9.29.2013

I am Forbidden, by Anouk Markovits

I am Forbidden
I need a cooling off period before I could write this post about Anouk Markovits' I am Forbidden. So much of the culture and religion of the Satmar Hasidim made me angry, or sad, or both. But let me start from the beginning.

The book opens in Transylvania in the late 1930s, in a community of Ultra Orthodox Jews. The Holocaust destroys their families and towns, but a handful survive. The novel centers on Blimela "Mila" Heller, Atara Stern, and Josef Liechtenstein. Mila and Josef are orphans. Atara's family survives intact, and her father, a cantor, takes the orphans into his family. Mila easily settles into the rule-bound life of Ultra Orthodox Judaism. Josef shakes off the years he spent in hiding in a Gentile Romanian woman's house to become a ben Torah, a son of the Torah. He excels in his Torah studies to the point where he is invited to Williamsburg, New York, to be a part of the Grand Rebbe's court. Atara, however, starts to question her upbringing and her faith.

While Josef and Mila set out on their new life as a married couple, Atara breaks with her family. She runs away because she can't reconcile what she actually thinks and believes with what she should think and believe. Before Mila was married, she and Atara attend a Jewish seminary in England. They study as much of the Torah as they're allowed. When Atara finds the gaps in Judaism's logic, she is told that they are not to think about it. Atara wants to make her own life, but there is only one permissible path for a Hasidic girl: wife and mother. She runs away from her family when they start to talk about engaging her to another Satmar man. She fears being forbidden from pursuing education and expression.

Mila is truly happy in her new life except for one thing. She can't get pregnant. Under Satmar Hasidic law, a couple that doesn't conceive in ten years is obliged to divorce. Mila and her husband are in love and don't want to separate. Josef prays and studies, but Mila comes up with a plan inspired by the biblical Tamar. She commits what the law would say is adultery, though she would argue that this sin is outweighed by her child.

Throughout I am Forbidden, the characters run up against what they are and are not permitted to do or think. For some, the conflict drives them to the brink of insanity. Others compromise and keep their secrets. The tension in the book is whether those secrets will come out, and what will happen if they do. It's hard not to judge the Satmar Hasidim way of life, but doing so raises up an ugly can of historic and philosophical worms. But I can feel sympathy for all the characters caught on the horns of their various dilemmas.

What will stay with me most from I am Forbidden is the way that free will is denied the characters. Zalman Stern, Atara's father, rails against free will. The body of Jewish law and tradition have guidance for nearly every situation one could find oneself in. Zalman would argue that you don't need free will. But every character wrestles with it when their choices are between one bad thing and a worse alternative. No one can win in this book, but you have hope that someone will find a way to be happy.

9.28.2013

The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 1 October 2013.

The Night Guest
Fiona McFarlane begins The Night Guest with a frightened older woman, Ruth, calling her distant son to tell him that she thought she heard a tiger in her house the night before. She's vulnerable, but determined not to make a fuss. She's over the older generation, trained to show the world nothing but acceptable emotions and a stiff upper lip. The next morning, however, Frida Young shows up and introduces herself as a government carer. She'll only be there for an hour a day, helping keep the house in order, making sure that Ruth takes her pills for her back, maybe do a little shopping.

Within a few chapters, we learn that Frida is not exactly the Mary Poppins of hospice care. She's pushy, perhaps a little manipulative. But Ruth has been living alone with her cats and back pain for years, she could use a little help with the things she's let slide over the years. Frida soon stays for three hours a day. Then she stays overnight  to help Ruth when Ruth has an old flame visit her house. For a while, I thought perhaps Ruth needed a little pushing. She's not as spry as she used to be. Her sense of independence and her reluctance to cause a fuss might be doing more harm than good. Sure, Frida's not particularly nice, but does she really need to be?

It becomes clear, right around the time that Ruth's friend Richard visits, that Frida is abusing Ruth's trust. Frida lies to Ruth about things Ruth has allegedly forgotten. Ruth's mind and memory gets increasingly fuzzy and Frida takes advantage. It's heart breaking to watch Frida run rings around Ruth. Ruth's children are far away, as is her rediscovered friend. Frida has a ready answer for any questions people direct at her. McFarlane walks a careful balance between gaslighting and natural, elderly decline. Until the end, it's hard to say for sure what's going on.

The ending of The Night Guest broke my heart. This book is terrifically written. It's a little slow at the beginning, I'll admit. But you need to go with it. This isn't a traditional thriller, but it's more effective for all that. The first third of the book introduces you to the characters; it builds up your sympathy for Ruth. Because it doesn't follow the patterns set by the genre, the ending comes as a surprise--and a deeply affecting one at that.

9.27.2013

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 14 February 2014.

Annihilation
One of the few things I remember from my Philosophy 101 class was that René Descartes thought that, because the senses could be tricked, the only truth you could trust was "Cogito ergo sum." As I read Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, that idea came back to me as the narrator began to realize that everything she'd been told--by her superiors and by her own senses--was a lie.

The narrator of this opening volume of VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy is nameless. We only know her as the biologist. In fact, there is a curious lack of proper names in Annihilation, a hint that something strange is going on. The narrator is part of a small expedition into Area X organized by an equally mysterious organization known as the Southern Reach. We're told that something happened in Area X about 30 years ago. Southern Reach has started sending in expeditions to learn more about the area, but none of them has been successful.

The biologist, a singularly unsuccessful specimen of her type, is one of four on this trip along with a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor. Their journey begins by crossing the border, an experience that requires hypnosis for them to "remain calm." After setting up at base camp, the four find a tunnel that contains only an unknown life form that lives on words scrawled in an unknown substance by an unknown entity. The anthropologist disappears that night. The psychologist appears inexplicably tense. And the biologist learns that the psychologist has been controlling the rest of the party through post-hypnotic suggestion. She is immune because of a spore she accidentally inhaled back in the tunnel, which she insists on thinking of as a tower for some reason.

With the revelation about the hypnosis, the biologist realizes just how much she's been lied to. And I started to realize how powerful words and names could be. There was supposed to be a fifth member of the party, an linguist, but the psychologist tells the group that she didn't survive the border crossing. The words in the tunnel are a bizarre ramble of pseudo-religious verbiage. The only proper names in the book are for Area X and Southern Reach. Without a linguist and without proper names, it's very hard to pin down just what things are. That's what a name does; it distinguishes this from that. Without those names, the entire novel has a strangely hypnotic tone.

The expedition falls apart, just like all the others that came before. The biologist abandons her task of categorizing the flora and fauna of Area X to investigate why the psychologist and Southern Reach are lying, and what happened to the previous expeditions. There is a conclusion to this book, but we don't learn many concrete facts in Annihilation. The rest of the mystery is left to the other two books to unravel. All we can say at the end is that something is deeply wrong.

9.26.2013

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora
The reviewers who describe Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora as a cross between Ocean's 11 and a fantasy novel are right on the money. Except there's more cursing. My analogy contribution is that reading this book is a bit like watching an old-fashioned burlesque. The author teases you like a dancer, hinting and revealing--but never showing everything until the very end.

Locke Lamora has trained all his life to be a very particular kind of thief. He and his crew only target the extremely wealthy people in their city of Comorr. He's got life just the way he wants it. No one suspects him. His capa--the criminal boss of the entire city--has no idea what Locke is up to. The city police have only heard whispers about him. Locke is used to being a big fish in a comfortable pond. Unfortunately for him, a more dangerous fish has arrived. (Sorry about all the metaphors. Once you get started, it's hard to stop.)

Locke's boss has a problem and he pulls the gentleman thief into help him track down the man who's been killing off the gang leaders in Comorr. Locke takes a few extra precautions, but carries on gulling his most recent noble target. One night, that dangerous fish kidnaps Locke and forces the thief to impersonate him at a meeting with the city boss. Everything, as you might expect, goes straight to hell. Locke is beaten almost to death. His crew are mostly killed. At this point, Lynch's highly entertaining heist story turns into a highly entertaining revenge quest.

As the book progresses, Lynch shows you more of Locke's life and training, more of his nemesis' schemes and motivations. The stakes get higher and higher, until not just the criminal underworld of Comorr is in danger, but the entire city. Locke has a gift for improvising, though your faith in him might be tested when it looks like his enemy has thought of and blocked every path Locke might take to beat him. This was a wonderful book. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy the sequel.

9.22.2013

Have I said this already?

Derek Attig over at BookRiot wrote a great post this past week in which he deciphered some common book reviewer speak. Not only did it make me laugh, but it also got me to thinking about whether I use (overuse) any words or clichés in my own reviews. I try not to. In fact, if you follow me on Twitter, you know that I regularly mock book reviewer speak when I tweet my way through the most recent batch of reviews from Publishers' Weekly.

The problem with using all these now stock terms is that all the meaning is eventually drained out of them. I'm sure the words and phrases Attig cites at one point were fresh and evocative, but now I think most people would be hard pressed to define "tour de force."

I can't recall having used anything on Attig's list except for meditation and moral dilemma. But I know that I have my own writing tics. I often talk about plots in terms of "threads" and speak of an author "weaving" them together, but that's because that's how I think of plots and subplots. I try to cycle through my superlatives. If you went back and looked closely at my posts, you could probably find my favorite superlative (terrific, fabulous, marvelous) of the month. And then there's my habit of starting sentences, like this one, with conjunctions. (The Chicago Manual of Style supports this habit, by the way, so nascent English majors can just chill out about it.) To be honest, once you reach a certain point in your writing, mistakes become style anyway.

It's hard to see the problems in one's own writing. And, although Blogger tells me that people are at least visiting my site, I don't get very many comments except for people chiming in to say they also liked whatever book I just reviewed or to post incomprehensible spam. This isn't an invitation to edit me a new one, by the way. I'm just curious about whether I've become formulaic, since it's one of the things I detest in fiction. I might be just a book reader and reviewer and not a novelist myself, but I'm trying to cut back on my hypocrisies.

Even if I can't completely eradicate my tics and clichés, I do promise never to describe a book as a tour de force.

9.21.2013

This House is Haunted, by John Boyne

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 8 October 2013.

This House is Haunted
There are shades ('scuze the pun) of a lot of governess stories in John Boyne's This House is Haunted. I saw Jane Eyre, Turn of the Screw, and bits of Agnes Grey here. It's not a bad thing. This House is Haunted is very much it's own book; but, if you're aware of those other books, it seems like this one is taking part in the conversation about the curious position of a governess in a home. She's not quite a servant, because she has (or should have) charge of the master and/or mistress' children. But she's an employee who serves at her employer's pleasure. There's almost no recourse if something goes wrong other than quitting.

In the case of Eliza Caine, the governess at the center of This House is Haunted, sees an ad for a post at a Norfolk house shortly after her father's death leaves her on the verge of being evicted from their rented house. When she gets a letter back from H. Bennett to let her know she's been hired without an interview, Eliza is a little curious but still jumps at the chance to get away from London and her tenuous position there. Eliza shortly arrives at Gaudlin House to discover that the two children are living without any real parental--or even any real adult--supervision. She can't get a straight answer from them about where their parents are or what happened to the previous governesses. Eliza only gets the truth about the family tragedy when she corners the family solicitor, Mr. Raisin, about halfway through the book.

Even knowing what happened to Isabella and Eustace's parents only answers some of Eliza's questions. The story doesn't explain why she feels hands trying to push her out the window, out of bed, or in front of a train. It doesn't explain the scalds she gets from water that was ice cold mere seconds ago. Something--someone--wants Eliza gone from the house. The children know that the presence won't hurt them, even when it appears on a Great Yarmouth beach in the guise of a vicious black dog. It's only after Eliza.

There are some missteps in This House is Haunted. The deliberate foreshadowing is unnecessary. We're often told what Eliza is feeling rather than shown. This book would have been a lot better if Boyne had invested more in creating the paranoid and claustrophobic atmosphere. But Eliza is a great, strong character. She's fierce and determined. Boyne also does a great job of blending plausible psychology into his ghost story, enough that I pitied the ghost as much as dreaded her. Once Eliza arrives at Gaudlin House and starts to piece the plot puzzles together, the book improves. I'd recommended it, because the flaws are relatively minor.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, by David Barnett

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

Gideon Smith and
the Mechanical Girl
Gideon Smith, a trawlerman's son, has grown up with the tales of Captain Lucian Trigger almost since he could read. So when his father's boat is found abandoned one morning, Smith sets out to find the Hero of the Empire to help him get revenge on his father's killers. But David Barnett doesn't make things easy for his hero in Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl.

Before Gideon makes it out of Sandsend, another abandoned ship arrives from Varna. (If you've read Dracula, this should sound familiar.) Mysterious mummified frogmen show up. Bram Stoker arrives in nearby Whitby looking for inspiration and runs into the Elizabeth Bathory, widow of the late Count Dracula. When Gideon actually gets out of town, he helps a mechanical girl escape from the laboratory of a man who appears to be Albert Einstein's father. There are references to Frankenstein, the Sherlock Holmes stories, and an archaeologist named Jones. (Jones is considered to be a hack by the other treasure hunters in the book.)

I was enjoying the pastiche that Barnett set up, giggling over the many literary references I ran across. I wasn't expecting the book to be anything better than a clever alternate history/steampunk/metafictional mashup. But Barnett surprised me. As Gideon travels to London, then Egypt, on his quest for revenge, there are interesting meditations on what it means to be a real hero, what bravery is, and how to love someone unexpected. Instead of feeling piecemeal, Barnett's alternate British Empire lives and breathes. I had a great time reading this book, and I marveled at the ending. Barnett weaves all the various mysteries and impossibilities to create an ending that actually satisfies as well as sets you up for the next Gideon Smith adventure.

9.17.2013

The Bat, by Jo Nesbø

The Bat
The Bat is the first novel in Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole* series. The events depicted are referenced in the later novels, but not in such a way that you couldn't pick up the second book in the series and understand the characters and the plot. For years, this was the only way that Americans could read the Hole series. I'm not sure why, but the first book was only just released in English on this side of the Atlantic this summer. (Norwegian readers have been able to enjoy it since 1997. Lucky buggers.)

Later novels in the series allude to the case that made Hole's reputation: finding a prolific serial killer who has gone undetected for years. After a Norwegian woman is murdered in Sydney, Australia, Hole is called down to liaise between the Sydney police and the Norwegian embassy. He's told that he's not there to investigate, but, being the Harry we will come to know and love, he can't resist following his own instincts. The investigation is a chance for Hole to redeem himself after his drinking caused two deaths in a car accident back in Norway. He's clean and sober for the first time in years. Though he calls himself a man of middling intelligence, his intuition helps him make links that other coppers don't see.

In The Bat, Hole is partnered with Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal detective. Kensington is as much a rule breaker as Hole is, making Hole wonder about what the detective is actually up to more than once. Kensington and other Aboriginal characters occasionally stop to tell Hole their myths and legends, as a way of hinting at what they can't say for fear of retaliation or lack of solid evidence. It takes Hole a while to work out what he's being told and I followed him right down those blind alleys. (Nesbø, even in this early book, is a master of red herrings that don't look like red herrings.)

This book was a fascinating read. I don't mind the wait so much now that I've finished it. It was great to see Harry Hole in the making, before he became the battered wreck that he is in later books. When I met Hole in The Redbreast (the third book in the series, but the "first" one available in English), he's almost fully formed. There are allusions to his past, but The Bat gives you a much closer look at how his motivations and attitudes formed.

__________

* It's pronounced Hoo-leh, by the way. In Norwegian, an "o" sounds like a "u." An "e" at the end of a word is actually a schwa. The Australians in the book just call him Harry Holy.

The "ø," if you're curious, makes an "o" sound. The author's name, as far as I can work out, sounds like Yu Nez-boh.

9.15.2013

Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich

Odds Against Tomorrow
Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow centers on a man who deals with his worries by calculating the odds of all manner of catastrophes. By figuring out how astronomical the odds are, Mitchell Zukor can put his worries aside--until he finds something new to worry about. 

The novel opens with a big disaster and a small disaster. First, there is a massive earthquake in Seattle. At the same time, a student in Mitchell's Russian Literature class has a heart attack, due to a rare genetic disorder. That student, Elsa, and the Seattle earthquake kick Mitchell's worries into high (but productive) gear. After graduation, Mitchell takes a job on Wall Street that doesn't satisfy him at all. Eventually, he does get an assignment that fits his skills and interests. He has to figure out a way to work out how much it would cost his firm in the event of a major catastrophe. 

As Mitchell labors on his assignment, he stumbles across a new venture called FutureWorld. Because insurance companies don't cover catastrophes, there's room for a new kind of company. A bill slipped through the New York government that allows companies to indemnify themselves against big payouts for catastrophes as long as they can prove they took some kind of precautions. FutureWorld takes payments from companies to provide those kind of precautions. Mitchell gets a job there because he is utterly convincing when telling others about just home many things can go wrong--disasters, terrorists, plauges, etc. etc. Mitchell is so very good at his new job because he believes it could happen, too. 

Mitchell and FutureWorld rake in money until one fall a category three hurricane hits New York after months of drought. The storm and the flood drive millions of refugees out of the city. But there's another disaster in store for Mitchell. Word is leaked that he predicted the hurricane, the only one to do so. He's hailed as a prophet because his warnings saved a lot of lives and money, even though all he did was work out the odds of something bad happening. No one seems to understand that he doesn't know the future. 

Odds Against Tomorrow seemed to arrive at a prescient time, after last years Hurricane Sandy. It also feels so very plausible because American are so susceptible to being manipulated by fear. Fear sells as much as sex does. And there's a perception that our lawyers and politicians are just evil enough to come up with a law that creates FutureWorld's legal loophole. In Rich's America, people would rather pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for years for a legal umbrella rather than pay to actually fix things to prevent Mitchell's nightmare scenarios. By the end of the book, though, I have to wonder whether Mitchell actually changed anything. 

9.14.2013

The Windsor Faction, by D.J. Taylor

I received a free copy of this ebook to review on behalf of the publisher from NetGalley. It will be released 25 September 2013.

The Windsor Faction
Alternate histories hinge on one turning point, one moment when our history zigged and the other zagged. In D.J. Taylor's The Windsor Faction, that moment came in 1936 when Wallis Simpson died rather than caused the abdication crisis. Edward VIII, in this history, stayed king through 1939 and on, rather than his brother, George VI. In our history, Edward was a German sympathizer. (In fact, if you look him up on Wikipedia, you'll see a picture of him from 1937 with Hitler.) World War II was inevitable. You'd have to change more than Wallis Simpson's fate to change that. The Windsor Faction revolves around an attempt by some men in the British government who are definitely not the heads of state trying to negotiate peace with Germany before anyone actually starts fighting.

As I read this book, I was strongly reminded of Lord Darlington's similar efforts in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. In that book, too, "amateur diplomats" with too little information about the actual situation in Europe try to stop war from completely breaking out. Most of The Windsor Faction takes place after September 1939, so if you know your history you already know that it's too late even in this alternate timeline because Germany has already taken the Sudetenland and invaded Poland.

The novel is narrated in turns by Cynthia Kirkpatrick, the daughter of returned ex-patriots from Ceylon (later Sri Lanka); Beverly Nichols, a writer; Rodney, an unfortunate bagman; and, sometimes, King Edward himself. None of them instigated the plot, but they all get caught up in it. For the first half, things move slowly as characters put other characters into position and the news from Europe worsens. In fact, there's a distinct sense of ennui from many of the characters as they try to keep their upper lips stiff. I started to wonder if that was all there was to this book, just subtext buried so deeply that only a Freudian psychoanalyst could dig it up. But the last third of the story changes everything from a tale of keeping calm and carrying on into a pretty good thriller. The ending is wonderful.

It's strange to read an alternate history that hews so closely actual history. I'm still a little puzzled about what to make of it. Why did the author choose to alter history? The story would have been believable without the premise.

9.12.2013

Pernicious power of parody

It needed to be said.
John Crace has, well, bruised my enjoyment of the latest Jack Reacher novel, Never Go Back, by Lee Child. I frequently read Crace's Digested Read series at the Guardian because a) they're always really funny, b) I'm a big fan of satire done well, and c) he often goes after writers that need to be taken down a peg or two, anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, Crace wrote a Digested Read of Never Go Back. I laughed, because it was truly funny. But then I read the target (er, book) itself and, it was as though I had spoiled it for myself. Lee Child has a very distinct writing style. The problem with style, though, is that it can devolve into formula. Once your writing becomes formulaic, it's automatically a target for parody. Child has probably gotten away with it so far because his formula for Jack Reacher is still much better than a lot of the other novels in the mystery/thriller genre.

When someone puts a spotlight on those formulaic elements, as Crace did, it's impossible not to see the flaws in the original author's writing. The text becomes a punchline. Trying to read it without irony is so difficult that you can't just slide into the story as you did with its predecessors. You get so busy trying not to laugh that you can't concentrate on where the plot was going. The more I tried not to see what Crace had picked on, the more it became the only thing I could see.

Did I enjoy Never Go Back? Yes. But I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn't read Crace's parody of it first. I suspect that if I had read the parody after, it would have tainted my enjoyment of the book anyway because it would have picked up on things I should have when I was reading it. I don't want to sound like I'm casting blame here, because I'm not. Never Go Back was an interesting story (though Child needs to make sure he's not dialing it in at this point in the long running series). It's not Crace's fault, because that Digested Read really needed to happen.

Sigh.

9.10.2013

The Library is your Oyster

Books! For free! Just lying around like it's no big deal!
It was inevitable that something like Oyster would happen. iTunes came for the music. Netflix came for the movies. Oyster offers a digital rental/subscription model for books. You pay a monthly fee to borrow books from a pool of titles from one of the Big Five, HarperCollins. (Jeff O'Neal over at BookRiot got to try out Oyster and wrote one of the best introductions to it I've seen so far. Read it here: "Oyster: The Netflix for Books You've Been Waiting For.") What I'm not seeing in all the buzz is someone asking, "Hey, don't libraries loan books for free?"

I'm well aware that few libraries have digital books on offer right now. We're stymied by publisher restrictions and technological hurdles. But libraries are still the best place to get your hands on a book (presuming you don't just want to buy your own copy). Until publishers relax or libraries get more funding to pay the inflated institutional costs of ebooks, it won't get any easier to legally get an ebook. I know that. (This, in itself, is an incendiary topic to bring up around librarians.)

We still keep the dangerous ones locked up. (Just kidding. 
This is the Hereford Cathedral Library and I expect that each 
of those books is worth more than Warren Buffet.)
I suspect that Oyster looks attractive--even at $9.95 a month--because right now, there's no way to pass on an ebook you don't like. You can't give it away and you certainly can't resell it. It's a gamble when you buy one. Amazon does have access to kindle reader data and found that most books are only read once by a reader. It makes sense to just borrow (or rent, if you must) a book and give it back when you're done. But that's what libraries have been doing for hundred of years. Hell, we took the chains off of them so that people could take their books home.

Almost every week at my library, I hear students and faculty suggest services to us...that we already have in place. Sometimes we've had those "new" services for years. It frustrates me no end. But it saddens and angers me when I see an organization actually reinvent the wheel and then have the gall to charge people to use it.

9.08.2013

Others of My Kind, by James Sallis

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 10 September 2013.

Others of My Kind
Even though the cover of James Sallis' Others of My Kind says that it's a novel, it's not. I have to agree with the other reviewers I read on Goodreads who called it a novella or character sketch. The book is a mere 128 pages long. There's very little plot. Most of the book is a narrative of the day to day activities of Jenny Rowan, who was kidnapped at age eight, escaped, emancipated herself at age 16, and found work as an editor at a TV station. That might sound boring, but this is not a boring book. It's just a book without a recognizable direction.

The novella opens with a local police officer asking Jenny to speak with a victim of a recent kidnapping, who was held by her captor for an extended period of time and abused--almost like Jenny was twenty some odd years before. Jenny is reluctant at first. After all, what does one say? But she eventually makes the trip to the hospital to give it her best shot. Later, after Cheryl is attacked again in the mental ward where the state put her while they try to find a permanent place, Jenny takes Cheryl home. There's also a news story that Jenny follows at work, in which the vice president's (later president) son is abducted. But that's about all there is for plot. Jenny goes to work. Jenny has a date with the police officer. Jenny tries to comfort Cheryl. In her spare time, Jenny takes food to the squatters next door and tries to find her parents.

As I read Others of My Kind, I had to wonder whether Jenny was such an exceedingly good character because her author is male or if it was because of my own assumptions about what a kidnapping and rape victim should be like (or because the author didn't sketch her portrait with enough depth). Where was her anger? Where was her blame? How could she accept that her parents had moved on with their lives with such equanimity? Then I realized that there is no should about what Jenny was feeling or had become. Any psychologist would argue that there's no such thing as normal; there's functioning and then there's not functioning. Jenny is functioning, but she's hard to understand. She's nearly affectless, to be honest.

Because Jenny is such a cipher, and because there's so little plot to this book, I suspect that a lot of people are not going to like it. I think I understand it, but I kept waiting for more depth, more reflection, more discovery--just more. The premise is just crying out for it. 

The Cusanus Game, by Wolfgang Jeschke

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 15 October 2013.

The Cusanus Game
The Cusanus Game, by Wolfgang Jeschke, is a book with almost too many ideas in it. It was as though Jeschke had made not of all the possible questions that time travel brings up and put them all in one book. There are the practical and technological questions of time travel. There are the psychological questions about coping with time travel and alternate realities. Above all, however, are the philosophical questions. Chiefly, I think this book is about whether or not one should meddle with a reality's timeline. Small fish make big ripples, after all.

The first chapters in The Cusanus Game not only set the stage for the rest of the book, but also give the reader some time to adjust to the fluid nature of time and place Jeschke describes. We meet our protagonist, Domenica Ligrina, in a dying Rome in a dying Europe. Climate change is bringing the Sahara north, along with thousands of immigrants. A nuclear accident has rendered most of Germany and Poland uninhabitable for centuries. Domenica receives a mysterious job offer from the Vatican, on of the few functioning European organizations left. Somehow, the job will involve her botanical knowledge--but no one involved with the project will give her any details. Meanwhile, Jeschke also gives us repeated moments from the past and the future that play out slightly differently as Domenica gets deeper and deeper into the project.

It becomes clear, eventually, that the Vatican's Rinascinta project is sending people into the past to collect specimens of extinct plants or to recover lost knowledge in order to rebuild Europe and its biomes. Before Domenica is sent into the past, there are long conversations about the physics involved and the nature of time paradoxes and time dilation. It would be boring if it weren't so fascinating (at least to me). This is an idea book, more than it is an action book. There is action--and lots of it--but it doesn't arrive until the last third of the book when Domenica is finally cut loose into the past.

As I read the book, it became clear that there are other entities involved in time travel. The kind of time travel used in this book is inherited (if I can use that) from the future. Once time travel was invented, it existed in all times; it was just a matter of working out the math. The physicists on the Rinascinta project spend more time working out various models of their multiverse rather than trying to discover who or what actually invented time travel. They do know that an apparently Burmese mathematician named Hla Thilawuntha did a lot of the ground work, but then he disappeared*. I appreciate that Jeschke left this ambiguous. Addressing it directly would have turned the book into a pro- or anti-deist tale, rather than the meditation on intervention and responsibility I read it as.

There is one other thing I should note. This book is translated from German and the translator left many traces of the text's linguistic origin. There are passive sentences all over the place and strange word order in many sentences. In German, the word order makes sense. To English readers, parts of this book will make you pause while you try and work out what a sentence is supposed to mean. After a while, I got used to it. For the first half of the book, it drove me nuts. Other than the hiccoughs in the translation**, I really enjoyed this book. I was challenged by the intellectual puzzles and had a lot of fun just thinking about the implications of the systems and questions Jeschke devised.

_________

* This character, among other mysterious figures in the book, made me postulate my own version of the Law of Conservation of Characters. (Roger Ebert has his own version, by the way.) If an unknown or otherwise unidentified character appears part way through a story who shares some physical similarities with a character that's already been introduce, it is the same character.

** I am well aware of the problems translators face. They have to chose between fidelity to the original and making it intelligible and enjoyable to readers in a different language. However, I prefer translators that are faithful to the meaning of the original above the grammar of the original. 

9.07.2013

Free to read, you and me

Every school year brings a handful of articles reporting book challenges and bannings at various schools across the United States. And every time I see them, it saddens and angers me. Here are a few from the past few weeks:

Banned Books Week poster by Wrwarnecke, via DeviantArt
When classes started at my university and I resumed giving tours to new students, I made a special point of stopping at the children's collection for each one. None of the students I was showing around showed very much attention to these books until I mentioned that our collection holds dozens of books that have been the subject of challenges. Then I would see them make a mental note to check them out later. 

And I would do it again. I would do it again in an instant. 

It might be a combination of factors and experiences, but I am rabidly anti-censorship. (Yes, I even oppose censorship of books I find personally repellent, before you ask.) But I suspect I think this way because of my own experiences as a teenager. I was (and still am, in many situations) a shy person. When I was a teenager, wrestling with all the things that a teenager has to wrestle with on the way to becoming and adult, books were a great comfort to me. They guided me through puberty, reassuring me that I was normal apart from my eccentricities. Books were a safe place to find out about sex and drugs and learn how to cope with bullies and low self-esteem. Judging by the perennial popularity of some of the books on the American Library Association's lists of frequently challenged books, they make a lot of other readers feel safe to as the learn who they will be as adults. 

Teenagers are not kids any more. They shouldn't be sheltered like children from the ugly things in life, because it's better for everyone involved if they learn about drugs and the rest of it when they have a fairly solid support system and legal protection. Treating a teenager like a child is like trying to force popcorn back into the kernel. Besides, no matter how good one's relationship with parents is, I daresay that teenagers would rather find out about sex and masturbation and puberty from a silent book that won't judge them or worry about them. I had (and still do) a great relationship with my mother, but there was no way in hell I was going to ask her about sex. Both of us would have instantly dropped dead from terminal embarrassment. 

From what I remember of those books, most of them were didactic to some extent. They wouldn't hit you over the head with a moral, but they always ended with acceptance or something comforting. The best books on the banned and challenged lists will teach you without you realizing you're being taught. Adults, do you remember the last time you tried to teach a teenager anything

The way I saw it, books were my safety net as I started to cut loose from childhood. Books laid out various scenarios that I could learn from without risking my sanity or my health. And I made it through my teenage years fairly unscathed. I'm now a functioning, voting, tax-paying member of society, partly because I had the freedom to learn about the world on my own. 

9.06.2013

The Madman's Daughter, by Megan Shepherd

The Madman's Daughter
Megan Shepherd's The Madman's Daughter retells the story of The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells, if it had been narrated by the doctor's daughter (who didn't exist in the original as far as I know) rather than by a shipwrecked Englishman. I hadn't read Doctor Moreau before reading this book, but I wish I had. I had to make do with the Wikipedia summary.

The Madman's Daughter opens with Juliet Moreau in London, scraping by as a charwoman at a hospital. After her father fled England, trying to escape from a vivisection scandal, Juliet and her mother fell on hard times. Times got harder after Mrs. Moreau died of tuberculosis. Six years after her father abandoned his family, Juliet runs across an old family servant, Montgomery James. Juliet burns her bridges at the hospital and begs James to take her to her father on his remote Pacific island. James tries to dissuade her, but he can't explicitly tell her why she shouldn't go.

When Juliet and James arrive at the island, it quickly becomes clear to everyone just how insane Doctor Moreau really is. He is a rigid man, bent on perfecting his experiments at all costs and without a thought for ethics or, ironically, the humane treatment of his subjects. Juliet is horrified when she learns the true extent of her father's--and James'--experiments. The best parts of this novel are at the end, when Juliet and her allies try to escape the island. Until that point, sections of the book are marred by the clumsy writing in the romantic subplots. We are too often told what Juliet is feeling rather than being trusted to work things out on our own.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to write a book that takes on a classic like The Island of Doctor Moreau. Shepherd takes the premise and the frame of that book, then gleefully colors outside the lines of the original story. And I have to give her props for that. When I started reading the story, I was torn about whether or not I should at least read that Wikipedia summary before I finished The Madman's Daughter. I hesitated because I didn't want to ruin the ending of Shepherd's book for myself because, among the many challenges of writing metafiction like this, the author has to decide if they're going to keep the original ending. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire, and Havisham, by Ronald Frame, bent to conform to their sources (to their detriment, I thought). Shepherd, I was pleased to find out, changed enough of the ending that I was pleasantly surprised by several twists at the tend. I gave in to my temptation to read at least a summary of Doctor Moreau because I didn't want to miss out on any allusions or thematic resonances or jokes.

When I read Wikipedia's summary, I developed a strong yen to go read The Island of Doctor Moreau. That link was the reason I picked up The Madman's Daughter in the first place. But in reading the summary, I think that Shepherd missed out on a terrific opportunity to comment on the unspeakable cruelty of the doctor's actions. Shepherd discusses them in her book, but Juliet's thoughts rapidly shifted between horror at her father's experiments and her attractions to James and a rescued shipwreck survivor (presumably) named Edward and any energy spent on thinking about animal experimentation was squandered. It's a pity, because that was the core of the original work. The Madman's Daughter would have been a much stronger and affecting work if Shepherd had dived below the surface of her story more often.

9.03.2013

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be published 15 October 2013.

The Luminaries
I was drawn to Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries because it's set in a place I've never been, fictionally-speaking. It's set in the mid-1860s on New Zealand's South Island during the gold rushes. It's a long book at 800 pages and the cast of characters is sprawling. Even though it will be a challenge, I recommend to anyone thinking of reading this book that you do so in the longest stretches you can manage. There's a lot to remember here--motivations, histories, and plots. When you leave off for the night (or to go to work or eat or whatever it is people do when they're not reading), it can be hard to pick up the threads of the book again.
The book opens about two weeks after a miner turned logger is found dead in his cabin of apparently natural causes and a prostitute near death is picked up on the road into the town of Hokitika. Twelve men have gathered to try to piece together the mystery of how that miner died, why £4000 of gold was found in his cabin, why gold was found in the prostitute's dress, where a politician's missing steamer trunk went, and find the truth behind what could either be a series of disparate coincidences or a vast conspiracy. The twelve are interrupted by a thirteenth, a lawyer turned miner named Walter Moody who has just come in on the latest boat to Hokitika.

Hokitika, New Zealand, in the 1870s. Via WikiCommons.
It takes Catton half the book (according to the counter in my kindle app) for all the known facts to come out as the twelve share their information. As they tell their story, Catton interweaves the present as the conspiracy and coincidences continue. Potential blackmailers arrive in Hokitika, one of whom claims to be the dead miner's widow with rights to the found fortune. The bank and twe he court start their own investigations.

Little by little, the puzzle pieces start to fall into place. Like the characters in the book, who are on the periphery of what really happened, I felt like a person assembling a puzzle from the edges in. There was something in the middle, but I wasn't sure what it was. Was it just a tangle of misadventures? Was there a criminal mastermind behind it all, planning a dozen steps ahead? The Luminaries demands careful, slow reading and a good memory. And even Sherlock Holmes would have to smoke several pipes to get to the bottom of this one.

Is it worth reading 800 pages to find out what happens? I think this book isn't for everyone. It's gracefully written. I loved the way the author was able to write in an ever narrowing spiral that looped around from past to present and back again while revealing a little more of the core story. (But I would hate to play poker with Catton.) Just for sheer craft, this book is incredible. However, I think some people will get frustrated with this book. Even though it's cleanly written, the events in the book and their outcomes are anything but clean and tidy. If you like your historical fiction messy and true to life, The Luminaries will be an intriguing read.

9.02.2013

So I finally wrote a best of the year list

I probably should have done this for past years, but I read a seven outstanding books this year and I want to give them as much of a signal boost as I can muster. There were a lot of good and even great books in the absurdly massive number of books I read last year, but these stand out--even months after having read them.

Here are my favorites from the List I posted on August 31, from the best to the next best and so on. The links point to my reviews of these books, for a bit more information about plot and style.

1. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra. This moving novel of Chechnya's civil wars was beautifully written and deeply affecting. It tells the linked stories of villagers caught between Russian and Chechnian soldiers and informants and their daily struggles to survive.

2. Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas, by John Scalzi. This novel has already won the Locus and Hugo awards, so it's not just me that thinks this novel is brilliant. I love books that play around with convention. I would have enjoyed this story of a man becoming a hero anyway, but Scalzi plays around with the relationship between characters and their writer.

3. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. I've written about this book twice. My review was first, but then I wrote about it in a list of my favorite funny books. The protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is hilarious to watch as he causes chaos throughout his neighborhood in New Orleans. The only overarching plot link is Reilly's attempts to get a job that suits him. Everything else that happens is a reaction.

4. The Raven's Seal, by Andrei Baltakmens. I disappeared into the atmosphere Baltakmens created in this book. He seems to channel Dickens as he creates a mid-nineteenth century English town, with shades of Alexandre Dumas thrown in for good measure to create a tale of false imprisonment and revenge.

5. She Rises, by Kate Worsley. This novel fooled me. I love books that can fool me--except that when I tell people about them, I have to work hard not to ruin the twist. She Rises is an unusual love story in which a young impressed sailor tries to find a way back to the girl in port. It's an incredible adventure.

6. Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson. This book is full of amazingly drawn flights of fancy, blending myth and legend with technology and revolution into magic. I'm always on the hunt for something original in fiction and this book has it in spades.

7. Doughnut, by Tom Holt. My friends on Facebook already know about my penchant for posting physics, biology, and other science jokes. I can't resist them. Holt builds a dementedly funny version of quantum physics in this book, further warping my knowledge of the subject. It's the best book I've read by this talented author.

You should read this book, immediately if not sooner.