11.28.2013

The World's Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne

The World's
Strongest Librarian
I've always admired public librarians. On top of all their regular librarian duties, they also have to be social workers and counselors and police and baby-sitters. Josh Hanagarne has a challenge on top of all this: Tourette Syndrome. In The World's Strongest Librarian, Hanagarne shares how he learned to deal with his tics and shouts, find love, and become a librarian. As a bonus, Hanagarne shares stories of life at his libraries, the Day-Riverside and Salt Lake City public libraries. (Librarians love hearing each others' stories. When we get together and conferences, we talk for a while about best practices before trying to top each other with a story about the weirdest library patron ever. My story involves a guy and a tinfoil covered rock.)

Hanagarne begins his story with his parents, who met at a uranium mine near Moab, Utah. Throughout the book, they're a wonderfully zany presence. His mother gave him a love of book and libraries. His father encouraged Hanagarne's curiosity. His Tourette's didn't manifest until he was around 10, but he wasn't diagnosed until his condition got really bad in high school. Hanagarne tried college and an LDS mission, but his tics would get so bad that he would have to quit until he could get them under control. His father introduced him to weightlifting after he returned from his mission, which did help with his depression and his Tourette's--but not quite enough.

A few years after his mission, Hanagarne was fixed up with Janette by his mother. They were so perfect for each other that he proposed a few weeks after their first date. Trying to have a child with Janette, I think, is what really helped Hanagarne change his pattern. He got a job in a place he'd always loved, the library. He sought out different kinds of strength training that would help him deal with his Tourette's. He found Adam T. Glass through a kettlebell forum online. Glass has a unique perspective and will not take any bullshit from anyone. Glass needles and presses Hanagarne to really think about his Tourette's and teaches him how to experiment with movement. He leads Hanagarne to a life-changing epiphany.

The World's Strongest Librarian may sound a bit boring when I describe it, because my summary is missing Hanagarne's voice. I really enjoyed his irreverent sense of humor and liberal use of allusions to genre fiction. He is honest with himself and his readers, which I've found to be very rare in biography. If you're a librarian, you should read this book. If you're not a librarian, you should read this book anyway, because you shouldn't miss out on meeting Josh Hanagarne.

11.26.2013

Off The Shelf, Episode 4

In which I talk about why Jason Sheehan's Cooking Dirty is the perfect book to read for Thanksgiving.

11.24.2013

Never trust the bestsellers list

Last week, Jeff Bercovici published an article in Forbes about how to buy you way on to The New York Times bestseller list. I wasn't surprised. I've never trusted the bestseller lists, though I feel like I've been tied to them for as long as I've been buying books for library collections. Bercovici's article reveals just how some unscrupulous publishers can disguise big purchases as little ones, so that it looks like lots of people are buying a particular book. I highly doubt that this practice is going to stop just because someone in the media twigged to it. 

Bercovici's article did validate my personal stance of staying away from the bestsellers list as a source for finding new books to read. I also stay away from Oprah's list and most major awards when it comes to my personal reading. I stick to book reviews, book bloggers I like, and recommendations from GoodReads (which are surprisingly accurate once you tell it about the first 800 books you've read). 

What I really don't like about the manipulation of bestseller lists is that this kind of manipulation crowds out variety. It's impossible for small publishers to play this game. The only way to break through is to win a big award and get on readers' radars. But the big awards are often given to literary fiction, leaving genre fiction (the fun stuff) out in the cold. Bestseller lists do highlight a lot of genre fiction, but the same authors and the same publishers appear again and again. 

These very problems are why I like book social networks so much, even though most of them are owned (wholly or in part) by Amazon. You can find friends and readers with similar tastes and recommend books to each other. Even though recommendations are fraught, they might be the only way to find out about the books that don't win awards and will never show up on the bestseller list (no matter how much they deserve it). 

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat
Memory is a tricky thing. It gets even trickier when clouded with emotions like terror and despair and suspicion. Worse still is when memory has to combat extreme hunger and dehydration. When you have a narrator who is actively lying to you, it's hard to tell just what happened to the group of survivors from the Empress Alexandra as depicted in Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat

Grace Winter has just survived twenty harrowing days in a lifeboat after the Empress Alexandra sank in the North Atlantic. Only half of the lifeboats were successfully deployed, albeit dangerously overloaded because they weren't built to spec. Grace lost her husband of just a few days. If you're reminded of the Titanic, you're not far off. In the prologue to The Lifeboat we learn that after her ordeal, Grace is now on trial for the actions the survivors on that boat took. Because Grace has such a hard time remembering what happened and when, her lawyers recommend that she write down what she can recall and visit a psychiatrist to pry the rest out.

The Lifeboat will inevitably make you wonder what you would do in the same situation. How far would you go to survive? Because the lifeboats were so overloaded, the questions comes up almost immediately. It's broached by the seaman who escaped with Grace and the 37 others in their boat. Mr. Hardie wrangled extra water and rations, set a rota of bailing and rowing, and held the group together from panicking. The first days are calm, but when a squall comes up, Hardie brings up the idea of a few survivors sacrificing themselves so that the boat won't founder. As time goes on, the situation grows increasingly dire. Not only do the survivors have to worry about the elements, they have to worry about when Hardie might decide their time is up, too.

You might think things can't get worse, but there are hints of mystery to Grace's story. What happened to the two chests of gold on the Alexandra? Why is Hardie so afraid of running into Mr. Blake the other lifeboat? How did Grace manage to get her husband to drop his first fiance? So many questions, and by the end of The Lifeboat, I had to wonder if the story I had just read was the story of what happened. Stories like this are catnip to me. I'll be thinking about this one for days, trying to parse between what happened, what Grace wants us to think happened, and what she unintentionally hinted at in her diary and testimony. Stories like this require deep concentration, but they reward it by giving you bonus narratives folded into the main story line.

11.23.2013

City of Lost Dreams, by Magnus Flyte

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 26 November 2013.

City of Lost Dreams
The writers behind Magnus Flyte are wonderfully brazen. They pull in historical mysteries, a big dose of alchemy, magical music, and some steamy sex to create City of Lost Dreams, the sequel to City of Dark Magic (which I adored). We rejoin Sarah Weston and Max Lobkowicz Anderson as they search for a cure for their dear friend Pollina's autoimmune disorder, a disorder that's slowly killing her. Sarah tries to track down a Viennese nanobiologist who might have a cure. Max and Sarah's friend Nico goes for the old tried and true method of alchemy.

Since City of Dark Magic, Sarah has returned to Boston to work on her doctoral dissertation and broke Max's heart. Pollina's declining health brings her back to Europe, to pester Bettina Müller to get Pollina into her study. (The fact that Max appears to have moved on to a history TV show presenter does take the wind out of her sails somewhat.) Nico starts crisscrossing Europe, visiting museums to recover old alchemical equipment. Unfortunately, he finds that someone has beaten him to the punch. At each site, Nico finds that the object has been "removed for curatorial purposes." It's Nico's play and he feels someone, a Moriarty, is taunting him.

As Sarah and Nico work on trying to get Pollina's cure, someone is working against them. That someone has, like Nico, been around for four hundred years. That four hundred year old someone has lost her grip on ethical behavior and is causing all sorts of alchemical mayhem around Prague. It all leads up to gripping but trippy ending. I never would have seen it coming, though I had some inkling about who Nico's Moriarty is. This is one of the few books I've read lately that I genuinely wished was longer. When I finished it, I wished that there was another book in this series I could read.

11.21.2013

Out in the cold

Last night, the National Book Awards were announced. And, as usual, I haven't read a one of them. When the Nobel Prize was given to Alice Munro, I had to admit that I'd never read her either. Then, earlier this week, Flavorwire* published a list of the "50 Books That Define the Past Five Years in Literature." I have read four of them. I've bought several of them for my library's literature collection. But there a more than a few I've never heard of.

Even more regrettably, this is not an unusual occurrence for me.

A nook is a nook to
a dedicated reader.
I've written before (and ranted at length) about how nebulous a concept the literary canon is. It's like money or language; it has meaning because we agree that it does. Lately, I've been feeling more and more like my definition isn't matching up with the literary world. Or perhaps that literary world is drifting away from the rest of us. (The cynical side of me would argue the latter position.)

The easiest solution would be for me to make a bigger effort at reading literary fiction, even though the genre doesn't appeal to me and comes from a very different world than I come from.

What I really wish, in my nerdiest of bookworm hearts, that genre fiction--science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mysteries--got more respect from the gatekeepers of the literary world. Every now and then, a literary writer will cross over into genre waters but it seems unlikely (if not impossible) for the opposite to happen. Yet I feel that genre fiction is turning out some incredibly vibrant and meaningful literature. I want Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin to win Nobels. I want to see China Miéville, John Scalzi, Neil Gaiman, and others to win national and international book prizes outside of their genres. Mostly, I want the snobbery to end.

__________

* Admittedly, not the most authoritative source for literary criticism.

The Dream Runner, by Kerry Schafer

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

The Dream Runner
The Dream Runner, by Kerry Schafer, is over almost before it begins. Granted, it is a novella, but I ran through it in a little over an hour. And, I'll say it now, it ends with a cliffhanger.

We meet our protagonist, Jesse Davison, as shes riding her father's motorcycle back to her home town. She's reluctant to get there because there are so many bad memories there. Jesse doesn't have a choice because her boss gave her a job to do and because she inherited her father's house. Her boss, the Dream Merchant, is easily the most intriguing part of the story. She spins dreams for the desperate, which Jesse delivers. We don't learn how Jesse came to work for the Dream Merchant or even what the Dream Merchant is. That's a not a bad thing, though. Schafer is incredibly deft at doling out clues and descriptions to keep the narrative flowing and your curiosity piqued.

When she arrives, Jesse has to confront a high school, sexually aggressive bully and the old boyfriend who accidentally caused her father's death. Plus, she learns that a mysterious and ominous pair have been storing things in her father's barn that require serious padlocks. Because The Dream Runner is a novella and part of a set of three, not much is resolved here. I actually feel a little suckered that I would have to commit to the other volumes to find out what happened to everyone. The Dream Runner is well written, but far too short.

The Corpse Rat King, by Lee Battersby

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

The Corpse Rat King
When things go wrong for Marius Helles, they go very, very wrong. The man has tried every dishonest way of making a living, settling on corpse robbing as the best reward for the least risk. He even has an apprentice. But one day, after a huge battle in which the king dies, Marius is forced to carry out the most impossible of tasks.

Lee Battersby's The Corpse Rat King opens as Marius and his apprentice, Gerd, are searching for coin and small valuables on the bodies of the dead. Gerd's eyes are larger than his stomach, so to speak, when he tries to steal a crown off of one of the bodies. They're caught by the surviving members of the king's entourage, but fall into worse trouble when the dead pull them into the underworld. Because Marius is holding a crown (which he tried to dump and run back on the battlefield), the dead believe he's their long awaited king. When Marius points out that he still has a heartbeat, even though he has a heartbeat, the dead offer him a deal. Marius has to bring them a king or they kill him. What's a dishonest man to do?

In Marius' case, he scarpers. He catches a ship in his hometown, the port city of Borgho, on a vessel that's going the furthest away. Marius spends nearly half the book running and having misadventure after misadventure. He does try to nab a king or two, but his heart ('scuz the pun) isn't in it. Something always goes wrong. The island king is cannibalized after he's dead to pass on his virtues to the next king. The second king, Nandus, who went down with his ship, is still mad as pants and is exploded by a shark. Marius eventually realizes that the only way he can get his (after)life back on track is to actually carry out the dead's orders.

The Corpse Rat King has a terrific ending as Marius and his now dead apprentice finally find a king willing and sane enough to take the job. They just have to get him out of his tomb first.

This book has some problems with pacing. Sometimes it seemed like there wasn't quite enough plot to sustain the length of the book. And Marius is far from admirable for most of the book. But Battersby has a knack for turning a phrase and his characters, thankfully, don't speak stereotypical medieval fantasy talk. They're snarky and realistic. But I did enjoy this trip on the lighter side of the genre.

11.19.2013

Something More Than Night, by Ian Tregillis

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 3 December 2013.

Something More
Than Night
I've been hoodwinked, snookered, hornswoggled by Ian Tregillis' Something More Than Night. The novel is bizarre. We have two narrators, both of whom are angels--but not the kind of angels we've met before. And then there's the murdered Archangel, Gabriel. The Jericho Trumpet is missing. The Metatron is pissed. On top of all this, it appears that the universe we know is only held together by the common imagining of the angelic Choir. There's a lot to take in. Just when I thought things were starting to make sense and I knew what had happened to Gabriel, there's a massive twist that turned everything I knew around.

The first narrator, Bayliss, is introduced just as Gabriel dies. He's a throwback to the detectives of noir novels, right down to his patter. He's on a little mission, in those opening chapters, to find a replacement for Gabriel. But things go wrong when he accidentally tags the sister of his original target, Molly. Molly the human dies and, in her place, is the angel Molly. Bayliss is a terrible mentor. He tells her to "lay low" and hurries off to try and figure out what happened to Gabriel. Molly has to pull him back when she's attacked by two monstrous Cherubim who are looking for something, but she has no idea what. Molly has to join the investigation or her short second life might turn out to be that much shorter.

Between the two of them, our two angels-cum-gumshoes turn up a heavenly conspiracy. There's a possibly crooked priest, damaged Plenary Indulgences, weird physics, and, somewhere in the middle of it all, the truth. I picked this book up because I adored Tregillis' Milkweed Trilogy, another story where the fate of the universe hung in the balance. Those books were a tangle, but more comprehensible than sections of Something More Than Night. There are passages where Bayliss and Molly talk about visiting the Pleroma, the wilderness where most angels make their home. All I could think as I read (or skimmed or, if I'm honest, skipped), was that Tregillis had eaten a physics textbook and thrown up in his word processor. I think PhD candidates in physics might be lost in some of those expositions. I got the impression that you didn't need to understand what was literally described, you were just meant to get a flavor of how this species experienced this version of reality.

I am glad I read Something More Than Night. It was original (though some of the plot points reminded me a lot of Kevin Smith's Dogma, but with less swearing). Bayliss entertained me. I identified with Molly's plight and perspective. The vocabulary was delicious. For all its problems, this book is much, much better than a lot of what's out on the bookseller shelves right now.

11.17.2013

The Stone Boy, by Sophie Loubière

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


The Stone Boy
What do you do when you witness a crime but no one will believe you? Hopefully, you wouldn't do what Madame Préau does in Sophie Loubière's The Stone Boy.

The novel opens with a fast montage of the life of Elsa Préau. She's a determined girl, later a determined woman. But I was left with the distinct impression that there was something off about her. She doesn't have the same emotional responses as you'd expect. She sends her husband away when their son was young, apparently because he couldn't devote as much time to her as she wanted. When M. Préau leaves for Canada, Elsa pushes ahead with her career and forging a relationship with her son, Martin. Time jumps forward again, to a disturbing incident in which Elsa and her grandsone, Bastien, eat some cake and lie down to sleep, drugged.

Loubière picks up Elsa's story some ten years after the unsettling picnic. She's returned to her old home after ten years in a hospital, though we're not told exactly why until much later. Elsa tries to settle in. She takes her medicine. She meets with her psychiatrist. She has awkward lunches with her son once a week. She's eccentric, but understandably eccentric. Elsa learns more about her changed neighborhood and writes letters to the mayor and others about the pollution, traffic, and noise. She seems like a well-meaning busy-body. One day, she sees three children playing in her neighbors' yard. Two are loud and boisterous. The third is wan and easily bullied. No one else seems to notice the child except Elsa. When she tries to tell the local child protective services about the third child, they can't find any record of his birth.

As Elsa tries to find out who the child is, because she fiercely believes in his existence, as a reader you start to wonder if the woman is losing her mind. She takes all kinds of herbal remedies and sleeping pills. She hears things and grows paranoid about all the technology around her. Are the pills having an effect on her sanity? Are the herbs causing a bad reaction? It's so easy to disbelieve Elsa.

The narrative picks up as Elsa speeds toward a confrontation with her neighbors, the Desmoulins. I wasn't expecting such a dramatic encounter, but it changed the book from a psychological thriller to a crime novel. Poor Martin Préau is left to pick up the pieces, again it seems. The revelations come fast and furious at this point, changing everything I thought I knew about the story and about the Préaus. The Stone Boy, though brief, is an amazing read.

11.16.2013

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Night Film
I finished reading Marisha Pessl's Night Film about an hour ago and I'm still a bit freaked out by the experience. I had no idea what I was getting into when I read the opening chapters. I thought I was getting a mystery. What I got instead was a mystery wrapped around a horror story inside of a philosophical and psychological exploration of the boundaries the human psyche.

Scott McGrath, when we meet him, is a disgraced journalist. Until he tangled with the notorious horror film director Stanislas Cordova, McGrath had a reputation for ruthless and daring investigations into drug cartels and political scandals. Now, he's divorced and can't get a job with any respectable publication. We meet him as he's jogging in Manhattan. As he runs, he sees a girl in a red coat who constantly disappears and reappears. McGrath is not even sure she's real. A day or so later, McGrath gets a call from his lawyer who tells him that Ashley Cordova, the daughter of his nemesis, is dead in apparent suicide. Pessl begins weaving an extraordinary web of characters, motives, lies, possible magic, devil worship, and fear. McGrath has allies, but Pessl keeps them firmly in the no man's land between objective truth and subjective reality. This is absolutely a book that rewards repeat readings. Though, having read the book once, I don't know if I'll ever figure this book out completely.

At the center of Night Film is the shadowy Stanislas Cordova and his equally unfathomable daughter, Ashley. We learn about the two partly through McGrath's quest and partly through clippings from newspapers and pages from a Tor site called the Blacklands, created for and by fans of Cordova père's films. Early in the book, McGrath contacts a film critic who is obsessed with Cordova's films. Beckman explains how to understand the man through his films and his sketchy biography. Everything starts with the strange home life of the Cordova family. As Beckman explains:
What you tend to find in the personal lives of brilliant men is devastation akin to a nuclear bomb going off. Marriages mangles. Children growing up as deformed prisoners of war--all of them walking around with holes where their hearts should be, wondering where they belong, what side they're fighting for. Extreme wealth, like the kind Cordova married into, only magnifies the size and scope of the fall out. (Location 705, Kindle edition)
Throughout the book, McGrath is trying to find out if Stanislas Cordova is evil or just a man drawn to the darker side of the mind. That mystery captured him even more than trying to figure out what really happened before Ashley died has. In truth, that happened to me, too.

Night Film is an incredible read on so many levels. First, the characters are startlingly original. I've never seen anyone quite like them. They're believable. The antagonists are chilling and sinister. You get to know the protagonists so well that I was genuinely afraid for them as they dug deeper into the Cordova family. But the beautifully brilliant thing about this book is the way it's written. I marveled as Pessl kept the characters (and me) guessing about what was really going on. There are two major twists at the end that kept me from saying, "Ah! That's what happened." I still don't know what happened, really. I've never encountered a book quite like this. And I adored the way that the mystery and horror came to mirror one of Cordova's films. There are just to many layers to this novel!

I hope that Pessl publishes again soon. But I'm going to read the next one with the lights on.

11.13.2013

Devil's bargain

Better to reign in hell, than serve in Heav'n. 
—John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I 
When I read about Amazon's offer to independent bookstores last week, that line from Paradise Lost immediately popped into my head. The trouble is that I don't know which side of Milton's quote this offer falls on. On the one hand, indie bookstores would make some money from the sale of kindles in their store. On the other hand, that offer doesn't last forever and there's the possibility that getting people introduced to ereaders will meant that readers buy even fewer print books.According to the Wired article I linked above, the offer has been rejected by many indie bookstores so far. I daresay a few might take Amazon up on their offer because it means they'll have some income coming in for a while.

Shakespeare and Company, still going strong.
There are so many questions this article has churned up for me. Are independent bookstores really the best place to try and sell tablets and ereaders? Bookstores are where the diehard readers go to get their next fix of print. Are ebooks taking off really? Most readers I know either prefer print or buy both print and online. What kind of income would that really bring in anyway?

The really big question, though, is what independent bookstores are going to do in the future? With reading rates declining and ebooks doing stead business, the outlook is dire. Would it be better for them in the long run to make a deal with the devil to survive for a little while longer? Or hold out and provide a unique experience for dedicated readers that Amazon can't?

11.11.2013

The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be published 29 January 2014.

The Zelmenyaners
I dread looking up early twentieth century Russian authors on Wikipedia. I so often enjoy their books--because of the setting, the turmoil, the pathos--that I don't want to know if they were one of the unlucky ones. But when I read The Zelmenyaners, I had to, because I had never heard of Moyshe Kulbak before. Kulbak, a master of Yiddish literature in Russia, was not one of the lucky ones. So as I neared the end of The Zelmenyaners, I felt an extra dose of regret that I wouldn't see any more of the serialized misadventures of the Jewish clan.

The Zelmenyaners was published in two parts, each serialized over a few years in the early 1930s in Shtern, a Yiddish publication. The first part is set mostly in 1929, in a city the editor identifies as Minsk. In the 1860s, a man named Zelmele from somewhere in "Deep Russia" set up a hoyf, a courtyard surrounded by houses that filled up with his descendants and their descendants. By the time we meet the family, the second generation is running the show. The family's misadventures (there's really no other word for them) are sketched broadly, but the sense that I got from the stories and the introduction was that they were also deeply satirical. By the end of the book, when the hoyf is being dismantled and the family scattered, it's hard not to see the hoyf as anything but a metaphor for Russia under the Communists.

Undated photo of Moyshe
Kulback, from The Jewish
There are no clear protagonists or antagonists in The Zelmenyaners, but many of the characters are their own worst enemies. Some are hypochondriacs. Some have prickly personalities. Some are terminally depressed. A few attempt to become proud Bolsheviks. If it weren't for the Russian Revolution, the family would have carried on living their way for decades or longer. No one could escape the changes, however, and the Zelmenyaner clan has to adapt eventually--even though Bolshevism and Communism (and electricity and radio) baffle most of the family members.

The stories are written in a vaguely chronological order, with frequent backtracking. But Kulbak eventually brings the various threads to order in the last stories in Part II. One of Reb Zelmele's sons, Folye, has stolen a hide from the tannery where he works. When he shows for his trial, once of his nieces, Tonke, gives a speech denouncing the whole family for their bourgeoiserie. Only in the mid-1930s in Russia would the family's way of life be seen as a crime. I felt pity for them mostly because they just kept getting in their own way.

The Zelmenyaners is a remarkable tale. It's remarkable that was published. It's remarkable that it wasn't lost when Kulbak was arrested and executed. I couldn't help but laugh as Kulbak elevated the family's shenanigans with semi-legendary language. But the history will catch up to you as you read it, as it caught up with everyone.  

11.10.2013

Heresy, by S.J. Parris

Heresy
As I read S.J. Parris' Heresy, a mystery featuring actual historic figure Giordano Bruno, I was transported back to a time and place in which there really was a war on religion. Bruno, a defrocked and excommunicated monk, was a humanist and a scientist who was on the run from the Catholic Inquisition. In Heresy, he is sent to Oxford on a mission by Francis Walsingham to root out Catholics plotting to remove Queen Elizabeth. Bruno is willing to go, because he has his own mission to undertake. He's been looking for a lost book by Hermes Trismegistus. The contents of that book may help him in his quest to understand an infinite universe.

The prologue shows us Bruno's last hours in San Domenico Maggiore, reading a forbidden (not just banned) text in the privy. He escapes mere minutes before an Inquisitor comes for him. His crime is not just that he thinks that earth goes around the sun, but that the universe contains other suns, planets, and possibly sentient species. Parris then jumps ahead 13 years and we rejoin Bruno in London. Within a chapter or two, Bruno gets his marching orders and away to Oxford we go. Almost as soon as he arrives, Oxford dons and students start to probe Bruno, to find out which side he's on and what they can safely say in front of him. Then, the subrector of Lincoln College is murdered, savagely, by a starving deerhound. Bruno begins a sub rosa investigation. Within a few days, two more Oxford men are dead.

Bruno figures out that the men have been murdered to look like martyrs from Foxe's Book of Martyrs (John Foxe's Actes and Monuments). Parris skillfully builds a tense mystery and I didn't see the resolution coming. Heresy is constructed like some of my favorite mysteries. It's told in the first person. We learn what's going as Bruno learns what's going on. Everything, every little clue and slip of speech, makes sense in the end, but there are still twists in the tale as Bruno tries to fit everything together. It's one of the best mysteries I've read for a long time.

11.04.2013

The canon is a lie

Worn books are loved books.
A search on Google for the 100 best books or 100 greatest books (or any variation you care to use) will bring up more than one list. Looking for a definitive list in the scholarly literature is futile, too. The Guardian has recently started publishing their own list, but I stopped paying much attention when they listed The Pilgrim's Progress at number one and Clarissa at number 4. Most literature wonks can agree that there is a canon, but no one can agree what's in it. I've been asked by students at my university's library more than once what the canon is and what's in it, and it kind of kills me that I can't answer them.

A better question would be, why do we need a canon anyway? I would argue that we do. A common literature gives us common references, a common education. But no one can agree on more than a few books because we all have such different ideas about what's good literature and what's important. The more I learn about literature outside of British and American writers, I realize how little the rest of the world is represented in the nebulous thing we call the canon.

It's a lot of fun to debate each other about what everyone should read, but I suspect that at true canon would be a really short list.

And Shakespeare would be on it.

And Austen.

And Dickens.

And...

11.03.2013

Solomon the Peacemaker, by Hunter Welles

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 1 January 2014.

Solomon the Peacemaker
Solomon the Peacemaker, by Hunter Welles, is like nothing I've ever read. It's written as the transcript of an interrogation. Vincent was arrested for something terrible, though we won't know what it is until near the end of the book. The words of the interrogator have been excised, but Vincent's dialog is so well written that you can work out the other side of the conversation. Because Vincent insists on telling his story in his own way, the story rolls out beautifully—until Welles hits us with the last twists of the tale and turns everything on its head.

In his first session, Vincent talks about how he and his first wife came to meet the Preacher. They're a normal couple of their time, the late 2100s. They work. They go out. They love each other. They're not very political, though they refuse to use the humanoid robots that other folks living in the Nodes have. When they meet the Preacher, something about the man's works spark Yael's desire to do something but her husband is still somewhat lukewarm. The Preacher convinces Yael to go Outside, beyond the Nodes, to see what life is like when it's not controlled by the AI, the Peacemaker.

No one seems to be sure where the Peacemaker came from, but the treaty that gave it authority to make international decisions and deploy nonlethal forces to enforce its rule. A Host is chosen every seven years to replace the debilitated human that has been carrying the Peacemaker around for the previous term. There is a Peacemaker Council, but the AI has no oversight. The Preacher believes the AI to be an abomination, something to be feared and destroyed. Vincent asks Yael to stay behind when the Preacher proposes another trip Outside, a request that turns out to save her life. The Preacher organized a suicidal attack on the Host House. It's not supposed to work in the traditional sense. It's supposed to show people that the Host will respond violently when forced.

When people fail to change their minds and Yael falls into a deep, fatal depression, Vincent grows to hate the whole system even more. By the time Vincent reveals his crime, its hard not to feel sympathy for him. The Peacemaker Treaty doesn't allow for change. The people who live in the Nodes are too comfortable to examine the AI's ethics or worry about what happens when a human's mind merges with machine. But then, I also ended up wondering if what Preacher and Vincent are working towards is really the best thing. How do you fight against peace, even if it comes at the nonexistent hands of an AI?

Solomon the Peacemaker is a fascinating novel, for so many reasons. The structure works so well. It's so convincingly written that you can easily imagine Vincent sitting in a sterile room with his faceless interrogator. The tangled ethics intrigue me. I actually wish that this book were a little longer.

The Fall of Saints, by Wanjikū na Ngūgī

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 25 February 2014.

The Fall of Saints
Wanjikū na Ngūgī's The Fall of Saints is fraught with race and reproductive conflicts, transformed into a thriller. The conflicts between black and white and the fertile and barren could have been rich ground for a novel, by na Ngūgī concentrated on the thriller aspects. This, unfortunately, is a book that could have been good. It falls short of being a good literary novel or a good thriller.

The Fall of Saints is narrated by Mugure Sivonen, a Kenyan immigrant who married a white lawyer. They love each other and very much want children, but Mugure is infertile. Instead, they adopt a boy from Kenya. Life is fairly idyllic for Mugure, though she doesn't know much about her husband's life and work outside of their home. She comes across a piece of paper in her husband's locked office with her son's name and the name of a company she's never heard of before scribbled on it. Mugure's husband, Zack, handled everything, and she realizes that she doesn't know much about where Kobi came from. After a bit of investigating, Mugure turns up some discrepancies in the paper work and finds out that the adoption agency they worked with has closed down. The stories don't add up.

While Mugure investigates, she starts to receive warnings from all sides, telling her to stop asking questions. It's a firm rule in fiction that when someone tells the protagonist to stop investigating, it's like catnip and the protagonist must find out what's going on. Eventually, she ends up flying to Kenya and uncovering a scandalous surrogate pregnancy scheme and worse.

This could have a been a much better book if it had more depth. Descriptions are brief or nonexistent. Plot zips by without introspection. Motivations remain unexamined. Cultural, racial, and biological rifts stay unmined. Even the betrayals and reversals don't shock because there is so much foreshadowing that you know what's coming well in advance.

11.02.2013

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an
Ugly Stepsister
I've been fascinated by fairy tales. It's not so much that the stories themselves that interest me. The Disneyfied versions in particular turn me off. What interests me are the origins of the stories. Some are cautionary tales that still resonate today. Others may be stories that really happened that turned into myth and legend over time. Gregory Maguire took the Cinderella story and turned back the clock to tell what might have actually happened in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.

Shortly before the great Tulip Crash in the late 1630s, two sisters and their mother flee the fens of England to Haarlem. Finding their family dead or gone, the mother, Margarethe, browbeats a local painter into taking them in. The daughters, Ruth and Iris, follow in her wake, get caught up in her schemes, and try to find a place for themselves. Ruth is a mute and treated as a burden by her family. Iris is intelligent, but described as painfully plain. In fact, the only reason the painter takes the family in is to paint Iris for his gallery of god's mistakes. The story that follows is told primarily from Iris' perspective. Through Iris' eyes, Maguire shows you how desperate things could get for women who got caught on the outside, with out family or, let's just say it, a man to take care of them. (In fact, there are hints that Margarethe and her daughters were chased out of England because the townspeople suspected Margarethe of witchcraft.)

Semper Augustus, the most
expensive tulip sold during
the tulip mania. The flower 
is referenced in this book.
Once in Haarlem, Margarethe sets about trying to climb the social ladder and improve her family's lot. She is ruthless, but understandable in her villainy. She's wants to make sure her family doesn't starve. When the painter gets a commission to paint the most beautiful girl in the village, the daughter of a tulip merchant, Margarethe sees the opportunity to jump to the next rung. She finagles her way into a position as the cook and housekeeper for the van den Meer family and Iris is given the task of befriending Clara van den Meer, who isn't allowed to leave the house.

Maguire follows the broad outlines of the Cinderella story. Clara's mother dies and Margarethe marries her father. The father is ruined during the mania and retreats into grief. Clara is given more and more household chores, though she actually seems happy not to be paraded around by her father and stared at by strangers. After some months pass, Marie de Medici, the dowager queen of France, arrives in Haarlem to seek a portraitist and a wife for her nephew, Philippe. A ball is held and Iris sneaks her stepsister, Clara, in, where Clara catches the eye of the prince. There are no supernatural elements in this story, but there are hints of the fairy tale to come in the mundane details.

I liked Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister much more than Wicked. I liked Wicked, too, but Maguire was much more hemmed in by the boundaries of The Wizard of Oz. Cinderella is a much more flexible story. Maguire had more room to explore the characters' motivations, to make the story more psychologically and historically believable. For a novel based on a fairy tale, there was so much realism in Confessions.

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

Three Parts Dead
One of the things that's always bothered me about the fantasy genre is that so many worlds are stuck in a medieval world, as though having magic means not having an industrial revolution. Humans are inventive creatures, after all. That's part of the reason I enjoyed reading Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone, so much. The world that Gladstone created is so rich and so unusual when compared to other examples of the genre that reading it is a breath of fresh air—at least until you start holding your breath when things get tense.

When we first meet her, our protagonist is falling through the air, having just been violently expelled from the flying Hidden Schools where she has been studying craft for years. Tara survives her fall and limps back home. Before long, Tara offends her home town by resurrecting the hired town guards and is rescued from the mob by a job offer. The offer takes her to Alt Coulumb, a sprawling city that has just suffered the loss of the god that powers everything. In Tara's world, everything runs on belief and god power. Gods barter their power to humans in return for worship, much like in our own world's religions but in a startlingly literal way. Without the god, the city will run out of power in a month. Worse, it becomes clear that someone managed to murder the god of Alt Coulumb. Tara and her new boss not only have to solve the case, but find a way to resurrect the god.

I loved reading Three Parts Dead because the author got so many things right. The characters are interesting and well drawn. The plot zips along, but has enough time to introduce the curiosities that the world's economy created. The setting is richly described. You can almost see and smell the city streets Tara and her allies prowl and race down. But the pace never gets bogged down by overwriting or over-philosophizing. It actually a little hard to write a good review of this book because I'm fighting the urge to gush. (I'm sure the author wouldn't mind.)

I took a sneaky peek at the plot summary for the next book in the series, Two Serpents Rise, because Gladstone has me hooked on this universe he created. That book features a different protagonist, which means that we're going to get a new perspective. I hope there are cameos from the characters in Three Parts Dead, but I'm intrigued enough that I want to learn more about the setting.