My Italian Bulldozer

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Alexander McCall Smith is the prolific writer of novels, children’s books, and academic texts probably best known for his bestselling mystery series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He has a vast audience of international readers who buy millions of copies of his books. He has built a thirty-plus year career writing at a rapid pace and publishing a book or more each year, at least for the last two decades. When My Italian Bulldozer was published in 2016, it was one of just five books bearing his name that were published that year. After reading My Italian Bulldozer, I wonder if he maybe ought to slow down a bit.

The journey is rough from the beginning. The clunky opening chapter features three chronological jumps backward to recount different parts of the same conversation between author Paul and his editor Gloria about the dissolution of Paul’s four-year romantic relationship with Becky who has run off with her personal trainer. The time jumps were unnecessary and confusing, and the narrative structure of the chapter would have been stronger without the pointless chronological trickery. This conversation could have been a great opportunity to establish the two characters involved, but instead I spent half of my time wondering why the chapter was being presented in such an odd manner. When a reader begins a book, they want to trust the author but after this first chapter, my trust of McCall Smith was already tenuous.

After the first chapter, Paul crosses the threshold into the main adventure of the book. This part of the story begins well enough as Paul, the author of a popular series of food culture books, is on his way to Italy to spend three weeks in the Tuscan countryside putting the final touches on his most recent book, Paul Stuart’s Tuscan Table. This premise tugs at the reader’s adventurous and romantic strings, hinting at that travel fantasy so many of us share, that desire for true freedom. I took a hesitant, hopeful step toward trusting the author. It was all downhill from there.

A series of completely ridiculous scenarios reveal an unlikable main character with terrible decision-making skills. It is as though McCall Smith has a collection of flashcards of writing prompts and drew from the deck at random to construct the story. Once Paul arrives at his destination, the hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino, he experiences a series of romantic entanglements that reveal Paul to be one of the most fickle characters I have ever seen. Add to this some awful dialogue featuring sentence structures no real speaking human uses, an American character who uses British speech patterns and lingo, and season with a dollop of borderline misogyny. I present to you a real line of dialogue from Alexander McCall Smith’s My Italian Bulldozer:

“She must have been imagining things. Women can be funny about bulldozers.”

What the hecking flip? Let me climb out onto a limb and claim that the vast majority of people, regardless of gender, do not think about bulldozers enough to form any kind of opinion about them. And there is certainly no foundation to support such a generalization about women. By this point in the book, my trust in the author had flatlined but this made me want to throw the book across the room. The dialogue might have been acceptable had the author been constructing a character who expresses a low opinion of women or an archaic view of gender roles, but this is the only such statement or action by that character nor does any other character respond to it in any way. Not to agree with it, not to challenge it. Instead, it is just a stupid line of dialogue that says nothing about anybody except the author.

I generally do not notice an author’s style unless it is exceptionally clever or exceptionally bad. The latter applies here. Granted, this is the first and likely only Alexander McCall Smith book I have or will ever read, but after reading My Italian Bulldozer, I have decided his grade school teachers never uttered the phrase “show, don’t tell”. And what is this thing he does where he states what a character is thinking and then immediately has the character say what they were thinking? It is as though his editor told him the book was too short –my paperback copy is still only 232 pages with half-page character headers—and instructed him to write more. To make matters worse, on some occasions, the thought-then-spoken dialogue is followed by further thought of the character explaining the purpose of their dialogue. To whom is this explanation directed? Does the author not trust his readers to figure out his clever prose or is he just padding his word count? I do not know which offense is worse.

The titular bulldozer is a largely pointless gimmick but does pay off at the end in a completely unsatisfying way. There are so many missed opportunities in this story. The winemaker, whose life we are told is drastically changed by the bulldozer, should have had a much bigger role in the story. He could have been the perfect mentor character, helping Paul navigate the romantic subplots using winemaking and cooking as metaphors for the various stages of love and loss. It was an opportunity for a strong friendship that would have made the this final bulldozer scene a triumphant one for the winemaker and for Paul, but because every character in this novel is as structurally sound as wet toilet paper, this climactic moment and all moments leading up to it mean nothing.

By the book’s flaccid conclusion, I was left with my head in my hands. I rarely feel the urge to abandon a book I am not enjoying, wanting to give the author the every possible chance to turn things around, but this is a book I would have dumped had I not been reading it for a book club. An inconsistent protagonist, weak supporting characters, bad dialogue, and an unsatisfying story make My Italian Bulldozer a disappointing novel I would like to forget but will probably remember for a long time so I can tell all of my friends and family to skip it.

The Travelers

I consider myself an equal opportunity reader but on occasion, I come across a book belonging to a genre I have barely, if ever, touched. I was recently in my local Barnes & Noble Booksellers store, an unnecessary but still tasty cafe mocha in my hand, ambling along the aisles of discounted hardcover novels at the front of the store. There were the usual suspects filling the overstock shelves. James Patterson always has several titles in this section because the man writes a book a month it seems. One or two of Nora Roberts's recent releases beckoned passersby with their colorful covers. A stack of Stephen King waited to creep the heck out of someone. This time, however, my eye was drawn to a new cover I had never seen before, a pale blue background picturing the undersides of passenger airliners in a pattern that made it look like desktop wallpaper. In bold red, an author's name with which I was unfamiliar, and the book title which partially covered the face of a man in a suit standing in a pose that suggested he was on his way somewhere but something to his left had startled him. Next to the man and facing away from him and me, a woman in a coat with upturned collar looking like she is probably up to something. I cannot explain what about this image intrigued me, but I shifted my cafe mocha to my other hand, picked up the book and read the front cover flap. A spy thriller. I pursed my lips in contemplation. I enjoy spy films--the Mission: Impossible series, the underappreciated Brad Pitt/Robert Redford film Spy Game, and the film that made Brangelina a thing, Mr. and Mrs. Smith--but I could not recall ever reading a spy novel. I have seen several James Bond films, but I have never read any of Ian Fleming's work. Did I read Patriot Games in high school? I do not recall finishing it, probably because school work got in the way as it got in the way of everything. No, I could not think of a single spy novel I had ever read or even really wanted to read yet I held in my hands a hardcover copy of Chris Pavone's The Travelers and I was inexplicably drawn to it. And it was heavily discounted. And I had a coupon that specifically stated it could be applied to my entire purchase including already discounted items. I had consumed half of my cafe mocha and it was fueling a blood sugar spike that made me feel reckless and adventurous. Into the shopping basket the book went.

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I started reading The Travelers within a few weeks of bringing it home, which is rare. Usually when I buy a book, I bring it home and it lives in a stack of unread books for a ridiculous period of time. For some reason, I wanted to read this one as soon as possible. If you intend to read The Travelers, dedicate time to it. I started the book in April and finished July 3 and during that time, I read three other books and listened to four audiobooks. Audiobooks are my drive time entertainment (Safety first, kids! Don't read and drive!) and the three physical books were for a book club so those were priority. It is not as though The Travelers did not hold my interest. I just made the mistake of reading it just I began participating in the book club so my leisure reading time was practically nonexistent. So learn from my mistake and mainline The Travelers. There are enough moving parts here that the story deserves your full attention. I enjoyed the story, but because I read it in fits and starts, sometimes with several days or even weeks between reading sessions. I would find myself lost and trying to recall who certain important supporting characters were. Once I focused my attention on the book though, I was so entertained by it that I read the final sixty percent of it in less than a week.

Will Rhodes is a travel writer working for the New York-based print magazine TRAVELERS. During an assignment in St Emilion, France, Will meets an attractive young Australian journalist named Elle Hardwick. The attraction is mutual and intense, but Will is a married man. Still, Elle's allure is powerful and he has a difficult time maintaining his composure and his fidelity. Unfortunately for Will, he meets Elle again on assignment in Argentina where Will's life is fundamentally changed and he embarks on a dangerous and deadly globetrotting adventure. This is one of those "trust nobody" situations and Will learns his lessons the hard way.

The Travelers progresses at a rapid pace with many scenes lasting just a page or two before the reader is whisked away to a new location or a new character perspective, each of which endeavor to tangle the web and confound the reader. Some scenes were so brief and so vague that when they were over, I was left with a "wait, what?" sensation. While that might discourage some readers, it invigorated me. I just knew that unnamed character who just waltzed into the story and said something cryptic was going to pop up again later and I wanted to know more so I kept reading, often well past my bedtime. The conclusion of the story is exciting and satisfying and I was sorry when it was over. The book is a fun ride and I am happy that I finally found a healthy chunk of time to devote to it. Chris Pavone is definitely on my watch list now and I want to check out his debut novel, The Expats. 

The Bookshop on the Corner

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I was looking forward to reading the hopeful story of a young woman who loses her job, takes a risk, and finds her way against all odds. Instead, this is a story of young woman who clears every hurdle with apparent ease because she is cute. This novel is the literary version of a Hallmark Channel movie. Some folks love Hallmark Channel movies and that is perfectly fine. I am not one of those folks and so I found this book frustrating which is also fine. Author Jenny Colgan has built a bestselling career out of writing novels of this style and cheers to her for that. There is an audience for this style of book, but I am not a part of it.

Nina Redmond is a young librarian who is kicked to the curb when her library branch in Birmingham, England is shuttered in favor of a new media center. Now jobless, she has to decide what to do. Nina is a book hoarder with stacks of books choking the pathways of her home and in this trait, I identified with Nina. However, her roommate has had it up to here with the clutter and demands Nina sort it out. Being an avid reader who loves the challenge of suggesting the perfect book for her library guests, Nina decides she will continue to pursue a book-related career and convert her collection of books into a bookshop. She buys a van (I am thinking this van is what we in America might call a box truck), converts the inside into a mobile bookshop , and moves to the Scottish Highlands to cater to the village folk who have not had access to a bookshop or library in many years. While I admired Nina's gumption, this is where the novel falls apart for me.

The entire venture is just too easy for Nina. She never seems to struggle. She says she is struggling, but we never see it. Her bank account is never in the red even after buying a van and moving to a new country. She finds her new residence without having to search or worry about being homeless and it isn't a drafty one room apartment above the pub. No, her new home is a barn that has just been converted into the perfect single lady's home with brand new appliances and 5-star-hotel-quality furnishings. And of course the owner is leasing it for well under market value. And of course the owner is a single, hunky Scottish farmer who harbors an attraction to Nina. I understand this is a fantasy novel, but for the love of books, let me see the hero on the brink of complete failure for a while before she triumphs. Make Nina have to take that cold and noisy room above the pub for a while and be hungry sometimes. Make Nina have to sleep in the truck a few nights and cry herself to sleep, frightened and alone, as she wonders if she has made an awful mistake. Let me see her go several days without a customer because she chose to settle in a small village with a limited customer population instead of what seems like every person in the village clawing at her truck for new books every day because they apparently have unlimited disposable income. Let me see her go from destitute to success through hard work and difficult trials. Instead she arrives in the storybook village, finds her awesome home, and is an instant success the moment she opens the bookshop to the public. The conflicts Nina does experience, some of which are subplots that are discarded without ceremony when the author or protagonist grows bored of them, are superficial compared to the conflicts she should have experienced to make this a journey a fulfilling adventure. 

I purchased this novel because I had just finished reading the challenging The Handmaid's Tale and needed a palette cleanser. While this was an easy read, it was not a satisfying one. I am glad that I expanded my horizons a bit with a genre I do not often touch, but as with each time I read one of these, I am reminded why I do not often read them.

Different Seasons

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Stephen King again? I do seem to feature him a disproportionate amount, but this time with good reason. My friend and now colleague Jeff Garvin and I have launched a podcast, the first episode of which is now available on iTunes, Stitcher, or directly on our website. This is the special project I teased in my July article about The Writer's Journey and I am relieved that it is no longer a secret. As hosts of The Hero's Journey Podcast, Jeff and I will examine classic and contemporary literature and cinema through the lens of Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey and using Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey as the modern guide. It has been a challenging and exciting and, as we raced toward release day, terrifying project. The podcast is all about the common elements of the path the hero takes in almost every story. Episode 0 introduces the concept of the project using examples from Star Wars and Harry Potter, but our first official episode focuses on the Stephen King novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" which was published in 1982 in the collection Different Seasons. We also cite Frank Darabont's wonderful film adaptation The Shawshank Redemption.

For the project, we tasked ourselves only with reading the first story, but I enjoyed it so much that I just kept going and in short order, reached the last page of the entire book. I had not intended to write a blog entry about just the one story, but since I ended up reading all four of them, I figure I might as well exercise the writing muscles once again. So here are my brief thoughts on the lovely Different Seasons.

Hope Springs Eternal

"Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is just the first of four novellas in the Different Seasons collection. It is worth noting that none of the stories in this early Stephen King work are horror stories, proving once again that the man is not just a horror writer. After reading this novella, I was surprised at how lukewarm I felt about it. This is one of those rare instances where the film is better than the source material. King's story is good, but the Frank Darabont film elevates the story and the characters to a much higher level. I have seen the film a dozen times or more and rank it among one of the best films ever made so I am sure I am being unfair to the novella. It is difficult to be objective in this situation. Much of the film's script is a verbatim transcription of the novella so much of that wonderful dialogue is credited to Mr. King, but Darabont's script includes significant changes that tighten things up. Byron Hadley, the cruel captain of the guards, plays a much smaller role in the novella, but the film turns him into a major adversary to great effect. Similarly, the warden Norton is just one of four wardens who run the prison throughout the novella, but the film conflates those into one superb villain played by Bob Gunton in the film. Because the novella has so many wardens, their impact feels minimal and maybe that was intentional on King's part. The prison staff comes and goes, but the inmates remain for the long haul. The film needed a Darth Vader so creating one single warden who antagonizes the inmates from the beginning was an excellent choice. If we are going to side with convicts, we have to hate the man who rules them. For the most part though, if you've seen the film, the novella will not present any surprises. It is still well worth reading.

Summer of Corruption

Following "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is "Apt Pupil". Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer followed up his stellar debut feature film with an adaptation of this novella. It was not received nearly as well as his crime drama and I am sorry to say I have little memory of the film Apt Pupil. This novella, on the other hand, is outstanding and would be my favorite of the collection were it not for the story that follows it. A chilling examination of sociopathy, "Apt Pupil" tells the story of Todd Bowden, a bright, All-American thirteen year old boy who has discovered that a former Nazi officer is living in his neighborhood. Todd is fascinated by the atrocities committed by the Nazis on the Jewish people during World War II and wants to hear the stories directly from someone who personally committed those atrocities. This is not just youthful curiosity, however. Todd derives a sick pleasure from these stories and soon embarks on a path of atrocities all his own. The story is frightening in its plausibility. Todd and Herr Dussander are loathsome characters and I found myself reading voraciously, hoping they would both suffer justice. A brilliant story and one of the best of the collection.

Fall from Innocence

The third story in the collection is "The Body", the inspiration for the 1986 Rob Reiner film Stand By Me, which had a profound effect on me in my formative years. The film is good, but the novella is stellar. Like the previous story, the film version is nearly identical to its source material, but in this case, the source material is the better experience. "The Body" is the story of four young friends who set out to find the body of a boy who had recently gone missing. If you have seen the film, you know that the story is not about the dead boy. The journey is greater than the destination here and the boys' experiences during their search and how those experiences impact the boys' friendship are the true subject of the story. I saw the film at a young age, roughly the same age of the boys in the film, and now I read the novella with a sense of nostalgia and longing, just as it is written by adult Gordie. This is my favorite of the four novellas in the collection.

A Winter's Tale

In the final novella, "The Breathing Method", a is invited by a partner at his firm to join an exclusive club. The club's headquarters has a large, stone hearth with a roaring fire, an extensive library with mysterious books of which he has never heard, a butler who speaks little but always has a glass of scotch ready when you need it, secret rooms with tiny doors. Each Christmas, one member of the club tells a story by the fire. This year, a retired doctor tells a tale of his younger years when his medical practice was new. An unmarried woman seeks prenatal care, socially frowned upon at that period of time, but the doctor agrees to treat her. What begins as a mundane story about the relationship between a young doctor and his patient during her pregnancy ends with a supernatural twist. This is definitely the strangest and most disjointed of the four novellas. So much time is spent on the man joining the club and his odd experiences within that I thought this was his tale, but all of that just serves as a conduit to transport us to the point where he hears the aging doctor tell his story. The real story is about and by the doctor so I wonder why King did not just start the story with him rather than insert him into this other strange tale that does not actually go anywhere. As good as "The Breathing Method" is, it is my least favorite, a statement that meant to elevate the other three stories rather than demean this one.

What struck me with this collection is how each novella featured literature and storytelling as a part of its narrative. In "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption", the story is a journal written by Red and Andy spends considerable effort to expand the prison library. In "Apt Pupil", Todd tells his parents he is reading classic literature to the sweet old man down the road. "The Body" is a story written by an adult Gordie who has matured to become a published author and within the novella are shorter stories written by a younger Gordie. In "The Breathing Method", the club members tell stories to each other when they are not reading from the club's extensive library. Books and writing are often a feature of Stephen King's novels. Misery is about a famous author held captive by his "number one fan". The Dark Half is about an author who disposes of his literary pseudonym in a mock burial only to have the alter ego manifest itself as a physical being and terrorize the author and his family. This was a cheeky meta novel written after King was exposed as the true talent behind the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The Shining and Bag of Bones also feature authors as the central character. King's love of reading and writing is all too apparent throughout his body of work and it is difficult to resist being infected by it. Why would I want to resist anyway? This is one infection I will happily host and spread.

11/22/63

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When I was approximately twelve years old, I experienced my introduction to Stephen King when I read the unabridged edition of The Stand. My parents raised me to be a reader so I had read hundreds of books but they had all been age-appropriate: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Bridge to Terabithia, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Old Yeller, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and any number of Newbery Award winners my mom would bring home to feed my brain. Stephen King's The Stand was my first adult novel. Being the age I was, it felt dangerous and exciting to be reading that book. Even as I and the books I had been reading grew from elementary school to junior high school, nothing had yet reached the level of scale and depth I would experience with The Stand. It took me an entire summer to read it, but I adored every page and became a Stephen King fan for life.

Fast forward a couple-few decades and King is writing books faster than I can read them. Every time I feel like I have made some good headway into his body of work, I glance at an updated bibliography and am stunned by what I see. A year ago, my friend Jeff began pestering me to read 11/22/63. I owned a copy, a gift from a friend if I recall correctly, but I kept postponing it. This is a big book and I had allowed the volume of the novel to intimidate me. I am not twelve anymore and I had convinced myself that I did not have the free time to devote to such a large novel. Why not, though? I read the equally robust Under the Dome a few years ago and adored it. I had devoted time to books one and two of Patrick Rothfuss's beefy Kingkiller Chronicle. I was making excuses, weak ones at that, so I finally dove in.

Stephen King is known for his horror novels, but he has not limited himself to the genre. He branches out more often than most people realize and when he does, I find the result just as satisfying. 11/22/63 is just one of King's several non-horror novels and it is superb. A modern moral question with which we are often presented is whether we would travel back in time to kill an infant Adolf Hitler if we had the opportunity. King explores a similar argument in 11/22/63, but instead of asking whether it is OK to murder a baby if you know it grows up to be a monster, he suggests a more heroic path and asks what would happen if someone had the chance to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is a brilliant novel, masterfully constructed, and so much fun.

When English literature teacher Jake Epping is shown a portal to the past tucked away in the storage room of his neighborhood diner, he is not sure he believes his eyes. The diner owner, Al, says the portal always exits the same date and time in 1958 and he has been using it to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. Now, Al has taken ill, is unable to continue, and needs Jake to take his place. He warns Jake, though, that the past does not want to be changed and it will try to stop him every step of the way. With the portal dumping him into 1958, he will have to wait five years before he can attempt to stop the 1963 Kennedy assassination. That is a long time for the past to fight back. Jake agrees to take on the challenge and what follows is a wonderful story of perseverance and consequence.

I worried that the five-year gap Jake has to fill before he can attempt to save Kennedy was going to be a long-winded slog, but I should have trusted Stephen King. I was absolutely fascinated by Jake's activities during that period. As time marches toward the inevitable, Jake takes the opportunity to practice changing the past to varying degrees of success, all of which threaten his ultimate goal. Stephen King has always excelled at character. Whether his novels focus on a small number of characters or feature a huge cast, his characters are complex, interesting, and devastatingly human. They represent the best and worst of humanity and with a few exceptions, all are plausible. King introduces Jake to some great characters and even manages to humanize Lee Harvey Oswald. I am not saying the guy was a lovable chap I would invite over to watch Game of Thrones, but I found myself recognizing Oswald as something more than a simple villain and that is a testament to Stephen King's otherworldly ability to write characters who inspire one to read well past one's bedtime, even on a school night.

For longtime King fans, this story fits nicely into his established literary universe and there are references to previous works that I suspect will delight you. If this is your first Stephen King novel, there is no reason whatsoever for you to not enjoy this amazing story fully even without the knowledge of King's previous work and settings. Time travel is a difficult subject to write convincingly because there are so many questions, so many logical arguments. King's solution to this conundrum—I do not read a lot of time travel stories myself so it may not be entirely original—erases the need for these arguments and allows the reader the glorious freedom to just enjoy the story as it is presented and if one allows oneself that beautiful experience, the reward is so well worth it. This story is thrilling, intense, and full of moments that will make you forget to breathe, and if you are the type of person who enjoys a bit of romance in your novels, this story will kick you in the teeth. Is this book sitting on your TBR pile? Put it on the top. Right now. I will allow you to finish your current read, but 11/22/63 needs to be next on your list. I am not even kidding.

Carrion Comfort

It takes effort to read a Dan Simmons novel. I do not mean to say they are especially difficult or that they are dull or bloated. Quite the opposite, actually. I find his novels wonderfully creative and entertaining. By effort, I mean I must be prepared to commit time to a Dan Simmons novel. In general, his novels are long and thus time consuming, but I also want to be sure I am ready to immerse myself fully in the story because his novels deserve that kind of participation. His novels are involved, meaty affairs that can consume a reader if a reader allows it to happen. Carrion Comfort is no different. The 20th Anniversary edition from Thomas Dunne Books clocks in at 767 pages of some of the greatest storytelling I have ever experienced.

The anniversary edition I read includes a new thirty-page introduction in which Dan Simmons recounts this novel’s arduous road to publication. Knowing that story makes me appreciate this novel –and the author himself—even more. Finally published in 1989 after years of editorial nightmare, Carrion Comfort went on to win the Locus Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the British Fantasy Award. Not bad for a novel Simmons was once told by the second of three editors to scrap and start over from scratch.

Carrion Comfort is the epic story of a group of individuals with the Ability, a mutation that grants them the power to telepathically control other people. As one would expect, this power corrupts absolutely and these people use the Ability for evil, forcing their innocent victims to do awful things. These vile people form a cabal and rise to positions of power, influence, and affluence. They use their ability for the benefit of nobody but themselves. They play games with each other, using innocent citizens as puppets in violent games with deadly outcomes. It is frightening to consider what these people could do in the real world. Then again, maybe they already exist. Consider some of the most awful figures in historical and contemporary time and ponder how they achieved their elevated status while continuing to be disgusting individuals. What sane person would allow such a beast to rise to such a level? Carrion Comfort suggests these monsters may have stolen their success through the forced and violent mental influence of others. A frightening thought.

Dan Simmons has crafted a fantastic story and populated it with rich characters deserving of your empathy, encouragement, and ire. The villains of the story are so despicable that I rooted for their comeuppance with a visceral fury. The heroes, innocent people who begin as victims, find strength in each other and band together to battle the menace in a class good versus evil struggle. I yearned so ardently for their victory, crying out for retribution or at least revenge. The novel’s structure drove me forward into late nights. With so many characters in play, Simmons presents a scene from one character’s perspective and often, a supporting character winds up in a perilous situation. Considering how that supporting character was sitting down to a leisurely breakfast the last time I saw them, I was compelled to immediately read the following chapter which jumps back briefly in time to tell the story of how that supporting character, now the primary perspective character for the chapter, wound up in the predicament described in the previous chapter. It is an effective structure that helped me tear through this large novel in record time.  One thing I must add is that Carrion Comfort contains the most exciting chess game I have ever read. That’s right. A chess game. Narrated move for move. And I was on the edge of my seat, squirming with anticipation the entire time.

This is a novel about how those with power use it to commit violence upon the powerless. The violence is diverse and not always physical. Mental and emotional violence are real things and this is a known fact to anyone who has ever fallen victim to a bully. Some of this violence should come with a trigger warning. There are a couple of rape scenes in this book so readers who are sensitive to such things may want to steer clear, but for everyone else, Carrion Comfort is a tremendous story. Stephen King called it one of the three best horror novels of the twentieth century. Who am I to argue with the master himself?

Caliban's War

Caliban’s War, the second of the planned six-volume The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, is fast-paced, high-caliber science fiction. With higher stakes, political intrigue spanning the Solar System, exciting ship-to-ship space battles, and a powerful monster of unknown origin, Caliban’s War is a sequel worthy of its outstanding predecessor, Leviathan Wakes.

The two-man writing team who make up the literary persona of James S. A. Corey maintained the successful narrative structure they established in book one with brief chapters of approximately ten pages each presented from the perspective of a series of alternating characters. The brevity of the chapters and the rotating perspectives give the novel a sensation of rapid and perpetual forward motion. It is a somewhat long novel at just five pages shy of six hundred, but I read it in two weeks, which is rather quick for a reader like me who tends to plod through books. This is one was hard to put down and succeeded in transporting me into its world so successfully that a couple of times a voice or a ringing phone would shake me from my reverie and leave me feeling disoriented for a few moments. That is the very definition of engrossing.

The cast list has increased since the first novel. Leviathan Wakes was centered on two main characters, Captain Holden and Detective Miller, with each chapter alternating between them, making the story a bit of a tennis match. Caliban’s War doubles the quantity of point-of-view characters which causes the alternating chapters to feel more like an impressive juggling act. I have read several books recently that use this narrative structure and I find it keeps the story moving. So many of the books I have read in the past have been told from a single character’s perspective so the recent string of multi-perspective stories I have experienced feels like the new hotness, though I know the method is as old as storytelling itself.

The Han Solo-esque Captain Holden returns to command the Rocinante and her crew. New to the series is Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine who exemplifies honor and courage, even as she wages an internal war with herself about where her loyalties should lie as a steady stream of new information pulls her in multiple directions. I loved this new character and the way Corey handled her.  It would have been so easy to make the badass marine the stereotypical masculine woman, but Corey ditches that nonsense and grants her moments of strength and vulnerability. She is reminiscent of Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, only bigger and tougher. Praxidike Meng is an agricultural scientist searching for his daughter amid the chaos of a sudden shooting war that destroys his peaceful life. He is the everyman of the story, reacting with fear, confusion, impulse, and instinct. Chrisjen Avasarala is a high-powered politician who can move entire fleets with one call. As the situation seems to spiral out of control for Holden, Bobbie, and Prax, it is Avasarala’s job, from her opulent office on Earth, to right the ship, correct the course, and hopefully save millions of lives in the process. On the downward side of middle age, she is feisty, foul-mouthed, abrasive, and reminded me so much of a person with whom I used to work that I found myself laughing in recognition of her character. The disclaimer at the front of the novel, as in every novel, says similarities to real people are coincidental but boy-howdy, Corey grabbed this woman from my real life and stuffed her into their book. All of these people, including the supporting characters, are so well-written that I probably could have figured out who was speaking even without dialogue attribution.

Science fiction authors handle space travel in a variety of ways. You have the lightspeed/warpdrive travel of pulp science fiction where passengers are free to wander about the ship normally due to gravity-controlled environments. There are the hard SF novels that go into exhaustive depth on the science of what actual interplanetary –or farther—space travel would do to a human being’s physical and mental acuity. James S. A. Corey seems to take a slightly ‘middle of the road veering slightly more toward pulp because it is more fun’ approach. Space travel is hard on the body with the G-forces of exceptionally fast travel causing limbs to occasionally pop out of joint, blackouts and nausea. Crew and passengers must be strapped into crash couches to prevent them from violently bouncing around the interior of the ship and they certainly cannot pop down to the restaurant deck to have Whoopi Goldberg mix them up a cocktail. I enjoy Corey’s take on it. There is enough science in there to make it plausible, but they still allow themselves to tell a fun story.

Speaking of story, this one is pure fun. There are so many rugs pulled out from under so many feet, conflicts upon conflicts, it constantly feels like everything is falling apart. Watching these characters navigate the challenges into which Corey plunges them made me feel as I felt when I was a wide-eyed young boy watching Star Wars, holding my breath, gripping the edge of my chair, and uttering lightsaber hums.

If you are a fan of action-oriented science fiction, this series is for you. If you have not read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, definitely start there. And get comfortable because hours may pass without you realizing it.

Sleeping Giants

I heard about Sleeping Giants on Instagram. I discovered an entire community of fellow bibliophiles there two months ago and I found myself drawn to the platform much more than I ever had been before. Some of these people are talented and creative photographers. Even my best photos pale in comparison to what some of these folks post, but their photos inspire me to try new things. Participating in the #bookstagram community has been a wonderful experience, broadening my awareness of the literature around me and challenging me to find new and interesting ways to take photographs of books. That last bit is not something I ever thought I would say, let alone take part in. Taking pictures of books as a hobby? What? I have met several great people and we all share a love of books and reading and they have introduced me to several new authors and titles. I am grateful to them for that.

Instagram user @sumaiyya.books hosted a July read-along of Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel Sleeping Giants. I was unfamiliar with the author and the book, but I wanted to dig deeper into this new community I had discovered so I purchased the book and started reading. The novel begins with a standard narrative style and follows a young girl riding her bicycle. She falls through a hole in the ground and finds herself in a perfectly square hole. When her rescuers arrive, they look down and see the young girl sitting in the palm of a giant metal hand. From there, the rest of the novel is told through interview transcripts, audio logs, and news articles as a small and secret team of scientists and soldiers studies this mysterious hand of unknown origin.

In the beginning, I was disappointed by the structure of the novel. I worried that by experiencing the story through interview transcripts, I would miss out on what I hoped would be the kind of meaty passages that give science fiction its wonderful flavors and setting. However, the author found ways to provide those moments through his characters’ voices as they recount their experiences in their own words. After a few short chapters, I found I had been transported into the book’s world and I forgot I was reading interview transcripts. Neuvel does a great job of establishing clear voices for the handful of primary characters at the center of his tale, especially the Interviewer, a faceless entity who seems to be everywhere at once. It would have been so easy for the Interviewer to be flat and uninteresting, but I found myself more interested in him –I think it is a he— and his origin than any of the other characters, not that the others weren’t interesting as well. Perhaps I was simply drawn to the mystery. We always want what we cannot have.

I would like to specifically point out that this is the fifth book I have read in a row that includes a strong female character. I am of a generation who feels women are equal to men, I was raised by a strong woman, and I am married to a strong woman, so it is gratifying to see female characters who are not merely window dressing and damsels in distress. It may just be luck of the draw, but I would prefer to believe strong female characters are becoming the norm rather than the exception. This is a year where America might elect its first female President. Perhaps the celestial bodies are aligning. Perhaps it is kismet.

Sleeping Giants is great fun, a perfect summer science fiction book that found me just when I needed it. I am happy I decided to jump on board the Instagram read-along. I did not know prior to purchasing the book that it is book one of a series. I do not know how long Neuvel plans to continue the series (he says at least three books, but maybe more), but if book two is as fun as Sleeping Giants, I am in for the long haul.

All the Light We Cannot See

My mother mailed her copy of Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See to me several months ago. She and my father and my grandmother pass books around like a joint at a college party –not that I would know anything about that. When they finish reading a book, they write their initials and the date they finished the book on the first page. This is an important ritual for them for as much as they read, it is easy to forget whether one has read the book being passed to them. It is also an interesting communal exercise, making one’s mark upon a shared experience.

I placed the book at the top of my pile of unread books and as the weeks droned by, it shifted ever lower on the stack as I continued to add new books to the top of the pile. It was not as though I did not want to read the book. It had several points in its favor already:  all three of my aforementioned family members read it and enjoyed it, they thought so highly of it that they mailed their copy to me, and the book was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Still, I found it difficult to be in the mood to read it. I had made the unforgivable error of judging the book by its cover. It is a pretty cover, but dour. The blue color palette is infected with a green tint, turning sickly the image of what I would expect is a beautiful seaside city. The somber cover seemed to suggest there was no joy to be found within the pages. Finally, after a telephone call during which my mother playfully shamed me for not having read it yet, and having just finished what had been my current read, I gritted my teeth and withdrew the book from the lower half of my pile of unread books.

This book is beautiful. I loved it. I have enjoyed several books recently, even given them five-star ratings on goodreads.com, but I have not loved a book since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  With All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr presents to the world a heartwarming and heartbreaking story of Marie-Laure, a young, sightless girl struggling to survive during the German occupation of France during World War II. Marie-Laure lives in France with her father, a man devoted to his young daughter in a way that made me wish I had a daughter of my own so I could devote myself to her just as much. Their relationship was sweet and wonderful. The sacrifices he makes for her empower her, force her to think critically and creatively, pay attention to her surroundings. Instead of giving up and letting his blind daughter be a helpless burden, Marie-Laure’s father teaches her to live with her disability, not suffer it. Doerr’s descriptions of Marie-Laure’s world are limited to sound, smell, and touch and he does such a magnificent job of helping the reader experience the girl’s sometimes frightening world through her senses. Through Marie-Laure’s experiences, I found new wonder for the world around me.

A simultaneous timeline is told in alternating chapters, introducing us to Werner, a young German boy growing up in an orphanage with his younger sister. We meet Werner as an innocent boy with a penchant for radio repair and follow him to his conscription as a cog in the Third Reich’s war machine. In telling Werner’s story, Doerr performs the impressive feat of humanizing a German soldier during World War II, men many non-Germans find it easy to believe were monstrous people. How could we not after what they did? Werner’s story reminds us that many German soldiers were normal people, young boys plucked from their civilian lives and thrown into terrifying combat. They were told it was their patriotic duty. They often felt there was no other option. They were not all members of the vicious Einsatzgruppen. Werner is a typical kid aside from being a savant of radio repair. He is curious about the world around him, loves his sister, and enjoys listening to educational French radio programs with her and the other orphans at their home. He is not the bloodthirsty, violent, anti-Semite we grow up reading about in our history schoolbooks. Neither is his friend, Frederick, a frail but strong-hearted boy fascinated by birds. Neither is his squad mate, Volkheimer, a mountainous young man who enjoys classical music and who looks after Werner like a little brother. They are just boys and young men stuck in an awful place at an awful time and they do what they need to do to come out the other side alive. It is a tremendous achievement to be able to tell Werner’s story in such a way as to make the reader nearly forget they are rooting for one of Hitler’s soldiers. Werner’s story was far and away my favorite part of the novel.

When I read the last lovely page, I sighed contentedly like a hound dog lazing in a patch of sunlight, and wrote my initials and the date on the front page next to those of my grandmother, my mother, and my father. To whom shall I send this copy next?

In the Country of Last Things

I do not quite know how to reconcile In the Country of Last Things in my head right now. This is a bleak story, one that does not leave much room for optimism. When young Anna Blume arrives in the city after the collapse of civilization, things are bad. The city is tearing itself apart, a victim of the animal nature of humanity devoid of its societal manners. Anna arrives looking for her brother who has been missing for nearly a year and in an environment such as this, he is either dead or it would serve Anna best to assume he is, turn around and go home to what is alluded throughout the story to be a privileged life. In the city though, Anna’s life is one of transience and even when she does have a roof over her head, the gift is fleeting and soon torn away from her. Nothing good seems to happen to her, even when it does.

The story is a harsh critique of modern society, of our reliance –even insistence—on the luxuries of life, on creature comforts. We do not appreciate what we have now and it will take losing it to show us how selfish and awful we all are. It is a pessimistic book.  Cynical.  It is an honest and ugly look in the mirror and I did not like the face that stared back.  You think you have First World problems now?  Wait until the collapse of civilization and then you’ll wish you could go back to the good old days when shoddy cell phone connections were the worst of your problems.  Try stuffing newspapers into your clothes to ward off the cold or collecting garbage in a rusted shopping cart hoping you can trade for food.  These are problems and none of us are ready for them.

The book is a letter written by Anna to an unknown recipient, scribbled into a battered blue notebook with whatever writing instrument Anna is able to find.  Funny how we would take something like a pencil for granted. It isn’t even known if the letter is sent. Was all of her effort for naught, even if she says she will be okay if the letter is never read? So much time spent in vain.  But we have found the letter, haven’t we, so Anna’s story is not lost.  She is a wonderful character, kind, honest, hopeful despite the challenges she faces.  She is industrious, working hard to survive but also doing what she can to help others when finds equally kind people in her broken world.  She is a bright spot in a dark place.  How many of us will be like her when humanity fails itself and how many of us will try to twist what remains of the world in to a Mad Maxian dystopia?  I fear a greater percentage will take the latter route which will make those of us who choose the former a rare breed rapidly.

This story is not quite as dismal as Cormac McCarthy’s superb The Road, but it is close. The resolution is equally ambiguous, which leaves the reader to decide for themselves, depending on how cynical a person they are, whether anything good happens to Anna again. Given how everything Anna Blume experienced went from bad to worse and because I am a Level 6 Cynic with a -2 to my Optimism skill, I am inclined to think her life continued to be difficult for the remainder of her days, however many of those there may have been.  Dare I allow myself to hope she finds a better place?  I am at a point in my life where I am pessimistic about the future and the nature of humanity, especially given recent global events.  My friend, Mara, who nearly demanded that I read this book –which is her favorite of all time and has read it multiple times in multiple languages— is much more optimistic and actually manages to find hope in the story where I found despair.  Then again, she is the kind of person who is able to see the good in people even when they cannot see it in themselves.  So I hope she is right and Anna Blume ends up okay in the end.  I would like to think so, for the sake of all of us.

Symptoms of Being Human

I did not know what gender fluidity was until I heard about Symptoms of Being Human and reading it was an eye opening experience. Jeff Garvin, a cis male (born male and identifies as male) author, is audacious to write a first person novel from the perspective of a gender fluid teen.  Time will tell how the LGBTQ community responds to this novel, but my hope is that they accept and appreciate this work by one of their staunch allies rather than view it as an invasion of their community by an outsider.  I hope they realize that by writing this novel, Garvin is attempting to understand the community, relate to it, support it, and inspire his readers to do the same.  Sadly, I have already seen a couple of reviews from members of the LGBTQ community who lash out at Garvin for being a straight, white male and daring to pretend he knows anything about what they are going through.  This is as close-minded a perspective as that of those who still consider non-cis gender identity to be a mental illness.  We all need friends and to shove away someone who is clearly a supporter is daft.

Garvin has stated in several interviews that he was a victim of bullying in school. I, too, experienced bullying from early elementary school through high school so I feel like I am qualified to claim Garvin’s depiction of bullying and its effect on the victim is authentic in the worst way. I felt terrible watching the novel’s charming protagonist Riley suffer those experiences. When an author creates a character they want you to like and then puts them in awful situations, they hope you squirm and feel uncomfortable. I found myself grinding my teeth to the point my jaw ached. Ah, the memories, but my experiences cannot hold a candle to what Riley endures. I was just a small, shy kid, but at least I was a boy who looked like a boy and acted like a boy. At least I think I did. Riley is subjected to a more severe brand of bullying that is all too prevalent for people in the LGBTQ community. Drawing upon a year of research and his own experiences as a victim of bullying, Garvin writes some terribly realistic scenes that quickened my heart rate and left me short of breath. I suspect this is exactly the reaction Garvin wanted to invoke.

During his book release event, Garvin says he intentionally left Riley’s birth-assigned gender unstated. As I began to read the book, my main concern was how he would do this in a believable, organic way and would not end up being a cheap trick. The task must have been monumental. We are  conditioned to assign gender identity, even to inanimate objects. I feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for the translators working on the foreign language editions of this book. In the English language, the definite article the is neutral, but think about languages like Spanish, French, German. All of them have gender-specific definite articles:  el/la, le/la, der/die. Gender is a part of our culture. Gender is a part of our society. When we are reading, knowing a character’s gender guides us in imagining that character. When gender is intentionally avoided, it feels odd, like something shameful is being hidden. It is a difficult trick, writing a book about not applying gender labels to people while constantly discussing gender labels. There was just one brief moment when a character said something in a gender neutral way that sounded awkward and not at all the way that particular character would talk but for the most part Garvin executes a clever and deft sleight of hand.

Allow me to add my voice to chorus of reviewers who read and write faster than I in saying Riley is a wonderful character. Riley is witty, anxious, compassionate, introspective, smart-mouthed. Riley is relatable and, most importantly, undeniably human. Garvin’s ability to write painful introspection breathes vibrant life into a character that so easily could have seemed false and two-dimensional. Riley is an important entry into the world of literary characters that inspire real people to do extraordinary things and I hope serves as a positive influence to even just one person out there who is struggling with the same situation. All of the characters in this novel are well-written –Solo is particularly the kind of person I would have enjoyed knowing—and I have a memory of each one of them from high school. Their names may be different, but they and their quirks were definitely there. Their interactions with Riley are so very chillingly, maddeningly real. Garvin even manages to generate some modicum of sympathy for the bullies, which is no small task considering most readers will want the freedom to universally revile them. The glimpses into their lives humanizes them and reminds us that, as Solo says, “high school sucks for everyone”.

Symptoms of Being Human is an important novel.  It is an important book.  It is honest, uncomfortable, emotionally raw and genuine. I am sending copies to my parents, to my niece, and sharing copies with office colleagues. This book needs to be read. It might not change the minds of bigots, but for everyone else open-minded enough and empathetic enough and human enough, this could be an important work of fiction that educates uninformed readers like me about a part of the real world that is only going to grow larger as tolerance, acceptance, and understanding progress.

Aurora

Reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2013 novel Shaman (which I discussed here back in June 2014) reminded me of how much I enjoy Kim Stanley Robinson.  I was browsing YouTube one lazy weekend morning last Spring when I stumbled upon this video of Kim Stanley Robinson discussing the concept of his forthcoming novel, Aurora:

In eight minutes, Robinson had me chomping at the bit. His description of a multi-generational spaceship constructed with multiple biomes representing the major ecosystems of Earth fired my imagination in a way I had not experienced in a long time. The two months I had to wait until the book’s release felt long but finally July 7, 2015 arrived. I bought a copy at my local Barnes & Noble during my lunch break and began reading it that same evening. I cannot remember the last time I was so excited about a book that I bought and started reading it on release day.

There are some books one can read just for fun and other books that, like the works of Kim Stanley Robinson, require effort. That is part of what I enjoy so much about his novels. While they are not pulp science fiction, they are approachable. Robinson stops just short of being too difficult to comprehend or at least ponder. It is as though he expects his readers to possess above-average intelligence and rewards us with stories that challenge us to dream big.

When the story begins, the spaceship is already en route to Tau Ceti, a star system 12 light years from Earth. Because it will take a couple hundred years for the ship to reach the Tau Ceti system, the population of the ship at the beginning of the story is composed of the children of the children of the original travelers. That thought blew my mind. Imagine living your entire lifespan within the confines of a starship having never stood on real ground, having never breathed non-recycled air from a real atmosphere, and having never traveled to another country in a manner that did not involve simply opening the door from one part of the ship to another. How congested that environment must have felt.

As with all of the Kim Stanley Robinson novels I have read, the characters in Aurora are wonderfully realized. They are people with dreams and fears, ideas and doubts. They have goals that do not always align with the goals of others and the conflicts that arise are written in such a human way—quite the trick considering a computer is writing the narrative! How often do you hear readers complain that the characters in a particular novel or film do not talk the way people actually talk or do not behave the way real people would behave in stressful situations? You will hear none of that from readers of Aurora. Kim Stanley Robinson is masterful in his portrayal of the sociological and political machinations of people and populations.

The most fascinating aspect of this novel is the exploration of language. The majority of the novel is narrated by the ship’s computer. Encouraged by one of the ship’s crew to practice narrative style, the ship begins the story in a very simple manner, almost as though a child were writing the story. As the ship learns about narrative style, the narrative style of the book transforms. There are long passages early in the novel where the narration involves large blocks of information that, which factually accurate, may not be important to the story because the ship does not know if what it is narrating is important or how it fits into the story it is telling. The ship's musings on the flaws of human language, of metaphors and simile, add some welcome humor to the story. As the ship’s narrative skill improves, the novel itself becomes a gripping and sometimes heartbreaking tale of mankind’s journey to a distant star system in search of a habitable planetary body.

In the end, the story is about humanity’s interaction with its environment. It is a beautiful story and while it did not go where I thought it would go, I enjoyed it immensely. Kim Stanley Robinson has proven once again that he is one of our finest authors of speculative fiction.

All the Birds, Singing

On weekend mornings, I enjoy opening the window beside my writing desk and listening to bird songs while I sip a cup of coffee.  I find it to be a calming experience.  A chirping bird sounds so happy.  Ever since I was a child, watching birds in flight has filled me with an almost dizzying sense of relaxation, of freedom, of positivity.  In All the Birds, Singing however, birds are symbols of sorrow, of isolation, and of death.  Despite such themes, All the Birds, Singing is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time.  The novel, the second from Evie Wyld and for which she earned the 2013 Encore Award for Best Second Novel, is elegant with a fascinating story and an intriguing lead character.

An ominous opening line sets the stage:  “Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.”  Whoa.  What a great first sentence!  This tone flows through the entire novel, infusing it with dread and unease.  Even so, I found myself smiling often at the beauty of Wyld’s use of language and even laughing aloud as she mercifully injects moments of humor into the bleak story.  Some of the situations in which Wyld’s characters find themselves are so real and so ridiculously human (humanly ridiculous?) that one cannot help but feel empathy, and thus laugh.  Honestly, what does one shout at a charging sheep to frighten it away?  Such lighthearted moments are brief, however, for the storm clouds roll in fast and the story takes another dark step.  Like oranges in Coppola’s The Godfather, birds seem to always be there, warning of unpleasantness.

As much as a teenaged Jake feared her life would be mundane and ordinary, it seems to have been anything but.  It has been far from a happy life, though.  Jake Whyte, who sleeps with a hammer under her pillow, has suffered more than most people ever should.  She was dealt a rotten hand, but was made the best of it anyway, exhibiting a survival instinct that demands respect.  Throughout the novel, Jake expresses great empathy for animals.  Just as cruelty to animals is often a warning sign that a person may possess psychopathic tendencies, might the opposite be true?  Most humans have brought Jake nothing but trouble, but she recognizes the innocence and instinct of animal behavior.  Despite hints throughout the story that she had done something awful in her past, it is her treatment of animals that informed me of her good nature.

Jake’s story is told in two chronologically divergent timelines:  her present life moves forward, her history is told in reverse.  As we get to know the adult Jake, forced to grow up far too early and bearing physical scars to mirror the emotional ones, alternate chapters march us backward in time giving us a look at her younger years and the events that led to her to her present place of mind.  The promise of learning the true nature of Jake’s awful deed was a wonderfully effective carrot on a stick.

Whether we are in Jake’s present in the isolated English countryside or in Jake’s past in baked Australia, the setting is vibrant.  In Australia, the heat is omnipresent.  It dries the landscape and fries the flesh of the characters.  Reading Wyld’s descriptions of the Australian desert, I could feel the moisture evaporate from my pores.  My skin dried, my tongue swelled, and all I wanted was a gulp of cold water.  When in England, it seems to always rain, a permanent chill in the air.  I found myself wanting a shot of warming whiskey.  The scenes in England felt so dreary, the sky so low and dark compared to the high, blue Australian sky.  Both landscapes, as written by Wyld, are simultaneously beautiful as raw nature and dreadful as a human environment.

With All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld has leapt onto my list of authors to watch.  I am pleased to say I received a copy of her debut novel After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (her titles are poetic, yes?) as a gift so I have more Evie Wyld in my future.  I look forward to sitting with the book, steaming cup of coffee in hand as bird songs bespeaking of no ill omen at all drift through the open window.

One Second After

In the afterword to One Second After, William Forstchen’s novel of a small American town struggling to survive after an electromagnetic pulse disables all electronics in the United States, USN Captain William Sanders claims such an attack is possible, states that our nation is entirely unprepared for it and suggests this novel should serve as a wake-up call.  The author bio states William Forstchen holds a Ph.D. from Purdue in military history and the history of technology and is a professor of history at Montreat College in North Carolina so it is safe to say the man knows what he is talking about.  The story he crafts is scary in its authenticity, but I found the execution lacking.

Forstchen’s setting and the rippling effects of the EMP attack are the strongest aspects of his novel.  No electricity means no refrigeration which means rapidly spoiling food and medicines like insulin.  There are approximately six million American diabetes sufferers who require insulin and without it, they will die within a matter of weeks.  With our economy so largely dependent upon electronic transfer of currency, banks and retail cannot function.  When people are unable to access their money, they panic and panic breeds violence.  Commercial airliners, their systems dependent upon on-board electronics, fall from the skies.  According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are approximately seven thousand airplanes in the air over the United States at any given time.  Many of those are commercial airliners with hundreds of passengers aboard.  Every modern road vehicle with a computer becomes a giant paperweight.  Roads and highways become as clogged as a bacon-lover’s arteries.  Even modern trains have computers.  No airplanes, trains, and road vehicles means no freight.  Food grown in the Midwest cannot be delivered to its destination and so it sits, rotting.  No fresh water, no telephones, no radio.  Entire cities and communities are cut off from the world.  The less moral among us begin to cause trouble just because they can.  They form gangs and terrorize, steal, rape, murder.  All of this is frighteningly and believably portrayed in One Second After.

I have huge issues with the novel, however.  It is patriotic in the extreme.  While I can appreciate the portrayal of American ingenuity, community, and resolve as the qualities that win the day, Forstchen takes it too far.  Several times, during heated arguments about the correct course of action, the less desirable option is rejected because “we are still Americans”.  How about argue that the a particular course of action is the right one to take and explain why instead of just saluting Old Glory and suggesting supporters of the alternative action are un-American?  This short-sighted and weak perspective is often used by people who are incapable of supporting their argument.  Further, people break into pro-America songs at the most ridiculous moments.  Think of the little girl suddenly singing “America the Beautiful” in the 1997 film The Postman.  It is a laughable scene in the film and it happens multiple times in One Second After.  I have never engaged in so much eye-rolling while reading a novel in my entire life.

I also had issues with Forstchen’s style and language, the most aggravating being the author’s unforgivable incorrect contractions of could have, should have, and would have.  The correct contraction of should have is should’ve, not should of as Forstchen writes.  It is not just a one-time mistake.  He does it every instance, of which there are many.  Yes, when spoken aloud, should’ve sounds like should of but this does not mean it is an acceptable spelling.  The error is so pervasive that it yanked me right out of the story every time it happened.  Some authors, notably John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, intentionally use incorrect language in dialogue to portray characters as uneducated.  Forstchen cannot claim this literary device.  None of his characters are illiterate bumpkins like Steinbeck’s Joad family.  This is just poor use of language and it is inexcusable. 

I found Forstchen’s dialogue attribution lazy.  Far too often, a character will join or begin a conversation and Forstchen, instead of surrounding the dialogue with action bringing the character into the scene, simply says It was [character name].  This dialogue attribution should be used sparingly.  I find it most effective when used to suggest other characters in the scene are surprised by the sudden appearance of the speaker.  Either Forstchen cannot write good description introducing a character to a scene or all of his characters live life being startled when anyone else speaks.

I like the premise of One Second After.  Forstchen’s small town setting is good.  His characters behave in a believable way given their rapidly deteriorating circumstances.  The novel is paced well and the story entertained me, but the points against it –poor style and super-saccharine patriotism— far outweigh the positives.  I strongly recommend Stephen King’s Under the Dome and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as superior end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories.

100 Sideways Miles

100SidewaysMiles_cover

Mom read a review of Andrew Smith’s 100 Sideways Miles in her local newspaper – she is olde tyme – that made the book sound like one of the funniest, most heartwarming novels to come along in a years.  She even clipped the article from the newspaper and mailed it to me ahead of the book shipment.  I wish I had saved that clipping and more than that, I wish I had read the same book the newspaper’s reviewer had read.  That book sounded wonderful.  The one I ended up with just did not click with me.

Finn Easton, the nice-guy teen protagonist of 100 Sideways Miles, suffers from epilepsy due to injuries sustained as a child in a freak accident that also claimed the life of his mother.  Due to Finn’s life-changing accident, the exact nature of which I will not spoil here, he has a unique perspective on life, measuring the passage of time in miles rather than minutes.  I had high hopes for a clever and perhaps enlightening implementation of this idea.  It ended up being a quirky but impotent character trait.  In fact, many aspects of this book felt impotent.  Finn sees the ghosts of two little girls a couple of times during the story, but nothing comes of it.  The ghosts don’t haunt him, they don’t save him from danger, he gains no insight.  What is the purpose of Finn seeing these ghosts?  Did I completely miss the point or is this just another odd thing in his life?

Finn’s best friend, Cade Hernandez, a star athlete and charismatic ladies’ man extraordinaire, almost completely repelled me in the early pages.  He is arrogant, a troublemaker, he drinks, he chews tobacco (people really still do that?!).  Basically, he is the kind of bad influence I would have avoided in high school.  Cade is, however, fiercely loyal to and protective of Finn, especially when Finn is having a seizure.  This quality redeems him and for this, I can forgive him his other faults.  He probably grows up to be a good guy.  Sure he is young, reckless and stupid now, but so was I when I was sixteen.  His brotherly relationship with Finn reminds me of my relationship with one of my own friends.  By the end of the novel, Cade ended up becoming my favorite character and that was a surprise.

A second strong character is transfer student and romantic interest Julia Bishop.  She and Finn latch onto each other early.  Their relationship is one of mutual respect and care and is as awkward and sweet as it needs to be.  Aside from the brotherly relationship between Cade and Finn, the relationship with Julia felt the most authentic and real, if perhaps a bit indulgent of teen male fantasy.

For no reason I could discern, Smith writes a couple of scenes as though they are a script.  It is random and pointless and irritated the heck out of me.  Had the scenes actually involved a stage play, then it might make sense to present the dialogue and action in this way, but these were scenes just like any other.  It is as though Smith grew bored of his own book and decided to switch up the format for a few pages just to be different.  One scene is just a conversation between Finn and his father and after rereading it, I see nothing leading or following the scene that supports its presentation as a stage play.  The second is a conversation between Cade and Finn.  At least this one is preceded by reference to the radio dramas soldiers in World War II listened to followed by “our own blank-screen radio theater played out as something like this”. If the entire reason the scene is written as a radio drama script is because WWII radio dramas were mentioned a sentence earlier, then the reason is as thin and weak as wet toilet paper.  Just write the scene.  If the scene is so weak that it needs to “punched up” by changing the format for no good reason, then cut the scene or rewrite it.

I haven’t been a teenager for twenty years, but I am fairly certain I did not say “Um” as often as Finn Easton does.  Even if I did and even if this is really how teens speak, it was gnash-my-teeth aggravating to have to read “Um” as his response to so many stimuli.  I get it that many of us precede a sentence with “um” or “err” or “ah” as we put our thoughts together but Finn Easton seems to be able to communicate a wide variety of thoughts and emotions by just saying “Um”.  Dad asks about Finn’s day.  “Um”.  Friend makes a joke.  “Um.”  Pretty girl talks to Finn.  “Um.”  (Actually, I completely understand this one.)  Museum attendant is a smart aleck.  “Um.”  Friend expresses concern for Finn.  “Um.”  On one hand, dialogue has to be authentic to be believable.  People have to talk the way people really talk, but an author can take this too far and I have to say Smith went overboard with Finn Easton’s use of “Um”.

On a positive note, I did learn something from 100 Sideways Miles.  The undershirt worn by baseball players, the shirts with the colored sleeves that extend up the shoulder to the collar, is called a raglan.  I did not know that, but now I do thanks to 100 Sideways Miles.

Character relationships are the strong point of 100 Sideways Miles, but they were not strong enough to save the story.  Ultimately, a disappointing book but I see enough talent in Andrew Smith that I am willing to give one of his other novels a chance.  Aforementioned friend recommends Winger so I will try that one with cautious optimism.

Sphere

For most of my life, I have been fascinated by the ocean but slightly terrified by it, by the sheer vastness of the sea, such a foreign environment for humans, the alien nature of the creatures within.  I have noticed this sensation growing worse as I grow older.  Still, stories like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and films like The Abyss stir my imagination as much as stories of interstellar explorers.  I even enjoyed SeaQuest DSV.  When I heard that Drew Scanlon and Dan Ryckert of my favorite video game website giantbomb.com were going to read Michael Crichton’s Sphere, watch the 1998 film, and then record a special edition of their podcast and that the story was set at the bottom of the ocean, I scurried to my local bookshop and snapped up the last copy on the shelf.

The military has discovered something at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  They say they don’t know what it is or where it came from so they collect a group of civilian scientists to help them study it.  What the object turned out to be surprised me but what was within disappointed me.  Still, the story was fun and Crichton’s inclusion of scientific debate by the characters gave me something interesting to consider.  One thing Michael Crichton did well, at least in the novels I have read, is express scientific ideas via fictional narrative.  He tricked unsuspecting readers into thinking about things like evolution, astrophysics, psychology, and ethics among others.  In Sphere, as in his smash hit Jurassic Park, Crichton collects a group of scientists from varying disciplines and throws them into a situation that challenges their understanding of the existing world and the way they think about it and in doing so, challenges the reader as well.  I found their discussions the most interesting aspect of the novel, my enjoyment of the action falling secondary.

One area of the novel I that felt was deficient was an exploration of the sense of claustrophobia I suspect one might feel living in a habitat at the bottom of the ocean.  This was a military installation, not the Ritz Carlton del Mar.  Crichton does describe the habitat as cramped and on one occasion, a character mentions they feel as though they have been buried alive in a tomb but aside from that, there wasn’t much made of the psychological effects – even with a psychologist on staff – on humans unaccustomed to living in such conditions with no possibility of escape.  They couldn’t just step outside for fresh air.  Even on the few occasions when the characters left the habitat, they were stuffed inside uncomfortable and restrictive diving suits.  That would drive some folks stir crazy.

Okay, so perhaps the characters were too distracted by other events to fall victim to cabin fever.  Those other events involve some pretty awful things (this is a Crichton novel so it is no spoiler to say some characters don’t survive) but they do not seem to faze anyone.  “Huh… well, that happened” seems to be the predominant attitude regarding the horrific demise of many of the characters.  It just didn’t ring true.  I’d even be okay with characters experiencing shock or disbelief during these moments, but instead they just sort of move on with their day.

These gripes aside, Sphere is a thrilling page-turner.  The story is suspenseful, has a cinematic pace, and the academic discussions are thought-provoking.  It is easy to see why so many of Michael Crichton’s novels were translated to the screen.  It is not my favorite of Crichton’s works (that honor belongs to Jurassic Park), but it is worth reading if you enjoy adventure tales.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

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It was my turn to pick the next selection for my Mommy & Me Book Club and I was having difficulty choosing.  I thought some element of randomness might be fun so I asked my mom to choose two letters of the alphabet.  I received “W” and “L” in response so I drove to my local Barnes & Noble and with the excitement of a kid hunting for Easter eggs, I dashed to the fiction section and found authors whose last names start with “W”.  Running my index finger along the lip of the shelves, I scanned the book titles and stopped on the first one that started with “L”:  The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman.  I believe I uttered an audible “ugh”.  The marketing blurb on the back of the book would have inspired me to put the book back on the shelf:

                “For every woman who’s ever wondered by he didn’t call and every man who has felt guilty – but not guilty enough – about not calling”

Good grief.  No, thank you.  I nearly put it back on the shelf and went for the next title.  Mom would never know, right?  But no, I had decided to try a somewhat random title and so it would have not have been right to reject this book.  When I returned home, I started reading immediately.  I knew if I didn’t, my initial reticence would result in me putting off reading for days or weeks.

I found the story of Nate Piven’s dating life not quite to my taste, but I loved Adelle Waldman’s prose.  She is insightful with an erudite vocabulary and though I found the titular character unpleasant and often offensive, I found myself grudgingly agreeing that Waldman accurately wrote Nate to behave and think the way many, not all, men do.  I would like to believe I am a better man than Nate, but as I reached the halfway point of the story, a long look in the mirror forced me to admit to myself that I have committed some of the same relationship crimes that Nate does.  While this made for an unpleasant moment, I found it cathartic.  We never like to admit when we are wrong but as long as we learn from the experience, even the bad can be put to good use.

A cause of much eye-rolling on my part is that it seems Nate lives in a world populated exclusively by attractive women.  I suppose this can be explained away by saying Nate only remarks upon the ladies he finds “doable”, but I grew tired of every female character in the novel being considered a sex object of some kind.  This is likely Ms. Waldman’s point, isn’t it?  There is good reason #YesAllWomen exploded on Twitter in the summer of 2014.  In fact, this novel appears to be a vessel for modern social commentary and that is what interested me most.  While I was irritated (envious?) that Nate was constantly surrounded by beautiful and sophisticated people, their conversations were my favorite parts of the book.  Waldman’s characters felt real and their discussions sounded similar to the ones my friends and I occasionally have.  I wanted to dive into the page and join in the chatter.

So story not so much, but a huge yes for Waldman’s style and characters such that I am going to keep an eye out for her work in the future.  This is her debut novel with no word yet about her second, but she has penned articles for several publications so I am going to hunt those down until her next book is published.  Mom felt much the same way about the book as I do, even as far as having an uncomfortable moment when she realized that she identified with one of the characters.  I’m pleased that our experiment of selection worked out this time.

Wolf in White Van

Reading Wolf in White Van casually will provide the reader with an interesting story of a troubled young man, but will rob one of the more complex and creative aspects of the novel.  It is a short book with a nonlinear structure so I think one needs to pay close attention or miss out on what John Darnielle is really saying.  This is not one of those fun little beach books.  Wolf in White Van demands and deserves thought.  The story begins with a wonderful, heartfelt hook that only vaguely hints at an awful event that has permanently disfigured Sean Phillips, the young narrator.  By the end of the first chapter, I was invested in Sean’s personal story and felt compelled to dig deeper and learn more about the event he calls an accident that has so dramatically altered the course of his life.

During the post-accident hospital stay, Sean conceives of a game-by-mail wherein a player’s goal is to safely traverse a dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape to reach the safety of the Trace Italian, a star-shaped fortress located on the Kansas plains.  Sean mails players an envelope containing a short narrative describing their surroundings and their options and players will respond by mail, dictating their actions taken and choices made.  Originally, the chapters about the game seemed like a distraction from what I felt was the real story and for a long while, these chapters frustrated me.  I wanted to know more about Sean’s accident, the cause and effect.  Still pondering the book weeks later, I realize the chapters about the game, indeed the game itself and thus the novel, are about choice and how each choice we make has a consequence.

We all know this at a surface level, but how often do we truly consider the choices we make?  Wolf in White Van begs the reader to pay attention to each decision point in our lives.  Since finishing Wolf in White Van, I have been hyperaware of the recent choices I have made, often tracing those decision points back several steps to see how I arrived at the point where I had to make that decision.  It is a fascinating exercise, but one that could potentially drive a person mad.  For your consideration:  If you don’t brush your teeth, you will develop a cavity and you will have to go to the dentist to get the cavity filled.  On the way home from the dentist, you decide to floor it through a yellow light, but you don’t make it and collide with cross traffic.  Had you made the decision to brush properly, you might not have developed that cavity and would not have had a dentist appointment that day, meaning you likely would not have been at that street intersection at that time and thus would not have been forced to react to the yellow light or try to get through it and would not have been involved in the car accident.  Consider then the branching effect of each of your decisions and how other lives are affected by them.

Had Sean made different decisions than the ones he made leading up to his disfiguring accident, he would not have ended up in the hospital and would not have created the game.  Had he not created the game, the two teens that took the game too far and ended up involved in their own tragic event would not have been placed in the situation in which they found themselves.

The title of the novel comes from a childhood memory Sean recalls about watching a talk show on television.  The guest panel discussed the alleged satanic messages heard when some music albums are played backward.  On one such record, the guests swore they could hear the phrase “wolf in white van”.  None of them knew what it meant, but were certain the message was sinister in nature.  This scene seemed like a throwaway to me, but upon further contemplation, I realized that the novel was also being presented backward with Sean retroactively revealing the details of his accident with the final scene being the event itself.  I feel like I might be reading too much into this, though, because for the life of me I cannot discern any meaning in structuring the novel this way.  Concluding the novel with the climax is certainly powerful and grim, but is the backward structure of the novel as meaningless as the backward messages on the records, intended to incite baseless and stumbling prattle much like that of the talk show’s guest panel?  I feel like I have either been duped into putting unnecessary thought into something or I have entirely missed one of Darnielle’s points.  Or am I getting Darnielle’s joke without realizing it?

Throughout Wolf in White Van’s 207 pages, the exact nature of Sean’s horrible accident is slowly revealed with a new tantalizing and horrific detail provided with each new anecdote of his life, each of which is presented with brutal and familiar honesty.  It is these sections that drove me toward Wolf in White Van’s stunning conclusion.  I use the word “stunning” not as a convenient adjective, but in the literal sense.  Upon reading the final sentence, I realized I had stop breathing.  I inhaled a great gasp of air and let my body collapse backward, slapping my head on the wall behind my bed.  I stared into nothingness for a good long while, thinking, sympathizing, and empathizing.  Since then, Wolf in White Van has stayed with me.

Choices.