April 29, 2015

Book 25: Channel Blue

Channel Blue
Jay Martel

The blurbs for this book promise serious science-fiction comedy in the vein of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, and while Jay Martel generally does his literary influences justice, Channel Blue lacks the precise combination and balance of subtlety and absurdity that makes his predecessors so successful and enduring. From its main character (a middle-aged has-been screw-up) and plot (the Earth is soon to be destroyed by aliens who no longer have a use for it) to its primary satirical targets (reality television and the gleeful schadenfreude it engenders), the book relies too heavily on clichés to make a significant impact. Martel's good instincts are overwhelmed by his tendency toward heavy-handedness, and he doesn't often display the kind of restraint that this type of bitter, biting satire requires. Many potentially funny plot points, supporting characters, and odd encounters fall victim to his earnestness, though it is to the author's credit that the book never becomes overly preachy and remains an enjoyable experience for the duration. Still, for all of its bright moments (make no mistake, I did laugh out loud several times while reading the book), one gets the impression that Martel tries just a bit too hard to make his points for the majority of them to effectively resonate with readers.

The result of Martel's eagerness is a book whose tone and humor are uneven, helped little by largely unoriginal nuts and bolts elements. While the Earth-as-reality-television conceit is a clever one, the plot and characters suffer from a surprising lack of imagination and development. Despite a few unexpected twists and turns in the details, none of the narrative developments are particularly surprising, to the point of feeling repetitive and contrived. The book's most shocking- and, perhaps not coincidentally, its most interesting- revelation is placed too close to its end for its ramifications to be satisfactorily explored in either a serious or silly context. This isn't the kind of book that I would necessarily expect to be heavy on the moral implications of its satire, but I can't help but feel as though Martel undersells his abilities and ignores numerous opportunities to add depth and meaning to the book's humor, which rests instead primarily on the surface. Channel Blue offers quite a bit of food for thought, but doesn't allow readers ample space in which to consider the questions it poses, opting instead for the easier route time and again.

While it is fair to say that I was somewhat disappointed with the book, I should reiterate that it, like other books that may fail to fully explore and exploit their inherent potential, still provides an enjoyable reading experience. The characters would have benefited from more actual development, rather than a constant barrage of untenable events that drags them kicking and screaming into change, and the plot lacks moments of true tension, but both are serviceable. Martel's prose is easily digestible and, indeed, sometimes very funny. The book contains enough food for thought to sustain readers' interest even in its duller moments, though the rewards are slim in the end. Channel Blue may not be a truly worthy successor to the sci-fi comedians of yore, but it is sufficiently capable at eliciting a few laughs; it is, indeed, mostly harmless.

Grade: B

April 24, 2015

Book 24: Chain of Events

Chain of Events
Fredrik T. Olsson

Everything about this book's jacket, from the plot description on the inside flap to the brief character blurbs on the back cover, says generic thriller, with a hint of science fiction thrown in for good measure. This is, more or less, what the book delivers, hitting all of the necessary bullet points to provide a somewhat predictable, yet mostly satisfying, experience. Olsson kicks off his high stakes, pan-European plot with a kidnapping and ably juggles several plot lines and viewpoints, focusing in turn on abducted cryptographer William Sandberg, his captors and the mysterious high-level organization they work for, his ex-wife (who is, naturally, an intrepid journalist determined to uncover the truth about his disappearance) and her intern sidekick, and a Dutch professor whose own girlfriend mysteriously vanished in similar circumstances. Some of the villains' asides feel misplaced, and Olsson never dives deeply enough into their psyches to really probe the delicate moral calculations that influence their previous and present actions. I'm inclined to praise Olsson for at least making an attempt to probe the complex morality of their choices- and for allowing the reader to glimpse the knowns, unknowns, and terrifyingly high stakes from their points of view- but the unconvincing result betrays the author's reluctance to assign blame in circumstances that seem to warrant it. The antagonist organization may not be filled with stock villains, which is in itself a welcome change of pace, but its perspective is rendered in black and white whether or not Olsson believes he works in shades of gray.

This is a bit of a shame, as the plot likewise begs- and even explores- some Very Big Questions about the nature of mankind's place in the universe and free will, for starters. This offers readers a surprisingly philosophical change of pace from the typical thriller, but its twists don't capitalize on even a fraction of their (considerable) potential. And while I do sympathize with Olsson's decision to leave his biggest question unanswered, as any attempted solutions would have almost certainly derailed the whole thing entirely, I couldn't help but feel a little cheated by his resolution of the plot's most pressing problem, plausible though it may be. This and other quality control issues arise not only from the book's reliance on the manufactured coincidences that drive the genre (forgivable enough, in context) but also from its halfhearted attempts to characterize the ostensibly minor viewpoint characters whose inner turmoil gradually becomes the hinge on which the entire book rotates. In these and other ways, Olsson asks the reader to exert a degree of philosophical effort that his book doesn't fully support and thus cannot fully reward.

It is to the author's credit that the book is successful, despite the fact that it ultimately falls short of the high standards it sets for itself. Olsson (through English translator Dominic Hinde) relies on the kind of straightforward, direct prose that drives the reader forward, even if his constant section- and chapter-ending mini-cliffhangers and foreshadowings become tiresome and worn in short order. He juggles the various science fiction elements convincingly, and his pandemic disease is just as terrifying and convincing as its many cousins. The multiple points of view enhance the tension more often than they distract from it, and the plot moves along at a solid pace throughout its many twists and turns, both seen and unforeseen. While I wish that Olsson had done a bit more to actually explore, or at least invite his readers to seriously contemplate, the philosophical conundrums he poses, the book clicks at a fundamental level and entertains, even if it aspires to more. Chain of Events is a capable thriller that provides sufficient bang for the buck despite some clumsy moments and wasted opportunities for greater depth.

Grade: B+

April 19, 2015

Book 23: Hieroglyph

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future
Edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer

This book is the product of a concerted effort to produce optimistic, forward-thinking, and inspirational science fiction in the vein of some of the genre's most influential past masters. Given all of the recent turmoil surrounding the Hugo Award nominations, I was pleased to note the inclusion of contributions from a diverse array of authors who, unsurprisingly, offered a nice variety of futuristic visions. From the melting polar ice caps to megacities and far-flung extra-planetary colonies, from political science to quantum physics, Hieroglyph's contributors ask readers to imagine what might be possible, if only we put our minds to the task. While some of the stories develop a bit of a didactic edge, the collection feels remarkably balanced; as a whole, it values innovation and creative thinking over the promotion of any particular viewpoint. If certain themes, such as the potential short- and long-term effects of climate change, do recur, I suspect that it is because they loom large in the public imagination and not because the authors or editors have a particular axe to grind. Even when they might, the politics cut both ways; I found myself completely agreeing and vehemently disagreeing with different authors' implications, but each one made me reconsider my position, however dearly held, in a different light. Even those stories that do revolve around similar premises, like the pair involving towers that reach into the upper atmosphere, approach their similar topics from different angles, creating vastly different reading experiences.

Despite its thematic focus on an inventive, mad scientist brand of science fiction, Hieroglyph's great strength is in its authors' impressive versatility. Very few of these tales are straightforward stories of an unambiguously better world, and many grapple with complex ethical and scientific issues as thoroughly as the best works in other genres. Even more interesting is the sheer variety of problems and solutions envisioned by the collection's authors, as well as the range of academic disciplines they utilize in exploring their imagined futures. The book has a wide potential audience, bridging the gap between English majors and particle physicists, and everyone in between. The science is real, yet accessible, and most stories convincingly present both the whiz-bang innovations and the literary elements like plot and characterization. Some authors might concentrate more on their big ideas than on the story at hand, but even then, their ideas are usually enough to sustain the narrative; only one or two offerings seem to drift away, lost in their science without a sufficient human anchor to make them resonate.

In the end, reading this collection- even when its stories become a bit too preoccupied with their own brilliance- is to be excited and electrified by the possibilities it presents, an effect fostered by the editors and deliberately triggered in nearly every story. Each flows naturally into the next, especially when they share few common characteristics; the mental reset required by such juxtapositions feeds into the intellectual energy the book thrives on- and rewards. Hieroglyph proves (much to the chagrin, I suspect, of a certain particularly vocal segment of fandom) that grounded scientific speculation, plot-driven protagonists, and inquisitive, inward-looking, and, yes, literary writing can coexist in science fiction; when they meet, the results can be indistinguishable from magic.

Grade: A

April 10, 2015

Book 22: 100 Places You Will Never Visit

100 Places You Will Never Visit: The World's Most Secret Locations
Daniel Smith

Between this book's title, which is a nicely cheeky send-up of the burgeoning bucket list genre, and its cover, which features a sign warning trespassers about a nearby "laser hazard"(!), I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I was thus slightly disappointed to discover that the book is, in fact, a relatively serious, straightforward tour of some of the world's most dangerous and most strictly guarded places, from the obvious (the Chernobyl fallout area, Langley, Fort Knox) to the ambiguously located (crash sites and smuggling tunnels), unknown (Snake Island, Surtsey, North Sentinel Island), and officially denied (Moscow's second subway and various military installations). While Smith makes an effort to include a variety of natural and manmade locales all around the world, the book is unsurprisingly heavy on the United States, England, and the rest of Europe, with a few token entries from a variety of countries both expected (China and North Korea get a couple) and, perhaps, more surprising (Somalia). Likewise, the book concentrates on a few types of locations; while each is, of course, unique, the similarities can make for a somewhat drab experience as the reader encounters yet another military research and development complex, bank vault, or national intelligence headquarters. The book's geographically oriented organization- Smith begins roughly at the International Date Line and proceeds eastward across the globe- is a good idea, but results in quite a few unexciting clusters. In a book that already relies too heavily on repetition, this is a grave error.

All of this could, of course, be mitigated by excellent, searing prose. While Smith sneaks in a few attempts at humor, many are misplaced and even the goods ones do not adequately compensate for the otherwise unremarkable prose. The editing is also a bit lacking, with copy errors cropping up and inadequate attention paid to the little details that lend even bad books a certain sense of flow. The book suffers from unexplained abbreviations and abrupt endings; when a page ends at the end of a sentence, it is nearly impossible to guess whether the next page will continue the current segment or open a new one. The entry for Osama bin Laden's final hideout in Pakistan is adequate enough, referencing the government's intention to demolish the building. The problem? The accompanying photograph shows the compound mid-demolition. I understand that layout often happens well after a text is completed, but surely someone looked at the final product before it went to distribution? Though frustrating at this and many other moments, the book does offer a decent glimpse at many of the locations it covers, piquing the reader's interest or at least allowing them to move on to another entry quickly enough. I was pleased to learn about and revisit several of the featured locales and the book does make an adequate reference volume, best read, perhaps, as an afterthought. For all of its faults, the research behind the book appears to fit the author's ambitions and most of the prose is serviceable, if forgettable. 100 Places You Will Never Visit is a somewhat uneven, mildly entertaining coffee table book that may best be enjoyed in small doses.

Grade: B-

April 6, 2015

Book 21: Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Piper Kerman

I'd like to think that I would have been drawn to this book even if I had never seen (and enjoyed!) the eponymous Netflix show, but with the new season still a few months away I was spurred to get my fix from the book that started it all. Experiencing Piper Kerman's story backwards, in a sense, was a bit disorienting, as many of the characters from the show are modeled after (or share names with) Kerman's fellow prisoners, but without overlapping directly. The storylines merge, diverge, and weave through one another in different ways, and I often found myself unable to reconcile the characters in my head (from the adaptation) with those on the page. This is, of course, my fault rather than Kerman's, and I've tried to keep that in mind while reading and thinking about the book. Television or no, however, Orange Is the New Black is undoubtedly an important work, for many of the same reasons that make it inherently problematic.

For all of her bad decisions, Piper Kerman is an awful lot like me: white, well-educated, and with all of the attendant benefits that come from being brought up in an economically stable middle-class household. It is, I suspect, for this reason that she wrote the book and has subsequently garnered so much attention for doing so: in Orange Is the New Black, Kerman brings the world of the very not-white, very uneducated, and very not-monied imprisoned population into the consciousness of those who are much more like her. It is a relief that Kerman only occasionally lapses into feeling sorry for herself and that, when she does, she is often quick to check herself and reexamine the relevant instincts. This privilege, alternately acknowledged and implicit, forms an undercurrent throughout the whole book, occasionally lending itself to thoughtful meditations on the meanings and effects of imprisonment as practiced in the modern United States and, more broadly, the catastrophic effects of the War on Drugs. These passages, however, often feel abbreviated and are, more often than not, indicative of the book's general tendency toward episodic anarchy. One gets the feeling that there is much more to be said, and much more meaning to be wrangled from Kerman's experiences, if only she would dig a bit deeper into the uncomfortable truths where she only scratches the surface.

The anecdotes and thinkpiece segments do, in some sense, form a coherent whole; the narrative flows smoothly from Kerman's infraction to her incarceration and, ultimately, her release. It can, however, be a bit difficult to remember who is who and to keep a grasp on the passage of time, even with the benefit of the visuals provided by an acquaintance with the Netflix series (and sometimes, perhaps, in spite of them). The prose is relatively straightforward and entirely adequate to the task, but, as I noted above, some of the incidents and observations pop up out of nowhere. Chapters that revolve around a particular theme will suddenly switch gears for a page or two, only to devolve back into the original train of thought, and the ending is far too abrupt to offer any reasonable sense of closure. Sure, Kerman stops at an appropriate point in the story, but surely she could have offered some meaningful, summarizing reflections on her time of prison to offer a sense of closure. Then again, perhaps this isn't authorial or editorial clumsiness; perhaps the reader's disorientation is meant to echo Kerman's, as she suddenly finds herself confronted with a freedom that she can't quite comprehend after more than a year of incarceration.

Nonetheless, the book's ending undermines some of the meditative goodwill Kerman strives to build while musing on everything from the difficulties and heartbreak of trying to reconcile imprisonment with motherhood to the simple joy that comes from finding community in even the most adverse circumstances. Kerman delivers a warts-and-all vision of the prison experience, but it is notable how much time she spends examining the types of community and solidarity that develop between women who are behind bars. Most importantly, she offers a humanizing portrait of those who, as she notes time and again, we are brutally inclined to cast off as the detritus of society, whose humanity we rob by labeling them insufficient and casting them away from view, with no resources to sustain them or (perish the thought) allow them to successfully reenter (or, in many cases, first become a part of) law-abiding society. Though Kerman's experience necessarily originates from a very particular point of view, it is this through this lens that she makes the prison experience understandable to those who are, in most ways (save, one hopes, for the drug money laundering bit) much like her. Orange Is the New Black is an enlightening, though necessarily flawed, exposé of the United States prison system, an overburdened, underfunded, and woefully inadequate revolving door for those whom society lets down time and again; if it takes a middle-class white woman to get us to pay attention, well, at least now we're listening.

Grade: A-

April 3, 2015

Book 20: The Illusionists

The Illusionists
Rosie Thomas

I've found myself particularly drawn to stories about stage magic recently, for no obvious reason that I can discern, and it wasn't a difficult decision to pick up The Illusionists based on the cover and the jacket flap summary. The story leaps off of the blocks immediately, immersing readers in the impoverished alleys and variety theaters of late-Victorian London. The atmospherics are a wonder to behold, with the city brought to life in vibrant detail; this is a novel that plants images and ideas directly in the reader's mind, and as it relies heavily on tone this is one of its great strengths. Despite this, Rosie Thomas occasionally falters; her references to homosexuality and Jack the Ripper, although undoubtedly well-intentioned, add little to the novel and betray a clumsiness that overtakes the book in its final third. Nonetheless, she is usually on point, revealing just enough details to make the book's illusions, complete with elaborate staging and framing narratives, spring to life while retaining the requisite air of mystery. Her decision to utilize an omniscient third-person narrator is reminiscent of the sprawling novels of the time, and she handles it better than many of her predecessors or contemporaries, deftly transitioning between her characters' different perspectives.

The book's several protagonists revolve around the charming, yet slippery, Devil Wix, a capable stage magician with grand ambitions who often occupies the gray areas between hero and antihero. The compelling supporting cast includes Carlo Boldoni, an ever-contrarian dwarf with magical skill that greatly eclipses Devil's own and Eliza Dunlop, a prematurely liberated and forthright woman who is compelling despite being more a product of the author's era than of her own. They, and the minor characters alike, remain convincingly in character for most of the novel, lending it an additional air of plausibility. Some references to Devil's past are handled a bit too forcefully, and Eliza's gradual softening does her a great disservice despite its inherent philosophical potential, but readers can enjoy seeing the characters cooperate, argue, and evolve in realistic ways.

All of this should make for a thoroughly excellent book, but everything unravels after the climactic ending to its second act. The narrative arcs of parts one and two are expertly managed, driven by Thomas's strong characters if not by any particular narrative ingenuity; Devil's ascent is a pleasure to witness, and the thriller that follows provides an emotionally riveting finale. Unfortunately, the book's coda is a drawn-out, boring affair, a hundred extra and utterly unnecessary pages affixed to what would otherwise be a gripping, complete novel. I understand Thomas's desire to provide a sprawling portrait of Devil, Eliza, Carlo, and company, but her attempt to cook up a sufficient plot falls flat despite the barest hints of potential. Her plodding insistence on dragging out the story of the character's dull existence dampens the emotional resonance of their previous accomplishments and escapes. The story itself loses its sense of wonder, a fate that Devil recognizes in himself and belatedly, halfheartedly seeks to correct. The denouement simply fails to capture the atmosphere, excitement, and interest that drives the majority of the book, and does its characters, author, and readers alike a great disservice.

Rosie Thomas's great, and apparently natural, talent is evident in The Illusionists, and its strengths are great and evident, even in its disappointing conclusion. The fact that its flaws are compressed into an interminable ending renders it impossible to recapture the occasionally breathless entertainment offered in its first two-thirds. It is, despite its ill-conceived appendix, a good novel, even if it is ultimately unrewarding. The Illusionists is, to a great extent, a wonderfully executed novel of Victorian London for all but its final third, a conclusion that is all the more lamentable for the sheer quality of the pages that preceded it.

Grade: B