25 March 2013

Books: The Company of the Dead by David Kowalaski (2012)

I’ve always loved time travel stories, and while the “what if” plot lines of changed history can be fun, I find myself still intrigued more with the mechanisms of time travel than anything else. Books that deal with time travel have always had two big hooks to have fun with,

Beyond Einstein’s theory that states time-travel is not possible –and even with people like Stephen Hawking sort of agreeing with it – it has never stopped science fiction writers from writing books about, or Hollywood cranking out TV shows and movies about the ability to change our past or future. 

Big historical events are the fodder for this “what if” scenarios. The assassination of John F. Kennedy almost fifty years ago remains a watershed moment. Many writers of science fiction –and many others- have always wondered what might have been had not an assassin struck in Dealey Plaza on that late November morning. Stephen King, most notably of late, pondered that in his novel 11/22/63

Australian novelist David J. Kowalski explores similar themes in his debut tale, The Company of the Dead, about someone trying to change the history of the ill-fated Titanic in 1912. But unlike King’s tale, this one opens in an altered world, where the action of one man from 2012 who ends up in 1911 changes the course of our recorded history. While this Jonathan Wells prevents the Titanic from striking the iceberg in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, there is some sort of predestined aspect happening, and the Titanic still hits an iceberg, only a few hours later and sinks. This small change, and the survival of a few people who died originally, unwinds the causal nexus plunging the planet into a different timeline –one where Germany and Japan control the world, where America is divided like what almost happened in the Civil War and where modern technology –like mobile phones and the internet- don’t exist and everyone smokes like they’re in an old movie from the 1940s. Then we meet a group of people –one being the grandson of Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr who really died in World War II, leaving no heirs, but because of the shift in time, went on to live- who discover a journal stored away in Titanic’s safe (just like in real life, the remains are found and artifacts, like the safe, are brought to the surface). The journal, written by a man named Jonathan Wells, states he was born in 1964 and using a device found in the wreckage of some space ship that landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 travels back in time to 1911 and decides to change the fate of Titanic. These people are convinced that they must travel back and prevent Wells from changing history. Because they also know if they fail, the timeline they are currently living will cease to exist because of rising tensions all over the planet. 

Kowalski throws every time travel trope in, along with exploring a potential alternate universe where America never entered into World War I – a genre Harry Turtledove has been doing for the last decade or so. The book also shifts into a spy novel –which would be fine, if this was a spy novel. 

The author does some great world-building here and obviously spent a lot of time in research, as this book is highly detailed –though I’m curious if never intended the book for American audiences, as the book is rift with different spellings of words like tyre, coulour and carriages (trucks). It’s not distracting, but I was amused by it. The characters have little or no personality, which does become distracting as it sometimes hard to understand who is talking. 

I think the book starts out strong, dismissing some of my unintentional feelings that the book might be a bit too long at 750 pages –after all, you have to know that the team who decides to stop Wells has to succeed. 

But if you are doing an epic novel like this, sometimes the pages are justified. 

And the pages flew by –and it helped, maybe, that Kowalaski kept the chapter’s short- so I was anxious to see what happens. But the problem is, I read this book for the time travel conundrum and not have it mostly be a spy novel about an alternate history of the United States. So there's too much confusion on just what the book wanted to be, and the ending –while clever- does not payoff for the investment of the reader because what it really becomes is an over-long spy novel masked as a science fiction novel and I don’t think science fiction readers will like that.

21 March 2013

Books: Redshirts by John Scalzi (2012)

Like many of a certain age who grew up with Star Trek and its various spin-offs, John Scalzi’s Redshirts is a brilliant nod to the workers on the lower decks of a starship; though, more to the point, the red shirted security men and women. We know that any security guard who beamed down with Kirk, Spock and McCoy crew usually ended dying before the opening credit –though they could also be killed off to heighten commercial act breaks through the rest of the episode. 

This is a comic riff on the phenomenon of those apparently expendable and unending supply of security guards who’s jobs, it seems, is to be shot, stabbed, eaten or crushed into stone dust so the main cast can emote and keep the narrative going (in that sort of “we have to do this in the memory of security guard #4”).

Set in the 25th century and centered on the crew of the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, Redshirts focuses on ensign Andrew Dahl, who just transferred to the ship, along with a few other newly assigned security guards. But only a few hours on the ship, Dahl thinks something odd is going on and confronts some of his fellow crew members: 

“So, did you guys get asked about away teams?” Duvall asked, as she brought her mess tray to the table where Dahl and Hanson were already sitting.
“I did,” Hanson said.
“So did I,” Dahl said.
“Is it just me, or does everyone on this ship seem a little weird about them?” Duvall asked.
“Give me an example,” Dahl said.
“I mean that within five minutes of getting to my new post I heard three different stories of crew buying the farm on an away mission. Death by falling rock. Death by toxic atmosphere. Death by pulse gun vaporization.”
“Death by shuttle door malfunction,” Hanson said.
“Death by ice shark,” Dahl said.
“Death by what?” Duvall said, blinking. “What the hell is an ice shark?”
“You got me,” Dahl said. “I had no idea there was such a thing.”
“Is it a shark made of ice?” Hanson asked. “Or a shark that lives in ice?”
“It wasn’t specified at the time,” Dahl said, spearing a meat bit on his tray.
“I’m thinking you should have called bullshit on the ice shark story,” Duvall said.

Scalzi is brilliant at the whole absurdity of the redshirt trope, and yet does not make a mockery of it. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the book itself is designed to poke fun at all the illogical fallacies and cheap tricks –or what Scalzi calls lazy writing- to get their heroes to the next episode, sans a couple of security people. 

It also has some surprising emotional heft to it, and most of the humor is spot on. Also, readers of Jasper Fforde may find a familiarity with it as well.

I really liked it.

17 March 2013

Books: In One Person by John Irving (2012)

As I continue reading John Irving, zinging back to earlier works, along with his newest ones (though his first three remain unread, though I have copies of them and have full intentions of reading them as 2013 continues from spring into summer), I’m getting used to his reoccurring themes:  New England, sex workers, wrestling, Vienna, bears, deadly accidents, a main character and/or supporting characters who are writers of some sort, a main character dealing with an absent or unknown parent, a main character who is involved in film making, and unusual sexual relationships (and often what Irving as referred to as "sexual outsiders") such as incest, bestiality, or between young men and older women. Females who are both brash and ostentatious, while simultaneously fragile recur throughout most of Irving's novels. Irving's novels tend to involve characters that are often considered outsiders (particularly in terms of sexuality), and their attempts to find their way in life.

In One Person, which is strikingly better than his last two previous books, Until I Find You and Last Night in Twisted River, Irving introduces us to William Abbot in 2010 as he begins to tell the tale of his life starting in 1957 when he was 15. He lives with his single mother, and is surrounded by an odd assortment of supporting characters including his Grandpa Harry, a cross-dresser who plays female characters in the local theater, his domineering grandmother and spiteful Aunt. But when a new teacher arrives in First Sister, Vermont to teach Shakespeare at the all-boys Favorite River Academy, Billy is introduced to Miss Frost, who is the town librarian. It is here, he has his first crush –well, he also crushes on the teacher who would eventually become his stepfather. 

Here we are given a tome on desire, how we have tendency –no matter what society says- to fall in love with the wrong people at the wrong time and how we deal with those desires. William considers himself a bisexual with an attraction to men, women and transsexuals (which is an archaic word, we use transgendered today, but there is an explanation as to why he uses the old form of the word). Irving does discuss throughout the novel about how people view bisexuals –that old argument of them being fence sitters; that they’re gay men who like to keep “one foot in the closet.” There is no moralizing here, and that’s because Irving does not write that way. He does, however, give the reader the idea that there is something wrong with trying to fit in, as an old friend of Billy lies dying of AIDS in the mid-1980s who hid his sexuality, getting married and having kids. Tom, of course, infected his wife and that destroys the life of his two children. 

Then there is Kittredge, the impossibly handsome bully who is mysterious as he is impossible to resist. He is desired by all, but he seems to desire no one in return (even though he has a relationship with Billy’s best friend Elaine).

It’s not hard to think this book resembles Irving’s most notable novel, The World According to Garp. In some way, it could be seen as a parallel novel as Billy seems to be a shadow of T.S. Garp. There are problems, as Irving’s women are painted as sometimes hateful and often bigoted fools. Plus, as always with Irving’s work, some people are curious how much of his fiction is, in fact, not fiction; as one character puts it: "Bill is a fiction writer, but he writes in the first-person voice in a style that is tell-all confessional; in fact, his fiction sounds as much like a memoir as can make it sound.” The subject matter of bisexuality was familiar to him, having had fleeting crushes on boys while growing up, he has said.

It’s funny, as you would expect from John Irving, and like all his other works, risky. His desire, it seems, is a simple plea for understanding of sexual differences. You take what you want from that. But the coda at the end, where decades later Bill is confronted by the son of Kittredge who seems completely at a loss to understand what Bill is, or the fate of several students that Abbot went to school with (there seems to be a surprisingly number of gender-fluidity here. I mean, there are a lot of gay boys in one school –even if it’s an all-boys one).”You create these characters who are so sexually ‘different, ’as you might call them-and then you expect us to sympathize with them, or feel sorry for them, or something.”

Abbot responds –as some might say even now- “…don’t put a label on me –don’t make me a category before you get to know me.”

13 March 2013

Books: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré (1974)

John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy first came to my knowledge when PBS was airing the BBC mini-series version sometime in the early 1980s. I was, maybe, interested in because it starred Alec Guinness, who’s long career had been given a boost due to Star Wars (which I was kind of mad about). However, I was not necessarily a fan of the spy genre. The real spy genre, I should say, and not the ones I was brought up on via the James Bond franchise (oddly, I’ve never read the Bond books by Fleming) or the TV series ones like Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, I, Spy, The Avengers or Secret Agent Man and The Prisoner. 

Also, in the 1980s, because of my fascination with science fiction and fantasy, all other genres where pushed aside. It’s only been the last decade or so that I’ve begun reading stuff I missed back then. But up until the 2011 film remake of this novel, I had never tried to read a traditional spy thriller. 

And while I find this a well written story, I also felt like I stepped into the middle story of a much larger narrative. It’s the same feeling I get when I try to watch Japanese anime; ten minutes into a movie I feel like I’ve missed about an hour of it. That’s because a lot of those stories are based on folklore passed down hundreds of years. And the Japanese audience that these films were originally designed for, need little in the way of backstory. 

The same was with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; I felt even by page 20 I had missed a good chunk of the story. Part of it is the spy jargon Le Carré uses –most of which he fails to explain. And as a “newbie” to the spy genre of old (this book was released in 1974, so it details all the World War II and Cold War activity of British spies) it took an effort to figure out just what all of it meant. Today I have Wikipedia to help, but I do wish he explained a bit more than he did. Maybe he just assumed that the reader was smarter and would not worry about understanding what he said, and maybe he all guessed that not many outside of Britain would read the book, as it is also filled with a lot of British euphemisms.  

The plot revolves around a potential mole with in the British spy service. British agent Ricki Tarr discovers, after an affair in Hong Kong with the wife of a Moscow Centre intelligence officer, that there may be a high-ranking Soviet mole, codenamed "Gerald," within the Circus . After going into hiding to avoid Soviet agents, Tarr alerts his immediate superior, Peter Guillam, who in turn notifies Undersecretary Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service officer responsible for overseeing the Intelligence Services. Lacon enlists George Smiley, the retired former Deputy Head of the Service, to investigate. Smiley and Guillam must investigate without the knowledge of the Circus, which is headed by Sir Percy Alleline and his deputies Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase, as any of these could be the mole. Smiley suspects that Gerald was responsible for the failure of Operation Testify, a mission in Communist Czechoslovakia, the purpose of which was to meet a defecting Czech Army general. Operation Testify ended with Circus agent Jim Prideaux walking into a trap, shot in the back and tortured, and caused the disgrace and dismissal of Control, the aging, ailing head of the Circus, who subsequently dies of heart disease. Prideaux, who survived and was repatriated and dismissed from the Circus, reveals to Smiley that Control suspected the mole's existence, and the true aim of Operation Testify was to learn the mole's identity from the Czech general. 

The plot goes on, and gets more complex as the book sort of becomes a traditional whodunit, except with spies instead of a murder. I liked it, and Le Carré’s writing style is dense, and never talks down to the reader.

Still, I found myself stymied by the spy jargon and his lack of explanation of what it all meant –a nice dictionary at the end would’ve helped. But in 1974, when books were a bit more thicker in prose than today, perhaps that would have insulted the reader.

06 March 2013

Books: The Rook by Daniel O'Malley (2012)

“Dear You,

The body you are wearing used to be mine. The scar on the inner left thigh is there because I fell out of a tree and impaled my leg at the age of nine. The filling in the far left tooth on the top is a result of my avoiding the dentist for four years. But you probably care little about this body’s past. After all, I’m writing this letter for you to read in the future. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is because I knew it would be necessary. The complicated answer could take a little more time.”

Thus begins Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook, a mash-up of James Bond, the X Men , The X Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a little of Jasper Fforde’s alternate universe of Thursday Next thrown in for good measure. The story revolves around Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany –the “w” is silent) Thomas, an everyday worker bee who appeared to handle the internal financial workings of a mysterious organization that handles all of Britain’s supernatural happenings called The Checquy. Well, that’s what Myfanwy discovers after a weekend attack that reboots her so to speak. With no memory of whom she was and only a purple binder to guide her, written by her “other” version, Myfanwy begins to unravel what happened to her (as she accepts that the other Myfanwy is “dead” and she has sort of regenerated into this new one). Even as she tries to understand who she once was and who she’ll be now, Myfanwy finds out secrets about herself, has encounters a person with four bodies, deals with a woman who can enter her dreams, accept that children can transformed into deadly fighters.

Then there’s the vast conspiracy. 

When I first had contemplations of reading this book, I thought it was going to be a steampunk style novel, and was surprised it set in the present –though like Fforde’s Thursday Next series, I’m guessing it’s an alternate universe one. Also, I did not realize this was going to be a series, but as I read the book, and as O’Malley laid out his vast universe, I suspected that what I was reading was not going to be limited to one novel. Only later, when I did research on the book, did I discover this.

The book overflows with great humor and the author keeps you guessing and turning pages quickly, it’s still not that outrageously inventive. First-time author O’Malley cobbles together a lot of other people’s ideas and sews together a rather well paced thriller, with plenty of red herrings and a not so surprising ending, but it’s entertaining. And it’s funny. 

My only issue, as is with many books that begin as an unknown number of books that will follow it, is the massive info-dumping that goes on. World building is fun, but sometimes the authors get carried away and thus that it interferers with the flow of the book (Jasper Fforde has a tendency to do the same).

It’s a minor quibble really, as The Rook is just plain fun.