December 22, 2015

Book 57: Landfalls

Naomi J. Williams

This book offers a realistic imagined version of a circumnavigational voyage helmed by French Commodore Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, in the late 18th century. Reading almost like a novel in stories, each chapter offers a different point of view based on one of the expedition's ports of call, following everyone from the voyage's officers and seamen to those waiting for them at home and those whom the expedition encountered along their travels. The mix of perspectives and storytelling techniques keeps the book fresh and rounds out the story, lending it a sense of realism unmatched by many historical novels, particularly those (like this one) that must, by necessity, fill in numerous gaps from the actual historical record. Williams is a deft writer and the reading experience is as engrossing as it is gently educational; clearly based on serious research, the stories never lose sight of the humanity behind the events, and each is compelling while adding to the tapestry of the whole. Landfalls is an excellent fictional introduction to a relatively unknown scientific pursuit, a well-imagined take on what might have been on an ill-fated journey into the unknown.

Grade: A

December 5, 2015

Book 56: The Best of Electric Velocipede

The Best of Electric Velocipede
Edited by John Klima

This collection traces the history of The Electric Velocipede through some of the stories and poetry it published during its run. Though the anthology presents itself as a "best of" edition, the individual stories and poems drastically vary in quality (moreso than in most other collections) even if they do tend to improve as the volume proceeds. This book has its gems, as all of its kind do, but ultimately feels somewhat scattered without a sense of theme to guide it. The focus on speculative fiction is evident throughout, but it's difficult to get a handle on which genre a particular story is in as they flit between various fantasy and science fiction tropes. This is perhaps primarily a fault of the offending authors, but the frenetic reading experience could have been improved by more mindful organization (the effect of chronological ordering here results in a lot of disorienting jumps), effective introductory notes, or other ameliorating editorial factors. That said, the collection does have its high points and surely does not lack for variety; I was particularly surprised to find myself drawn in by some of the poetry. The Best of Electric Velocipede does provide a useful introduction to some lesser-known voices in speculative fiction, but its many misfires lead to a wildly uneven reading experience despite the success of its few gems.

Grade: C

November 22, 2015

Book 55: The Shore

The Shore
Sara Taylor

The first thing to note about this book is its structure; though advertised as a novel, The Shore is a collection of short stories that follow the lives of several generations (particularly women) of a family living on the Virginia Barrier Islands. The stories do link up nicely, even if readers must frequently refer to the family tree that Taylor provides at the front of the book, and certain themes weave their way throughout the collection. The interconnectedness is deliberate and easy to spot, yet feels natural as secondary characters in one story come to the fore in another. Most crucial is the legend of matriarch Medora, whose story is told directly but becomes (understandably) distorted over the generations, in a nice and relatively subtle metafictional nod to the power of story and the peculiarities of family legends. Each story feels complete while connecting to the greater whole, though one story- that of someone who left the islands- seems to be missing, leaving a gap in the otherwise tight mosaic. Other stories, particularly the final quartet, diverge slightly from the previous formula, following characters who are not Medora's direct descendants and only given a more direct connection to the remainder at the end of the book. Individual stories work well in isolation and their variation showcases Taylor's array of skills as she utilizes different narrative voices, tenses, and moods, making the characters come alive and distinguishing them individually and temporally. These stories truly feel like they are taking place in their own times, even if Taylor stumbles a bit in her attempt to include non sequitur plague fiction; this particular effort feels a bit forced and introduces some thematic elements that Taylor fails to exploit usefully. Despite this and some other minor stumbles, The Shore is an intriguing and engrossing portrait of a place, told through the various lenses of a single family and the diverse experiences they have, from poverty to profit and everywhere in between.

Grade: A-

November 13, 2015

Book 54: Zeroes

Chuck Wendig

I approached this book really wanting to like it from the description, which promised a fun near-future adventure with a misfit band of characters. By and large, Wendig's novel delivers exactly that, with standard technology-driven science fiction tropes blending seamlessly with the fast-paced plotting of a thriller and a touch of horror here and there. The technical elements are handled well for a non-specialist audience (of which I am most definitely a part) and the action is relatively easy to follow without an extensive computer background; the plot alone is twisty enough to keep most readers hooked regardless. The more graphic elements of the story come somewhat by surprise and stand out, and though they work in the context of the story readers may want to be aware going in that they do pop up. More conventionally, Wendig plays to his strengths with his core group of characters, who are a nice mix of quirks and identities. I suspect that much of his audience will see themselves within this group, mostly for the better. Though the book focuses more on its characters and plot twists, with its science fiction aspects acting more as a vehicle than a core, Wendig does explore some intriguing ideas about artificial intelligence and hacking as a pursuit with shifting and indefinite moral codes. The book's main stumble comes with its framing device, particularly at the end of the novel, where it comes seemingly out of nowhere and fails to connect the requisite dots. Even if it is the opening to a potential sequel, it makes little sense in the context of this book. Overall, however, Zeroes is a fun science fiction thriller that offers a different twist on some familiar tropes and a pleasant enough reading experience.

Grade: B+

November 5, 2015

Book 53: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
Fannie Flagg

After becoming quite familiar with this book from its reputation, I finally decided to read it. I found the book to be slightly rough going at the outset, as the framing narrative did little to draw me in: I found it to be a bit cloying and sentimental throughout and, much like the two present-day characters, would have rather preferred to spend my reading time among the bygone residents of Whistle Stop. Likewise, some elements of the main storyline can seem similarly haphazard, and the various diversions and backstories can seem either indispensible or irrelevant depending on the context and contents. The overall feeling is one of unevenness, aided little by the problematic handling of the book's Black characters. Yes, this novel intends to evoke midcentury Alabama; it was, however, written in the 1980s and Fannie Flagg should have made more of an effort to look at these characters through a more empathetic, modern lens. Despite some major flaws, the book does have a certain charm and, ironically perhaps in light of its poor treatment of race, excellent lesbian representation that feels no need to either hide nor trumpet its inclusive spirit. Idgie and Ruth's relationship is as natural to them and to the residents of Whistle Stop as any other, and while Flagg shies away from naming it outright her intent feels obvious. Representation is crucial, and it is always nice to see queer characters allowed to exist, happily, without being subject to the same five stories. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café certainly has its flaws, but its core holds a nice story of a bygone era, fully conceived and convincingly rendered, dripping in useful nostalgia.

Grade: B

October 29, 2015

Book 52: Fortune Smiles

Fortune Smiles
Adam Johnson

First and foremost, a content warning: the story "Dark Meadow" centers on a pedophile and treats this character sympathetically; proceed with caution. While I believe that this story effectively accomplishes its goals, reading it is a profoundly disturbing experience, insofar as it plants the reader firmly in this character's mind. Johnson (and, indeed, his editor(s)) may have had good intentions when including this story in the collection, but it is unsavory and would have better been left out.

Otherwise, this is an interesting short story collection that operates primarily in a familiar mode: it consists mostly of "literary" fiction with a few hints of sci-fi-inspired intrigue that are always a little too ashamed to cross over directly into genre writing. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but Johnson seems too willing to go along with the traditional strictures of litfic rather than exploring the inventive elements that would otherwise lend this collection some desperately needed originality. Several stories simply fail to capitalize on the author's grand ideas, whether by coming into them with too little interest too late in the story ("Nirvana") or by failing to connect the fantastic elements effectively to the story's other themes ("Fortune Smiles"). Interestingly enough, the most effective stories are the realistically minded "Hurricanes Anonymous" and "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine", both of which are grounded in strong, compelling characters who carry the narratives even when nothing much is actually happening to or around them; the latter story, especially, is a masterclass in engendering readers' sympathy for an unsavory character, offering as it does an exploration into the idea of the banality of evil without excessive moralizing or unaffected indifference. Overall, Fortune Smiles is full of excellent writing and grapples with several interesting themes, but fails to capitalize on its most intriguing ideas, settling instead for typical aimless litfic fare.

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

August 31, 2015

Book 42: Depth

Lev AC Rosen

I've always enjoyed both mysteries and science fiction, and I am pleased to find an increasing number of authors who apparently feel the same way. Lev AC Rosen's Depth is a fine, if flawed, example of the combination, setting a fairly traditional detective story in a future version of New York City that is as integral to the novel as the characters and plot. The latter elements are executed adequately, with all of the requisite twists and even a few genuine surprises. A variety of betrayals, dead ends, dark corners, and femmes fatale lend the book a pleasantly noir-ish ambiance, along with a fairly straightforward plot that nonetheless conveys the complexity of Rosen's imagined future. Moreover, he ably juggles a large suspect pool while playing his true cards close to the vest; a sufficient number of (occasionally heartbreaking) wrinkles should satisfy even those readers who are not wholly surprised when the culprits are revealed.

Unfortunately, most of the novel's characters are drawn directly from a pool of unimaginative archetypes, contrasting dramatically with the obvious effort that created and calibrated the setting and plot. Characters consistently exchange stale dialogue littered with annoying as-you-know-Bob explanations and confessions that leave little to no room for honest, subtle characterization. Somehow, despite the stilted speech and character descriptions that excessively tell (with very little show), the relationships themselves are reasonably realistic. And even if he doesn't quite succeed in the attempt, I appreciate Rosen's decision to write a novel revolving around female characters. Women appear in a variety of roles throughout the book and are, happily, on equal footing with their male counterparts.

The book, then, is saved by the vividness of its vision of flooded Manhattan, where the few remaining inhabitants live in the upper floors of the tallest skyscrapers and travel along a treacherous network of precarious bridges. This imagined future is nothing if not thorough, and Rosen carefully (but consistently) reveals subtle and major truths about this new world, from everyday practicalities to the parallel development of now-isolated New York and the ultra-religious mainland (which now begins around Chicago). Rosen seamlessly integrates setting and story, forcing the issue only with his exaggerated view of mainland politics; rarely relevant to the plot, the strength of his vitriol says more about his own opinions than it does about those of the mainland. As he often does when describing his characters or writing dialogue, Rosen tends to hit his satirical points a bit too blatantly for them to function as meaningful criticism.

Still, Depth is a satisfying book, even if its author could do more to fully explore the hidden themes that seem to float just beneath its surface. Rosen clearly demonstrates his devotion to clever and thorough worldbuilding, and the setting is surely rich enough to support a range of equally interesting stories. This endlessly compelling backdrop ultimately outweighs the heavy-handed moralizing and awkward characterization that cause the plot to limp along at times. For a book emerging from a genre blender, Depth is remarkably readable, combining some of the best elements of detective and science fiction to create something new and enjoyable despite some obvious flaws.

Grade: B+

August 27, 2015

Book 41: The Devil's Detective

The Devil's Detective
Simon Kurt Unsworth

I have always found the idea of stories set in Hell to be interesting, and the location certainly offers a number of possibilities for writers who dare to venture into its depths. By combining this setting with an old-fashioned mystery plot and an extremely dark, bone-dry sense of humor, Simon Kurt Unsworth made it difficult for me to resist The Devil's Detective. His vision of Hell- a vividly imagined bureaucracy several evolutions away from its roots as the fire-and-brimstone torture pit of legend- is utterly captivating and full of the hopelessness, arbitrary regulations, and inherent unfairness that seem to govern many modern lives (and, crucially, many modern nightmares). There is searing, poignant cruelty in the governing demons' decision to allow a diplomatic delegation of Heaven's angels to arbitrarily liberate a few lucky souls; for many readers, this cruelty may well resonate in ways that the book's exaggerated scenes of gruesome guts and gore do not. Moreover, Unsworth populates his hellscape with humans who have no idea why they ended up there in the first place (a special kind of torment indeed) and a range of demons who have free reign to torment them. He rarely wastes an opportunity to remind readers that Hell is, at its core, a place of eternal torment, regardless of how well its human denizens have seemed to adjust to a new sense of tortured normalcy.

That said, the narrative nuts and bolts are not always utilized as effectively as the setting. The protagonist, the aptly-named Fool, is often so clueless that it becomes nearly impossible to sympathize with him, even though it is obvious from early on that he is a mere pawn in Hell's greater machinations. This tension manifests itself most directly in a pivotal clue that very clearly identifies the criminal culprit far earlier than Fool gets around to doing so; the resulting irony, however, is the frustrating kind, and it is nearly excruciating to wait for Fool to catch up. While I appreciate other demonstrations of Unsworth's finely tuned sense of irony (his main character is, after all, a detective who must investigate criminality in a place where it is encouraged and will never go punished), he may wander too far into the land of futility. In fact, he raises the stakes only at the very end of the novel, providing an inadequate payoff even if the murderer is duly identified. It's not all bad: the chase scenes are terrific and the violence is about as gruesome as it gets, occasionally becoming too much for me (even though, in hindsight, I probably should have expected it in a story set in a dreadfully realistic version of Hell). The characterization and overall plot, however, leave a bit to be desired.

Happily, these flaws do not prevent the book from having a shockingly appropriate ending, despite a reduced emotional impact. The various criminal threads are wrapped up as neatly as you would expect in a traditional detective story, and the secret is kept long (and well) enough to lend an air of intrigue for much of the book, even if Fool's blundering and the transparent narrative devices employed to keep him on the path often make for a rocky road. But the ending, a brutal twist that is wholly appropriate yet strangely unpredictable, is so brilliant, in its way, that it almost mitigates all of the book's other problems. I certainly expected a different conclusion and was pleasantly surprised to find that Unsworth chose a different ending, one that more closely fits the sense of futility that he so deliberately (and effectively) crafts throughout the novel. The Devil's Detective may not fully succeed as a detective story, but its vision of Hell is worth exploring for those interested in a surprisingly philosophical take on the subject.

Grade: B

August 22, 2015

Book 40: In the Stacks

In the Stacks: Short Stories About Libraries and Librarians
Edited by Michael Cart

As someone whose two professional jobs have been in academic libraries, how could I possibly pass over In the Stacks when I stumbled across it, and I promise that this is absolutely true, in the stacks? The simple answer is that I couldn't, and I picked it up hoping to find a selection of stories that illustrate and explore some of the inherent variety of my chosen profession. Although some of the authors do engage relevant themes, I was disappointed to find that the authors use librarians and librarians almost incidentally; and while this certainly a valid way to construct a story (I hardly expect every story to laud everything that I happen to find important), this tendency is more than a little disingenuous in a collection whose stated purpose is to collect stories on that theme. Sure, each story includes at least one library or librarian, but only a handful are particularly concerned with their impact or meaning. This is even more baffling when considering that editor Michael Cart deliberately chose preexisting publications, rather than being forced to work with new submissions.

The collection is further limited by a noticeable lack of editorial context: Cart provides no introductory notes, and it can often be difficult to discern when and where, exactly, a particular story is supposed to be taking place. This creates an unpleasant sense of confusion and contributes to the difficulty in distinguishing between many of the stories, even immediately after reading them. Relatively simple solutions, such as an obvious organizing principle, individual introductory notes, or endnotes that actually mention the selected stories, are, alas, absent. Cart somewhat compounds the problem in his introductory remarks, which bafflingly characterize Ursula K. LeGuin's excellent "The Phoenix" as "impossible to classify", despite the fact that it is a relatively straightforward thought experiment that takes place in a vaguely European city that conforms largely to our expectations of reality (even if the setting itself is, strictly speaking, a fictional one). I was, however, pleased to find a traditional detective story (Anthony Boucher's "QL 696.C9"), although it hinges on a supposedly mysterious clue that should be immediately obvious to anyone who has used a college library, let alone worked in one. More entertaining is "Ed Has His Mind Improved" by Walter R. Brooks, which features the droll wit of everyone's favorite talking horse. I even appreciated some of the stories that rely on more stereotypical portrayals of librarians, such as Zona Gale's "The Cobweb", when they featured these characters in a meaningful way. But though some may be wonderful in their own right, they feel woefully out of place here, cheapening the collection and the profession in the process.

Nonetheless, the collection's generally blasé attitude doesn't entirely detract from the power of its best stories, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) tend to be those that focus on librarians' devotion to their work. "The Phoenix" is as powerful a meditation on the librarian's charge as Italo Calvino's now-canonical "A General in the Library", and I appreciate the way that these authors, along with Isaac Babel (whose "The Public Library" is similar, but less subtle), prominently feature libraries and examine the librarians' various roles within their communities. It is surely unsurprising that Ray Bradbury's "Exchange" is easily the best of the lot, gently guiding and then altering the reader's view of the librarian in question, ultimately drawing tears in its simple, understated beauty and appreciation for the very best librarians. And so every short story anthology has a few standout stories at either end of the spectrum, but the greatest failure of this particular attempt is the large number of stories that are instantly forgettable. In the Stacks seems destined to disappoint, both because of the generally underwhelming quality of the stories within and those stories' disappointing lack of engagement with the book's stated theme.

Grade: B-

August 16, 2015

Book 39: Fooling Houdini

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, & the Hidden Powers of the Mind
Alex Stone

Occasionally I stumble upon a topic that suddenly and strongly piques my interest for a period of time. For whatever reason, this time it was stage magic, and I decided to pick up this book from the (admittedly slim) selection available at the library. Unfortunately, while Stone's memoir does chronicle the author's lifelong fascination with magic and even hints at the relationship between his passion for illusion and his studies in advanced physics, it suffers from a lack of focus and fails to live up to its titular aspirations. To his credit, Stone does attempt to write the kind of personal history that uses his own experiences to highlight different areas of the craft, even if he is ultimately thwarted by a lack of focus and an excess of authorial self-regard. Stone often falls victim to his own aspirations both within the context of his story and as an author retelling it and constantly confuses his platform with a mandate to make wide-ranging proclamations about the magical community that his own book indicates he is in no way qualified to make. One gets the sense throughout that Stone is constantly punching above his weight, particularly when he argues, not quite convincingly, for public revelation as a cornerstone of the magician's trade. As an outsider, I can't vouch for the validity of his arguments, but given the issue's obvious volatility his lack of tact is somewhat indicative of his tendency toward self-aggrandizement. Likewise, many of his jokes come across as tone-deaf (at best) or downright misogynist (at worst), while his attempts at modesty backfire, serving mostly to exaggerate his seeming lack of self-awareness. Given the surrounding context, many readers may not be inclined to be forgiving of such missteps.

Despite a fair number of missteps in the telling, the book does possess a reasonably straightforward narrative core, built around a promising redemption narrative following Stone's disastrous appearance at a high-profile competition. While Stone never convincingly portrays himself as anything more than a merely adequate, but obviously passionate, magician, the story provides a framework for more interesting explorations into a variety of additional topics. The book's best chapters are deep dives into the nearly unbelievable talents of card virtuoso Richard Turner, the world of three-card monte hustlers, and the relationship between neuroscience and illusion. Less successful, but still intriguing, is a discussion about the importance of gambling- and, more specifically, accomplished card cheats- to the development of close-up magic. Here too, however, the book suffers for Stone's propensity to brag; his moralistic declaration that he decides not to cheat while playing poker with his friends is not nearly as humble as he apparently thinks it is and, in fact, exemplifies the very attitude that causes most of the book's major problems.

Fooling Houdini may suffer from its author's obviously exaggerated sense of self-regard, but Stone's deep appreciation of magic and his genuine admiration for its most advanced practitioners save the book (and him) from complete disaster. He may not delve too deeply into the connections between magic and high physics, his ostensible area of academic interest, but he does explore enough tangential subjects to sustain the reader's interest, even when his personal journey and, indeed, his purported insider's insights into the magical community, aren't quite convincing. And despite Stone's obvious passion for magic and his efforts to share his love with a wider audience, the book suffers from more than its fair share of misfires, ultimately resulting in a book that is ineffective in its individual chapters and as a whole (take, for example, a late story abbreviated so abruptly by a chapter break that I immediately checked to see whether my copy was missing several pages). As a result, Fooling Houdini is a moderately successful vanity project that occasionally does justice to its subject, but far too often succumbs to the author's exaggerated sense of self-importance.

Grade: C+

August 12, 2015

Book 38: Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Anthony Bourdain

I've enjoyed Anthony Bourdain's somewhat cynical take on the celebrity chef phenomenon- of which, make no mistake, he is a significant beneficiary- and decided that I might as well pick up a copy of the memoir that started it all for him (in an updated edition). In one sense, the book offers everything you might expect from Bourdain: filthy language, a bone-dry sense of humor, and frank assessments of himself, his coworkers, and the culinary industry. It is, however, a bit less successful as an exposé and a memoir. The former can, perhaps, be chalked up to time, especially as the pronouncements in the most prominent gross-out chapter, "From Our Kitchen to Your Table", have become common knowledge by this point. Many of Bourdain's big reveals simply don't stand the test of time; ironically, this is largely the case because of the book's success and subsequent impact on the culinary world. Thus, the memoir's tell-all aspects of Kitchen Confidential are more important within the context of the book's publication rather than they are on their own for contemporary readers. There is, of course, more behind the curtain than is generally known, but the book's shock factor, a significant part of its initial appeal, has largely diminished over time.

Bourdain, however, can hardly be blamed for this, and the book is, at its core, a memoir as well as an insider's view of the culinary industry. Here too, however, the book ultimately gets the better of itself. Bits and pieces of Bourdain's history are sprinkled throughout the narrative and his larger proclamations about the industry, and while the chapters are well integrated with one another the overall chronology often gets blurred, causing the book to essentially fail as a coherent narrative of Bourdain's time in the culinary industry. It is not Bourdain's use of techniques such as foreshadowing and callbacks that sink the ship, but rather the order in which information is generally presented: despite reading small snippets here and there, readers leave with no clue how to fit the events of the "Bigfoot" chapter into the general narrative. The chapter itself is well-written, engaging, and memorable for its depiction of a ruthless character who set the tone for much of Bourdain's subsequent life (even if the reader can't quite figure out when this occurred). That the author's redemption from the depravities of addiction is not placed in any sort of temporal context is frustrating and makes his turnaround far less impressive, or indeed engaging, as it would be within the proper context. This is a shame, as I'm sure that, given his general propensity to call it like it is and his exquisitely tuned bullshit detector, Bourdain could have provided a refreshingly honest, frank story of addiction and recovery. But that story, for whatever reasons, disappears below the surface as the book's now-dated (and therefore currently less interesting) exposé elements take center stage.

Likewise, Bourdain is more prone to proclaim his passion for cooking than to actually illustrate it; while there is no doubt in my mind that food is, and has long been, the driving force in Bourdain's life, that fact tends to get lost amid his gleeful descent into the grimy underworld that exists beneath even some of the most highly regarded restaurants. This is all the more disappointing given Bourdain's excellent ear for language and his hilarious, seemingly honest characterizations of himself and his various coworkers. He recounts numerous criminal and otherwise questionable activities with glee and pulls no punches whatsoever about the grimy underworld that lies beneath the shimmering surface of even some of the most highly rated restaurants. That said, and however fun it can be to recognize that chefs are some of the most foul-mouthed and dirty-minded members of society, Bourdain's attitude toward sexual harassment occasionally led me to set the book down in disgust. Though Bourdain pays lip service to the dangers of sexism, even going so far as to praise the women (and, less often, the men) who survive and thrive in such a caustic environment, his implicit acceptance of the status quo as a situation that the weak-minded should just be expected to deal with is problematic, to say the least. In riding the fine line between praising the culture and criticizing it, Bourdain falls on the wrong side on too many occasions.

For all of its faults, however, the book retains a certain kind of rough-around-the-edges appeal, and it certainly exhibits the take-no-prisoners attitude one expects of Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential may suffer from the effects of aging and missed opportunities to craft a compelling narrative, but it retains enough of Bourdain's trademark cynicism that it should please his fans when taken with a significant grain of salt.

Grade: B

August 6, 2015

Book 37: All Involved

All Involved
Ryan Gattis

Given the recent resurgence of civil rights activism, this novel's arrival on my public library's shelves felt particularly timely. Focusing, as it does, on the 1992 L.A. riots, All Involved offers a unique opportunity for Ryan Gattis, and the middle-class readers his book appeals to, to draw back the curtain and catch a fleeting glimpse of life as it may have been lived in some of the country's most dangerous neighborhoods during some of their most volatile moments. While Gattis certainly doesn't shy away from depicting the raw, constant violence that defines and drives life in this environment, he resists the urge to turn his book into a gruesome spectacle, choosing instead to focus on each character's individual humanity. And while the inner monologues that comprise the book's many narrative threads may at times reach slightly beyond the characters' likely literary capabilities, his decision to personalize the core story by viewing it from several different angles and through an array of equally vivid (if not equally plausible) voices humanizes the neighborhood's inhabitants more effectively than any amount of moral proselytizing ever could. Each narrator offers, in turn, a compelling story about their lives inside, outside, and adjacent to an anonymous gang's operations in a Hispanic area of south-central Los Angeles, and in doing so emphasizes a fact that is so easy to forget in the whirlwind news coverage of similar gang-related crimes: like it or not, and as violent as they are, the perpetrators and victims are people who hope, fear, and suffer just as the rest of us do. Indeed, it is one of the book's great accomplishments that its characters only resort occasionally to stereotypes; even when they are used, the uncompromising context implies that they are not clichés but somber facts of everyday life. Gattis goes through great- but rarely pained- effort to make his characters sympathetic, even as they plot cold-blooded murders and more justified, but nonetheless horrifically violent, revenge.

This rich characterization is built on a tightly knit plot that serves as more than mere scaffolding. With the glaring exception of the final chapter, each segment adds depth and complexity to the whole as Gattis gradually weaves a multi-layered portrait of a city in crisis. Some of the perspectives are surprising, including a pair of alternate perspectives from members of law enforcement agencies. Indeed, while the book is hardly short on violence, its most shocking scene illustrates just how effectively Gattis portrays his primary subjects and draws the reader's sympathies toward them. Simultaneously, the book provides a poignant illustration of the zero-sum nature of gang warfare and the ways in which life in these environments revolves around a culture of all-pervasive violence, whether one is all involved or an innocent bystander. The murder that launches the over-arching plot is far from an isolated tragedy, but is instead indicative of a whole other way of life lurking just beneath the surface.

Equally intriguing, then, is the author's decision to pit his story against the backdrop of, but not directly within the scope of, the Rodney King riots. The African-American community makes a few cameo appearances, and the surrounding chaos is certainly a central part of the story, but Gattis is more interested in the unnoticed consequences on some of the city's other forgotten quarters. His vision of L.A. is akin to a fare more violent Wild West, sans sheriff and with the addition of far more powerful, and plentiful, firearms. In some ways, the general (but, importantly, not complete) absence of (justifiably) distracted law enforcement personnel allows Gattis to imagine the neighborhood at its worst, to exaggerate the violence to proportions that should seem caricatured but instead carry a discouraging ring of truth. I am so very far removed from the scenes depicted in the book, but Gattis immediately makes sense of the (not-so-?)twisted logic that drives his characters' decisions- logic that is uncomfortably similar to that which more affluent readers may use in their own everyday situations, even if it usually carries significantly different stakes. All Involved unapologetically and seamlessly invites readers into a world so different from their own that it may as well be a different country, and his deft humanistic touches, along with the story's resonant emotional core, illustrate the fundamental humanity and shocking ruthlessness of life when a largely lawless land sees the last vestiges of order fade into utter chaos, if only for a moment.

Grade: A-