original series and readers bonded to the books so strongly that anything else Rowling writes would be held to an impossible standard. After all, how many reviews of The Casual Vacancy had comments wondering when the characters would get their letters from Hogwarts or which character was Voldemort in disguise or something like that. I think a lot of people were obscurely disappointed in The Casual Vacancy because they were expecting something that would capture their hearts the way Harry Potter did.

I've thought for a long time that Rowling was going to have to write under another name just to get her books judged for their own sake. The problem is that doing so would pretty much mean starting over near the bottom of the totem pole, which of course isn't fair to a writer as talented as she is.

7.13.2013

Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition, by Ben Schott

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, to review on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 31 October 2013.

Schottenfreude
After reading Ben Schott's hilarious Schottenfreude, I started to wonder if there's a German word for discovering that there's a word for one of your own weird little pleasures, mental tics, and irritations. If not, someone needs to coin one immediately, if not sooner. Years ago, my friend Deb gave me a copy of Ben Schott's Schott's Original Miscellany, which I still have because it's a damned useful and interesting little book. I suspect that Schottenfreude's going to end up on the shelf, too, because this is the perfect kind of book for me. In fact, it kind of makes me want to take German up again.

Schottenfreude is a brief glossary of elaborately constructed German words for things like meal envy--envying what someone else ordered--and the unreasonable pain you feel from a minor injury like stubbing your toe. Most of the words are probably unpronounceable unless German is your first language, so that you can make that "cough in the back of the throat" noise. This book also makes me remember that German was the first language of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the fathers of psychology. The German and Austrian people are a little weird, if you go by their vocabulary.

I had a lot of fun with this book. It's a good thing my apartment is pretty well soundproofed because I'm sure one of my neighbors would come find out what I was giggling maniacally for a couple hours this evening.

The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be released 24 September 2013.

The Incrementalists
Steven Brust and Skyler White's The Incrementalists is a very strange book. It's told in alternating parts by Phil and Ren, members of a millennia old society that has been pushing at key people to improve the lot of humanity by slow increments. Phil's personality, wearing different bodies, has been around for about two thousand years. Ren is a new recruit, but something goes wrong when Phil tries to give her the memories and personality of her predecessor. The group, the Incrementalists, are very decentralized and very organic. They learned the hard way what would happen when one or more of them tried to use their gifts at meddling for their own gain. The problem is, one of their members has been breaking all their rules in order to not die and not give up her comfortable life. And it's her memories that Phil tries to give to Ren.

See, pretty weird, huh? And yet, it somehow all works. I was utterly hooked by this story. What makes the Incrementalists work is something like a collective memory palace. Brust and White took the idea and ran with it. This collective memory palace holds billions of memories. None of the members really know how it works. They know some of the rules; they know some of what they're sure can't happen there. But that rogue member, Celeste, goes on her private quest for immortality, she pushes the boundaries in such a way that you--and the characters--start to wonder if this mental construct might be objectively real after all instead of just being an elaborate metaphor.

This idea was what really got me into the book. The beginning was jarring, as Phil and Ren switch places as narrator several times in a chapter. Phil is terrible at explaining things and Ren is literally not herself at times. Still, it grew on me. By the end I was having a great time watching Phil and Ren and their allies untangle the knots that Celeste had created. Along the way, characters engagingly argue about what making things better means and how to achieve their objectives with minimal fallout. Philosophical discussions are so hard to write. Most of the ones I've come across are book killers. They're like dropping a girder on the train tracks. But Brust and White pull it off. I daresay this book will be great for book groups willing to take a chance on something weird, because it will leave them with a lot of things to discuss.

For me, the most interesting thing was what the Incrementalists' Garden, their memory palace, said about personality. What happens to the person who agrees to join and loses their personality to an older, more dominant one? Is personality nothing more than memories and instincts making an individual act in a certain way? Where does a personality live, really? Can it die when it has a refuge like the Garden, that is made entirely of memory? Perfect fodder for an intellectually minded (no pun intended) book group or reader.

7.12.2013

In the Kingdom of Men, by Kim Barnes

In the Kingdom of Men
I have to be honest. As I read Kim Barnes' In the Kingdom of Men, I had the first line of "Stand By Your Man" on a loop in my head*. The line is, "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman." For most of In the Kingdom of Men, sometimes works out to most of the time. After losing her mother and grandmother while she was very young, our protagonist, Gin McPhee, goes to live with her old-fashioned fundamentalist father in Oklahoma. He finishes shaping her into a woman who doesn't quite know how to stand up for herself. The fact that she grew up in the 1950s doesn't help.

Gin gives us a quick synopsis of her life up until she gets pregnant after a night in the backseat of her boyfriend's car. Because it's the 1960s by this point, he "does the right thing" by marrying her. Her husband, Mason, has a complex about doing the right thing. Throughout the book, he quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. and talks about injustice to the poor. But, back to Gin. After Gin marries Mason, they move to Houston where Mason gets work at an oil rig. Unfortunately, their child doesn't live. The entire reason for their marriage is gone and the cracks start to show in their relationship. Mason comes home one day to announce that he's taken a job with Aramco in Saudi Arabia.

Within pages, Gin finds herself living in a strangely ornate house in an American compound near Mason's new rig. The previous owners left suddenly, under a bit of a cloud. There are speeches about the "Aramco family," bored wives aggressively determined to have a good time in spite of the rules, and an entirely new culture to adjust to. There is something sinister going on at Aramco and Barnes builds a terrific mystery out of it. While that slow burn heats up, Gin grows frustrated at the limits around her. It's not so much that she can't drink or eat pork. It's that she can't travel without a male escort anywhere except the American compound. It's that she can't publish her photos of the contrast between the rich Americans and Arabs' lives and the poor Arabs' lives. It's that her only role seems to be waiting for her husband's weeks off.

This book is going to irritate some readers. It's agenda is more than clear, to the point where some of the characters give what I think are anachronistic speeches or are more than plausibly nasty to women and Arabs. In the Kingdom of Men is extremely well written. Between the eloquent descriptions and the scorching temperatures outside, I could easily imagine dunes and hot wind and overbearing sun. Spending so much time in Gin's head really let me understand how claustrophobic the life of a woman in this position could be.

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* As performed by the Blues Brothers. Because that's how my brain works.

7.09.2013

Pwnage

"Screw fair use!" shouted the copyright owners.
One of the things that I hate (among others) about DRM and eBooks and licensing is that companies have taken ownership away. But Johann Thorsson pointed out on BookRiot last week that the trend of licensing instead of owning media is something we've collectively been on the road to accepting for a decade. Spotify and Pandora users have gotten used to not owning music. We don't have to, because it's out there in the cloud and we can listen to just about anything. Hulu and Netflix users have gotten used to not owning movies and TV.

I already download books for free from NetGalley and OverDrive from my Library. I've made my peace with buying books from Amazon's Kindle store, mostly because I don't think about the fact that I'm really just leasing them instead of having owning them outright like I would if I bought the book in print. It bothers me, though. Thorsson made a good point that's stuck with me since I read his post. If the copyright owners provide access to an online library expansive enough to contain the books you want to read for the foreseeable future, does it really matter that you don't own the book you downloaded to read that one time (or two)?

Not that getting used to leasing instead of owning makes it right that copyright owners found out how to use licensing instead of letting things stay under the right of first sale. I feel a little scammed when I think about the ramifications.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex
I first read Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex years ago, before I started this blog, but it's stayed with me. It asked questions that I've never seen asked in literature before. Gender and sexuality, especially in terms of intersex and transexual people, are still terra incognita it seems. The narrator, Cal Stephanides (formerly Calliope), weaves his story together with the stories of his parents and grandparents and the story of a rogue recessive gene.

Eugenides can't resist a shout out to Homer and The Iliad at the beginning of the book. It sets the tone for a book that has its serious and irreverent moments and hits most of the highs and lows of human emotion, just like a Greek drama should. After setting the stage, Cal takes us back to 1922, when a sister and a brother fall in love with each other because there just isn't anyone else in their little village of Bithynios. Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides flee Greece just as Turks destroy Smyrna. They marry on the ship over to the United States, despite the fact that both of them know its wrong. They eventually have two children. Their son, Milton, marries his first cousin. (Yeah, I know this is an uncomfortable line of plot and you can never really condone their actions, but Cal tells their love stories well.) Calliope is born with pseudohermaphrodism, but no one notices. He is raised as the girl everyone thinks he is. Trouble comes along when he turns fourteen and doesn't finish developing like a girl. Oh, and he falls in love with another girl from school.

Everything comes to a head when Calliope is injured and rushed to the emergency room to see a much more observant doctor than the one that delivered him. From there, Cal is sent to a specialist in New York. Middlesex is the story of people falling in love and marrying the last person they should marry. But it's also the story about how our families shape us. Gender is cultural and can overcome biology to some extent. We play the parts of boy and girl the way we're trained to play them. But underneath it all, you can't fight your genetics. Cal reflects on the fact that he never felt out of place as a girl but, because he got a late start, he feels just a little bit wrong as a man. Physically, he looks so male that he can't go back to being Calliope.

As Cal weaves his story, you can't help but wonder who you would be if you'd been raised differently. What if my parents had raised me as a male and given me trucks instead of Barbies? If they had, would I still lust after Benedict Cumberbatch and Jason Momoa? It's the nature versus nurture question, one that psychologists have debated endlessly and will probably debate into perpetuity. Eugenides spins this impossible to crack nut into a deeply moving story.

7.06.2013

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey
After attempting to read Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad, and stalling out on page 100, I needed something to get rid of my mental funk. So I turned to an old favorite--Jane Austen--to lighten my mood. I also wanted to read something I hadn't read before. The list of Austen novels I haven't read is starting to get very short (and I don't want to read Sanditon*). Northanger Abbey turned out to be the perfect book for me this weekend.

This short novel is one of the snarkiest things I've ever read. First written around 1797, then revised and sold in 1803, but not actually published until 1818, Northanger Abbey makes fun of the Gothic novels that were so very popular at the time. They're a bit like Twilight and Beautiful Creatures and other urban fantasies are right now. Catherine Morland, our protagonist, is deliberately as far from the Gothic heroine as Austen could make her. She's a bit on the plain side. She has more common sense than emotional sensibility (see what I did there?). The characters around her aren't black and white villains and heroes. I could imagine bumping into personalities like the ones I met in this book.

Catherine is invited to Bath with well-to-do family friends. After a few false starts at forming new acquaintances (there was a whole ceremony for this, you couldn't just walk up to people and make friends), Catherine becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe. The two girls indulge in some social silliness. Isabella becomes engaged to Catherine's brother. Isabella's brother tries to become engaged to Catherine, but she rebuffs him. While Catherine tries to maintain her friendship with Isabella and avoid Isabella's brother, she pursues the acquaintance of Eleanor and Henry Tilney--because she thinks Henry might be the right man for her.

Of course there are romantic hurdles that Catherine has to overcome on her road to true love, and I was on tenterhooks until they were resolved--even though I've read enough Austen to know that there was going to be a happy ending**. The other great thing about this book was that Austen took every opportunity to poke fun at overwrought, absurd, and silly Gothic novels. I laughed out loud more than once while reading this book. It's a shame it's so overlooked.

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* Unfinished novels drive me nuts. Though Gogol's Dead Souls was pretty good.
** Published in 1818, remember? No whining about spoilers.

7.04.2013

Vexed volume

Typetty typetty.
News came out earlier this week that Neil Gaiman would be returning to the much loved Sandman series to write a prequel. Writing series is a monumental challenge. Writers have to sustain reader interest over volumes. Middle volumes are tricky because they can't really end the story, but they still need to have a satisfying conclusion. But, on reflection, I think prequels might be the hardest books to write because readers already know what's going to happen to the characters.

Whenever I hear the word prequel, I think of Robert Jordan who--instead of writing the next much anticipated volume in his Wheel of Time series--took a year to go back and write a prequel, New Spring, and infuriated hundreds of readers. Not that I think Gaiman is going to do that. I know he has imagination to burn for any project he cares to take on. But since background and flashbacks are so frequently used to explain character motivations and such, I always wonder what authors hope to achieve by writing prequels.

No matter how clever and creative a writer might be, I still see an insurmountable problem in the fact that readers already know who will live and die because they've read the main series. An author might be able to spin a great story, but there won't be any of the dread and thrill that is possible in a sequel when a reader has no clue what's going to happen next.

The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann

The Stockholm Octavo
Emil Larsson, protagonist of Karen Engelmann's The Stockholm Octavo, is a customs agent who suddenly find himself in need of a wife. His boss, a man of morals, worries that all the time spent around sailors and smugglers and criminals will corrupt his agents. His solution is to require all of his agents to be married. Larrson' quest for an acceptable wife leads him to political intrigue and the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden*.

Emil begins his search with an old friend and cardsharping partner, French refugee Mrs. Sofia Sparrow. Mrs. Sparrow is a firm believer in the Tarot and uses her cards to lay a spread she calls the Octavo. She tells him that she has had a vision of "love and connection" for him, teaching him that each person has a network of eight people around them that can be used to help them reach their goals if they can be identified. Emil rushes down several blind alleys before blundering into an audacious and insane conspiracy.

Before long, Emil and Mrs. Sparrow find themselves trying to thwart the plans of aristocrat Kristina Elizabet Louisa Uzanne. The Uzanne, as she's known, has lone been a reactionary against Gustav's reforms. But when she loses her prized fan, the Uzanne becomes unhinged and takes her scheming to the next level. Yes, all because of a fan.

It takes a long while for this book to get rolling. You'll be treated to scenes of Emil making himself foolish over girls, young ladies learning the art of fan wielding, an apothecary tests sleeping potions on a cat, and other seemingly inconsequential acts. Things start to come together in part II and build to a thrilling climax in part three as everyone drops their pretenses and gets down to business. Even though you know how things will go for the king, Engelmann doesn't let you know what happens to the rest of the cast of characters until the very end.

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* Not a spoiler. It's history.

7.03.2013

Off the Shelf, Episode 1

I never thought I'd be on YouTube, but it makes sense that I'd be talking about books in any video I'd appear in.


7.01.2013

The Translator, by Nina Schuyler

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

The Translator
There is a surprising amount of story and character development packed into Nina Schuyler's The Translator. The novel begins with Hanne Schubert contemplating her blackboard as she translates a novel by an up-and-coming Japanese writer into English. By the end of the book, she will have lost all but one of the languages she knows, traveled to Japan, learned how to appreciate Noh, and journeyed to an ashram in India in search of her lost daughter. See? Lots of story here. But the biggest story is Hanne learning to accept other ways of coping with grief and disappointment rather than soldiering on, with a stiff upper lip and other cliches. It's a bigger hurdle than you might expect, because it leads her to write people off if they "wallow," as her very Teutonic mother, father, and grandmother would put it.

After submitting her translation to her publisher and the author for approval, Hanne suffers a strange accident. She falls and hits her head. While she never loses consciousness, exactly, Hanne imagines the many languages she knows tangling together and losing their meaning. Within 24 hours, all that's left is Japanese--the most recently language she learned. Not being able to speak English leaves Hanne feeling like an outsider in San Francisco, so she accepts an invitation to speak at a conference in Tokyo. But after giving her keynote address, Hanne finds herself lambasted by the author she translated. He accuses her of rewriting his book, of turning his main character into an "asshole." The confrontation wounds her deeply and she is racked with doubt, worried she misunderstood everything. To try and prove herself right, Hanne tracks down the man the author used as a model for his protagonist--the Noh actor, Moto.

Moto sees life and emotion so differently from the way Hanne does that he baffles her. But spending time with him teaches her about how very wrong she has been. By spending time with Moto, Hanne realizes that she has to confront her greatest regret and make amends. After Hanne's husband, Hiro, died (years before the opening of the novel), Hanne's daughter Brigitte was wracked with grief. She turned sullen and rebellious. The only way Hanne could think to deal with her was to send her to boarding school. The last part of the book is about Hanne's efforts to make amends, but I want to leave it up to future readers to decide whether she succeeds or not.

I had my doubts about whether I would enjoy this book or not. It started a little slowly. But as Schuyler let me peer deeper into Hanne's thoughts, I started to feel a kinship with her. Hanne thinks that translation is more than just trading one word in one language for another in a second language. I agree, especially after reading this profile of the translation team of Pevear and Volokhonsky. Translators are authors, too, in a sense. And I adored Hanne's love of words and using them to find more than just meaning, but using them to find Meaning. This book makes no bones about being cerebral.