Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reel Life isn't Reality -- A Review of "Reality Boy" by A.S. King

Do you ever wonder about the people who are featured on reality shows? I do. I am not a big fan of the genre, though I admit to having watched my share of Project Runway and Top Chef years ago before I got fed up. Notice too, that these are explicitly staged competitions between adult practitioners of a specific art. I could never stomach the shows that purported to invade family life and included underage members of the household as a part of the script. In 'Reality Boy' A.S. King sets out to explore the longer term consequences of exposure on national television for a child whose family is featured on a variant of the nanny shows that proliferated in the early '00s.

When Gerald Faust was five his family was showcased on three episodes and as a consequence of taking out his anger on camera -- defecating on targeted furniture and clothing at home and in public -- his life until the age of seventeen has been warped by his infamy. He has been taunted by classmates as 'The Crapper', had problems managing his anger and been shunted into a special education class that clearly doesn't challenge him, though it provides a refuge of sorts from the rest of the world. It becomes clear early on that Gerald isn't the monster that he has been taught that he is and that there are good reasons for his anger and unhappiness. While the reader understands that Gerald is really a pretty good guy, it takes him longer to figure it out.

Much of the pleasure in this book is in A.S. King's brilliant evocation of Gerald's interior life and the portrayal of his developing insight into himself and his family. His ability to empathize with others and to trust his own perceptions come slowly and are won honestly. While he is more damaged than many teens, his journey along first steps towards adulthood parallel the growth trajectory that all teens follow. Gerald is rendered with subtlety and his story is emotionally engaging and compelling -- I read this book in a single day, not because it was an easy read, but because once you are privileged to enter Gerald's universe you are rooting for him to transcend his pain and can't bear to leave him until you see what happens.

What didn't feel believable to me was the nature of the extreme dysfunction of Gerald's family. This is not to say that it couldn't happen, but that I didn't feel that King's portrayal of Gerald's automaton of a mother who consistently overlooks the warped behavior of his deeply troubled older sister, Tasha, and his father's abdication of responsibility, were ultimately convincing. Perhaps this was due to my suspicions of Gerald's reliability as a narrator, or simply because the extreme nature of the emotional and physical abuse isn't a situation I'm familiar enough with to feel plausible. But, perhaps this is a trivial criticism for the target audience as I suspect many teen readers would not be sufficiently captivated by Gerald's story if his family's woes were less extreme.

This is the first of A.S. King's books that I gotten around to reading though several more are in my sights. Based on the experience of reading 'Reality Boy' I'm betting I'm in for some thought-provoking and emotionally involving reading.

If you like realistic YA with psychological insight and a little bit of romance, read this one, I'm betting you'll love it.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, but don't worry, if I hadn't liked it, I would have said so.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Writers writing about writers

I have always found myself drawn to books about books. It is a natural consequence of being an avid, some would say addicted, reader. Books at the center of a crime? Books as a force to bring together disparate misfits? Books about magical books? Books about the publishing business? Books about the people who write books?  Cover blurbs mentioning any of these will get me interested enough to pick up a title and give it a go.

Books about writers are especially fascinating. Now that I am securely middle-aged and no longer fascinated by rock stars or Hollywood's latest hunk-of-the-month, writers top the list of people who I think do something interesting and by extension are therefore interesting people. I've never stood in line to get an actor's autograph, but I do it fairly regularly for writers.

Being at least a bit wiser than I was in my deluded younger days, I realize that reality and fantasy are very often not the same thing. Writers are as diverse as the population at large, and as with all groups of people, some are interesting and charming and warm. Others?  Not so much.

I know I am not alone in conflating writers with their work. How else to explain those writers who are legendary? That band who engender feelings of adoration and obsession that made them famous for being famous, as much as for their work. The list is filled with familiar names: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, and when I was a teenager (and until quite recently) there was the looming reclusive shadow of J.D. Salinger.

It has always been a mystery to me why Salinger was such a leading figure in the hearts and minds of many of my friends. I read Catcher in the Rye, everyone did, and hated it. To be fair, I'd probably be more open to "Catcher" now, but back then I decided Salinger wasn't for me and I've stuck to that thus far. I felt a bit like a lone oddball my friends carried around dog eared copies of Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey and vocally hoped that follow up books would yet appear.

Certainly the tidbits I've gleaned about Salinger through osmosis over the years haven't done anything but reinforce my negative opinion. So given these feelings about the man and his work, why did I leap at the chance to read Adam Langer's newest novel The Salinger Contract? The real question would be how could I resist this description:

An enthralling literary mystery that connects some of the world’s most famous authors—from Norman Mailer and Truman Capote to B. Traven and J. D. Salingerto a sinister collector in Chicago

Add to that, the narrator -- who shares the author's name -- and Conner Joyce, who confides his story to Adam, are both writers struggling in the wake of the changes in the publishing world. Conner is a formerly successful crime writer whose sales are declining now that his turf has largely been ceded to procedural television dramas. He reconnects with Adam when he arrives in Bloomington, Indiana on what can only be termed as the book tour from hell -- bookstores are a vanishing breed, fans are thin on the ground and all Conner wants to do is get home to his wife and infant son. Adam, who first met Conner when he wrote a profile of him for a now defunct literary magazine, is now a house husband to his academic wife wondering what's next. He wrote a novel, but it went nowhere, the only impact it seemed to have in the world was to estrange him from his mother. After a desultory evening licking their wounds at a sports bar, Conner heads to Chicago and Adam assumes that's that.

Adam is surprised when Conner gets back in touch within a couple of days to relay a wild tale of his meeting with the shadowy and outrageously named, Dex Dunford and his Eastern European bodyguard, Pavel. Dex, is offering to pay Conner $2.5 million dollars to write a new novel, for his eyes only. An outrageous proposal to be sure, but it gets crazier when Dex reveals to Conner that he has made a hobby of commissioning manuscripts by famous authors -- Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Harper Lee and others, including J.D. Salinger.

With this opening salvo, the book takes off and each twist of plot takes the story a bit closer to the absurd, managing to be simultaneously amusing and thought provoking. Because Langer stealthily uses the unreliability of both narrators to good effect I found I was constantly asking what and who I should trust. I was wary of Conner's tale to Adam, Adam's retelling of Conner's story, and Adam's portrayal of his own story -- after all, is Adam a character, or the author? It sounds torturous when described, but the actual reading experience was breezy and fun.

By the end Langer's narrative choices make sense and the plot is neatly concluded (spoiler alert: the title will make sense). I even found myself continuing to chuckle at how well the puzzles and clues all fit together.

The Salinger Contract is smart, great fun and a bit snarky about the publishing industry. I am enthused enough about it that found myself recommending it to a woman I encountered reading David Gilbert's & Sons when I took my cat to a vet appointment yesterday.  Gilbert's book is in many ways related to The Salinger Contract, but is less of a satirical romp and more of a self-important slog (with some good bits). By the time I finished gushing about Langer's book she was planning on picking up The Salinger Contract next. 

You should too.

Disclosure: I received access to an advance copy from the publisher via Goodreads in return for an honest review which to the best of my ability, is what I've written.

P.S. I'll be back early next week with more reviews of bookish books, it's a theme that has connected much of my seemingly disparate reading this summer.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Death of Bees -- Dark and Hopeful Coming of Age Reading

Can a book that begins, "Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved," be considered a Young Adult novel?

In the case of Lisa O'Donnell's The Death of Bees I hope the answer is "yes." For, while the subject matter is disturbing -- drink, drugs, sex, and abuse are all a part of Marnie and Nelly's story -- there is also warmth, hope and love woven into the saga of the year following the death of their parents.

The plot reminds me of old darkly comic british films in which people do things that you should disapprove of, but instead you find yourself rooting for them -- 'The Belles of St. Trinian's' only grimmer. O'Donnell, who has a background as a screenwriter, has a knack for giving each of her narrators a distinctive style and even when they misbehave you sympathize and are pulling for them.

Marnie, the fifteen year old whose narrative voice kicks off the story with her blunt recounting of the facts quoted above, is determined to stay out of foster care until she turns sixteen and can legally assume responsibility for twelve year old Nelly. Life in the housing estates of Glasgow hasn't been kind to these girls and each has developed adaptive coping mechanisms. In Marnie's case she has a problem with authority, and while in her own words she is, "Too young to smoke, too young to drink, too young to fuck, but who would have stopped me?" She's been sleeping with the married ice cream man who is really the local drug dealer, and clubbing with her friends. Despite the chaos of her life, and her mistrust of the administration, she loves to learn and manages to get straight As in school while flaunting the rules.

If Marnie is a child who has grown up too quickly, Nelly, by contrast, has retreated into a fantasy bubble fed by music, books, old movies and archaic language. She has maintained complete ignorance of the approach of puberty and the changing social dynamics around her. She is an expert at only seeing what she wants to see.

The third voice is that of their elderly neighbor Lennie. Alone since his lover of many years died, he has become a pariah for an unwise, and deeply regretted, encounter with an underage male prostitute. It doesn't take Lennie long to realize that things next door have gone from bad to really bad and slowly he manages to draw the girls into his life and provides them with food, stability and, ultimately, love.

Shallow graves however, unlike abused children, often give up their secrets too easily. Will Lennie's beloved dog discover the girls' secrets? Will the authorities swoop in and confine the girls to custody? What about their recently resurfaced grandfather -- is he to be trusted despite his role in turning their mother into a less than capable person?

O'Donnell's short chapters keep you turning the pages to see what will happen next. The brisk pacing seduces you and before you know it you will discover you need follow this story to the end -- I read it in one sitting, staying up far too late to finish it. When you are done, you will find yourself sad to leave the company of these extraordinary and affecting survivors.

There are moments here that move too quickly and aspects of plotting that feel too coincidental, but despite these hiccups, this is a fabulous debut. If you are fond of darkly comedic coming of age stories you should read this immediately. I am passing it along to my resident teenage beta reader to see if she likes it and agrees that other teens would as well.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Right and Wrong at the End of the World

Science Fiction* and Mystery are two distinct genres -- meta-genres really since there is a huge diversity of sub-genres in both of these literary universes -- that are often blended together. The combination makes sense to my simple reasoning. Both are frequently focused on determining moral truth and discerning what constitutes justice and ethical behavior.  By virtue of the world building necessary in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the emphasis is on the sociological and anthropological norms of social worlds different from our own, while Mystery novels are often more concerned with how individuals navigate the rules of an existing society/culture. Just think of the great entertainments penned by Isaac Asimov who prolifically wrote and published for both Sci-Fi and Mystery readers, often blending the two. Other notable mash-up classics that have lingered fondly in my memory are Randall Garrett's wonderful magical Sherlock Holmes clone, Lord Darcy and Jack Finney's time travel masterpiece, Time and Again.

Enough of this reductive philosophizing -- I really am only indulging in these musings because it is important to note that Ben Winter's entertaining and thought-provoking trilogy The Last Policeman, is grounded in a long tradition. In the first volume, published last summer, we were introduced to Hank Palace, a Concord New Hampshire detective trying to do his job, the only job he's ever wanted, despite the fact that an 6.5 mile wide asteroid is on a collision course with earth. There is no way to stop it and it will assuredly bring about the destruction of the human race. As the book opens it is six months to impact and society is already frayed almost beyond recognition. Suicide is rampant, the economy is in free fall, and husbands and wives abandon each other to pursue what pleasure they can before the end comes. When a man commits suicide in a McDonald's restroom, only Detective Palace thinks there are signs that point to murder and that even in a world in chaos, murderers should be brought to justice.

In the process of investigating this suspicious death, we learn more about Hank's past, how his character was formed and the demons that haunt him. There have been tragedies aplenty in Hank's young life, and they go a long way towards explaining why he is dogmatically committed to upholding the law. As you might expect no one else gives a damn and he has to fight for every lead. Meanwhile his younger sister, an erratic character he is determined to protect, is chasing utopian chimeras and vague conspiracy theories. To top things off he falls in love, but she is murdered too.  The solution to all the murders are duly discovered, but unlike more traditional detective fiction, the truth brings no resolution. The asteroid is still on its way, society is even closer to collapse and Hank Palace is out of a job. Where do things go from here?

In Countdown City, published by Quirk Books** earlier this month, the world is now just three months away from armageddon, though as basic infrastructure disintegrates, you might not be faulted for thinking that the end has already come. In the opening pages Hank, now just focused on keeping his own life and house together until the end, is presented with a new quest, or case if you will: find the husband of his former babysitter who has vanished.  Because of the role she played at a difficult time in his life, he feels compelled to help her, though even he thinks it is a fruitless task.

It is impressive that with this second entry into the series, Winters is able to portray Hank Palace is a man who continues to evolve and who keeps faithful to his best self in a world without hope. Or is it a world without hope? Winter's brilliance is that he subtly shifts Hank from a position of maintaining  order and decency even when these qualities are irrelevant, towards taking action to aid his sister in a seemingly insane effort to avoid the apocalypse. It's also important to note that Winter's forces his characters, and the reader, to confront the possibility that even if the asteroid impact can be averted, is the world too far gone to save?

Don't get the idea, however, that all of these 'big' questions mean that these novels are dreary or slow. Both books are fast and engaging reading. I am only sorry that I have to wait until next year to ride along with Hank Palace towards the end of the world.

*For the purposes of this grossly overgeneralized introduction you may assume that I am sweeping Fantasy into the same basket.

**I am especially fond of this Philadelphia based publisher since the Philadelphia metro area has been my home for the past 20 years. These warm fuzzies are a bit ridiculous, after all, it's not like I can take any credit for the hard work of the folks behind Quirk, but still it's great to have be able to point to something so very cool thing that comes out of Philadelphia. It's my version of having a sports team to root for. They did provide an ARC for the purpose of review, but I've also purchased a copy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer -- A Fairy Tale Adventure Continues

Right, I've been absent from this blog for far too long and I do have reasons, not that they're good ones, but that's not what I'm here to explain right now.

No, right now I'm here to post a review of the second book in Marissa Meyer's The Lunar Chronicles, Scarlet, which I read the second it landed in my mailbox back in late February/early March and have been touting to friends with great enthusiasm ever since. But, I just found out yesterday that the staff at MacTeen have a surprise up their sleeves for bloggers who have posted reviews of Scarlet. Well, I hate not to be in on surprises so I thought I'd expand on the review I posted to Goodreads some time ago.

For anyone who is not familiar with The Lunar Chronicles, the series began in 2012 with Cinder, a re-imagining of Cinderella set in the distant future version of Beijing. Cinder is an orphan being raised by a controlling and cold step-mother, which is no surprise. What is a surprise is that Cinder is a cyborg -- part human, part machine -- who has no memories of her life until shortly before arriving in New Beijing at the age of ten or eleven. A gifted mechanic, Cinder is the primary source of income for her family, but is treated as property because of her cyborg status. The excitement begins when Cinder's step-mother volunteers her as a test subject in the research to combat a deadly plague that is ravaging the population. It is through this encounter that Cinder begins the voyage of discovery towards uncovering her true identity and becomes embroiled in the political stalemate between the Earthen governments and the predatory Queen Levana of the Lunar kingdom. Levana has her sights set on conquering Earth, can Cinder stop her?

The action is fast paced, the integration of the tropes of the familiar fairy tale are cleverly handled, but the real standout is Cinder herself. Talented, resourceful, caring and braver than she thinks she is, you will find yourself rooting for her from the beginning. If you haven't read Cinder yet, go, pick up a copy, it will be well worth the investment of time and money. Of course, once you do that you will be hooked and you will be chomping at the bit to move along to the second volume in this four book saga, Scarlet

While Cinder is a reworking of the Cinderella tale, Scarlet takes on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Scarlet Benoit lives and works on a farm in France with her grandmother, except that her grandmother is missing. Scarlet refuses to believe that she's been abandoned or that her grandmother is dead. Reluctantly enlisting the help of an itinerant street fighter, Wolf, Scarlet goes in search of her beloved grandmother and discovers more than she expects about the woman she has known and loved. And, who is Wolf, really? Should she trust him and why is she so drawn to him? 

Interwoven with Scarlet's quest is the continuing story of Cinder who needs to escape from prison before she is handed over to the merciless Queen Levana.

Now, I have to admit, it took me a bit longer to warm up to Scarlet than Cinder, but I think that is a consequence of the structural requirements of the story Meyer needs to tell here. This second volume of The Lunar Chronicles is a high adrenaline speed chase from start to finish. As such it suffers a bit in comparison to Cinder. Because of the introduction of a raft of new characters while simultaneously propelling forward two separate, action packed narrative threads that don't collide until near the end, there is not nearly as much of the character driven interest that made the first volume such a standout. What there is does work well -- I enjoyed the romance between Scarlet and Wolf, Cinder's growing acceptance of her identity, and most especially Iko's adaptation to her new body. Iko, and Thorne, as comic relief elements flirt with the hackneyed conventions we all know so well from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they are charming nonetheless.

In the end, this may not be the best entry into this series, but it still fabulous entertainment and transforms the central figures of the fairytale canon into self-reliant and capable young women that it is a joy to encounter in the pages of a book. I am extremely disappointed that the next volume, Cress -- which incorporates the story of Rapunzel into its plot -- won't be available until next year. I am not a patient woman. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

'Farthing' for your thoughts?

Arggh, I'm still working on this blogging thing. If I were Catholic I'd be confessing that it has been more than thirty days since I blogged. I'm assuming that's an official sin worthy of confession and absolution, but being an atheist of Jewish and Unitarian extraction, I can't be sure, and it's not worth converting to find out.

The only excuse for my month plus of silence is that I've been saving blogging mojo for a magnum opus on the brilliance that is Kate Atkinson. It's daunting though, she is so good that I'm not sure I can say anything about her novels that the novels themselves don't already say. Her newest, 'Life After Life', deserves every iota of critical and commercial success it has already received and then some. The problem with all that coverage is that I'm stuck as to what of value I can add to the discourse. Still, I promise to come back soon with something I hope will inspire you (if there is a plural you reading this) to pick up this newest book (or any of her older ones, they are all fabulous if occasionally offbeat, which is actually one of the things I love the best about them). Or, you can just go buy it and read it now and save me a bunch of time.

As proof that I'm not fooling about getting serious, I'm here to review a book I just finished think should garner a larger audience, 'Farthing' by Jo Walton (Tor Books, 2013; originally published 2006).

Walton, who has been writing for many years, only recently came to my attention when I read 'Among Other', which deservedly won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2012, but don't discount her as a sci-fi/fantasy geek, her work defies any of the normal preconceptions about that genre (not that I don't love sci-fi and fantasy, I do, but there are no quests or dragons or aliens or space ships in this book or 'Among Others'). I am quite sure that it was the success of 'Among Others' that prompted Tor to reissue Walton's trio of alt-history novels, beginning with 'Farthing', which imagines a world in which a group of British conservative, proto-fascists depose Churchill and negotiate a peace with Hitler in the spring of 1941.

The events in 'Farthing' begin in 1949, eight years after Walton's world diverges from the history we already know. Since signing the peace treaty with Great Britain, the Third Reich has consolidated its control over most of continental Europe, though it is still engaged in fighting Russia. Meanwhile the US has evidently remained aloof and, as in Phillip Roth's 'The Plot Against America', Charles Lindbergh is president. Britain under Anthony Eden had tenuously clung to democracy and personal freedoms, though long-simmering strains of anti-semitism has solidified and become more overt, as has opposition to communism and unionized labor. The political faction that brought about the end of the war, the elite Farthing Set, eponymously named for the home seat of it's central figures Lord and Lady Eversley, is poised to gain control of the government. While this may seem to be mere backdrop fora novel that on its surface appears to be an homage to the classic british mysteries of the 1920s and 30s, it becomes clear as the story progresses that politics and its impact on her characters are Walton's true subjects.

The central tension is not who did it, but rather, how will the novel's alternating narrators, Lucy Kahn, the determined, if somewhat dithering, daughter of the Eversleys who is a family pariah for marrying a Jew, and Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard, a closeted homosexual, react to events as they unfold. Neither escapes unscathed and their fates forcefully bring home the horrors of trying to do the right thing in a world careening towards totalitarianism.

I am excited that Tor is planning on reissuing Walton's two additional novels set in this world. 'Ha'penny' (coming next month) and 'Half a Crown' (sadly not on the schedule until September). I will read both, though I am frightened by what I will discover since the Farthing set would make even 'House of Cards' leading villain Francis Underwood shudder, for not only do they match him in ruthless ambition, they are ideologues that will pursue their agenda viciously. This may be the scariest reading since Orwell's '1984'.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Jumping into the deep end, again

Back in the days of yore, the ancient days from 2004-2009, I had a blog that focused on knitting, but I let it lapse. I think traces can still be found floating around cyberspace if you look hard enough. It was a lot of work. It takes time to find interesting ways to present knitting projects and I grew weary of trying to be humorous and engaging while at the same time visually creative. Fatigue set in and other things came into my life that absorbed my blogging energy.

You would imagine that once burned, twice shy. Right?

It turns out I am a slow learner.

So here I will be, writing about my other obsession -- books. If you know me, you know I read constantly, across a variety of genres. Conversations with friends are frequently about what we are reading and what might interest them as they look for their next book. With a blog I can just say, "the other day I posted a review of xxxx on my blog, you should check it out."

That's the nice, altruistic interpretation. If you read between the lines, what I mean is that I love to ramble on about books, I want people to read something I write and, if I am lucky, I might even be reputable enough to score some pre-publication books to read. Yes, I am that shallow.

So here I go...