27 June 2016

Books: Everybody's Fool By Richard Russo (2016)

“The irresistible Sully, who in the intervening years has come by some unexpected good fortune, is staring down a VA cardiologist’s estimate that he has only a year or two left, and it’s hard work trying to keep this news from the most important people in his life: Ruth, the married woman he carried on with for years and the ultra-hapless Rub Squeers, who worries that he and Sully aren’t still best friends. The there is Sully’s son and grandson, for whom he was mostly an absentee figure (and now a regretful one). We also enjoy the company of Doug Raymer, the chief of police who’s obsessing primarily over the identity of the man his wife might’ve been about to run off with, before dying in a freak accident. Bath’s mayor, the former academic Gus Moynihan, whose wife problems are, if anything, even more pressing; and then there’s Carl Roebuck, whose lifelong run of failing upward might now come to ruin. And finally, there’s Charice Bond—a light at the end of the tunnel that is Chief Raymer’s office—as well as her brother, Jerome, who might well be the train barreling into the station.”

Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool is set a little over ten years after the events of Nobody’s Fool (though twenty-three years have passed since the book was released), and like all sequels (and the first one Russo has done), you might begin to wonder if it’s as good as the original. Being this is only the third Russo novel I’ve read, and having recently finished the first book featuring the characters of Bath, New York, I found I enjoyed the book just the same. Russo’s wry look at human nature and their inevitable foibles it causes makes for a fun read. The writers ear for working class folks is strong and, much like Charles Dickens or John Irving or even Stephen King, you get a sense that these are real people, that they talk, eat, sleep, and move from one good fortune to tragedy much like everyone else does.  

There is a sense of forbidding death that clings to the book, also, from a lot of characters who’ve shuttled off this mortal coil to the town of Bath, which continues its slow collapse into death, to people like Sully who is facing mortality but unsure if he wants to leave or stay. 

The one striking aspect of Everybody’s Fool is that Sully is really not the main character of this story –he takes on somewhat of a supporting role here. And for some this might throw out the question of why Russo decided to return to them and not create different characters with the same story. But I know writers, and I can guess that this is where his muse took him.

19 June 2016

Star Wars: Bloodline By Claudia Gray (2016)

It’s been rumored that Star Wars: Episode VIII will be a bit more political, as it will be the middle part of a trilogy, it can’t be that action packed. Its goal, most likely, will be to set up Episode IX’s conclusion. But one hopes that if the next movie must start explaining the rise of the First Order, we don’t see the endless people sitting and talking that was so distracting in Episodes I-III. 

Claudia Gray returns to the Star Wars universe with Bloodline, a novel set about eighteen years after the Battle for Endor (Return of the Jedi) and begins six years before the events of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  

In that time, the glorious New Republic, the governing body that grew out of the Rebellion following the defeat of the Empire, has split into two partisan factions, each of which has its own specific viewpoint on how the galaxy should be run. And neither group is willing to meet the other one halfway, even when the safety of countless people and planets are on the line. The two factions are known as the Populists and the Centrists, with the former believing that planets should be allowed more control over their laws and regulations than a central government and the latter believing that every planet in the Republic should be managed by a strong central governing body. Leia, who is now a respected veteran senator, is a Populist because she lived through the reign of the Empire and thinks everyone answering to a central authority could be a good way to revive tyranny of the Emperor and the Empire. While she does make some headway with one senator, she realizes no one else is willing to compromise, which eventually makes her realize her allies are small and may be alone in stopping the rise of a mysterious force in the galaxy.”

It’s fairly obvious that Gray is borrowing the Populists and Centrists political gridlock from today’s headlines, which will make you smile or groan. Still, science fiction has always been about setting a story in the future (or a long time ago) and framing it with modern problems and issues. But the gist here is to show that the New Republic is pretty much doomed as political infighting has taken its toll. 

Much like her YA debut writing for Star Wars, Lost Star, I found all the characters to be well written, and Gray has an uncanny ability to capture the true voice of the many famous characters. It’s a brisk thriller that easily blends the details of what happened after ROJ and what we all saw in TFA (and how both the Jedi and Darth Vader fell into myth and legend than real things). It is dense with politics, but it’s also wry, often clever and really expands the character of Leia that Episode VII sort of ignored. This version of the princess, six years out from the newest trilogy, reminds me why she should be a more iconic character than she is –at least in the film series. 

These books, though, do have a tough sell ahead of them. Much like the old Expanded Universe, this new timeline created for their rebooted big-screen adventures are destined mainly for hardcore fans. Yes, these books are deliberately designed to give out dribs and drabs of information that will be part of the newest live-action movie series, and maybe some might find them interesting, but on the whole, they’ll go ignored by the broader audience. It’s a shame, though, because Claudia Gray is a fine writer and it takes talent to weave everything together that explains the rise of the Resistance.  

11 June 2016

Books: The Fireman By Joe Hill (2016)

“No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames.  There is no antidote. No one is safe. Harper Grayson is a compassionate and dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treating hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine too. . . if she can live long enough to deliver the child. Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads—armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow fire fighter’s jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted and as a weapon to avenge the wronged. In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman’s secrets before her life—and that of her unborn child—goes up in smoke. 

The Fireman is Joe Hill’s fourth novel, and his longest to date. Also, much like his famous father’s fourth book, Hill gives us an epic tale about the end of the world. And while it’s not Captain Trips that decimates the planet, followed by the rise of Randall Flagg, we get a plague and vigilantes doing “Gods” work. This is also a weird book as well, filled danger and a lot fear, but there is hope at its center. Part of that optimism centers on Harper Willowes, whose love of Mary Poppins songs and quotes can be enduring, but also creepily odd at the same time. 

Much like NOS4A2 (which this novel closely resembles and one I really enjoyed), Hill spends a lot of time detailing the way people react to danger. By giving us this cornucopia of folks who respond in different ways to their fate, you get a good idea that while everything is falling apart, you can count on some going bat-shit crazy, while others take a more Zen like approach to their personal fates.

As seems to be a theme in a lot of books I’ve read over the years, The Fireman is a bit over-long, and the ending seemed to take off like a great race, only to take a left turn for some conversations before coming back to the finish line. And there is a female villain that is so unlikeable, so one dimensional; she grows wearisome as the book goes on. 

But the book is entertaining as all hell. And I really do like Joe Hill, as he’s creative, fun, and even original (even when emulating his Dad). 

03 June 2016

Books: A Wrinkle in Time By Madeleine L'Engle (1963)

There are many books that I’ve not read. Not that I’m embarrassed, or foolish, or thoughtless about it, but part of the reason I did not read books, like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time comes from not having access to a large library when I was a kid, except the limited one at my grade school. And a mentor to help me.

Plus, I don’t remember being encouraged to read, something I’ve mentioned before, when growing up. Or if I was, I don’t recall it. I do recollect that once I got my bike for First Communion, it freed me to go to the closet library, which was in Schaumburg the next town over. There I found the traditional boy books like The Hardy Boys –though I passed them over for the less popular The Three Investigators (which, as I reflect, is probably where I began my notion of liking non-conformist things).

But the great things about books, of course, is that no matter how much time goes by, they’ll always be there. Yes, today, if you miss a TV show, the odds are it’ll pop up on streaming sites or DVD; the same with movies and music. But books have always been there, waiting patiently like your favorite dog, for you to pick them up and begin a new adventure.

“ It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger. ‘Wild nights are my glory,’ the unearthly stranger told them. ‘I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract’. Meg's father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?”

Thinking back, I do remember when I really began reading, which was my freshman year of High School. I do know I read other books before then, but beyond The Three Investigators, I can’t recall others. But while I had nothing wrong with female writers (though only over the last decade or so I’ve been reading more of them)–spent that first year of High School reading Agatha Christie, I just don’t think I was fond of reading books where females were the protagonist (though I did like her Miss Marple tales). Christie’s Hercule Piorot was a man and for reasons back then, this was what I liked and wanted to read.

After reading A Wrinkle in Time today, I simply wonder what my young brain was thinking back then. While short in pages, L’Engle is able to construct a complex, yet easily readable tale of science fantasy that is less science fantasy and more a social commentary on religion, conformity and the status quo. While I found Meg to be annoying at first (she does come across in the early pages as a girl caught up in the era in which this book was written; meaning she always saw herself in a negative light to boys), by the end, the character had grown. And I can see why, when L’Engle was trying to get the book published in the late 1950s and early 60s, publishers were not interested in it -not only taking on the concepts of religion, conformity and status quo, but the very idea a girl can save the day. 

Then add on the unique notion that L’Engle is a woman and was writing science fiction to begin with.

Still, I have now, intentions of reading the three other books in this series, though I know they can be read in any order. But what I guess I learned here is that books like this, designed for young children and young adults, can be read anytime. Another words, you don’t have to be a kid to read them (thank you Jo Rowling). Maybe the best part of reading these “kids” books for the first time as an adult, you can clearly see what the author was doing, and you can understand the “message” now. 

But there is a part of me who now regrets that I did not read these books back when I was younger. But if wishes were horses, right?