19 May 2018

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

"Who says you can't run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can't say yes -it would be too awkward- and you can't say no- it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world. The question is: How do you arrange to skip town? The answer is you accept them all. What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last. Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, Less is, above all, a love story."

There is a bit absurdness to Andrew Sean Greer’s protagonist of Arthur Less, something that the reader discovers early on in this brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but is only verbalized later, is that despite seeing himself a failure in life, he is indeed one of those people you meet in your everyday life who somehow succeeds at many things, but never realizes it. Less though is also about a man reaching “middle age” and wonders if he’s “too old to meet someone” after a few relationship break-ups. This is the reality that some gay men face, especially Arthur who’s had two long affairs that seemed to drift apart (though one did, the other becomes the cliché of a younger lover leaving him for yet another man).

There is not much of plot, but the book becomes a sort of a travelogue, a gay version of Love, Eat, Pray. It’s filled with a wonderful prose that brings out happiness, sadness and many guffaws. It’s treatise on accepting that life does not end at fifty (which many gay men wrestle with) and that maybe, somehow, the universe will work in your favor, even if you do everything to resist it.

It’s a bit sappy, then, but again, the prose is lyrical and pacing a slow burn (there is a reference to Charlie Chaplin in the book, which reinforces the idea [good or bad] that Arthur Less is much like Chaplin’s alter-ego of the Tramp who stumbles though various adventures looking like a failure, but maybe is not), which some might have trouble with. But this human comedy, this satire of a life, is wonderfully realized here. It’s inspired in many ways and in this day and age, maybe this is what we all need.

12 May 2018

Books: Noir By Christopher Moore (2018)

“It’s not every afternoon that an enigmatic, comely blonde named Stilton (like the cheese) walks into the scruffy gin joint where Sammy "Two Toes" Tiffin tends bar. It’s love at first sight, but before Sammy can make his move, an Air Force general named Remy arrives with some urgent business. ’Cause when you need something done, Sammy is the guy to go to; he’s got the connections on the street. Meanwhile, a suspicious flying object has been spotted up the Pacific coast in Washington State near Mount Rainer, followed by a mysterious plane crash in a distant patch of desert in New Mexico that goes by the name Roswell. But the real weirdness is happening on the streets of the City by the Bay. When one of Sammy’s schemes goes south and the Cheese mysteriously vanishes, Sammy is forced to contend with his own dark secrets—and more than a few strange goings on—if he wants to find his girl.”

While Christopher Moore continues to be a reliable funny writer of human quirks, his latest novel, Noir, suffers from a somewhat muddled plot that seems to a while to kick in. The book starts off great, with the writer’s patent zingers and one-liners bouncing around and hitting their targets to make me smile. Not laugh out loud, as he used to do, but enough for me to enjoy at least half the book.

While satirizing a genre that is noir, he is able to bring the atmosphere of San Francisco of 1947 alive. Its heavy fog, its cold summers and reliable weirdness come off the pages and wrap its tendrils around you. But that’s as close as it comes to the classic genre. And while it has a lot of Moore’s trademark wit, it really does not feel like Moore books of the past (something I’ve felt for a while). Which is good for new readers, but makes me wonder where the writer of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal diverged. He still has well researched books, appealing characters, and the sparkling jokes, but I don’t think he’s talking a risk anymore. Then again, when he started publishing novels back in 1992, not many people were doing what he did –books about men and women’s relationships, mixing the supernatural and satire to create some funny novels. Those early books, Practical Demonkeeping, Coyote Blue, Island of the Sequined Love Nun, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Lamb seemed to more original and even risky. Now, well, we see a lot out there.

Still, even his weakest books are still good, and I’ll still recommend it.

05 May 2018

Books: Magpie Murders By Anthony Horowitz (2017)

“When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job. Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.”

Anthony Horowitz is a prolific British novelist and creator of such BBC TV series such as Midsomer Murders (adapted from the Caroline Graham Chief Inspector Barnaby book series) and Foyle’s War. He’s also written for other classic British whodunit series such as Agatha Christie’s Poirot, as well as Robin of Sherwood. He’s also well known for his James Bond inspired young adult series Alex Rider (and was chosen by the Estate of Ian Fleming to continue writing Bond inspired novels, such as 2015’s Trigger Mortis and this year’s Forever and A Day). Finally, he’s also penned two Sherlock Holms novels, The House of Silk (2011) and Morairty (2014).

So with this pedigree, perhaps, he might be one of the few writers of classic British whodunits that could de-construct and re-construct this long loved literary genre. And while 19th Century writer Wilkie Collins is considered the great-grandfather of modern English detective books, it’s early 20th Century writers like Christie and Sayers that brought the format to a wider audience. And it’s with these giants, that Horowitz gives us Magpie Murders, a brilliant whodunit wrapped within a whodunit.

So what we get is the basic Agatha Christie set-up: a sleepy English village that has an unexpected death, followed by another. Then there is a foreign detective, who has pedantic habits, who arrives and must sift through a host of potential suspects, all with secrets to hide. But while the Magpie Murders are set in 1955, Howorwitz’s also sets up another mystery within contemporary London.

What I found intriguing about the book was the subtext (and very truthful note) that the famous writers of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, James Bond and Tin Tin creator Hergé grew to hate these literary heroes as the years passed. That while these legendary authors were hugely rewarded for their tomes –both monetarily and historically- they always felt trapped by them as well, that being singularly remembered for them was diminishing the work they thought they were meant to write (sort of like what happened to Alec Guinness who hated the idea that after his long-life in theater and Ealing films of the 1960s, he’ll always be remembered as Obi Wan Kenobi). Horowitz’s Alan Conway had the same emotional hatred for his own creation, the Germany-born Atticus Pünt.

I did figure out whodunit –at least the one set in contemporary times- mostly because it made logical sense (and this was before Horowitz did give the reader another trope of the genre, the “coincidence”. This is also, I think, a slight at the format as well; as modern mysteries tend to not have the detectives use logic and calculation to solve the murders, but there is some always some bit of convenience and happenstance that brings everything across the finish line).

I enjoyed the book immensely, even though I disliked some of the explanation of what lead author Alan Conway to divorce his wife (and it was not because Conway had come out). It seemed too typical of a trope, the woman blaming herself. Blah, it left a distaste in my mouth.

But overall, the book is pretty well constructed, a real great page-turner. It takes a classic format and gives it new life, but also gives us a dark look into popular authors who’ve created popular characters in long-running series: do some regret creating such successful novels (because it’s made them really wealthy) when they truly want to be remembered for something completely different, something where the money is not important?

Hello, George Lucas.

29 April 2018

Books: The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic By F.T. Lukens (2017)

"Assisting an intermediary between the worlds of myths and humans is easier than asking the football hero to homecoming. High school senior Bridger Whitt is determined to escape humdrum Midden, Michigan, so he can finally be himself (read: determine his hetero-, homo-, or bisexuality far from familiar faces). When he is accepted by a Florida college, he realizes the only way he and his single mom can afford it is to fatten his coffers via part-time employment. Answering a very peculiar ad, he’s hired to assist the terminally tackily attired Pavel Chudinov, who is charged with ensuring humans don’t mix with cryptids. And the sudden abnormal influx of creatures in Midden (troll, unicorn, mermaids, etc.) has them burning the mythic candle at both ends. As if dodging toxic troll spit while maintaining his GPA wasn’t challenge enough, Bridger must also contend with his burgeoning feelings for dreamy Puerto Rican neighbor Leo, who just might also be into him." 
At last weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books event at USC, I stumbled into a small booth for Duet Books, a publisher of young adult LGBTQ novels. The persons running were some genuinely charming women who were more than helpful talking about the small line-up of books be presented here. One of the ladies was really excited about F.T. Lukens' The Rules and Regulations For Mediating Myths and Magic. It was on her enthusiastic love for the book that made me decide to get it.

Now, I don’t read much in this genre, which despite some mainstream publishers releasing books in this genre; a lot comes from indie-publishers like Duet Books or self-published houses like Jay Bell’s Something Like…series). Part of the reasons is that these tales have a tendency to lightly written with cliché ridden characters and well worn tropes that romance novels (both straight and gay) fall into. There may also be some internal homophobia from me, as well, so I've found myself passing up a lot of gay fiction. But still, even when I do read this genre, I’m always looking for something that can me offer something different, while still bringing something new to the table.

While there is some repetitive clichés that (maybe) these type of books can’t escape from (Oh, I do long for a gay male character who also has a plutonic relationship with a straight male one; I’ve grown weary with the idea that every gay male character in this genre has to have straight gal-pal like Astrid here), but the book is surprisingly warm, funny, and charming. But Lukens does constantly remind us that Bridger is an odd-ball (not a weirdo per se) and knows way too much convenient bits of trivia (the TV game show Jeopardy is named-dropped a lot here). Still, what really works here is the pacing and believability of the main characters, which I liked. I also appreciated that Bridger’s struggle with his sexuality was set more or less on the fringes of the book (and the fact that he's not sure if he's bi or gay is refreshing), along with Luken’s choice to make the supernatural aspect more prominent (and while she does some World Building here, she also chooses to limit this, which is fairly refreshing in fantasy novels these days). So those strengths outweigh some minor quibbles with the structure. 

Pavel Chudinov and his band of merry-odd co-workers (that includes two pixies and werewolf) are all well drawn out but as I read the book, I could not help but ship the main characters of Bridger and Leo. I could see both Grant Davis and Davi Santos (the stars of Something Like Summer) playing those two boys. Perhaps because I’m so close to the film, the cast, crew and Jay Bell, that this is unavoidable? And I could genuinely see Jana Lee Hamblin (who was also in that film and played Ben Bentley’s Mom) playing Bridger’s mother here as well. Play what you know?

The book does have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but I kind of hope that Lukens' writes another book featuring these characters. I like what she’s created here and would enjoy the further adventures of Bridger and Leo. 

Is it me, or does the silhouette character of Bridger on the book cover look like the cover artist is also a huge fan of The Venture Bros