May 29, 2014

Book 12: Comedy in a Minor Key

Comedy in a Minor Key
Hans Keilson (Translated by Damion Searls)

All books, to some extent, reflect the period in which they were written, and I thus find stories written around the time of major historical events to be particularly interesting. Having lived in the occupied Netherlands during World War II, Hans Keilson automatically brings a certain amount of authenticity to his work about the Nazi era, and Comedy in a Minor Key retains a particular kind of war-weary weight despite being published a couple of years after the end of the war. The novella traffics in a kind of weariness, conveyed through its consistently elegiac tone and its use of meandering sentences that frequently drop off into flashbacks or flashforwards. Past recollections blend in seamlessly with the problems of the novel's present, and everything coexists as though the characters and readers alike are experiencing a dream. This narrative structure fits the mood, themes, and plot perfectly, and when a particular phrase is repeated early in the book it seems like a particularly insightful testament to the banality and repetition of life in- and, to a certain extent, out of- wartime (I am not aware whether Keilson repeated the words verbatim or whether it is the translator's interpretation). None of the characters are explored in particular depth, but as the novella concentrates on an otherwise ordinary Dutch couple who agree to take in a Jewish refugee the vagueness actually reinforces the story's already considerable emotional power. Comedy in a Minor Key is a beautifully written (and aptly titled) contemplation of aspects of daily life under Nazi occupation, made more powerful by Keilson's decision to narrow his focus and subtly concentrate on the everyday heroics that occur when people simply decide to do the right thing.

Grade: A

May 25, 2014

Book 11: Worst. Person. Ever.

Worst. Person. Ever.
Douglas Coupland

Ever the master of cynical witticisms, Douglas Coupland's latest offering is full of the sarcasm one comes to expect from his works; unfortunately, however, this particular book relies too heavily on shock value and too little on effective plotting or character development. I've read several of Coupland's books and usually appreciate his biting insights, but Worst. Person. Ever. falls flat for me for a number of reasons. First and foremost among these is the penultimate plot twist, which is yet another in a series of unfortunate events to befall our narrator, Raymond, who is a truly loathsome creature indeed. But this twist, just when it seems that things might turn out okay for this utterly despicable man, is unnecessary and handled in such a way that it is easily the most offensive moment in a novel narrated by an unrepentant misogynist. My main problem with the "joke" is the way it is handled: just after Raymond encounters the pivotal fact, there is an abrupt chapter break and scene change, without comment. This exposes the author's belief that the audience will inherently understand (and implicitly agree) that, yes, this is a terrible turn of events that Changes Everything. I'm not one to call for political correctness for its own sake (or I wouldn't have made it past the book's second paragraph), but the implication that this particular characteristic supersedes every other aspect of the character's personality is at best a mishandled criticism of the attitude that the book itself accidentally fosters and at worst an outright hateful. Of course Raymond believes this turn of events disqualifies him from a happy ending (and on some level I can appreciate the character's consistency), but the fact that his feeling remains unstated requires that readers agree- and gives the book a sour aftertaste for those who absolutely do not.

Similarly, I assume (or at least desperately hope) that the novel is an attempt to comment on (rather than endorse) the abhorrent views that Raymond and his ilk espouse through exaggeration and hyperbole. In a way, the entire novel is a joke based on Raymond's initial affirmation in his belief in karma- and indeed, it is pleasant to see him constantly getting the comeuppance he so richly deserves, often in spades. However, it is sometimes difficult to parse the novel's rampant misogyny, and I would have hoped that Coupland would do more to deliberately call out and undercut Raymond's more odious beliefs and statements. I appreciate the neat trick Coupland pulls in making the reader almost want to root for this utterly horrid individual, and the consistency of Raymond's voice and character, but despite the book's obvious satirical take on the subject matter it leaves a lingering feeling of discomfort.

Despite its flaws, Worst. Person. Ever. is occasionally very funny and does display traces of Coupland's signature wit, as deployed in his best work. Here is an author who has a very pointed view of the modern world, and I always welcome his insights on subjects as diverse as the ideology behind reality show casting, pollution, the use of nuclear weapons, and Americans' vocal public distaste for f-bombs. At times I literally laughed out loud or silently smiled in absolute agreement. Likewise, some (but by no means all) of the plot twists are equally well conceived as things manage to go from terrible to somehow worse. Some, however, are far too bizarre even for a novel so clearly devoted to the utterly absurd. The humor is intended to be over-the-top, but it still must be delivered with a modicum of restraint that Coupland (and his editors) seem to lack; many elements of the story are so completely random that they end up distracting the reader. There's nothing wrong with having a number of very clever and outlandish ideas, but trying to cram them all into a novel (even a novel like this) rarely works to the book's best advantage. Thus the book contains one of the funniest and most bitingly satirical uses of nuclear weapons this side of Dr. Strangelove, as well as a completely unsatisfying, abrupt ending that rankles regardless of the reader's opinion of Raymond's own satisfaction with this conclusion. For every good idea in the book there are a handful of less effective sneers and would-be jokes that fall flat and detract from the narrative.

Though the novel is crammed with the type of caricatured (yet individualized) individuals one expects from this type of romp, there is a severe drop-off from the well-realized Raymond to the other main players. The idea for the primary sidekick- a previously homeless man who turns out (naturally) to be a total babe magnet- is solid and rife with opportunities for genuinely funny jokes, but the potential is wasted as Coupland runs this good idea (like so many others in the book) into a cliff. This character takes on traits and knowledge whenever the author deems it convenient, and though I know better than to assume that the book will be particularly realistic I still found myself frustrated by these far too common incidents. The lack of a straight man hurts the novel and ultimately contributes to a sense of utter ridiculousness that renders much of its insights moot. There are pleasant aspects of the novel (the integration of humorous factoid "sticky notes" is a nice callback to the footnotes of Generation X), but ultimately it lacks consistency outside of its main character's devotion to horrible ideologies. Worst. Person. Ever. contains glimpses of Coupland's genius and a few truly hilarious observations and situations, but overall the book is far too scatterbrained (and actually offensive) to make a positive lasting impression.

Grade: C

May 23, 2014

Book 10: The Repossession Mambo

The Repossession Mambo
Eric Garcia

As I've noted time and again, science fiction is remarkable for its pliability, for its ability to exist within and inform numerous other genres. Despite its intriguing premise, which posits a future where artificial organs are not only widespread but also independently financed, and its protagonist (and narrator)- who is a hardened hunter- The Repossession Mambo is more of a character study than the thriller or morality play it seems to want to be. The narrative framework is quite clever and very well executed, as the story jumps between flashbacks and ongoing events, as told by a protagonist typing his manuscript while on the run. Garcia's use of broken sentences, frequent section breaks, and other interruptions cleverly lends the book a sense of urgency and (more importantly) realism, though the novel never does establish an effective balance between past and present events. Unfortunately, it is difficult for readers to initially get a handle on the story as it is unfolding, and present events are neglected throughout the first part of the novel. By the time the story picks up- about halfway through the book- it is unclear what kind of book the novel actually aspires to be. This inconsistency, as the novel does include much introspection and action, hampers the reading experience and sometimes makes the book feel strangely incomplete.

Garcia does, however, excel at setting and maintaining a consistent narrative tone. I almost couldn't believe that the protagonist-narrator's sarcastic tone remained consistent and believable throughout the entire book. The voicing contributes to an overall sense of ambiguity that permeates the story, until softening slightly toward the end. This softening, however, parallels the narrator's development of self-awareness and still fits with the general tone of the story. The ambiguity itself feels unusual for a story like this; the main conceit, which is predicated on the ethics of artificial organ financing and repossession, is rife with possibilities for philosophical exploration and debate. Rather than moralizing, however, Garcia allows most of the moral dilemmas to remain unstated, and while this can initially be frustrating it does, upon reflection, match the general tenor of the book. Cramming deep philosophical inquiries into the text would create too many inconsistencies, given the narrator's established character, and it ultimately seems like a blessing that Garcia is content to keep his world- and its moral compass- thoroughly ambiguous (and thus plausible). Though the resolution of one of the protagonist's relationships is utterly unbelievable, the end of the book is at once emotionally effective and consistent with the book's general tone; it is a fitting ending, though much is left unsaid. Though The Repossession Mambo lacks a thrilling present-day plot that could make it a true page-turner, the book handles its science fiction elements nicely and maintains a kind of ambiguity that is rare and under-appreciated in a genre that often settles for obvious heroes and villains.

Grade: B+

May 22, 2014

Book 9: The Revisionists

The Revisionists
Thomas Mullen

One of the most common themes in time travel literature is the mutability of the past and the ripple effects of changes large and small. The Revisionists considers these themes from a familiar angle- agents from the future set out to preserve their past- but spins its story with a suspense writer's sensibility. The result is a book that is part science fiction, part political thriller, and wholly engrossing, despite these dual identities. Between the first-person present narration of its time-traveler, Zed, and an omniscient third-person view of the present-day protagonists in Washington, D.C., the novel wryly offers a comment on the nature of time, as seen from Zed's perspective. This trick is a bit more understated than other philosophical aspects of the book; though Mullen confronts several issues head-on, for which he should be commended, his characters occasionally veer into the realm of caricature. While it is obvious that Mullen (and, by extension, his characters), appreciates ambiguity, he often offers only the distinction between various extremities, rather than exploring the space between. Though the main characters are usually aware that withdrawing entirely to one side or the other is too simplistic for the vagaries of the modern world, the book careens off of an ethical cliff throughout its climax, where previous noble attempts to draw attention to the gray areas between the equally murky and (often) unethical objectives and actions of superliberal antigovernment activists and superconservative corporate defense contractors are reduced to a heroes-and-villains morality play. And to think, only a few chapters before Mullen was essentially breaking the fourth wall and asking readers to consider whether such a story really could have such clear-cut players.

The sudden moral awakening (so to speak) of the ending does not, however, severely dampen the general tenor of the book. Mullen does an excellent, though sometimes heavy-handed, job of introducing readers to Zed's own present, and his flashbacks reveal his own story at a steady pace that mirrors and complements his personal development. Here, too, Mullen tends to explain rather than organically demonstrate, a sin magnified by his frequent (and effective) use of dialogue and other means to introduce facts and themes. I also appreciated the integration of science fiction elements into a traditional spy-vs.-spy framework, with plenty of surprises throughout. Mullen may resort to a typical progression when describing and undermining his vision of the future (frequent readers of dystopian and other future literature will recognize much of this arc), but that vision itself is compelling in its way and allows the author to construct the suspense novel that the book becomes. Less forgivable is the book's tendency to forget various moral dilemmas introduced as part of the science fiction conceit. They need not (and probably could not satisfactorily be) resolved, but the novel comes tantalizingly close to having a compelling moral core relevant to both its future and present settings, only to allow the science fiction to fade. The latter chapters contain echoes of this ambiguity, voiced through Zed's growing doubts, but one feels that there could be more to the end than the more-or-less pure action that almost undermines the lengthy setup.

Mullen does, however, have an obvious aptitude for writing thrillers, and he effectively juggle and integrate various plot lines throughout the book, though readers may occasionally need to mentally take stock as the stories begin to intertwine. More impressive is the reader's genuine suspense throughout the book, related not only to events but, more importantly, to the characters, their complex motivations, and their shifting relationships with one another. It is a shame that Mullen seems to drop several potentially interesting thematic threads- by the end of the book, it is almost incidental that Zed is an agent from the future- instead of further exploring them, as the book gradually sheds its philosophical skin in favor of a conclusion befitting the best of airport thrillers. The thematic importance of the possibility and morality of revisionism is but a shadow as the book concludes, though its final line pays fine tribute to its more philosophical elements. The Revisionists is a rare book that is almost entirely satisfying despite seeming to discard its vast potential, and it serves as a pleasant reminder of science fiction's potential to elevate and evolve with other genres.

Grade: A-

May 19, 2014

Book 8: The Gangs of Chicago

The Gangs of Chicago: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld
Herbert Asbury

I have always been somewhat fascinated by crime and criminals, and particularly the ways in which the parallel worlds of law and disorder coexist- and often interact. And though The Gangs of Chicago (originally published as Gem of the Prairie) is nearly 75 years old at this writing, it is a vibrant look at some of the seedier elements of Chicago's first century. Asbury's own proximity to some of the events described is occasionally jarring- he mentions several figures from the 1890s who were still alive as of the book's initial publication- but his book retains an almost academic, detached air that is at once readable and frustrating. Though the prose is always accessible to the average reader and the footnotes are infrequent and unobtrusive, the book lacks a coherent narrative and, more crucially, context. Certain portions of the book are merely catalogs of characters, even introduced as mere lists, and many biographies blend together in an endless litany of sameness; though Asbury occasionally focuses on truly exceptional individuals and locales, much of the book consists of the same stories told without distinction. This might make the book an excellent starting point for further studies and does contribute to a general understanding of the reality of Chicago's vice districts, but it often makes for dull reading.

When Asbury narrows his focus, however, the prose leaps to life with its visceral depictions of life in Chicago's underworld. Descriptions of cheap brothels and the high-class Everleigh Club can make readers feel as though they are walking the streets of the 1890s-era Levee, despite redundancy among the descriptions of the lower houses, and a chapter on gambling "resorts" and the owners' collusion with politicians flirts with narrative consistency. Likewise, the chapters about serial killers and (to a lesser extent) Prohibition-era gangs identify and delve deeply into the histories of a few extraordinary and captivating individuals, surrounding the stories with the kind of atmospherics that are sorely needed to tell the types of stories that The Gangs of Chicago focuses on. Despite a few moments of clarity, however, the book is often bogged down by Asbury's desire to focus on the quantity, rather than quality, of his descriptions.

Though a survey of Chicago crime is a worthy pursuit and (obviously) contains quite a bit of inherent potential, Asbury rarely focuses on context and hardly bothers to construct narrative frameworks. Important characters (particularly politicians) are introduced in passing, as though readers are expected to already be familiar with their role in the story, and suddenly become the focus of a paragraph or section pages later, often when the effects of their wrongdoings have already been described or implied. Readers looking for political intrigue are advised to look primarily elsewhere, as Chicago's corrupt policemen and elected officials are only bit players here, despite their complicity making the already compelling story much more robust. Even if Asbury intended to focus on more overtly criminal actions, such as robbery, murder, and general vices (particularly drinking, prostitution, and gambling), the story of Chicago crime can hardly be distinguished from the story of its corruption, and it is misleading to refer to the politicians as indirectly as Asbury does.

Yet the worse sin is surely the book's ending, which offers a redefinition of the term "abrupt." Al Capone gets arrested and, oh, by the way, Chicago's population kept expanding throughout Prohibition and end scene. I'm glad that the book tends to stay away from grand moral pronouncements, though it is certainly a product of its time, but surely some kind of conclusion is warranted, some summary of the life and times of Chicago's criminals is certainly warranted and would help tie the whole story together. And though this kind of reflection is elusive throughout the book, the ending is abrupt to the point of hilarity- I actually laughed out loud, seeing nothing but a bibliography on the next page. Modern readers will also see the charm in Asbury's frequent and unironic use of the terms "harlot" and "strumpet," though the book also uses racial epithets and refers to homosexuals as "degenerates." Perhaps, then, it is for the best that Asbury limited his work to fairly objective historical snippets, though his personal judgments occasionally shine through. Despite its limitations, however, The Gangs of Chicago is a worthwhile survey of early Chicago crime, a remarkably readable history that serves as an acceptable, though not exceptional, introduction to the subject.

Grade: B+

May 17, 2014

Book 7: All Your Base Are Belong to Us

All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture
Harold Goldberg

It should be obvious from this book's title that Harold Goldberg's audience is a certain kind of videogame enthusiast, one who recognizes the badly butchered English of a poor (but iconic) translation. The catchy phrase pairs nicely with the subtitle, which purports to be- but never actually becomes- the book's thesis, but it should serve as a kind of warning. Despite possible overtures to the contrary, this book about the rise of the videogame industry seems to be meant for readers who have a fairly solid grasp of videogame history. My own experience with the medium is scattershot and largely confined to a particular era (I prefer the SNES and N64 to newer systems and suck at first-person shooters), and I found it difficult to follow the book as it described systems that I have never played (particularly in the early chapters) and games that I have never seen. Likewise, the game-based similes are charming at first, but they soon become a bit tiresome and wordy, as though Goldberg is showing his own familiarity with the subject matter rather than attempting to construct a useful literary comparison. These missteps and assumptions, which are especially pronounced in the first chapters for younger readers who have little or no firsthand experience with the earliest gaming systems, can be alienating and, ironically, undermine Goldberg's supposed thesis regarding games' rise to ubiquity.

And about that would-be thesis. All You Base Are Belong to Us purports to both dive into some of the most interesting developments in the gaming industry- and the games and/or developers who spawned them- and show how these moments contributed to a pop culture sensibility that is largely influenced by (and composed of) games. Goldberg largely succeeds on the first point: his retellings of pivotal moments are compelling and are clearly based on first-hand knowledge and, crucially, genuine passion. He clearly has respect for the industry's pioneers and appears to have chosen some of the most important, if not always the most popular, games and systems to illustrate the medium's rapid growth. The stories he tells are always interesting and always obviously important, but these anecdotes are rarely placed into their proper context. Not only is it often difficult to figure out when events are happening (both in actual and relative time), but there is rarely any exploration of the time between these signature moments or the industry-specific context surrounding them. Goldberg occasionally hints at drawing conclusions within and even (rarely) between various chapters, explaining how a particular innovation changed videogames, but this context is usually dropped as soon as the next chapter begins. A few segments are paired nicely, such as essays on EverQuest and its direct successor, World of Warcraft, but more often the book becomes less of a history and more of a group of interesting, loosely linked essays.

The essays are, again, interesting throughout, and obviously crafted by someone who has a very deep and personal appreciation of videogames. Goldberg has a knack for discovering and conveying the human stories beyond the bits and bytes, though the writing can occasionally stray into technicality a bit beyond the casual reader. Though it can be difficult to figure out why particular innovations were as earth-shattering as the author claims (particularly in the chapter about Grand Theft Auto III, which implies that it was the first open-world game in 3D but confusingly refers to other preexisting 3D titles), the book's descriptions of gameplay are accessible for those who have never played the games in question. Goldberg's writing can be mesmerizing at times and should easily convince skeptics that videogames are, indeed, a multifaceted art form with a unique history. He is hampered by the subtitle's stated objective and his failure to adequately present a cohesive story between chapters: he nails who, what, where, and (to a lesser extent) when, but struggles to always explain why the industry is where it is today and why the innovations he describes were truly revolutionary.

There are hints of a greater theme throughout the book, but too often Goldberg hits a warp pipe instead of playing through the levels: the reader finds themselves transported to World 8 without knowledge of most of Worlds 2-7. The writing itself is solid, aside from some ill-informed, strained, and self-aggrandizing analogies and a weird overuse of the word "nerd" that seems more disparaging than Goldberg surely intended, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the charming design elements: each chapter opens on a page illustrated like a Pac-Man maze and section breaks are formed from a group of blocks straight out of Super Mario Bros. At the end of the day, though, All Your Base Are Belong to Us is a kind of echo chamber for gamers who already know the basics and Goldberg, despite clearly possessing the knowledge and ability to do so, fails to construct a compelling narrative about the videogame industry, settling instead for a series of compelling- but inherently disconnected- essays.

Grade: B

May 11, 2014

Book 6: Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman

This is my first experience reading a Gaiman solo effort, and as I now reflect on Good Omens, I have strong suspicions regarding which aspects of the novel were Gaiman's. First and foremost, his pure literary talents are astounding. Here is an author with a natural knack for creating spellbinding sentences that draw you in, whether their purpose is reflective, ironic, or simply functional. This ability to effortlessly draw the reader in with prose alone serves Gaiman well in the modern-day and parallel Londons his characters explore; it is easy to accept the quirks and fantastic elements when they are described so matter-of-factly that they wouldn't, but for the content (no big deal, right?), feel out of place in a Dickens novel. Yet Gaiman's voice and novel are all his own, displaying a very modern and peculiarly English sensibility, often laced with heavy doses of delicious irony and subtle humor that are rendered more effective by the often silly subject matter. By drawing attention to the unlikelihood of the fantastic elements he introduces, new to the reader and protagonist alike, the narrative rationalizes them and reassures readers that, yes, strange things lie between these covers.

The fantastic parallel London that Gaiman conjures has a unique history and culture to flesh it out, but is revealed to the reader just a bit too slowly. On many occasions, I found myself flipping backwards to check for a background fact that had never appeared and wondering when certain hints would rocket into the foreground. The protagonist's guides make it clear on numerous occasions that there is more to London Below (as opposed to London Above, our city) than even the plot that drives this story, but these undercurrents never quite grab hold of the characters. Whether they exist to serve as a half-baked, unrealized red herring, as sequel fodder, or as an attempt at background enrichment, their continued irrelevance becomes distracting and can lead readers to wonder whether there's something missing. Though the reader's knowledge progresses along with that of the protagonist, heretofore a denizen of London Above, there is much about London Below that remains mysterious at the end of the book, and though over-explanation and tacky exposition (nowhere to be found in this novel) doom many a genre novel, Gaiman errs slightly too far toward understatement and innuendo. As matters escalate, it can be difficult for readers to find a foothold.

Regardless of his occasional inability to describe or utilize them to the best effect, Gaiman's Londons and, more importantly, his characters are compelling. Neverwhere has as primary antagonists two of the creepiest characters I have encountered in any medium, sinister and calm despite their distinctly antisocial tendencies (to put it mildly). Their dry dialogue contribute to the generally gloomy atmospherics that envelop novel and reader alike. Gaiman's utter mastery of language and ability to conjure and sustain a mood mask the fact that the story is, at its heart, a fairly predictable quest narrative. Yet somehow, London Below is so compelling that the familiar plot twists come as a surprise. It is not, therefore, surprising that a disappointing climax fizzles into a boring, drawn-out ending when the setting returns to London Above. The finale makes sense within the context of the book and is a relatively subtle evocation of character development, but it pales in comparison to the remainder of the novel; one gets the feeling that the same events could occur but in a way much more befitting of the book as a whole.

Final disappointment aside, however, and despite its flaws, Neverwhere is an incredibly compelling work of urban fantasy and a testament to Gaiman's raw talent. The prose is of the highest quality, the humor belies some fairly disturbing sequences, and the setting is vivid. Indeed, the book's best trick is hiding its central metaphor for an impressively long time; while London Below is most definitely the world of those who fall through the cracks, the satirical elements are understated and tragic, rather than glaring and grandly moralizing. In fact, some of the most interesting, humorous, and emotionally devastating elements of the story occur when the two Londons directly interact. Neverwhere is a great and compelling book that doesn't misfire so much as fail to fully realize its potential, leaving me the slightest bit annoyed but only because it is obvious that Gaiman is more than capable of fixing the (minor) problems.

Grade: A-

May 7, 2014

Book 5: Gravity

Tess Gerritsen

When I picked up Gravity at my local library, I did so because I had heard about Tess Gerritsen's lawsuit regarding the eponymous movie, which (as far as I know) is more or less about an astronaut getting stranded in space. What I ended up reading is another epidemic novel, which is great (I love the genre), except for the fact that I happened to reach the dramatic climax just after discovering a bedbug in my apartment. Our scare turned out to be more hysterics than anything, thankfully, but it's hard to tell how much of the book's effect on me was due to solid storytelling and how much can be attributed to my alert mental state. Regardless of my personal distractions, however, Gravity remains a compelling thriller.

I often find that books like Gravity are difficult to write about, because I become so intrigued by the fast-paced, engrossing plots that I forget to note details about, say, character development. That, perhaps, is the greatest compliment I could hope to bestow on a writer like Gerritsen: the story is so good that the typical "literary" considerations are, at the very worst, irrelevant as readers barrel through the plot. That is not to say, however, that there aren't a few glaring flaws in the book. The two main characters' shared development arc is laughably predictable, to the point where Gerritsen doesn't even seem to bother to develop the relationship organically. She relies instead on the implicit understanding that this is bound to happen whenever such characters, with such a relationship at the start, are introduced. Their story, with regard to each other, just kind of happens, and it's easy enough to take it for granted; the lazy development doesn't end up hurting the story, but the thought may arise in the reader's mind from time to time. Likewise with a major plot development that would be subtle, except for an early aside that is so unrelated to the plot at hand that its incongruity basically demands that the reader mentally skip ahead and figure out what would otherwise be a twist.

That said, however, these two aspects of the book are the only parts that are particularly predictable, and even that twist ended up unfolding differently than I expected. At many points throughout the book, I thought I had the gist of the thing down, only for an unexpected development to alter my expectations completely and, crucially, keep me reading at a rapid pace. The twists are far from outlandish, yet they stray far enough from standard expectations (which are easy enough to form in the course of reading the book) that the effect is that much more spellbinding. It is obvious that Gerritsen has done her homework with regard to NASA and, to a lesser extent, biology, and the scientific aspects of the book are certainly realistic enough for my (admittedly inexpert) eye. The disease itself is appropriately horrifying and the initial slow burn accelerates at just the right time. Readers know just enough to stay a step ahead of the characters, but little enough that reading on takes on an urgent necessity. Gerritsen is a master at building the kind of tension that makes a book like this really work. Her chosen science fiction tropes, epidemiology and space, make a great (and original!) pairing and the novel remains startlingly realistic and plausible 15 years after its initial publication. Stephen King's blurb for Gravity promises a compelling story, and a captivating thriller is indeed what readers can expect. I often find that I can't quite pin down what it is about a particular book that draws me in and keeps me hooked, and perhaps the best thing I can say about Gravity is that it pulled me in and kept me enthralled from cover to cover.

Grade: A-

May 2, 2014

Book 4: Inherit the Mob

Inherit the Mob
Zev Chafets

Here is a prime example of a book that suffers greatly from an inaccurate jacket description (or perhaps a cautionary tale about reading jacket descriptions before the book itself). The blurbs promise a madcap romp and an over-the-top send-up of the old-school mafia, and while Inherit the Mob does have more than a few moments of levity and does contain a thoroughly modern twist, it read to me lie slightly comedic noir. Despite failing to live up to the advertisers' expectations, the book is enjoyable, if a bit contrived. It is easy to recognize protagonist William Gordon, intrepid Pulitzer-winning reporter, and his sidekick John Flanagan as stock characters and possible stand-ins for the author, and they do become frustrating and tiresome at times. More damaging from a modern perspective is the treatment of a queer character who repeatedly claims lesbianism when pursued by the author, only to eagerly hop into bed with another male character as a convenient (but unnecessary) plot device. While this book doesn't need to be a forum for an in-depth exploration of the flexibility of human sexuality, the character's lack of in-plot development (she does get a realistic backstory in one of the middle chapters) and general treatment are disappointing at best and outright offensive at worst. That said, however, there are some very welcome late additions to an admittedly bloated cast and, if nothing else, most characters maintain consistent personalities that serve the story.

The treatment of the cast, however, betrays the novel's greatest flaw: Chafets creates functional (if stereotypical) characters (and even subconsciously acknowledges his reliance on old tropes in a character's aside) and drops them into a plot with enough originality to keep readers hooked, but he cannot for the life of him rely on any hint of subtlety. Everything in this book is over-explained, usually in lengthy expository reveals. The extras may have compelling histories, but the book is weighed down by irrelevant details about bit players, seemingly puffing up the word count without real regard to plot development, and many of the main characters' biographies show up relatively late in the book, long after their optimum period of utility or explanation. It's a sign of lazy writing- why not at least bother to attempt to dress up the (ultimately unnecessary) exposition in dialogue or internal monologue? Chafets clearly put a lot of thought into the novel, its internal history, and its protagonists, but these rich details become clumsy and actually detract from any sense of suspense that accumulates between the (frequent) asides.

That said, however, Inherit the Mob is strangely enjoyable. The show does go on, despite sustained periods of inaction, and Chafets showcases an admirable ability to follow up on the law of Chekhov's gun. Aside from the cumbersome backstories, which rarely become relevant to the story at hand, most details (however awkwardly revealed) do come back, sometimes in completely surprising ways. Though it fails to deliver on the jacket copy, which itself contains a fairly important spoiler, the book does offer a somewhat sly take on the old mafia and creates enough suspense to keep readers hooked. It's not a thriller by any means, but it's compelling enough to make readers wonder how Chafets intends to resolve the mess he creates. Inherit the Mob is not by any means a great novel, but it is entertaining enough, particularly in its final third, to warrant an afternoon or two.

Grade: B