January 2, 2016

Book 1: Noises Off

Noises Off: A Play in Three Acts
Michael Frayn

I must begin with a confession: I have an annoying habit of over-thinking things (see, for example, this blog), including my perennial choice of first book of the year. But even if I do fear the impact that a dull- or, perish the thought, bad- opener will have on my next twelve months of literary conquests, it is an irrational apprehension with no satisfactory solution. All of this is a long-winded (see "over-thinking", above) way of saying that I picked up Michael Frayn's Noises Off on a whim after reading a summary of a cinematic adaptation, despite knowing little about theater. I do, however, deeply appreciate the concept of farce, the quintessential spirit of British humor, and the opportunity to pull back the curtain on an operation. Luckily, this was sufficient to allow me to enjoy Noises Off, a satirical look at the gradual, but ever-accelerating, unraveling of a small traveling theater company during a production of the imaginary play Nothing On.

I usually find myself slightly worried about my ability to adapt to the peculiarities of written drama, given the inherent differences between plays and prose, but if Frayn's work is any indication, these adjustments needn't be painful or even particularly noticeable. With a surplus of humorously stated stage directions and a group of supplementary program notes from its play-within-a-play, Noises Off works well solely as a printed text. Both the framing narrative and the fictional play are often laugh-out-loud hilarious, relying as they do on simple misunderstandings and ample helpings of dramatic irony. Nonetheless, much of the humor of Noises Off- and, indeed, of Nothing On within it- comes from the physical location of the actors and the fast-paced juggling of various props, which can be difficult to follow without a visual aid. And though this did detract a bit from my reading experience, it successfully piqued my interest in the play's visual aspects and ensured that I will keep an eye out for performances within a reasonably drivable radius.

Still, the play does have its limitations. The characters in both Noises Off and Nothing On are relatively cliché, a problem somewhat exacerbated by the fact that each of them is distinguished primarily by a different degree of aloofness rather than by any deeper traits. While this may result in part from Frayn's conscious decision to imitate and satirize the traditional bedroom farce, it doesn't help the reader make sense of one character's seemingly unprecedented descent into a sudden, jealous rage in Act Two; we have only the other characters' overly expository dialogue to guide us, where even a few bits of stray dialogue in Act One could have at least laid the barest foundation. This hasty characterization contributes to the overall farcical tone of the play, for both better (the play itself convincingly mirrors that which it engages) and worse (simplified characters are more difficult to fully appreciate, even when the intended reaction isn't wholly serious or straightforward).

Likewise, the plot's eventual descent into complete madness may be read either as a successful emulation of the general form or as a frustrating oversight. The general structure is excellent, as the reader views the interpersonal relationships as they begin to fray during a final rehearsal, rapidly deteriorate during one fateful matinee, and come completely unhinged in the (mercifully) final performance. Frayn's use of the play-within-a-play is utterly genius at times: by seamlessly weaving the entire first act of Nothing On into his own Act One, he ensures that readers fully appreciate each subsequent change, both subtle and entirely bizarre, that come later. The slapstick, who's-on-first (and, more pertinently, where-are-the-sardines) nature of Noises Off and Nothing On overlaps perfectly during Act Two, when readers helplessly watch the players simultaneously do their best to rescue a live performance while suffering from their own exaggerated (but no less hilarious) mishaps and misunderstandings backstage. Frayn's interweaving of actions in Noises Off and Nothing On is nothing short of brilliant, especially given the intricate, delicately poised network of comings and goings that drive the latter. The humor of Acts One and Two is almost effortless despite many moments of inherent silliness, marred only by the reader's inability to trace the physical locations of players and props without significant visual assistance.

It is a shame, then, that Noises Off goes slightly off the rails in its own third act. While the natural progression between the events of Act One and Act Two is appropriate and obvious- as is the series of mishaps that characterizes the fast-paced, blink-and-miss-it action of the middle-frame, the gap between Acts Two and Three is impossibly vast. Some clumsy dialogue clues readers into some newer points of tension, alongside those that linger from the first two acts, but it is not enough to sufficiently bridge the gap. Frayn's intentions are obvious, but the third act becomes increasingly detached from the first two, resulting in a climax that is somewhat painful to read given the effortless genius of the first two extended scenes. The play becomes somewhat preoccupied with itself and its farcical ambitions, to its immediate and unfortunate detriment, and the end simply doesn't hold up to the precedent established mere pages before. Nonetheless, the humor is accessible even for those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of modern stage productions and the play has a timeless quality about it, holding up perfectly nearly forty years after it was first conceived. The first two acts of Noises Off are among the funniest pieces of fiction I can recall reading recently and, thankfully, carry the day despite a weak finale that is destined to disappoint.

Grade: B+

October 25, 2015

Book 51: Masked

Edited by Lou Anders

I may not have read many superhero comics, but I nonetheless find the concept of powered individuals incredibly intriguing and rife with possibilities. Masked collects fifteen stories of superheroes and supervillains with a pleasantly wide variety of styles, subjects, and, yes, superpowers. Though the anthology is a bit uneven, as they tend to be, I appreciated each author's attempt to reinvent a trope that often seems to have worn out its room for originality and growth. The originality never ceased to impress me, particularly in Bill Willingham's "A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too)". Willingham brilliantly utilizes a nursery rhyme structure to introduce a roster of 26 alphabetically categorized super characters, while simultaneously keeping his story moving at a fine clip. It is a silly conceit, to be sure, but the format feels appropriate and functions as both a (gentle) skewering of and love letter to the genre (which, to be fair, often relies on a good deal of silliness in all of its formats). More serious, but equally enjoyable, is Chris Roberson's "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows", which introduces The Wraith in an adventure with thematic depth, written in a convincingly journalistic style that befits its mid-1940s setting; I only wish that I could read about more of his adventures. Other stories achieve varying levels of success, but each author offers an interesting take on the idea of the superhero, a draw that makes Masked as compelling as the very ideas it celebrates and thrives on.

Grade: A-

October 19, 2015

Book 50: Ghost Fleet

Ghost Fleet
P. W. Singer and August Cole

At its core, science fiction explores the (possible) effects of technological developments, no matter how minute or majestic, how realistic or ridiculous. Co-authors P. W. Singer and August Cole play at the genre's edges in Ghost Fleet, spinning a story of World War III using only plausible current technology (as the book's numerous endnotes attest). Moreover, the authors exploit current political tensions by choosing the United States, China, and Russia as the three primary combatants, a scenario that seems increasingly plausible by the day. This adherence to reality provides the book's core energy, even as the authors track a handful of influential individuals on all sides of the fighting. These personal stories are as convincing as they need to be in this context, offering readers additional emotional footholds alongside the ones provided by the very real, and effectively exploited, fear that the novel's events could easily take place in the near future.

Though the authors are, unsurprisingly, most sympathetic to the United States's point of view, they adopt an all-encompassing geopolitical outlook that significantly heightens narrative tension throughout the book. Expected sympathies aside, Singer and Cole carefully portray the conflict as a relatively even affair, in part by following sympathetic viewpoint characters on all sides. If the authors do have a blind spot, it is the everyday experiences of lower-ranking combatants and civilians; their story focuses, for better and worse, on the generals and other elite forces. The resulting story occasionally slides into hero worship, but enough scientific intrigue remains to make the experience worthwhile. The authors' tendency to focus almost exclusively on the big picture, even during the scenes that (almost) pass for emotional vignettes, does lower the emotional stakes somewhat, but the sheer probability of the events at hand make up most of the potentially lost ground.

Ultimately, the occasional nods to characterization do enough to keep readers emotionally invested in the viewpoint characters, even if the narrative is driven more by the impact of various technologies than any other factor(s). The novel offers little in the way of nuanced psychological drama or particularly beautiful prose, but its science is so solid that these omissions hardly matter. Somehow, the authors manage to focus on the science without losing too much of the fiction; they actively engage with, but do not become overly enamored by, the technology and avoid the kind of overwrought prose that exists merely to grasp at some "literary" cachet that books like this rarely even need. Moreover, the novel is accessible to everyone, despite the thorough research behind it, and the authors manage to portray the impact of technology without requiring their audience to sit through lengthy lectures. In the end, it all just works, and each of the books elements effectively accomplishes precisely what it needs to. Ghost Fleet is an excellent example of widely accessible hard science fiction that neither compromises its intellectual integrity nor grasps at unnecessary straws for so-called literary merit; steeped in uncompromising realism, it is a thrilling vision of a future that may be frighteningly close at hand.

Grade: A

October 11, 2015

Book 49: Music for Wartime

Music for Wartime
Rebecca Makkai

All short story collections are potentially susceptible to derailment due to inconsistency of subject, theme, style, and/or quality, and it is often difficult to anticipate what awaits when beginning one. This is particularly true of single-author anthologies, even those that do turn out to have a common thread running through their individual components. Comprised partially of stories focusing on Hungarians' experiences during and after World War II and partially of wholly unrelated tales, Rebecca Makkai's Music for Wartime occupies a strange middle ground between thematic unity and narrative diversity. The opening story and three additional "legends" interspersed throughout the collection are ephemeral folk tales set in rural interwar Europe (likely Hungary) that offer some context for those stories that explore the implications of the war, at the cost of making the others seem hopelessly out of place. Despite their individual and collective ability to establish a setting and evoke a particular mood, these efforts to establish a common thread and theme serve more to highlight the collection's incongruities than to unify its disparate pieces into a coherent whole.

Makkai's laudable, if imperfect, attempt to add a wrinkle to the typical anthology format betrays another of the collection's flaws: repetition that fails to construct collective meaning. Several characters seem to be recycled among the war-inspired stories without any overt connections beyond a general connection to the conflict, however far removed. Moreover, these stories are scattered among others featuring such wholly unconnected elements as a traveling circus, a reality television producer, and a time-traveling Johann Sebastian Bach. Without providing stronger connecting tissue or even ensuring their physical proximity, Makkai fails to capitalize on the war stories' potential power. Even though many individual stories shine, both within and outside of the purported theme, the collection lacks the unity it apparently craves. Powerful examinations of vivid characters and compelling philosophical questions are lost amidst the book's attempt at a unified vision that it fails to create. Music for Wartime is an eclectic collection that suffers from its hesitancy to effectively embrace either its shared themes or its more unique elements, resulting in a group of strong stories that buries its own potential.

Grade: B

October 2, 2015

Book 48: Look Who's Back

Look Who's Back
Timur Vermes

Satire can often be a tricky prospect, for what should be obvious reasons, and it is difficult to imagine a trickier target than Adolf Hitler; this is especially true when the target audience is German. Timur Vermes accepts the challenge by dropping the historical Hitler into modern Germany, with all of his personality (and our real-world history) intact. Moreover, this time-transported Hitler narrates his own story, putting readers into the dubious position of seeing the modern world through his point of view and, more importantly, forcing them to reconcile that vision with the reality we (think we) understand. The resurrected Hitler is as stubborn and single-minded as he was in his own time, and he struggles to make sense of a Germany that is radically different from both the one that he lived in and the one he intended to create. Meanwhile, he cannot accept the reality of his defeat, and thus views every development as a natural consequence of a resounding Axis victory in World War II. The constant discrepancy between Hitler's assumptions and the actual facts of postwar history creates the cognitive dissonance that drives the novel and provides the backbone of its (often pitch-black) humor.

The primary result of this juggling is a very funny novel that pokes fun at the displaced dictator and at the absurdities of the modern world. Yet Look Who's Back offers, at its core, a stern warning about this same tendency to laugh at humanity's darker impulses. Hitler is recognized and celebrated, in part, because this is what he expects; what others see as impeccable method acting is, in fact, a life truly lived, and it slowly wins over the public (but not, in a nice twist of irony, the actual neo-Nazis, who likewise believe that Hitler is merely a committed actor in wolf's clothing). He ultimately catapults to stardom after going viral on YouTube and winning a gig on the late-night circuit, a would-be parody act who is funny precisely because he is the only one not in on the joke. Wisely, perhaps, Vermes doesn't offer a verdict on the main question that arises: whether Hitler's charisma or the audience's (our) susceptibility to the exaggerated illogic of extremism is responsible for his renewed rise to power. Whatever the answer, the book certainly invites readers to consider how easily Hitler (still) captivates audiences, and how easily we dismiss extremists as silly without fully recognizing the danger they pose.

While it is surprisingly deep for a book focusing so obviously on ts surface humor, Look Who's Back may fail to resonate fully with an expanded audience. The trouble with Look Who's Back, for American readers, anyway, is that much of its humor is very narrowly tailored to its German audience. Certain jokes are necessarily inaccessible, despite translator Jamie Bulloch's best efforts and an appended glossary offering biographical notes on former and current German politicians (including lesser-known figures within the original NSDAP), entertainers, and potentially obscure facets of the country's entertainment industry. These references force the foreign reader into a catch-22: to read the explanatory notes is to accept spoilers, but to ignore them is to dwell in ignorance and miss many of the jokes as they fly past unheeded. It is somewhat unfair to blame either Vermes or Bulloch for this, but the obvious disconnect did affect my enjoyment of the novel; the book sacrifices universal accessibility for a deeper dive into modern German culture, and as a result it is impossible for many (if not most) English readers to fully appreciate and/or understand its humor and underlying message. Even in this somewhat distilled form, however, Look Who's Back cleverly explores the ramifications of its interesting premise, offering plenty of slapstick and satire to entertain readers who cannot fully appreciate, or judge, its criticisms.

Grade: B+

September 26, 2015

Book 47: Endzone

Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football
John U. Bacon

I think that every college football fan, regardless of allegiance, would admit that it's been somewhat difficult to be a Michigan fan lately. For better and worse, the Wolverines' time in the wilderness has coincided with the beginning of my own devotion to the maize and blue. It is thus with a mix of emotions that I approached Endzone, John U. Bacon's chronicle of the post-Rodriguez era at my beloved alma mater, a period that would come to be characterized by athletic director Dave Brandon's outsize ego. Bacon wisely opens with a brief but thorough history of Michigan's athletic department, including the origins and evolution of some of its most honored institutional traditions. While it would have been easy to assume, probably correctly, that his audience would already be familiar with everything from Michigan's status as a top academic and athletic university to the concept of a "Michigan Man", Bacon instead lays the groundwork that is so essential to understanding how deeply Brandon betrayed the fanbase and how effectively he turned tens of thousands of fans against him in such a relatively short span of time.

As a devoted Michigan fan who closely followed the events of Endzone as they occurred, I found it somewhat painful to revisit some of the program's lowest moments. Losing the bowl streak and all but a single game to Ohio State were bad enough, but Brandon's influence resonated far beyond the football field. I felt myself shaking with anger while reading about all of the longtime athletic department employees who suddenly found themselves unwanted or emotionally incapable of surviving under his cutthroat leadership; the remarkable institutional memory developed over half a century or more evaporated almost immediately, and that is something that cannot be simply or quickly recovered- if it is even possible to do so. Worse still are the stories of coaches pushed out despite respectable results and a positive atmosphere around their programs. Even after living through all of this the first time, I found myself occasionally shocked and often disgusted by many of the book's revelations, not least by the pettiness that seemingly characterized so much of Brandon's reign and the ease with which he casually discounted and discarded any opinions that weren't his own.

In his book, Bacon consistently does what Brandon continually failed to do: he examines the greater context and examines the evidence within it before suggesting a conclusion. While Bacon's intentions to tell a complete and relatively unbiased story are evident from the start, his attention to narrative detail isn't replicated in the book's copy editing. I hesitate to fault him for the errors that plague the book, from minor punctuation and spelling errors to entire sentences repeated next to one another, but they do detract from the reading experience and, more vitally, from the biased reader's sense of smug satisfaction upon discovering that Dave Brandon's would-be fairytale castle has an unnecessary possessive apostrophe (one of my personal pet peeves). Nonetheless, the coherent narrative structure and Bacon's general attention to detail make Endzone a remarkably pleasant reading experience, particularly for a nonfiction book.

Moreover, Bacon knows exactly how to weigh and balance anecdotes, opinions, and facts. Given his personal history with the Wolverines and the particular details of this story, the book's even-handedness is its finest achievement; Bacon could have easily slid into vindictive invective against Dave Brandon but operates with considerable restraint even when unmistakably condemning him. The stories coming out of South Campus have been remarkably consistent, and Bacon is careful to avoid libel, carefully documenting his sources and tempering their more outlandish claims. The interspersed segments detailing Will Hagerup's personal experiences with Brandon may initially seem misplaced and oddly specific, but it gradually becomes clear that Bacon includes Hagerup's experience as a counterpoint to the prevailing anti-Brandon sentiments of his various sources: there simply isn't much evidence in support of Brandon.

Tempting as it may be for the emotionally involved reader to turn away from Endzone, the Wolverine faithful can take comfort in the fact that the book does have a happy ending. As painful as it is to revisit the department's various embarrassments, it is equally (if not more) heartening to read about students, former players, and fans of all kinds coming together to oust the imposter and restore order. Michigan's successful pursuit of Jim Harbaugh forms a fitting coda to the book, a demonstration of the fierce power of a passionate group united by their unwavering belief in a set of principles and their desire to restore a beloved program to greatness. That may seem melodramatic, but few spectacles are as impressive as witnessing over 100,000 people cheering in unison, or waiting with a single bated breath for the ball to sail through the air, under the lights, and land in the arms of a waiting receiver clad in Michigan's traditional blue home jersey. I have felt the palpable power of fandom, and the groundswell of support for the program in the wake of arguably the worst stretch in its history is a remarkable phenomenon and, again, an appropriate ending for the book as Michigan fans finally begin to look forward with more than the tentative, automatic hope that characterizes most preseason fan bases.

All told, John Bacon's exploration of Michigan's recent troubles and, we can only hope, the beginnings of a new foundation of hope offer many lessons within and beyond the realm of big-time college athletics. Similar struggles play out daily across an increasingly incentivized marketplace that prioritizes profit over passion. At Michigan, fans felt marginalized throughout Dave Brandon's tenure, and resisted fiercely as the formerly charismatic chairman sought to undermine the very values that led them to the Wolverines in the first place. It is a story that resonates far beyond its stated scope and one that provides potentially valuable lessons applicable throughout the real world. As it turns out, Endzone is about far more than one program's recent history, striking instead at the heart of modern economic culture and the wars between thriving organic communities and the cold, calculating corporate machines who would destroy it all for a quick buck; what a relief, then, that Michigan fans' passion carries the day.

Grade: A

September 22, 2015

Book 46: The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick deWitt

I picked this book up on a whim, with a faint recollection of having heard of it before but mostly with a view toward exploring the modern Western, a genre that I haven't really experienced. Coincidentally (or perhaps not, given that the novel was a staff selection), author Patrick deWitt now has a new novel coming out; I arrived just in time to scout him out. Despite being largely unfamiliar with Westerns aside from the traditional stereotypes, I thoroughly enjoyed The Sisters Brothers for both its mood and execution. The relatively straightforward plot follows a pair of feared fraternal assassins as they seek a particularly slippery target, but subtle touches firmly establish his strong characters in a convincing narrative arc that is disrupted only by a few unnecessary romantic subplots and clumsy interludes. Eli and Charlie's development and growth feel natural and allow for the book's climax to have its maximum emotional impact without excessive authorial meddling or moralization. While the brothers' maturation does make me yearn for a prequel featuring the acts that earned their ferocious reputation, it renders them sympathetic and likable even when traces of their former selves appear.

One of the book's interesting aspects is its relaxed tone, which is all the more surprising given the plot's time-sensitive nature. Even the action scenes glide at a leisurely pace, yet without sacrificing suspense in the bargain. I continually longed to read further, to find out whether the Sisters brothers would encounter their quarry and what they, as changed and ever-changing men, would do when they did. The shifting dynamics of their relationship also contribute to the novel's forward thrust, which is carried ever onward by occasional twists and surprises such as temporary love interests, scams of several descriptions, and chaotic encounters with local toughs. The fights are as convincingly portrayed as the characters and atmospherics, evoking a captivating vision of the Gold Rush-era West, from Oregon's forests to 49ers' camps and the suddenly bustling metropolis of San Francisco.

The Sisters Brothers is a difficult book to nail down, flourishing within its Western paradigm but failing to fully capitalize on its strengths. The brothers' remarkable growth forms the novel's emotional- and, ultimately, its narrative- core, but it is difficult to fully grasp or, indeed, believe their fearsome reputation without the assistance of flashbacks or other hard evidence about their past. They are sufficiently amoral to function within the scope of the novel's plot, but it is unclear whether they fully deserve to inspire the fear that they apparently do; if this uncertainty exists to prove a thematic point, it is ineffective and instead slightly aggravating. The novel is also hampered by a group of interludes that do little but distract from the core story. Altogether, though, the story feels complete, being robust without becoming burdened by unnecessary information. The thoroughly realized Charlie and Eli Sisters drive The Sisters Brothers, forming the backbone of a thoroughly enjoyable novel that only suffers slightly from the vague sense that, somehow, it could have been just a little bit better.

Grade: A-

September 16, 2015

Book 45: Manhattan Mayhem

Manhattan Mayhem
Edited by Mary Higgins Clark

With yet another mystery anthology under my belt, I suppose it's fair to say that I am prone to reading in genre-driven spurts. This particular collection offers stories set within some of Manhattan's many neighborhoods; disappointingly, however, they cluster around familiar Midtown and Downtown locales that, as a rule, don't provide much in the way of cultural and ethnic diversity. Most of the included authors do, however, take full advantage of their chosen setting, and the collection feels thematically balanced. Stories set in the present day and in bygone times peacefully coexist in an order that flows naturally without forcing too much clustering or narrative whiplash. Though several themes do repeat, including multiple stories set during the World War II era, each author adds enough originality- and writes with enough quality- to maintain the reader's interest throughout the book.

The collection's overall quality is not particularly evident after editor Mary Higgins Clark's opening story, "The Five-Dollar Dress", which is hampered by generally poor writing, a muddled timeline, and at least one disruption of continuity. Clark ultimately redeems herself with superb plotting, even if the details are indeed the devil, and a final twist that is so satisfying that the whole story is worth the occasionally painful experience of actually reading it. Some of the other stories also fall victim to heavy-handedness in either concept or execution or, possibly the worse sin in mystery writing, lead the reader to an obvious conclusion that actually turns out to be the story's ending; sometimes the payoff just doesn't work, even after a suitably enjoyable setup. Happily, Nancy Pickard's "Three Little Words" subverts this trope, lining up its suspects neatly and slowly picking them apart before reaching a genuinely surprising conclusion.

Ben H. Winters also provides a welcome break from the expected with "Trapped!", a play that initially elicited my serious skepticism, none the less so for its focus on, yes, the staging of a play-within-the-play and its inclusion of a character who decides to write the events of "Trapped!" itself as a story. This kind of metafiction, even (or perhaps especially) when attempted in jest and good humor, is rife with potential pitfalls; nevertheless, Winters somehow manages to avoid every single one of them on the way to creating a hilarious send-up that is arguably the collection's best story, and easily the one that I enjoyed the most. I was likewise ecstatic to find a genuine time-travel story (Justin Scott's "Evermore") and even more excited when it turned out to be an excellent use of both science fictional elements and a more traditional heist narrative, both of which I am particularly partial to. Even if Winters and Scott provide welcome counterweights to more traditional detective stories, S. J. Roznan's stands out as an excellent example of the latter, presenting a main character whom I would be happy to follow on subsequent adventures.

The good thus outweighs the bad, and it is easy enough to move on from a somewhat tepid story to a more thrilling neighbor next door. Mary Higgins Clark clearly knows her way around the genre, and has assembled a fitting tribute to the Mystery Writers of America's 70th anniversary. Manhattan Mayhem may exhibit some of the general unevenness that characterizes all short-story collections, but with its range of narrative styles and the remarkably high quality of most of its stories, this anthology offers many enjoyable examples of short-form mysteries that showcase the genre's current breadth and depth.

Grade: A

September 10, 2015

Book 44: The Water Knife

The Water Knife
Paolo Baciagalupi

Having recently read a book whose action takes place in a waterlogged version of New York City, I decided that it was only proper that I should balance it out with The Water Knife, set in the parched deserts and lush luxury towers of future Arizona and Nevada. Paolo Baciagalupi's politicized point of view is immediately evident in the great care he takes to imagine, establish, and describe his (frighteningly) plausible vision of the (frighteningly) near future. His devotion is evident in full force from the book's first pages to its conclusion, permeating every inch of the narrative but lending the setting and situations a vivid sense of realism that few dystopias- especially those making very pointed references to current practices- manage to achieve. I am, however, inclined to give Baciagalupi the benefit of the doubt when encountering the grotesque economic inequalities, vicious interstate regionalism and xenophobia, and rampant human rights abuses that create the book's central conflicts. Nonetheless, while the thoroughness of Baciagalupi's vision is admirable and its sheer vividness rarely surpassed, it occasionally gets in the way of his storytelling. Egregious incidents include a few particularly annoying references to Cadillac Desert, with characters repeatedly referring directly to its prescience; surely Baciagalupi could have gotten his point across in a slightly subtler manner, allowing the message to speak for itself. By this point in the novel, we readers get it; and most emphatically so.

Despite the author's somewhat smug reliance on overt references to our contemporary climate crisis, the rich details of the setting are alone enough to convey his environmentally conscious lessons. Certain typical, if not outright cliché, dystopian elements help ground the story, and Baciagalupi adds enough unique wrinkles to make the book continually interesting and his setting genuinely complex without being inconsistent or confusing. He is an author on a mission, using traditional setting and story elements to good effect and blending the better elements of dystopian literature and fast-paced thrillers to create a compelling narrative that perpetually drives the action forward, even in this novel of ideas. Even if he can (rightly, I think) be accused of producing heavy-handed message fiction, at least it is built on a solid narrative framework.

Moreover, his use of three vastly different narrative perspectives provides a complete view of the situation, from the luxurious fountains found in sprawling residential towers to the crowded communal water pumps that cannot possibly sate the poor masses' thirst. All the while, each contributes its fair share of suspense before and after the three parallel plots (inevitably) intersect. Baciagalupi seamlessly fosters great sympathy for his point-of-view characters, even those who behave somewhat amorally, and it is genuinely moving to see one character's sudden growth at the novel's climax- a moment that fosters genuine surprise without seeming somehow out of place with the preceding pages. Indeed, it is a masterful moment of meaningful character development that may sometimes be lacking in the pulpier genres.

If, then, the dystopian and moral elements of the novel are solidly in place, how is The Water Knife as a thriller? This is the element in which I was most acutely disappointed, likely because I (correctly) predicted the location of a vital clue during its first (unlabeled, but relatively obvious) appearance and could thus track its movements amid the escalating tension. This prevented me from becoming completely emotionally invested in the narrative, but the set pieces were nonetheless well executed and enjoyable. The story is played for the highest stakes- nothing less than the destination of the Colorado River, one of the last remaining water sources for the Southwest and California- and I was sufficiently invested in the main characters to care about their fates and the region's alike. The Water Knife may alienate some readers for its over-reliance on heavy-handed political platitudes, but its vision of a rain-starved Southwest provides a compelling, and eerily plausible, setting for the well-constructed thriller laid over the exquisite framework.

Grade: A-

September 6, 2015

Book 43: The Best American Mystery Stories 2013

The Best American Mystery Stories 2013
Edited by Lisa Scottoline

One way or another, I've been reading a lot of mystery stories and thrillers recently. The Best American series generally provides a reliably interesting selection of short genre fiction, and the 2013 mystery iteration is no exception to the rule. With a mix of traditional procedurals and literary examinations of crime and its effects on individuals and communities (as well as stories that proudly straddle the lines that some would wish to place between these types of tales), this anthology stands up admirably among its predecessors and peers. Editors Lisa Scottoline and Otto Penzler have ensured that the group is balanced, despite the emergence of certain themes and styles. Many of the stories herein are tinged with regret and/or told in a mournful manner, yet no two authors take the same approach to these and other emotions, highlighting and illustrating the rich complexity of human feelings and experiences and the ways in which crime brings them to the forefront. After reading a large number of these volumes, I am always amazed to discover new takes on the common theme; this year, Kevin Leahy's "Remora, IL" was the biggest surprise. Excellently and appropriately told in the typically tricky first-person plural voice, the story examines the ways in which the arrival of a private prison affects the surrounding small town, tackling the effects of prison culture through a different lens than is usually offered.

Even the more traditional procedurals and whodunnits are unusually successful here, providing as they do a range of vivid settings, compelling characters, and pleasantly confounding solutions. Clark Howard's "The Street Ends at the Cemetery" is a delightful (and surprisingly funny) heist story that somehow manages to maintain its suspense despite the evident spoiler in the title; it's an all-around delight that, I suspect, would be just as entertaining when read a second or third time. Similarly rewarding are historically minded tales from Bill Pronzini and Eileen Dreyer. Pronzini's "Gunpowder Alley" is a locked-room mystery with thoroughly believable late-19th century atmospherics and a conclusion that, fittingly perhaps, can be guessed before the fictional sleuth makes the same deduction; suffering only slightly from some botched descriptions of the setting (so crucial to the subgenre), it is nonetheless a pleasant throwback in both style and content. Dreyer takes a slightly different approach in "The Sailor in the Picture", which revisits the iconic V-Day celebrations in Times Square with an alternate perspective of a sailor's homecoming with a surprisingly modern sensibility. The story offers its share of suspense and action before seemingly heading for a tidy conclusion, only for the coda to reveal an alternate, yet deliciously satisfying, perspective on the preceding events.

Other stories in contemporary settings illustrate the ever-increasing types of stories that fall under the mystery umbrella, and most of those in this collection do seem to fit the theme. Andre Kocsis displays his innate sense for proper pacing in "Crossing", a thriller about a Vietnam-era deserter who leads a group of mysterious foreigners across the British Columbia-Washington border. Expertly deploying elements of more traditional genre stories, such as false leads and half-hidden truths, as well as tense and occasionally violent interactions between its characters, as well as a patient buildup to a final illustration of the stakes in play, Kocsis shows that a bit of melodrama need not necessarily diminish the power of a good story and that strong characters can thrive within any fictional situation or genre. The quality of individual stories is incredibly variable in these anthologies and may be somewhat dependent on the guest editor's tastes, but this collection indicates that 2013 was a banner year for short crime fiction. Crime and criminality may provide the essential link between the stories in The Best American Short Stories 2013, but each author's unique approach and style ensures that the state of mystery fiction, at least in its short form, is as strong as it has ever been.

Grade: A