August 22, 2013

Book 14: 11/22/63

Stephen King

This is the first Stephen King book I've read, and though there are only traces of the horror genre herein, I can see why his writing is so widely admired. King has a way of effortlessly transporting readers into a different era- in this case, the early 1960s- and describes the surrounding world in a thoroughly realistic manner. Somehow, despite the novel's considerable size, the pages fly by, and small events (most of the novel takes place prior to- and much after- the titular occasion) take on significant import. Though the book always revolves around the Kennedy assassination, there is much more to the story than that, as readers (like the protagonist) learn to live comfortably in the 1960s. This balance between the ultimate objective (reaching Dallas by the time of the assassination) and the work that it takes to get there (day-to-day occurrences) allows the novel to settle and to become meaningful beyond its time-travel premise. Despite the comfort that readers and the protagonist ultimately find in the past, however, the novel has a consistent dark undertone that helps it retain a sense of mystery and, to a certain extent, impending doom.

This darkness hovers over the novel, occasionally dipping into obscurity, and informs many of the most pivotal events. Though the book largely focuses on daily life, King manages the time travel conceit wonderfully, from his vision of the fundamental mechanism to its implications. Nothing comes too easily in this novel, and though there is one aspect of the time travel that feels a bit contrived, King's ideas about cause and effect are integrated seamlessly into the text. He plays with the concept of established timelines and manages to make his vision of time travel and the universe's sense of self-preservation fresh, a neat trick in a crowded subgenre. Even though many of the events are foretold and the general shape of the plot is fairly straightforward, the book retains a kind of suspense. King is also to be commended for his take on the historical assassination itself; the temptation to draw up a convoluted alternate theory must have been great, but the chain of events he proposes keeps the novel firmly planted in reality, and that much more believable and effective for it. 11/22/63 is a book that draws you in slowly, but it never relinquishes its hold on the reader once it picks up steam. It's a book that's easy to get lost in and thoroughly enjoyable to read.

Grade: A

August 16, 2013

Book 13: The Best American Mystery Stories 2012

The Best American Mystery Stories 2012
Edited by Robert Crais

Year in and year out, I'm amazed at the sheer variety offered in these volumes. Though the traditional detective-type stories are few and far between, they are mostly enjoyable, offering unique takes on the genre as writers successfully reinvent the compelling narrative of a man (occasionally a woman) staring down a mystery. More common, however, are the more literary stories that somehow integrate crime, often in varying and unusual ways. The inherent variety will please most readers, though the stories do, of course, vary greatly in quality. Yet guest editor Robert Crais has selected a strong group of stories to represent the year in crime fiction, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012 is a welcome addition to and continuation of the series.

Grade: A

August 1, 2013

Book 12: Angelmaker

Nick Harkaway

I'm not quite sure where to even begin with this book- it's a mishmash of international espionage, sarcastic satire, apocalyptic fiction, steampunk, and high-tech science fiction. Despite all of this, it somehow still works, and I truly regretted finishing the book and leaving the improbably captivating world that Harkaway has created. Our protagonist is a typical unassuming hero who has inherited the anachronistic profession of watchmaker and who sees the world through an unmistakably English lens. The language of the book places it distinctly in Great Britain and, to a large extent, defines its charm and drives its humor. As the plot integrates a series of highly implausible events that are at times vaguely possible, fantastic but plausible in such a narrative, and utterly ridiculous, one is reminded of the works of Monty Python and Douglas Adams, who relentlessly maintain a degree of seriousness as the world crumbles into silliness. This quintessentially British point of view somehow ties the book together, despite its nearly continuous leaps directly off of the cliffs of insanity. As a consequence, however, there are many aspects of the book that teeter oh-so-perilously on the edge of complete ridiculousness, and one gets the feeling that the book won't completely make sense without the aid of several re-readings and the discussion of a highly educated book club.

Though it can sometimes be a quagmire, Angelmaker holds together remarkably well. Though some elements might be considered out of place, such as a very science fictional development with nearly infinite (and very serious) implications regarding the philosophy of existence and individuality, the plot moves forward relentlessly in both of its relevant timelines. The characters are interesting and the central mysteries utterly unpredictable- though I think this says more about the novel's inherent wackiness than Harkaway's inherent authorial abilities. Upon finishing the book, it is hard to comprehend in retrospect just how everything fits together- but take my word for it, it does, though some aspects of the book may not make much sense and seem a bit over the top (even in a novel that celebrates this kind of circus). There is something compelling about this book, something that makes me believe that it is, despite all indications to the contrary, not a complete mess. That Harkaway is even able to contemplate creating a coherent ending out of this jumble is a feat unto itself, and even if he is ultimately less than successful in constructing a particularly coherent story, there are enough interesting ideas crammed into the book that it's always interesting. The chaos somehow works; I have no idea how and who knows how I'll feel upon reading it again (which I am nearly certain to do). Angelmaker may be nearly completely inscrutable at times and completely insane, but I'll be damned if it isn't one hell of an interesting ride.

Grade: A