Books I've read recently (3 month edition).
"Spook Country" follows the lives of three different characters over the course of a few months. Those characters are Hollis Henry, former singer for a semi-famous rock band who is now writing an article about locative art for a European magazine called Node; Tito, an illegal immigrant from a large family of Cubano-Chinese criminals who often do work for Russians; and Milgrim, an Ativan addict who is capable of translating Russian and has been kidnapped by the sadistic spook Brown, who seems like he might be an FBI, CIA, or DEA agent, but might be something a good bit worse than that. These three characters spend most of the book having no involvement with each other, but the common thread that ties them together is a conspiracy involving tracking a package. I can't really explain further without giving away the whole book--as with "Pattern Recognition", Gibson has woven the narrative of "Spook Country" in a manner that throws the reader right into the thick of things with no backstory given and requires them to figure out all the necessary information they need in order to understand the plot of the book from subtle details scattered along the way.
This form of narrative can be frustrating to some people, but I'm the sort of person who derives a strange enjoyment from such things, so I looked at it as a challenge and ended up enjoying the book immensely. I felt like it was easier to figure out than "Pattern Recognition" also, but that might just be because I came into the book expecting a complex plot that I had to figure out, and so was better prepared to deal with what was presented to me. When compared to early Gibson work like "Neuromancer", "Spook Country" seems very different, both in plotting style and in the sort of speculative fiction that it even represents. "Neuromancer" was a noir novel set in a future dominated by cyberspace, and its dystopian tone, which fit well with its noir/crime plot, helped establish the template for what would be called cyberpunk. "Spook Country" is not cyberpunk at all, and takes place in the present day rather than in the future, but with its plot that's constructed around the use of cutting-edge technology and the unraveling of a complicated puzzle, it retains much of the same noirish dystopia and futuristic outlook that were such a big part of "Neuromancer". In so doing, "Neuromancer" proves that William Gibson, despite now writing in a very different style than he once did, is still on the same mental track as always. And as always, the work he produces as he journeys down that track is excellent and well worth any time invested in it.
Fifty To One, by Charles Ardai
If I were the type who only gave books five-star ratings when they were obvious classics of English literature, I'd give this book maybe three stars at the most. Thankfully, I'm not that type. I'm giving this book five stars, and that's because it was a tremendous joy to read from the first page to the last. There's a bit of a gimmick to it--in this, the 50th book released by Hard Case Crime, publisher Charles Ardai writes a book about Hard Case Crime if it existed 50 years ago, and titles each chapter after one of the 50 books Hard Case Crime has published. In fact, he even titles the chapters in chronological publishing order. In order to pull off this trick, he had to find a way to fit titles like Zero Cool and The Murderer Vine into the flow of the story he'd constructed, and it speaks volumes for Ardai's talent that he was able to do this seamlessly, in a way that never distracted one iota from the story itself. After seeing how well he pulled off this somewhat gimmicky concept, and made it work just as well as any other Hard Case Crime title that he's released, I'm anxious to check out more of Ardai's work (he's released two Hard Case Crime novels under the name Richard Aleas).
The book itself is a story about Tricia, a girl who comes to New York City from her small-town home in South Dakota, and finds herself with no job, no money and no place to stay. She falls in with a troupe of dancing girls and a disreputable pulp paperback publisher, Charley Borden, almost by accident. Her job as a dancer has her working at a mob-run nightclub (and telling everyone her name is Trixie), and Borden gets her to hunt for a loose-lipped mobster who is willing to tell his life story to her, have it fictionalized, and turn it into a cheap paperback. One of his competitors is making plenty of money off another cheap mob memoir, and Borden wants a slice of that pie. Tricia makes a game effort to find such a character, but soon despairs, and instead decides to pen a completely fictional account and pass it off to Borden as a memoir. After all, he's offered her $500 for such a manuscript, and she could use the cash. When Borden publishes the book, though, he and Tricia are in for an unpleasant surprise--a mobster has, in the last month, committed the exact robbery that Tricia described in her novel, and the mob are sure that Tricia and Borden know who and where he is.
Things take off from there at a breakneck clip, and they don't slow down until the novel reaches its end. No one is willing to believe Tricia's vehement assurances that she made the whole thing up, and soon she's caught between two rival mob factions, the police, and numerous other shady characters, all with their own agendas to pursue. All she wants to do is get all these people off her back, but it seems that, in order to do so, she, Borden, and Borden's secretary, Erin, are going to have to locate the missing money and get it back to the mob boss from whom it was stolen, before his patience runs out AND before the police catch up with them.
If that seems like a waste of a five-star rating to you, if you're the type who can't stand to read anything that hasn't been (and probably never will be) canonized, then you should probably give "Fifty To One" a miss. But if that sounds like your idea of cheap, pulpy fun, then you're going to be all over this book just like I was. Those of you in the latter category, preorder this now (I read an advance copy--its actual release date is 11/25), and those of you in the latter category... loosen up.
The Merchant's War, by Charles Stross
Fourth book in this series. Picked it up as soon as it was out in paperback. Some of you may remember my frenetic flight through the first three books in the series back in the spring. I was waiting with bated breath for this one, and as soon as I pulled it out of the box at the bookstore where I work, I bought it and started reading it. Well, I finished the stock order first, but it definitely bumped the other book I was reading back to the back burner. And now at least one and possibly two Charlie Huston books have jumped into the queue ahead of that one as well. Cherie Priest, I promise I will get back to your book soon!
Anyway, about this book. I know I wrote in my reviews of some of the earlier books in this series about how they sometimes seem like they're just getting going when they reach the end and it's time to pick up the next book. Well, this book doesn't so much feel like a beginning as a middle. Stross has established about half a dozen ongoing plot threads, and he switches back and forth between them every 10 pages or so. Miriam Beckstein, the character around which the series was originally built, has become not so much secondary as part of a larger ensemble of main characters. What's really interesting about it all is that Stross has now spent so much time telling the story from the point of view of differing characters that he's established reader sympathy for at least one and sometimes multiple characters on each side of the main conflict in the story. And there aren't just two sides, either--depending on how you look at it, there are at least three and possibly as many as five. The three main worlds in the story--the modern United States, the medieval Gruinmarkt, and the steampunk-ish New Britain--have been joined by an uninhabited fourth world that appears to be post-nuclear holocaust. Unless it's something else entirely. All kinds of crazy stuff is going on, it's all fascinating, and the ending of this book had me groaning in frustration. I can't WAIT to know what happens next! The fifth book in the series is coming out next spring in hardcover, and even though I've only bought the first four once they were out in mass market, I think I'm going to have to make the jump to the more expensive format. I just can't wait an extra year to find out what happens in this series.
The wait from the fifth book to the sixth looks to be at least a year, possibly more like 18 months. That one is going to drive me nuts. I'm thinking I'll start over at the beginning and read all six of the books in sequence at that point, though. As it is, having taken my first extended break in reading the series inbetween books three and four, I found myself a little fuzzy on some of the details involving less important plotlines and more minor characters. I'm sure that this series will work best if it's all read as one continuous experience. Too bad I got into it before it was finished.
Caught Stealing, by Charlie Huston
This short, fast-paced hardboiled crime novel was an absolute blast from beginning to end. I was already familiar with Charlie Huston's work from reading the first three of his Joe Pitt novels. That series, beginning with "Already Dead", tells the story of a rogue vampire living in a modern-day Manhattan in which vampires, zombies, and other supernatural creatures exist under the noses of unsuspecting normal citizens. I came into "Caught Stealing" expecting similar hardboiled stylings, and was not let down. There's nothing supernatural going on in "Caught Stealing"--it's the story of Hank Thompson, a bartender in Manhattan whose hopes for being a professional baseball player were dashed by a teenage accident. Since then, he's been drinking, trying to forget. He's now in his mid-30s, and bartending has led him to fall in with some less than completely law-abiding types. This book begins with a couple of Russian mobsters beating him up so badly that he has to have surgery to remove one of his kidneys. This means he's going to have to stop drinking, which will be easier said than done at the best of times. These are not the best of times, though, as more random criminals begin showing up in Hank's life, generally wanting to beat the shit out of him for not knowing where something they want is. They don't tell Hank what it is that they want--they figure he should know. He doesn't know where it is or even what it is, but this doesn't stop the parade of thugs and mobsters from repeatedly beating the crap out of him. I thought that Philip Marlowe got beat up a lot in the Raymond Chandler novels, but seriously, that was nothing compared to what Hank endures in this book. After about a third of the book, he finally figures out that the thing that the people who keep beating him up are all looking for has something to do with the cat his neighbor asked him to keep while he was out of town. At first, though, he plans to just give up the information these people want, and try to go on with his life. When friends of his start getting hurt, though, he gets mad. And when he gets mad, he decides to get even.
This book is the sort of pulp crime novel that is harder and harder to find in modern times, the sort of thing that Hard Case Crime is trying to singlehandedly revive (to some measure of success, or so it appears. Good for them). However, it's more brutal than anything from the golden age of pulp crime fiction (that being the mid-20th century), and there were definitely multiple parts in which I kept having to put the book down and cover my eyes (or clutch my back) for a moment before going on. Therefore, I wouldn't just wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone who loves pulp crime stuff--make sure you've got a strong stomach before you dive into this one. If you do, though, you absolutely cannot go wrong with this entertaining dose of pulp crime. Black humor, plot twists, chase scenes, and gunplay aplenty are what you will find here. Apparently there are two sequels to this book, and I'm going to be hunting them down with the quickness. If my experience is any indication, you really can't go wrong with anything by Charlie Huston.
Four And Twenty Blackbirds, by Cherie Priest
This entertaining dark fantasy novel tells the story of a girl named Eden, who lives in the dark, swampy American South and comes from a hazy family background that leaves her unsure exactly what her racial makeup is, and has apparently also given her the hereditary talent of being able to see and communicate with ghosts. At first, she's a young girl, and we don't really know what significance the ghostly communication has, but then a young man convinced he's receiving messages from God tries to kill her. As the book goes on, Eden grows up, and she starts becoming curious about her true heritage. Her aunt, who has raised her (her mother died in childbirth), tries to keep her from looking into things, but this just feeds her curiosity more. Finally, she starts digging in earnest, and what she discovers launches her onto a quest with very high stakes.
This book takes a while to lock into its main plot, and for at least the first half or so, I didn't understand where it was going at all. However, this approach works well for Cherie Priest, and gives her the leeway to spend more time developing character and painting a lovely picture of the witchy old South. Most of this book takes place in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with some of the later sections set in Georgia and Florida, and all of those places are quite a bit further south than my native state of Virginia. Nonetheless, I recognized a lot of the areas, if not physically then spiritually, as the same sorts of forgotten pockets of rural eccentricity that I spent most of my childhood living in. I enjoyed this tale immensely, and look forward to its sequels, but I have to figure that at least a little of my enjoyment comes due to the fact that I too am a child of the American South. I have to wonder how well a reader from Boston, or Paris, could connect with this book. Hopefully they'd still enjoy the dark fantasy plotline, but there's rich background detail here that I really hope is not lost for those who don't instinctively recognize it as immediately and intimately as I do.
The Little Sleep, by Paul Tremblay
Mark Genevich has narcolepsy in the worst way. He falls asleep midsentence. He has vivid hallucinations that he can't always tell from reality. He walks around and has conversations in his sleep, often fooling others into thinking he's awake. He suffers from attacks of cataplexy, aka "sleep paralysis". And he works as a private detective, which for him generally means taking cases that consist of finding data on the internet. However, now he's been hired by a pretty young contestant on...more Mark Genevich has narcolepsy in the worst way. He falls asleep midsentence. He has vivid hallucinations that he can't always tell from reality. He walks around and has conversations in his sleep, often fooling others into thinking he's awake. He suffers from attacks of cataplexy, aka "sleep paralysis". And he works as a private detective, which for him generally means taking cases that consist of finding data on the internet. However, now he's been hired by a pretty young contestant on "American Star", who also happens to be the daughter of the local District Attorney. Only, he's not sure exactly what she's hired him to do. See, he was asleep through most of their meeting. But he has some pictures of her in various states of undress that were left on his desk, so he figures someone must be blackmailing her. Working on this small amount of information, Mark begins digging into the case, but soon he begins to question even the little he does know. He figures he must have stumbled onto something, though, because thugs are following him around and roughing him up.
This book's plot focuses on the bizarre case Mark Genevich has found himself tied up in, but the real focus of the book is the tragic figure of Mark himself. Disfigured in an accident at the age of 21 and suffering from narcolepsy ever since, Mark lives a shadowy half-life of what he calls "little sleeps", and tries to delude himself that he is self-reliant, and doesn't need his mother as a caregiver, even as she stays at his apartment multiple times a week and gives him rides anytime he needs to go anywhere. He covers his confusion with lots of snappy witticisms, but underneath, he's melancholy and often frustrated, and this case only adds to his stress level. Paul Tremblay does a great job of bringing the character of Mark Genevich to life, and arouses a great deal of sympathy for him in the reader, especially since the reader recognizes early on that there's no miracle waiting for Mark--he's stuck stumbling his way through life for the foreseeable future. Mark's condition is sort of a metaphor for the human condition, though, and I know that's a really hackneyed thing to say, but I'm serious. His struggles with the constant neurological urge to fall asleep, and all of the problems that come with it, are much more obvious and physical manifestations of handicaps and burdens that all of us carry throughout our life. The fact that Mark always finds a way to muddle through, to keep going in the face of some pretty intense setbacks throughout the book, make "The Little Sleep" somewhat of a positive, uplifting tale, even despite the persistent melancholy of its main character, and its dark tone throughout.
This book is an excellent new wrinkle on the classic hardboiled detective tale, with nuanced plotting, character depth, and profound emotion threaded throughout. Anyone looking for a 21st century spiritual successor to Raymond Chandler should check this book out ASAP.
Every Last Drop, by Charlie Huston
To start with, let's establish something: this is the fourth book in a series. The series is about Joe Pitt, who is a vampire. At the beginning of the series, three books ago, he lived in Manhattan, and existed as a rogue, surviving by doing jobs for Manhattan's warring vampire clans, and always making sure that all of them felt indebted enough to him to keep him alive. A lot has changed since then, but the predominant feel--that of a gritty PI novel in an NYC setting, only with vampires--has not. Beyond that, though, I don't want to discuss plot specifics, since I don't want to ruin any details for anyone who hasn't read any of the books in the series yet.
While I enjoyed this book as much as I have the first three of the Joe Pitt novels, I felt that this one was weaker than those three if only because it didn't hold up on its own as well as they did. "Already Dead" and "No Dominion", the first two, were easily read as standalone stories, and featured central conflicts that were resolved in an end-of-book climax that was satisfying to the reader. The same is true of the third in the series, "Half The Blood Of Brooklyn", though that one seemed a bit short, and felt a bit underdeveloped in the middle sections. "Every Last Drop" is back to the more fully developed feel of "Already Dead" and "No Dominion", but the climactic scene of the main plot thread is not the conclusion of the book, and isn't dramatic enough to be anyway. The conclusion turns out to be an advancement of a subplot from "Half the Blood Of Brooklyn" that's barely been touched on, except during main character first-person reverie, for most of the book. In the other books in the series, there are definitely moments that require the reader to have read the earlier books in chronological order, but that said, there is also a plot that could be viscerally satisfying to anyone who picked up the book with no prior knowledge of the series. This is definitely not true of "Every Last Drop". Both the main plot of the book and the subplot that ends up taking over the main plot at the climactic moment are integrally tied up in events of previous novels in the series. I felt when I was reading it like I wasn't reading something that completely justified its existence as an independent novel in the series. Perhaps the problem is that the books in the series have all been short, between 200 and 250 pages, and "Every Last Drop" is 252 pages long. Maybe the publishers wouldn't allow Charlie Huston to put all of the plot developments, as well as actual conclusions to these plots, into one book. Perhaps it's been split in two due to length. If that's the case, the other half better be along as soon as possible, because the ending of this book resolved nothing, and left me with even more unanswered questions than did the ending of "Half The Blood Of Brooklyn". I certainly did enjoy every minute of it as I was reading it, but still. I wish I got more of a definite ending from it.
Stick, by Elmore Leonard
Every now and then I'll pick up an Elmore Leonard novel after months or years of not reading anything by him, and without fail, my reaction is always, "Why don't I read this guy's stuff more often?" I never really considered it before this book, my dozenth or so Leonard, but now that I have, I must credit Elmore Leonard with the distinction of being in my top 10 or so favorite authors. He's a brilliant wordsmith who is able to both keep it simple and stay out of the way of the story he's telling and interject amazing turns of phrase that catch your attention when you read them and make you think "that was perfect". The way he does these two seemingly contradictory things is by reserving the clever turns of phrase and snappy lines for his characters; his ear for dialogue is uncanny and the characters in his books speak like modern, updated, real-life versions of the characters that dispensed a constantly flowing stream of snappy patter in the screwball comedies and films noir of the mid-20th century. As I said, they're more realistic as characters than the ones that appeared in those films, but they're still colorful and unique, still the sort of people you wouldn't expect to run into more often than once every 10 years or so--and yet they're 100% believable. The man is a master and I can't believe I haven't ever gotten onto a serious Elmore Leonard kick and devoured his entire bibliography. Maybe the problem is that such a thing would take months, since he has so many books; then again, I can't imagine ever getting tired of reading his stuff.
"Stick" is named after its main character, Ernest Stickley, who's just been released from a Detroit prison after doing a 7-year bit for armed robbery. He shows up in south Florida because that's where his ex-wife lives now, and he wants to see his daughter for the first time in 7 years. Once he arrives there, he runs into Rene Moya, aka Rainy, a guy he knew in prison, and Rainy offers him a cut of a $5000 delivery job if he'll accompany Rainy on the ride. What Rainy doesn't know is that part of the arrangement the guy who hired him made with those the delivery was going to was that they'd kill the delivery men. Stick sees Rainy get blown away and takes off running, barely escaping with his life. He thinks about stealing a car to get enough money together to split town, but instead he inadvertently gets hired as a chauffeur by a rich stock-player type guy who fancies himself a tough customer and gets his kicks employing ex-felons. What Stick soon learns is that this guy is a good friend of the man who got Rainy killed, and who still wants to see Stick dead too. And that's when things get REALLY complicated.
In fact, let me tell you, if you pick up this book to read sometime soon based on this recommendation, you will learn almost immediately that I've simplified the plot a great deal. It's much more convoluted than that. There are more than just two sides, or even three sides, to Stick's story. And there are all sorts of peripheral characters that make the story even more entertaining--lonely trophy wives, bored female stockbrokers, drug dealers with drug habits of their own, ex-con butlers and limo drivers who trade in stock tips. It's a fascinating cast and one that makes this novel an obligatory inclusion in the subset of mystery/crime fiction Dave Barry once very accurately referred to as the "Bunch of South Florida Wackos" subgenre. If you've enjoyed Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, or the crime fiction efforts of Dave Barry, check out Elmore Leonard and meet the first and best writer in that style.
Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff
This book was fun to read while I was reading it but didn't really seem to have that much to it once I'd digested the whole thing. The author says in the P.S. section in the back of the book (which, yes, means I have the trade paperback and not the hardcover--too lazy to fix it, so you're gonna have to deal) that the main character, Jane Charlotte, was inspired by his reading of a Philip K. Dick biography and learning that Dick had a twin sister, Jane Charlotte, who died when they were babies. T...more This book was fun to read while I was reading it but didn't really seem to have that much to it once I'd digested the whole thing. The author says in the P.S. section in the back of the book that the main character, Jane Charlotte, was inspired by his reading of a Philip K. Dick biography and learning that Dick had a twin sister, Jane Charlotte, who died when they were babies. That's interesting and cool, but I don't know if this book quite lives up to all of that. See, there's one thing about the book that's pretty much accepted without questioning throughout that I just can't accept. That's the idea of "Bad Monkeys".
Let me explain. Jane Charlotte starts the book out captured, in a psychiatric observation wing of a Las Vegas penitentiary. She's telling a psychiatrist the story of how she ended up in jail, and that story is what becomes the entire book. Immediately, we're made very aware that Jane Charlotte is a classic unreliable narrator. She reminded me a whole lot of Kevin Spacey's character in "Usual Suspects". I kept hearing his voice in my head while I was reading this book, saying "Back when I was in that barbershop quartet in Skokie Illinois..." If you've seen the film, you know what I mean. And if you haven't, I shouldn't say anything further, lest I spoil it for you. Anyway, like I said, Jane Charlotte is an unreliable narrator. Almost everything she tells us throughout the book is questionable, and very little of it adds together into a coherent picture. Ultimately, at the end, you expect the entire thing to collapse like a huge house of cards, and maybe it does--I'm not saying. No spoilers for you. What I AM saying is that neither the narrative of the book as a whole nor any characters within the book's narrative ever question the idea that people are inherently good or inherently evil, that they are that way because of predetermined circumstances and that nothing that they do or that happens to them will make the slightest difference, throughout their entire life. This book comes from a very Calvinist perspective, whether the writer knows it or not, and I don't like that. No matter how unrealistic and humorously intended this book is--and rest assured, it is both things--it's still not lighthearted enough for me not to trip, again and again, over the to my mind faulty assertion around which the entire book is based.
And maybe I'd be able to let that slide if the story was better. In fact, I probably could. But it's just not that great of an entry into the madcap humorously-intended probable espionage genre. Maybe the problem is that I read a much better entry into that same genre, Warren Ellis's "Crooked Little Vein", in the very recent past. Or maybe the Calvinist viewpoint of the entire book bothers me more than I let on. But either way, I just didn't take all that much away from this book. It's a fun read, good for a day's entertainment, but no more significant than that. And in the end, it feels like a meal of mostly empty calories. It's the opposite of the sort of books that make you feel, once they're finished, like you have to wait a little while before you can move on to another one. As soon as I set this book down, I was immediately hungry to pick up something else.
One final note--some of the descriptions of Ruff's other books that I have read in various places seem more interesting to me than the premise of "Bad Monkeys", and he's a talented enough writer that I'm definitely open to picking up other books of his in the future. I just don't think this book is the best example of what he has the potential to do.
Downtown Owl, by Chuck Klosterman
I appear to have completely missed adding this book to my list back when I was reading it. Now it's been a week and a half since I finished it and I have to try and write the review from memory that isn't as fresh as I generally like it to be when I write these. Oops. I will try to do my best.
Chuck Klosterman's commentary on pop culture is something I've enjoyed immensely ever since he started writing it. It helps quite a bit that his first book, "Fargo Rock City" (a terrible title forced on him by his publishers--I much prefer his original one, "Appetite For Deconstruction"), was a social history and serious criticism of glam metal from the point of view of a fan who'd been a teenager during the era of glam metal's dominance. I'm 6 years younger than Klosterman, but boy could I relate. I still think "Fargo Rock City" is the best of his pop-culture related nonfiction, and find his individual essays to vary in quality, sometimes quite widely. But I've always been most interested in work of his that shows its connection to his personal life. His book "Killing Yourself To Live" was ostensibly about rock deaths but spent much more time on his troubles with romantic relationships. I could relate to that. His monthly column in Esquire is sometimes based entirely on some silly whim he's fixated on that week, and as a result they swing wildly from genius to ridiculous (as does his collection of these essays, "Chuck Klosterman IV").
Now, with "Downtown Owl", Klosterman has chosen to plunge into the world of fiction. He inserted a 30 page short story at the end of "Chuck Klosterman IV", and while I liked it a lot, many of my friends who read it were weirded out and let down by it. They may well feel the same way about "Downtown Owl", a novel that is structured much like the movie "Magnolia". Several characters who are almost completely unrelated--the only connecting factor between them being that all of them live in tiny Owl, North Dakota, population 3,000--make their way through their daily lives, having pointless adventures and discussing meaningless minutiae of their daily lives at great lengths with those around them. Sometimes these vignettes are hilarious--especially those from the point of view of Mitch, the third string quarterback for the high school football team--and sometimes they are unexpectedly poignant--especially those form the point of view of Horace, a 70-ish retired farmer. They add together to give us a sense of Owl as a place, not just geographically speaking but culturally and spiritually as well. We start to see how living there would be for us, even if none of the characters Klosterman explores really represent our own lives, or the slots in Owl's culture that we'd fit into. At some points, I personally felt connected to all of Klosterman's main characters (the third is a young teacher named Julia who has moved from Chicago because Owl's high school was willing to give her a job with no experience), and at other points, I couldn't relate to them at all.
The most important point I must emphasize about "Downtown Owl", though, is this one: Klosterman is able to create multi-faceted, interesting, and relatable characters in this story. A lot of people have accused him, both as a writer and as a person, of being unsalvageably self-absorbed, and if that were really true, I'd expect the retired farmer, the high school quarterback, and the young teacher from out of town to all read like the same basic person. Nothing could be further from the truth; all of these characters are different, all of them are fleshed-out, and all of them keep the reader's interest throughout the book. This is essential to "Downtown Owl"s success as a novel, in fact--where plot is concerned, it's generous to say that it has one at all. It's more like a collection of character studies and set pieces--some of which are hilarious. This is the kind of thing that I enjoy when I'm reading fiction, and I tore through this book in a day and a half. Some of my friends will no doubt hate it, and that's their prerogative. However, anyone who finds themselves consistently liking what I like will almost certainly love this book.
War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America In A Time Of Unrest, by Michael Rosenberg
I've read a lot of biographies over the years, and a lot of non-fiction books about my particular cultural talismans: underground music, unashamedly liberal politics, and football. This book is about the latter, and I haven't read as many football books as I have read books about the other two things I mentioned. I'm particularly green in the area of college football, which I didn't really follow at all until 5 or so years ago. Therefore, a book about Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, coaches for Ohio State and Michigan, respectively, and about their ten-year rivalry between 1968 and 1978, is going to cover a subject I don't know very well. I certainly learned a lot from it, and I did enjoy it at least intermittently. However, I'd be lying if I said that "War As They Knew It" gave me everything I'd wanted and expected from it. Some football books that I've read over the years have captured my imagination and brought me back to them over and over (here let me give a shoutout to "America's Game" by Michael MacCambridge and "The New Thinking Man's Guide To Pro Football" by Paul Zimmerman--the latter was my favorite book when I was 11 years old), but I don't think "War As They Knew It" will be one of them. My relative unfamiliarity with Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler may be one reason why, but honestly, I think Michael Rosenberg's writing left a bit to be desired in terms of being engaging. Also, at times, I felt like he was leaving rich territory unexplored. There was some discussion in the book of the radical political environment that Ann Arbor, Michigan, constituted in the late 60s, and even a bit of focus on John Sinclair and the currently-noteworthy Bill Ayers. However, if the book was really going to go into depth where the connection between the football rivalries of the time and the concurrent political climate on college campuses was concerned, it needed to do a bit more than it did.
Really, though, I may be being too harsh. As a book about Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, the way they ran their football teams, and the storied rivalry between the two of them and their two programs, "War As They Knew It" delivers. I enjoyed the blow-by-blow accounts of the games between the two teams in each year, and the in-depth discussion of the players who had important roles in one or more games. In particular, I was touched by the story of Michigan placekicker Mike Lantry, a Vietnam veteran who walked onto the Michigan team in his freshman year and earned a starting position, only to miss a crucial field goal to lose the 1974 Ohio State/Michigan game for the Wolverines. The crushing defeat, which was broadcast on national television, was the end of his college football career, and his solitary walk to the sideline after the kick, caught on camera, became a symbol to thousands all over the country. The author reprints sections from many of the letters that Lantry received after the game, and as someone who has struggled through some pretty tough times in my life (as we all have at one point or another), I could see exactly what so many related to in Lantry's experience. The author brought this moment to life for me, and this might have been my favorite section of the entire book.
I also appreciated the deep insight into the personal philosophies of Hayes and Schembechler, though. I found Hayes in particular to be fascinating, even though I disagree with many of his views about life, deriving as many of them do from a relentlessly military-oriented outlook. Hayes was a big Ralph Waldo Emerson fan, and many of the Emerson quotes scattered throughout the text were just as disturbing to me as Hayes's conservative political views, when they were discussed. Schembechler was not quite as doctrinaire as Hayes, but certainly as conservative. The author discussed these views without commenting on whether or not he agreed with them, and kept things relatively even by sometimes discussing the politics of John Sinclair or Bill Ayers in an equally non-judgmental light. Nonetheless, one of the biggest impressions I came away from this book with was the idea that I'd never want to discuss politics with either Hayes or Schembechler. That said, I respect both of them as leaders in the sport of football, and I hope to someday get a chance to check out some of the archival footage of their coaching days. I think I might end up finding that stuff more interesting than this book, which was a decent read on the whole, but just not quite what I wanted from it.
Mainspring, by Jay Lake
[This review contains spoilers] You know, I can't say I hated this book, but I was definitely disappointed in it. It starts out from an interesting premise--a story set in an alternate universe where the planets revolve around the sun on visible brass tracks, like clockwork. The problem is not with the world that is created from this concept, which is a very interesting alternate universe steampunk fantasy type thing. The problem is that the story just wasn't all that engaging. Oh, it started out well, but even the beginning s...more You know, I can't say I hated this book, but I was definitely disappointed in it. It starts out from an interesting premise--a story set in an alternate universe where the planets revolve around the sun on visible brass tracks, like clockwork. The problem is not with the world that is created from this concept, which is a very interesting alternate universe steampunk fantasy type thing. The problem is that the story just wasn't all that engaging. Oh, it started out well, but even the beginning set up the story in a completely different manner than I expected. I assumed that, since a universe like this would end the debate over whether there were a creator, there would be conflict between those who believed in an active creator and those who believed in an absent creator. And there is, but there's a problem--we're told immediately who is right and who is wrong. This is due to the book beginning with a clockwork angel, the archangel Gabriel, appearing to main character Hethor Jacques and tasking him with an epic quest to save the world. From then on, we know that those who believe in an absent creator are the bad guys and those who believe in an active creator are the good guys. The story plays out in exactly this manner, with a very one-dimensional moral structure. Characters are generally just flat placeholders; not even Hethor himself shows much of any dynamic characteristics. The story meanders along in a manner that gave me the idea that author Jay Lake had done no advance planning where the plot was concerned. It seemed like he was just making it up as he went along, and feeling free to discard huge plotlines if they bored him. The book really lost me about a third of the way through, when Hethor was derailed from his (very interesting) time aboard a pirate airship. From there, we heard nothing more about the ship or its quest. Instead, we follow Hethor over the brass wall that divides the world into the Southern hemisphere, where things just get weirder and more random. His romance with a pygmy woman who seemed like a cross between human and an evolved chimpanzee, which dominated the later parts of the book, seemed pretty strange to me as well. It was a bit off-putting, in fact. Really, the farther along things went, the less interested I was, and the last fifth or so of the book seemed like one big deus ex machina, which admittedly fit with the book's plot but felt like no less of a cheat for all that. The series continues with a book called "Escapement", but Hethor's story is at an end after "Mainspring", and the second book apparently follows up on several minor characters from various sections of "Mainspring". I don't know where Lake could have taken Hethor's story after the end of this book, so it makes sense that this is how he's chosen to follow this book, but at the same time I think it points out just how unimportant his characters are to the story he's telling. I'm sure the world-building fans out there could find a lot to enjoy here, but as someone who reads primarily because I enjoy reading about characters, I found little to like here, and can't imagine that I'll be checking out the sequel.
Special Topics In Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
When I was 14 years old, I read in a lot of places that "Catcher In The Rye" was the essential book for a disaffected teenager to read and feel a little bit less alone or whatever. I read it, and I liked it at the time, but when I look back on it now, what stands out to me about it is the inarticulate nature of Holden Caulfield. I guess when I was 14, quotes like "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody" meant something profound to me (or at least I was young enough and impressionable enough to feel that I was SUPPOSED to get something profound out of them, and bullshitted my way into believing that I had), but these days, all I can think is how many better ways Caulfield could have expressed himself. I'm sure J.D. Salinger knew a much more sophisticated way of getting his point across, but was just interested in capturing the mindset of an angry teenager than in using the best words possible. Maybe this makes "Catcher In The Rye" more universal or something, though I tend to think these days that it's more overhyped than anything else. Either way, it's very different from "Special Topics In Calamity Physics", a book that comes a lot closer to my own experience as a teenager.
Narrator Blue Van Meer is about to enter her senior year of high school as the book begins, and her narrative style, peppered as it is with wordy asides, constant quotes (generally, though not always, from fictional sources), and visual aids (capably drawn by the author), marks her as a precocious student of the first order. Blue's mother died when she was a young child, and since then, her father, Gareth, has been moving from one town to another at the rate of once per semester or thereabouts. He's an authority on certain intricate facets of political science, which allows him the ability to make his living by guest lecturing at one college or another, never putting down roots anywhere. One might wonder what he's running from, but as the novel begins, it's not a question that Blue herself has ever asked. Instead, she sees herself as the Dr. Watson to Gareth's Sherlock Holmes, and the way her narrative is overflowing with quotes from and stories about her father, it's obvious to the reader that Gareth has become her only major influence in life, as well as a sort of personal hero. Blue seems to have adopted many of Gareth's values and viewpoints without ever really analyzing them. What she doesn't realize is how unusual this has made her.
For Blue's senior year, Gareth has decided to finally settle down in one college town, where he will retain a professorial position for an unheard of entire year. The town of Stockton, North Carolina, is where he settles, and where Blue meets Hannah Schneider, the film teacher at her high school, and the Bluebloods, a small assortment of students who've created a social circle around Hannah. Despite her best efforts at avoiding such a thing, the Bluebloods and Hannah seem determined to bring Blue into their social circle, and eventually succeed. This fact is what drives the leisurely, meandering plot of the novel to its eventual conclusion. We know from the very first page that, at some climactic point in the narrative, Blue will find Hannah Schneider's body hanging from a noose (she tells us this in the first sentence, a la Donna Tartt's "Secret History"), but the book takes its sweet time getting to this point. Over its 500 page length, it spends a lot more time detailing Blue's wallflower-ish perspective on life, social interaction, and the people around her. We see her growing from the unquestioned assumptions of a child into the independent viewpoints of an adult, but "Special Topics In Calamity Physics" isn't really a traditional coming of age novel any more than it is a traditional mystery (though it incorporates elements of both).
Really, this is just a book about the inner life of an extremely interesting teenaged girl who has never felt like she belonged to any social group, and the unique perspective this fact affords her. I enjoyed the gripping final 100 or so pages, in which the mystery elements of the book finally take over and kick it into high gear, but I enjoyed the earlier periods, when Blue's social observations are the things we're hearing the most about, just as much in their own way. I don't really know how to explain my love for this book any better than that; what mostly happened is that I would come across some particular adroit observation, look up, and think, "Man... how can anyone not LOVE this book?" I'm well aware that opinion on it is extremely divided, and that people tend to either love or hate it, but I for one love it and would recommend it to anyone. I wish I could explain why better than I have--maybe my above comments will explain my reasoning to your satisfaction, and if so, I hope you will give this one a chance. I can't imagine how Pessl can possibly top this particular literary feat (her debut novel, written when she was in her mid-20s... which makes me feel like such a slacker), but I'm eagerly awaiting any further efforts on her part.
The Revolution Business, by Charles Stross
After flying through the first three books in this series one after the other and picking up the fourth soon after I finished the third, I was expecting to have to wait a little while (until next spring, in fact) to read the fifth in this six-book series. I wasn't looking forward to it, either; for one thing, when I read the fourth book after a few-month break, it was a little tough jumping back into the world of the Merchant Princes and being sure of exactly what was going on in every storyline. It didn't help that I was coming back in at a point in the series where a lot of different plots were moving in a lot of different directions, either. The unexpected miracle of receiving an advance copy of this, the fifth book, only a month after receiving the fourth, put me on much better footing to realize what was going on as soon as I picked it up. However, I'm now looking at a nearly two-year wait until the sixth and final book, so the plan is to start over at the beginning and read all 5 of the books I already have before finishing the series, whenever such an opportunity becomes available.
After the slight downturn of the third book in the series, the fourth book was a return to the excitement and awesomeness of the first two, and the fifth is more of the same. I don't really want to discuss plot details at this point in the series, since the whole thing is one long story and I don't want to ruin things for people who might read this review at a point where they are a book or two behind the curve. But I will say this--everything that was heating up in the previous volume is REALLY heating up now, and things are moving away from the seeming fantasy of the first couple of volumes into an obviously science fictional basis for this story's particular McGuffin, which I like. Stross has said in interviews that these six books were originally intended to be two much longer books, and that he has notes for what would have been two more much longer books to follow the two that eventually became these first six. At this point in the story, I can totally imagine what might be in store for those later volumes, and while Stross has no immediate plans to actually write them, I sure hope he does at some point. There are way too many possibilities left in this story for me to be satisfied with what will be explored and wrapped up in only one remaining volume.
That being said, I can't wait to see how this particular series ends. My only quibble is that I'm going to have to wait two years to do that. Boo.
The Brief, Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
This book has picked up a whole lot of hype lately, and I know I'm not going to be able to derail that particular train all by myself. Honestly, I don't even want to, not completely. That said, I have a few minor complaints about it, and in the interest of not contributing to the hype, I'm going to go ahead and lay those out first.
For starters, the narrative voice didn't always work for me. Without getting too into the details and dropping spoilers, I will mention that said narrative voice switches back and forth from a more straightforward style into an exaggerated Latino-homeboy type of dialect. It's this latter that bugged me. It came off as trying too hard, like someone who hadn't been raised in the sort of urban/hip-hop culture that the narrative voice belonged to doing their version of said hip-hop dialect and just making it obvious that they hadn't really grown up speaking that way. Junot Diaz may, in fact, HAVE grown up speaking that way, for all I know. The problem is that he wasn't too convincing in his rendering of it. It felt like the narrator during those parts of the book was a Dominican version of Stuart Scott from ESPN. Or, if that reference doesn't make sense, Carlton from Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. My other beef: the story being told here just seemed too easy, like a slow pitch hung up nice and easy right across home plate. It's like the book version of Tom Hanks playing "Forrest Gump." Admit it: the second you saw the trailer for that movie, you knew he was gonna get an Oscar. He's playing the slow-but-idiosyncratically-brilliant guy with a heart of gold. We all know that shit is Oscar porn. Well, would it be fair to say that a narrative about a struggling Dominican immigrant trying to find his place in the mainstream culture of America and reconcile that place with his Dominican cultural background is Pulitzer porn? If not, I guess it's too bad, because I'm gonna say it. The thing that surprises me about this book is not the Pulitzer winner sticker on the cover, it's the lack of an Oprah's Book Club sticker on the cover. Give it three years, I guess.
OK, those are my qualms. They are overpowered, to a great extent, by my enjoyment of this book's narrative, pace, characterization, and yes, even its voice at times (when said voice is not trying too hard). Oscar Wao is a character I can relate to, despite the fact that he is a Dominican immigrant, and I'm just a plain ol' white guy. He's a fat nerd who grew up around people who didn't understand his love for the things he loves. He never gets any attention from girls except for a rare few, who invariably move him immediately into the friend zone. He compensates for his lonely life by writing a lot. As he gets older, he just feels more and more alone, and gets more and more depressed. His family doesn't understand him, his mother is abusive to him, and eventually he grows positively suicidal. Even his best friend (the book's narrator) seems not to truly appreciate him until after he's gone. I hate to admit how much I understood where he was coming from. But I did.
The part of the book that was more alien to my experience was the part that dealt with the history of Oscar's family. A great deal of the book is devoted to flashbacks to the time when his family still lived in the Dominican Republic, to the life of his mother, his grandmother, his aunts and uncles, even his older sister (who returned to the D.R. for a while as a teenager). It goes into a great deal of social history about the D.R., much of it concerning the dictatorial rule of the D.R. by Rafael Trujillo, from 1930 to 1961, and the trouble Trujillo caused for the D.R. in general and Oscar's family in particular. While I related less to these sections of the story, I enjoyed them just as much as I enjoyed the tales about Oscar's life. In fact, since the trying-too-hard elements of the narration were toned down for these sections of the book, I may have enjoyed them a bit more.
This book was a quick, enjoyable read, and while I feel that at least some of its praise in mainstream popular circles comes more from the topics it deals with than its actual quality as a novel, I nonetheless thought it was a really good book, and would recommend it to anyone who thinks they can handle the Carlton-from-Fresh-Prince parts. Although much of the book is tragic in tone, in the end it is vaguely uplifting, and you could certainly do worse than to read a book that evokes sympathy for all the fat, out of place nerds of the world.
The First Quarry, by Max Allan Collins
Sometimes I lament the fact that the quick-n-dirty crime novel seems like a lost art, and that these days everyone wants to pad their opus out to 300, 350 pages, generally doing so by means of extensive romantic subplots. Then a longtime veteran like the always-reliable Max Allan Collins comes along to show me that I'm wrong, and it's oh so nice. Hard Case Crime can also be thanked for this genre's resuscitation, such as it exists at the moment (I'm hoping things are on the upswing--perhaps an economic downturn will spur public appetites for this sort of stuff), and for bringing back shorter lengths in smaller, cheaper sizes, between awesomely lurid covers. But if they didn't have a great pool of talent to draw upon, it'd all be for naught, which is why Max Allan Collins takes the vast majority of the credit for the greatness of "The First Quarry." I've been reading Collins's stuff since I was 12 years old; after reading several of his Batman comics from the late 80s simply because they were about Batman, I picked up "True Detective" from the library because I knew the author and it looked cool. It was my first adult crime novel, and I've been hooked ever since. "The First Quarry", unlike "True Detective", does not focus on a hardboiled PI but instead a Vietnam vet who has picked up a job upon his return from the war as a contract killer. Apparently Collins has a whole series of books about this character, and this tale of his first adventure is a flashback to a time before the first book in the series. I had never read anything else by him featuring this character, and it didn't hurt my ability to understand and enjoy the book in the least. In fact, for who share my ignorance of the Quarry character, this book might be the best place to start, as it goes into detail about his origin story, so to speak.
It's the actual narrative that takes up most of this short, quick read, though, and that narrative is lots of fun. Quarry is staking out a college professor in preparation for taking him out, and said professor is the sort to have lots of nubile teen coeds in and out of his house at all hours. This is proving troublesome for Quarry, since he never seems to be able to catch the professor alone long enough to do the job he was sent to do. While he's waiting, several new wrinkles that I won't spoil pop up, and before we know it, Quarry's running all over the states of Illinois and Iowa, leaving a trail of dead bodies and, uh, satisfied women in his wake. The ending gives us the sort of plot twist that novels like this often use, but it's unpredictable and packs a powerful emotional punch, so even though you can see by how many pages are left in the story that some bizarre twist is coming, it's still completely satisfying when it gets there.
This book was great. Collins has another Quarry title from Hard Case Crime that I'm going to be looking for in the very near future, and I'll be scouting used book stores for others in the series. If they're even close to this level of quality, I'm sure I'll devour them with gusto.
Agent To The Stars, by John Scalzi
This book is a fun sci-fi romp in which an alien race, having come to Earth, decide that the best way for them to introduce themselves to the human race is to hire a Hollywood agent. The book is told from the agent's point of view, as he attempts to juggle clients and movie offers while simultaneously seeking an original and appealing way to introduce these fundamentally friendly aliens to a culture that tends to think of aliens as hostile threats to our society. Heady issues, but the way Scalzi...more This book is a fun sci-fi romp in which an alien race, having come to Earth, decide that the best way for them to introduce themselves to the human race is to hire a Hollywood agent. The book is told from the agent's point of view, as he attempts to juggle clients and movie offers while simultaneously seeking an original and appealing way to introduce these fundamentally friendly aliens to a culture that tends to think of aliens as hostile threats to our society. Heady issues, but the way Scalzi deals with them is always fun and lighthearted. This novel is a revised version of his first, written a decade ago as a practice novel. He says in the opening author's note that he never intended for it to be published in any other format besides as a free version posted on his website, but that his increase in popularity over the past decade prompted a wider release for it. Reading it, you can tell that it wasn't intended to be some deathless work of serious art, but it indicates a solid level of capability present at the time of its writing in a rather novice writer. The other book I've read by Scalzi, "Android's Dream", is more accomplished but also rather lighthearted, but I get the idea that he's explored a more serious tone in his "Old Man's War" series. I'll be checking that one out soon, because so far I've gotten nothing but enjoyment from his work.
Ex Libris: Confessions Of A Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman
This short book was a quick and easy read, and author Anne Fadiman has an engaging narrative voice. While I could relate to a great deal of her stories about book obsessiveness, though, she sometimes got on my nerves a bit. Her fussy tone and obvious background as a child of privilege was intrusive for me, as someone who tends to prefer vernacular dialects, genre fiction, and trash art, and as someone who lives in near poverty and never expects anything more. Of course, part of my own near-impoverished status is due to my spending every spare dime on books with which to fill my house to bursting, so we have that (and many other things) in common. For that reason, and the reason that this book is far more about my similarities with Ms. Fadiman than my differences with her, I enjoyed this book in the end, even despite the elements of it that occasionally annoyed me. I don't know if I'd enjoy other writing on other subjects by her, but really, any book about how much someone loves to read is going to give me at least some amount of pleasure.
The Cold Spot, by Tom Piccirilli
This is not a typical crime novel, which isn't all that surprising considering the source. I've read a couple of Tom Piccirilli's earlier horror novels, and noticed the surreal, almost psychedelic narrative style he typically used. It made a lot of sense in the context of horror--sort of like a novel version of Argento's giallo horror movies. I wasn't sure how it'd translate to crime fiction, but I figured it'd be worth checking out. Turns out, it works really well. Actually, Piccirilli tones down on the hallucinogenic imagery and narrative choices, but when compared to typical crime fiction, "The Cold Spot" is still pretty unusual. I've read interviews with Piccirilli where he said that he got into writing crime fiction instead of horror because he felt that there were some truly existential veins of deep horror to be explored in the crime context. This story definitely has plenty of that going on. Chase, the main character, suffers tragedy after tragedy, and it permanently changes his outlook on life, driving him towards a position of misfit in mainstream society, as well as a dark outlook that spurs him towards acts of revenge and brutality. I don't want to explain any more than that. I just really liked this book. I like how fucked up and brutal and depressing it is. The existential horror that Piccirilli mentioned is definitely here, perhaps in even greater proportion than it appears in novels by Jim Thompson. A monster in this story would just get in the way of the fact that the humans are the real monsters here.