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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Way Inn by Will Wiles

In his first novel, CARE OF WOODEN FLOORS, Will Wiles did something I'd previously thought impossible; he made me care deeply about the removal of a wine stain from the floor of a meticulously modern apartment. From this simple accident Wiles spun a masterful, complex contemplation of order and chaos, of favors gone awry and friendship strained by human frailty. It was a tale told with equal parts humor and horror and, remarkably, it kept me turning pages well into the night.

Thus it was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I approached Wiles' sophomore effort, THE WAY INN. Would this novel measure up to the oddly high bar set by its quirky predecessor? The answer became obvious in the first few pages. I was checked into THE WAY INN every bit as securely as Wiles' less-than-noble protagonist, Neil Double. I didn't have to like Mr. Double, I only had to believe I was seeing the world through his eyes and this I did with ease. Through Double I found myself contemplating the mundane, the relentlessly packaged, processed, economically engineered, corporate approximation of refuge, the modern chain hotel.

One of Wiles talents as a storyteller is his ability to amplify the contrast levels in his tale to extreme levels while still retaining the reader's belief. We smile at the absurdity, but we buy into it. Neil Double is not just a bland business traveler, he's a PROFESSIONALLY bland business traveler. He's a conference surrogate, he goes to business conferences so other businessmen don't have to. And the conference he's attending in this tale? It's the conference of conference organizers. The conference, of course, is being held at the MetaCentre.

In lesser hands this tale of the bland and boring could certainly be bland and boring, but Wiles has an eye for the odd and a strong sense of the absurd. Neil Double is soon a victim of misadventure and chance encounter. A mysterious red-haired woman has pointed out something odd about the abstract paintings that populate the rooms and hallways of THE WAY INN and by the time the mysterious and sinister hotel executive Mr. Hilbert appears, Mr. Double is deep into a thriller that could give Alfred Hitchcock a severe case of vertigo. And if Rod Serling turned out to be the night manager of THE WAY INN, I would not be the slightest bit surprised.

But THE WAY INN is surprising, odder than you can imagine unless your name is Ray Bradbury, Neal Gaiman or Will Wiles. THE WAY INN is a masterful metaphor for an age where corporations are people and people are cogs in machines we too often ignore. But THE WAY INN is more than metaphor, it's a fun story. Neil Double has a problem, it's easy to check into THE WAY INN. Checking out is something of a nightmare.

But don't let that deter you. I checked out 343 pages of THE WAY INN and I'm not quite sure I've left it yet. But it is time very well spent. I'm weary, wiser, and more than willing to buy whatever the next tale is that Mr. Wiles will choose to tell.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange is set in a world of words. It's a world eerily similar to ours, the geography is recognizable, the people seem real, but where we have iPhones and Kindles the characturers in Alena Graedon's thoughtful and thrilling novel have a device called the Meme. The Meme is insidiously useful. It not only holds your books, your movies, your life, it calls you a cab when you need one. It orders you a sandwich before you know you're hungry. It looks up words you don't know, it remembers what you don't need to recall. The Meme has changed the world. And now it's changing the words that make up the world. Words and their meanings are now bought and sold on The Word Exchange.

Douglas Johnson is the editor working on the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). On the eve of the publication of what will be the last print version of his life's work, Doug disappears. His daughter Anana, who had been working on the NADEL with her father, together with her bookish colleague Bart work to unravel the mystery of Doug's disappearance while all around them the world descends into a madness known as the Word Flu. People, including Anana and Bart are rapidly losing the ability to communicate.

The Word Exchange is the best kind of cautionary fable. It is not a hard science projection of future doom, it is instead a poetic recasting of our own age in a poetically warped looking glass. This is a book that values books on paper, people who think and people who preserve that which is old, not out of nostalgia, but because they know what is truly valuable.

For all it's fine ideas, The Word Exchange is first and foremost a good story. Anana's a plucky heroine and Bart is the kind of guy you hope she'll fall for. The mystery is mysterious and the setting is wonderful, populated with menacing folks of uncertain motives, escapes through hidden tunnels. strange messages sent through an ancient, secret pneumatic tube systems and late night meetings in old libraries. The Word Exchange is a thriller for folks thrilled by and informed by words.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rereading Ray Bradbury

How do these things start? I cannot say, for cannot recall important things such as the day I was born or the day I first read a story by Ray Bradbury. Ray claimed he could, recall the day of his birth that is, and who am I to doubt the man, the man whose taught me much about remembering and imagining. Did he remember Mars or Greentown or invent them? Does it matter now?

Somewhere back in time and Minnesota a younger me met Martians and a man named Montag who burned books and sparked in me something that still smolders and now and then burns bright, fanned to flame by what exactly? Memory, imagination, a book on the shelf glanced then grabbed. Here’s a comfy chair, no... a rocket ship and the dust of the years falls away, water flows in the old canals and I am once again young with wonder.

How do these things start? It doesn’t matter, they keep going. They scuttle like robot mice in robot towns, they echo from the past, in warning and wonder, and the man who wanted to live forever does, he really does, in these books and these electrons in these infernal machines he loved and warned us about.

Do I have favorites? Of course I have favorites, but favor is fickle. The streets of Greentown, glowing in sunlight seen through a strawberry window, a good place to come from, to spend a boyhood or a summer but not forever. No, not forever.

Perhaps to the past, via some fantastic machine, bending time to hunt the dinosaurs, to make them live again, to hear their terrible roars, to fear their terrible claws, to watch in wide-eyed wonder.

Or maybe build machines, robots to make us toast, to sweep our rugs, to tell us stories, to be our grandmothers, to remember and imagine...

Mars. Mars is heaven and hell and Usher and the new frontier. It’s where we’ll wait out the war, make new mistakes and old ones. We’ll not see the Martians until it’s too late or perhaps they’ll do the same. Dark they were, and golden-eyed. Give us time under a sky with two moons, time to learn to read the old singing books, to learn to live in crystal cities beside canals that are not dead but flowing...

I read the old books and my eyes begin to fleck with bits of gold.

The old pages smell of mummies, dandelions, rocket ships and dinosaurs.

It’s the first day of summer or maybe it’s October and a dark carnival has just rolled into town. Or maybe it’s Hollywood in the fifties and a mystery is afoot. This is Mars and Greentown and a million other places, real and imagined.

Live forever, Ray advised. There’s a crater on Mars called Bradbury now. There are millions of Bradburys on millions of shelves now, dinosaurs, Martians and mechanical hounds let loose to roam wild. They’ll not be stopped.

Book paper burns at Fahrenheit 451. But the stories and ideas don’t die. They’ll live forever.

Just like Ray Bradbury.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian is one of the most perfect science fiction novels I've ever read. Originally self-published by Andy Weir, this tale of a man stranded on Mars quickly amassed over 1,000 five-star reviews on Amazon and was picked up by a major publisher. I recently had the absolute joy of reading an advance copy of the book, which will be in wide release in February of 2014. If we live in a just universe, The Martian will be a best seller and win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It's that good.

Weir does several hard things very well in this novel. He's obviously done his homework and the Mars mission, NASA, all the science and the sequence of events leading to astronaut Mark Watney's predicament all ring true. More importantly Mark Watney is someone you believe in from page one. He is one of the most human, likable, funny and stubborn people you will ever meet in the pages of a book and you cannot help but root for this guy.

A book like this could easily get bogged down in technical details, overwhelming the reader with details and infodumps, but Weir keeps the tension high throughout the novel. It's tempting to compare Weir's book to the technothrillers of someone like Michael Crichton but I honestly have to say that Weir seems to be a better writer than Crichton.

Science is the star of this book and our hero is ultimately not alone as NASA and the rest of planet earth become aware of Mark Watney's predicament. This is ultimately the story not of a man or a martian, but of humanity and how we as humans survive through intelligence, humor, perseverance and faith in each other.

The Martian is the opposite, perhaps the antidote, to dystopian fiction. It is a reminder that thrilling stories and great adventures exist and we can and must go out and find them.

Go out and find The Martian. It's one of the wonders of the universe.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Little Green Men by Peter Cawdron

Little Green Men is a great, page turner of a story. It's a not a long story, more a novella than a novel, detailing the experiences of the crew of space ship Dei Gracia on a frozen, distant world. The writing is brisk and the tension of the story is perfect. Halfway through the book there was a spot where I stopped and said "Holy Crap, I never saw that coming!" It's a great puzzle of a story that in the end fits together with a very elegant and satisfying logic.

Peter Cawdron says that he wrote Little Green Men as a tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick and the classic science fiction stories of the 1950s. He's certainly succeeded, the story manages to mix the pulse-pounding fear of the Alien movies with some of the big questions of perception and existence that one normally associates with authors like Dick, Asimov or Clarke. The interactions of the crew reminded me of the best of the old Star Trek episodes.

I don't want to give away any of the story, this is a book to be read and enjoyed, not explained. The book was free when I downloaded it to my Kindle, but the story is well worth the regular price of 99 cents. Such deals exist to introduce the reader to a new writer. Little Green Men certainly worked on that level for me, I've already downloaded some of Peter Cawdron's other stories.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The novels of Daniel Pinkwater

I heard Daniel Pinkwater before I ever read any of his books. He was a goofy, friendly voice on the radio, talking to Click and Clack about some car problem or discussing children's books with Scott Simon. Sometimes, when NPR had an odd couple of minutes to fill, they'd have Daniel Pinkwater talk about whatever he wanted to talk about that day. And that was enough to get me dig through the children's section of bookstores (or maybe the young adult section, bookstores have a hard time figuring out where to put Pinkwater) and even though I'm not a child anymore (or even a young adult) when I'd find his books, I'd start reading and then, because I liked what I found, I'd buy the book.

Here's the thing about Pinkwater: he tells good stories. His characters are interesting, they're folks you'd probably want to hang out with for the most part. The great thing is that they may be young or old, fat or thin, boys or girls, moose, cat-whiskered girls, space aliens, talking lizards, whatever. They do interesting stuff. The books aren't too dark or scary for children but certainly not too boring for adults (or children for that matter).

You don't have to take my word for this. Go here:

And you can grab, for free, audio versions of his various books. I'm fond of Borgel and Lizard Music but there are a whole bunch of good ones there. Then send him some money or buy some of his real books. They're real good.

I like reading and when I got to looking at my shelves and the contents of my Kindle, I concluded that Daniel Pinkwater is my favorite author. That kind of snuck up on me, but the more I think about it, the more I see that it's true.

You'll learn things reading Pinkwater books. Here's a nice nugget from The Neddiad: father said. "Don't fall in a tar pit." It isn't tar. Everyone calls it tar, but it's really natural asphalt. The Indians used it to waterproof their canoes, and the Spanish settlers used it to seal their roofs. "La Brea" in Spanish means "the tar," so "The La Brea Tar Pits" means "the the tar tar pits."

Pinkwater makes normal things strange and strange things normal in a way that makes you feel that he really knows how things work and that the way things work is really OK. Here are a few bits from Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl:

Here, they are setting out in a boat.

"Oh, hell," I said. "It's a coracle." 

"What's a coracle?" Molly said, looking at it. 

"A coracle," I told Molly, "is the most primitive, and also worst, boat in the world. As you see, it is shaped like a bowl. It's made of branches with skins stretched over it, and it's waterproofed with a coating of tar." 

"Why is it round like that?" Molly asked. 

"As far as I know, it is because the people who invented it were not quite smart enough to figure out that a boat-shaped boat would work a lot better."

There guide leaves them on an island with monsters who want to play cards.

"Wait!" I called to Harold. "Are we safe here?" 

"As long as you don't play for money, you're safe," Harold said, and the coracle disappeared into the darkness. 

"We would never play for money against children," one of the monsters mumbled. "Do you have any money, girls?" 

"Not a cent," Molly said. 

"Me neither," I lied. I had twenty-six dollars pinned to my underwear.

As I noted earlier, Pinkwater is goofy, but as near as I can tell, the world is pretty goofy. I'm old enough to be sure I don't have it all figured out and Mr. Pinkwater would probably tell you he doesn't have it all figured out either. But his novels tell truths worth telling and they're a whole lot of fun.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, Bleeding Edge, is set in 2001 in New York City. Pynchon is a careful observer, a wizard of wordplay, who is justly revered for crafting paranoid parables. The critics have all been waiting for this, his 9/11 novel, which is also promised to be his take on the early days of this, our internet age.

While 9/11 looms in the background of every reader's mind, the monster we all know is in the closet, Pynchon's people wander and wisecrack their way through a NYC that is not so much doomed as destined to be something that none of us can ever stop or really hope to understand. Pynchon is not telling us a story, he's telling us stories, hundreds of them. Perhaps they're pixels, part of something larger that we'll see when we draw our focus back, or perhaps we're only paranoid minds finding patterns were none exist.

Pynchon's people dwell in doubt and he does interesting things with time in conversations. Phrases trigger recollection and we're taken from a coffee shop to a scene a thousand miles and five years away before we close the paragraph. It is disorienting and enlightening at the same time. And Pynchon packs his books with casual references to obscure facts (both real and fictitious) which he'll delightfully deploy with equal zeal in the making of a key plot points or terrible puns. Even the most nimble of minds is apt to find both delight and befuddlement in pages penned by Pynchon.

Pynchon opens his book with this quote from Donald Westlake:

"New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it." 

Pynchon's heroine, Maxine Tarnow, is a decertified Certified Fraud Examiner, a sort-of-divorced mom with a couple of kids and just enough disconnection from the structures of power to be completely delightful and dangerous. Like the best private eyes, Maxine is less beholden to the law than she is to her own sense of justice. She investigates crimes, both commercial and karmic. Minor infractions are given as much, or often, greater weight, than major felonies.

In an early scene, Maxine's kids are playing with a prototype of a new computer game, a shooter where the targets are not criminals, but the criminally rude on the streets of New York:

“Come on,” sez Otis, “let’s just cruise around.” 

Off they go on a tour of the inexhaustible galleries of New York annoyance, zapping loudmouths on cellular phones, morally self-elevated bicycle riders, moms wheeling twins old enough to walk lounging in twin strollers, “One behind the other, we let them off with a warning, but not this one, look, side by side so nobody can get past? forget it.” 

Pow! Pow! The twins go flying, all smiles, above New York and into the Kiddy Bin. Passersby are largely oblivious to the sudden disappearances except for Christers, who think it’s the Rapture.

“Guys,” Maxine astonished, “I had no idea— Wait, what’s this?” 

She has spotted a line jumper at a bus stop. Nobody paying attention. H&K woman to the rescue! 

“All right, how do I do this?” 

Otis is happy to instruct, and before you can say “Be more considerate,” the pushy bitch has been despatched and her children dragged to safety. 

“Way to go Mom, that’s a thousand points.”

Bleeding Edge takes place in both the virtual and the real world, although the reality and virtuality of each comes into serious question as things progress. Maxine's investigations attract some attention, leading to a questionable conversation with a fellow named Windust.  Some of the key questions Maxine has are "who is this guy?" and "who is he working for?" Even paranoids have enemies.

"Not to mention there’s a couple of Israeli chips, highly sophisticated, which Mossad have been known to install at the same time, without necessarily informing the client. What these chips do is scavenge information even while the computer’s turned off, hold it till the Ofeq satellite comes over, then transmit everything out to it in a single data burst.” 

“Oh, devious, these Jews.” 

“Israel doesn’t spy on us? Remember the Pollard case back in 1985? Even left-wing papers like the New York Times carried that story, Ms. Tarnow.” 

How right-wing, Maxine wonders, does a person have to be to think of the New York Times as a left-wing newspaper?

Maxine also wonders how Windust knows what he knows:

These are all public, the sites I use, nothing illegal, how do you know what I’m researching anyway?” 

“Child’s play,” sez Windust, “we like to think of it as ‘No keystroke left behind.’”

In Pynchon's writing words and ideas snap into focus and his city teams with so many people that despite their odd names and odder proclivities that even the most careful reader will at some points be befuddled. Is Pynchon a genius or just nuts? And why are these folks having sex?

And then there is DeepArcher, a virtual reality that is not a game, but very gamelike, a private beta of something like a digital haven or heaven or something else. It's all very bleeding edge.

When 9/11 happens there is no grand revelation or even great turning of the wheels of the world.

Everybody is still walking around stunned, having spent the previous day sitting or standing in front of television screens, at home, in bars, at work, staring like zombies, unable in any case to process what they were seeing. A viewing population brought back to its default state, dumbstruck, undefended, scared shitless.

Like any good New Yorker, Maxine talks things over with her therapist, a laid back Californian whose mental pressure gauge Maxine suspects may be reading low by a few PSI.

Not when ‘everything changed.’ When everything was revealed. No grand Zen illumination, but a rush of blackness and death. Showing us exactly what we’ve become, what we’ve been all the time.”

“And what we’ve always been is . . . ?”

“Is living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs... planetwide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering. And meantime the only help we get from the media is boo hoo the innocent dead. Boo fuckin hoo. You know what? All the dead are innocent. There’s no uninnocent dead.”

After a while, “You’re not going to explain that, or . . .”

“Course not, it’s a koan.”

Pynchon's description of a post 9/11 New York is both insightful and funny as Maxine's trip to get a Thanksgiving turkey illustrates:

AS THANKSGIVING APPROACHES, the neighborhood, terrorist atrocities or whatever, reverts to its usual insufferable self, reaching a peak the night before Thanksgiving, when the streets and sidewalks are jammed solid with people who have come in to town to view The Blowing Up Of The Balloons for the Macy’s parade. Cops are everywhere, security is heavy. In front of every eatery, there are lines out the door. Places you can usually step inside, order a pizza to go, and wait no more than the time it takes to bake it are running at least an hour behind. Everybody out on the sidewalk is a pedestrian Mercedes, wallowing in entitlement—colliding, snarling, shoving ahead without even the hollow-to-begin-with local euphemism “Excuse me.”


A serial line jumper has been making his way forward along the turkey line, a large white alpha male whose social skills, if any, are still in beta, intimidating people one by one out of his way. 

“Excuse me?” Shoving ahead of an elderly lady waiting in line just behind Maxine. 

“Line jumper here,” the lady yells, unslinging her shoulder bag and preparing to deploy it. 

“You must be from out of town,” Maxine addressing the offender, “here in New York, see, the way you’re acting? It’s considered a felony.” 

“I’m in a hurry, bitch, so back off, unless you want to settle this outside?” 

“Aw. After all your hard work getting this far? Tell you what, you go out and wait for me, OK? I won’t be too long, promise.”

Shifting to indignation, “I have a houseful of children to feed—” but he’s interrupted by a voice someplace over by the loading dock hollering, “Hey asshole!” and here cannonballing over the heads of the crowd comes a frozen turkey, hits the bothersome yup square in the head, knocking him flat and bouncing off his head into the hands of Maxine, who stands blinking at it like Bette Davis at some baby with whom she must unexpectedly share the frame. She hands the object to the lady behind her. 

“This is yours, I guess.” 

“What, after it touched him? thanks anyway.” 

“I’ll take it,” sez the guy behind her. 

As the line creeps forward, everybody makes sure to step on, not over, the fallen line jumper. 

“Nice to see the ol’ town gettin back to normal, ain’t it.”

There is much more to this novel than a single review (or even a single reading) can adequately consider, but that is the appeal of Pynchon. He jokes and plays with ideas and one is never sure if he's serious or kidding. If asked, one suspects his answer would be "yes."

For all the technology and intrigue, this novel revolves around family and friendship. Maxine seeks a bit of guidance from her father:

Here in the capital of insomnia, it is hours yet from dawn, and this is what innocent father-daughter conversations can drift into. Beneath these windows they can hear the lawless soundscape of the midnight street, breakage, screaming, vehicle exhaust, New York laughter, too loud, too trivial, brakes applied too late before some gut-wrenching thud. When Maxine was little, she thought of this nightly uproar as trouble too far away to matter, like sirens. Now it’s always too close, part of the deal.


“Yep, and your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid.”

“Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? it’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.”

“So this is where I get my paranoia from.”

Pynchon's normal world is paranoid, wise-cracking and wise.  It moves fast and we're not sure what is real and what is virtual, what is coincidence and what is conspiracy. It's funny and frightening and ultimately comforting in an odd way, like an all night diner in the first light of dawn. Pynchon's brewed up something fine here. There may be more than just coffee in that cup. It might be just what you need.