Thursday, October 30, 2014

Anarchaos





Curt Clark
Anarchaos

Ace Books, 1967

The narrator of this story, that is placed in the unidentified future, Rolf Malone, is released from the prison on the Earth and he is on his way to another planet called Anarchaos where the events of the novel will take place. There, on Anarchaos, the narrator’s brother Gar Malone worked, and before his death he has written to Rolf to come to Anarchaos. Now Gar has died under suspicious circumstances, and Rolf is eager for some answers, for instance, whom his brother worked for and how exectly his brother died.

Right after his arrival on Anarchaos, Rolf is warned that Anarchaos and its habitants are dangerous, and it will be better for his health if he goes back to Earth. These words only fuel the protagonist’s need for answers: he checks his luggage at the station and hails the taxi to get to the town where the corporation his brother worked for is situated. During the drive, feeling that the taxi man sooner or later will kill him, Rolf strikes first, killing the driver and makes his way to the corporation tower alone.

There representatives of the one of the largest corporations on the planet greet Rolf, tell him that his brother was killed during an ambush when Gar was on a survey, and while Gar was killed, his guard survived, and he’s the only one who can provide some answers to Rolf.

Rolf goes to the shack where this guard lives, and there someone ambushes them, killing the guard who hasn’t had time to tell anything about Gar and wounding Rolf. Malone starts his trip to hell.
I have read this novel not to remind myself what state SF had been in during 60s. Curt Clark is a pen name of Donald Westlake, and Anarchaos is his the only SF novel, and I am slowly grinding through Westlake’s entire catalogue.

First, let me say that I hugely enjoyed it. It’s a good novel, perhaps not as good as 361, with which they share more than a few similarities, still it’s quite powerful piece of writing.
That’s said, I wouldn’t say that Anarchaos is truly SF novel, it is a thriller dressed in science fiction clothes. But first things first.

Anarchaos is one of the future Earth colonies, where a few generations of colonists had already changed. On every colony there are embassys of the Union Comission, United Nations-like Earth organization, only unlike its earth counterpart not interfering with colonists activities. Every colony can choose any of the existing government systems and live under this system. Anarchaos colonists remenbered “an obscure Rus¬sian nihilist named Mikhail Bakunin” and his writings, and made his theoretic ideas real on Anarchaos. Therefore the colony dove deep into anarchy, smoothly flowing into chaos. The only anarchy-free places became embassys of the UC.

The planet itself has a few differences with the Earth: Anarchaos doesn’t spin, so there is not a change of day and night there, one part of the planet is Sahara-hot under the sun called Hell, another is dark and cold. The development level on the planet is primitive, early to mid XX century only with scyscrappers.

All that we learn from the first chapters, as part of that Malone tells himself, and another part is a lecture of one of the UC man. Westlake does his infodumping straight away, and not in a subtle way, so for the rest of the story we won’t be distracted from the main plot. Infodumping like this looks too inelegantly, and trick with a lecture is too straightforward.

But does the colony structure play an important role in the book? It does, though not important one. How inventive is Westlake SF writer? Nearly not as much as Westlake the writer per se. We see a distant colony, almost like the Earth, we see people populating this planet, and they are as human as we can be. We see cars, horses, guns, explosives, earth army titles – Westlake just describes Earth. What language do colonists speak? English? Not even without any dialects? Well, there is a bigger difference between accents and dialects between US states than between Earth and Anarchaos. What is that, laziness in the worldbuilding or Westlake’s ignorance? Possibly none of that. He just writes a crime story where a place plays little, very insignificant role.

What I want to say is we can easily imagine a Latin American or African country instead of Anarchaos, and almost nothing will change. An American arrives to Guatemala, to a mineral plant, where his brother died. An American is fed and clothed in the embassy and then goes to the plant. Some thugs from the jungle kidnaps him, he becomes a slave, then he escapes, then he’s soon captured by some General (there are plenty of generals in military states), then he kills a general from this plant, and then another General from another plant. It’ll be the same story. It is a very small bridge between Anarchaos and chaotic republic somewhere on Earth. Blow up a few embassys in African country and there will be chaos (as if there isn’t now).

It should be said, though, that for some plot turns it is important that the action takes place on another planet.

It is a good adventure story, where the premise borrowed from 361, and the middle probably straight from a Grofield novel, where Grofield is in his Lemons-Never-Lie-mode. As SF, the story lacks focus on otherworldliness and scientific details. The only thing from the future here is flights between planets. The rest come from the 60s: paper geographical maps, primitive calculating machines, guns, knives, food. The novel should have been called not Anarchaos, but Archaic-aos, the novel is dated.

As a novel of ideas Anarchaos is far from dated, and it reads as a novel of ideas just fine. Anarchaos could have been called an adventure story with ideas, if that hasn’t been an oxymoron, like Tarzan with brains.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Leftovers





Tom Perrotta
The Leftovers

St. Martin's Press, 2011

Three years before the events described in the novel, a mysterious phenomenon occurs that is similar to the Rapture, to use a biblical term. Millions of people in an instant just disappear from the face of the earth. Among them are not only faithful Christians, but people of all religions and of various moral behavior. Some take the disappearance for the real Rapture, meaning that those who remain on the earth are judged as unworthy of heavenly life, while others believe that the phenomenon only had common features with the predicted phenomenon from the Bible, but the real Rapture it is not.

After The Sudden Departure, as it is called by some, the government announces the state of emergency, shuts down schools and other institutions, the people mourn the missing, and those who had seen their loved ones disappear, are called The Witnesses.

Grief can last for years across the country, and gradually the United States return to normal. The consequences of a global phenomenon in a small town of Mapleton, New York, are described in the novel. In the center of the story is one family in which oddly enough no one has disappeared. The patriarch of the Garvey family, Kevin, was a successful businessman at the time of the Rapture-like phenomenon, his wife Laurie was a housewife, and two children were students - the eldest son Tom in college and daughter Jill in high school.

From chapter to chapter, we move from one family member to another. The global phenomenon has splot split the family, and every family member in their own way is trying to find his/her place in almost new world.

Tom Perrotta has used in his book sci-fi device, and, like many mainstream writers treated to a fantastic device and its properties with disrespect and disdain.

Placing in the base of the story a phenomenon of religious matter, Perrotta surprisingly spends very little time answering the proper questions of religion. Perrotta chose an interesting approach to a global phenomenon: not giving a full explanation of the departure, the author left his world and the characters in it to the freedom of interpretation. Characters had all prerequisites for a full discussion of the phenomenon, similar to that described in the Bible. Perrotta does not even take the side of the supporters of the biblical version, nor on the side of the rationalists, he generally rejects any discussion of the origin of the departure. The most important thing for Perotta was make something so erase as many people from the face of the Earth as possible, while the reason for this disappearance was of the minor importance. So, instead of the Rapture in the book it could have been any epidemic or meteor rain. Not a word was said about the research scientists, nor the statement of high rank religious people (Pope, Orthodox Patriarch etc), respectively, we do not know about the socio-economic implications of global disappearance of countless people. What impact it does on demography, economics, world politics - it seems like nothing has changed.

And even if you convince yourself that Perrotta was interested not in the phenomenon itself, but in what was after, the picture still looks fragile. After such religiocentric phenomenon we see three options for the development of the world in terms of religion. Among all the official representatives of the Catholic Church we see only one priest, highly pissed at the world and God, bringing risen to the path of revenge. The priest began to argue that God took the sinners and betrayed those who truly believed. Is this priest representative? Probably not, but we do not find others, and it is hard to say whether all priests were so bitter that have fallen to the level of gossipers and blackmailers, or just this one turned out rotten.

Two other religious paths are the religious groups, early on quite different with dissimilar structure, and by the finale, we see the corruption and lies within both these newly formed cults.
Church of Holy Wayne is a typical example of the American sects, they usually do not even need a reason for existence. They were there, and Perotta just uses the template of the structure and motives of the already existing sects. Other religious groups, The Guilty Remnant, at first seems like an original idea, with their spying and remaining silent. Perrotta does not develop the theme: the cult was created as if by itself, its structure remains opaque, it does not set any goals, and all that we see is the work of lower-level sectarian and their recruitment methods. By the final sectarian motives become clear: to gather the property and finances of sectarians, choose the most persistent, testing their strength on the ability to kill.
While staying at the dorm Laurie and Meg relate only to those down-to-earth conversations, completely ignoring the issues of religion and faith. Both women chose to stay withing the cult not as a possible way to salvation, but as an opportunity to fence from the world. You can put into question the motives of the two women as they both have not lost the loved ones during the departure. Their families remain on the Earth, and Laurie, if act by logic, should have by all means hold her family together, to support her husband and children, to consider herself lucky that an unknown cataclysm did not violate the integrity of their family.

Perrotta on the contrary is as if blaming Kevin that he hasn’t joined the Guilty Remnant, and sympathizes with and endorses the choice of Laurie.

Novels of ideas too are often elevated and distant from reality. It is a pity that Perrotta could not squeeze in «The Leftovers» any resonable ideas, focusing on daily life of the characters. With the same success, the book could have been written about 9/11: before us is a soap opera about a family where everyone is struggling with the pain and despair in his own way. I do not know whether Perrotta conceived the novel as the basis for the HBO series or rights have been sold after the book was published, but The Leftovers reads as a TV series on paper. It has quite diverse storylines to please everyone, here is enough melodrama and sex (heterosexual and lesbian), there is sufficient amount of details so that the novel had meat on the bones. The problem lies in the fact that Perrotta as if from the very beginning knows how it ends, and simply writes scenes, separate episodes for the show, and he does so without a flame in the heart. Worn style completely denies the story of some colours. Dialog is like a mix between the utterance of banal wisdoms and everyday chitchat. Simply put, the novel lacks some spark, not in the least a stylistic one. For the realist Perrotta is too boring and pat, as a writer with the ideas he lacks his own ideas.

The Leftovers justifies its title: the tastiest pieces have already been eaten, what’s left is the leftovers.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North





Richard Flanagan
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Chatto & Windus, 2014

In the center of the novel is an Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who during World War II was captured by the Japanese and among other prisoners of war built the Thai-Burma Railway, also known as the Road of Death.

The novel skips across continents and time layers, but the main events can be divided into three groups: the life of Evans before the war in Melbourne, Japanese camp and the post-war period, when Evans even received a certain notoriety.

Dorrigo was the youngest in a family of seven children. He soon lost touch with his brothers and sisters, every member of the family went on their path. He grew up in Tasmania, but later moved to the mainland, to Melbourne, where the six-foot tall Evans enters the university. Dorrigo shows no special abilities to medicine, but still graduates from the university. Since the beginning of the war he was a surgeon being moved to a military camp in Adelaide, where Evans goes through training. Evans marries, has a lover called Amy on the side and flies to Singapore to fight on the side of the Allies.

Evans in Singapore meets with other soldiers from his unit, and when Singapore surrenders to the Japanese army, the Australians are captured. Evans and his colleagues formes a special unit of prisoners, which includes only the Australians. His unit is sent to the construction work, namely for building of the Thai-Burma railway, which will run from Thailand to Burma.

In his novel Richard Flanagan is trying to lay on paper using artistic methods the story of Australians who were stationed at the Japanese POW camp. Perhaps the main problem of the novel is that it is too artistic. Flanagan has a lush style, he now and then inserts a quote from poetry, tends to bold descriptions and refuses to use quotation marks for dialogue. Such stylistic brightness, sometimes even with a touch of poetry, perfectly matches the life of the main character in the civilian world. Dorrigo Evans loves books and women more than anything else. Women like him, and he fascinates them. Evans is bursting with feelings. Despite his obvious sins (Evans does not even cheat on his wife, he acts as if he does not notice her, at least most of his life he did not notice her), Evans is a likeable hero. He is persistent, passionate, honest man of not too many words, and he is understood without words, by both men and women. He seems not to be blamed for his sins. He's like this by nature. Especially because in the novel his wife Ella is a pale shadow, not full-blooded person, and how we can sympathize with her that her husband is a womanizer?

The protagonist’s soul wanderings is the most intriguing part of the book. Whom he will choose and what happened to Evans after the war, these questions claws at us most of all. Colorful prose of Flanagan comes over already colorful with passion "civilian" part of the plot. But for the life in the camp are Flanagan’s colors are not so suitable. Too unnatural it looks, like a circus, not a camp for prisoners of war. Indeed, Flanagan doesn’t know a sense of proportion. Evans and his friends in the camp act like clowns, tirelessly repeat Britanisms «mate» and «rightio», Nakamura tells long tales about the wisdom of the emperor, as if sitting with friends and colleagues drinking tea, and in general it is not like a camp at all, but Chinese, or rather Japanese, circus. Flanagan goes over the top with paints: if everything is so colorful, it may be that all the prisoners do well in the camp? Maybe they were there on vacation and not with their bones the Road was built? The main hero has a horrible diarrhea, but the author depicts.

«He raised a crumbling canvas flap and Dorrigo Evans followed him through the flared nostril of the tent into a stench, redolent of anchovy paste and shit, so astringent it burnt in their mouths. The slimy red flame of a kerosene lantern seemed to Dorrigo Evans to make the blackness leap and twist in a strange, vaporous dance, as if the cholera bacillus was a creature within whose bowels they lived and moved. At the far end of the shelter, a particularly wretched-looking skeleton sat up and smiled.»

A friend of the protagonist is drowning in a pit of waste and Flanagan again uses colorful prose. Thus, this style fails to convey the monotony, the horror and darkness of life in captivity.
In general, Flanagan’s book entertains more than makes us to think. Among the interesting thoughts there is one that the author touches upon in the chapters written from the point of view of the Japanese officers and guards. One of the guards says that it turned out like that: the Japanese, who had committed crimes against the Allies, white people, were sentenced to death and declared war criminals. But at the same time, the Japanese, who bullied and killed other Asians, weren’t even touched. It turns out that the racial-class division was under any conditions and at all times, whether it was war or peacetime.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North stirs the heart, but only at the beginning and at the end. The middle part on life on POW camp is a failure.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing





Eimear McBride
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Galley Beggar Press, 2013

The nameless narrator of this convulsing story begins at age two when her brother went to the surgery to remove a brain tumor. The narrator wakes up in the hospital, he sees her bloodied older brother, tries to tell her mother not let her brother be touched.

A close relationship with her brother largely determines a way of life of the girl from the title, from age two to 20 years. The narrator and her brother were born in a Catholic family, about the father it’s known only from the words of the mother that he had died, their mother is pious and cruel as a Christian woman can be cruel, asking ffrom her children humility before God. As a result, there are the constant punishment, beatings, prayers, blind adherence to the precepts of religion.

The brother after surgery eventually becomes retarded, and with a limp. The surgery for the time being saves him from the consequences of the tumor.

The mother rears her daughter and her brother in the severity and the Catholic faith, even though they both do not know the prayers and do not believe in God at all. Children’s grandfather blames her for bad parenting. She did not even thanked her father for sending money when the boy was ill. Only sometimes the mother shows love for her daughter, for example, comforting the girl after she had a nightmare.

The brother, because of his illness, remains largely untouchable (part of the story is written with the frequent use of "you" as a way of addressing to her brother), the narrator gets all the beatings. Until school time girl remains as if in the shadow of her brother, and during school years the narrator is formed, gradually becoming a separate person and not an appendage of the ill brother.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is anything but convenient, comfortable reading. Moreover, this book is as far as possible from comfortable reading. Hard to imagine a person who in the evening, drinking a mug of tea, rushes to the chair, to enthusiastically read even 10 pages of this novel.

The reason of the caused discomfort lies in form and in content. Stylistically, McBride does not use commas in his novel, and sentences are written so chaotic and convulsive, it will take a long time to find the novel’s rhythm. Even after forty pages there is no adaptation. Each page literally you take by assault. Literally every paragraph requires slow rereading.

McBride uses a narrative technique called stream of consciousness. Streams can be different, coherent and not. This is far from the connectivity and directness. Thoughts of the heroine (and almost everything that happens, happens inside the head of the narrator, the external description is given a minimal amount of text) rush to and fro, stumble, catch up and overtake each other. The heroine seemed to stutter in her mind, sometimes swallowing sentences or pieces of sentences.

Keeping it in mind, the book though doesn’t read as a burden. It reads slowly, but if you really read it, then you catches every word in it. The novel forces the reader to work, with eyes, brain and heart, and if you try to get away from this job, you will not be able to read even a dozen pages. «A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing» is of those books, after which it actually can be said that reading is a hard work.

The story in this book is quite linear (one might even say conservative, as style is experimental). It’s an Irish story of growing up, amid domestic problems, strictly with Catholicism plus heightened sensuality. Again, the reader will not find solace in the story of the lonely girl with the terminally ill brother, a cruel mother and pervert uncle. Realism of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a sharp object penetrating the skin. Reading such prose hurts, not reading probably is even harder.

McBride’s talent lays in that her novel is not an experiment for the sake of the experiment, while reading you are gritting your teeth and congratulating yourself: I'm smart, if I’m reading such intricate prose, - and dreaming for the book to end quickly. This book is a fully formed, finished thing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Orfeo





Richard Powers
Orfeo

Norton, 2014

Powers's novel tells the story of an elderly avant-garde composer Peter Els, accused of bioterrorism and on the run. In the novel there are the two intertwined plot lines - present, actually where Els hides from the law, and past, which tells the whole story of the life of the composer and DIY-biologist.

The book events begin in 2011 in the noirish tones. Els, who is well over 70, finds his beloved dog dead, panics, dials 911, hangs up, but the police still checks his call. Patrolmen are puzzled by the cause of Els’call and advise to call Animal Control for the proper disposal of dog, noticing Els’ home office, in which the protagonist keeps his tools, flasks, jars with bacteria.

Police notifies the Joint Security Task Force, and two federal agents, who “looked like counterfeit Jehovah’s Witnesses” pay Else a visit, asking him how he set up his home laboratory, what he's doing, what bacteria he’s working on, and then illegally confiscate his incubator for tests. Els hopes that this will be the end to the inquiries, but the next day, returning from a run, he sees outside his home federal agencies vans, Feds searching his house, and a crowd of journalists. Els decides not to voluntarily give up but run, removing a small amount of cash from ATM machine to no longer use a credit card.

Musical title of the novel fortunately does not imply that the novel should be written in musical language, that is a melodic style, that gurgling and strumming, but leads somewhere to the void. Richard Powers’ Orfeo is not a beanbag, designed for public entertainment. Also true that you will not call this an avant-garde novel, despite the genre direction of the protagonist. Novel in this form is quite accessible to the unsophisticated reader. Each chapter has some kind of epigraph, very odd, but that is the end to the experiments with form.

Melody of the novel lies in a different layer. Powers finds a match of the rythmes between the two plotlines of the novel, the past and present. Like a real drummer, the author makes the elements of past and present equal. They may sound one after another, or simultaneously. These lines are of different timbre, but have the overall goal. The present line has alarming notes with noir overtones. Powers took a real case of a homegrown biochemist for adaptation, although if you do not know the whole story it may seem very much like science fiction. This line is not so deep, but it is the driving force of the story and gives you the opportunity to make the book even more full-bodied. Hysteria and obsession with terrorism are exposed in this novel as things dangerous and unpredictable. Intelligence agencies are engaged not in the search and filtering of real terrorists, but in fact they create their own home-grown criminals out of harmless "scientists" (the same applies to bombs makers) to improve their statistics.

The book raises not only relevant, but also the eternal questions. Els’ story is the story of a mad composer, and doomed genius, anda loner trying to remain in eternity. Man creates music, remains alone, and there is no one around to listen to his music. And if you believe the hero of this novel, the music is written not for someone, but for eternity. But eternity is not near enough, and time passes so long. (“The best music says: you’re immortal. But immortal means today, maybe tomorrow. A year from now, with crazy luck.”)

Everything Powers writes about is authentic, no false notes. Biochemistry and music, it would seem, are things that are not compatible, and it is still unlikely to meet a person who understands both. Powers brilliantly passes the test for the plausibility where the whole situation seems to be unplausible.

In Powers’ favor plays his stylistic choice when describing the music. It is basically a mechanical description, the actual technical descriptive process, without heaps of words around music, with a bunch of adjectives and a small share of sense. The main thing is that this choice works. Reading a novel, you feel the greatness of the music created by the protagonist, and the strangeness of his gift.

Orfeo is dear to mind and heart. And the ears, of course.

Monday, September 29, 2014

He Wants





Alison Moore
He Wants

Salt Publishing, 2014

There are novels about the mid-life crisis, and there are ones about crisis of retirement days. The protagonist of the novel, Lewis Sullivan, just like his father Lawrence, worked all his life as a R.E. teacher before retirement. With his father, a teacher of the same subject, they worked in the same school, always causing confusion in the paperwork.

Lewis became a E.E. teacher not because he wanted to, but it turned out so, his father set the example, when, in fact, Lewis wanted to teach chemistry, but after a failed experiment he gave it up.
Lewis did have a lot of what he wanted (and wants still), but all his wants remain just that, wants, no more. He always wanted to live near the sea, and lived all his life in the central part of Britain. He wanted to discuss classic literature with his wife, a librarian, but his wife said that the classics were not her thing. He always wanted to read all the books from his library, and when he started to read them, he found that he had already read them, and now what remains is to re-read them.

Now when Lewis’ wife died, his daughter Ruth comes to visit him every day and brings the soup that Lewis does not want to, but eats anyway not to displease the daughter, and it seems there is no point to looking into the future, as the future doesn’t promise that any longstanding desires will come true.

He Wants, nominally, is a novel, but in fact it is a novel in stories. The structure of the novel is whole – it’s not stories united by common characters, or stories strung on a skewer of the main theme. At the same time, each chapter of the book seems to be a separate story, and each links with the next one so that there is a number of well-proportioned stories, with a logical narrative and a natural finale.

In these chapters/stories, Moore, slowly, introduces us to the main characters. In the center of the book is Lewis, and the rest of the characters get a chapter or two, no more. Each chapter is quite self-sufficient to get the pleasure of reading it as a finished product. And almost every chapter of the novel is a Lewis’ want, his unfulfilled desire, his missed opportunity. Lewis’ dominance is broken with the stories about other characters. Thus, Lawrence Sullivan, the father of the hero, is the source of violent laughter, though suddenly you catch yourself that it is not good to laugh at the old and the sick. Chapters about Sydney, Lewis’ school fiend, is most filled with action, once Sydney appears into Lewis’ life, it becomes clear that it will be he who will shake Lewis’s peaceful life.

He Wants is a novel of small actions, almost idle. The plot is minimal, almost nothing happens. Actually, Moore basically describes what doesn’t happen, or rather, what did not happen. Moore tests her reader: will we be able to sympathize (and empathize with) a person who is an absolute conformist? Life is in our hands, as we hear every day from our elders. But does this passivity, inactivity, stiffness a man flawed, defective, bad, in the end? Lewis was adrift all his life, and didn’t find harmony. Yet he was looking for it and still is looking for it, as the harmony itself seems to avoid him. And how this is his fault?

Lewis, like other characters in the book, is a loner. Moore shares this loneliness with her characters: she writes in the third person, with the explicit presence of the narrator in the text. Her narration is sort of mythic, which is the boo’s chapters look like completed stories.

The end probably will excite and surprise. This possible surprise is one weakness of the novel. In the novel, there are just no clues that would indicate such a finale. Hence, you feel somewhat cheated, the ending something appears like from nowhere, without preconditions leading to it.

In any case, it must be admitted that He Wants as a novel definitely is a success. We want more.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Golem of Hollywood





Jesse Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman
The Golem of Hollywood

Putnam, 2014

LAPD Detective Jacob Lev wakes up after a rough night in his apartment with a woman he sees for the first time. She calls herself Mai, goes to take a shower, and then mysteriously disappears. The same day, on Jacob’s doorstep appear two men in suits, Paul and Mel, from the Special Projects department and tell Jacob that he is temporarily transferred to their department, to help with the investigation of a murder. For some time before these events, Jacob, after seven years in homicide, asks his boss to transfer him to a desk job due to depression, and the boss moves Lev to Traffic to work with statistics.

«For most of his adult life, he’d been a high-functioning alcoholic, although sometimes functioning was the operative word, and sometimes it was high. Since his transfer to Traffic, he hadn’t been drinking as much—he hadn’t needed to—and it bothered him that he’d blacked out last night.
Now that he was back in Homicide, he supposed he was entitled.»


Paul and Mel bring Lev to a house in one of the remote areas of Los Angeles. There have been found severed head of a man, a package with vomit and a few words in Hebrew carved in the table’s wood. Woman detective of Indian origin Divya Das at the crime scene explains to Jacob the situation. The body has not been found at the site, there are no signs of a struggle, too, and no other clues. Head of Special Projects (which Jacob has never heard of) Mallick says that Jacob is in charge of the the murder investigation because of his Jewish origin.

After an unsuccessful previous novel Jesse Kellerman, this time in tandem with his more famous father, shoots the bull's eye. The Golem of Hollywood’s genre can be defined as a Jewish novel about a serial killer, but it is better not to define it in any way. It does not fit in any genre framework, although composed of the elements of police procedural, serial killer novel and Biblical apocrypha. A good novel about a serial killer is very hard to write, it is very few people who can do it. The very definition of a serial killer novel has become clichéd. Kellerman Jr. until this book avoided genre conventions, while Kellerman Sr. did quite the opposite – he wrote quite a lot of genre books, unashamedly put them in series, where the number of volumes surpasses two dozens, perhaps. And reading this novel, you guess all the time what parts elements of the book the son wrote, and what the father. I have read, only one Jonathan’s book, but all but one of Jesse’s, so I will not be a good judge, though to me this novel’s style was very Kellerman Jr.-ish. Here we have Jesse’s witty dialogues and his nimble prose. The protagonist Lev here is also the heir to protagonists of Jesse’s previous books, he’s again a strange loner, confused and sometimes funny. Jesse’s father apparently came up with a serial killer plot, police procedural parts and Jewish topic, and theme of fathers and sons was close to both Kellermans.

Main plotline, the police investigation itself, is very intense and very reliable as far as possible considering the supernatural elements. The novel is written in the tradition of Michael Connelly, who also wrote (and writes) deep police procedurals set in Los Angeles. Detective Jacob Lev can be a geek or a daddy's boy, a man with complexes or an alcoholic, but he knows his business. All answers here are not taken from the air, only hard work brings results. Leo uses his head and his legs.

The plot is complicated to the extent. It is not simple, but the simplicity only harms books as this one. And if the novel didn’t have the Jewish line, the novel would already be outstanding. Jewish storyline, apocryphal, is mystical and pretty confusing, not everyone will understand it fully. It helps to understand the events taking place in the present, helping to find answers, but does not give clear answers. As a non-religious person, I was lost in the twists and turns of the Jewish line, and not only lost, but did not understand it.

And this lack of understanding is the understanding itself - understanding of the novel as a whole. «The Golem of Hollywood» deserves comparison with the two other novels, written by Russian writers. These novels are Master and Margarita by Bulgakov and Faculty of unnecessary things by Yuri Dombrowski. In both of these books the main plot line takes place in the present, but there is also a secondary line - the Biblical one. In these books, I did not fully understand the biblical line, but that did not stop to highly praise the contemporary line. The same situation is also with this book: the main line is so good that you can judge the novel considering only this modern part. (However, it is worth noting that the endings in both Master and Faculty are more powerful than "Golem"’s, although I do not think that stylistically Kellerman is weaker than Bulgakov and Dombrowski.) Biblical line gives the depth to the main line, and the entire book makes it something than was never written before.

In this novel, Jesse Kellerman first stepped on the genre territory, but all signs of the genre have been turned on its head. Superb.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What If?





Randall Munroe
What If?

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Randall Munroe is the creator of the popular web comic xkcd, and a physicist with a degree, who once worked in NASA. I've never read his comics, and in general would never have guessed that Munroe the comics writer and Munroe the author of this book is the same person, if not the press release from the publisher.

Munroe writes quite unpretentious comics, we can say even amateur, and this simplicity is in many ways very suitable format for this book. Munroe the artist helps Munroe the physicist to illustrate the text blocks. Moreover, some fragments are generally similar to the graphic novel.

Munroe not out of the blue has written this non-fiction. He has for more than a year on his website received weird questions from readers and wrote detailed, reasoned answers to them. Weirdest and even worrying questions (like "How many nuclear missiles would have to be launched at the United States to turn it into a complete wasteland?") have gone unanswered, whether because to the fact that they are weird, or because Munroe could not answer to them, but they are included in the book in separate units, often with a humorous response in the comic form.

The questions that deserve an answer got the most detailed answers with calculations, proofs, experiments and sometimes help from scientists from the respective areas. At first glance, the questions themselves seem silly and unworthy of response. I’ll list some questions:

- What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?
- If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?
- What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?
- In the movie 300 they shoot arrows up into the sky and they seemingly blot out the sun. Is this possible, and how many arrows would it take?

Perhaps, any physicist with proper training can answer these questions,. The problem is that you will not find a solution in a textbook, and you will need to apply your erudition and imagination, to advance even a little closer to the answer.

Since the questions are usually from people who are far from physics, Munroe first sets out the conditions of the problem, and only then begins to consistently solve it. In some questions, you just need to strictly follow the logic, and the answer will come by itself, and in some cases you need to apply some erudition, as there isn’t the only correct answer. The questions themselves are asked by curious people and even geeks, and the book seems to be written just for geeks from science. This does not negate the fact that approximately 90 percent of questions and answers are written in a completely accessible way and will be understood by everyone, from children to senior people. Even if some formulas cause confusion, they can be compensated by pictures.

Not all questions are from the physics. There is a question on mathematics, logic, there are questions from mixed areas. It is important that any of them Munroe treats seriously. That means that the answer to the question will rely on scientific calculations, research, logical assumptions. At the same time, the author is not afraid to joke and even, where possible, jokes heavily, don’t forget that What If? is written for geeks, without humor any geek quickly will be tired.

Well, the most interesting questions are those where Munro in his answers dives into improvisation. The author deliberately think up additional conditions to the problem, expanding his answer, offers the alternative solutions. For example, the question about Lego "How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York? Have that many Lego bricks been manufactured?". The author obviously enjoys the answer. Initially, he comes up with a floating version of the bridge, then, as a protection against storms, makes the bridge more durable and stable, and then offers a bridge, resting on the sea ground, and finally calculates the cost of the bridge.

In conclusion, Munroe gives an unexpected alternative: why build a bridge when it is possible even for part of the cost to buy the entire real estate in London and ships it to New York?

It is difficult to say whether it is possible to grow wiser after reading this book. It is sure that strange questions start to appear in you head and you want to ask Munroe to answer them.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Violins of Hope





James Grymes
Violins of Hope

Harper Perennial, 2014

The history of the Holocaust in violins - you can describe the contents of this book with this sentence. In six chapters (with a prologue and epilogue) Grymes tells the stories of six violins, and, most importantly, their owners in the days when the Nazis came to power, and during the Second World War. Link between these stories is a violin collector, Amnon Weinstein, who originally made violins and became engaged in their repair, and then went over to collecting them. He created a program in the memory of the victims of the Holocaust called Violins of Hope.

All violins, which will be in the center of the book stories, were in his collection, he also later began collecting stories about these violins. Amnon’s parents in time fled Nazi Germany and escaped to Palestine. Amnon’s father Moshe was a violinist, repair master and music teacher. In Palestine, it was difficult to make a living playing music and giving musical lessons, and Moshe went into commerce, thinking that that thousands of Jews would flock to Palestine with their instruments, and it would be a profitable business, to repair violins.

He gave gis craft to his son, who carefully preserved hundreds of violins that waited for their owners, or at least relatives of the deceased owners.

Grymes starts the history of violins in Nazi Germany from the beginning of the thirties.

Violins of Hope is one of those non-fiction books about people that does not pretend to be fiction. Stories told here speak for themselves, in any language and need no preening. Author Grymes is concise and academically calm. All that happened happened, history has shown what’s what, all sides are known, and there is no need to put pressure on the reader with pity or preaching.

This book is especially good in that: you soak in the will to live, and the author does not even cries till the sore throat to achieve that the whole story come down to us. Grymes has a clean style, and the book even has footnotes.

Musical instruments from the book’s title are only mediums, not violins for the sake of violins. This book is about people, not about violins or music, unless it’s the music of pain and suffering. Violins saved lives and helped to survive and overcome the difficulties almost non-human. At the same time the violin is an an occasion to tell the stories of people, almost all of whom were not even professionals. The whole project "Violins of Hope" allows you to look at the Holocaust at unexpected angles.

The choice of characters in the book, probably, was not accidental. The author would like to give the widest range of victims of the Holocaust, and it worked. Grymes, of course, could not ignore the largest concentration camps with their orcestras, which are known to the public now, and at the same time, Auschwitz and Birkenau are given only one chapter. This is surprising, of course.
Grymes made a large geographic sample, this is another advantage of the book. Here are an almost unknown refugee camp in Mauritius, and the atrocities of the Romanians, and Ukrainian partisans, and Nazism in Norway. As they say, all the facets of fascism.

Grymes easily controls the general historical information. The book is rich in a variety of facts. In Germany during the war there were chemical plants, which produced condoms for the army, and they were called "Sanitary Articles." In Palestine, the Arab uprisings put pressure on the British government as to limit visas for Jews. Those Arabs even blew a ship with refugees, fortunately, the number of deaths was minimal. By the end of the war the heads of the concentration camps almost lost their minds and asked to play the "Internationale."

In addition to these small facts, Grymes is generous with the historical background. Each story is accompanied by a briskly written historical information about the country, a concentration camp atrocities of the Nazis and their allies - so the book becomes a treasure trove of information. In a concise and accessible way, we obtain all the necessary information, which helps to better understand the history of a hero.

The book became a pleasant surprise. Subtle, clear, on the point - and touching, of course.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sibilant Fricative





Adam Roberts
Sibilant Fricative

NewCon Books, 2014

[The first draft if this review was titled Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia]

Not only books should entertain, but also book reviews. If the criticism is boring and dull, there is not much sense in reading it, even if it reveals any hidden meanings of reviewed work or points to the book’s strengths. Boring criticism can always be replaced with not so boring prose.

Brit Adam Roberts at first glance (in the literal sense - look at the cover) is far from what might be called an entertainer. Roberts has an academic background, he teaches at the university, and also writes science fiction. Overall, not a clown or a stand-up comedian. But Roberts-critic and Roberts-reviewer (perhaps it is this side of Roberts is responsible for this book) both entertain the reader with reviews populating this collection.

The collection could well use the title Punkadiddle, so was called now closed blog, where the reviewer over four years posted his reviews on books and movies. Best from this blog, as well as reviews from online venues, and became part of Sibilant Fricative, a collection which has taken the title of another, new, Roberts’ blog.

For me, who has been following Roberts’s publications on the Internet, Sibilant Fricative became an occasion to re-read and recall the most memorable reviews (it’s a pity that the book, as opposed to the internet, is limited in size, and the collection did not include much of the rest). Since the book was published by a genre publisher collected, reviews on books and movies have also been limited to one genre (in fact, the book is divided into two parts, «Science Fiction» and «Fantasy»). Limited print run (while the digital version is available) is unlikely to help the promotion of book and, most importantly, the author's name to the masses.

And that’ll be loss for the readers. Roberts is definitely among the top five British reviewers, stuck somewhere between the genres. He can read the dullest fantasy, and can casually review Booker short list in its entirety. He is always looking for something new in the literature, but not disgusted by musty space opera. Roberts is a heir to John Clute and a colleague of Paul Kincaid, but will compete with Adam Mars-Jones, with whom they shared Guardian pages, Roberts has not yet made it to London Books Review.

Speaking of newspapers. Roberts almost has not been published in the newspapers, only in his blog (blogs) and SF online venues. Was he rejected or just doesn’t want it himself? Rather, the latter. Newspaper frankly will be too tight for Roberts. It's not just the space. The book contains either very tiny reviews and detailed reviews in several parts. The critic will be constrained by the form but not the space. What other reviewer in his sane mind will review all parts of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, or will write a twitter review, or even choose to review not in the prosaic form, but poetic? Such liberties Guardian, or Locus (for example) would not stand.

Sometimes experiments with form have negative consequences. For example, from a review of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi written in the mocking form of a poem by Robert Browning you hardly will have an impression of the novel, just will applaud to Roberts’ creative abilities. And sometimes these experiments seem pampering and splurge: I can do this and that. And I can write a review with a glossary. Which, of course, does not negate the author’s talent.

If Roberts wrote only entertaining, he would have remained at the same level with a million Amazon reviewers. Roberts is well-read and educated. He can place any book in literary context, not just say is it good or bad, Roberts-academic gets in his reviews in the form of an abundance of quotations and references. Roberts is capable of almost chapter-by-chapter analysis of an unpublished Tolkien, with his heavy vocabulary, as well as lightweight or moronic thriller\space opera. Roberts can pick in a book, can dissect a book - and this is a quality that I value very high in the criticism.

Having written all this, I must now answer two questions. First, and whether you want to buy this book, given that the paper edition is not cheap (but digital one is)? My answer is positive. On paper these reviews are read more carefully than on the net, and has another advantage: while reading the rest of the Internet is not distracting you. In addition, the blog where reviews were posted from the collection, is now closed (and not everyone, as I have, at one time has saved the posts from the blog to his HDD).

The second question is what statement actually gives this book? Those who wanted, has long ago discovered, read and appreciated Roberts’ writing. And now still can read him on the Internet.

Sibilant Fricative release secured Adam Roberts’ status of an important British critic (ie, just critic, not just the genre critic) - that is the importance of this book. Prior to the release of the collection Roberts was one of, but not much more. Now, with the book of reviews under his belt, the world officially has to acknowledge Roberts-reviewer, as previously acknowledged Roberts-writer and Roberts-academic. Not every reviewer has published the collection of reviews. Even Adam Mars-Jones has not.

Given all this, you do have just not one reason to avoid reading this important and necessary book.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot





David Shafer
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Mulholland Books, 2014

Three main characters of this novel have different ways of life and live at different places on the planet. With the development of the plot their destinies intertwine in unexpected ways, and it is worth noting that two of the three heroes already know each other.

Of these three characters is only one woman, young, exotic Asian working in a non-profit organization based in the United States Leila Majnoun. Leila arrives with humanitarian aid to Myanmar. Her mission is to scout out the situation, find out what help the state needs to provide the best. Regardless of gender, Leila is a brave, courageus woman, with the ability to overcome difficulties. And difficulties Leila has plenty. Her cargo was taken to the military customs. A local general who handles things avoids her. She has almost no allies in the country. In case of emergency no one will come to rescue her. The only help she has is a local taxi driver, but he is powerless against the army. In an attempt to find this general Leila and the taxi driver pulls into a kind of base near the jungle where Leila accidentally sees two mercenaries who speak English guarding something important and secret, otherwise no one would hire the elite troops for protection.

Two other characters of the novel, Mark Deveraux and Leo Crane, once were friends in college, but they parted ways after graduation. Mark settled in Brooklyn, thanks to the success of his debut book in the self help genre, which has sold a huge number of copies. Now Mark is writing his second book, and becomes something of a personal guru/mentor for the boss of a large corporation SineCo James Straw. The big boss was impressed with Mark’s book and as Mark has signed a contract with a subsidiary company of SineCo, that in fact Mark is already working on Straw.

Lifepath of Leo Crain is significantly different from Mark’s. Leo is a failure, with the possible psychological and mental health problems. The son of wealthy parents, he and his several sisters received an inheritance in the form of a company for the production of games and now live on that. Leo abundantly uses drugs, drinks in the morning, is not stable, does not stay long on one job.
David Shafer is a talented writer. He's a great stylist, he has the experience, the characters in his book are full-blooded people. And this talented writer has written not entirely successful novel. «Whiskey Tango Foxtrot» as a thriller is mediocre enough to forget its plot in a few weeks, as a drama, or High Literature, the novel is too uneven and subordinated to a thriller story, as near future SF , it is not cooked enough and with a bend in the theory.

The first half of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is wonderful. I especially liked how Shafer lets us wonder in the mist and is not in a hurry to open the cards. Under the cards I have in mind the theory of a larger conspiracy: the three central characters as if just live their lives, overcome their difficulties, each struggling with his or her loneliness. In the first third of the book there is no hint to science fiction at all, it's good-quality prose about young professionals. It would be better novel if it remained in this vein - a bitter statement on the harsh reality.

And the characters in fact are all close to the heart, the new American generation, no longer kidults, not yet formed adults, spitting on ideals. The most prominent is Leila, fragile Asian-American, rotating in the men's militarized society, but not even thinking that at any time she can be raped (such an idea only once visited the heroine). Mark of the trio of characters is least sympathetic to us, because of this he’ll get the main mission - to rehabilitate himself in front of friends, himself and humanity in general.

Once Shafer introduces his theory of digital conspiracy plot as the slender design of the novel begins to sag. The idea of a storage server for all the information about the people living on the planet is not new. Only in the last year I have read a few works with a similar idea. And every time the world conspiracy theory with an emphasis on the accumulation of digital information has no valid arguments. This idea usually is built on the arguments usually vague. How really ownership of all the digital information about people can lead to total control over the people? Shafer builds some shaky structure of the future, with no real backups. And since evil can not impress and scare enough, then the threat to peace seems phantom. All the arguments in this case are reduced to the commonplace "to spy on people is bad." This we already know.

Unable to build a potent image of the enemy, Shafer throws his heroes to fight against windmills. Both secret community are so smooth, they do not have any form at all. The mission of the trinity against mythical evil is also doubtful. As in the worst examples of literature of adventure, the world from destruction is necessarily saved by the amateurs. Secret organization entirely relies on the wild girl, alcoholic and plagiarist - apparently the situation inside the organization was quite bad, if it would need to use help of unbalanced people.

The second half of the novel is quite a burden to read. The first one slowly build a story, and that was a plus to the novel. We did in fact read a mainstream novel. The second part is already full thriller, shamelessly overlong, sweetened with melodrama between Leo and Leila, predictable and linear. Shafer writes in the second half still brilliantly, but the story buries stylistic clarity under itself.

Talented author Shafer stumbled with this debut. He writes charmingly, but the plot of this book is very much shaky like tango after whiskey. Or foxtrot after whiskey. There is probably no difference.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Saving Houdini





Michael Redhill
Saving Houdini

Harper Collins Canada, 2014

12-year-old Canadian Dashiel (Dash) Woolf with his parents goes to a special magical performance by Bloom the Beguiler, a special show to mark the 85th anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini. Terrified Dash is suddenly chosen by the magician to take part in the trick with the disappearance, and the boy can not refuse.

Dash gets into a special steel circle around him, the trick begins - and Dash is suddenly transported through time. The boy finds himself in the same circus hall, only with empty tribunes and the owner of the club which does not understand where the damn boy appeared from.

Dash examines the streets of Toronto, everything to him seems wonderful, yet he does not recognize his own city. In turn, Dash’s clothing and hairstyle seem strange to others. The saleswoman feeds him for free (nobody accept Dash’s new coins), barber offers him a free cut. Dash agrees to get rid of the eye-catching hairdo. There, in the barber shop, Dash accidentally meets with a boy of his age, Walter Gibson. Walter first bullies Dash, then tries to get rid of him. Dash comes to Walter’s house, pretending to be a friend of Walt and does not refuse to have breakfast with the family. Dash tells Walter that he has come from the future to 1926, and although Walter does not believe him at first, the seed of doubt settles somewhere in his head.

YA novels and SF about time travel is not something that mutually exclusive, more like the secret enemies. This subgenre of science fiction is pretty battered so that it is hard to come up with something original. YA books often require clarity and simplicity, and mix it with the time travel SF, and we will get only completely banality - simplicity, multiplied by the obviousness.
Author of historical novels Redhill is not trying to reinvent the wheel, or rather a time machine, just follow the rules and formulas. Result is if not spectacular, but well above the average. Saving Houdini uses SF as a genre as a plot device. Redhill needs to place his teenage hero to the past, familiar to Redhill surroundings, and at the same time to create a conflict. Thus with the the disappearance trick Redhill kills two birds with one stone. Canada of the Twenties gives the author a chance to write what he knows, and moving into the past becomes an occasion for protagonist to travel around.

Redhill does not abuse his knowledge of history. In the novel, the amount of so-called infodumping is kept to a minimum. The author focuses on the mission of the protagonist, not on the small historical references. There are enough of light touches, so Toronto appeares before our eyes as real.

At the beginning of the novel, when Dash only surfaces in the past, Redhill plays on the dichotomy of past and present. Clothing, hair, money, speech of Dash differ from these same things in the past. Redhill is seeking, for example, the comic element, when Dash uses youth or internet slang to talk with Walter, who, not understanding simple things, asks explanation. Or in the second half of the book Dash gives advise to Walter to collect comic books or cards with baseball players, then to make a fortune on them.

This method has a limited effect, and Redhill, knowing that you should not rely solely on verbal humor, almost gives it up in the second half of the novel. But even without slang you can find lots of interesting things there. Wild trip by train, the pursuit from police and social services, assistance in setting tricks, rich dialogues with Houdini - with all the ease of writing and predictable plot the book will top dozens of thrillers for adults.

Houdini's image in the novel deserves a separate discussion. The famous magician in the book is a good man, trusting, thoughtful, brave, easy with children. This is a bit naive portrait, of course, but Houdini seems sympathetic to the reader. He is such a superhero of an old era, when there was no Superman or Captain America.

The novel is highly recommended not only for children but also for adults.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sweetness #9





Stephan Eirik Clark
Sweetness #9

Little, Brown, 2014

Summer 1973. Rutgers graduate David Leveraux gets a job in a lab of a large chemical giant. This is actually a dream job for David. In a group of researchers, he will be engaged in testing food sweeteners, which is the corporation’s specialty. The protagonist works as a Flavorist-in-Training testing sweeteners on rats. Every day he has to watch the group of experimental rats, add a special sweetener to their food and drink, record the results of the behavior of rats.

In the laboratory David’s colleague becomes an Englishman by birth, Charles Hithenbottom, not too friendly, single, childless and divorced. With David, they almost do not communicate. Hithenbottom works in a nearby lab with similar experiments on chimpanzees.

Time goes, and David begins to notice changes in rats under the influence of sweetener "Sweetness #9». Rats are starting to put on weight, they become lethargic, they reduce activity, lose the will to live, one of the rats trying to commit suicide. David is trying to attract the attention of colleagues to these rats, however, Hithenbottom ignores the young colleague. The boss advises not to bother him. For the compamy it is only important that the sweetener won’t cause cancer. David is trying to raise hell, the security throws hom off the territory of the laboratory. David is fired.

Despite the "sweet" title, the novel is not mawkishly sentimental at all, on the contrary – one that leaving a bitter aftertaste. Stephan Eirik Clark condemnes American (and partly international) society, but leaves an open verdict. Where is the cause of dissatisfaction with life, in us or outside of us, in external sources? Do the food additives control us, making us dependent and unhappy, or whether these additives only affect the taste of the food, but not anything else? Clark sows a seed of doubt in the minds of readers. What do we really know about our bodies and the process of thinking, when we can not even deal with relatively simple nutritional supplements.

Fine social satire are skillfully adapted to the family saga during one generation. Leveraux family is a little less typical than typical American family, but all the diseases are visible. Each family member has a disease in the literal and figurative sense, but as a social unit the Leveraux is too far from healthy existence, having a common ailment. Head of the family is suffering bad conscience, daughter worries about her sexual orientation, the youngest son almost closed in himself, wife is worried because of the excess weight and coldness of her husband. As a team, the family does not seem to have degrading ailments, but the general dissatisfaction with life does not live them in peace.

Family chronicle peacefully coexists with the views on science, and the plot is driven by anti-utopian elements (not that superfluous here, rather unexpected for the overall tone of the novel) and the thriller elements related to trade secrets. The book seems really to contain an addictive sweetener. You won’t take a break from Sweetness #9, though, that the book is hardly a page-turner.

Clark pays closest attention to detail, has broad outlook, the utmost certainty in many areas, from online shopping to work of filling station. Miraculously, the author weaves in a fairly realistic story a half-myth/half-fairytale about the Hitler’s chef.

Sweetness #9 is a clever and charming book, extensive and relevant. The novel grabs you also by the fact that actually does not open all the cards. What in the book is actually the truth about supplements and what was invented? Whether or not Hitler had a special chef? Hell knows. And it does not matter when the book is so good.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Butcher




Jennifer Hillier
The Butcher

Gallery, 2014

In 1985, in Seattle a serial killer hunted young, single girls. Chief of police Edward Shank accompanied by other armed police officers during raiding the house where the suspect lived killed this suspect, known pervert Rufus Wedge. The dead suspect by circumstantial evidence is recognized as the maniac nicknamed the Butcher and all 17 kills were blamed on him. Case was closed immediately because of the death of the suspect, Shank received the glory, the Butcher became the thing of the past.

The action moves to present times. Now Edward is already 80, he is a widower, not able to care for his Victorian house, and prepares to move into a retiring home. The house is passed on to Shank’s grandson Matt, a successful chef who became famous because of his Filipino recipes acquired from his grandmother. Matt has already moved into the house of his grandfather, and Matt’s girlfriend, Samantha, expects that she will move in with him. But Matt is going to focus on his business and does not want to be distracted by love affairs, offering to leave the relationship with Sam as they were. Jason, a friend of Samantha and Matt, does not understand such behavior of his friend, but Matt still stands on his own.

The action switches between all the characters of the book, one by one. All cards are laid on the table at the very beginning of the novel: the real Butcher wasn’t Wedge, but the chief of police Shank. From the flashbacks we learn how he chose the lonely girls, took them into the woods or to his home, raped them, cut off their left hands and a strand of hair. Shank also killed his wife by staging her death as an accident.

Only lazy are not writing books about serial killers, and usually the result is absolutely unreadable. The area, which was chosen by Hillier for her novel, is famous for its serial killers. Be that as it may, the author apparently was too lazy to learn all the features of maniacs and their captures. If The Butcher would have been written as a parody, it could have been readable, but Hillier remains serious throughout the book, and the novel itself moves down to the level of parody – it just is not funny.

Hillier made such a mess of the fact and fiction, that the novel can be disassembled chapter by chapter for factual and logical mistakes. Blame the negligence and carelessness of the author, too lazy to somehow link the story of the book with reality. I will say nothing about coincidences and annoying love angle.

Since the cards are open from the beginning of the novel, the criminals and their deeds are known, all that remains for the author is the plot device, its surprises and twists. And plot is not Hillier’s best side, even on the contrary - the book is predictable from exactly the moment when Hillier discloses the identity of the main characters. Every move is predictable on five steps ahead. Add to this the fact that of the three main characters in the book two are killers, then you can only sympathize with the female characters.

Predictable thriller is the worst punishment for the reader. This thriller breeds boredom. Hillier is trying to disperse boredom with gory details. Grandson finds grandfather's "trophies", and it is strange that the maniac would leave his treasures in the house, where he no longer lives. And if it comes to that, Shank left home at odd circumstances: he began to kill again, and to do so it would be easier at home.

In the parody, the bad one, the novel transforms with individual scenes. The bear appears from nowhere in the woods and scares the serial killer right at the time when the maniac prepares to kill the victim. 80-years-old Shank with erection in his pants hunts young victims. With special lust thr author describes sex between 80-year-old persons, and the maniac, of course, uses a condom. Stranger from the forum suddenly interrupts her story and leaves without naming the killer. The book will make you laugh out loud, though, it will be awkward laughter, as if laughing at a disabled person.

Even worse than plotting are Hillier’s descriptive abilities. Women in the book are perceived and described as sex objects, no matter from which point of view are written chapters, Sam’s or Shank’s. Love triangle is handled extremely rough and constantly distracts from the main action.

Dialogues are those as if taken out of the teenage horror movie. Shank in 1985 mentions DNA, although DNA was still known only to scientists in laboratories. Anyway, the police chief in the role of a serial killer is not even a bad taste, it’s elementary laziness and stupidity.

That’s an ugly book.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Goodbye, Columbus





Philip Roth
Goodbye, Columbus

Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959

If Philip Roth had been born half a century later, he easily could have become a singer of revolt and play in punk\hardcore bands. The action of the title novella of this collection takes place in a cozy suburb, in a lovely suburbia, where, as you know, gathered all the hated by the young rebel.

The hero of the novel at first glance is not a rebel. He is a Jewish young man who graduated from college, working in a library, living in the home of his aunt and uncle, himself almost hovering in the void of suburbs (the entire state of New Jersey, probably, can be considered a suburb of New York). The protagonist, Neil Klugerman, meets a nice girl from a wealthy, middle class family. Klugerman methodically courtes her until she does not give in to his courtship. This is followed by sex on the couch, meeting with the parents and brother of the girl, a visit to the girl’s father's firm.

The parents of this girl, Brenda, not so long ago escaped from the relatively poor suburb and moved to the relatively rich one. The Potimkins own company selling kitchen and bathroom sinks. Head of the family is doing business alone, but realizes that he will soon need an assistant. Son-in-law will suit fine.

And then the narrator’s protective reflex kicks. Gradually, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, the young hero imagines his future, if he marries Brenda Potimkin. The full life in the suburbs, cute, dying of boredom wife, hurrying loaders at the store room of his father-in-law firm, reliability throughout. Klugerman is a gentle man, well brought up, suave. He is sick of Potimkins and their nobility as well as of his own lack of confidence in his future. What's wrong with the solidity? What's wrong with the sweet Brenda? It is one step only, and you will cease to understand how you are different from Potimkins.

The narrator is a hidden rebel, and his hatred of suburbia is not openly manifested (do not forget that Neil is very polite), but latent remarks.

«Beside the freezer, incongruosly, was a tall old refrigerator; its ancient presence was a reminder to me of the Patimkin roots in Newark. This same refrigerator had once stood in the kitchen of an apartment in some four-family house, probably in the same neighborhood where I had lived all my life, first with my parents and then, when the two of them went wheezing off to Arizona, with my aunt and uncle. After Pearl Harbor the refrigerator had made the move up to Short Hills; Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks had gone to war: no new barracks was complete until it had a squad of Patimkin sinks lined up in its latrine.»

«Mrs. Patimkin continued to smile at me and Mr. Patimkin continued to think I ate like a bird. When invited to dinner I would, for his benefit, eat twice what I wanted, but the truth seemed to be that after he'd characterized my appetite that first time, he never really bothered to look again. I might have eaten ten times my normal amount, have finally killed myself with food, he would still have considered me not a man but a sparrow.»

«Ron left Mr. Patimkin's side and went back to directing the men. He thrashed his arms about a good deal, and though on the whole he seemed rather confused, he did not appear to be at all concerned about anybody dropping a sink. Suddenly I could see myself directing the Negroes-I would have an ulcer in an hour. I could almost hear the enamel surfaces shattering on the floor. And I could hear myself: "Watch it, you guys. Be careful, will you? Whoops! Oh, please be-watch itl Watch! Oh!" Suppose Mr. Patimkin should come up to me and say, "Okay, boy, you want to marry my daughter, let's see what you can do." Well, he would see: in a moment that floor would be a shattered mosaic, a crunchy path of enamel. "Klugman, what kind of worker are you? You work like you eat!" '"That's right that's right, I'm a sparrow, let me go." "Do not you even know how to load and unload?" "Mr Patimkin, even breathing gives me trouble, sleep tires me out, let me go, let me go ..."»


Another kind of protest Klugerman shows at work. In the library, where the narrator works, a black boy starts to come regularly, browsing through the contents of the same book every time - a collection of reproductions of Gauguin. Klugerman does everything so the boy could read this book in peace without worrying about how other librarians could chase him out or that the book will be taken home by some reader. This quiet fight against racism is worth more than a dozen protests.

Five stories in the collection are built around a Jewish theme, which gives reason to put a serious moral questions and even have a glimpse into the territory of the absurd.

Already with his debut at the 26, Philip Roth made people talk about him, and so far no one has thrown him off the pedestal.