Head On by John Scalzi

Writing: 5 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 4.5

Classic Scalzi — a cool, well-explored, futuristic world with non-stop and non-predictable action and funny banter. This is the second book in his “Lock In” series. It can be read on its own, but “Lock In” was great, too, so why not read it first?

Both books are mysteries in a sci-fi setting. In this world, 1% of the global population has Haden’s syndrome — a condition where the person is “locked in” to his/her own body. A number of technologies have been developed to support this population — implantable neural networks that link their brains directly to the outside world to humanoid personal transport units (called “threeps” after C-3PO) and an online universe called “The Agora.”

In this installment, FBI Agents Chris Shane (himself a Haden) and Leslie Vann (a female version of the crotchety senior detective persona) tackle a difficult case: the physical death of a Hilketa player during a game in which the play is all via threeps and should be no danger whatsoever to the human player. Hilketa is a (very weird to me) game played by decapitating a targeted player and carrying his / her head across the goal line.

I’m happy to say that Scalzi is back in top form. This is only the second book published after he signed a huge multi-million dollar, multi-year, multi-book deal with Tor. The first book published after the contract was Collapsing Empire — the only Scalzi book I have ever disliked (and I’ve read them all) — so I’m quite relieved that he is back on track.

Great writing and pacing, plenty of plot twists, and generally difficult to put down. I started in the morning and finished as I went to bed (only put it down briefly when I was grudgingly dragged outside to help shovel dirt into the new tomato planter). This is accessible to all readers — similar to Andy Weir’s books (The Martian; Artemis) but funnier, more inventive, and offers more exploration of the cultural and political impact of the technologies in addition to the scientific-technical angles.

Small Country by Gaël Faye

Thank you to Crown Publishing Hogarth and NetGalley for an early review copy of Small Country by Gaël Faye, which will publish June 5, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A powerful coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s. Gabriel (Gaby) is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother living in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. He is 10 years old when the country — filled with hope and expectation — holds its first multi-party election in 1993. This is a personal and humanistic version of the ensuing events in both Burundi and nearby Rwanda. Told from a the perspective of a child, it blends observations of surroundings, tensions, and shifts in the interactions between people who used to simply be “part of the neighborhood.”

Told through the memories of an adult Gaby who is visiting Burundi after living in France for 15 years, the novel is imbued with nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and the beauty of the home he remembers, while simultaneously mournful at the irreparable damage done. Beautiful descriptions of the landscape, childhood diversions, and familial relationships. The story is necessarily sad, but not depressing or hopeless.

I hadn’t heard of the author before, but apparently he is a well-known French rapper and hip hop star. Originally published as Petit Pays in France in 2016, the book is the winner of five French literary prizes. You may enjoy listening to his song of the same name – I found it absolutely beautiful:

 

 

The Lost For Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland, which will publish June 19, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 5+

Welcome to the spiky interior world of Loveday Cardew. By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

Loveday has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” Not bad!

She works for Archie — the rich, eccentric, and larger than life (in more ways than one) bookstore owner who feels that “good relationships are more important than being able to see your feet.” Through the accidental recovery of a Liverpool Poet book, she meets Nathan — a cravat wearing poet who daylights as a magician. Nathan teaches her that you can “write a different story for yourself” — both in terms of the future and the impact you allow from the past.

The book is simultaneously a tender love story, a positive recovery tale, and a foray into the literary world. There is no catalog of horrors, but we do follow the trajectory of a woman who is establishing her own life in the wake of a tragic childhood event. I appreciate that this event is not painted in black and white — there is a realistic complexity to understanding how things happened the way they did and what she can do to become a fully realized human being. Here is a hint — performance poetry has an unexpected role to play!

A great comic style. As an example, when admitting that used book stores have to pulp the extras, Loveday says: “Five million copies of The Da Vinci Code were published in 2003. How many of them does the world still need fifteen years later? A lot less than five million.” (FYI, personally, I might suggest “a lot less than five” — not a huge fan).

Some of my favorite lines:

“She seemed the type who went through her days tutting like a pneumatic disapproval machine.”

“Nathan came over and the nearer he got the more I wanted to run, and cry, and touch him, and blurt, and hide, and kiss him and generally behave as though Barbara Cartland had just sneezed me out.” Love the comic ending on a sentence that was hurling into heavy-duty romance territory!

“It felt as though his words, rather than heading out into the air, were falling off the edge of his lower lip, drooping into my hair, and sliding down the side of my head and into my ear.”

Top recommendation!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bardo – (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

I can’t use my standard Writing / Plot / Characters rating scheme as this novel simply doesn’t fit within those parameters!

The death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, on April 20th, 1862, is the precipitating event around which the novel unfolds. The unique storytelling style combines quotes from historical sources (often in conflict with each other) with descriptions of and conversations between the ghosts who inhabit the “Bardo” of the title. This Bardo is manifest within the graveyard into which Willie Lincoln’s body has been interred.

Willie’s death occurs at a critical juncture within Lincoln’s presidency. The civil war has begun and has already incurred a great loss of life. The interplay between the real world and the confusing swirl of ghostly presences finds a center in Lincoln himself as he grieves for his boy in the cemetery and tries to find the resolve to continue his approach to the war. The ghosts vary in age, gender, race, and life time period. Each has been distilled to an essence with a unique presentation and obsession. These are riveting reductions — reminiscent of Hemingway’s famous six word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

A fascinating view of history and a strangely compelling style — I enjoyed this far more than I expected. It really is the masterpiece everyone says it is (which is hard for me to admit as I don’t like agreeing with “everyone”!).

Little Big Love by Katy Regan

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Little Big Love by Katy Regan, which will publish June 12, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4.5

A big story — simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming — about a family that fell apart after a tragedy that occurred ten years in the past and the young boy who now desperately wants to know his missing father. Part coming-of-age for 10-year old Zac and part coming-to-terms-with-the-past for Juliet (his mother) and Mick (his grandfather), the story alternates between their three voices.

Zac is a wonderful kid – sweet, funny, and with a great capacity for love. He is also overweight and subject to a lot of bullying. He traipses around the Harlequin Estates in Grimsby (Southeast of York) working on his Find Dad Mission with his best friend Teagan. I absolutely fell in love with Zac and with several of the other characters as well. Oddly enough, I had the least sympathy for Juliet, though this possibly says more about my “take charge” personality than it does about her :-))

Well-written (though it could be shortened by perhaps 50 pages in the middle which drags a bit), the novel deals with issues of alcoholism, body shaming, childhood obesity and single parenting. I like the fact that each character recognizes and seeks to address their issues not because of external pressure, but because they recognize that both they and the people they love will be much happier if they do.

I had not heard of Katy Regan before but she appears to be a well-known novelist and journalist in the UK. This is her American debut, and it is quite captivating. I’ll keep her on my “look for more” list.

 

The Little French Bistro by Nina George

Writing: 4 Characters: 5 Plot: 4.5

A sensuous novel in the literal sense of the word. 60-year old Marianne is leading a drab, grey, existence when she slips away from the tour group in Paris (and her cold, unfeeling, husband of 41 years) with the intention of sliding into the Seine and letting it all go. Instead, her world appears to burst into color as she follows a pull towards a very different life in the small seaside village of Kerdruc in Brittany.

The book hovers on the line between literary fiction and romance: the language, character and relationship development, and the depth of details are literary; the tales of love at first sight, unrequited love lasting for decades, and makeovers that transform women into goddesses are pure romance. To be fair, the literary does outweigh the romance and I love the fact that those falling in love, rediscovering love, and staying in love for decades are of all ages.

The luscious prose delights in describing the natural world — the vistas, the sounds, the smells. The tone of the book is one of wonder — communing with nature through the senses and resonating with the beauty in the world. A magic thread keeps pulling her forward to the place that feels like home as soon as she arrives — a painted tile, a scrawny cat in the rain, a group of nuns. An added surprise — threads of Breton folklore permeate the story. Did you know the original settlers in Brittany were Celts? I did not.

This is a book of magical coincidences and love in all of its myriad forms. On the whole, I enjoyed reading it — I fell in love with the characters and it was difficult to put down — but don’t expect anything practical or even plausible. It’s just a lovely exploration of the way we wish the world could be.

 

Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell

Writing: 5; Importance: 4; Pleasure Factor: 5

Funny, personal, and important – all in one sparkling package!

There’s been a recent spate of celebrity memoirs written by female comedians. I’ve read (or tried to read) them all:  Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Anna Ferris’ Unqualified, Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?, etc.  This one is much, much, better — no doubt due to the fact that Nell Scovell is a comedy writer rather than a comedy performer and therefore can really write!

This memoir is part sitcom, part Hollywood wannabe training material, and part exposé on the difficulties of women getting fair treatment (or any treatment at all, really) in the industry. The very first line is her own paraphrase of Nietzsche: “That which doesn’t kill me … allows me to regroup and retaliate” — a great and apt opening!

I love Nell’s writing – it’s well structured and quite personal but never strident nor overly dramatic. Some great quotes, intriguing character profiles, factual depictions of the diversity (or utter lack thereof) in writer rooms, and a real sense of the frustrations in the field. The book is littered with fabulous (and funny) story ideas that went nowhere for no reason.  Her summarized job timeline in the appendix is full of “shot but unaired”, “unshot”, and “unsold” labels, with what feels like a tiny sprinkling of successes.  Such futility!  Any dreams I had of working in Hollywood (luckily I had none) have been thoroughly quashed by reading through this descriptive tour of a Hollywood writing career. At the same time, Nell’s love and passion for the work is obvious, and it is clear she wouldn’t choose to be doing anything else.

Perhaps you know her from Sabrina the Teenage Witch or perhaps from her co-authorship of Lean In with Sheryl Sandberg.  Even if you’ve never heard of her at all, you’ll enjoy this well-documented peregrination through her life as a writer of comedy. FYI I tend to find non-fiction a slog, rarely making it past the 1/3 mark, but I gobbled this book up in two days.