Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I am all about character, and Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is full of them

Oskar is an exceptional young man. Possibly autistic (though never identified as such), he feels disconnected and is more than a little eccentric. He speaks French and carries a tambourine everywhere. He lives across the street from his grandmother, with whom he speaks via walkie-talkie and through notes on their respective windows.  He is somewhat bullied in school, but that doesn't seem to bother him much. He doesn't even bother marching: he is a different drum.

He is bereft and untethered to the world since the death of his father, a jeweler by trade, who had an appointment at the Windows on the World on September 11, 2001. The world is a different place now, two years later, where subways and tall buildings are unsafe, where his father's last conversation with him is pregnant with hidden meanings — and life is a mystery he has to unravel by himself.

When Oskar accidentally finds a key in his father's closet, he decides his mission in life is to find out what lock the key fits. He does so in a very methodical fashion, with attention to detail and a dogged determination that would exhaust the heartiest of adventurers.  He also keeps it secret from his mother — among the secrets Oskar keeps that nearly undoes him.

Oskar's story is one of three told in this book, the one all other stories revolve.  Two other voices speak: his grandparents.  Oskar's grandfather left the day he found out his wife was expecting a child, and he communicates through a series of letters to Tom, Oskar's father. Oskar's grandmother tells her side of the marriage relationship, and about That Terrible Day, through letters as well.

I enjoyed the resolution of Oskar's story. I was amazed at the people he met and how they reacted to him, the honesty and emotion he relentlessly (and guilelessly) extracted from them. However, I frankly didn't understand the relationship between the paternal grandparents, especially the grandfather. I appreciated his back-story, but his tale was disjointed and confusing.  Everything that touched that man was confusing and disjointed, including the grandmother.  I still don't understand the "tenant" storyline, either, though it was useful in the story's conclusion.  I could not tell you what happens to those two, and I am more bothered that I am not bothered enough by that than I am bothered by that. I found them interesting, but too confusing.

Oskar's mother was completely undeveloped, I found, and her story was told through the other characters — almost a dismissal of such an important character.

And yet... the writing of Oskar's story was exquisite and touching, emotionally connective despite the child's apparent lack of connectivity to the world around him.  I could cut out all of Grandma and Grandpa's stories and gobble up Oskar alone in this book.

I recommend this book cautiously.  It's definitely a library read: borrow a copy from a friend or the library.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Going Black Against SOPA and PIPA

On Wednesday, January 18, I will join Wikipedia, Reddit and George Takei others by "going dark," or at least refrain from posting anything on the Web on my blogs.

I'll let Wikipedia do the talking:
The blackout is a protest against proposed legislation in the United States – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate – that, if passed, would seriously damage the free and open Internet, including Wikipedia.

Click here for more information.  (Just don't try it Wednesday.)

I am suspicious of government control of information, whether it's telling me what I can access or trying to get more than they should about me without going through the channels set up to protect my constitutional rights.  

I am not keen on the PATRIOT Act.  President Obama's decision to extend it in 2011 is one of my greatest disappointments of his tenure in the White House. Our freedoms and rights are sacrosanct, and anyone who asks us to surrender them should be regarded with great suspicion.

So I'll see you on the other side.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: One of Our Thursdays is Missing

Jasper Fforde could not disappoint any of his devoted readers, not even in the bleakest of circumstances.

I wasn't in the mood for One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the latest installment of the Thursday Next series. That, of course, is when it's needed most — so I soldiered on.

I am glad I did.

As the novel opens, we find ourselves in Book World with Thursday. Well, it's Thursday, but the Written Thursday. Important distinction, and one that the Written Thursday never forgets. She's in charge of her series, keeping the characters ready for the next reader.

Characters perform only when there's a reader; otherwise, they keep their own personal lives rather busy (and, in some cases, steeped in tawdry.)  The Written Pickwick is played by a very snooty Dodo and Thursday has an understudy who, rumor has it, enacted the "snooze" button once, in a panic. (If you read this book for only one reason, you must read it to learn about Book World's snooze button.)

The Written Thursday is a very good Thursday, one who seems to be most like her Real World counterpart. That, of course, is what someone is hoping.  You see, one of our Thursdays is missing — and it's one that everyone will miss.

Only Fforde could create a reboot of Book World so amazing, so believable, that readers suddenly wonder what happens when they pick up and thumb through a tome. Who's between the lines? What does it take for us to enjoy what we read: us or them?

This is a fabulous installment — and, if you're new to the series, one that serve as a good introduction. However, after reading this one, you will want to go back and read every other book in this series. (You could save yourself the time and just start at the beginning with The Eyre Affair. This one will be waiting for you when you get back.)

But be forewarned: Fforde is a way of life. Once you go Fforde, you'll never go back.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What Happens After 'Lights Out' at the Bookstore?

Bookstores are alive.

If you ever had any doubt, watch this lovely video from Type Books in Toronto.

(An added bonus: perhaps finding another adventure with Mr. Pusskins!)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: The Woman in Black

Rarely have I read something as subtly frightening as The Woman in Black.

This relatively young ghost story, published in 1983 by Susan Hill, is insidious.

The book opens on Christmas Eve, as Arthur Kripps refuses to participate in the telling of scary tales with his wife and her children. He is a well-loved and good humored stepfather, but the tales push him over an edge no one, not even he, knew was there.

You see, his ghost story is true.

Arthur is a solicitor whose employer has assigned him to execute the estate of Alice Drablow, who lives in a small coastal town a day's journey from London. He leaves behind his young fiancée and expects to spend a day, maybe two, straightening out the late woman's affairs.

It begins with Mrs. Drablow's funeral, during which he sees a woman in black — someone who goes undetected by the only other person at the funeral, a fellow solicitor whose firm refuses all business from the town's wealthiest resident.  In fact, everyone in town seems very friendly — until it comes to Mrs. Drablow's business or the woman in black, then they go mum or change the subject.

Then things get weird.

This classic story is masterfully told, with suspense and fear building with every page. The ending — oh, my stars, I never saw it coming. Neither will you.

Read this book — but don't do it alone, or after dark, or when you're apt to see shadows where there are none. It's that scary. Really.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Review: The Devil's Elixir

In Raymond Khoury's world, everyone is stupid.

I don't mean something simple, like forgetfulness or density, cultural difference or sexist cluelessness.  I mean fundamental stupidity, such as, "I am an FBI agent but I won't worry about those two suspicious-looking thugs that just walked into the museum behind the person I'm guarding."

The only thing worse than the stupidity is the cleverness: people who can set up undetectable ruses using elaborate plans that either involve or hornswoggle high-ranking individuals.

Remind me to be written by Khoury.

The novelist continues his relationship with the FBI in The Devil's Elixir, starting with a visit to San Diego. Former federal worker Michelle has her quiet Saturday interrupted by a gaggle of assassins.  She jumps in the car and calls Sean Reilly, a man she hasn't spoken to in five years, a former associate from whom she has kept a secret.  Sean himself kept more than a few secrets himself from her (which helps explain why they hadn't spoken in so long).

Reilly races to the rescue, only not be not so much the hero as the guy batting clean-up. As only Reilly can, he assumes this situation has something to do with him (because what doesn't?). Although he and Michelle both were in Mexico five years ago, both annoyed powerful drug dealers and both had demons from that time... Reilly considers himself the only plausible target.

Khoury revives a few familiar faces in this book, such as Tess Chaykin, one of the stupidest characters in modern fiction. I was amazed that she and Reilly managed to survive The Last Templar, despite her inability to do one smart thing for the better part of a week.  In this book, she redeems herself: Sean is the stupid one who refuses to listen to her and hurts himself leaping from one assumption to another.  For someone who values and respects Tess' opinions, he sure doesn't act like it in The Devil's Elixir.  We also meet other recurring characters, such as Munro, an FBI agent (and Sean's partner) whom I would trust only as far as I could throw him.

Khoury creates a new character: Raoul Navarro, who isn't Navarro but is.  (Stay with me here.) This Mexican is supposed to make Bill Sikes look like a Boy Scout. Just the mention of his name causes people to stand up straighter — and yet, I didn't feel it. As I read his exploits, cruelty and capabilities, I wasn't frightened —I just wondered how he would meet his end. He had "expendable crew member" written all over him.

The story is very complex, but the chapters and sentences are short and choppy, as if editors assume readers won't be able to see a clue if it's not its own paragraph.  That structure felt contrived and more than a little insulting.

There wasn't enough about the "exilir" in the story for my liking. I knew it was heady stuff and Navarro was all keen to get his hands on it for the world, but there wasn't enough about its effects to make me understand the attraction.  I suppose any highly addictive drug is enough of a draw for a drug lord, but this guy had a powerful, personal attraction to it, and I wanted to know why. Once that information was available, I wished I had gotten a personal tour in its effects — but instead, we skated past or through them, with vague descriptions for readers to try to figure out what the drug did.

Finally, the conspiracy: I felt cheated. There was a whopper of a conspiracy going on in this book, and the way it was revealed felt cheap. I would have preferred hints threaded throughout the story, but it was presented to me like a Jello salad: moulded into a pleasant shape, jiggly, fun to look at — but, when I finally bit into it, it dissolved to nothing.

Have you read it? Am I off-base? Tell me if you liked it, and we'll compare notes.