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-

August 1, 2015

Book 36: Upgraded

Upgraded: A Cyborg Anthology
Edited by Neil Clarke

All short-story anthologies are, by nature, hit-and-miss propositions; within every collection, be it the work of a single author, a thematic group, or a "best of" collection, each tale will affect each reader differently. Even with that in mind, however, I found the variance within Upgraded to be greater than in many anthologies. I suspect that this may be due, at least in part, to the broad spectrum of stories that fall under its surprisingly vague "cyborg" theme. Indeed, the collection's breadth is its greatest strength, and I appreciated the opportunity to read widely across science fiction subgenres, finding that the hits and misses weren't confined to single styles, themes, or interpretations of who- or what- cyborgs might be. In this way, the collection pleasantly challenged my own assumptions; I encountered brilliant stories in genres that I usually shrug off and found myself disappointed in stories that I would have otherwise expected to love. The collection has it all, from the galaxy-spanning space opera and dystopian cyberpunk nightmares you'd expect to less stereotypical intimate personal monologues and even a wholly satisfying mystery (Ken Liu's "The Regular") that wouldn't feel horribly out of place in a modern detective anthology.

For all of its inherent variety, however, Upgraded isn't constructed in a way that efficiently exploits the stories' similarities and differences. Recycled themes show up erratically and seemingly without purpose, and the vast gulf between adjoining stories often creates an unwelcome sense of whiplash, particularly when stories engaging similar themes (or even similar interpretations of the term "cyborg") appear too closely together. Similarly, I often found that the stronger of two (or more) similar stories was placed first, making the following efforts pale in comparison. Much of this is based on my subjective reading experience, but the collection's sometimes uneven structure seems to invite and encourage the kind of direct comparisons that highlight stories' relative strengths and weaknesses. The best and worst stories may starkly stand out against the background, but the background itself becomes dull and ill-defined in the process. Overall, it is disappointing and distracting to be flung violently between stories that effortlessly immerse readers in the chosen context and those that remain unsettled even after ten or twenty pages.

Much as the stories explore strikingly different interpretations of the technology behind, and the meaning(s) of, the integration of machine and biological parts, there is a significant gap between those that immerse readers immediately and those that rely heavily on the authors' presumption of readers' preexisting familiarity with various tropes. At times, it is difficult to determine who the target audience is: while devoted science fiction fans will certainly find much to love (and to stretch the boundaries of the meaning and possibilities of the genre as broadly constructed, which is not unimportant when considering the background static of the current Hugo debacle), too many stories are unclear even to readers accustomed to the genre's most popular, well-worn conceptions. Likewise, I was impressed by the balance between stories that stressed a gee whiz element, focusing on the technology, and those that focused more narrowly on personal lived experience and/or more broadly on themes as important as the meaning of humanity and the gains and losses engendered by fusing biology and technology. Plenty of the collection's authors are eager to pose the questions and provide a framework for exploring them; thankfully, few become too pedantic in offering answers. Upgraded may be a bit frustrating when considering its harsh transitions and uneven pacing, but its theme is coherent and there is much to be admired within, in the shape of a wide range of quality fictional gems waiting to be discovered by the right readers.

Grade: B