Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Wilson Deception

David Stewart continues the adventures of country doctor Jamie Fraser and his comrade in arms, Speed Cook, that he ably chronicled in The Lincoln Deception. It is a generation later, and the inevitable disillusionment of age has set in for both protagonists. But the spark of idealism still burns as the two maneuver in Paris during the Peace Conference of 1919 to keep Woodrow Wilson on track and to clear the name of Speed's son, Joshua, falsely accused of desertion after bravely fighting in World War I with America's little-known black troops.

For being an historical novel, The Wilson Deception is surprisingly timely. It is the Middle East boundaries drawn at this peace conference that are at the heart of our current problems in Syria and Iraq. And it is the intrigues of Clemenceau to punish the Germans that led to World War II, the second defeat of Germany, and the formation of the European Union as a way to ensure permanent peace -- a project that is now facing challenges of its own. And, not least, it is a well-rounded portrait of a president whose reputation is under new attack because of the racist views he had as a white southerner in that period.

As stimulating as all this is, however, it is the novel itself that carries the reader along as Jamie and Speed pursue their goals against this historic backdrop. Stewart's well-paced narrative, with colorful and often surprising descriptions and deft characterizations, has just the right mix of drama and humor, along with that touch of melancholy that accompanies getting older. The real-life historical characters -- Clemenceau, Lawrence of Arabia, and, above all, Allen Dulles, the future director of the CIA -- are presented with a panache that brings them to life. The plot is credible enough, though it is on thin ice when the heroes try to get Lawrence involved in their scheme to dupe Wilson by balancing the future of the Middle East with the fate of Speed's son.

But the reader is along for the ride, from the riots on the Place de la Concorde to the climactic scenes at Le Bourget airport, cheering on Jamie and Speed as they test their bond of friendship in a new adventure.

Friday, November 20, 2015

La Place de L'Etoile

Satire hardly does justice to the savage commentary of Patrick Modiano's debut novel as he tears apart France's collaboration during the war through the eyes of a Nazi Jew, Raphael Schlemilovitch. A self-hating Jew reflects France's profound anti-semitism as the narrator flits through time and hallucinatory reincarnations ranging from wartime to present day (present day being the 1960s, when the novel appeared).

The narration leaves the reader dizzy and just holding on for the ride as Modiano/Schlemilovitch slashes through every moral and ethical taboo to shock and provoke. While it has the guise of an intellectual novel, sprinkled with literary references that even few French readers could follow, it is in reality a deeply emotional novel, as Modiano probes into our subconscious fears.

It is a compelling read, a roller-coaster of impressions that leaves you unsettled and disoriented. It is powerful literature and a Nobel Prize well-earned. Despite the lost continuums of time and space, the novel works because there is enough precise detail of buildings, rooms, landscapes, cities and people that it remains very visual. In fact, in his introduction, William Boyd gives Modiano credit for influencing the various waves of French filmmakers, such as Alan Resnais.

Modiano is Kafka with French elan, and a laser focus on the anti-semitism that continues to roil French society. This is the first of the Occupation Trilogy, three short novels published in a single volume, but I will read and review them separately.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Dinosaur Feather

S.J. Gazan's moody procedural sets a murder mystery amid academic intrigue in a biology institute in Copenhagen. She manages to keep the plot moving even as she fills in the back story on half a dozen characters, adding depth and an unexpected human dimension to the Nordic noir.

One theme that clearly emerges is that you should never lie to children because denying them the truth invariably leads to neuroses that affect their adult behavior. Since that is a given, however, the challenge is not to let these neuroses thwart a happy, fulfilled life.

Both of the protagonists, doctoral candidate Anna Bella Nor and "the World's Most Irritating Detective," Soren Marhauge, have submerged childhood secrets tumbling around in their psyches. But it does not stop Anna from successfully preparing to defend her dissertation nor Soren from collecting the clues to solve his mystery.

The academic intrigue revolves around the debate, largely settled, as to whether birds are present-day dinosaurs -- that is these feathered, flying creatures evolved from the gigantic reptiles of prehistory. While the evidence from morphology is overwhelming, the key to proving the connection is finding that elusive feather in the evolutionary process. As this evidence mounts with new discoveries, the thesis defended by an isolated biology professor in British Columbia, Clive Freeman, that birds did not in fact evolve from dinosaurs but that both evolved from an original species.

Gazan takes the time to delve into the past not only of the two protagonists but virtually all the principals after the gruesome death of a controversial Danish biologist from being infected with parasites. As Soren tries to sort through the rivalries and secrets a second murder complicates his task.

All the characters are flawed but most are sympathetic to some degree. Gazan's command of the academic discipline is impressive. At the same time, she has so much understanding for the Goth scene as well as more libertine S&M practices that it seems almost first hand.

In any case, the urbane tolerance we associate with Scandinavians is much in evidence as the characters interact with a certain amount of diffidence. The glimpses of everyday life in Denmark are satisfying and anyone missing all that Nordic nomenclature from the Stieg Larsson novels will find comfort in the Danish place names. I picked this up on a whim at the secondhand bookstore in Lewes and found it very readable.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The New and Improved Romie Futch

Julia Elliott's prose seems to thrash around like a demon mutant boar but it is in reality a tightly controlled work of art. Her versatility in ranging from Low Country drug talk to discussions of European literature and jazz is breathtaking. But what carries the novel is the narrative of a lovelorn loser who fills the void in his life by following his survival instincts.

Left by his wife, the love of his life, Romie Futch flounders in a haze induced by substance abuse and enabled by his loser high school buddies. He takes part in a fantastical neurological experiment as a lifeline and does indeed benefit from downloads of learning and culture directly into his brain. The "improvement" gives him new motivation to revive his taxidermy business and indulge his long-suppressed creative instincts. His dioramas of mutant animals sets him on the search for Hogzilla, a mutant feral hog spotted in the vicinity of a drug company specialized in genetic modification.

The plot has been called Southern Gothic and fantasy. But Elliott's descriptions of ordinary life glow with the luminescence of a hyperreal painting. Her portrayal of Futch's father and stepmother and their retirement village home, her detailing of the rundown dump Futch calls home, her unflinching view of the malls and restaurants that make up our suburban sprawl -- all of these are spot on.

But the deft character sketches of Futch's buddies, the researchers conducting the experiment, Futch's ex-wife and her new husband also crackle with energy. She can mock the retirement village but make fun of a hip art exhibit opening in converted ammunition depot with equal acuity.

Through it all, Romie Futch pines for Helen, torments himself with bittersweet memories, hangs on to his high school mates and develops a new dependency on his fellow guinea pigs in the experiment. He must cope with migraines, blackouts, and the uneasy feeling that somehow they are still inside his head. Ultimately, he must find a way to resolved the legacy of this experiment and clues he follows through an Internet connection with the shadowy PigSlayer avatar offers him hope of doing so. No spoilers, but Elliott brings it all to a satisfying resolution that still leaves much open.

I will probably want to go back and read Elliott's short story collection, The Wilds, though I'm not a fan of the genre. But I will definitely snap up her next novel as soon as it comes out.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Betrayers

David Bezmozgis's novel about a 24-hour visit of a disgraced Israeli politician to Crimea has it all -- it is a novel of ideas, a love story, a political thriller, and a literary adventure into an exotic corner of the world. It deals with Jewish identity, Marxist ideology, fundamental notions of honor and integrity, and religious ideals of forgiveness and redemption -- and all this in 230 pages.

Baruch Kotler, a Soviet refusenik who became a cabinet minister in Israel, flees to Crimea with his mistress after their affair is exposed, nostalgically returning to the site of happy childhood vacation. Their hotel reservation is lost, so the couple takes a room in a private home from one of the many hustlers greeting tourists at the Yalta bus station. In a fateful coincidence that Bezmozgis somehow makes credible, the homeowner -- away when his wife successfully landed the couple -- was the former friend and Jewish dissident who had denounced Kotler in Moscow, leading to his spending 10 years in the Gulag.

The two couples spend the next 24 hours together in the small cottage, a drama that ranges from Chekhov to Tolstoy in its economy and sweep. Kotler, the victim of denunciation and long imprisonment, has prospered as a leading light in his new homeland, while Vladimir Tankilevich lives in penury, dependent on a stipend from the local Jewish charity that is dependent on his weekly attendance at the synagogue in Simferopol, a three-hour trolley ride each way.

Kotler left Israel at a critical moment when Jewish settlers were being forcibly removed, a controversial decision he reluctantly went along with and which provoked his own soldier son into open mutiny. He feels he must return to Israel immediately. It is a fateful turning point in his life -- his affair is almost certainly over but his return to his wife is not certain, any more than his rehabilitation in Israeli politics. Crucially, Kotler must decide how to resolve the chance reunion with his nemesis.

The novel's title has betrayers in plural. Tankilevich betrayed Kotler in Moscow, but Kotler betrayed his wife and family with his affair. The novel turns on whether Tankilevich and Kotler once again betray their principles in their encounter with each other. It is a poignant and moving drama, with Svetlana, Tankilevich's Russian wife, and Leora, Kotler's young mistress, acting as mirrors to reflect the tension between the two men. Kotler's wife in Israel, Miriam, also plays a role through a long email letter that blames him and forgives him.

Bezmozgis's deft evocation of a down on its heels tourist site that nonetheless has a geopolitical role to play makes it the perfect setting for his morality play. It permits him to compress ideas and events into an intimate drama and leave a reader not only satisfied but moved.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick pushes the boundaries of the metaphysical and epistemological in his works, which go well beyond the rocket ships and space travel we usually associate with science fiction. Just a list of the films inspired by his stories -- Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Adjustment Bureau -- shows how willing he is to question what is real, where does identity reside.

The Man in the High Castle is about historicity and authenticity. The book -- which is the starting point for a Netflix series coming out next month -- begins with a dealer in American memorabilia in a Japanese puppet state that arose on the West Coast after America's defeat in World War II. The backstory has it that we lost the war because Roosevelt was assassinated in his first term. The East Coast is part of a Greater German Reich, though no scenes in the book actually take place there.

The problem with Robert Childan's memorabilia is that they are not genuine, but manufactured for sale to the gullible Japanese. The manufacturer claims that the only difference between the real thing and his fakes is historicity -- an intangible and essentially meaningless quality.

This is the crux of Dick's alternate history. For what drives the plot is an alternate history within the alternate history -- The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This novel -- in the TV series it is actually a film -- posits that Roosevelt survived the assassination attempt but forgoes a third and fourth term. The Allies win the war but it is Churchill who becomes the dominant leader in the postwar world. The author of this alternate history, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the man in the high castle because he supposedly lives in a well-fortified ranch in the neutral zone between the Japanese and German puppet states.

Dick plays with this quicksand. A Japanese trade diplomat in San Francisco arranges a meeting between a highly place general from Tokyo and a German turncoat from Berlin who warns Japan that Germany plans to bomb Japan as part of its succession struggles. A woman estranged from her secretly Jewish husband falls in with a suspicious truck driver who appears intent on assassinating the man in the high castle. And the husband, secretly a Jew, embarks on a venture to fabricate a new type of jewelry that does not imitate past works but finds little acceptance because it is too novel.

It is a multifaceted plot and it hardly matters if the climax is somewhat anticlimactic and many questions are left open in the end. Dick wants to stretch your mind, not deliver a plot on a silver platter. The question of which alternate history is the real one -- or are both real -- is for the reader to answer. The fact that the TV series makes Grasshopper a film -- with footage of an older Roosevelt -- indicates how the producers interpret it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The American Mission

One of the things that makes thrillers tick for me is a sense of place, and that is one of the strongest aspects of Matthew Palmer's novel set in the Congo. Who would not feel a frisson when one of the characters says the location of a village in eastern Congo is exactly where Conrad's Heart of Darkness takes place.

Though hardly plumbing the same psychological depths as Conrad's masterpiece, The American Mission is a darkly cynical view of African corruption, corporate criminality, and American neo-imperialism by a writer identified as a former Foreign Service Officer.

There are predictable twists and turns as FSO Alex Baines teams up with a paragon of African beauty and skills who improbably becomes the chief of her tribe as she tries to save their jungle home from the predations of an international mining company. There is the "terrorist" leader who turns out to be a freedom fighter, the diplomat mentor who turns out to be part of a right-wing conspiracy within the State Department, and the CIA station chief who appears to be a model of integrity.

But the action and descriptions carry the reader along as the village and its tribe ring true in a language that is effective if not exactly eloquent. The book might have been somewhat shorter as the action lags in places, but all in all it's a quick romp. Already have his next book, Secrets of State, loaded onto my Kindle.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Circle

Dave Eggers' brilliant novel veers from post-apocalyptic thriller to satire to parody as he takes the tenets driving social networking and Silicon Valley meglomania to their logical conclusion in the tale of a young ingenue, Mae Holland, who goes to work at The Circle -- a combination of Facebook and Google with a dash of Twitter thrown in -- and quickly become an integral part of a proto-totalitarian surveillance tool.

The world at the beginning of the novel is recognizable as our own, given a couple of years and mergers. The insight of the Three Wise Men who run The Circle was to combine existing social network capabilities in a seamless web, so to speak, of communication.

Quickly, however, the "social" in in social networking becomes a fascist imperative, with first the workers at The Circle and then the population at large expected to participate constantly. Mae is chided after her first week for not participating enough in the online networking and the real life events of the sprawling campus that is a city unto itself. In a dazzingly brilliant pun, Eggers has all the workers ranked according to their level of participation -- their PartiRank -- which conjures up 1984 and Darkness at Noon.

Mae adapts quickly and becomes ashamed of her independent ways -- going on a late-night kayaking trip, for instance, without sharing the experience with The Circle. She is susceptible to the influence of the wise men and becomes a useful foil for propagating their agenda. She sums up the credo of The Circle in words she's not even sure are her own in what becomes a manifesto for the company: Secrets are Lies. Sharing is Caring. Privacy is Theft.

Oh my. Mae is brought to the Circle by her college friend Annie, a star at the company, but Mae's meteoric rise quickly takes her even higher, so that Annie finds herself bitterly envious of her friend's success. Mae must deal with Annie's burgeoning enmity, with the resistance of her parents and old boyfriend in Fresno to the surveillance world envisioned by the Circle, and with her passion for the mysterious Kalden, who seems to have access to the inner sanctum of the Circle but may be a spy from a rival company.

The reader hopes against hope that Mae will wake up to the peril of the world she is embracing and that suspense drives the reader to the climax of the novel when she must choose between the totalitarian vision of the Circle leaders and the alternative presented by the enigmatic Kalden. It is worth reading the novel to find out what she chooses.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Summer reading

Summer has provided some good time for reading but not much for blogging. The best book I read this summer was Lily King's Euphoria, a fictionalized version of the love triangle experienced by Margaret Mead and her first and second husbands as they were all researchers in New Guinea. It was a beautifully written, sparingly told love story set in conditions beyond exotic. It was helpful that the author did not attempt to use the actual historical characters -- it gave her more freedom, as I noted in my WIRoB blog post.

Nell's husband became increasingly unsympathetic in the course of the novel, and in fact the reader wonders what the attraction was in the first place. But it realistically portrays how the charm of a particular moment or period can set our lives in a certain direction that then becomes hard to change.

Joseph Kanon's Leaving Berlin was one of his best thriller to date. He captures the ambivalence of a period that drew creative personalities like Berthold Brecht to the young German Democratic Republic even in the face of the appalling reality of Stalinism. Layered on top of this background is the personal story of Alex Meier, a refugee caught in his own vise of compromise compelling him to return as a spy for the CIA. If the East German Stasi is ugly, so is the American agency. Meier's rekindled romance with an actress there and its role in completing his mission rounds out a compelling read replete with tellingly accurate details.

Ben Winters' World of Trouble completes the Last Policeman trilogy. Predictably, this third book loses a little of the momentum and freshness that propelled the other two. The previous novel, Countdown City, had set up this quest for Henry to go look for his sister Nikki, one of the least interesting characters in series. She is so unsympathetic that it's hard to share Henry's concern for her welfare. Also, the plot is more plodding, with none of the clever twists and turns that characterized the previous two novels.

Far North by Marcel Theroux is another good post-apocalyptic novel, similar in many respects -- too similar sometimes -- to the Chang Rae Lee book. It too involves a picaresque journey of a young survivor with many twists, evil characters and a firm belief in the resiliency of the human spirit.

The Empty Quarter by David Robbins is another in the series involving the intrepid pararescue troopers, this time on a mission to Saudi Arabia's empty quarter that is off the grid in more senses than one. Not as good as the earlier one, but still easy to read.

The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow traced a macabre experiment in 1871 New York that you realize only slowly is a chilling critique of modern medicine. It has the period detail and deft characterization that mark Doctorow's better known works, while the baroque pace is somewhat more streamlined.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Countdown City

Ben Winters tale of a world facing extinction as an asteroid approaches might seem like a one-joke novel that does not lend itself to a sequel, let alone a series. But this second of three novels is so imaginative and inventive that it continues to surprise the reader. The narrator, Henry Palace, is a straight-laced police detective who can't think of any better way to await Armageddon than to continue doing his job. He debuted in The Last Policeman, and this sequel has him investigating another possible crime even though the Concord Police Department has closed down its detective department and kept only uniformed cops patrolling as a way to maintain some semblance of law and order in a world that is rapidly losing its tenuous connection to civilization.

As the countdown to the asteroid goes on -- it is around 75 days away in this novel -- Henry, sometimes Hank, promises his former babysitter he will look for her husband, who has disappeared. Of course, people disappear all the time in this end-of-days scenario, no longer feeling bound by any obligations. Some kill themselves, others travel to hedonistic meccas (New Orleans seems to be the main one) to spend the final days in revelry, others have their personal bucket lists. But Martha Milano is convinced that her husband, a former state trooper, is not that type of person.

It would seem like a fools' errand "in the current environment," as his friends and former colleagues tell him. Hank knows there's a million other things he could be doing. "But this is what I do," Hank reflects on what drives him to continue working as a detective. "It's what makes sense to me, what has long made sense. And surely some large proportion of the world's current danger and decline is not inevitable but rather the result of people scrambling fearfully away from the things that have long made sense."

So Hank takes on the case, enlisting the help of his sister, Nico, who has joined a rebel group that believes there is a government conspiracy to stop a feasible effort to deflect the asteroid and save the world. Hank thinks she's crazy but she has contacts in the Free Republic of New Hampshire, a utopian student community set up in the former university, and his search for the missing husband leads there.

The description of this community and one of its leaders -- who is determined to prevent the free republic from descending to the inevitable bloody authoritarianism of Jacobin revolution by quietly exercising her own version of authoritarianism -- is an ingenious portrayal of a world that is part postapocalyptic and part satire. The individual characters are vividly sketched and a wry humor underlies Hank's narrative.

His search takes him to the Maine coast -- bicycle is the main form of transportation -- where he discovers that coastal defense efforts to keep immigrants from landing are more cynical than he imagined. Again, the real-life issues we face in the Caribbean and Mediterranean are only thinly veiled in this science fiction plot.

By the time Hank makes it back to Concord, the breakdown of law and order is nearly complete. He has successfully unraveled the mystery of the missing husband but his report is disappointing to his "client," and in any case the whole world is literally going to hell in a handbasket. The CPD has made its own preparations for survival as the forces pull out of town and leave the residents to their own devices.

Winters apparently has people contribute ideas of what they would do in this situation to his website, and perhaps that is the source of some of the entertaining detail in the various reactions of people to the coming catastrophe. It will be interesting to see how he wraps it up in the third volume, if that is indeed what he does.

The writing is compelling, the protagonist sympathetic, the far-fetched plot surprisingly realistic -- a great series.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Taint of Midas

Anne Zouroudi evokes the sight, smell and sounds of Greece in a language that is clear and crisp. Her descriptions of everyday life and the pain of the corrosive effects of tourism and commercialism (this in 2008 even before the current crisis) transport the reader to the country's cafes and scenic roads.

But her feeble mystery tracing the driver of a hit-and-run death amidst a developer's scheme to build luxury villas on a protected mountainside is thin and unsatisfying. Her "detective," Hermes Diaktronos, may be less opaque to readers of her first novel, but he remains a complete cipher in this book. There is virtually no interior life for this character and the author's insistence in referring to him always as "the fat man" is awkward and distracting. The sketchy details of his appearance bring to mind the young Peter Ustinov of "Topkapi," but that is doing the author a favor.

The villain of the piece, Aris Paliakis, emerges as the better drawn character, and even the two police officers involved show more personality than the fat man. There is not much mystery in this short tale of greed and corruption, and the fat man's elliptical search for clues borders on fantasy as he all-knowingly intervenes in the lives of those he has decided are the perpetrators of his friend's death or in some other way contravene his understanding of justice. This virtuous vigilante even straightens out the police department while he is at it.

The minor characters go some way to redeeming the novel. The opening chapter depicting the aging Gabrilis Kaloyeros as he harvests his watermelons to sell at his stall in town, or another episode with the barber Sosti who closes his shop to go fishing after 12 haircuts no matter what time it is are well drawn. Some of the vignettes -- how Paliakis dupes the tourists dining in his restaurant or tries to sway town council members to approve his planned development -- are amusing.

I bought this as a remainder and it may be Zouroudi never finished what seems from the subtitle -- "A Seven Deadly Sins Mystery" -- to be a projected series. If she did, perhaps the character of Diaktronos eventually takes on some depth. Unfortunately, even though the writing really is good, this story just barely works as a standalone novel.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

On Such a Full Sea

Chang-Rae Lee's dystopian picaresque follows the fortunes of Fan, a young fish-tank diver from the factory cities of a somewhat distant future. It may or may not be a postapocalyptic world, because Lee wastes no time with back story, relying on a few allusions from the narrator to let the reader discern that the world has changed.

Fan lives in a regimented town called B-Mor, formerly known as Baltimore when the "natives" lived there. She belongs to a clan descended from the "originals," a population of Chinese immigrants forced to flee New China and now settled in these factory towns to provide food and other products to the "Charters," an upper class that is a mildly extrapolated version of today's. The rest of the population is assigned to a wild and woolly outback known as the "Counties," characterized by Appalachian-like poverty.

The unusual first-person plural narrator makes the novel read like a cross between a Homeric epic and a Greek tragedy, seeming at times to recount the accumulated myth surrounding Fan, her departure from B-Mor and her adventures journeying through the Counties to a Charter village as she seeks her boyfriend Reg, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and her long-lost brother Liwei, who qualified for the dubious honor of being promoted to life in a Charter village.

As with the Greek prototypes, this type of narration gives little insight into the interior life of Fan or any of the other characters, aside from speculation by the narrator about the staged feelings that they might be experiencing. The overall effect is to depict life as a series of random events that we have no control over, and our only response can be to go with the flow and just keep trying to move forward. Indeed, the epigraph the title is drawn from, a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which includes the line "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads onto fortune," and which counsels the reader, "On such a full sea are we now afloat,/And we must take the current when it serves/Or lose our ventures."

There are many lines in the novel itself that are epigraphical. When Fan leaves B-Mor on her adventure she realizes she does not miss the particular individuals in her clan, who live in close quarters with little interaction, but does miss them "in sum." "Do not discount the psychic warmth of the hive," interjects the narrator. Referring to the way an Uncle Kellen expressed skepticism about the perfection of life in B-Mor by saying nothing, the narrator says, "You can be affected by a person because of something particular they said or did but sometimes it is how a person was, a manner of being, that gets most deeply absorbed, and prompts you to revisit certain periods of your life with an enhanced perspective, flowing forward right up to now."

It is, in fact, the actions of people, rather than their words, which further Fan along her way, as she lands first with the enigmatic Quinn, a former Charter resident consigned to the Counties when a plague led to a ban of all pets and ended his career as a veterinarian, and then with Mister Leo and Miss Cathy in a chilling Charter episode, until she is rescued by the emergency room doctor Vik and grows nearer to her goal of finding lover and brother.

Despite the artifice of Greek epic, or maybe because of it, the narration sweeps the reader along on a full sea of his or her own as the surprises and twists of Fan's journey -- not least her own unpredictable behavior -- maintains a level of suspense up until the final twist at the end. The writing has an accomplished literary quality that makes it rich and readable at the same time. If Fan remains something of a cipher, the narrator's sympathy for her innocence is infectious and most other characters eke out some sympathy from the reader as well, even when their environment makes them less than admirable.

What is dystopian is the regimentation and stratification of society, the economic apartheid that brooks little mobility between stations in life -- and which seems based in part at least on racial or ethnic origins. Whatever the upheavals that have occurred, society remains relatively intact with a recognizable level of consumer gratification. Even in factory towns like B-Mor, residents have "vids" to watch and use "handscreens" for photos. The inexplicable wave of shortages and discontent that washes over B-Mor is probably much like the impact of a recession in the interior of China, a mystery to inhabitants who have no inkling of the wider economic forces at work. The ultimate sterility of the materialistic Charter villages is outright satire that is painfully close to the reality.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel skillfully weaves a compelling narrative of pre- and post-apocalyptic drama, of story within a story, and virtually a play within a play. And she does so in a language that is understated, but elegant and sometimes lyrical. Most of all, she makes the reader care about her characters, viewing all of them, even the sinister prophet in a fragmented post-apocalyptic world, with sympathy.

Once again, there is no single protagonist. It is in large part a story of Arthur Leander, a famous film actor who dies in the opening pages as he performs in a stage production of King Lear. A child actress in the play, Kirsten Raymonde, who briefly interacts with Arthur, is the focus of the post-apocalyptic scenes, which mostly take place 20 years after Leander's death.

That ill-fated performance comes literally on the eve of a flu pandemic that kills off most of the earth's human population in a period of just weeks and brings an end to civilization as we know it. Raymonde, as a young adult, becomes part of a group of musicians and actors, The Traveling Symphony, which circulates through the sparsely populated towns around the Great Lakes, performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to appreciative audiences deprived of most other forms of entertainment.

The back story of Leander, his three wives, his friend Clark and his son, Tyler, occupies a good half of the novel. These stories before and after the catastrophe are linked by characters running into each other -- the coincidences are highly improbable, but not impossible, so the author is forgiven -- and by a couple of McGuffins, especially a hand-printed graphic novel about a space station and its commander, Station Eleven and Dr. Eleven.

Kirsten is in possession of one of the few copies of the graphic novel, which was produced by Leaner's first wife, Miranda, a would-be artist who went on after her divorce to become a successful shipping executive. Station Eleven, the size of small planet, is largely covered with water, an Undersea which harbors a population of renegades who oppose Dr. Eleven and want to return to earth.

Through this fanciful, imaginative tapestry, Mandel weaves basic human emotions of love and affection, loss and regret, timidity and courage, with a force that is compelling -- I read the book in just four days -- and often moving.

J.K. Rowling once said that Harry Potter and his fellow students don't have computers and cell phones because they have magic playing the role these miraculous devices have in our lives. The magic things of civilization -- air travel, electricity, even books -- come in for their share of wonder in this novel. But the rediscovery of simple pleasures -- bread baking in the oven, catching fish in a stream, performing a play -- also become a source of happiness and fulfillment.

Ultimately, for all the devastation and deprivation in this post-apocalyptic world, the resilience of the human spirit and endurance of human emotion create an atmosphere of optimism, which survives deadly threats and unavoidable setbacks.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Windsor Faction

D.J. Taylor's novel starts with a great premise for an alternate history -- Wallis Simpson dies of appendicitis so that Edward VIII does not abdicate but stays on the throne as World War II commences -- and provides an entertaining portrait of England torn between pacifism ("defeatism") and war.

However, spoiler alert, Taylor doesn't alter history all that much. Edward is portrayed as a weak and vacillating individual whose half-hearted support for the defeatists did little in fact to change anything. Rather, the ham-handed conspiracy of the novel, involving several historical figures, ended largely as it did in real history. British intelligence monitored the conspirators closely and when Germany did invade France, abandoning all pretension of seeking peace, the conspiracy collapsed and everyone was arrested.

So as an alternate history thriller, The Windsor Faction doesn't live up to its billing. As a satire poking fun at British society and a richly detailed picture of England in 1939, however, it makes for a good read. The wit, to use a cliche, is rapier-sharp, and the dissection of motivation of the multiple narrators is surgical. From the king on down through the conspiring aristocrat, the upper-class ingenue and her more sophisticated mentor, the foppish publisher and traitorous editor of a literary journal, the laconic gadabout writer, the oily clerk in the American embassy, to the distracted intelligence agents, the middle-class proprietors of an antique shop and the thuggish prol who works there -- each character is sharply delineated, fleshed out and made more  or less sympathetic to the reader.

There is not much suspense because the characters are not a credible threat to the established order. Rather they are a marginal, quirky, misguided footnote to history, alternate or real.

The writer adopts several different points of view -- including one in first person via a diary -- so that there is no clear protagonist. Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a young woman whose fiance is killed in a tragicomic manner while her family is stationed in the British colony of Ceylon, comes closest to being the character who binds the action together. She is the first we meet and plays a key part in the denouement. But other characters get their chapters as well, including Beverley Nichols (male despite the first name), an historical character who is deployed in the novel as an amanuensis for Edward to produce a very different sort of King's Speech in that fateful December 1939.

The king's pacifist tones do little to significantly sway public opinion, however, and the authorities dispatch him ("this is not a suggestion, but an order") to the distant provinces for inspection tours to keep him out of trouble. In the meantime, the emboldened conspirators try to surreptitiously negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, but time runs out before the French invasion.

I'm not a fan of multiple narrators, no more than I am of small plate restaurants. The snippets may be tasty, but not as satisfying as a full meal. Also, the details of period brands and manners and jingles and language are sometimes too rich and inserted gratuitously in a way that interrupts the flow.

That said, Taylor is a talented and supple writer and the novel remains compelling even without a thriller's suspense.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Blood Is Dirt

Despite my reservations about the first novel in the series (Instruments of Darkness), here I am already reading another Bruce Medway mystery by Robert Wilson. It is the evocation of the West African atmosphere, and perhaps the stench of corruption that Wilson has mastered that drew me back. It's an easy read, though he may have lost me on a twist or turn or two in the convoluted plot of a double scam within a scam, preceded by a fake scam and accompanied by a fair amount of mayhem.

Nonetheless, the corruption and hypocrisy oozes out of every pore of most of these characters, with the first-person narrator (Medway), his girlfriend Heike and his partner Bagado being the notable exceptions. This plot involves a British shipbroker who ships toxic waste and colludes with a British financier to cheat an Italian oil dealer (I think) -- which predictably does not end well for many of the people involved.

There are some outlandish characters -- the shipbroker's daughter, Selina, who becomes Medway's client and is a man-eating vixen; the Nigerian chief running for president of the country who needs financing for his campaign; some small-time Russian thugs who craft their own chili vodka, and others.

The portrayal of a key "queer" character betrays more than a whiff of homophobia, so I'm not sure what planet Wilson is living on or if he is deliberately being politically incorrect. There is considerable brutality but much less of the masochism that marked the earlier book. Medway doesn't get hurt too badly nor are Heike (too much of her in this book) or Bagado (too little of him) ever at risk from the bad guys.

And there's the driving along the coast between Nigeria and Benin, the ever-present heat and threat of malaria, the exotic forests and bays and beaches of the coastal setting, the cynical lifestyles of wealthy expatriates -- the stuff, in short, of a pretty good story.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Hugh Howey's science fiction epic is a satisfying post-apocalyptic thriller that keeps the reader turning pages. His vision of a remnant of civilization confined to a silo buried 140 stories into the earth is convincingly claustrophobic. The physical restrictions are stifling and require an equally stifling society where books are banned and every individual is assigned a work category (and silo level) with the appropriately colored overalls.

In a Q&A tacked on the end of my paperback edition, Howey says his time at sea and the confinement of living on a boat gave him the insight into silo life. The interminable climbs on the spiral stairway down the length of the silo are depicted so graphically that your legs are sore. Trips from top to bottom take days, with rest stops at various levels. "Porters" are the specialists who carry every pound of food and supplies on their backs from the garden and farming levels to the top and bottom. Communication is severely restricted. There are no computers for general use and paying a porter to carry a message is expensive.

All of this is effectively ruled by IT, a satirical touch that would be hilariously funny if it were not so grimly realistic. Sham elections choose a mayor, who appoints a sheriff (with the advice and consent of the head of IT). This is the world that Juliette, a mechanic housed in the lowest reaches of the "down deep" disrupts. When the mayor, Jahns, defies the head of IT, Bernard, to choose Juliette as the new sheriff, he quickly moves to frame Juliette with one of the numerous offenses that condemns a resident to "cleaning," the euphemism for being sent out into the toxic outside world in a suit designed to fail quickly. The cleaning refers to their obligation to wipe clean the monitors that are the only view the silo's inhabitants have of the outside world. Oddly, the condemned individuals invariably comply with this requirement, even though they gain nothing by it and die almost immediately afterwards. The wool of the title, by the way, appears to refer to the material they are given to clean the monitors, though of course the expression "pull the wool over your eyes" quickly comes to mind.

There are surreptitious references to an "uprising" that occurred several generations ago, when some individuals became impatient with restrictions of silo life and rebelled. It was put down violently and it is now a capital crime to discuss it. Just how many centuries people have been living in the silo and how many uprisings there have been are all vague. The novel begins, in fact, with the wife of Juliette's predecessor as sheriff, Holston, discovering some of these historical truths still preserved on IT's servers. She loses it and demands to be sent out to "cleaning." After grieving for three years, Holston follows suit. Neither makes it up the hill surrounding the silo. They curl up and die in view of the silo monitors and the residents up top who regularly enjoy.

This is the setup, and it's not too much of a spoiler to conclude that making it over that hill or fomenting a new uprising might be part of the narrative. The cynical nature of IT's control and the origins of the silo are revelations that drive the narrative as well.

Wool is often compared to The Passage by Justin Cronin, but I actually found this to be a tighter and more readable narrative. It eschews the supernatural element that makes the earlier book fantastical, and in fact revels in the low-tech expertise of Juliette and her companions in Mechanical. Her ability to survive comes to depend on that practical knowledge.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Cairo Affair

I've blown hot and cold on Olen Steinhauer and this is the first thriller of his that I've finished. Comparisons to Le Carre are more aspirational than actual, but this book succeeds in creating an atmosphere of moral ambivalence that is quite convincing.

What attracted me to the book, bought on remainders, was the setting in Cairo -- which is where I would like to situate the second Lord Leighton adventure. There is the obligatory passage through Budapest because Steinhauer seems to really like that city (his first novel, Prague, was actually set in the Hungarian capital). Cairo itself is conveyed a little too sketchily, but the desert scenes are good. Also, interestingly, the drive along the coast into Libya was like those coastal trips of Robert Wilson's protagonist in Instruments of Darkness, giving the reader a new sense of place by bringing alive a stretch of the map.

Steinhauer's narrative here from multiple points of view means there is no single protagonist. Rather, it is like a relay race with first one, then the other character taking on that role. The author makes it clear which of these runners he finds most sympathetic, but even in that case there is some moral ambivalence. The end result, however, is somewhat less than satisfying, because none of the characters then is fully developed.

The action revolves around an American couple, a diplomat who is murdered early on and his wife. We meet Emmet Kohl again in flashbacks to their oddball honeymoon, which for some reason they decided to take in the war zone of Novi Sad. Sophie Kohl is the one thread from the beginning of the book to the end, but she shares screen time with the other characters. She improbably decides to go from Budapest, where her husband was killed, to their previous posting in Cairo to see if she can find out why he was killed. It is a premise already that requires considerable suspension of disbelief and we are never given a convincing motivation for it.

The rest of it, however -- the CIA staff in Cairo, the Egyptian secret service, the rogue operators stretching from the Balkans to the Maghreb -- is full of betrayal and twists that are indeed Le Carre-esque. Above all, the inescapable bureaucratic element of intelligence services is convincingly portrayed. The plot, based on the Arab Spring and the Libyan overthrow of Qaddafi, is quite timely.

It is, in short, an ambitious novel, reasonably well executed and well written. Le Carre it is not, but worth reading on its own merits.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Max Barry's neurolinguistic thriller has a ton of blurbs praising it and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. He creates a conceptual world and a great cast of characters; he keeps the narrative rattling along with suspense and a big dose of humor. For the most part, he keeps the time frame of the disjointed narrative clear enough, though by the end there are so many folds into folds as the times converge, that it's a bit confusing just which one you're following. At that point, though, it hardly matters as you just want to finish in a blur to the end.

A shadowy "organization" of so-called poets maintains a discipline of what they call persuasion, and the rest of us would call manipulation. They categorize people into "segments" that allow them to use certain nonsense words to penetrate the psychological barriers each of us sets up and leave the individual powerless to resist a command -- even if it means shooting yourself or killing others.

Emily Ruff is recruited into this organization at 16 and shows an aptitude for persuasion but lacks the discipline expected of members. The plot is driven by the conflict within her between neurolinguistic manipulation and basic emotional drives. Much of it concerns retrieval and use of a "bareword" -- a potent symbol that penetrates anyone's defenses regardless of segment.

But the story doesn't start with Emily. It starts with Wil Clarke, who is kidnapped in the Portland airport by individuals who think he has the bareword because he survived the annihilation of the entire population of Broken Hill, a dying mining town in Australia. The mysterious death of 3,000 people was attributed to use of the bareword by a person first identified as Wolf, then Woolf, marking her as a renegade poet (members of the organization are given the name of a famous poet). Wil has no idea why he is being kidnapped, no recollection of ever having been in Broken Hill, and no knowledge of anything like a bareword. However, his abductor, Tom Eliot, is convinced he is the "outlier," the only survivor of the Broken Hill massacre.

Only then does the scene switch to Emily's recruitment into the Academy, the training school for the poets. The reader soon realizes this narrative is in a time preceding the opening scene and it doesn't take too long to figure out what poet name Emily is going to get when she graduates. The narrative then alternates between the two timelines, eventually introducing timelines within those timelines.

It is, then, an extremely high-concept scifi thriller, but one that bears its concepts lightly and peopled with sympathetic characters. The villain of the piece is the leader of the poets' organization, Yeats. We know he is evil because he has "flat" eyes. It turns out he also has a simple fetish that makes him vulnerable. He is of course not sympathetic and in fact the least convincing and most two-dimensional character in the book. His motivation is unclear, though his role is less ambivalent as the narrative draws to a close. As a result of the weakness of this character, however, the denouement is something of a letdown and not up the drama Barry has created.

Much of the action takes place in Broken Hill. I've never visited that town but I did spend several weeks in Australia and wrote often about Broken Hill Proprietary, the mining company headquartered there, during its heyday. Barry apparently is Australian and has some fun portraying the pros and cons of his native country and its residents.

The notion of neurolinguistic manipulation is of course very topical in our digital age, and one of the riffs by a member of the organization regarding a project they have to feed people only news they have shown they like so that anything else seems biased is scarily close to what is actually happening.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

All the Great Prizes

I've enjoyed reading this long biography of John Hay by John Taliaferro. What intrigued me is that he began his career as private secretary to Lincoln throughout his presidency and ended it as secretary of state under Teddy Roosevelt -- what a span! When you encounter him in other biographies or histories, he pops up so often, you think there must be several people named John Hay, or father and son, or some such -- but it always the same person.

The time with Lincoln and his subsequent career as a journalist and writer who knew everyone from Mark Twain to Brett Harte were interesting. His various friendships, especially with Henry Adams (so close they built houses together on Lafayette Square that are now the Hay Adams Hotel), are also interesting. I'm abandoning the 600-page book more than halfway through, however, for a couple of reasons.

One is that as admirable as Hay was in many ways he is not a particularly sympathetic individual. He was something of a dandy, and, having married into an industrial fortune, something of a playboy. He put off entreaties of his father-in-law (the source of his fortune) to return home because of the latter's growing depression over a fatal accident on one of his railroads, so that Hay could gallivant around in Europe visiting all his wonderful friends. While he dallied, his father-in-law committed suicide. The author then relates in excruciating detail Hay's infatuations with a couple of the belles of Washington and his letters that would make an adolescent blush. Taliaferro would have us believe that these relationships, if not exactly Platonic, were not consummated, which is a stretch even for that period.

But that brings us to the second reason. Taliaferro has taken Hay mostly through the interim period between Lincoln and Roosevelt without giving much sense really of what was going on in the Gilded Age. The biography seems driven by research in Hay's correspondence and makes little effort to put his activity -- or for much of the time, his inactivity -- in the context of the times. We get glimpses and glances of social ferment as labor forces rise up against the oppression of the plutocracy, but nothing more. Hay, of course, a Republican and plutocrat, has little use for any of that while he writes his gushing letters to his current infatuation, but a true appreciation of his role in history would make such context desirable.

The long and short of it is that Hay has justifiably been forgotten, except for those elusive appearances in the lives of others. Interesting and prominent in his time, he was not a great man. He was in fact a snob and a social climber who lived by his wits and charm, with enough of each to be a zelig in American history. I have too little time to read biographies to spend it on a second-rate figure. So now I'm tackling The Last Lion, William Manchester's epic biography of Winston Churchill.

Friday, January 16, 2015


This horror thriller by Scott Spencer writing as Chase Novak is a real page-turner, as a deep under-current of satire keeps it buoyant.

Miranda July referred to the book in the By the Book column in the NY Times Book Review on Sunday and I was intrigued enough to download it on my Kindle. I interrupted my reading of Gutenberg's Apprentice -- a good book, but somewhat ponderous -- for this romp through Gothic horror in modern Manhattan.

Leslie and Alex Twisden have tried every form of fertility help and are desperate enough to make the trek to Slovenia to see a specialist who has had miraculous success in helping previously infertile couples produce children. Dr. Kis is successful once again and the couple raises the twins Adam and Alice. The narrative resumes when the twins are 10 and at a critical point in their lives.

It was evident from the beginning that Dr. Kis's treatment -- which relied on an injection of "completely organic" extractions and a special serum -- had some peculiar side effects. In using what we later find out are lupine and ursine hormones to enhance fertility, the good doctor transmitted some other physical and psychological traits from the animal kingdom.

Spencer/Novak is having a lot of fun with this book. Modern obsessions about appearances, prestige, food and, well, having children, are all mocked mercilessly. The horror is real enough -- you never know terrible thing is going to happen next -- but much of the narrative is tongue in cheek, with a sly irony that is profoundly satirical. Dr. Kis, after all, and a novel called Breed where the first litter is named with A's.

Spencer is an accomplished writer. His prose breezes along with occasional lyrical flourish as he shifts effortlessly among various points of view interspersed with old-fashioned commentary as an omniscient narrator. The characters are sympathetic and the reader stays with both the parents and the children as the tension between them comes to a head.

It was a good tip.