Sunday, July 6, 2014

1148. The Goldfinch

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The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart is probably one of the best novels ever written. It is what is termed in the industry a Literary Novel like "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens or "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy. Other literary novels abound, and many of them have won The Pulitzer Prize. In fact, for many a novelist, this is a dream or maybe call it a desire: to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Just like an actor covets an Emmy or an Oscar.

There are other awards of course, as each sub-genre in fiction has its own award, Mystery has its "Edgar Award"; Science Fiction has its Hugo and Nebula; and so-on. There is also the Man - Booker Prize and some other fiction awards, but it seems that the Pulitzer has always had the highest luster, has always been the most coveted award.

Last spring, I remember watching a "60 Minutes" report on "The Goldfinch" centered around readers of the book who were visiting the Hague to look at the original painting. I thought to myself then, how could a book, so influence a person to do such a thing. Is this book really that good?

There are many reviews of this book, and mine will be one more in that torrent. Will it sway your opinion one way or the other? Will it make you absolutely hate the book? Will it make you absolutely love the book? There are those who believe that the book was not and will not be a long term commercial success, will not, in other words have staying power, despite the fact that it has already been optioned to become a movie (something I am already disturbed about). There are those, like this writer, who have a lot to say about this book. I am not going to comment on the Vanity Fair article, or try to copy or plagiarize any of the other reviews that are out there. Instead, I will give you this novice's review of "The Goldfinch" (mine).

It took me a long time to read this book, because it is a big book, almost 800 pages long. Oh, I've read big books before, but not like this. This book is best consumed in small bites, with a clear head. It's not a difficult book, the words in it are not complex and do not require a PhD in English Literature, but the content behind each sentence and the power of each word is such that the whole is greater than the individual word. Please don't misunderstand me. This, is not a pretentious book. This is, a really good book for everyone, except children of course. I do see a future where professors will be teaching this, just as "A Tale of Two Cities" has been taught, just as "War and Peace" has been taught.

The book is about 13-year old Theo Decker and his journey to adulthood. But this ─ this is the only plot point you need to know before you need to open it. Because Theo Decker can be anyone. Theo Decker could be me. Theo Decker could be you. Theo Decker could be your best friend from high school. And that journey will make sense to you, you will understand it. In that journey (or in parts of it) you will recognize yourself, you will recognize others you might have been around, you will recognize situations, and characterizations you would be familiar with. Theo, therefore is in archetype born from inside all of us. Is he a hero? Is he a villain? Is he redeemed at the end?

I can't tell you that! You must read the book to find out.

For me at least, this book worked. It worked, because it was a great coming of age story and because Donna Tart, somehow understood everything at the center of Theo Decker and was able to make everyone in his orbit work. Whether you believe she achieved this to make this a "Great Novel" that's for you to decide.

As to whether, I think this is a great novel, up there with the classics of literature... I have these last few thoughts: As I was going along, walking with Theo in Amsterdam, late in the Novel, questioning the trajectory of his life, I understood what Donna Tart was saying. I understood completely her message, the revelation that Theo had reached and the message she was trying to impart to her audience; us the readers. The problem is, I don't know how many people will get(got) that message. Not because it is in some code. Not because it's like "The Bible Code" and a higher power must impart it, or finally because it is hidden in the text somewhere. The problem for me arose when Theo Decker either in monologue or in dialogue with other main characters imparts that message to the readers near the end of the book:

─four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we're gone ─ it'll never strike anybody the same way at all but ─ a really great painting is fluid enough to to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours, I was painted for you.

(ed: Obviously, so can a great piece of literature.... hint, hint.)


'Why be good.' But ─ this is what took hold on me last night , riding here in the car. What if ─ is more complicated than that? What if maybe opposite is true as well? Because, if bad can sometimes come from good actions ─ ? where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes ─ the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way? sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?


 Only here's what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can't be trusted ─ ? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?

 So, is this book about love then? Is this book about the redemptive power love has? Is it about redemption? Does our hero get redeemed in the end? Does he find himself in other words? Why did "The Goldfinch" painting speak to 13-year old Theo Decker and how did he change during the course of the book? For that, you'll have to read the book. It's all in the journey. A wonderful journey indeed. Do not let negative reviews dissuade you from the book. I wish, the author had refrained from so openly preaching near the end of the book. I, as a consumer of  Great Literature, understood everything she had to say. I expect Literature to preach to me. I expect it to have a message. I also expect myself to discern that message without help from the motivator of the story, the author. It is for this and only this reason, I can not give this book a perfect score:

4½ out of 5 stars.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

1144. The Here and Now

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Reading another time travel story immediately after finishing one, could be construed as unnecessary punishment. Thankfully, even though, this is a Time Travel story, at heart it's a (YA) or Young Adult novel. First off, let me note that I have never read anything by Ms. Brasheres, of "The Sisterhood of The Travelling Pants". It's not that I do not like her. It was just that these novels where not intended for me as an audience. If they were anything like this novel, I have one overarching comment to make about her teen characterizations. I prefer them to most of what I've seen in recent YA Fiction. There is a lot "angst" in teen YA Fiction today, and in all honesty, I do not understand where it comes from. Yes, it could be said, it's an expression of identity, just as the 1960s and the counter-culture where an expression of identity for that generation, but sometimes I wonder about the depth of those feelings, and the generation that holds them. Did we raise a generation of narcissists?

Moving on....To the book itself. The Here And Now is not your typical time travel story. Yes, of course, there is always the question of the "Grandfather Paradox" in time-travel and what would happen if you were to interact with said Grandfather, or for that matter anyone in your past. As I said in the review of the previous book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, one possibility is the multiverse theory of the Universe which holds that every time there is a significant change in events, History changes, it forks into a new direction, creating a new parallel universe. The old Universe where the Time Traveler originated from, still exists, BUT, after having initiated the change, there is now a new parallel universe where events unfolding will be different than originally experienced.

This is but one interpretation of Time Travel. There are other, logical interpretations of time travel that suggest that changes are incorporated into the Universe Prime (the one and only Universe), creating temporary branches that collapse, logically, as actions take place, cause preceding effect and so-on, but, as changes accumulate in the branch, the branch merges back into Prime in a logical manner. This has been demonstrated in a manner of novels.

I do not know which theory I support, and I do not want to influence you before reading this novel. But before reading it, you ought to know that it involves people from our almost near future (late 21st century), traveling back to our time and attempting to assimilate. The affect of their travel has an unwitting effect on our heroine, Prenna. First, because she is seen as she emerges from the wormhole bringing her here, and second because she does not accept her condition. Is she the only one in the group of travelers willing or wanting to change the future they came from? What effect will those changes bring forth? Will she succeed? She has a companion in her attempt to change the future... The person who saw her when she arrived. A 17 year old boy. Ethan.

Written in a very enjoyable style and told from the perspective of two teenagers on the run, this is a surprisingly enjoyable read. In a few words: "I could not put it down." And one other commendation for this book: "This is not your typical YA Fantasy". You might think what these characters go through is improbable, but not to me. Ethan is old enough to be capable of achieving everything he does in this book, and Prenna has an emotional reserve in her. You will understand where that comes from, once you read the book.

I recommend the book for anyone who likes a good time travel story, and especially those who like a well written YA story. Most YA stories don't inspire me, and I feel, create needy, narcissistic adolescents. Not this one. And that's a compliment of the highest order.

Three and a half stars.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

1143. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a Time Travel story. It is also a story about re-incarnation (or at least a form of it). It also a story about living one's life over and over again. But, unlike what the publisher will have you think, this is not the first book to do so. Claire North is a pseudonym for a very well know British Author... and apparently, no clues have surfaced, as of yet, of who this author is.

First, a little jaunt down memory lane about what has gone on, in this type of genre fiction. The following titles are very similar to this one, despite the publisher's claims:

  1. Time and Again by Jack Finney
  2. From Time to Time by Jack Finney
  3. Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson
  4. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  5. Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
  6. and the classic, and still the best book in the genre: 
  7. Replay by Ken Grimwood
There are other similar books, I am sure, but for now, these are the ones that come to mind easily.

I want to be upfront and mention, that I have not read Kate Atkinson's book, although it has come to my attention recently. It is on my TBR.  I also, never read Jack Finney's follow up to "Time and Again". From the simple synopsis of the books, thematically, the books that are the most similar with "The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August" are "Life after Life" and "Replay". For me, as a reader, "Replay" is a masterpiece in the specific subject matter and the context in which it addresses it. It gives you a sort of wistfulness, a sort of remembrance of years gone by, dredging up an opportunity to think about all those times you could have went "right" went you went "left" in your life and vice-verse.

But, this is NOT a review of that book, "Replay". This is a review of a brand new book.  And it turns out, despite my apprehension that thematically the two books were going to cross into similar territory, the two books are actually very dissimilar. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August turns out to be an exceptional book and stands out on its own, as a very successful science-fiction book. Although it bills itself as a Time Travel story it turns out to be more of a parallel universe story, or more precisely, it resides in that special area where string theory says higher dimensions allow for the existence of multiple Universes and our Universe is born and dies again, over and over, and so is everyone in it. Including some very special people. These people are called Ouroborans  or Kalachakra. Who get to live through every iteration of the Universe.

Harry August is born in 1919. And he is a Kalachakra. Not until he dies and is born again in the same circumstances does he realize his predicament. He has lived this life before, and he remembers everything that he did, so, is there something he can do to improve his predicament? But, this is only the second life. After you've relived a few more times, you realize there are other things you can do to improve your lot, and maybe even the life of those around you. Your immediate family? How about your wife? And as it turns out, Harry is not the only Kalachakra. Ouroborans have been born throughout the ages, and they have created what is called the "Cronus Club" (Cronus = Time), with charters in most major cities of all the major continents. Knowledge is passed on from generation to generation and century to century.

There is only one major rule for Ouroborans. Do not mess with history. Allow the Arrow of Time to flow as it always does without interference and foreknowledge of events to come passing to normal humans. (In other words, you can't kill Hitler, for example). That is why it is important for Harry and the other Ouroborans to hide their identities, remain secretive, protect their kind and punish those of their kind who try to change history. But how do you change time, if your time span within one Universe is finite? As a Ouroboran, you have the ability to live multiple lifetimes across multiple Universes as you are reborn again and again.

This then, sets-up thematically, the main conflict of the story. Harry and his arch-enemy and sometimes friend Vincent Rankis. Vincent is also an Ouroboran that Harry meets in one of his early lives when he becomes a professor of Physics. But Vincent has some big plans. And these plans not only affect all Ouroborans, they affect the entire Universe, they effect reality, they effect the entire Universe. Harry is determined to stop him from the first page... There is also something else special about Harry and Vincent which most Kalachakra do not possess. Will this ability serve him or hinder him as it does one of his Kalachakra lovers?

This is simply an extraordinary novel. A powerful, fantastic novel. I went into it with a lot of trepidation and hesitation, because of so many previous examples in the genre. And maybe, that is the reason why the author decided to remain anonymous and use a pseudonym. I do not know. However, judging by the success of this book, I bet, the name Claire North will become known very soon. I sure hope so. Because, I'd like to see more works by this author. Not necessary in the same milieu. That almost never works.  Case in point, Jack Finney's From Time to Time. It's just that I kept expecting another great novel from Ken Grimwood, but then, the author disappeared. Leaving us with a masterpiece, yes. But just the one.

A very easy five star book. Highly recommended. Go, buy it. NOW. READ IT. You will not regret it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

1142. The Collector of Dying Breaths

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I have never before read what you would consider "Gothic Fiction", unless a couple of forays into the works of Anne Rice are considered "Gothic" in their nature or really, depending on the definition if you count "Frankenstein" and so on. I suppose it takes a certain kind of individual to appreciate that type of fiction. I have personally always been interested in M.J. Rose's fiction, from "The Reincarnationist" to the "The Memorist", although I have only read the prior one (I do own the second one, but have not read it yet), and I suppose at some time, a review of it, might appear on this blog. As you know, that book spawned the short lived FOX TV Drama "Past Lives". I have always been interested in "Resurrection", "Reincarnation" and "Past Lives", and of course the search for "Immortality". These concepts have fascinated not only me, but great sages, philosophers, Gnostics and agnostics, Religions the world over and even scientists. Many a great fiction writer has tackled the subject with various degrees of success as well.

In "The Collector of Dying Breaths", M.J. Rose superbly handles all of the above subjects and delivers a powerful novel that must be read to be believed. One other thing before I proceed with this review! Do you like fragrances? Do you have a strong sense of smell? Does your sense of smell get overwhelmed when you go inside a perfume store or a Yankee Candle Shop? How strong is your imagination? When someone describes the scents of roses, cinnamon, carnation, jasmine, patchouli and a little pepper can you smell them --  not just picture them? The beauty of Great Literature is the ability to bring to life the things you read on the page (or in this case on the screen, since I was afforded the opportunity to read an advanced preview of this e-book by the publisher). And the beauty of a Great Imagination is the ability to bring to life that of which you read.

M.J. Rose deftly and capably delivers in every respect. While reading this book, I was transported to Sixteenth Century France. Then, I was whisked away to present day France from the L’Etoile estate outside Paris to the hidden chambers within Fontainebleau were secret portions are assembled and prepared according to archaic formulas with ingredients that are very hard to procure. The plot is a simple whodunit that spans two lives and 500 years. René le Florentin is the perfumer for Catherine de Medici who was Queen of France from 1547 until 1559, as the wife of King Henry II. But Rene is not just a simple perfumer. He is also an Alchemist on a lifetime quest bequeathed to him by his teacher, Brother Dom Serapino who he was apprenticed to while in Italy. René has collected Brother Serapino's "last breath", an act which sets him and us on a quest to find a way to bring back, to reanimate, to reincarnate, the soul of a departed person.

And so this quest links Rene and Jac 
L’Etoile when her brother dies quite unexpectedly, leaving the family perfume business without someone to run it. Jac discovers Robbie's research and those who were funding it and who now want Jac to continue it. But how is Jac connected to René le Florentin? And why is Fontainebleau important in the investigation of this research?

Hundreds of years, passion, the loves of many lives, connected through the past and the present and the sheer will to find answers drive Jac in the present and Rene in the past towards answers. Sometimes the answers we seek are not possible. Indeed, unlike some of the books that I have read that have tackled immortality and reincarnation as a subject this one does not offer easy, happy answers. And this is just as well. The world we live in is not a bright colored, easy world. It has many hues, many interpretations, but it also has some obvious things to like, things to strive for. We strive for knowledge of that which is greater than ourselves. We strive to achieve that something and sometimes we succeed. HOW? Well... For one of the answers, READ THIS BOOK! You won't be disappointed.

This was easily a 5 star read, and now I am looking forward to more great books from M.J. Rose.

Friday, September 6, 2013

1130. Dixie City Jam

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This is the first James Lee Burke that I have read, and there are many others before it and after it. I was given the book after a recommendation from a family member. Since, I have recently started reading more Crime Fiction, this was a natural fit for me. There a few things to note however about this book as you read my review of it. First, while this is a stand alone adventure of Detective Dave Robicheaux (I still don't know how to pronounce his last name), this is really the seventh book in a series of books with him as the main character. Second, the novel takes place in 1994, so if this puts you off, and you need something more current, this might not be your cup of tea. There is no mention of cell phones, and other modern contrivances. Finally, thirdly, and more importantly, this book is not for the faint of heart. I am not talking about violence or blood and guts. There is some violence, but compared to what we see on our TV screens today it is beyond mild. No, what I am talking about is the multi threaded, multi person character arc. This is something only a SERIOUS NOVEL can achieve, and only a serious writer can pull off. You see this in some of this year's better TV Crime or other Dramas: The Killing, Broadchurch, and The Bridge. If you don't have the ability to follow multiple story threads then this book is not for you.

If you do have the ability to follow multiple story threads, this book, after a short introduction from the past, finds Detective Dave Robicheaux trying to get his ex-partner Clete (Cletus) Parcel out of some trouble he got himself in with some local New Orleans (N.O.) mobsters. This is all set against the background of the search for a sunken Nazi sub. The sub was sunk off the Louisiana coast at the mouth of the Mississippi. Apparently, the Nazi's, back in the World War II days, heavily patrolled these waters as a lot of shipping left these shores bound for Europe. But, this ship may or may not have something in it to hide. And it's connection to Detective Robicheaux is as follows: when he was a teenager, diving off a shrimping boat, working summers on the coast, he had seen the wreck of the sunken sub. Years later, he saw it again at a different location, possibly a place where the sub would have drifted with time and tides. Dave Robicheaux now owns a bait and tackle shop along with a boat rental business. He was in one of his boats when he saw the sub for the second time.

There is a local New Orleans hotel entrepreneur who knows Dave's sub story and wants Dave to help him find the sub and raise it. He goes by the name of Hippo Brimstine. Hippo is Jewish. So, is this the reason he wants to raise a Nazi sub? Or is there a hidden reason? One of the mobsters in town also wants to give Dave money to get the location of the sub. But what is his interest? Was his family connected with Nazi's back in the 30s and 40s. Is it because he is Irish-Catholic? Is it some other reason?

Racial politics and race relations play a huge role in this story, as Dave Robicheaux is a "by the numbers" detective who does not break any rules, or does he? Yet, he does bend them to the extent of needing to achieve his goals. Especially when he and his family are threatened by Neo-Nazis and by other N.O. mobsters. Do they find the sub? Are the threats against Dave, his family and his friends countered? Answers are provided in time..... But something more important to consider.

There is a flavor and a smell to this Novel, and it's all Southern and it's all Louisiana and New Orleans. The prose grabs you and drags you in and does not let you go. When you start reading this book, you feel and breath and taste and smell everything. When Dave Robicheaux buys Po 'boy sandwiches, you smell them in the bag he's holding. When Dave's neighbor is burning his sugarcane fields, you smell it too. You feel the Palm fronds waving in the breeze, you sense the breeze off the Gulf, you experience every single sensation. THIS is a book to immerse yourself in. And this is writing to revel in.

James Lee Burke is a gem of writer and I am sad it took me so long to discover him. I have no problem recommending this book, or this writer, based on just this one book. Easily, a four star book.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

1126. The Absent One

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Jussi Adler-Olsen's "The Absent One" is not the first "Department Q Novel". Events take place in Denmark with most of the action occurring in Copenhagen and surrounding areas. Carl Morck is a Detective for Copenhagen's Unsolved Murder Cases Unit, the Eponymous, Department Q. Although the author has written previous books in this series featuring this Detective and associated supporting characters (but different cases), this was the first book  about Detective Morck that I picked up to read.

Detective Morck works with very minimum resources -- he has only a staff of two. An overeager assistant of Middle Eastern descent and heritage who is not a full-fledged detective and a Secretary who finished the Police Academy but flanked out as a Police Officer, yet is highly organized. With these impediments in mind, a case lands on Detective Morck's desk about a twenty year old murder of a brother and sister. What becomes immediately apparent is that even though there is someone in jail serving time for this crime, he might not be the person who committed the murders, and might have been murdered or set-up to take the fall. Involved in this conspiracy are some of Denmark's most influential business people and a homeless woman seen wandering the streets of Copenhagen day and night in different outfits, sometimes dressed nicely, sometimes dressed in rags, called Kimmie. She has something in common with the businessmen who are trying -- or have tried -- to cover the twenty year old murder.

In some ways, this book is similar in themes with Steig Larsson's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". It discusses themes of social strata, the morals (or sometimes lack thereof) of upper society, the differentiation of people based on their upbringing and schooling.  Does this social stratification, and the fact that Detective Morck's assistant is from the Middle-East play a role in the way he handles this case? That's for every individual reader of this book to decide. Personally, I enjoyed the interplay of the morality in this novel against the foreign (to me) culture. Morals are universal. Good and Evil, and the Great, Wide, GREY in between, should be universal to all cultures, however, the way that each culture approaches them differs, and that interplay made this book very interesting.

Two things threw me off about this book. It is sold as a somewhat "humorous" or "funny" novel. I did not find any of the antics humorous. It's possible that my understanding of the Danish culture prevented me from enjoying the humor. Secondly, some of the translation seemed broken, like words were jumbled. Then again, it's possible that the author's writing itself is what is jumbled, and it comes out across that way in the translation.

Because of these two things, I can only give this book three and a half stars. I did enjoy the story. And I recommend it. Maybe others, will find the humor I missed.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

My Short Fiction Collection # 1 ("Death")

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be posting some of my fiction pieces with the intent to ask for input. My question is really two-fold:

  1. Is my fiction worthy, that is, is it something enjoyable, something that you would be willing to read in a magazine (if published), or in an e-Book, if I published one of my longer pieces?
  2. Should I continue the story in the particular piece you're reading now, or would you call this a self-contained piece, and are you satisfied with this story? Do you want more pieces like this one?
So, without further ado, here is the first piece, which I wrote many years ago. Let me know what you think in the comments:



    On a dark Sunday afternoon, it was overcast and muggy, the heiress came to New York. For the first time in her life she could do anything she wanted. She was rich in more ways than money.

   Rick was the first guy she met. He was an average kind of guy with an overbearing attitude. But, as everyone said: "he's a great son of a ..." He helps out people when they don't expect it. Mrs. Whitmore can attest to that. Anyway, Julia got an apartment above him, so, they were next ceiling neighbors. He figured she was rich;  this was at the time he was expanding his business. So they met and started seeing each other regularly.
Julia didn't have any sisters or brothers, but her cousins flocked to New York trying to milk her dry of her money. She got Rick to turn them all away. Then Peter showed-up.
   She was still in love with him, although she hadn't seen him since she first left Iowa, two years before. "They were made for each other," she thought back then. Now though, she wasn't so sure. And what was love anyway, but a passing fad. How could she explain it to Peter without breaking his heart?

  "This is Rick," she introduced the current man in her life to Peter. "He is my boyfriend."

   Peter wasn't impressed by Rick, but of course he was an SOB anyway, right? You could almost feel the electricity sparkle between them. Something was going to happen, something bad.

   It was the night of the third. Julia was out with Rick. They were presently  drinking at a local pub. Rick said, "I want your body." He didn't for goodness sake say, "I want your money," which is what he meant. Peter showed-up with a gun. It was a .45 with a silencer.  He used it and the poor SOB Rick was dead. And then he killed Julia, the idiot. The heiress was gone along with her money.

So, what did you think of this short fiction piece?

Please write your reviews in the comments section. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

1113. The Silk Code

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There are a number of FIRSTS associated with this book. This was the author's (Paul Levinson) first Published Novel. This was my first e-Book read on my new NOOK Reader. This was also the author's preferred edition of his work (which as always I assume to mean has been reworked sort of like a "Director's Cut" for a book)....It also marked the first appearance of forensics detective Dr. Phil D'Amato in "novel" form (he had appeared in the author's short stories).

So, with all that in mind and out of the way, let's lay out some background info. But before we do, it's important to understand what kind of book this is. "The Silk Code" is a Science Fiction novel with elements of a Scientific Mystery and a Detective Story. If your science fiction tastes run in the Space Opera category then this book is not for you. But you can look at it another way: Science Fiction does not only encompass classic Space Opera, Star Trek and Star Wars or Space Battles and Aliens; sometimes the Aliens are us, and the scientific discoveries are next door to us OR even in our own back-yard, here on planet Earth, the place we call home. And in the best, good Science Fiction, the Science part is just as important as the Fiction and you learn something from both, because in that story, and in its telling, you learn something about "yourself" and about what makes you human.

The story in this Novel centers around Phil D'Amato, a forensics doctor/detective for the NYPD, sort of a cross between a medical examiner and a guy who gets out on the street to look for answers about the bodies that cross his lab table at the examiner's office. It all starts innocently enough when Phil and a friend are visiting the Amish people in Amish country in rural Pennsylvania at the request of his friend. His friend has something to show him.  {Ed: If you, dear reader, haven't gone to Amish country, you owe yourself the trip. Getting back to the review then.} But for Phil and his friend, the trip is a little more than he bargained for, as he uncovers a shocking secret that the Amish have kept for hundreds of years, if not thousands. As one Amish Leader essentially tells Phil, not all human technology has to be of the shiny, mechanical variety. And some things (and people) are more advanced than we expect. Some technology is biological. The answer may lie within our own DNA. But who or what holds the key to that answer?

Paul Levinson spins a masterful yarn that spans over 1300 years from 750 AD to the present and it involves the Amish, the Tocharians and the Neanderthals. This book was written at the close of the last century, and even with this revised edition, there are some things that will trip you up. For example, cell phone usage is not what you read or see in fiction today. On the other hand this novel (as all good science fiction novels should) was completely prophetic in acknowledging that we know nothing about the Neanderthals and they were not in fact the brutes that they have been portrayed in recent scientific literature (last 100 years or so). They were in fact more like us: they were artists, and singers, and fathers and mothers, and THEY survive in us today. There are people walking among us today carrying up to 4% or more of Neanderthal DNA.

Taking all these elements and spinning a tale out of them would be a feat for any writer. Building a tale and a world that is both believable, accessible to the casual reader -- and with that, I mean someone without a PhD in Biology -- can only be described as a major victory for a first Novel.  This novel achieves what it sets out to do. It solves the two main mysteries at its core. It answers some major questions that are revealed along the way. It has a solid and believable cast. It is very entertaining and for me the right blend of suspense and exposition. Finally, it has an underlying mystery with enough unanswered questions left in the back of your mind, and Phil D'Amato's mind not to make you feel cheated, or to make you think that there is a sequel coming, but rather, to make you THINK. All great books achieve this symmetry. If all your questions were answered by great literature, would you continue to read after the first book, the second, the third? At what point would you stop? This book does this exceptionally well, and for this alone I would have recommended it. This is one of the best books I read in the last year and one of the best science fiction novels of all time, especially because of how it has predicted the last 10 years or so of Neanderthal discoveries. And Phil D'Amato is my kind of detective. Just the right blend of smarts and macho. Taken as a whole? I give this five stars -- easily.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

1110. Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Road photo Telegraph_Avenue.jpg

Right off the bat, I want to apologize to the Author, Michael Chabon and to the publisher of this novel, Harper Collins. You see, I borrowed this book, based on reviews, and the reviews were awesome...(jeez, who uses awesome in a book review?) So off I went to my Public Library, and put my name on the waiting list. And after a long wait, the notification came that the book was ready for me to pick-up and read. So I did.

I sat down, and I loved the prose. The language was beautiful. But before I get into any of that, let me just say, this book, is really my first Michael Chabon book... Yes, I know a huge oversight. But believe it or not, I actually own ALL of his other works, I just have not had an opportunity to read them yet. And why not? Well, all of his works have been at one stage or another recommended to me, so I have scooped them up with the intent to read, but this was more immediate, because it was a Library Book, and I was on a schedule, and I needed to be done with it within a certain time frame.

So maybe, that's the reason I did not like it and no other reason at all... I abandoned the book on page 64... I just could not get into these characters. The build-up of their story and their struggles, and the closing of the record shop on Telegraph Avenue just did not pique my curiosity enough to continue reading in the time allotted. Did I give the book a fair shake? I don't know. Did I give the author a fair shake? I don't know. I do plan to read the other Michael Chabon novels that I own, and I plan to finish those... whenever I get to them. But as for this book, I don't know whether I'll have the time to go back to it, regardless of the build-up the book had as the "Great American Novel".

Since I did not finish it, I am not giving it any rating.

PS.  Harper Collins: You're more than welcome to send me a copy of this book in Paperback and I'll give it another try, this time, I won't be constrained by time.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

1106. Gone Girl


Sometimes what we think of as a successful marriage is not, and sometimes when we think people are putting on appearances, they're doing just that. They are putting on a show to hide how they really feel inside. The voice inside might be crying, might be yelling obscenities or bloody murder towards a loved one or the whole world, but sometimes a calm person walks on by you, bathed in the thin veneer of nothingness. Is this person shallow? Or have we just crossed paths with a sociopath or worse, a psychopath? We have many examples in real life of seemingly normal people "snapping" and hurting those next to them, whether coworkers, fellow students or random people. But what makes people sociopaths? Art, and fiction in its many forms have tried over the years to explore this issue. Alfred Hitchcock was really successful in exploring it in some of his films, such as Psycho. Over the years, many writers have written some great and some not so great novels to investigate the issue, and explore it along with us. Into this space, comes Gillian Flynn, a former Entertainment Weekly reporter, writing her third published novel.

Considering that this is Gillian Flynn's third novel, and that both of her previous novels were successful commercially and with critics, there was little possibility this would be a flop, or a bad novel. The reality is that this novel has been on the best seller list for over 18 weeks, a remarkable achievement which suggests that people really like the book. But more importantly, it suggests that the book is successful in navigating the subjects it tries to explore.

The story begins simply enough when housewife Amy Dunne disappears in the middle of a warm summer morning (I believe it's the 4th of July weekend). It's also Nick and Amy Dunne's Anniversary. {ed: Why do so many people get married around the 4th of July?}  Nick returns home to find that Amy has disappeared and finds clues of a struggle. This is when he calls the police. Soon, two detectives arrive on the scene and the circus begins. Because you know or have seen or heard of cases like this on TV. After Amy's parents arrive, and the cops close in, secrets are revealed, and the tension builds as we, along with Nick, and everyone else, are marched forward to a dramatic precipice. The 24/7 climate of today's news and Internet culture takes cases like this and spins it out of control. There are TV pundits out there who would advocate for the missing wife, missing girl or boy, missing teenager, and have their picture on TV all the time, every night with guests who completely agree with her, prosecuting a case before an arrest is even made. This is an important factor in real life and Gillian Flynn incorporates it deftly into her book. Personally, I found it a bit distracting, but it does add to the characters' tension a bit, and in a way it provides a conduit of expression. Both Nick and Amy express themselves through how others perceive, so this is an important aspect of their personality.

I cannot give up any more of the plot and its twists and turns. It is very tense, and engaging. Is this a literary novel? Of course it's not. If you wanted a literary novel, you'd be reading "Crime and Punishment". I also would not recommend this book for anyone under age 21. Although it not a grisly novel, with blood and guts, and only mostly has a lot of language, it is very psychologically intense with a very mature subject. A well explored subject, but one that if someone who has not experienced certain aspects of life or is not familiar with them, would not be able to grasp what the book is saying. You can't ask a 16 year old girl to understand the give and take of marriage. Maybe she knows what goes on in a relationship at her age, but what makes a real, live, marriage work? The good and the bad? No. I am not saying a non-married person, a single person would not get this novel... Of course they would. But it gets some seasoning in life to really get it. A teenager would be completely lost in this book in my opinion.

And what about the sociopath, the psychopath? Who is the greatest among us? Is it the one who chooses to stay in an Epic Failure of a Marriage, an Epic Disaster of a Life, or the one that endures it all? Is this person a Hero instead? Does the book answer that question to your satisfaction? To me, it gives a voice to few things and makes me ponder some others in my own life. In other words, what else do you want from a great piece of fiction?

And easy 4.5 out 5 stars.