The Descent – let’s wrap this up.

Part three of my review of this book.

OK, to start, if I was editor of The Descent, I would have put a big message on the top of the manuscript, that just said, “Hey! Who knew what when?” Then I would have tagged a few choice examples and sent it back to the author. People are nearly simultneously theorizing that the bad guys are extinct and lamenting that there are no good specimins to study because mobs tear them apart.

Eventually, I gave up on the details. I was able to just shrug off the inconsistencies and enjoy the ride. It wasn’t so much suspension of disbelief as a conscious choice to just let the details slide and get on with the story. Resupply in the tunnels? OK, whatever. For some reason the ocean chooses not to come down the holes. For some reason people in an unmapped labyrinth can reach prearranged locations. Fine. I’ll tolerate it because other strange things are happening that are really interesting, and I’ll focus my attention on those things. Why do the bad guys hold Ali the Hot Nun in such high regard? Is Branch nuts? Holy crap! A doomsday device! (It says something about the intricate world this takes place in that those are NOT spoilers.) And the bad guys themselves – they are awesome.

Normally I wouldn’t put up with the crap. When I find myself in a book like that I can easily set it aside. It’s a compliment to the writer, then, that I still found the story worth reading. It’s got the Devil in it, and he’s not a nice guy. When he murders someone, he makes it poetic. Yet, as I mentioned above, he’s got some competition this time around. There are good guys hunting him, and bad guys hunting him too.

I’m glad I read this book. Do I recommend it? I guess that depends on you. Are you one of those people who sits in a movie and annoys your friends pointing out the technical problems? Then no, this book is not for you. Are you the one who wants to hit the guy who’s talking about the technical problems and says, “Who cares, asshole? The hadals are coming!” then this story could work for you.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

The Descent

I have read the first 4 chapters and a bit of the fifth in the novel The Descent, by Jeff Long. Some among you might contend that one should read the entire book before writing a review, but to that I say, “fiddlesticks!” If the fist hundred pages give you plenty to talk about, why wait? The following is in the style of a real-time blog I might have been writing as I read the beginning of this book. My memory of my impressions as I read the first few chapters is unusually clear, however I feel I must write this review before going on with the story, lest I forget.

Edited to add: apparently the reading public (all one person who has mentioned it to me) has gotten the idea that I’m really not enjoying this book. There are a couple of times near the beginning that nearly lost me, but then something really cool happens and all is forgiven. I think now that the characters are introduced things will just be getting better.

Pseudo-LiveBlogging Descent’s first 4.2 chapters:

Acknowledgments

Every kid who aspires to be a writer should read this. A lot of people worked very hard on this book, including a nameless copy editor. It is apparent that the author also worked hard, devoting himself to research on many different subjects. This book was not the product of some guy simply sitting in front of a keyboard and making the magic happen.

We’re off to a good start; I have already developed a personal attachment to the author.

Chapter 1

We have a group of tourists trapped in a cave somewhere in the bumpiest part of Tibet. Nice.

WTF??? we just had our first dramatic moment of the book, and it was totally contrived. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for almost any situation, but when people stop acting like people, that’s it, I’m done. They’re in a cave, in the pitch black, and only now someone thinks to turn on a light? Pleeeeeeease. So the big moment is ruined by a ridiculous and ultimately unnecessary need on the part of the author to have a Big Surprise.

It’s three days later now, and I’m picking the book back up. Despite the disappointment on the third page, I suspect I’m going to like this story. Onward, then, with chapter one. The thing revealed by the lights is pretty damn amazing, marred only by someone identifying an object as “solid gold” based on a glimpse of color beneath a coating of grime. Another silly detail that ultimately is not needed for the plot. But the thing itself, there in the cave, it’s pretty intense.

You know what I could use about now? Another page or two of backstory. You can’t overdo the backstory.

All right! Ike and his business partner/sweetie seem to be patching up some backstory relationship problems. It’s too easy. These two are going to be fighting for the whole damn book. Now they have to find another way out of the caves.

Sweet holy crap. I was undecided about this book until now. As chapter one closes, we learn just what Jeff Long is capable of. It’s not the horror of the situation, it’s how Ike judges his own response to the horror. All the above criticism is forgiven.

Chapter 2

Another time, another place.

Nooooooooo! Not the mirror! The nun looks in the mirror and once again feels bad about being attractive. Ali took the mirror down for a while, then she put it back up – which I suspect is more a description of the author’s efforts to find another way to introduce her hotness. He wrote out the mirror then put it back in. Never mind that during the rest of the chapter there are plenty of times (especially during the extensive backstory) to present her hotness dramatically. From the mirror we learn two things: Ali’s a looker and she has long blonde hair. At the time, her attractiveness is irrelevant. The color of her hair could easily be introduced in a dozen other places, and the length is incongruous with the local heat and available hygiene. Easy to mention. But the author wanted us to know right away that Ali was one smokin’ nun.

Like there’s been a nun in modern literature who wasn’t temptation personified. Goes without saying.

Ooo! The intriguing native girl has given Ali a good luck charm. I will be sooo surprised to learn that it’s made from human skin.

The nun was a rising star in the church, but she stepped out of line at the wrong time. When she was relocated to the butthole of Africa, she went. Sometimes critical, but always loyal. She has given her life to the church and she will not be asking to have it returned.

But… things are getting interesting. The locals, and the girl (reputed to be a witch) in particular, seem to know a deep, dark secret. Perhaps they’ve been trying to tell Ali about it all along, but she hasn’t been willing to open her mind enough to hear them. There aren’t any obvious connections with the incidents in the cave that we can decipher, but it’s pretty clear that something big is going on. I want to know more.

Yep… It’s human skin. I lied before; I’m not surprised at all.

Chapter 3

Bosnia. Rain. War crimes investigators. Branch is a career military guy who on that night accidentally lets his principles do the talking. He winds up flying an attack helicopter to investigate a strange occurrence. His commanding officer is not happy. Not at all. The colonel had put his foot down and Branch undermined his authority. A promising career just crashed against one man’s morals. This isn’t going to come out well.

OK, the other guy in the helicopter has never seen his newborn son. Why don’t we just paint a bulls-eye on him?

Holy smoke. Let’s just leave the chapter at that. Holy frickin smoke. Although the rockets don’t really make sense. But I’ll tell you this: I like the helicopter pilot, and I think these events are going to mess him up. I really care what happens to this guy. Like Ike in chapter one, Branch was faced with a choice between survival and compassion. He made a different choice. I think that’s going to matter down the road.

Chapter 4

Our fourth point of view. We have a vatican scientist named Thomas investigating some ancienter-than-ancient ruins that were accidentally exposed. The vatican is quite adamant that the ruins be hidden away again, but Thomas wants a look first. He has an old friend who has seen the site, who has said some interesting things about a carving there, a face depicted in the ruins that seems to be actively preventing the church scientist from seeing it.

It’s funny when there are characters who have no reason to suspect foul play, but we readers all know bad shit is going to happen. Hell, it’s chapter four, and people have died in nasty ways in all the previous chapters. “Huh,” says one of the scientists. “The security guard must be off drinking.” Of course we know the security guard has died terribly, and we want to shout at the characters, “don’t you see?” But of course they don’t see. Why would they?

Thomas is a pretty good guy. You can feel his quiet confidence and the internal consistency of his character. His presence is intimidating to those who feel themselves lacking.

This chapter ends with a horrific revelation. What do you know? I like the church scientist, and with him came a couple of other characters that might prove interesting. We have met the intellect of our inevitable party of discovery (although the nun was also pretty damn smart).

Chapter 5

Oh please oh please oh please don’t introduce another character. I’m looking at the book sitting on the table in front of me and I know another character would be more than I can handle. It’s not like I can’t keep track of five people, it’s that we have four completely different vectors toward the truth in this story, and that’s plenty. Also, some of the folks in the previous chapters were in pretty deep doodoo, and I’m anxious to hear back from them.

It has been pointed out to me that an odd-numbered group good for storytelling – it is always imbalanced, and can be imbalanced between different subsets of the group over different issues at the same time. We’ve got four characters right now, and that’s enough. A couple of these introductions were brutal enough to last me for a while.

I get the feeling that each character is crafted to represent a particular facet of humanity. Ali is compassionate, Thomas is intellectual, and so forth. One of the guys will get the hot nun, but at first it will be the wrong one.

Chapter 5 underway. We’re back with Branch, the helicopter pilot, and yes he’s messed up. Spooky messed up. The burn scars are competing with the scars from cuts and trauma; he’s still carrying a fair amount of metal around with him, as well as some medical equipment he absorbed while healing. His recovery was not normal. Now he’s back in Bosnia.

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten. There have been a couple of close calls where I put the book down and almost didn’t pick it back up again, but I’m hooked now. There will be a convergence, and the group will combine weaknesses as well as strengths.

I did not mention above the style of the writer, and to be honest, I never thought about it much. That’s a good thing. His voice is clear and doesn’t get in the way of the story. If I discover anything else over the next 450 pages I’ll let you know.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Bimbos of the Death Sun

When one is in a used bookstore with a bunch of writers, it is only natural to expect that you will end up with a couple of purchases you would not ordinarliy consider. I was at a science fiction writing conference, so naturally we were clustered in the SF section of Half-Price Books. The selection was impressive. As I browsed the colorful spines of the books, one title caught my eye. “Hey, guys!” I said, “Check this out. Bimbos of the Death Sun!”

The response was not quite what I expected. “That’s a good book,” one of my party said. “Really funny,” another concurred. Then I noticed a badge on the cover proclaiming that it had won the Edgar Allen Poe Award in for best paperback mystery in 1988. What was I to do? Bimbos joined my other unplanned purchases.

Note that the cover pictured here looks nothing like the version I have. Just look at that picture. Can you imagine a worse cover for a book with that title? Seriously. [Update – the current picture is a major improvement.]

It took me a while to work through the reading pile to get to Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb, but when I finally did I was surprised. It’s not science fiction. It takes place at a science fiction convention (”Rubicon”), but there are no aliens (unless you count the Scot), no wondrous technology (unless you count the personal computers of the late ’80s), no world-threatening cataclysms or mysterious paranormal events. Bimbos of the Death Sun is a murder mystery.

It follows the pattern my sister likes so much: create a really nasty guy, have him anger just about everyone, then kill him off. Lots of suspects, lots of motives, a crazy hotel scene with people coming and going to provide unlimited opportunity for mischief.

The title of the book is simultanelously ironic and exploitative; one of the characters is a writer who wrote a hard science fiction novel that involved the effect of solar radiation on computers, and (as an afterthought) on women. The book is not at all sexist — the author’s girlfriend made sure of that — and has no sex in it. The publisher decided to call it Bimbos of the Death Sun and give it a suggestive cover to promote sales. The author in the story is embarrassed; I suspect that Ms. McCrumb was chuckling gleefully when she thought of the name. (Can you blame her?) In fact, I imagine her at a convention, sitting with friends, drunk, when an informal Most Salacious Science Fiction Title contest breaks out…

[Hmm… I have a short story that needs a title. Maybe I’ve been going about it the wrong way.]

This was a fun read. It’s not really a whodunnit because the reveal is gradual and begins long before the big final confrontation scene. There is a lot going on, however, and there is no shortage of odd characters. Every stereotype of trekkie and gamer and SCA member and fantasy addict is (lovingly) packed into a single hotel, and it looks like a pretty good time. You know, except for the murder.

The book was marred for me by a couple of things. Foremost, some of the characters behave in ways I just could not accept as real. I’m not talking about the wacky Rubicon attendees, but about the people around them who are supposed to be normal. The police detective is the biggest offender in this department. More than once I thought to myself, “no cop would ever do that, let alone one who’s been promoted to detective.”

My other complaint is that someone was given a very complicated task with almost no notice, then took it upon himself to make the task even more complicated to catch the killer, and then pull that task off with grace and style. In the movies, at least he would have had a chance for “Montage Training.”

Despite those complaints, I greatly enjoyed reading Bimbos. It was a good light read with many, many chuckle points as it went along. I think folks who attend conferences like the one in the story would find even more humor that I missed. Oh, yes, they do exist, and probably thirty years later are even crazier — though perhaps more commercial.

The book is not science fiction, but it belongs in the SF section of the store, all right, since that’s where the readers this book is aimed at hang out. If you run into this title in the used book store, take a look!

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Fudoki

There are several books in the queue for me to write blurbs about, but I’m going to skip to the one I just finished an hour ago. Fudoki, by Kij Johnson, has got me thinking, and we all know that can only lead to trouble.

Before I get too far, I should note that I know the author, and though I have not known her long I consider her a friend. She was the head of the novel writing workshop that was the core excuse for my travels this summer. Take this into account when I say that this is a very good book and you should all buy multiple copies. (Only half of the above is a joke; this is a very good book but you only need to buy one copy each.) My association leads inevitably to bias, but please be assured that in this case the bias is simply that if I didn’t like the book I would just never mention it.

So, the book. Japan again. It begins as a journal of Princess Harueme, daughter of an emperor, half-sister of another, aunt and great-aunt of others. She is clever and curious, traits that are not appreciated in a woman of her station. She is also dying. She has spent her entire life confined by her station, by the obligations of serving at court, unable to chase the dreams that truly inspire her. Now she takes up brush and ink to tell us the story of a cat made human, and a journey to places the princess has only heard about, places she longs to see but never will.

There is magic in the story of the cat. Magic and adventure and war and death. The cat is transformed into a woman by a capricious god, the god of the road, but she never loses her intrinsic catness. Through her eyes we see the behavior of humans, and perhaps from this vantage we learn a bit. Harueme certainly does; as she writes her story she writes about herself as well, and we watch over her shoulder as she transforms, and along with her the past changes, as she sees old events with new eyes. She is a little surprised, I think, when she discovers how deeply she is capable of loving.

It’s a fantasy story, I guess, in the way that magical realism is fantasy. Here we are, back in Japan, in the year 1129, and the world is filled with inscrutable gods, demons, ghosts, and magical creatures. In fact, magic is so prevalent it’s not thought of as magic at all. It’s nature. Or you could argue that this book not a fantasy at all; the magic is contained within Harueme’s story of the cat. It is her invention — though maybe the magic starts to leak out of the story and into Harueme’s life. Maybe. Read the book and then we’ll talk.

(By the way, I know Princess Harueme is writing her tale in 1129 because the author included some notes at the end. Thanks, Kij, for adding those references and other insight. I have commented several times in these sporadic reviews that many books would benefit from a bit of extra info at the end. On the other hand, the list of characters at the beginning was totally unnecessary — she does a fine job reminding the reader of the relationships between characters during the narrative, and the list at the beginning just made me feel like I was going to be tested later. You, dear reader, enlightened by this review, can skim the list and read on, confident that all will make sense.)

Fudoki is a word used by cats to mean the history of the clan, the generations-long story of who they are and how they fit in. It is, for a cat, “self and soul and home and shrine.” Princess Harueme’s tortoise-shell protagonist is stripped of her fudoki, stripped of her very identity, and is put on the road. “I am nothing and no one,” she says. After a while it becomes apparent that Harueme is writing this to discover her own fudoki, her own tale of who she is.

This really is a very good book. It’s well-crafted — the language is natural but manages to surprise, and the atmosphere Johnson creates works very well. It really does feel like Harueme is writing the story; her voice is clear and her perspective permeates everything, even as her perspective changes. They are the words of a woman who is learning as she goes, in ink, with no way to revise what she has written before.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

The Emperor’s General

My backlog of things to blog about is getting embarassingly long, so this little rieiew will likely be short. (“He says that like it’s a bad thing,” the experienced readers among you say…)

The Emperor’s General by James Webb is a story that takes place primarily in the waning days of the second world war, and is told from the point of view of Jay Marsh, an aide to General Douglas MacArthur. The story has many layers as Marsh wrestles with balancing his blossoming career in MacArthur’s camp – one which he finds himself surprisingly adept at – and the love of a woman and the promises he made.

MacArthur’s occupation of Japan after the war was quite peaceful and successful, and this book examines some of the trade-offs that MacArthur made to ensure that stability. Some of those compromises were less than honorable, as he steadfastly refused to allow any of the Japanese royal family to be tried for war crimes, despite very strong evidence that they were intimately involved in the atrocities at Nanking.

Captain Marsh, who understands the Japanese language and, more importantly, Japanese culture, becomes a key go-between, an unofficial conduit of information between the Emperor’s men and the general. Marsh becomes increasingly disenchanted with the process as he realizes that guilt or innocence have nothing to do with who will be tried and who won’t. “There is no sin in Japan,” he observes, “only shame.” Several generals and politicians have been designated to bear the shame of defeat and the shame of the crimes committed.

Meanwhile, Marsh is in love with a Filipino woman, and I had to cringe every time he made promises that no matter what happened he would come back to her and they would marry. He won’t. We know that from the first chapter of the book. Something is going to happen and his most solemn vow will be broken. By giving us this foreknowledge, the author quite effectively casts a shadow of tragedy over even their happiest moments. There’s some good storytelling going on.

It’s also obvious that the author has done his research. Webb knows his military lore (he once served as Secretary of the Navy), and he has a good flair for bringing the historical characters to life, and providing a very well-rounded view of the historical incidents. This is another story that would benefit from a short list of suggested reading at the end, for those who want to learn more about the history without the encumbrance of a story narrative that must necessarily take precedence over fact.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Cryptonomicon

My buddy John had spoken more than once of this book, and on a Christmas eve (give or take) when we found ourselves in the same bookstore he bought it for me. (This is the same John I accidentally stole Dead Girls from, compounding his largesse, though without his knowledge.)

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, is a big book, filled with history, science, politics, and adventure. The title refers to an informal compilation of knowledge on the subject of making and breaking codes. Much of the story takes place during the second world war, when the same forces that accelerated the development of the atomic bomb also lead to enormous strides in computing machines. Much of that computing power is devoted to the breaking of codes.

I’m not sure how historically accurate some of this stuff is, but he makes a pretty compelling argument that allied code-breaking turned the war, not just in Europe (with the famous enigma crack), but in the pacific as well. To this day, events in the battle of Midway are ascribed to good fortune. Could signal intelligence have been the real hero?

At the center of the story is a karass — a name coined by Kurt Vonnegut to describe a group of people whose lives are inexplicably but undeniably intertwined. The karass is such an intrinsic part of storytelling that I’m surprised it has never been named before. “So, we meet again,” is something a karass-mate would say. (Although, to be honest, most of my stories are not grand enough to encompass a whole karass.) If you cannot accept the idea of a karass then there are parts of this story that are going to be difficult for you. In this case the karass is stretched across generations; it is an inheritable karass, and to my mind this pushes things a little too far. There really is no reason that some of the people involved needed to descend from the previous batch. I might have been more tolerant of the connections if, at the end, many of the characters weren’t so blasé about the enormous coincidence. “You taught my grandfather karate in Shanghai before the war? Holy crap! That’s staggering!” was not said.

Still, for all that this is one seriously powerful karass that all concerned seem to take for granted, the story works very well. One of the cool things about it is that cryptography is not just treated as a technology, not just as a weapon, but as a socially significant phenomenon. Cryptography is a cornerstone of privacy in our world, and privacy is a cornerstone of freedom. Somewhere in there Stephenson makes the leap to “a currency not controlled by a government could have averted the holocaust”, and that was a leap I didn’t manage to make, but overall the message worked.

What was really cool was how human the people making these giant advancements in technology and mathematics were. Paradoxically, the writer made them human by emphasizing their oddities, the ways they didn’t conform to the human norm. In this way the novel was populated with a host of interesting, dynamic, and believable people. Some of them were pretty damn clever as well. The story goes back and forth between people just starting to define what the nature of a programmable machine even is, to people with hacker as a middle name. That worked very well.

And now a brief time-out for the complaining: There were a couple of business ethics points that were contrived, simply incorrect, and since they were critical to the progress of the plot they bothered me. There was a sequence that involved a family of geeks dividing an inheritance that didn’t work on two axes – the solution they arrived at was flawed in a way all the geeks would have recognized, and there was a much simpler solution that would have accomplished the same thing. General Douglas MacArthur, a peripheral member of the karass, makes a jump of faith I just couldn’t handle. I was bothered at the end when a statue of Buddha was melted down in a scheme I don’t think would have worked anyway. Somehow the last two people alive in the submarine belonged to the karass.

OK then! Now that that’s out of the way, I have to say that I’ve never read a better story about the inner lives of geeks even as they go about rewriting all the rules. The geeks, both the documented historical ones like Turing and the add-ins, are all pretty cool. Did geeks win the second world war, or did factories, or did the marines? Does it even matter? In the years of war and the time following, secrecy was a national asset, and secrecy was increasingly dependent on mathematics and computation. Reading about the code-breakers of old, the guessing-games and rooms full of men using abacuses on one side versus a computing machine that may deafen you on the other, makes for some good reading. Add on top heroism, adventure, and prose written with a dry wit, and you’ve got yourself a good book.

And then there’s the open hatch on the submarine. Danm. Complaints I registered above acknowledged, you just know that a member of the karass went though that hatch. Somebody got out. Stephenson didn’t have to write this part; the story can live without it. But he did, and I’m glad. It hangs over a good span of the book. The answer to that mystery is as satisfying as it is tragic.

One last complaint, or perhaps a left-handed compliment. This book needs a bibliography, or at least a recommended reading list. There were dozens of times through the course of this story that I wanted to know more about the surrounding events. I can only assume Stephenson did some serious research, and I’d like to be able to follow in his footsteps. All historical fiction should at the end cite sources, but in a story about the dawn of the information age, that seems even more important. There is a great appendix about one particular code that you and I can use, written by someone who obviously thinks a lot about passing information in a hostile environment, but I really wanted more. It is unconscionable that a book that tickles my interest in so many subjects does not supply a reading list at the end.

I liked Bobby Shaftoe. I liked Goto Dengo. I liked the geeks. Stephenson created a whole zoo of people I liked. Right there, you know you’ve got a good story. Embrace the karass; find your own karass, and enjoy this book.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Project Gutenberg!

Few things have transformed society as much as the moveable-type printing press. By dramatically reducing the cost of reproducing the written word, the press sent shock waves through our civilization. Not long after there was Cervantes, and the novel was born.

Now we have the Internet, enabling new literary forms (and, even more illiterary forms). And, thanks to the folks at Project Gutenberg, not only can we waste our lives searching for the rare gems in the raucous jungles of the blogosphere, we can peruse the classics that got us here. Their goal is pretty straightforward — archive all books that are in public domain and make them available to anyyone with the technology to access them.

I had read about this project, but hadn’t taken the time to drop by until I was doing a search for Ring Lardner, a humorist who is mentioned in The Catcher in the Rye. I downloaded and read The Real Dope, which was, indeed, quite funny.

Then I looked at the “Most popular downloads” page and the biggest movers were textbooks. The most popular authors, with more than a thousand downloads per day, were Mark Twain and Jane Austen. My guess is that this would correspond to writers popular in literature curriculums. Also near the top was Sun Tsu’s Art of War, someone’s Illustrated History of Furniture, and Beowolf. “Beowolf,” thought I, “cool. I should read that.”

So I downloaded the book in a few seconds and after going through the translator’s notes from the 1880’s and a few newer notes about the current digital encoding and choice for what characters to use, I got to the poem. In Old English. Completely unreadable unless you happen to know Old English. I assume the thing’s a top download simply because it’s a top download. It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of people who know Old English and don’t happen to already have at least one copy of Beowolf in Old English are going to be happening by gutenberg.org each day.

Anyway, you can bet your boots I’ll be dropping by from time to time to brush up on the great classics of literature. For instance, right now I’m reading Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Borroughs.

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is one of those American classics that everyone is supposed to read. Somehow I never did. As an American who proposes to make a living butting words up next to each other, I’ve been working on closing up some of the gaping holes in my mental library.

The results of these efforts are almost always rewarding. There’s a reason these books have gained the stature they have. This one is no exception and I will not attempt to add to the already-too-large body of criticism surrounding it. People, it seems, can make a big deal out of a good story.

The main guy, the narrator, Holden, is a high-school kid who is full of contradictions. He knows what he is supposed to be, he knows what he wants to be, and he’s acutely aware that he is neither. What he is, we start to realize, is better (by conventional standards) than what he thinks he should be. He aspires to be a modern, devil-may-care man, but he simply isn’t. He cares about a lot of things. He cares so much it’s a little scary.

That’s my take, anyway.

After reading the first few paragraphs I knew this book would be a special sort of challenge for me. A personal one, a gauntlet thrown. There is a voice driving this narrative, a guy speaking in a very natural manner that exposes his character, and old JD isn’t going to let the English language get in the way. There are times Salinger simply repeats the same sentence twice. The same goddam sentence. Twice. That old JD knocked me out sometimes the way he’d just repeat things like that.

Sometimes I write stuff like that. I just let fly, type like I think, words are punctuation, punctuation are words. Fragments. Asides, nonlinear thought expressed in a linear form. Then I delete it, or clean it up, to make it easier to digest. What I get from Salinger is not just a very good read but also an example that done well there’s nothing wrong with setting aside rules, as long as the result is a distinctive voice. My first drafts tend to be much more courageous than my final results. Maybe that’s not a bad thing most of the time, but I think I miss opportunities too often.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

In Cold Blood

A rural Kansas family’s home is invaded. They are neatly tied up and then brutally executed with a shotgun. Police are stumped. There are few clues, and no apparent motive. Among the most baffling, and most difficult questions that everyone asks is, “What kind of person could do such a thing?”

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a study of that question, and of the effect such senseless violence has on the rest of us. How do normal, sensible, sensitive people cope when confronted with such incomprehensible behavior?

This is not a whodunnit; in the first pages we learn the identities of the killers and we learn that they will be executed before it’s all over. The narrative starts with the last day the Clutter family is alive, and we quickly learn to like these people. Capote interviewed friends and witnesses extensively and we can feel the genuine affection the people had for the doomed family. Next, we meet the killers, two men who, at first glance, seem like normal, even likable guys. Not the kind of men who would shoot a teenage girl in the face with a shotgun. But that’s what they did, later that night.

Through the course of the investigation and the eventual trial, we learn more about these men, and about the men charged with tracking them down and later trying them. We learn about the town as well, and about the more intangible harm done to an entire community.

In the end, there’s no definitive answer to the fundamental question, no answer to what kind of people do things like this, just a recognition that those people exist. In the end the killers seemed to value their own lives as lightly as those of their victims. When Dick and Perry are hanged, there is no sense of catharsis, no sense of justice served. They may be gone, but the people who were affected by them will never be the same. They will never be able to forget that “people like that” exist.

I picked up the book mainly on the strength of the author’s name; Truman Capote is one of those I feel I should be familiar with as an American writer. His writing is clean and inconspicuous; he never uses fancy prose that might upstage his subjects. His conversational tone fits well with the straightforward speech of the people he is portraying. Based on this offering I can certainly agree that Capote was a good writer, but I didn’t see anything here that bumped him up to great. Maybe I’ll try Breakfast at Tiffany’s next.

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A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson is a talented and entertaining writer; he has written more than one book that I enjoyed quite a lot. When I opened up A Short History of Nearly Everything and read the opening paragraphs, I told myself that I was in for a treat. Bryson, it seems, had throughout his life stumbled on questions about why things were the way they were and how we came to understand them. Finally, after one such episode, he set out to find answers to those questions and report back to us what he discovered.

The title is misleading; the book is much more a history of how we came to understand the world, rather than a history of the world itself. It would be better named A Short History of Science. Even that would be a little off, however, as it quickly becomes apparent that what fascinates Bryson isn’t so much the science as it is the scientists. A Short History is a very interesting book about the personalities behind modern scientific thinking, and about how those people and their disciplines interacted. And, well, as such, it’s not very short. It’s hard to see how it could be, since it covers so many discoveries by so many people, and often discusses the controversies around those discoveries as well, and about how some people got totally screwed by their less-scrupulous peers.

Some of the science history was surprising to me. When I was a kid I learned that the Earth was about 4 billion years old. This number, to me, fit into that bin of “things we’ve always known.” That number has been refined since, but the tweaks have been minor. What I did not know was that when I was a kid, the 4 billion figure was pretty new. As late as the 1920’s, the dominant estimates for the age of the Earth were much, much, less. That is just one example of the tremendous rush of knowledge that occurred in the 20th century. Things that were taken for granted by the time I was in grade school were considered wacky theories (if they were considered at all) by the previous generation. After centuries of muddling around, science in the early 20th century managed to reach a state across multiple disciplines to finally allow mankind to lay a solid theoretical foundation for just what the heck is going on in the universe. We talk about the rush of technology today, but that was all made possible but the enormous strides in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geology, cosmology, and on and on.

There are a few aspects of the march of science that Bryson finds much more interesting than I do. One area where we particularly diverge is the classification of plant and animal species. Bryson explores at great length the competing systems and the proponents of each. My take on the whole thing: *yawn*. This debate is critically important to a few professionals, and I’m not one of them. About the third time taxonomy came up, I thought, “Let’s get back to Darwin’s social difficulties, please.”

Remember how I said that the first paragraphs had me rubbing my hands in anticipation? Well, there’s another problem. The rather over-the-top style of the introduction got pretty tiresome as the book wore on. Opening a page at random, I came across the phrase “splendid waywardness” to describe the property of ice floating on liquid water. It’s a nice phrase. There are way too many of them. Another annoying trait is the never-ending parade of metaphors to illustrate what a very long time ago things happened. If the first three didn’t get the point home, then then one about flying backwards in time for three weeks to get to the beginning of human life, but twenty years to get to the Cambrian Explosion isn’t going to do the job either.

Despite my complaints, this book is filled with historical tidbits about the lives of people whose names you know and quite a few that perhaps you should learn. It shows how preconceptions and petty jealousy have dogged the advancement of human knowledge, and the book often instills a sense of wonder in it all. It is a flawed read, but there’s really nothing else like it that I know of. As such, I recommend A Rather Long History of Scientific Thought.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a story of the journey of a father and son across the lifeless, blasted terrain of post-apocalyptic America. There is nothing living except a few bands of desperate survivors; the barren earth is no longer capable of supporting complex life. The only food available is what can be scrounged from the ruins, the only fresh meat is human flesh. The man and the boy are heading south, but they have no reason to believe that what they find will be any better than anywhere else. To the north, however, lies certain death from exposure and starvation.

They have a gun, with two bullets. One for each of them.

We would never eat people, the boy asks. No, never, the man replies.

The man and the boy are never named, conceits like that belong to another world, a place that doesn’t exist any more, a place the boy has never known. In the new, unrelentingly grim, world, there are only bad guys — people who will do anything, anything at all, to stay alive — and good guys — people who still entertain notions of right and wrong. People who, in the words of the boy, are carrying the flame. Even in the face of the horrifyingly pragmatic decisions the man has to make, the boy retains an inherent goodness, and on his shoulders lie the future of mankind.

I was going to write that McCarthy has discarded many of the rules of modern grammar and style, but it would be more accurate to say that he has developed his own grammar and honed it over the years. Rather than bind his sentences with the concepts of subject and verb, in McCarthy’s writing sentences are units of thought, impressions, fragments that map the experience of the characters. Most of the time this works, but sometimes in dialog it is easy to lose track of who is saying what, and the prose sometimes suffers from ambiguous pronouns. When reading this story it’s best not to worry about those things too much, but to let the words flow, bump, jitter, and lapse into silence the way the writer intended them to.

I can see them coming now, the scores of writers who think that it is McCarthy’s style that makes him such a compelling writer, and who will try to imitate him with disastrous results. What makes McCarthy a good writer is his clear vision, his ability to make language work for him, and his ability to create sympathetic characters in the bleakest of situations.

The future shown in this story is a grim one indeed, and there were times I thought to myself “all right, already, life sucks, I get it.” But there is movement in the unrelenting gray of the world, as we see the toll the road takes on the travelers, and watch as their courses diverge. This is a mighty fine read.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

The Fourth Bear

The Fourth Bear: A Nursery Crime by Jasper Fforde looked promising. “Brilliantly, breathlessly odd.” USA Today called it. ‘Odd’ is one of my favorite adjectives when applied to light prose, and the recommendations on the back cover of the book reinforced the impression, comparing Fforde to the creators of the Simpsons and to Douglas Adams, mentioning outrageous satirical agility, and so forth. I thought I was in for a treat.

What I got was certainly pleasant, and I did chuckle frequently while reading, but I was not swept away. Inspector Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crimes Division of the Reading police force is trying to solve the case of a missing reporter who went by the name Goldilocks, last seen in the company of three bears. She was preparing to blow the lid off a huge story that had something to do with championship cucumbers. Inspector Spratt is himself a PDR (Person of Dubious Reality), which makes him uniquely qualified to wade through the myriad of credulity-stretching oddities and clues. Meanwhile, the Gingerbreadman has escaped from the mental hospital and has resumed his killing spree…

There are puns aplenty, occasional self-referential humor, and a nudge-nudge feeling pervades the book. Being up on your nursery rhymes will certainly help; I was pretty vague on the Jack Sprat rhyme, for instance. While I found it easy to put the story down, I also found it easy to pick back up again.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Blood Magic

Blood Magic by Matthew Cook first caught my eye as it sat on the megabookstore shelf because of its striking cover art. Yep, without that cover and the fact that the bookstore chose to put the book cover-out I never would have picked it up. A sad state of affairs, really. I picked up the book and noticed that it was the debut for the author. I was wavering at that point, but decided that first-time authors need every break they can get. Plus I’ve read plenty of stories by established writers who have stopped really trying and started phoning it in. It occurred to me that maybe a new author must clear taller hurdles to find himself cover-out at a megabookstore. Finally, I got the feeling that while there would be no life-changing prose inside, it did look like a good read from a pure entertainment perspective. So, next to Cormac McCarthy and Truman Capote in my bag I added Matthew Cook.

Tellingly, with five new books to choose from, the one I went for first was Blood Magic. I like light reading for pure entertainment. In that I was not disappointed. The main character is Kirin (or is it?), a solitary woman making a living as a scout for the army. She’s not too bad at old-fashioned kicking ass, but the cornerstone of her ability is that she can use blood magic – the blood of living creatures (especially people) gives her power, and she is able to bind the souls of the recently dead to her purposes.

Most of society thinks these abilities are evil — especially organized religion — but Kirin is constantly doing altruistic things. She is certainly not evil, but, well, there’s a not-so-nice side to her as well. She is a satisfyingly complicated character. In the world, there are very few things that are distinctly good or evil. You’ve got monsters killing lots of people, but they don’t come across as evil so much as dangerous. We don’t have any insight into their motivation, so it’s hard to judge them. The closest to evil we find is blind intolerance among some of the people — but even those people have their good sides.

A couple of nit-picks: the author overuses a couple of phrases (one of those phrases was one that I had to purge in several places in The Monster Within, so I might be over-sensitive to it), and there were some paragraphs that just didn’t read well, but overall it is clear that the writing group that supported Mr. Cook took the job seriously and helped him a great deal.

Towards the end of the book I was thinking, “There’s no way he’s going to wrap this all up,” and I was dreading the classic fantasy “Book that isn’t really a book but just the first pages of a larger volume.” I’m happy to report that while there is plenty of stuff unresolved at the end, there is a satisfying ending to this episode. Characters have changed and learned. There has been little progress in solving the larger problems, but it’s the people who make this story interesting, and that’s where the change occurs.

If you’re looking for an enjoyble read from an new author, consider Blood Magic. As I set up the link to Amazon, I discovered that the full name of the book is Blood Magic: Book One Of The Ballad Of Kirin Widowmaker. Luckily, the cover doesn’t have all that Ballad/Widowmaker junk or I probably wouldn’t have bought it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Danté’s Equation

A friend of my loaned me Danté’s Equation, by Jane Jensen, with very high praise. It’s a big book, and perhaps I should have saved it for my upcoming (but still ill-defined) transatlantic adventures, but after the genteel, well-mannered, and rather slow prose of my last read (not reviewed here yet), I was ready for someone to let loose and just tell a good story. I was not disappointed.

The book centers around a group of five people, each of whom represents life out of balance in different ways, along the different axes defined in the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. Superficially it’s a science fiction story, enough so that the characters are each uprooted and transplanted to a universe that matches their own imbalances – essentially they are plunged into a world every bit as messed up as they are. With such a mirror to look into, the characters are given the opportunity to change — or not. Behind it all is a genius physicist and mystic who disappeared while in Auschwitz. It seems he came up with a pretty dang amazing theory, and now, sixty years later, rumors are starting to get around that there exists a manuscript that could hold the key to a new sort of super-weapon.

The “scientific” idea that underpins the whole thing (and is echoed in the mysticism) is elegant and nicely described, but when it needs to interact with modern physics, that interface is a bit shaky, and sometimes just incorrect. It’s fiction, so that’s all right, but don’t take any science morsels you pick up here and try to apply them elsewhere. Remember, kids — stay away from mini black holes!

It took me a while to get started with the story; the first few chapters suffer from similitis (inflamation of the simile gland) and some rather lengthy As-You-Know-Bobs (discussions between people who really should both know this stuff already, staged so the writer can explain them to us). Early on I was tripped up by chunks like “He always left home before the crack of dawn so he could watch the sunlight warm the stones. There was a cold bite in the air this morning. His black wool coat and hat absorbed it like a sponge.” I’m not sure I want my coat to absorb the cold like a sponge, but if (as is likely, grammar aside) the author meant that it was the sunlight that is being absorbed, then sponge really isn’t a very useful image. There were many places in the early going I hesitated, tripping up on phrases where the author was just trying too hard.

The story never completely gets over the similitis, but after a while one gets the feeling that the author is no longer trying to come up with particularly choice similes, and is content to let her natural language tell the story. Once she reaches this stage, her easy voice does quite well, and I spent two very late nights watching the intertwined lives of the characters… um… intertwine. The narration is in third person, but Jensen does a good job changing the voice of the narration to match character who’s point of view we are sharing at that moment. It’s really quite fun to understand the characters through their vocabulary and the way they interpret the world.

In the framework of the “People ending up in the place they are (literally) most in tune with” rule, there is a monster coincidence – two people ending up in the same place out of an infinite continuum of possibilities. “Ah Ha!” I thought when Coincidence Guy A was explaining the rule to Coincidence Guy B, “That they are having this conversation at all is a refutation of that rule! When they work that out, it’s going to be cool!” They never worked it out; no one ever blinked an eye at the staggering impossibility of it. I even came up with a good explanation that would have made a very interesting plot point.

You know, when I write these reviews, I spend a lot more time on the problems of a story than what was good. Maybe this is because that’s how I treat my own writing now, always looking for things to improve. So, I’ll just leave you with this: This story has interesting people who grow and change, people who find balance and maybe (just maybe) a little peace. In the end you are rooting for these people, even the jerks, and when they do change it is believable (well, mostly…) and rewarding. And that’s what makes a good story, no?

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

The Novel

In The Novel, by James Michener, one of the characters learns the hard way that critics should not also be writers. Perhaps the reverse is also true, that writers should not be critics, but I expect he would not brand these ramblings as criticism anyway.

The book is divided into four parts, each told from the point of view of a different person. All these people’s lives are intertwined, and as the book progresses it is very interesting to see how the various characters interpret their relationships. Through it all is the title character, the novel, which at the start of the story seems to be a concrete thing, a particular work by a specific author, but as the story progresses through changing points of view we also see The Novel become more abstract, until by the end Michener is discussing the novel as an art form and its role in modern society.

We begin with The Author, told by Lukas Yoder, a bestselling writer who is finishing his latest—and last—novel. His editor, Yvonne Marmelle, has been with him since his start, and it was only through her force of will that Yoder was not dropped by her publishing company after his first books didn’t sell. It is in the second part of the book, told by Marmelle, that we begin to see that while Yoder’s work is beautifully written, there is a part of her that yearns for something more. She wants passion. She wants a writer who takes risks. She wants to find an artist.

Michener’s characters are all archetypes, idealized versions of the Steady Writer, the Intelligent and Combative Editor, the Incisive and Controversial Critic, and the Philanthropic Dowager Reader. The last is less of a cliché than the first three, as there really is no stereotypical reader.

When I got to the section told by the critic I almost put the book down. I really didn’t like this arrogant jerk at all, but what really cheesed me was Michener’s description of his classroom methods (the critic is a professor of creative writing of growing renown). When I read about the way he taught he sounded to me like about the worst writing teacher imaginable, yet he was presented as a favorite among students. I took a breath. Michener is not a teacher, but he’s seen the inside of a lot more academic writing classes than I have. Somewhere along the way he got confused.

Once we dispensed with that part of the characterization the rest of my objections to the critic were, I think, exactly the ones Michener wanted to elicit. The man is an elitist asshole. But, and this is a point Michener eventually brought me around to, was, just because he’s an elitist asshole doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Yoder is accused by the intellectual elite (their term) of helping to bring the vacuous television age of fiction to the masses. “He does little harm, but no good,” one critic says. Yoder seems (mostly) immune to the criticism, and later we learn why, when we investigate a pile of letters he is answering. Some of them say, “I wouldn’t be reading books at all if it weren’t for you.” Yoder is quietly proud of being a gateway drug, a stepping stone on the path to intellectual freedom, happy that perhaps one of the steel workers that reads his work will pick up another book and another and another, though Yoder would never express such an ambition out loud.

Michener provides an interesting cast who are compelled to dig further into questions on the nature of art and the responsibility of artists. Is true art an act of rebellion? What are the responsibilities of an artist, both to his vision and to a society as a whole? Are ‘popular’ and ‘artist’ opposed?

In the end, it is the Reader who decides. Turning to a favorite old tome, she finds it oddly disappointing, lacking the substance she had recently discovered in more challenging works. And Yoder, in the shadow of tragedy, sits down to write a new novel, the one after his last, in a bold, new style. It’s fun to cast forward past the end of The Novel. A new journey is beginning, filled with promise, fraught with risk. I like stories that have me writing new chapters long after I’ve consumed the last page.

As a side point of interest, The Novel gives a good look behind the scenes in the publishing industry, as we discover just what a manuscript has to overcome to find its way into print. (One of every 900 manuscripts that come in gets serious attention.) You’ve heard some of it before in these pages as I discuss my own efforts to crash down the gates. A couple of things I knew intellectually but really hit home for me upon reading: recommendations from elitist assholes are really, really valuable when it comes to reaching the right people, and writing school is not just for perfecting your craft and broadening your horizons. It’s a great place to meet elitist assholes. I’d like to believe that the ‘learning to write’ part is still more important. I could really benefit from some of that.

As I read the arguments in the story, I was compelled to consider my own efforts against the yardsticks of the various points of view in the story. My completed stuff is more oriented to entertainment through a story well told than it is about big-A Art. Sometimes I get closer, though, and that feels good. Reflecting on some of the things said in The Novel, I also feel better-prepared to defend my breaking of rules. That’s what writers do. The ultimate goal for me is to write something that is Art without forgetting the story well told. I think that goal puts me in good company.

Addendum: I was prepared to surrender the field to the Artists, but you know what? I put that yardstick against my story and while it is foremost an enjoyable read, upon further review The Monster Within is about freedom. It’s wrapped in a good yarn, but in just a few seconds I could enumerate four different types of freedom displayed and it’s the tension between those forms that drives the story. I didn’t plan it that way at all, but when you do something you love, it’s going to carry your beliefs along with it, and that’s a good thing. When I get panned (let’s all hope I achieve the stature to be panned) I’ll respond with, “That was about freedom! You got a problem with freedom? Are you with us or agin’ us?” (Critics understand irony, right?) I’m not yielding the big A yet.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.