2.28.2014

Saga, Volumes I and II, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Once upon a time, a planet and its moon went to war. Because destroying the enemy would mean the victor would be destroyed too, the war moved to other planets. The wings and the horns and their allies have been fighting ever since. There is so much bad blood and so much is invested in the war that fighting will probably never stop. Both sides are taught to hate each other from childhood. It would take something remarkable to change the status quo.

Saga, Volume I
When volume I of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, begins, something remarkable has happened. Alana, one of the wings, is giving birth to a child conceived with Marko, one of the horns. Minutes later, soldiers storm in and try to kill them. Marko and Alana go on the run. Mercenaries are sent after them, with orders to kill them and kidnap their child. Vaughn and Staples let their story roam across worlds to introduce us to the hunters, their bosses, and the history that led us up to his point. One touch that I simply loved was that Hazel, Alana and Marko's daughter, also acts as a narrator in this story. She hints at what will happen later and raises the stakes of the story even higher.

Saga is full of wonderful characters and the universe they inhabit is stunningly rich. In just the first volume there are ghosts and rocketships made of trees, monstrous spider assassins, a cat that can tell when you're lying, magic, and sinister robots. I enjoyed volume I so much that I immediately bought volume II so I could see what happens next.

Saga, Volume II
In Volume II, Marko and Alana have been joined by Marko's parents--who were somewhat shocked to find that he'd married someone they considered the enemy. Marko's mother does not take it well. She gets even more irritated when her son rushes off to rescue their ghost babysitter. Alana and Marko are still being tracked across the galaxy, but this time another hunter has joined in: Marko's ex-fiancee, Gwendolyn. There's so much story packed into this volumes that trying to explain it here wouldn't do the story justice.

Besides, you need to see the artwork.

Talking about images on this blog is unusual for me. But, you kind of have to when you're reviewing a graphic novel. Fiona Staples' artwork is beautiful and bold; the colors are vibrant. I loved that its style is understated. Staples doesn't go for absolute realism, but each frame is incredibly detailed. The images do so much heavy lifting in Saga that I think a print only version would run to several heavy volumes to try and capture the sheer imagination at play here.

I can hardly wait for volume III to come out next month.

Sister Wolf, by Ann Arensberg

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley.

Sister Wolf
Once again, I return to the genre that is not a genre. Literary fiction is defined more by its writing style and what's not, more than anything else. Ann Arensberg's novella Sister Wolf is a hypnotic story about a woman trying to build an animal sanctuary on her family's land, the man who falls in love with her, and a tempest of mistrust and misunderstanding.

Marit Deym is the last descendant of a long line of Hungarian aristocracy. Her parents left the old country with some of their wealth before World War II, but did not leave their imperious manners behind. They bought a big spread in Massachusetts, complete with a Gothic house. Marit, a strange woman raised by stranger people, understands and loves animals more than humans. Marit's friend Lola is one of her few links to the rest of her species. Lola is the only person who can get Marit to leave her sanctuary (in both senses of the word). The sheriff doesn't like her and Marit worries that he's going to go ballistic when he finds out that she's rescued a pack of wolves.

One day, soon after the wolves arrive, one of the teachers at the blind school wanders into Marit's sanctuary. Gabriel (not blind) and Marit have an instant connection. Marit instantly tries to mess it up by becoming extremely jealous of Gabriel's ex-fiancee. Fortunately, he's a forgiving man and really wants to have more than sex with her.

This is what any summary of Sister Wolf will give you. This makes it sound like a possibly better than average love story. I would be remiss if I didn't say that the chronology is fractured. Arensberg takes us back and forth in time to Marit's parents to Lola's school days seducing other girls to Gabriel's life in Cuba as an aide worker. The language is just this side of overwrought. The dialog comes straight out of a bad play most of the time. I finished it, but I didn't enjoy this book.

2.23.2014

Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 22 April 2014. 

Afterparty
Where does belief in a higher power come from? Believers would say that a deity makes too much sense. Something can't come from nothing. Non-believers will say this belief is a trick of our minds. Prophets are schizophrenics and religion is a tool to comfort people. Daryl Gregory's Afterparty lives in the vexed territory in between these two warring viewpoints.

Sometime in the mid-2010s, a neuroscientist, a chemist, a lab tech, an IT geek, and a financier created NME 110. This drug was supposed to cure the neurological deterioration caused by schizophrenia. Instead, an overdose of the drug causes sustained, realistic hallucinations of the divine. When its creators overdosed and one of them was murdered, the group shattered. One became a recluse, another was sent to prison, and a third (our narrator), went to an institution to deal with her addiction and hallucination.

Lyda Rose, a neuroscientist, returns to the world after nearly a decade in a mental hospital after another inmate kills herself. Lyda believes that it was withdrawal from NME 110 that drove the girl to despair because it made her feel like the divine was leaving her. Though her doctor is very reluctant, Lyda gets her walking papers and a drug monitoring chip in her arm. The trail of NME 110 leads her to a strangely peaceful prison inmate turned preacher who is giving the drug away for free, to give people a little peace as long as their supply is not interrupted. Lyda is not the only one on the drug's trail. The Millies, a group of Afghani women who used micro loans to become marijuana dealers, are right behind her because they want to get rid of their competition. There is also a mysterious cowboy, under orders to follow Lyda and stop the distribution of NME 110.

As if this isn't enough, Lyda Rose also needs to make peace with her past. Gregory slowly reveals what happened the night the drug's creators overdosed and what happened to Lyda's wife, Mikala. Mikala's death haunts Lyda because she feels responsible. Lyda feels responsible for so much that even her new conscience, the angel Dr. Gloria, tells her to let things go. Her guilt hampers her relationship with Ollie, another mental patient whose abuse of a drug that enhances pattern recognition drove her deep into paranoia.

As a thriller, this book is great. The mystery is skillfully played, with plenty of twists and turns. It's incredibly well written. Gregory's first three books are great, but this one is incredible. As science fiction, Afterparty is original and well-designed. Psychopharmacology is endlessly fascinating to me. One chemical or protein or enzyme can mean the difference between schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, and neuronormalcy. In Lyda's world, recreational and pharmaceutical drugs are available everywhere now that dealers can "print" them with chemjets. The brain is surprisingly delicate, but capable of so many amazing things, like creating a personality.

What makes this book great is the question of what NME 110 does. Is Lyda's angel just an exceptionally powerful hallucination? There are hints that might make you think otherwise. Is NME 110 opening a channel to the divine, as so many users believe? Perhaps. Is there such a thing as free will? Maybe not. Gregory never gives you a definitive answer and I adore this. I'm going to be thinking about all the topics Afterparty raises for a while.

Dominion, by C.J. Sansom

Alternate history is a terrifying genre, because it asks a frightening question that can torment you for days, months, or years: What if? When an author asks this question about World War II, the torment can be excruciating. The Allied victory in World War II pivoted on so many different moments. If the Germans had found out about what was happening in Bletchley Park or if D-Day had failed or if Hitler's invasion of Russia hadn't been delayed, if any of a dozen other things had gone the other way...See. It's happening.

Dominion
C.J. Sansom asks one of these questions in Dominion. He goes back to 1940 to ask: What if Winston Churchill had not become Prime Minister? The English government at the time was full of proto-Fascists and pro-Germans who would have rather made peace and focused on maintaining the Empire than face another world war. And that's exactly what happens in Dominion. Churchill is passed over and Lord Halifax is made Prime Minister in a meeting during the prologue. Sansom then jumps twelve years into the future, to 1952, to show us what might have been.

This book should have worked. Parts of it are excellent, but there are significant editing and pacing problems. The first third of the book is repetitive. Several characters' backstories are told in flashback, then retold in dialogue, and sometimes mentioned again throughout the book. I sorely wished that I had had a red pen that I could have slashed out whole paragraphs to speed the story up. This book clocks in at over 600 pages. Vonnegut would have had a fit about wasting readers' time. Not only are backstories repeated, but history is given to us almost in lecture form by several characters. I understand why Sansom did this. His alternate Britain—bullied by Blackshirts and being dictated to by Germany—takes some getting used to. But it disrupts the illusion of realism. Would people who had lived under this since 1940 really recount (more than once) it all like a history professor?

Once Sansom starts to speed things up (around page 200), things get very exciting. At the heart of this book is a secret. That secret, leaked during a bout of confessional drunkenness by an American scientist to his British brother, might not have sparked an international incident were not for the fact that it was the secret of the atomic bomb. Frank Muncaster, a shy, reclusive astronomer, is horrified by his brother's revelation and accidentally pushes him out the window, ranting about the end of the world. He's sent to a mental hospital and his brother is arrested by the Americans. The British Resistance and the German Gestapo put two and two together and work out that Muncaster knows something. The Resistance dispatch civil servant David Fitzgerald and the Germans send Gunther Hoth to try and capture the scientist. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald is hiding his secret from his pacifist wife and the British Special Branch and pretty much everyone else in the British government.

The characters chase each other from Yorkshire to the Sussex coast, escaping just at the last moment and turning up where least expected. The middle 200 or so pages of this book are excellent, but things slow down again towards the end when Sansom has his characters remind each other of their pasts a few more times before trying to wind things up for the big finish.

The ending is, frankly, flat and anticlimactic. There is a big fight, but it's not at all satisfying. In the epilogue, Sansom returns us to where we started: in a room with Churchill and other politicians. I won't reveal the ending and ruin things for anyone who wants to read the book. I'll just say, try not to get your hopes up too much. I'm surprised that the other reviews I've read of Dominion don't mention the many problems. The other reviewers must have enjoyed the middle so much that they forgive the rest.

2.20.2014

The best love stories are the weird ones

In which I recommend some unusual love stories.

 

Still warily circling The Luminaries

I keep reading reviews and reader responses to Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, even though I finished it last September. I keep hoping someone will crack the mystery for me and meaning will spill out in a glorious shower of literary candy. So far, that has not happened. Some of the reviews are full of praise for the writing structure; others find that the structure overwhelms the story and that it's just too long. The other thing I look for when I read reviews of books I've read is confirmation that I'm not totally off base in my opinions.

Savidge Reads wrote a blog post last December that made me feel much better about my own reaction to The Luminaries. Big books don't intimidate me. But as I read The Luminaries, I constantly worried that I didn't know enough about astrology to understand the lunar structure of the book. Then I learned that the length of the sections was based on the lunar cycle and that the astrological elements didn't add much to the story, according to the people who know what having Mercury in the second house means*. These facts do make me feel a little cheated, though, as though the author pulled a fast one on me.

I read the book last September and I'm still trying to figure out what makes the fans love it so much. I don't know if it's because it won the Man Booker last fall, but this book refuses to fall off my radar. Most books that haunt me do so because the themes and events are so thought-provoking that it takes my brain a while to come to a conclusion and/or incorporate the new worldview into my existing one. This one, though. With this one, I guess I'm still trying to work out the trick.

___________

* I still don't.

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn
In the great opening chapter of Jamaica Inn, Daphne du Maurier introduces us to Mary Yellan and the Cornish moors. Mary has just lost her mother and is leaving her beloved valley to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn, halfway between the towns of Bodmin and Lauceston. As the coach draws nearer, she learns from her fellow travelers that the Inn has a terrible reputation. No one stops there anymore. In fact, they try to dissuade Mary from going there. Rain falls and wind howls outside the couch. Du Maurier draws the landscape so well that I could easily picture the gray moors and rocky tors. By the time Mary arrives at the Inn, I felt almost as trepidation as she did.

Jamaica Inn is owned by Joss Merlyn, Mary's uncle by marriage. He's a blustering, violent man who has terrified Mary's aunt Patience into a shadow of her former self. Joss warns Mary not to ask questions and tells her to curb her curiosity. Of course, our stubborn heroine does nothing of the sort because the inn is almost deserted most of the time. The rooms aren't made up for visitors. One room is locked and barred entirely. The inn only sees business on weekends and only from the roughest men in the country. Late one night, Mary hears Joss and a few of his friends outside the inn. They've got wagons that they hurriedly unload, load with some other cargo, and scatter. Later, Mary overhears Joss and his gang talking about a new plan. When one member objects, he is murdered. Mary doesn't witness the murder itself, but she find the hanging rope before Joss can hide it.

The actual Jamaica Inn, built around 1750.
Mary wants no part of any of this, but her aunt's nervous condition holds her in place. Until she can find a way to break Patience free of Joss, Mary refuses to leave. She's in no danger from Joss as the man seems to respect her for standing up to him. Joss only respects strength. He's obsequious to those above him, but brutal to anyone he thinks is weaker. I was astonished by the sympathy in du Maurier's portrayal of the man. When Joss drinks, he talks, and we learn about his terrible childhood and the guilt he feels at his crimes. His brother, Jem, confirms what Joss says about their parents. Mary feels more disgust for Joss than sympathy, but Joss is purely villainous. In fact, by the end of the book, we learn that Joss is not the gang's leader. There's someone else pulling the strings.

While all of this is going on, Mary is attracted by Joss's younger brother, Jem. Their first meeting is not auspicious. If I had been Mary, I would have punched Jem in the nose. He's irritating and makes bad choices, but there's something about him that strikes sparks with Mary. She also meets the vicar of Altarnun, a nearby village. Frances Davey is an albino and, while he seems like an ally, there's something about his coldness that puts Mary off.

You'll never get a chance to catch your breath while reading Jamaica Inn. The action just steams past. Just as Mary learns that Joss is a smuggler, she learns that he's also a wrecker. The local squire gets involved. There's news that the British military will get involved. The walls are closing in around Joss. And then there's the mysterious mastermind. The unusual ending is the perfect note to cap it all off.

2.17.2014

Dear Dear Book Nerd

Last night, I listened to the third episode in Rita Meade's (@ScrewyDecimal) charming Dear Book Nerd podcast, "A Matter of (Book) Taste." The podcast began as a column, but it works well as a podcast. The premise is that readers send in their book etiquette or bookish questions to librarian Rita Meade for advice. Questions in the past have included what to do if your significant other won't read the book you gave them, dealing with non-reading families, and how to "force" oneself into reading literary fiction, among many others. In the podcast, many of the questions revolve around the self-imposed dilemma of reading what one wants to read versus reading the kind of books that one thinks one* ought to read.

Reading is the important thing. Don't
let others judge you for your books.
Meade and her co-hosts have been exhorting people to ignore the question of should. I agree. Reading books you think you should will kill a love of reading faster than a rampaging horde of Twilight fans trying to talk you into loving sparkly vampires (unless you're into that sort of thing).

I don't know if this theme of Read What Thou Wilt is intentional or not. It doesn't really matter. It's a great message. Of course, we'll never get past the question. No matter how much I might agree with Read What Thou Wilt, I'll press myself and others to read outside their comfort zone because it's good for you, like broccoli.

The other thing that continues to fascinate me about the whole Dear Book Nerd concept is the issue of reader etiquette. While the act of reading may be a solitary pursuit, being a reader is social. We want to talk about books and share our passion for print with others. But there is no rule book. Emily Post neglected to cover our weird little world. Thankfully, we now have Rita Meade.

Over the past few weeks, encouraged by Dear Book Nerd, I've been seeking out more bookish podcasts. Now I listen to the BookRiot podcast and Unprintable from LitReactor. It probably speaks to my own geeky bookishness that I enjoy these podcasts so much, especially BookRiot and Dear Book Nerd. The hosts are unabashed about questioning methodology like good librarians and academics and parsing the meaning behind people's word choice. Remarkably, none of these series take themselves too seriously. Podcasts like these could become unbearably pretentious. So far, so good.

__________

* Apologies for all the "ones." I've been in literary Britain for the last two books I've read. I was in Iceland for the book before those two, but it was translated by a Brit.

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 17 June 2014.
The Quick

Having finished reading Lauren Owen's The Quick, the only conclusion I can actually make about it is that it has no center. By the end of the book, you'll have met a mad Victorian scientist, a pair of orphans, vampires and vampire hunters, street children, politicians, lovers, and more. The style of The Quick runs the gamut of the Gothic, and you'll get a taste of horror, family drama, and high adventure. All this happens in more than 500 pages, but there's no anchor to the book.

Let me start at the beginning. Sometime in the 1870s, we meet the Norbury children. Charlotte, the older, cares for her younger brother, James, and helps educate him. Their widower father ignores them and only returns home to Aiskew Hall to die. James leaves for college, then moves to London in around 1889 or 1890. He falls in love with his roommate, Christopher Paige. When the two run away together to get away from Christopher's family's disapproval, they are attacked and Christopher is killed. As James bleeds to death, Owen whisks us decades back in time through Augustus Mould's diary. Mould has been engaged by his friend, Edmund Bier, to make a study of the curious physical strengths and limitations of the members of the Aegolius Club. Though the word is not mentioned, it's clear that the members are vampires. Owen shifts back to James a few times, as he lies dying and is later transformed, but mostly lets Mould tell the next large section of the story.

As Mould's story catches up to the early 1890s, Owen lets street child turned vampire Liza show us how the other half of the vampires live. There is an alternately hot and cold war between the rich vampires of the Aegolius Club and the poor of Salmon Street. The poorer vampires came off the better in the last battle, though the richer vampires "police" the poorer so that none of them draw public attention. After Liza tells her part of the story, Owen returns to Charlotte Norbury. After Charlotte's aunt dies and James fails to respond to her telegrams, she sets off to London to find him. At this point, Owen cycles through her narrators to tell the tale of the Aegolius Club's experiment and Charlotte's quest to find a cure for her brother. As the narrators change, the style of the story changes. This helps give the characters distinct voices, but leaves the overall story fractured.

The Norburys are a point of intersection for all the other characters. But because the brother and sister rarely meet and are working towards different goals, they don't provide an anchoring point for the rest of the book. The Quick would have worked better for me if Owen had made one or the other the primary protagonist and told the story from their perspective—or mostly from that perspective. I wonder if Owen was trying for a Dickensian chorus, which multiple linked characters as narrators. If so, that attempt fails here. In Dickens, there is a single central character who ties everything together. Structurally, this book doesn't work for me. But The Quick does have originality and a great ear for dialog to recommend it.

2.16.2014

Vindication

I receive vanishingly few comments on this blog. The analytics tell me that my posts are being read, but I'm broadcasting my book thoughts rather than having a conversation with anyone. So when someone does comment, I get giddy. When an author comments, I lose my tiny mind.

Last week, GoodReads let me know that someone had commented on one of my reviews and I had the lovely treat of seeing this:


Happy Valentine's Day to me!

2.15.2014

Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indriðason

Silence of the Grave
We forget that we're walking around on history. Our ancestors built many of the buildings. They walked around on the same streets. They're buried under the ground. Arnaldur Indriðason's Silence of the Grave reminds us of the stories that are hidden under our feet.

It begins with a bone. It is gruesomely being used as a teething toy by a baby. When a medical student discovers the rib bone at a child's birthday part, he sets off the resurrection of a grim story from Second World War Iceland. A body, its hand reaching out as if trying to dig its way out, is found on a desolate hill top on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson and his team are called in to find out who the body was. A team of archaeologists set up shop, slowly uncovering the remains and sifting for forensic clues. At the same time, Indriðason tells the story of a woman who is so abused and terrorized by her husband that she can find no way out.

Indriðason shifts back and forth between the two tales, and adds a complication for Erlendur. The inspector's daughter, Eva Lind, suffered placenta abruptio. Her child is stillborn and she is in a coma. The doctors don't know when, or if, she'll wake up. The doctors tell Erlendur that she can hear him if he talks to her. Lacking anything else to say, Erlendur tries to explain why he left his family so many years ago. He also talks about his case and his obsession with old missing persons cases.

While we learn more about Erlendur, Indriðason keeps his secrets about who is buried on the hill and what happened to the woman with the abusive husband until near the end of the book. I had no idea if that story would have a terrible ending or if, against all odds, the unnamed woman and her children manage to escape. I had to read the whole book in one sitting just to find out.

At the beginning of Silence of the Grave, Indriðason's characters remark several times that Reykjavik's sprawl is uncovering all sorts of secrets. Some would say that secrets are better left buried. Erlendur's deputing, Sigurdur Óli, certainly agrees. Almost everyone involved is probably dead. With no one left to punish, what does it matter if the body is a murder victim or not? It's a great question and I'm glad that Erlendur answers it the way I would have. No matter how long this person was buried or how they got there, their story should be told.

2.09.2014

Book counseling; Or, Reading misery loves company

A few weeks ago, a work friend asked me to read a book for the sole purpose of having someone to talk to about the ending. Because I've been that person before, I read the book: Veronica Roth's Allegiant. The next day, the friend asked if I had read Allegiant yet. I said no, because while I'm a fast reader, I'm not that fast. I have to get some sleep in order to function at work. Caffeine can only take you so far.

The weekend passed. I read the book on Saturday night.

Reading late is nothing new.
On Monday, I told my friend that I'd read the book. We had a thirty minute or so conversation about what worked and didn't work and what we would change. At the end of the conversation, the friend admitted relief that I thought pretty much the same things about the book that he did. Relief. What a curious emotion to feel after talking to someone about a book.

I probably would have read the book anyway. I'd read the first two in the trilogy, after all. But I mostly read the book because it's so rare that I can talk to someone (not on the Internet) about a book. After talking the book over, I felt like a book counselor*, helping someone get over the trauma of Allegiant's ending. (Yes, we could have put the book in the freezer, but we didn't have one handy.)

Of course, it might have been a plot to share the misery of the book's ending around. I've done that. I talked a friend into reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena just to share the emotional impact of the book around. I didn't want to be the only person rocked by this book. I've since talked two other people into reading the book. (I don't regret this so much since I learned about Josh Hanagarne's What Not to Read Club.)

I don't really recommend spreading misery around as a motive for giving book recommendations. You'll kill someone's love of books eventually. The whole experience, though, has got me thinking about the social ties readers can form. Reading is a solitary activity, but I haven't met a reader who didn't want to talk to anyone who would listen about books and reading. We've all had books that touched us deeply and that can lead us to reach out to one another, to share the magic.

__________

* I'd say book therapist, but that's been claimed, apparently.

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, by Peter Ackroyd

London Under
Peter Ackroyd's brief London Under is the kind of history I adore. It's weird, jumbled, and astonishing. London Under was written after Ackroyd's London: The Biography, presumably using information and trivia that didn't make the cut in the larger work. I'm glad Ackroyd wrote it, because this stuff is too good not to share.

Each chapter focuses on a different category of things Londoners have found or made while digging under their streets: burial grounds, shrines, old wells, sewers, subway tunnels, etc. Nothing is presented in chronological order. This may annoy some readers, but I think it makes sense for the book. London has been around for so long and people have been digging underneath it for so long it only makes sense that the layers of history are out of order. Of course, this lack of "order" makes it look like Ackroyd's brain overflowed onto the page after all his research. I have no problem with this.

There is another challenge to some readers. If you're not familiar with London's geography, you may want to have a map handy as Ackroyd follows the path of a now buried river using water-related street names and wandering urban pathways. But that leads me to another thing that I like about this book. Names are curiously long lived in England. Many of the road names refer to things that aren't there anymore, many of them supposedly healing wells. Londoners also preserve their history with the subway tunnels; they often follow ancient roads to avoid disturbing archaeological remains.

First trial underground railway, 1862. (Via London Courant)
That last is a recent development. During the nineteenth century, many Roman and medieval finds were destroyed to make room for something new. In one chapter, Ackroyd writes of some workmen who stumbled onto a Roman shrine, complete with a spring that still flowed, sometime in the middle of the 1800s. They demolished it. Being American, I can't fathom people who destroyed the history of a city that's been around for millennia. (Eddie Izzard once quipped, "I'm from Europe, where the history comes from.") I wonder how much was lost as the Brunel family (and the others that followed) tunneled their way under London and the Thames in the 1850s and '60s.

At a little more than 200 pages, London Under is a fast, delightful read for weird history nuts like me. I wish Ackroyd had spent more time on the ancient discoveries than he did. The thrust of this book seems to be that Londoners just can't help tunneling and digging under their city, rather than focusing on the amazing things that have been found in the process.

2.08.2014

The Coming, by Andrej Nikolaidis

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

The Coming
It's a quirk of the human brain to look for patterns, even where none actually exist. We can find causes and justifications for just about everything. This happens because of that. That happened because of something someone said, etc., etc. Andrej Nikolaidis plays with that idea in his novella, The Coming.

The world has gone strange in Nikolaidis story. Though it's the middle of summer, there's snow everywhere. Cities are drowning. Earthquakes plague California. In the Montenegrin city of Ulcinj, life bumbles along as it usually does in the Balkans--roughly and periodically violent. One of our narrators, a private detective, is trying to work out who killed the Vutkovic family. The detective specializes in comforting his clients rather than seeking justice. The other narrator, Emmanuel, writes to the detective from his room at a mental institution.

The detective uses his knowledge of Ulcinj and its people to find the culprit. Emmanuel, though he is far away, is full of trivia about the history of the town. Ulcinj used to be a lightning rod for people who claimed to be messiahs. Emmanuel has a strange theory that everything is connected to the Vutkovic murders. As Nikolaidis wove his story, I started to wonder if Emmanuel might not be right after all. People have long memories in the Balkans, after all, and coincidence can be found everywhere if you're looking for it.

It takes a few chapters to get your bearings in The Coming, and the complex narrative required concentration. It's been a while since I had an opportunity to exercise the skills I learned as a young English major. There are motifs and symbols repeated in The Coming that add depth to the brief story. There is plenty of ambiguity to serve as fodder for explication and reader theories.

Altai, by Wu Ming

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

Altai
Wu Ming is the pseudonym adopted by four Italian writers. Altai is their second book, after Q. Both are set in sixteenth century, in the chaotic world of empires and city states and religions and Reformation. Altai opens in 1568, when Venice's arsenal explodes one bright morning. Emmuele de Zante leaps into action to find the culprits. When he reveals to his boss that it was just an attempt by the arsenal workers to get a raise, de Zante is told that Venice demands a "perfect culprit." The explosion must have been the work of Ottoman agents. Our hero realizes that he has to flee because that perfect culprit is himself.

De Zante returns to Ragusa, where he was born but cannot stay because there are Venetian agents all over the Adriatic looking for him. Before long, he is "rescued" by men working for someone he believes is his nemesis, Yossef Nasi. De Zante has no choice but to work for Nasi and spill his secrets to the Ottoman Sultan's adviser. Strange as it might seem, de Zante finds himself while working for Nasi. He doesn't have to hide his Jewish roots. He is free to take back his original name: Manuel Cardoso. Cardoso's skills has a spycatcher and investigator stand him in good stead in his new work.

Battle of Lepanto, 1571
Nasi has great plans. These great plans involve arranging for the Sultan's janissaries to invade Cyprus. Not everyone is keen on the plan, but Cardoso helps his rescuer the best he can. Nicosia falls, but Cardoso is sent as an observer when Famagusta puts up unexpected resistance. In Constantinople, Cardoso found a place where Jews and Christians and Muslims could live together in peace, if not harmony. He had to hide his origins in Venice. But in Famagusta, however, the scales fall from his eyes when the commander of the Ottoman army takes revenge on the people of Famagusta for their losses. As I read this part of Altai, a name from the history books floated through my mind. Lepanto could not be far off in the future. Knowing what I do about Lepanto, I knew that things could not end will for Nasi. I was not expecting the twist at the very end. I am always taken by surprise at European writers' willingness to write an unhappy ending.

When I finished Altai, I was surprised to find that a book of this scope and richness was less than 300 pages long. The chapters are brisk, but the language is so evocative that I could see Venice and Constantinople in my mind as I read. The dialog is marvelous. We've lost the habit of speaking in metaphors and allusions, I think. The dialog is also peppered with Italian and Turkish and the myriad languages of the Balkans, to provide even more verisimilitude. There is so much crammed into Altai and it all sounds like the work of one author. I'm astounded by how well the four authors of Wu Ming work together. I highly recommend Altai.

2.04.2014

No take backs; Or, J.K. Rowling helps future English majors cheat

There used to be a time when, once an author finished their last interview and gave their last reading, they would move on to their next project. They might write a sequel or (book gods forbid!) a prequel. Then time would pass and the critics would have their turn at explicating the author's work. Even more time would pass and it would be the English majors' turn. No more. At least, no more in J.K. Rowling's case.

Harry Potter and the Author Who Wouldn't
Leave Well Enough Alone
First, there was the revelation that Dumbledore was gay. Then, this week, Rowling dropped the bombshell that she regretted who she paired up at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. When I first read the story in The Guardian, I was reminded of George Lucas' edited re-release of the original Star Wars series*. The Harry Potter series is gaining the iconic status that Star Wars and other beloved series have. There are fans that known the stories so well they can quote passages, answer the most obscure trivia, and come up with incredible ideas about what might be happening outside of the explicit text.

As I tried to adjust to the idea that Rowling changed her mind about the pairings at the end of the series, it was this last point that stuck with me. I can't think of any other author who has regretted something like this about their books**. It's her story, of course. What bothers me is that these revelations take a lot of fun out of the series for readers. By telling us what the subtext really is, readers aren't allowed to freely exercise their imaginations. In a sense, it's like watching the movie adaptation and getting the actor's face stuck in your head instead of being able to imagine what the character looks like.

The other problem with Rowling's revelations is that it opens her up to conflict with the massive Harry Potter fan base. Like Ray Bradbury arguing with fans over the meaning of Fahrenheit 451, we now have the awkward situation of readers responding to an author by saying they are flat out wrong about the characters they created.

I have always though that, when an author is done, a book really belongs to the readers who love it. Which means, authors, when a book is published: no take backs.

__________

* Han shot first. 
** I'm sure there are cases; I just don't know about them.

The Time Tutor, by Bee Ridgway

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

The last time I wrote about a short story was as an undergraduate. I am obscurely worried that this review will be longer than the story. GoodReads says the printed edition will be 90 pages, but that's a short story to someone who used to only buy books that had spines one inch or wider.

The Time Tutor
When I saw that NetGalley was offering The Time Tutor by Bee Ridgway, I leapt at the chance to read it. I adored her debut novel, The River of No Return. I wanted to learn more about the world she created, in which some people are born with the ability to travel up and down the River of Time. You will need to have read The River of No Return to fully understand this story. Ridgway doesn't waste word count on explaining how the time travelling ability works or who the Guild or the Ofan are. This is an incredibly fast read, so there's almost no time to pick things up from context, either.

The Time Tutor opens on Alva Blomgren giving in to a man who has been pursuing her for months. It's very late (or very early in the morning) after a party thrown by their mentor, a high ranking member of the Guild. Alva desperately wants to learn to use her native time travelling talent. Unfortunately, her mentor, Hannelore, keeps stalling and putting her off. The morning after the party, Hannelore offers Alva the chance to take the next step, but only if she can unmask the Ofan traitor in their midst.

Once Ridgway sets up the premise, she is off and running. Ridgway has her heroine uncovering plots and secrets left and right, travelling from the eighteenth century to the twelfth to the twentieth and back again—all in the so-skimpy 90 pages. All this and Ridgway also has Alva meet and fall in love, too. The Time Tutor is a blur. It ended before I was ready for it, even though I could see my kindle app ticking down paragraph by paragraph.

I think The Time Tutor would have been much better if Ridgway had let it grow into a novella or a novel. With more length, characters could have been more developed. The blur of events could have expanded into plots twists and wonderful set pieces. There just aren't enough words in this story.

2.02.2014

Serendipity; Or, a post about two different, but related, things

January is the traditional month of resolutions. It seems only fitting that someone would eventually come up with an anti-resolution. At the same time GoodReads is urging readers to set themselves a challenge for 2014, Rebecca Shinsky and Rita Meade are telling readers that not only is it okay to drop your to-read lists, it's good for your mental health to do so. In the inaugural episode of Meade's Dear Book Nerd podcast, Meade and her co-host assure listener Kyle that he will be much happier reading as he pleases in his finite reading time. Shinsky, writing a week later, gives the same assurance.

These two items, coupled with the fact that I have a co-worker who insists on only reading the "best"* in his remaining years and a second co-worker who reads the books I recommend to her in the order that I recommend them, got me to thinking about my own to-read list. For years, I haven't thought of it as a list, as such. Rather, my list is a pool to draw from when I finish what I'm reading. I read what I'm in the mood now, and I'm much happier for it. I usually have an idea what I'm going to read next; what I'm going to read after that is entirely up in the air. Worrying about what you should be reading will take all the fun out of the thing. After all, we read what our teachers told us to in junior high, high school, and college, which is bound to kill the love of reading in most people if they don't find their gateway book**.

The fact that I read whatever I'm in the mood for brings me to the second thing I wanted to write about. Every few months, I will unintentionally pair up two books that are weirdly meant to be read together. This time, it was Allegiant, by Veronica Roth***, and Hyde, by Daniel Levine. One is the young adult book of the day. The other is a dark retelling of a classic horror novella. They couldn't be further from each other on the surface. Yet, both are explorations of the unsolvable psychological dilemma of nature versus nurture. More than that, they both take the opposite position. Allegiant proposes that genes are the root of character and behavior. Hyde argues that it's all in the upbringing. As a librarian with access to too much data, I would say that the truth is somewhere in the middle. The pairing of the two books was a wonderful moment of serendipitous reading.

And now, to link the two things into something coherent: Don't adhere to a strict to-read list. Read idiosyncratically and create opportunities for serendipity in your reading. If nothing else, it will give you wacky ideas for literary papers.

__________

* Whatever that means. Stories can only be judged subjectively, after all.

** My term for the magical book that hooks someone on reading for the rest of their lives. The fact that some people never find this book is immeasurable sad to me.

*** I can't write a review of this book because I would have to talk about the ending. And I can't talk about the ending without spoiling it. So, there you go.

Hyde, by Daniel Levine

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 18 March 2014.

Hyde
In November 2012, inspired by the BBC retelling, I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I've once more been given a chance to see a modern retelling of the unsettling novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. Both the BBC's Jekyll and Daniel Levine's Hyde, seek a more scientific (though outlandish explanation) for Dr. Jekyll's condition than Stevenson's certain salt compound. In Jekyll, the dual personality was the result of a lingering genetic condition caused by Dr. Jekyll's chemical tinkering. In Hyde, the explanation is psychological.

Hyde is a tale of madness. There are no dialog markers. Time and memory are fluid. Personality itself is not fixed. But, after 128, we finally get to hear Hyde's side of the story. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is narrated entirely by the doctor and only gives us glimpses of what Hyde did when he was in possession of their shared body. That story is a tale of a good man overcome by his evil side. When we finally get to hear from Hyde, everything becomes much more ambiguous. By the time the book opens, Hyde has been hiding in Dr. Jekyll's office and surgery for some months, trying to keep up the pretense that the doctor is still around. He knows it will not end well, as he has been witnesses beating a member of Parliament to death. Dr. Jekyll whipped up a dose of cyanide for his other half, so Hyde takes some pride in the fact that he can end his story on his own terms.

From that doomed beginning, Hyde takes us back to his first memories. After working with a patient in France who had three distinct personalities, Dr. Jekyll concocted a drug that could force the unfortunate Emile Verlaine to shift to any of his other two selves. Jekyll, a curiously precocious psychiatrist for the 1880s, worked out that Emile's alternate personalities were the result of terrible abuse the man had suffered as a child. This abuse curiously mirrors the abuse that Jekyll himself suffered at the hands of his demented father. Verlaine ends up a suicide and Jekyll returns to England with his formula. It becomes clear that Hyde is not new. He's been lurking in Jekyll's psyche all his life.

Hyde revels his life in memories. He uses Jekyll's money to by the crumbling house behind the doctor's own home. He finds someone to love: an underage prostitute named Jeannie. The separate lives of Hyde and Jekyll might have worked were it not for Hyde's instability. He starts to lose time. Hyde finds mysterious and malevolent notes stuff through his letterbox. Then Hyde is implicated in a ring of underage prostitution. When Jekyll's friend the MP, Carew, offers to keep the doctor out of the investigation because of his association with Hyde, Jekyll uses Hyde to murder the man. Then the house of cards all comes tumbling down.

In this retelling, neither Jekyll nor Hyde is purely good or bad—something the author notes at the end of the book. In the author's note, Levine writes that the original story was somewhat forced into the Good versus Evil allegory. When I read Stevenson's novella, I thought that the real monster was always inside Jekyll and that the formula just let him shut down his superego for a while. In Levine's version, Hyde is not pure id or subconscious. I'm more satisfied by this version of events that Stevenson's cryptic story intellectually. It makes more sense to me this way.  But, be warned. Hyde is hard to take at certain points. The story is no longer filtered by Dr. Jekyll's Victorian sensibilities and need to appear blameless. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a dark tale. Hyde is even darker. The level of abuse that could case a personality to shatter is always horrific. You learn of some of that in Hyde, though Hyde continues to protect Jekyll and shelters the reader by not being explicit.

Daniel Levine does an incredible job with his retelling. Other attempts to give famous literary figures a back story, as Ronald Frame tried to do in Havisham, tend to fail because there are too many limits to what they can do. Levine took the events mentioned in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and ran with them. Stevenson left the alter ego's comings and goings and doings ambiguous enough that Levine has more than enough room to play around in.

2.01.2014

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

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

An Officer and a Spy
A good work of historical fiction doesn't need to embroider what really happened to make it more interesting. History, if the writer chooses their tale wisely, is interesting enough all on it's own. The tale Robert Harris chose to tell in An Officer and a Spy is almost too interesting for fiction. Even a century later, the Dreyfus Affair still has the power to shock and dismay.

We meet Major Georges Picquart on 5 January 1895, when Alfred Dreyfus is publicly stripped of his insignia before being shipped off to Devil's Island in the south Caribbean. Shortly thereafter, Picquart is promoted to colonel and placed at the head of the Statistical Section. The Statistical Section is the French army's intelligence division and Picquart is reluctant to become a spy. The position means reading other men's mail and stealing their trash. The section is used to operating fast and loose, as Picquart soon discovers. His reforms are greeted with trepidation and wariness on the part of the officers already there. The staff are willing to put up with their new boss until new intelligence is revealed that there is still a spy in the French army.

Marie-Georges Picquart
When Picquart digs into the matter, the evidence leads him to believe that another man, one Charles Walsin Esterhazy, is the actual spy. Further, the evidence shows that Dreyfus was an innocent man all along. No one wants him to investigate. Nearly everyone he turns to tells Picquart to let the matter drop. Picquart, historically, was a man of honor who could not let the case go. He musters as much help as he can and sets to work. The case against Esterhazy builds and builds. Esterhazy was a gambler and a debtor, who could never rise on his own because of his bad temper and fantasies. In truth, even the Germans didn't want him as a spy because of his character and because he could never get any useful material to pass on anyway. Given how big a deal everyone made at the time, you'd think Dreyfus had been accused of passing on the entire French playbook. The spy (which turned out to be Esterhazy) only managed to send part of an artillery manual and notes about a few other things.

Alfred Dreyfus' hut on Devil's Island
Picquart grows frustrated at his lack of progress, then angry at his superiors when they refuse to reopen the case. The book, and history, take a turn when those superiors decide to strike back at him. Picquart is sent on "inspections" that take him further and further away from Paris. The pretense is abandoned when he fetches up in Tunisia with the Tunisian Rifles. The final straw comes when Picquart receives orders that send him into an area boiling with angry, armed Touareg and Arabs. He arranges a week's leave in Paris, where he decides to leak what he knows to his lawyer. The lawyer takes it to a senator renowned for his honesty. And then, the wheels of justice start to turn again.

The last third of An Officer and a Spy are a tense legal thriller. I didn't cheat and look at Wikipedia once as the army and the lawyers and the spies fought each other in court. Actual history lets Harris down a bit by cheating him out of a definitive ending. But then, real life is never as tidy as fiction.

Not only does Harris revive an incredible and relevant story in An Officer and a Spy, but his tale of turn of the century spycraft fascinated me. It's incredible what Picquart and the other members of the Statistical Section were able to accomplish before electronic surveillance and computer hacking and encryption. It's such a different shadow world than the one I learned about in Le Carré and Forsyth and the rest of the genre. While the book starts slowly, I was completely riveted by the halfway point.