Dec 31, 2014

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson

This is a really fantastic novel about the two children of performance artists. Caleb and Camille Fang believe traditional art (i.e. painting, sculpture, theater) is dead. True art involves an unwitting audience witnessing a ridiculous/horrific/violent event. Think flash mob, with fewer people and a lot more awkwardness. Their children, Child A (Annie) and Child B (Buster), are participants in these events, raised to do whatever Caleb and Camille ask them to in the name of art (e.g. Buster wears a wig and dress to compete in a children's beauty pageant as a commentary on gender norms). As adults, well, they're pretty fucked up. Annie's a movie star, Buster's a freelance writer with two novels - one successful, one panned - under his belt, and they are both very much alone. When Caleb and Camille suddenly, violently, go missing, they are convinced this is just another Fang Event and determine to find them and ruin it.

It's a great book. I love Wilson's writing and the switch between past Fang Events and Annie and Buster's current lives. It's infuriating, too, because you end up respecting Caleb and Camille as artists while hating them as human beings and parents, and I always appreciate a book that succeeds in muddling your feelings and expectations.

The Midnight Charter, by David Whitley

I was very impressed by this unique young adult fantasy. The city of Agora is ruled by the Director of Receipts. There is no currency here, you own yourself and barter your services for food and shelter, and it is up to each individual to produce something she or he can trade. So the fishermen trade their fish for food and medicine and rent, glassblowers trade their glass, woodworkers trade their handcrafted pieces. Those who have nothing to trade, whose bodies even are worthless, are debtors, damaged goods; these unfortunates are arrested by the Receivers for their debts or die on the streets.

Lily, a twelve-year-old (at the age of twelve, you own yourself rather than your parents owning you) who was raised in an orphanage, believes that just because one cannot offer anything doesn't mean one deserves imprisonment or death. She brings the notion of charity into this mercenary world, an idea that could shake the very foundation of Agora's success as a society. At the same time, Mark, sold by his father to pay for medicine, reaches his twelfth birthday and becomes a tool of the elites to play their power games.

It's a wonderful concept, very original and striking, though perhaps a bit beyond the age at which the writing itself is aimed. I'd say that the idea is appropriate for thirteen and up, whereas the writing is around a ten-twelve age level. The discrepancy makes this a difficult book to recommend, but I still really enjoyed it. It's the first of a trilogy, so I'll be trying to find the second and look forward to seeing the choices Mark and Lily make.

Dec 21, 2014

The Pirate King, by Laurie R. King

I will be the first to admit that I am sometimes afflicted with literary snobbishness, one area of which is the genre of mysteries. I've tried to read some, and they just don't appeal to me. My sense of most mystery/thriller authors is that they are skilled mainly in quantity, not quality. It was with some hesitation that I picked up this Laurie King mystery, but then found it to be so much fun! Granted, the main reason I enjoyed it so much as that it is ever so British. "The Pirate King" is King's eleventh novel in a series about Mary Russell, wife of Sherlock Holmes, who narrates with a quintessentially British wit. The mystery was rather secondary to the rest of the novel, which was just fine by me since mysteries aren't my thing. But it was quite clever, I thought, very engagingly written and smart, and I really enjoyed reading it. So now I know not to judge a book by its author, and that I have a new series I can read when I need my British humor fix.

Dec 14, 2014

The Island of Lost Maps, by Miles Harvey

I don't think my eyes have rolled so much while reading since I read "Shantaram." Ostensibly about Gilbert Bland, the man who stole hundreds of antiquarian maps from libraries across the U.S. during the 1990s, "The Island of Lost Maps" is overburdened with Harvey's navel-gazing. I wanted this book to be like "The Billionaire's Vinegar" or "The Orchid Thief," but instead it devolves into psychobabble about how maps are an allegory of the human fear of the unknown, both internal and external (duh); how Harvey's search for answers to why Bland would do such a thing parallels Bland's crimes themselves (eh...maybe); and how Harvey's attempt to understand Bland, as well as Harvey's understanding of himself, is exactly like Bland in key ways (quite a stretch, if you ask me). The crimes are fascinating, as is the history of maps (which we do get a lot of), but I barely found those parts worth wading through Harvey's ridiculous analogies and unfounded psychological theories. It's a silly book that could have been a really interesting book; such a shame.

Captive, by Aimee Carter

This is the sequel to "Pawn," which I loved; "Captive," unfortunately, as a bit disappointing. It's action-packed and stuffed chock-full of betrayals and twists and surprises, which make for a very quick - but not a very well-written - book. The curse of the science fiction sequel seems to be authors trying to make their book too much like a movie. "Captive" could easily pass for a fleshed-out screenplay, seemingly designed to work better on the big screen than in writing. It's unfortunate, that these authors feel they have to fall back on shocking revelations and actions sequences one after the other to keep our attention. That said, it was a fun enough read, and I do intend to read the third installment. I hope Carter dials back the action and lets her writing speak for itself, next time.

Dec 7, 2014

Disquiet, Please!: More Humor Writing From The New Yorker, ed. David Remnick and Henry Finder

This is a compilation of humor writing from the pages of The New Yorker, the second such collection. I really enjoyed seeing the continuity of style and tone throughout eighty years of the publication, as well as how humor has changed. Some I liked more than others, of course, and I obviously struggled with the pieces that reference people and events with which I'm not familiar. But it was still a fun read, worth recommending to people who enjoy smart humor with a strong dose of satire.