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05-13-10: Jonathan L. Howard Flies with 'Johannes Cabal the Detective'

This Week's Zeppelin

Well, actually 'Johannes Cabal the Detective' (Doubleday / Random House ; July 13, 2010 ; $25) by Jonathan L. Howard is this summer's zeppelin, but I think it's safe to say that's splitting hairs when you're talking about a work in which the protagonist begins the novel having cheated the Devil. Last year's 'Johannes Cabal and the Devil' was the sort of oddball romp that clearly deserved an afterlife. After all, didn't the main character get one? Why shouldn't the novelist?

I must admit it's hard not to love a guy who gets in hot water for stealing a book. Cabal, being a necromancer, tries to slip away with the Krenz University's cop of Principia Necromantica, a crime for which he's sentenced to death. Hard not to love the folks on the other side of the equation as well.

Cabal, who can cheat the Devil, can certainly cope with some citified bureaucrats, and finds himself on board an airship, yes, yes, yes – a de rigeur zeppelin. I have one parked in my back yard, of course. Doesn't everybody?

On board, Cabal finds an old foe and a new crime. Cabal is nothing if not compulsive, and his attempts to set things right result in an attempt on his life – bad move! Not for readers, however. Howard knows how to entertain us with a complex, baroque style that is as much fun to read as flying in a zeppelin.

So long as zeppelin flights don't induce nausea yet (they will, soon, I guarantee it, and then we'll all be stuffed on steam-powered locomotives or ocean liners), 'Johannes Cabal the Detective' is an able-bodied follow-up (with many bodies, alive, dead, then alive again) to Howard's first novel and it boasts many of the same appeals. Howard writes with a funny matter-of-fact style that grounds his fantastic world in an imaginative manner. His prose sports just the right number of Victorian-isms to give it atmosphere and flavor, but not so many as to make it cloying. 'Johannes Cabal the Detective' is fun to read.

But there's also a level of innovation going on here, a retro-feeling series of sidebars and off-shoots that's unique and really quite entertaining. As a storyteller, Howard is really quite inventive, building worlds, then quickly cranking them into intriguing decrepitude. He plays with just about every form of genre fiction you can imagine and blends them into his own seamlessly unique creation. If you're looking for a novel that is straightforward and relatively realistic, you're looking in the wrong place. If you're looking for a novel that twists itself into a straight-faced satire of everything you've read, then perhaps the skeletal grin of Johannes Cabal is just what you're looking for.



05-12-10: Alastair Reynolds Returns from 'Terminal World'

Tools of the Trade

It's easy to see ourselves in terms of our tools. We're cosmopolitan because we can create large cities, we're open-minded because we can jet from one continent and culture to another, we're creative because we have the means to create at the tips of our fingers 24/7, computers, musical instruments, food to cook, culture to consume.

But while the level of our external technology changes rapidly and constantly, our internal, mental technology is not so different from that of the humans who walked this earth some 2,000 years ago. The only significant change in the interim, the only technology that has really changed us as humans, is the printing press. Reading. We're a culture that reached its first pinnacle with the mass-market paperback.

We expect certain things of our authors; we want them to challenge us, but we also want them to be familiar to us, to offer us versions of a vision. Alastair Reynolds was the writer who managed to bring me back to science fiction proper, some ten years ago. I'd given it up, but 'Revelation Space' turned my head around and made me realize that literature and science fiction were not mutually exclusive. I can now pick up a mass market paperback of 'Revelation Space' that pinnacle of our human technology. I can once again immerse myself in Reynolds' vision of humans as space travelers.

Or I can immerse myself in 'Terminal World' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; June 1, 2010 ; $26.95), a novel that like all of Reynolds' work, focuses on a vision of humans — but as something other than space travelers. 'Terminal World' offers for me all the great pleasures of my original immersion in science fiction some ten years ago, a reason to remember that the literary aspects of genre fiction trump the tropes. From the first paragraph of 'Terminal World,' readers will know that Reynolds is taking a rather different tack than we're accustomed to finding in his work. But the literary qualities remain the same. At the end of the day, at the end of the novel, writers have one tool ast their disposal — words.

Alastair Reynolds
Spearpoint is a world of many levels, literary and literal. Quillion is an enforcement agent marooned in a role he thought to be temporary, in the best tradition of Kurt Vonnegut's warning, "Be careful what you pretend to be because that is what you are." But what looks like a dead body proves to be gateway to new levels of perception both for Quillion and the readers.

As usual, Reynolds is a master of science fiction mystery on two levels. 'Terminal World' is a "whodunnit/whatisit" mystery within the world of Spearpoint, but it is also a science fiction mystery in terms of leaving the reader to discover exactly what the world of Spearpoint is. Reynolds plays both fair and hard on both levels. This is not the sort of mystery where you'll know from the get-go "whodunnit/whatisit"; rather, the ripping yarn plot will propel you to follow the characters as they reach their conclusions, which may or may not map precisely on to the readers' conclusions. There are no Agatha Christie moments here (as pleasurable as those moments are in Dame Christie's work). This is gritty stuff, which on a prose level makes 'Terminal World' quite an enjoyable read.

But more importantly, at least to this reader, while Reynolds leaves plenty of clues as to what, precisely, Spearpoint is, he never spells it out in one neat H. G. Wellsian paragraph, either. Again, the reader is left the utter pleasure of putting together the grit, the technology of words, to create his or her own vision. All this in the midst of airship fights, cross-bows and machine guns, dial telephones, post-humans and head shots. Reynolds is back, creating the universe one word at a time, with the best technology the human mind has to offer; language.



05-10-10: Catching Up with the Catcher

Troubled Teens, Better in Fiction Than Life

Teenagers, troubled or not, are best experienced in fiction. Only when we read about adolescents can we achieve a pure connection to their complicated, mutating psyches while still maintaining the distance required to sympathize with them. When there's one in your house, or when you are the teenager in your house (and you can achieve this role at mid-life, trust me), it's all too close. The heat is on. The excitement will soon follow.

But when we read about these fragile, resilient creatures in fiction something happens to us. We can fall in love with them and watch someone else pick up their messes. We can become fully engaged in their passion without being fully engulfed by our own involvement. We can love the novel 'The Catcher in the Rye' and the iconic Holden Caulfield without having to, for example, take phone calls from his teachers.

Novels about teenagers will never stop, but once in a while you'll, see an eddy in the literary stream where writers seem to be drawing from the same experience. Teenaged boys are great literary subjects, because they are full of unwarranted self-importance, unjustified self-confidence, and unstoppable self-doubt. If you have your own, then the fiction becomes a sort of palliative "There but for..." And if you don't — well, same deal really.

And you can experience them in literature at any level of intensity you so choose. You can read a book like 'The November Criminals' Doubleday / Random House ; April 20, 2010) by Sam Munson, and still have the entertainment factor of well, screwed up kids. You can squirm with delight through 'I Am Not A Serial Killer' (Tor/Forge ; Tom Doherty Books / MacMillan ; March 30, 2010 ; $9.99) by Dan Wells, or you can chase the Jersey Devil with 'Jack: Secret Circles' (Tor/Forge ; Tom Doherty Books / MacMillan ; March 30, 2010 ; $15.99) by F. Paul Wilson. And in a last minute bit of utter joy, you can immerse yourself in the sweet, utter amorality of Seymour Herson as he meets his new best friend, an evil teenage billionaire named 'Elliot Allagash' (Random House ; June 1, 2010 ; $22) by Simon Rich. No matter how you slice it, and yes, slicing will come up, reading about teenaged boys is one of those occasions where literature arguably improves on life.

Munson's 'The November Criminals' hews the closest to reality as most of us understand it, but when you're talking about teenaged boys the line between real and unreal is pretty porous. Munson's avatar is Addison Schacht, who spends his time in the sort of mundane enjoyment of activities that still have a lot of shock value for parents; sex, drugs, murder. Same as it ever was. "So let me begin by saying that it's hard, ladies and gentleman, for me to consider myself a bad person." The thing about teenagers is that they will baldly state as the truth the thought many of us have but try to chase away, even in the face of contrary evidence. What Munson brings to the story is a frank, raw first-person "shooter" feel. Addison is both ultimately aware and completely oblivious as to how upsetting and yet enjoyable it might be for adults to hear, to read these thoughts. 'The November Criminals' is like an unedited tape unspooling from the mind of that surly, silent teenager you {know, are glad you do not know}. Throw in some death and even an adult is going to grok this novel and enjoy it.

In 'I Am Not Serial Killer,' Dan Wells takes a somewhat surprisingly more humorous turn, putting us into the mind of a young man named John Wayne Cleaver. If you know anything about serial killers, you know that naming a child thusly is a very bad idea. This young man knows he is a bad guy, but that's just enough knowledge to make him fight his own tendencies.

He's a rebel you see, but against his own inclination to be a serial killer, which is a rather nice premise. Of course when he finds the body behind the Laundromat he can regard it with a set of eyes like nobody else — except perhaps the killer. It's pluses and minuses all the way, with John; he has no feelings so why should he care if someone else dares to do what he fights not to do; or to flip that rock over and look underneath, why should they get away with it when he doesn't allow himself to? Somebody has to learn discipline — and someone has to teach it. And isn't it always the case that every teenage boy you ever met thinks he knows more than his teachers? In this case however, John may have a point. And be willing to use it.

Back before today's teenagers were even born, F. Paul Wilson was bringing about the end of the world, with only one man to stop it, Repairman Jack. The problem with his series is that having ended the world, he had only one direction to go — backwards — when the character and series have proved to be immensely popular. So no he really leans on the rewind button with 'Jack: Secret Circles,' the second in a series of sort-of YA novels about young Repairman Jack, who has just as much simpatico with the supernatural as his adult self. As an adult, Jack is something of an everyman superman, a guy whose "super powers" are a quick wit, an open mind and strong sense of self-discipline. It's easy to see why he's so popular with readers and natural that Wilson should dial back to the troubled teen years. Here, we get our internal fears externalized, and young Jack has to deal with those troublesome inhabitants of the Pine Barrens, the Jersey Devils — not a sporting team by any measure. Wilson's easy prose style, generous, likable characters and smart plotting make troubled teenagers actually useful. It takes a monster to catch a monster — so call your local troubled teenager.

Simon Rich is the author of 'Free Range Chickens,' a writer for Saturday Night Live and a young man who possess and simple but utterly distinctive prose voice that is likely to make him as rich as his anti-Richie Rich, the titular 'Elliot Allagash.' I spoke with Rich last year, when he mentioned that he was working on a novel and it proves to be totally worth the wait.

Rich manages the unique feat of taking his minimalist, laconic prose and turning it into perhaps the most engaging, sweet and funny novel you're likely to start and never put down this year. You pick this puppy up in the bookstore (and puppy is the perfect term to describe this novel), and you'll not be able to leave without bringing it home. Why? Rich's prose is superb, his characters are charming and he knows how to plot a novel like nobody's business.

Seymour Herson is the lowest rung of the social ladder at Glendale Private School — and he's OK with that. When Elliot Allagash arrives, the two become as close to friends as possible, given that both display an alarming lack of any moral compass. Allagash decides to "help" Herson improve his status. Success is certain, given the Allagash fortune, but it may not be as peachy as one could hope. Rich's prose is so utterly perfect on a sentence-by-sentence level that even the most mundane events seem epically sweet and horrifically funny. There's a strange union of opposites that happens here, and it is a marvelous and unique reading experience. Rich writes with an unabashed honesty that is startling, funny, a bit frightening and ultimately, endearing. This is a real treat of a novel, a perfect inversion of Salinger's vision that has an almost apocalyptic feel to it. If these are the inheritors of our world, the future is sweet and bleak.

Rich, Munson, Wells and Wilson all inhabit rather different versions of the troubled teenager myth, but they all draw from the same source, and do so rather well. The reason that these sorts of books are universally appealing is that they speak to a universal experience. And if you are thinking that you don't have a troubled teenager around the house at the moment, then you should take a long hard look — in the mirror.



05-10-10: Dave Isay Says "Hi Mom!"

A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps

You'll be tempted to buy 'Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps' (The Penguin Press ; April 27, 2010 ; $21.95) by Dave Isay and hand it over to your mother for Mother's Day, to show her your appreciation.

Don't.

Buy it for yourself. Read it, cover to cover. It's astonishingly easy. Don't worry about coffee stains, salsa dots, or grease spots on the dust jacket. If the pages get a little rough, no worries. I don't care how much of a manly man, (or womanly woman, for that matter) you think you are. Tear stains are a definite possibility, and again — not to worry.

When you hand you mother the coffee-ringed, beer-stained, lipstick-smudged copy of 'Mom' and tell her you read it, only to realize how much more she meant to you — that's the present you give your mother. The book is almost secondary.

'Mom' does not waste any space on anything other than mothers. That's it. It's 200-proof, grain-alcohol Mom-ified mothers; cover to cover. Every time you think you've read the best, you haven't. You rapidly realize that when average Americans speak about their mothers, the English language is transformed into something purer and more powerful. Mothers are beautiful, and the language we use to speak of them is as well.

The StoryCorps story is itself pretty interesting. Dave Isay produced radio documentaries and had a wild idea; what would happen if he put a recording booth in Grand Central Terminal and offered people the opportunity to interview one another. From that single booth, from the first interview they recorded, the project has grown — up to 30,000 interview and more every day. The format is very simple. You walk into the booth with the person you're going to interview; a friend, a relative, a loved one — where you will find a recorder, two CD burners, and a facilitator. You've got 40 minutes to talk, then they burn the CDs; you take one home, the other goes to the StoryCorps archive.

And perhaps into a book like 'Mom.' The entries here are short, between 2 and five pages; at the beginning of the piece the names, ages and relationships of the participants are given; at the end of the piece, you'll find a photo of the interviewees and the date of the interview. What's between is some of the best reading you're going to encounter in a long time, even if you think that this sort of thing is "not your cuppa."

Isay, with the help of his StoryCorps colleagues, finds those passages of the interviews that reflect a pure voice, a powerful story, a perfect vignette of American life. Every piece is different and every piece is entertaining. Some will make you laugh, some will bring an honest tear to your eyes, some will do both. As a reading experience, this is a lovely "best of" anthology that never flagd

Where 'Mom' really succeeds is as a portrait of diversity, and not in the politically correct sense. In 'Mom' you'll meet an unexpected cross-section of Americans, people that you might know, or see in the grocery store, or library, or people who might have a cubicle near yours. 'Mom' is an amazing look at real, mot media America. We are not a nation of shouters, frothers and lunatics. We're — well, in this book we're mom, and that admits a lot of variety.

But it is not just the diversity of America you'll find here, it is the diversity of Mom. Each piece reflects a different version and different vision of mothers; you'll meet married couples, mothers and sons, daughters, step-sons and mothers-in-law, permutations that you simply could not imagine — but you'll realize that you know these people. BY the time you finish the book, you'll realize you are these people.

Yes, you can just hand this book over to your Mom; Isay's out and about, and you can probably find a signed copy without too much trouble. But it's not his signature your mother wants in the book. It's yours. Whether that's a pitch-black blob of coffee, two drops of chili from Tommy's Double cheeseburger, a splotch of salsa from your local taqueria, a smudge of lipstick or mascara. This is a book that should look read; this is a book that should be read; then give it to Mom. Let her meet herself, in all her infinite variety.



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