Sunday, August 24, 2014

Middle of the Road Dystopian

The Girl in the Road
by Monica Byrne
Published by Crown
2 Out of 5 Stars

Set in the not-too-distant future, The Girl in the Road focuses on the brutal journey of two women fleeing from violence in patriarchal cultures: Meena, a young woman from India, and Mariama, a girl enslaved in Africa. Told in alternating first person narratives, their stories converge by the end in not entirely surprising ways due to the symbolic overlap we see in each of their tales. Both have been attacked by snakes, both show signs of mental illness, both have suffered tremendous loss, both encounter words and images that have a spiritual significance to them alone, both are journeying toward a future they hope will be better.

In Mariama's story, she flees her home after finding a light blue snake in her bed. Heeding her mother's advice, she decides to flee and becomes a stowaway in a caravan transporting oil to Ethiopia. During this time, a beautiful woman named Yemaya joins the caravan and Mariama adopts her in her mind as a mother/lover/goddess figure. Born into a life of poverty and subservience, and bearing witness to her mother's repeated rape by their owner, Mariama is a surprisingly driven, courageous character, but her childlike naivete and bluntly sexualized view of the world are a dangerous combination in one so young.

In Meena's story, she awakens to find that a snake placed in her bed has bitten her; she immediately assumes someone is trying to kill her and flees India for Ethiopia, the place where her Indian parents were brutally murdered before her birth. She undertakes the dangerous journey across "The Trail," a bridge consisting of "scales" that runs from India to Djibouti. The bridge is intended to harvest wave energy and to cross it is an illegal, dangerous act. As Meena's trek goes on, she begins shedding that which is inessential and facing the truth from which her traumatized mind has been shielding her.

There is a lot to like about The Girl in the Road. The futuristic setting is at once recognizable and alien, but doesn't overshadow what is essentially an emotional and spiritual story about violence and healing. The world of Meena (which is set a few decades after the story of Mariama) is a racial, cultural, and sexual melting pot, and reading a book with characters from diverse backgrounds was a pleasure. Byrne's prose is lovely and minimalist, and her inclusion of Indian and Ethiopian cultures is seamless.

However, there was a lot that I did not enjoy. First off, the persistent phallic imagery, both the snakes in the bed and The Trail itself, is fraught with psychological and symbolic implications that had me expecting the big reveals in the end. I'm not a prude faulting an author's use of phallic imagery; rather, my complaint is that it lessened the suspense toward the novel's end because it seemed a little heavy handed. I was also disappointed that, in a novel that initially challenged the stereotypical view of transsexuals, it ultimately bolsters that stereotype.

And then there was THE SCENE, a scene that has apparently generated a lot of debate.**Since discussing the scene in question involves spoilers, I'll post it in the comments section below.  Be forewarned.

I do want to make it clear that this scene is not responsible for my 2 star review. The disappointment I feel stems from the book blurbs leading me to believe that this is a sci-fi action/thriller. This is certainly a very different reading experience than the one I thought I signed up for. In addition to my misguided expectations, this is a novel of unlikable characters that engendered my sympathy, but not my empathy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

“A woman sees war differently.”

The Lotus Eaters
by Tatjana Soli
Published by St. Martin's Press
4 Out of 5 Stars

Initially set against the fall of Saigon and then flashing back to the early 1960's, Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters evokes the hypnotic horrors of war set against a lush, culturally rich landscape that lured many photojournalists during the Vietnam War. Falling victim to the intoxicating mix of adrenaline, fear, curiosity, and self-righteousness, they--just as the lotus eaters of Homer's The Odyssey--forsake their homelands as war becomes their passion and their comfort.

The novel focuses on Helen Adams, a naive, uninitiated field photographer whose desire to connect with the military life of her father and her brother leads her to Saigon. A born tomboy, Helen has always resented being shut out of the masculine pursuits she longed to be a part of and quickly finds her experience in Vietnam is to be no exception. As a woman in war, she's viewed as a curiosity, a sexual object, a harbinger of bad luck, an inconvenience. However, her tenacity and her willingness to stoically endure the soldiers' hardships begins to earn her a grudging respect. It also helps that she's willing to understand and experience Vietnam in a way other Americans aren't--to look beyond the headlines and the government shading of events; to know its people and its culture: "That was the experience in Vietnam: things in plain view, their meaning visible only to the initiated" (7).

Soli's characterization of Helen is presented as a woman who is constantly evolving, growing as she tests herself in the ultimate masculine sphere and as she confronts her own hypocrisies in pursuing one iconic image that will capture all the horror, all the waste, and all the courage of war. Helen knows the power of photographs to change the hearts and minds that really matter, those of the Americans back home, and, as such, "Pictures could not be accessories to the story--evidence--they had to contain the story within the frame; the best picture contained a whole war within one frame" (118). At the same time, she knows her craving for such a photograph is that of an addict's and will never be sated; as soon as she has a photograph that seems to define everything she wants to communicate, she knows she'll take increasingly dangerous risks as she tries to top previous successes. 

The novel also presents the stories of two men who will help define Helen's life in Vietnam: Sam Darrow, a veteran war photographer whose only home is in conflict, and his aide, Linh, a photographer and translator who has belonged to and been damaged by both Vietnamese armies. Through these two men, Helen learns the toll war takes on those tasked with documenting its reality. While not equal to the burden of the young men in battle, the weight of being the one behind the lens, bearing witness to atrocity after atrocity, comes with its own spiritual price.

As lovely as the cover is, it's also deceiving. It's clearly marketed to a female historical fiction audience, so I feared it would be a torrid love story set against a Vietnam that was as authentic as a 1940's sound stage, with maybe a water buffalo roaming through for a dash of "authenticity." While there is a realistic romantic element involved, the real love story is between the photographers and the war. Soli has done her research and the Vietnam in her novel is fully realized: its beauty, its filth, its people, its cities, and its jungles. Her war scenes are harrowing, brutal and realistic, and seeing them through the eyes of a female photojournalist is a uniquely satisfying point of view for a war novel. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

All the Evils of the World and One Little Girl

The Girl With All the Gifts
Written by M. R. Carey
Published by Orbit
4 Out of 5 Stars

When Joss Whedon says, "read this," I heed the call.

Only 10 years old, Melanie is brimming with curiosity about the world and unabashedly enthusiastic about school. Blessed with a genius intellect, a kind heart, and a love of mythology, it's easy to fall in love with the precocious protagonist of The Girl With All the Gifts. However, despite these gifts, the world is very afraid of Melanie--every morning, two armed guards arrive at her cell, strap her by the legs, arms, and neck to a wheelchair, and escort her to her classroom. This is fine with Melanie as it's the only world she's ever known and as long as her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, is there, Melanie has everything she needs. It's not until the outside world comes crashing in and Melanie is saved by Miss Justineau that she learns how truly dangerous she is to others . . . and to herself.

I'm working hard here to avoid spoilers as most of the enjoyment of The Girl With All the Gifts comes from the fact that M.R. Carey plays his cards close to the vest during the first fourth of the novel. It's also obvious that the publishing company went to great lengths to keep the secret with that awful cover and perplexing title. To be honest, had I known what the book was about I would have never bought it because this genre isn't my bag, baby. I go out of my way to avoid it and it's hard for me to express how much I detest this genre, both in literary and movie form. Still, despite my strong bias against it, I enjoyed The Girl With All the Gifts immensely.

Part of the reason as to why I was able to lose myself in a book I'm hardwired to hate is that, despite there being some of the obvious genre tropes, there are plenty of inventive twists. Carey has developed a believable world, complete with a devastating history and scientific origin for the tragic events that unfold (I really appreciate that there is a "why" offered instead of going with a "who-cares-how-it-just-did-so-let's-move-on-to-the-awesome-stuff" explanation). 

The other reason I enjoyed it is because of the strong characterization of Melanie and her ability to constantly adapt as the world she knew crumbles around her. The novel's title is a reference to Melanie's favorite myth, that of Pandora, whose name means "all gifts." Melanie is a mystery to herself and, as she begins to open the box of who she is, she finds both the capacity for terrifying evil, but also for strength and resilience. The other main characters (Helen Justineau, Sergeant Eddie Parks, Dr. Caroline Caldwell, and Private Kieran Gallagher) are given depth by the same moral duality and by pasts that haunt them as they move into an uncertain future.

The quick narrative pacing and the inventive spin on a tired genre make The Girl With All the Gifts well worth a read.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Should Have Been Titled "The Grift"

The Griff
Written by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson
Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero
Published by HarperCollins Publishers
1 Out of 5 Stars

Hey, Michael Bay, I found your next movie concept! And you can't screw this one up because it comes pre-fucked. Inexplicable, ridiculous threat to humanity? Check. Shallow characters? Check. Nonsensical plot with holes big enough to drive Optimus Prime through? Check. Cliche action dialogue? Check. Females who offer little more than T & A? Check and check. 

Now, where do I go to pick up my finder's fee?

I love Christopher Moore's novels. His zany sense of humor, hilarious dialogue, and obvious compassion for his fellow man is a combination that I find irresistible. But, hole-e fucksocks, The Griff is no Christopher Moore novel and, to be fair, that's established up front in Moore's preface (which also happens to be the best part of the book). Essentially, Moore came up with this idea that he thought would work well as a movie, he and a buddy (Ian Corson) wrote the script as a way of avoiding real work, and then tossed it in a drawer because they knew it would never be picked up as a film. Then the comics came calling and Moore remembered The Griff screenplay and brought it back into the light as a graphic novel.

And he should have left it in the dark. While I have no doubt that Moore and Corson had a hoot writing it, it's a hot mess. There's no sense of time (entire weeks pass with no clear signal to the reader, making it seem as though everything happens in the course of a day); the artwork is pretty, but inconsistent and the panels are often confusing (one gets the sense that there were lots of blanks in the plot that they decided to quickly "flesh out" with artwork that has no real sense of narrative direction); and it follows the standard summer action flick formula so faithfully that it offers nothing new. It reads like a screenplay with pictures and has a rushed "Wham, Bam, No-Thank You, M'am" feel to it." 

A plot this ridiculous (giant alien dragons show up out of nowhere and wipe out most of mankind) could have been fun if it had been more of a spoof or featured more of Moore's signature humor. There are a few bits of dialogue that are pure Moore and, while hilarious, still not worth the price of admission.

My advice? Read Moore's FoolA Dirty Job, or Fluke and give The Griff a pass. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Raises the Ante

Cold Shot to the Heart (Crissa Stone #1)
by Wallace Stroby
Published by Minotaur Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

With the exception of Elmore Leonard, I'm generally not that interested in crime novels. I read Leonard for the sharply drawn characters and the wit, not the crime. So I picked up Cold Shot to the Heart with some trepidation, but the promise of a female protagonist intrigued me. It wasn't long before Wallace Stroby had me hooked and I found myself for the first time in a long time thinking, "Just one more chapter and then I'll stop." This went on for a few hours and I pretty much read the whole thing in one sitting.

Crissa Stone is a professional thief whose cool head and steady hand make her well-suited to the volatile situations that tend to present themselves when you're trying to forcibly take someone else's dough. After a disappointing haul from her last heist, Crissa is drawn into a scheme to rob an illegal big stakes poker tournament. Of course, easy money is seldom easy and when things go wrong Crissa finds herself matching wits with Eddie "The Saint" Santiago, a recently released convict with homicidal tendencies who is hellbent on getting Crissa's score at any cost.

Stroby's fast pacing and dialogue driven narrative are reminiscent of Leonard, though his characters don't follow Leonard's smart-ass-with-a-glib-tongue template. In that sense, Stroby's characters seem more realistic, but they're not quite as entertaining. Crissa Stone, however, makes an intriguing protagonist. Crissa doesn't just steal for the thrill of it, nor does she do it just for herself. Her primary motivation is that she's got bills to pay in the form of care for a daughter who doesn't even know her and bribes to spring her significant other, Wayne, from a Texas prison. She seems a woman trapped by circumstance--crime is all she knows and the only way she can make the big money necessary to protect those she loves. Separated from her daughter and her lover, she leads a solitary, painfully lonesome existence when not on the job. Being a female also gets her into some hot water. She's not as comfortable with violence as some of her male counterparts and it's her nature to avoid conflict that ends up creating some of her most dangerous enemies. But make no mistake--she's not a tragic, weak character and these same qualities also allow Crissa to kick ass when the situation calls for it. 

Overall, Cold Shot to the Heart is a fast, entertaining read and I'll definitely seek out the other books in the series.

Fun, But the Edge Needs Sharpened

The Sword-Edged Blonde (Eddie LaCrosse #1)
by Alex Bledsoe
Published by Tor Fantasy
3 Out of 5 Stars

In the medieval kingdom of Arentia, Queen Rhiannon has been charged with a particularly horrific case of infanticide. King Philip desperately believes in his wife's innocence, despite all evidence to the contrary. His only hope? Eddie LaCrosse, the tough as nails sword-for-hire investigator and the king's childhood friend. Having spent years trying to outrun his past, LaCrosse begrudgingly returns home and is forced to confront his demons while trying to unravel the mystery of whether or not the beautiful blonde bombshell actually killed her own son.

The Sword-Edged Blonde is the snappy title for this noir/fantasy mash-up that's light on the noir, easy on the fantasy, and not as snappy as I wanted it to be. This is a bit of fun and forgettable reading, perfect for vacation but little else. While I enjoyed the book as a light, quick read, I could have loved it if it weren't for a few peeves:

--First off, that cover. Ye gods, that cover. Even by the artistically lacking and inept standards of mass market paperback sci fi/fantasy covers, that is one fugly cover. And wtf it has to do with the novel, I have no idea. It appears as though a giant troll king will manifest somewhere in the novel, and it's difficult to tell if he will be friend or foe based upon the back-to-back stance with the protagonist. Is he being sneaky-sneaky, trying to catch our hero off-guard, or has he simply got his back, bro? You know what--doesn't matter because this character and this scene never appears in the novel, at least not in any recognizable form.

--Ditto with the title. Sure, there's a blonde, but nothing about her is particularly "sword-edged." She's basically clueless and pouty. The reality is that she's more of a butter-knife-edged blonde. Or maybe a spork blonde, kind of confused and essentially useless.

--The protagonist, Eddie LaCrosse, is a bland character. He's not hard-boiled enough. I expected a world-weary, wise-cracking antihero (maybe a character like Ash from Army of Darkness). But LaCrosse is basically just a good guy who wanders around while clues smack him in the face. The only real nod to noir is that he has a suitably tragic past, but it doesn't seem to have shaped his character in any significant way. He occasionally ruminates on his past woes, but then snaps back to the present and soldiers on.

--Ineffective use of the locked room mystery presented as the crux for the case. I won't say much regarding this since I don't want to ruin anything, but a locked room can have so much potential for an unexpected twist that The Sword-Edged Blonde never capitalizes on.

While I didn't particularly like the objectified female characters, such is the territory with a noir-esque novel and there's nothing here that suggests Alex Bledsoe harbors misogynistic tendencies; instead, he's just tipping his hat to one of the defining characteristics of the genre. Still, it bothered me a bit that so many other noir tropes were dodged, but this was the one that was adhered to. 

Essentially, this book is like a cheap and ugly hooker. Pay your $10, try not to look at it too hard, and you might have a relatively good time. 

(That's right, I went there even after my little speech about objectifying women--hypocrisy, thy name is Amanda.) 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Time Keeps On Slipping Into the Future

A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Published by Penguin Books
3 1/2 Stars Out of 5 Stars

You know that experience when you learn something new and only a few days later, references to it start popping up in the most unexpected of places: a television program, a book you're reading, a song on the radio, a friend mentions it in conversation? It's like the universe made certain you knew about this fact or concept because there was fixing to be a pop quiz over it and you needed to be ready. It's these types of connections and coincidences that make up A Tale for the Time Being. While it at first seems as though the novel is filled with sometimes irrelevant facts and digressions, just hang in there--Ruth Ozeki weaves them all together in a tale that serves as a metaphor for how writing and reading, or the interaction between writer and reader, can help us see ourselves in the life of another and ultimately save us from isolation and existential angst.

A Tale for the Time Being alternates between two women who, at first, seem very different: Ruth, a writer living on a small Canadian island, and Nao, a teenager living in Japan. When Ruth finds Nao's diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, their worlds defy time and space to collide in unexpected ways. The diary, however, is far more serious and sophisticated than its cartoonish packaging might lead one to believe. Written inside of a "hacked" copy of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (Nao purchases it in a craft shop in Tokyo that takes old books, guts them, and inserts new paper), Nao directly addresses her unknown reader as one would a close confidant and introduces herself as a time being, one who is aware of and chooses to exist in every moment in time, though it is becoming more and more difficult for her to do so. While reading the diary, Ruth becomes obsessed with finding the girl--at first for fear that Nao may have been a victim of the 2011 tsunami, but later for fear that she is a danger to herself. The diary allows us to experience Nao's unique voice as she relates her inability to fit into her new culture, her father's descent into depression after losing his job in the U.S., and the brutal, horrific bullying she endures at the hands of her classmates and teachers. As her diary goes on, the faux title begins to prove true: Nao is becoming more lost as time goes on. 

As Ruth reads the diary and desperately searches for Nao, we learn about her life as well and find that the two women overlap in surprising ways: both are Japanese-Americans, both are transplants to a place and culture not their own, both have somewhat strained relationships with the men in their lives, both have strong connections to a revered female elder, both feel a failed sense to accomplish what they want in their writing, both have an expatriate's experience of 9/11, both worry about losing time. Nao's name often functions as a pun on the word "Now," leading to overlapping meanings as to what both Ruth and Nao, feeling stuck in time, may really be searching for--hope for a "now" in which they can fully exist without being immobilized by fear, worry, or sorrow. 

While I enjoyed the book, I can't say that I loved it. Ozeki's meditations on time and existence are beautifully rendered, but sometimes difficult to understand as they rely upon the reader to retain information from previous chapters when they are echoed in later events. There is so much here and so much that I don't fully comprehend. For not only is this a story about relationships, but it's also one about the concept of time, especially as it relates to zen and quantum physics. Ozeki plays with the idea of parallel universes, of time and existence as nonlinear. While I was able to keep up with the general idea, I still feel like there's a whole layer of meaning that I kept grasping for without success. This is a book that I think I could really love upon a second or third reading as I think more and more tumblers would fall into place and allow me to really unlock the full depth of meaning here.

Surprisingly, though, I had the opposite reaction to many readers in that I often found the Ruth chapters more compelling than the Nao chapters. Nao's diary doesn't really read like a diary; instead it reads like a first person narrative. And, yeah, okay, a diary is a first person narrative, but it usually doesn't read like a novel as it's more bare bones in terms of physical details, focusing more on the emotional inner life of its writer. Nao's voice also reads more like that of an adult; for a teenager, she is very precocious and while the details of her life as an adolescent are rendered authentically, she herself doesn't sound much like a teen. In Ruth, Ozeki excels at capturing the subtle seismic shifts in a marriage and, if one pays close attention, there's much about Ruth that makes her the perfect recipient for Nao's diary. I also enjoyed the tension created by whether or not Ruth will be successful in her search for Nao--especially since the Nao she is looking for is one of the past and may or may not exist in the present, regardless of whether or not she can be physically found.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Should Come With a Free Bottle of Purell

The Things That Keep Us Here
by Carla Buckley
Published by Delacorte Press
3 Out of 5 Stars

The Things That Keep Us Here explores what would happen to an average American family in the event of a worldwide pandemic and, in capturing the rapidly deteriorating conditions, the perpetual paranoia, and the tedium of isolation while cut off from all forms of communication, it largely succeeds. For days after reading it, I found myself making mental checklists. Do we have enough candles? Check. Do we have enough canned goods? Check. Do we have enough hand sanitizer? Check. Do we have enough paper books to wait out the pandemic? F'ing A, check. As a germaphobe, I started washing my hands like I was scrubbing in for surgery and wiping down the shopping cart with an attention to detail that has the Wal-Mart door greeter eyeing me with both suspicion and sympathy. During the "peace be with you" handshake at church, all I can think of is "flu be with you," "flu be with you." This book has not been good for my psyche.

But is it a good book? I guess the best way to answer that is with the time-tested pros and cons list!

What I Liked 
*For the most part, Buckley creates believable characters and family relationships. The growing tension between the daughters, between the parents, between the parents and the daughters as day after day passes in boredom and as life regresses to a focus on the basics of survival is realistically portrayed. 
*The rapid breakdown of city, state and national services is thought provoking. I think many people wonder if they personally are prepared for such a disaster, but what about the institutions (government and commercial) we rely on daily? After all, we've seen the response to events like Katrina. What if we faced a pandemic that wiped out nearly half of the country's population? That's some pretty chilling stuff.
*Ann's response to taking in a possibly infected baby and putting her own children at risk presents the moral dilemmas one would likely face in such an event. At what point does caring for one's own family trump one's compassion for others? 
*Unlike many pandemic thrillers, it doesn't focus on the science and the race to find a vaccine. Seeing a real family cope felt like a new twist for the genre.

What I Did Not Like 
*While Buckley does realistically capture the minutiae of daily life in such a scenario, I'd be lying if I said it always made for riveting reading. A good portion of the book reads like one really long snow break. Also, Buckley's writing is serviceable, but a stylist she is not.
*Much of the book is contrived in a way that is unnecessary. When the book begins, Ann and Peter Brooks have been separated for a year. We learn (very early on--this isn't spoiler territory) their marriage has become increasingly unhappy after the death of their infant son. Of course, the pandemic brings Peter back home. This smacks of Hallmark Hall of Fame "will disaster bring them back together again?" territory. When Peter arrives, he has a beautiful young foreign exchange student, Shazia, in tow. Ann is forced to wonder whether or not this is Peter's new lover, but graciously allows Shazia to stay with her newly reconstituted family. Buckley was probably angling for a subplot that would help move the story forward since writing about realistic day to day life (keeping the house warm, keeping the kids fed, keeping the laundry done, etc.) could become monotonous. However, these forced relationship dynamics are distracting and drain away some of the tension and suspense. 
*Also distracting is the constant veiled references to what happened to their baby. The story of how and why the child died is purposely withheld for no clear reason other than to give a "surprise" twist at the end that didn't contribute to the family's experience during the pandemic and lacked any kind of emotional payoff.
*Peter is a virologist. Why? Other than finding a flock of dead birds in the beginning and occasionally checking in with his colleagues whenever the power comes back on to read up on whether or not a vaccine is available, his job has no bearing on the outcome of the novel. It particularly bothered me that someone whose job is to study viruses would make one of the most ridiculous decisions in the novel.*(see below for spoiler)

In the end, it's fair to say that this is just an okay book. WhileThe Things That Keep Us Here certainly causes some reflection and brings a human element to the often statistical hypotheticals about the impact of a pandemic, honestly, a newspaper or magazine article about this subject triggers the same level of fear and unease within me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've typed the word "pandemic" so many times that I have an overwhelming urge to go wash my hands.


*After becoming exposed to the virus, Peter protects his family by staying in the garage for 48 hours (the incubation time for the flu). But that's it--48 hours. The minute that 48 hours is up, he's back in the house, hugging everyone and engaging the missus in a late night laundry room "whew, can't believe I just cheated death" shag-a-thon. Any parent, with or without a virologist's knowledge, probably would have given it one more day just to play it safe. But, no, the virologist doesn't even think about the damn virus mutating and Peter's joyous return home from the garage turns into a potential Oprah-esque "You get a virus! And you get a virus! And you get a virus!" scenario. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Doesn't Find New Land

The Pilgrims
by Will Elliott
Published by Tor
2 Out of 5 Stars

**I received a free copy of The Pilgrims from Tor in exchange for an honest review.**

Ah, the fantasy quest novel. Been a while since we've bumped into each other, but, damn, we used to have some good times when I was a teenager. I swear you haven't changed a bit since the last time I ran into you. So, anything new with you? No, not really? Still just rambling off down the road to adventure, eh? Meet a mage or two, maybe some stone giants, a few angels? Choose some ordinary schmuck to save the world from an omnipotent evil overlord hellbent on world domination? So, nothing new in your bag of tricks? Well, it was good seeing you . . . maybe we can meet up again sometime and you can tell me the same predictable tale. No, no--don't call me, I'll call you. Take care now! Buh-bye.

Yeah, I'm a little jaded when it comes to the fantasy quest. Granted, I cut my teeth on this genre, so folks who are new to fantasy may enjoy this tale far more than I did. The only way I enjoy this type of novel these days is if it's a new, inventive twist on the standard journey through a world that is not our own. Unfortunately, The Pilgrims by Will Elliott never rises above the formulaic presentation of an unlikely hero going on an unlikely adventure.

Eric Albright and his homeless friend, Case, find themselves in a strange world after opening a door that appears on a London bridge. In this new world, Eric and Case have the instant ability to both understand and speak the languages of all its denizens. Joining a merry band of rebels against Vous, the man who would be a god, Eric and Case meander without much purpose, encounter all of the aforementioned creatures and then some, and do little to endear themselves to the reader. Eric becomes convinced that he's meant to be a savior--though does little to prove it other than occasionally picturing himself as Batman. While the fantasy world created by Elliott has some intriguing elements, they fail to stand out when surrounded by so many cliches. The characters themselves are also flat, especially Eric, who seems so at ease with this strange place and his role in it that the narrative loses the tension created by a character confused by and at odds with his new surroundings.

Another strike The Pilgrims has against it is the "door between worlds" trope. I've mentioned in other reviews that I usually find this to be a charmless, hackneyed plot device. I despise The Wizard of Oz, Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland. The only time it has worked for me is in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and in the movie Labyrinth (and that probably has more to do with David Bowie in tight pants than anything else . . .). So when our hero, Eric Albright, opens a door between our world and that of Levaal without immediately find a well-endowed Bowie on the other side, well, you can imagine my disappointment.

And, finally, the third strike: The Pilgrims is a standard quest novel that for, inexplicable reasons, has been split into a trilogy. Here's what I hate about series quests: the first book will be all "a questing we will go, a questing we will go, no resolution, yo, a questing we will go"; the second book will continue in the same vein until the last 50 pages when, wtf, you mean shit's going to start happening now?; and the last book, if one makes it that far, might actually be fairly decent. But the reader has to drag ass through the first two books before there's any payoff in sight. I don't like to be toyed with thus.

So, if you're new to fantasy, you might want to give The Pilgrims a whirl, but fantasy veterans need not apply.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Beautifully Written, But Lacking Emotional Depth

Red Sky in Morning
by Paul Lynch
Published by Little, Brown and Company
2 Out of 5 Stars

Red Sky in Morning has rightfully earned comparisons to the terse, brutal writing of authors like Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell. This is a bleak story and a pervasive sense that all will not be well by the end hangs over every melancholy word. This is a book that I should have liked and why it didn't resonate with me is something I've been pondering for a few days.

Set in Ireland during the 1800's, the novel begins with the classic conflict between tenant and landowner--only this conflict ends in an accidental death that costs Coll Coyle not just his farm, but his family and his country. Fleeing from vengeance in the form of a foreman named Faller, Coll is forced to leave Ireland and sail to America, where brutal work and animosity against the Irish awaits. However, Faller is a single-minded hunter willing to pursue his quarry across the ocean and will not rest until Coll has paid for his crime.

Of course, the tale of a man trying to outrun the sins of his past and the weight of regret through a physical journey is not a new one. And I think that's part of the problem here. This is an oft told story and, to my mind, it's been compellingly told by other authors--McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain come to mind. Red Sky in Morning never delves into the relationship between man and God, good and evil, sin and forgiveness with McCarthy's philosophical complexity, nor does it use the landscape as evocatively as Frazier does in revealing Inman's inner turmoil as the sinner hoping for salvation in a world gone to hell.

There is no doubt that Lynch can write beautifully, which is both a strength and weakness of the novel. While in Ireland, the harsh landscape bears silent witness to Coll's failings, refusing him shelter or succor from his sins. This idea of land as witness to the frailties and failings of man seems Hemingway-esque in a The Sun Also Rises sense; there's the feeling that, for all man's follies, only the earth abides. Lynch's depiction of this landscape is poetic, but begins to veer into a tedious purple prose before it mercifully shifts to the sea voyage, which picks up the pace as dialogue and plot begin to take the reins. I had also hoped that Ireland itself would be more present in the novel, but only a third of the book takes place in Ireland and, other than the Irish dialect and colloquialisms, the story could have easily taken place in any other European country in the 1800's.

Ultimately, though, my disappointment with the novel comes down to this: there is no one here to champion. None of the minor characters are likable and, while Coll is undoubtedly a victim in a system that has robbed him not just of his power, but of his humanity, he's also not a sympathetic character. Refusing to take any form of responsibility for his actions, putting those he loves at risk, and leaving his family behind (with only the occasional pang of regret or remorse; he goes chapters without thinking of his wife and children) make it difficult to connect with him. There is also the odd device of providing his wife with a very limited voice periodically throughout the novel. These chapters feel wedged into the narrative and serve only to reveal the source of the conflict that led to Coll's downfall. To read more about her life in the aftermath of Coll's desertion may have provided more of an emotional touchstone for the reader and salvaged something from the novel.   

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dorothy in the Mild, Mild West

The Legend of Oz:  The Wicked West
Written by Tom Hutchison
Illustrated by Alisson Borges
Published by Big Dog Ink
3 Out of 5 Stars

Three childhood stories whose magic is lost on me: The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. I really, really detest every single one of them. In fact, there's something I generally dislike about threshold stories in which the "looking glass" between fantasy and reality is shattered by the curiosity of a child. While I'm sure there's some sort of Freudian field day to be had with this admission, I shall not speculate on why these tales failed to flip my imagination switch as a youngster.

So why am I stating this? Because when Dave, the owner of my local comic book shop, tried to get me to read this, I shook my head vehemently, made the sign of the cross, tried to back away. I may have even hissed. But he suckered me in with the "but it's a Western" angle. So I relented. And it wasn't as bad as I anticipated; however, it also wasn't as great as I had hoped. Still, for me to give a 3 star to Oz related material is a big damn deal.

The artwork is beautiful in a traditional sense, but takes very few risks. While conventional in other ways, I was particularly glad to see that, other than Dorothy being a little booty-licious in a few frames, the women aren't oversexed pin-ups for folks with fairy tale dame fetishes (the zeal shown for T & A of epic proportions was one of my main problems with Hutchison's Penny for Your Soul, also published by Big Dog Ink). Unfortunately, the story also takes few risks. There are some clever ideas (I really loved the Native American mysticism of the "scare crow") and some not so clever (such as making the Tin Man a lawman, an idea that might have struck me as brilliant if I hadn't seen it in SyFy's own Wizard of Oz re-imagining a few years back, which was actually titled Tin Man).

Basically, this is Oz in the West--same basic plot structure, same basic characters, and very few surprises. It's fun, but really doesn't develop the story in a new or complex way. Hardcore Oz aficionados would probably enjoy it, but, while I liked it, I won't be continuing the series.

But Somebody's Gotta Do It

A Dirty Job
by Christopher Moore
Published by William Morrow & Company
4 Out of 5 Stars

After the birth of his daughter, Charlie Asher, mild-mannered Beta Male, finds his life upended--and not just because he's become a new father. Through a strange course of events, he finds that he has been selected to be a Death Merchant, harvesting the souls of the dead and helping them on their journey to transcendence. The job, unfortunately, comes with a shit-ton of problems, such as being suspected of murder; hellhounds unexpectedly manifesting in his home; sewer harpies taunting him at every turn; encounters with an army of small, nattily dressed chimera; the perpetual threat of the Forces of Darkness rising if he fails; and the disconcerting knowledge that his daughter can kill by simply pointing and uttering that most powerful and fear inducing of words: "kitty." Plus, "Hi, I'm Death. With the big 'D'" doesn't really work as a pick-up line with the ladies. He's got ninety-nine problems, but a bitch ain't one.

His guide to his new lifestyle is The Great Big Book of Death, which really isn't that big. Or informative. Really it's just a lot of cartoonish pictures with such helpful tips as "In order to hold off the Forces of Darkness, you will need a number two pencil and a calendar." Death shops at Staples. Sucks to be Charlie.

There are a lot of words that I could throw around about Moore's writing: zany, wacky, demented, hilarious. But let's go ahead and toss "poignant" on the list. Trust me, everything you expect from a Moore novel is here, but one of the things I admire about his stories is that, for all the strangeness getting stranger, there's a well-spring of compassion and respect for humanity in his work that can surface when you least expect it. It should be no surprise that people die in a book about death, but what may catch many off guard is the genuine respect Moore demonstrates for the passing of a human life and a keen understanding that "Most of us don't live our lives with one, integrated self that meets the world, we're a whole bunch of selves. When someone dies, they all integrate into the soul--the essence of who we are, beyond the different faces we wear throughout our lives." Moments like this are what elevate Moore's work above pure screwball comedic writing. He has a keen understanding that life is absurdity and that humor is the best coping mechanism we have.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Who Says Words Will Never Hurt You?

by Max Barry
Published by
3 1/2 Stars

Are you a cat or a dog person?

In the world of Lexicon, your answer reveals everything they need to know about you.  Who are "they"?  They are the poets, people who are hardwired to resist persuasion and to use language as a weapon against the rest of us.  Studying linguistics, personality and psychology, poets have the ability to subvert free will and compel us do as they wish.  The most powerful poets are given pseudonyms that appropriately demonstrate their mastery over language and, thus, over society:  T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, W. B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf.

Lexicon tells the story of Emily Ruff, a homeless teenage grifter who shows promise as a poet, and Wil Parke, a man who unknowingly survived an apocalyptic event in Broken Hill, Australia.  As Emily is recruited by the poets and sent to an exclusive school to cultivate her gifts, Wil is on the run from would be assassins for reasons unknown.  As their stories intertwine, Barry explores the power of words and the sway they hold over us.

Lexicon is a clever exploration of modern society.  In our media saturated culture, we are surrounded by words from a variety of sources, most of whom have a vested interest in persuading us to adopt their viewpoint or engage in action that is beneficial to them.  What are politicians, corporations, pundits, and advertising executives if not "poets"?  And, more often than not, they succeed in manipulating and coercing the American public.  There is so much spin that it's often hard to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins--even more chilling is that many people don't even care, content to let the bias of others "think" for them.

While I enjoyed the premise of Lexicon and was certainly drawn in by Barry's fast-pace, the sense that it could have been more nagged at me.  Its premise is one that could lend itself to a more complex, nuanced examination of the ability of speech to influence, but Barry keeps it at surface level.  While Barry's intent seems to have been to write a fun, intelligent thriller, I would have readily signed on for something more substantial.  For example, the purpose of the poets and the intricacies of their organization is never revealed, and the specifics of how their influence works is given only a basic "nuts and bolts" explanation.

However, I was still set to give this a 4 star rating just for its inventiveness and the fun I had along the way, until the unsatisfying end.  No spoilers here--I'll only say that, for all the originality of the premise, the ending was underwhelming and predictable.

Monday, April 14, 2014

No, THIS is Sparta

by Roxana Robinson
Published by Sarah Crichton Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

Inspired by the romanticized accounts of war in the ancient world, classics major Conrad Farrell joins the Marines in an attempt to enter into the venerable brotherhood of honor, sacrifice, and courage forged in the heat of combat.  Explaining his decision to enlist, Conrad naively tells his parents, "The classical writers love war, that's their main subject.  Being a soldier was the whole deal, the central experience . . . It seems like it's the great thing.  The great challenge" (22).  And so Conrad goes to Sparta--the nickname for the Marine military base in Haditha, Iraq.  However, he also goes to Sparta in the figurative sense, learning that what gave greatness to the ancient Greek city-state famous for its military might was also the chink in its armor:  when you surrender everything to war, you lose something intrinsic and necessary for the survival of the human spirit.

Sparta is not about Conrad's time in Iraq, although there are several well-written flashback sequences that give us insight into what Conrad endured as a soldier.  Instead, it is a powerful novel focusing on what happens when a warrior returns home.  What is his place when his service is done, when the mission is complete, and when what he found in war was not glory or purpose or righteousness, but waste and hypocrisy?  Roxana Robinson does a superb job of delineating Conrad's slow descent into existential darkness, finding it increasingly impossible to reconnect to an America and a family so materially comfortable and willfully insular that it knows nothing of what his time in Iraq was like.  As he tells his father, "It's hard to describe.  It's like I can't get in here.  It's as though I'm standing outside.  I can see everyone in here, rushing around and doing things, and I can't get in" (240).

Conrad's training as a Marine defines him, leading to a single-minded determination to fight against the anxiety, the fear, and the rage on his own; to seek outside help would be a sign of weakness and failure.  He begins to see himself as a man divided:  there is the Conrad who existed before the war, the one everyone expects him to be, and the soldier who is so defined by combat that he cannot exist in a world without it.  As it becomes more evident that he is losing the battle within himself, Conrad's plight is made all the more distressing when he begins to seek help from a disinterested and unforgivably slow VA.  While I know that many VA clinics are run by compassionate, engaged medical professionals, it is just as true that many are indifferent or ill-equipped to handle the task of treating our veterans.  That any man or woman who has been willing to sacrifice for our nation should have to wait months for needed medical treatment or tolerate a slow-moving bureaucracy is a shameful condemnation of our society's refusal to respect and honor the human cost of war.

Robinson's creation of a soldier's struggle is certainly admirable and, for the most part, surprisingly convincing given that it's written by a female author outside of the military.  Her real strength lies in depicting the complexity of the relationships:  the silent agony of his family, the confusion of his girlfriend, the awkward interactions with former friends, and the painful communications with his fellow Marines (many of whom are also struggling, but valiantly trying to hide it from their former lieutenant).  In particular, the sibling bond between Conrad and his younger brother and sister (a bond forged of shared experience and damaged by Conrad's isolated time outside of that bond) struck me as genuine and authentic.  Robinson is certainly to be commended for the beauty of the writing, as well as the light she sheds on the emotional toll of war.  Despite this, it does sometimes feel a bit too studied, too researched; it doesn't (brace yourselves for what you should have known would be the inevitable Tim O'Brien comparison) make me feel the effects in the way that The Things They Carried does.  And while Robinson is an impressive chronicler of the minutiae of daily life--the ever changing earrings worn by Conrad's sister, the flotsam and jetsam that inevitably end up on the kitchen refrigerator, the festive decor of a Christmas table--such details strike me as decidedly feminine; granted, Conrad's training has taught him to hone in on details, but these still seem like the things that make up the lives of women and might be briefly noted and then discarded as irrelevant by a masculine mind.

A brief history lesson on the Iraq War and on military life in Sparta are awkwardly shoe-horned into the narrative in the beginning, but once Sparta finds its focus in the mind of Conrad, it is a powerful and necessary reminder that not every soldier who comes home without injury is, in fact, whole.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Scattered Sermonizing

Death of the Black-Haired Girl
by Robert Stone
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
1 Out of 5 Stars

Maud Stack is a beautiful, vivacious, intelligent, and careless student. Professor Steven Brookman is a handsome, Hemingway-masculine, intelligent, and careless instructor. Of course, we know what this means. It's not long before office hours become after hours, and the classroom becomes the bedroom. In terms of plot, there's nothing new or shocking in Death of the Black-Haired Girl. Professor Brookman is, of course, a very married man who, despite his occasional sexual liaison, is very much in love with his wife, who has recently discovered she is pregnant with their second child. Taking a personal vow to be a better husband and a better father, Brookman decides to end his relationship with Maud, but hell hath no fury like an undergraduate scorned. It's not long before Maud spirals out of control, leading to her eventual death under questionable circumstances in front of the Brookman home. 

Despite seeming like the setup for a by-the-numbers whodunit,Death of the Black-Haired Girl is anything but. For those familiar with Stone's writing, this shouldn't be a shock and many of the negative reviews I've read come from readers who felt misled. I can't say that I blame them. With a title that conjures The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and blurbs and summaries that throw around words like "thriller" and "noir," it does seem to project the wrong image. However, I read and enjoyed Stone's Dog Soldiers, so I was eager to enter into Stone's morally-nebulous universe. 

That enthusiasm did not last very long.

Stone uses the aftermath of Maud's death to explore morality in both specific and broad terms. The novel's setting is a prestigious liberal arts college in New England, an academic institution whose motto, Lux in Umbras Procedet, or Light Will Go Forth Into Shadows, hearkens to a vainglorious past, its original mission to bring civilization and God's light to the wilderness. Ironically, in its 21st century manifestation, it has become the place that creates shadows, a place of locks and barriers--no longer seeking to interact with the world, it seems to insulate itself from it. In its attempt to protect itself from outside influence, it's evident that its insular nature is destroying it from within. It is a gray, dismal wasteland populated by the selfish and the insane. As Maud quotes Mephistopheles from Doctor Faustus as saying of the world, "Why this is hell . . . nor am I out of it" (15). After Maud writes a scathing indictment (although, from my perspective, a clumsy, rambling and ridiculously written diatribe that I cannot imagine anyone finding persuasive or brilliant) of the hypocrisy of Christian right-to-lifers that is published in the school newspaper, the college becomes a literal battleground between the secular and the sacred as hundreds of protesters flock to the campus and some go so far as to physically threaten Maud.

Many of the characters here seem to be in hell: Maud; her father, Eddie; the school counselor, Jo Carr; and Steve Brookman carry and create their own personal demons. There are also lesser angels presented in the form of the dean's wife, Mary Pick, whose tragic past in Ireland seems to have only strengthened her faith, and Ellie Brookman, who routinely leaves the college to return to the Garden-like existence offered by her Mennonite community in Canada. A woman of deep faith who believes her life to be firmly in the hands of God, Ellie serves as the embodiment of the platonic ideal for Brookman: a constant presence reminding him to do better and be better in light of his past. Discovering her pregnancy months after leaving their home to return to the fold of her family seems to remove her from the sordid sexual escapades at the college, making her pregnancy seem almost immaculate and her presence in Brookman's life divine. 

So, yes, there's a lot going on here in terms of spirituality, repeatedly dancing at the edge of existential angst and then pulling back again. There's a lot going on in terms of abortion, Christian fundamentalism/radicalism, adultery, marriage, and temptation. There's some beautiful writing (the scene depicting the reaction of Maud's father, Eddie, after he learns of her death is heart-wrenching). 

So what's the problem? Remember how I said Maud's editorial rant was rambling and clumsy? Ultimately, that's how I felt about the structure of the novel. The story isn't really about Maud's death at all, but splinters off into a dozen different directions, following secondary characters in such a hurried, abrupt way that the reader never finds resolution on any front. It's like Maud's death is a bare Christmas tree from which Stone hangs every vituperative, cynical, and nihilistic bauble he can find. But then he stands back and thinks something is missing. So out come the garlands of devotion and piety as a counterweight. But still, it's not quite right. Maybe some twinkling obvious symbolism lights? The plot becomes so weighted under these conflicting and ponderous messages that I just lost interest. 

But the real death knell? The host of unlikable characters. Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not suggesting they should be likable in the sense that they should be good (in fact, it is the intended saints in the novel that I find particularly obnoxious), but there should be something about them that I still find appealing. Not so here. Part of my complaint comes from the fact that the novel does far more telling than showing, so many of the characters seem two-dimensional. It doesn't help that these are self-centered, pretentious, beautiful people who are careless with the lives of others. Surprisingly, the only sympathetic character is the one I thought I would loathe the most: Steve Brookman. Despite everything, there's the sense that he did love Maud in some way that went beyond lust. He doesn't come across as a lecherous Humbert Humbert in that what he loved and celebrated in Maud had as much to do with her intellect and her potential as her youth and beauty. 

In the end, I can only state that Death of the Dark-Haired Girl ultimately seems tedious and unnecessary despite its grander aspirations.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Serial Killer--Who? Me?

The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Published by Henry Holt and Co.
4 Out of 5 Stars

Looking for a good horror novel that will keep you up late at night? One that features the most remorseless, inventive, and successful serial killer to ever stumble into the written word? One whose body count grows exponentially as his appetite becomes more ravenous, never sated? One who is so adept at killing that he does so without even seeming to try? Well, I have just the ticket: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is as frightening as it gets, people, and the villain here is us: me, you, and everyone else inhabiting this little blue marble called Earth.

Throughout history, there have been five mass extinction events: the Cretaceous-Paleogene, the Triassic-Jurassic, the Permian-Triassic, the Late Devonian, and the Ordovician-Silurian. All of these involve a cataclysmic shift in environmental conditions, some the result of an external impact. And now Kolbert reports that there may be a sixth extinction: the Anthropocene, caused by the impact of humanity on the environment. Many may believe that this is a byproduct of the Industrial Age, but Kolbert shows us how humans have always had a knack for wreaking wide scale environmental havoc. Always needing and wanting more from our natural resources, we, like kudzu, multiply rapidly, take over every inch of land available to us, and choke out the life that surrounds us.

Kolbert makes the case for recognizing the Anthropocene as a mass extinction event by exploring its casualties and its future victims. As she relates the extinction of the American mastodon, the great auk, and the Neanderthal, as well as the near extinction of the Panamanian golden frog, Hawaiian crow, Sumatran rhino, and several types of bats, one truth becomes increasingly clear: most of these extinctions began to take place when humans entered the environment.

Despite the disheartening nature of the topic, Kolbert writes with dry wit and gallows humor which (for me) always made an appearance at just the right time before things became too depressing. While there is a lot of science here, Kolbert keeps it accessible for those of us who don't while away our days reading scientific journals (you know, while our basic needs and consumer choices destroy everything around us), and her first person narrative keeps it from veering into textbook territory.

There's a lot here that I enjoyed, but three highlights stand out:

1) Kolbert's early chapters about men like Cuvier, Lyell, and Darwin, who were among the first to speculate on extinction and evolution. From our modern perspective, it's easy to forget that extinction, in particular, is a relatively new idea. There was a time when many scientists believed that nothing could become extinct over the natural progression of time; the discovery of fossils began to shift human understanding of the world and of creation. Reading as these men stumble in their understanding of the world, shifting and revising hypotheses, and ultimately discovering that there was a world that existed before mankind is fascinating.

2) The chapters on the sea and corals (which may eventually become extinct, taking with them several organisms that live symbiotically with corals) is particularly interesting for someone like myself who is happily landlocked. For those who don't live near or have a relationship with our seas and oceans, it's easy to see it as a vast nothingness and forget about the world teeming below our waters. The rate of ocean acidification is frightening.

3) The concept of a new Pangaea is an intriguing one. The ease with which we travel to other states, countries, and continents has, in a sense, reconstituted Pangaea in that we knowingly (and unknowingly) introduce new and often invasive plant and animal species into new environments. In doing so, these new host environments haven't developed nature's evolutionary safeguards to keep the balance between predator and prey, often with disastrous results.

While Kolbert makes all of this lucid and entertaining, as well as terrifying, I must admit to some fatigue when I got to the final chapters. Reading about mass extinction can really take a toll on someone whose worldview can basically be summed up as "people suck." Reading such incontrovertible evidence, and knowing that I myself cannot escape the guilt of this accusation, is, in the words of Kolbert on The Daily Show, "kind of a downer." However, we need more downers. We need to be more educated about what we're doing to our environment. Early man deserves a pass: you come into a place and think, "Damn. Look at all these mastodons. We can feast like kings!" So you settle in, live a life filled with mastodon hunts and mastodon meat, have several children, dress them in mastodon onesies, kill more mastodons, always assuming there will be more. After all, you've found the great all-you-can-eat mastodon buffet! You have no concept of the impact your consumption is having on the environment. You haven't seen Disney's The Lion King and therefore don't know of the majestic power of the circle of life (nor of the comedic gold of pairing a warthog with a meerkat). Such days of ignorance should be behind us. We know better, so we should do better.

Although, many of us are 4% Neanderthal because apparently early homo sapiens just couldn't resist the seductive power of a ridged brow. So maybe we're not so smart after all.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Catnip for Bibliophiles

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan
Published by Picador
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

A charming, quietly amusing book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is the literary equivalent of a congratulatory pat on the back in recognition of loving books. "Oh, you read? Well, good for you!" It's a book designed to make the bibliophile break out into a near terminal case of the warm fuzzies, overcome with a sudden desire to break out a blanket, brew a pot of tea or coffee, and settle into a comfortable chair for a day of hardcore reading until--oh, wait!--I'm already doing all of that! Silly me! So the only thing one can do is snuggle into the cushions more deeply and turn the pages more quickly.

Now, for those who know me, that probably comes across as a bit snarky and, to be fair, it is and it isn't. I admit that there's a part of me whose switch isn't flipped by these books that so overtly and blatantly cater to bibliophilia. After all, I'm a lifelong reader and it seems a bit daft me reading a book about loving to read a book. But, damn it, there's a part of me that can't help but be beguiled by it and, if I'm going to go down that road, it might as well be with Mr. Penumbra and crew. Despite a certain predictability and a certain lack of suspense, there's nothing too twee or adorable about it, and the characters are quirky without being too eccentric and are amusing without being too culturally hip, self-referential, and smugly ironic. These are people I wouldn't mind knowing and people I can imagine existing. 

Clay Jannon is struggling in his career and in life. A victim of the recession, Clay's once promising public relations career has imploded. Having to redefine his vision of the future, Clay needs both money and direction. He finds both in a "Help Wanted" sign outside of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Thankful to find gainful employment, it takes Clay a while to acknowledge the peculiarities of a 24-Hour bookstore. An excited clientele eagerly returns night after night to check out books from the "Way Backlist," a group of books on impossibly high shelves. The bookstore doesn't so much sell books as loan them to members for purposes Clay can only imagine. It's not long before Clay finds himself embroiled in secret literary societies, an impossible ancient puzzle, an adorable Googler, and a breakthrough that may exist at the nexus of the written word and technology.

I loved the narrator's unusual sense of humor and, despite myself, even grinned over some predictable tropes. So why only a 3? Well, it's more like a 3 1/2. Despite enjoying it, it didn't linger long in memory and the unraveling of the mystery wasn't particularly satisfying. Granted, the mystery here serves as more of a MacGuffin that allows Sloane (via Clay) to wax at length about the glories of reading, whether they be in the form of a book, an ebook, or an audiobook (all readers are welcome here), as well as the glorious possibilities afforded the human imagination through technology, but I still wanted a resolution with more substance given the build-up.

Again, 3 1/2 stars. And I would be lying if I said that half star isn't being thrown in just because of the extra bit of delight in realizing that, when I placed the book on the nightstand and turned off the light, it freaking glowed in the dark! I felt like a 7 year old getting excited over those glow in the dark planetary stickers. I'm telling you, this damn thing is just a giddy machine.